Category Archives: Guilt

Paper strong…

My remarks here are written in response to this blog.

Several years ago after my Grandmother died, I was sorting through her things for the sale, and found, tucked in the piano bench along with her favorite hymnals, the aerogrammes I’d sent her from Papua New Guinea as a child. I sat on the floor next to the piano and read the ramblings and concerns and the joys of a little girl away at boarding school, trying to explain the world as I knew it in the jungle to someone on the farm in Ohio. Sprinkled throughout those letters are hints of homesickness coupled with fears of returning ‘home’: such tensions for a little girl to hold!

In a filing cabinet I found a bundle of the aerogrammes my Mother had sent her Mom. Many of them detail the same events or the same time period, but told instead from the perspective of a very young woman, trying her best to make good decisions for her children, and trying her best to serve the Lord in a very patriarchal, patronizing mission station. Her grief on so many levels was evident, even among the more heroic claims of faith.

The juxtaposition of the two sets of letters was very healing for me. And Grandma, bless her, managed to hold both close to her heart without betraying confidences. Those thin pages wielded a mighty balm!

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

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First world problems…

A new found friend has taken up the mantle of victim advocate in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the capital city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She is wielding the weapons at her disposal against patriarchal traditions which are both native to her land and imposed from certain Western ideals.  As such, she is actively on the web setting up groups for discussion, message boards, etc. and is posting images of women who have suffered unimaginable brutality.  She’s emailed and discussed curriculum options for weekend seminars, and requested resources. She recently emailed me privately some photos: they are graphic and haunting–including fresh wounds from axes and bush knives, burns from hot irons, broken bones and bruises from beatings, amputations, and even images of a woman being burned to death and a beheading.

I am honored to be trusted with such images–honored and deeply humbled.

And traumatized.

Since receiving the photos I’ve not been able to sleep.  Days have passed and the images dog me, sneaking up when I least expect it. It isn’t that the level of violence is new to me: I witnessed ravages as such as a child growing up among the poor and prostitutes in the capital. I grew up not knowing that wounds weren’t normal–that amputations weren’t just a matter of course.  Rape was a real possibility (even if I’d gotten the logistics confused as a child).  I understood scars as women’s history written large on their bodies.    Yet as an adult, with feminist-educated eyes and a wealth of theological study behind me, the images sting anew: the status of women hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

And my initial response is silence.  I cannot bear the weight of these images alone, yet cannot share them–I don’t wish this sort of haunting upon anyone, especially those who for whom Western media has cushioned such blows (we don’t show dead bodies on TV or in our newspapers, they are censored out of our common news sources).  We witness domestic violence through movies–comforted that it is merely makeup we are viewing, and not real wounds.

I go talk to my therapist.  And I find I don’t care to introduce such atrocities to her psyche either.  I pour my heart out in frustration, but hold the pictures close to my proverbial chest.

I tell my best friend of them, and of the impossibility of sharing their burden.  He listens, pained at my frustration.  He allows me to hold them at a distance.  And finally, he offers to see them.  “I’m willing.”  And tears begin to flow freely.  And I consider it.

But I can’t help thinking back to my friend in PNG and the life-risking work she is doing on behalf of the women there.  How can I tell her that because of her pictures, I’ve been traumatized? That her emails have sent me to therapy?  That while she lives and breathes this atmosphere of violence, I spend $150 to talk to a therapist? That I fret because I’ve lost 3 nights of sleep? That I feel utterly inadequate and ridiculous?

Yet I live and work in this world: surrounded by high rises, wealth, and opulence.

Damn my first world problems and first world solutions. Damn them.

 

 

tears

Watchnight…

The New Year has arrived and I ushered it in quietly by taking dinner to a friend who is sick, and an early champagne toast before turning in around 10 pm.  As I laid in bed thinking about my ‘lame’ middle-aged celebration, my mind wandered to the more active festivities of past New Years.  Growing up in a pastor’s home in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, many New Year’s Eve celebrations involved jigsaw puzzles until about 11:00 pm, then a mad dash to the church for a Watchnight service.

