A response to “What’s a Body to Do?”

This post is in response to a guest post by Deanna Briody over at SpiritualFriendship.org, entitled “What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves“.  Briody opens by recounting her experience of “noticing [herself] noticing women” and trying to find a way to understand that experience outside of the paradigm of sexual identity/orientation, which didn’t seem to apply. She writes,

I assumed for a year or two that this meant I was bisexual, but I admit the word never sat well with me. It tasted wrong in my mouth, not because I didn’t believe it was an authentic description of certain people’s experience, but because it felt inaccurate when applied to myself. I wasn’t sexually attracted to women. I was physically drawn to them. I didn’t want to sleep with them, but I did want to know them. There was no category for that.

This resonates with me. I also notice women; sometimes when I’m surrounded by women I feel like I can bask in their beauty as in sunshine. But I’ve never felt sexually attracted to another woman. In today’s culture of ever-more-nuanced definitions some might say that I’m a heterosexual bi-romantic. But that doesn’t fit the bill either. The attraction I can feel towards other women doesn’t feel romantic to me; I don’t want to date them, I don’t want to hold hands, I don’t feel any jealousy of their partners or have any desire to supplant them. And yet, there’s something there, something for which, as Briody points out, we don’t seem to have a category.

She concludes her piece by looking at beauty and the desire for beauty as a sort of signpost for us, pointing us back to the original, unfallen beauty of God’s creation, and ahead towards the redemption of all things:

I’m coming to think it is right and good to notice that someone is beautiful (whether female or male, both body and soul), and to be drawn to them because of their beauty. It is, I think, a sort of entranceway into the truth, for though our ancient rebellion has drastically marred the bright visage of humanity, it is not altogether destroyed. Human beings still are beautiful. We retain the faded memory of our created glory, imprinted in skin and soul alike. When I notice a person’s beauty, therefore, I’m recalling, in the very act of noticing, the most ancient truth about her or him. I’m acknowledging the rightness of God’s first declaration over humankind. I’m echoing his original “very good” over creation; desiring as a creature to join in communion with what remains of the “very good” around me, as I should; and coming alongside the saints and angels and all the earth, in longing for the full and final restoration of that first “very good.”

This is a helpful understanding. I would suggest, however, that there are other things that our attraction to beauty does in the context of non-sexual love. I believe that the things that attract us are clues for us as we think about the type of people we desire to be. In a non-sexual, non-romantic context, our longing to possess the beloved object — to somehow possess their beauty — is about wishing to possess their beautiful qualities for ourselves. A good example of this is in the common phenomenon of a young girl developing an “emotional crush” on a classmate, or perhaps more commonly, an older girl or woman.

The first crush on an older woman that I remember was on my third-grade teacher, Mademoiselle M, a young Québequoise who had given up figure skating for teaching after a bad accident on the ice. I don’t remember a lot about her now, except that she was beautiful and kind, and that I simply adored her. My friends knew not to look for me at recess on days that Mademoiselle M had yard duty, because I would be stuck to her side, too preoccupied with my lovely teacher to play. Another was Elissa, a woman who taught Broadway dance classes at the music camp my family went to for a few years when I was a pre-teen. Elissa was warm and funny and confident, and somehow managed to convince a room full of gawky adolescents that it was actually okay to engage our hips while dancing. I’m not sure if I also followed her around — I probably did — but I remember devoutly wishing that she and my single uncle would fall in love and get married, so that she could be in my family forever. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.)

What was the common thread here? I was definitely drawn to both of these women in part because of their physical beauty — both of them possess the dark brown curls I have longed for ever since I can remember — but that isn’t the whole reason. Along with their physical graces, I believe I was responding to the beauty of their characters: to kindness, to humour, to confidence, to wisdom, to grace. The things that attracted me revealed something about me as well as about them: they pointed to qualities I desired for myself. When I saw and loved them, it was in part for their own sakes, but also because I too wanted to be kind, funny, confident, wise, and graceful.

Noticing the beauty of another invites us to introspection. What is it about that person that draws our attention? What do our attractions reveal about our personal goals and desires? What we love — what we value in another person — shows us what, and who, we desire to be.