While in reality it was probably only an hour or so, to a child, those services spent largely on our knees at the altar seemed to stretch on endlessly.  The focus of the service seemed to be anticipation of the second coming of Christ, and prayers swelled up around the altar by those calling “Even so, come Lord Jesus”, those repenting of their as-of-yet unforgiven sins, and those bemoaning the misery of this life led as resident aliens–Christians living in a world of sinful people.  Mom was at the piano playing ‘mood music’, and my father stood alongside the altar, occasionally placing a gentle hand on the shoulder of someone who was struggling in prayer–a grace-full nudge into the kingdom.  I would kneel alongside the adults, my forehead pressed against the wood of the altar railing, my hands covering my eyes lest my father see me staring about.

I remember glancing up from between my fingers at the clock on the back wall of the sanctuary.  My anxiety rose the closer we got to midnight.  Somehow I assumed that mid-night was the ‘ground zero’ for Jesus’ imminent return.  If confession of sins was going to happen–it needed to be NOW.  I’d rack my brain trying to remember any sins I’d committed, and failing to do so, would simply pray “if there is anything I’ve done I haven’t named, please forgive me.”  It was my rapture insurance policy: my special brand of deathbed conversion.  Then I’d watch the clock tic and wonder if it was sincere enough… or if my wondering that was its own form of sin… then I’d confess my doubt.  And anxiously wait for midnight to hit… to see whether or not Jesus was going to show up and judge me.

Almost midnight.

Almost midnight.

I always experienced a bizarre sense of relief that our prayers hadn’t ‘worked’. And then I began to wonder why in the world we’d pray for such an apocalyptic moment to come sooner rather than later… And the services became meaningless.  And as an adult, I abandoned them altogether.

But today is the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation.  Watchnight service has significance and history in the African-American community in the United States, since many slaves were said to have gathered in churches on New Year’s Eve, in 1862, to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, on January 1, 1863. My friend Troy Underwood describes that first Watchnight gathering  as a time “where slaves watched slavery go out and freedom come in. Though freedom didn’t happen immediately, we continued to press our way. The African-American church continues the tradition for justice.”

And now I long for a Watchnight service which points to the coming of Christ as the liberation from bondage and slavery; where ‘heaven’ isn’t reserved for a pipe-dream, but instead is realized in the here-and-now; and where hope is alive and has material implications.

On corporate disappearances…

Today my company ‘announced’ layoffs.  I’ve been with the company 6+ years and have weathered the storm many times–often enough that I begin to recognize the routine; the pattern of corporate demise.  Last year I took the following photo as an homage to those victims who disappeared.  I am reminded of the disappearances which occurred in S. America during the 1980s–where folks simply vanished, with no bodies to mourn, no closure.  Some were walked out on ceremony.  Others simply called at home and told not to come in.  What few artifacts left at their desks are packed up in boxes and mailed to them.

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Mausoleum

Corporate Masoleum

Without bodies to mourn, these artifacts are all that is left.

In corporate America, those left behind don’t even have a list of who all was let go (due to some strange bit of legalese). We are finding out slowly as emails bounce back, and phone calls don’t get answered, desks are empty.  Key players on my projects have vanished.  People I’ve worked closely with for forty hours a week, for the last six years have simply been removed.

No goodbyes.

And I am at a loss.

The day the rabbit(s) died…

No, I was not pregnant.  I was 19 and working as the head of maintenance for the summer camp for the Peoria Southside Mission.  The camp was located 20 miles outside of Peoria, on 380 acres of wooded land. It seems that when you’re raised an MK, there are a lot of assumptions made about your skills–assumptions you yourself embrace. Who doesn’t want to be considered a renaissance woman? a Jill-of-all-trades?

That summer I fixed fences, door frames, and roofs. I plunged toilets, mowed lawns, painted, planted trees, you name it–I even learned to drive a bulldozer.

The camp had a petting zoo of sorts–all donated animals who were found to be misfits in their former homes.  We had three horses, two miniature goats, three very large goats, a flock of geese, several dogs and puppies, and there were always kittens around.  Half my day was spent tending to the animals–either simply feeding or grooming them–the other half was spent (it seems) chasing them down and repairing fences.  I have been known to walk two miles with a full-grown goose tucked under each arm, green goose shit running down each pant leg.  Sigh.  But I digress.  The point I was making is: these animals were misfits.  On any given day, someone would drive up with a dog who was pregnant, and not wanting to terminate the pregnancy, decide to ‘donate’ the dog to the mission.  And we took in anything that wasn’t sick and didn’t bite.  We’d seen how therapeutic it was for our inner city kids to spend time with the animals, learning to care for them and grow attachments in healing and healthy ways, we were pleased to take the strays in.