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The Christmas that was

Twelfth night and Epiphany have come and gone, which means that Christmas is officially over for us. Yesterday we took down all of the decorations and got everything packed up and off to the storage room — and though the tree corner of the living room looks remarkably bare, it is also nice to have things all squared away.

This year I thought we’d try another experiment in our liturgical living project, which was to have a crack at celebrating all twelve days of Christmas. Now, when  we went into Christmas my plan wasn’t much more developed than that — which is definitely something to work on for this coming year, now that I have a better idea of the sorts of things we can do/manage. But my main idea was to have one special treat or activity per day, which we very nearly did. I think we missed a day or two — see: the lack of pre-planning — but on the whole I will still judge the experiment a success.

Here were some of our day’s activities:

  • Making a gingerbread house. We did this on Boxing Day and it went surprisingly smoothly considering that half of us are less than four years old. There was only a moderate amount of swearing, when I was trying to get the [expletive deleted] roof to stay on.
  • Writing thank-you cards. This was Dec 27th’s activity, and I was excited because Anselm has recently started writing his name. Of course, he refused to do it on any of the cards, so several of our recipients just got a half-hearted crayon line or two on his side of the page. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right? (The thought being mine, of course.)
  • We took a trip to a local Fire museum, which had many old and wonderful fire engines from the horse- and man-drawn days of bucket brigades etc. I would love to go back sometime without the kids so that I can read all the plaques. It had a kids’ discovery room with a real engine from the 1930s that we could climb around on, and a model train garden running for the holidays with many local landmarks to spot.
  • We ate the gingerbread house. That counts.
  • We took a whole-family trip to the library, which was special for the kids because usually Daddy is at work when we go.
  • I took the kids to a local indoor playground that had a lot of bounce houses, crazy slides, and the like. It was a huge hit; next time, though, I’d try to bring either my husband or a friend and so have a 1:1 adult:child ratio, because I definitely lost Anselm more than once.
  • My mom came to visit for a day on the way through to her mother’s. The kids were thrilled to see Nana, and my husband and I were thrilled to go out on an actual date to see The Last Jedi.
  • We went with my mom to visit my grandmother for a morning. She is 95 and lives in a wonderful retirement home about an hour and a half away from us. The kids warmed up well and had a very nice visit with great-grandmama, and of course were made pets of by all of the other residents.
  • We had a special feast for Twelfth Night, i.e. I put the tablecloth on and told the kids it was a special feast. Also there were cookies.

There were a few things I had thought of but that we didn’t get to, and there are other things that we did that I can’t, at this moment, quite remember. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough how last-minute all this was.) But even though the adults ran out of steam around halfway through, it was actually really lovely to celebrate Christmas as a season instead of just a day. It can feel so anti-climactic to have the whole long build-up of Advent and then have Christmas be over in just a day or two — this was a much more natural rhythm in many ways. Perhaps there is wisdom in the church’s historical patterns of fasts and feasts — who’d’ve thunk it!

“What are you anyway?”

“What are you anyway?” The bluntness of the woman’s tone puts me on edge. […] The woman doesn’t get the subtlety of my response. “Well, I’m looking at you and I can see what you look like. But,” she struggles, “what are you?”

What she doesn’t say, but what is implied, is that I look so white. But I’ve revealed that I’m not 100 percent white. My appearance isn’t to be trusted. That seems to bother her. (235-6)

I just finished reading White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik. I had actually come across her story in shortened form previously, in this Washington Post article; it piqued my interest and I sent away for the book to be delivered to my library’s hold shelves. It’s not written in the best prose out there, but the story it tells about race in America is illuminating,

The story of Lukasik’s family illustrates the complications of racial makeup and identity in America, especially in the South, and especially in Louisiana. Historically, Louisianans lived in the three-tier caste system, made up of whites on top, slaves on the bottom, and “free people of color” in the nebulous middle. The free people of color originated from manumitted slaves, from free black emigrants from Europe, and from the children (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) of white Louisianans and their black slaves, and later on, from the relatively common plaçage arrangements set up to get around laws against inter-racial marriage. Over time, the free people of color simply became what we would now call biracial. In the antebellum years many were considered legally white (and/or had terminology/labels applied describing theor proportionate mixture of blackness and whiteness: mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, etc.).