One day I received a phone call that someone would like to donate some domestic rabbits.  Could he bring them over right away? Knowing our policy of accepting pretty much any healthy donation, I said “Sure! Bring the bunnies over! The kids will love them.”  I set the phone down and began to scramble to figure out what type of cage I could quickly assemble for these rabbits.

I should have asked more questions.  Really.  Within half an hour of the phone call a pick up truck drove up in the hot July sun with a large wooden crate in the back–the crate literally filled the truck bed.  The donor walked across the yard and asked where he could set the crate, and I cast about for a suitable temporary spot and pointed to a spot telling him it would be fine to ‘put it there, under those trees in the shade.”  To my surprise (and subsequent panic) he and his buddy unloaded that huge crate FULL of rabbits.  “I reckon there are about 100 of them.”  I filled out the tax deduction form for them and quickly as they came, the gentlemen were on their way.

Good grief!  I was building a pen for a few rabbits–I’d been thinking 5 or 6. Now I had 100 to deal with! I set about anew, trying to figure out not only how to contain these animals, but where I could put such a large brood!  I phoned my boss in the city, and he suggested a temporary run on the grass, where we could then build up a proper hutch/shelter. He was excited about the number and had visions of inner city children quietly holding and stroking these gentle lapin.

It took me about an hour to gather the posts and fencing and wire to create the ‘run’ on the grass and locate a suitable site which would provide shelter and shade as well as some bright sunny spots. As usual, I had about 20 kids watching my every move.  I set to work.  It took an additional hour to get the pen set up in a satisfactory fashion: I needed the rabbits to stay in, and the local raccoon and coyotes to stay out.  As I was finishing up, my boss arrived from the city.  He inspected the pen and was pleased with my progress.  He then asked to see the rabbits.

It turns out that the shady spot I’d picked out for the donor to set the crate in remained shady for only a few minutes. As the day progressed (unbeknownst to me, as I was frantically building a rabbit pen) the shade shifted until the majority of the wooden crate was exposed to the hot July sun.  My boss began yelling…

I came running with a crow bar to open the crate.  The rabbits had gotten so hot they were huddled all on one end of the crate, trying to get into the shade.  They were piled on top of each other.  Those on top were sweaty and panting.  I ran for a hose, while my boss began sorting them out.  We hosed the lot of them down in an attempt to cool them quickly.  My boss suddenly stopped what he was doing and laid into me with a barrage of blame.  “These animals were in your care and you neglected them!  You’ve killed them!  This is your fault!”  The barrage went on for a good ten minutes or longer.  The kids who’d gathered round began crying.  I was crying.  My boss was crying and continuing to scream.  He finally assaulted me with a “This is on your head!” before storming off.

Sobbing, I kept sorting the animals.  The ones on the bottom were wet and stiff.  The ones still living were placed in a box in the shade–I think there were maybe twelve still living.  The rest I threw into the back of a truck and headed off to the dump.  All the while I had kids from the city watching… and some of the older ones rode with me to dispose of the lapin bodies.  I backed the truck up to the edge of the dump and the kids made a game out of tossing the 90 or so rabbits into the ravine.  I then covered them with the bulldozer: picture the college girl in tears behind the controls of that land mover.

The kids talked about it as one of the most fun days of their whole camp experience.  I, however, went back to my cabin and sobbed.  And can still end up crying when I think about it for long.   I know that it was an impossible situation, exacerbated by a boss whose crass display of frustration only compounded the guilt I felt.  But I felt responsible: all around responsible–for the deaths of the rabbits, for the experience of the kids who watched–for it all.  I caused the deaths.

The next morning I got up before anyone else and released the remaining rabbits.  I couldn’t bear to face them.  My boss cornered me that evening and asked if I was the culprit.  When I affirmed, he stared at me grimly and told me they’d likely not survive in the wild.  “You’ve killed them all.”