In the 20th century, things got dicier with the “one-drop rule” of the segregated South that said, in essence, having even one black ancestor means that you are legally black. In Louisiana, a person would be considered black even if only 1 of their 32 great-great-great grandparents were something other than white. (Just for reference, and if you will excuse this instance of Godwin’s law, this is more stringent than the Nazis were in determining Jewish descent and identity.) This of course was tied up with white supremacy and eugenics and other nasty things. But what happened when you were mixed race, considered legally black, but looked white? When the census-taker came to the door, that form only had two options for race. You were black, or you were white. So what did you tell them? And more importantly, how did you live?

The author’s mother, Alvera Frederic, had to make those choices. On her birth certificate she is listed as “colored”. In one census she is listed as black; in another, white. She left her family in New Orleans behind forever, “crossing over” the colour line and moving to Ohio, where she married a white man who never knew she wasn’t as fully white as he was. Lukasik was a grown woman when she discovered her mother’s secret, and Alvera’s pain and shame over being found out compelled Lukasik to keep that secret until after her mother’s death, some seventeen years later.

After Alvera’s death, Lukasik’s search began in earnest, beginning with an appearance on Genealogy Roadshow and ending with the discovery of a large, multi-racial family into whose arms she has been welcomed — it is a poignant story and a touching one. The book tells not only the story of her mother and her family, but gives a lot of historical context about their lives. In the end, Lukasik finds her African ancestor: a woman named Marta, born into slavery, her parents most likely brought on some of the first slave ships from Senegal. As she tells Marta’s story, Lukasik wrestles with what, if anything, having a black ancestor means (or can mean, or should mean) to her:

But even after I discover Marta, it changes nothing about my sense of racial identity. I have no claim on black identity, no right to declare myself even mixed race. And yet, my African ancestry is there in my DNA: 7-9 percent, more than one-drop, enough that up until 1983 in Louisiana I would have been designated as black.

What does it mean for a blatantly white woman to tell the story of her distant slave ancestor? “What gives me the right?” I ask myself. Is 7-9 percent African DNA enough? Does it matter that it’s me telling her story, as long as her story is told?

My search has never been about claiming a black identity. It springs from another place — the desire to know what my enslaved ancestors endured, how they assimilated into their time and place, and how they survived. I carry their DNA like a badge of honor. (202-3)

More than anything, White Like Her provides a compelling argument for the notion of race as a social construct. What does it mean to be “black” or “white” or “mixed”? Is it your facial features, skin tone, or hair texture that defines your race? Your DNA proportions? Your acknowledged cultural identity or preference? The answer seems to be all of these — or none of these — or some of these, some of the time. And what happens when you’re not white enough for the white community, but not black enough for the black community either? Lukasik quotes an email she received from a young mixed-race woman:

People usually think that I’m Hispanic or at least mixed, and sometimes they’re just unsure. I do come from a very bi-racial or multi-racial family. As a result I definitely have a few of my own racial issues to be honest. Looking the way I do I have personally never been accepted by the black community for the most part, a concept called colorism, you may have heard of. Kids teased me and called my white (though I don’t look white to most white people I don’t think, but by black standards definitely not black enough). […] Even in this time, there are clearly advantages [to being thought white]. It’s sooo complicated. (233-4)

It’s sooo complicated, indeed.

My one beef with White Like Her is the sheer amount of speculative material it contains. I understand that genealogy can provide more questions than answers, and that names on baptismal records and death certificates don’t tell you anything about what that person thought or felt, or how they lived. Lukasik indulges in a lot of “Did she think that…?” and “What was he feeling as…?” which got somewhat tedious. But more alarmingly, in what is supposed to be a biography, Lukasik makes up letters between some of her ancestors, and the reference to the fact that they’re made up is brief enough that a careless reader could easily read it. This isn’t historical fiction; those should never have been included.

Imaginary correspondence aside, I’m glad to have encountered White Like Her as I continue to think and learn about the “sooo complicated-ness” of race in America.

Reading Round-Up: 2017

Since 2013, I have been keeping a reading log, and have faithfully recorded every book I’ve read. A friend of mine keeps a very detailed log that includes things like dates started and ended, genres, impressions/notes, etc. — but although I like the idea of having all that data, I know myself well enough to know that I would never keep it up. But it’s now been five complete years of keeping my simple log — just title and author — and that’s probably enough to confirm that this will be a life-long habit! (Now if I could add flossing to that, we’d really be talking.)

I also keep track of some very simple statistics. So here are my stats for 2017:

  • Total read: 117
  • Monthly average: 9.5
  • Fiction: 83 (71%)
  • Non-fiction: 34 (29%)
  • New reads: 74 (63%)
  • Re-reads: 43 (37%)

As far as the numbers go this is pretty far down from my high of 216 books (!) in 2013 — but that was before I went back to school or had children, and included a few months of unemployment, so no wonder I was putting up such ridiculous numbers. In 2014 I read 138, in 2015 just 74, and in 2016 a mere 64. So actually I am quite pleased to be up over 100 again. This year is also proportionately high in both non-fiction (compared to other years, that is) and new reads, both of which were very vague goals of mine. So I am quite satisfied.

When I look through my list I can see a few trends. I read several fantasy series start to finish (the nine books of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and David Eddings’s Belgariad and Mallorean series, which are five books each). I got on an “amusing travelogues” theme, with Bill Bryson and J. Maarten Troost each contributing several books, among others. I’ve blogged extensively about my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project, and late in the year I read through as much Noel Streatfeild as I could get my hands on. This year I also made an effort to read more by black authors, and while I didn’t read many, I am glad to have read what I did — most notably the poetry of the incomparable Gwedolyn Brooks, and Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.

Along the way I encountered some wonderful new-to-me authors: Fredrik Backman probably tops that list, along with Graeme Simsion, Graham Greene, Kory Stamper, Ken Jennings, Noel Streatfeild, and Seamus Heaney. I also read some new books by authors I’ve long followed, like Crosstalk by Connie Willis and The Rise and Fall of D. O. D. O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. In all, 2017 was a very satisfying reading year, and the length of my to-check-out lists at the library makes me hopeful that 2018 will follow in its footsteps.

(If you want to see the list of all the books I read last year, you may find it after the jump. The asterisks denote books I read for the first time.) Continue reading

Reading Round-Up: December 2017

It’s the first day of 2018, which means that I’ve finished another year in my reading log. There will be a longer round-up post coming to look at 2017 as a whole, but in the mean time, here’s what I read in December:

  1. The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings (Fleming Rutledge)
  2. Star Wars: I, Jedi (Michael A. Stackpole)
  3. Selected Poems, 1988-2013 (Seamus Heaney)
  4. Horoscopes for the Dead (Billy Collins)
  5. Celebrations (Maya Angelou)
  6. Selected Poems (Gwendolyn Brooks)
  7. All My Friends are Dead (Avery Monsen and Jory John)
  8. The Fellowship of the Ring (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  9. The Two Towers (J. R. R. Tolkien)

I always start The Lord of the Rings in December, even if my reading of The Return of the King occasionally pushes into January, as it has this year. I’m never quite sure whether I ought to count LotR as one book or three; typically that’s decided by how much of it I’ve finished by the time the end of the year rolls around! So this year, at least, I’ll count it as three books, and note that I managed to finish two of them before the new year, at least.

I quite enjoyed delving into some poetry this month. I had encountered the odd single poem by each of the poets I read this month, but nothing in concentration (excepting Maya Angelou; I’ve read some of her prose works). I have to admit that I found Maya Angelou’s poetry rather less than scintillating — but the other three! Each very different, and each very powerful in their own way. They are so different that I would hesitate to compare or try to rank them; I liked Seamus Heaney the best; and I liked Billy Collins the best; and I liked Gwendolyn Brooks the best. Each was a pleasure.

I, Jedi was a re-read for me, although it has to be at least ten years and probably closer to fifteen since I last came to it. It has a bit of a strange structure in that the first half or so of the book is set within another Star Wars trilogy (The Jedi Academy series), which was written by a different author. I, Jedi retells some of the events of that trilogy from a different perspective, but because it was written afterwards it assumes that you’re familiar with the events in the Jedi Academy series. I am — but the effect was still to give me a bit of narrative whiplash. The second half of the book, when the main character leaves the academy (and the events of the series) is much better.

All of My Friends are Dead was a stocking stuffer: it was morbidly amusing and only took about five minutes to finish. And that is all!