In the Dental Hygienist Chair

body memories of grief

Do you sometimes have body memories — that is, memories triggered by bodily experiences?

Today I sat down in a dentist chair, opened my mouth for Abby, my dental hygienist, and just like that, felt a piercing sense of grief.

My body seemed to recall — more clearly than my mind — a teeth cleaning exactly one year previous, on a similar Monday morning. The night before, on a Sunday, I had gotten word that my father’s health was declining rapidly. It was nebulous information, but I had a strong foreboding. The clincher was hearing that he hadn’t gone to church that morning, saying he didn’t feel well enough. He skipped church? That meant he was seriously not feeling well!

I was already planning to drive to Michigan in about ten days, but I decided not to wait. I had a dental appointment scheduled for early Monday morning so I decided to take care of that, then drive the 650 miles. I even arranged for a friend to cover a pulpit supply appointment for the following Sunday. I suspected I would be gone for some time. And I was.

What strikes me now is that I forgot that whole sequence of events — until I sat down in the chair and Abby clipped the bib around my neck. Then it all came rushing back. It was especially odd because I had a teeth cleaning in between, at six months, without a reaction. But the combination of the anniversary and the dentist chair definitely triggered my emotions, and my grief.

I said to Abby: “Do you remember my appointment a year ago, when I cried because I thought my dad might be dying?”

She said, “I surely do. Tears ran down your face while I worked on you. And you had a lot more bleeding points than usual.”

The body exposes its pain in unexpected ways.

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Sometimes Topics Choose Us. Period.

bleeding women & menstrual hygiene

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. I just never imagined I would write about rape. Instead, I imagined traveling the world to research “The 25 Most Adventurous Vacations,” or maybe I’d create a brightly colored board book about baby hippos who wear polkadot tutus. I thought writing would be full of excitement, fun and whimsy!

But sometimes our life’s journey makes other choices for us. Choosing to be happy means choosing to embrace the unchosen topics that come our way. So here’s another unchosen topic that has grabbed ahold of me recently: menstrual hygiene in Africa.

My involvement came about because of my memoir. One of the biblical texts that helped me recover from rape was the story of Jesus healing the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:21-43). I wrote a devotional about this passage for Christianity Today in April. Then, a couple of weeks ago I preached on this text at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY. During the sermon I mentioned that bleeding women (i.e. menstruating women) still suffer stigma in many parts of the world, especially Africa. This is the reason girls so often quit school at puberty. It’s not just that they can’t attend class the five or so days of their flow — the fear of bleeding, and lack of products to manage the bleeding, creates intense shame.

Yes, I have developed a sensitive Shame thermometer! But I want to be more than a thermometer, measuring the temperature that our culture sets for women. I want to become a thermostat. I want to lower the temperature of Shame.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations working to make a difference in Africa. Most often they help villagers sew reusable menstrual products. They often involve the whole community, including the men, which greatly reduces the shame and stigma of menstruation. This is important work.

Here are two organizations I am becoming acquainted with:

The MoonCatcher Project based in Schenectady, NY. This organization makes and teachers others to make MoonCatchers — reusable, durable menstrual pads with highly absorbent inserts. The Project delivers the pads to poor communities throughout the world, often along with health and hygiene classes.

Days for Girls I love their slogan: “Every Girl. Everywhere. Period.?” They are working around the globe to provide sustainable feminine hygiene solutions and health education, because when girls and women have health, education, and opportunity,
communities and our world are stronger.

Have you been involved with these projects or others? The women at Westminster in Albany NY are extending their web through Presbyterian Women. This is exactly how women change the world!

I would love to hear from you. Let’s network.

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“Raped Perfectly”

the response to victims complicates matters, even from the church

We live at a time when sexual violence is commonplace and even sanctioned in subtle ways. The downfall of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — followed immediately by his receiving a $25 million severance and new podcast — shows how slick and impenetrable a powerful man can be. Perhaps certain parts of a woman really are up for grabs in America. At the very least, her skin is much more vulnerable than the Teflon suit a high-profile abuser wears.

How does religion fit in? People of faith might hope that churches would respond to victims with compassion, but that is often not the case. Religious leaders tend to focus on the issue of purity — especially sexual purity. Their questions add pain to an already traumatized victim. What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Did you know him? Did you fight him? The underlying message is this: You were in some way culpable.

“People want you to have been raped perfectly.” That’s how Amy Schumer summed it up last summer while she was on book tour with her memoir, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.” She told Howard Stern: “I think it’s important to talk about because it’s made me feel less alone when other women have come forward about being sexually assaulted. And also because it’s not this perfect rape. People want you to be a perfect victim.”

I was grateful that a high-profile woman was speaking openly about sexual assault. Like Amy, I published a memoir about rape last summer, but here’s the difference between us (OK, beside the fact that she’s a best-selling comic speaking to sold-out audiences): I was raped perfectly. And it was still horrific.

The crime could have been ripped from urban folklore: I lived in a house with college roommates. Two strangers broke into our home in the dead of night. They wore ski masks and carried guns. They held us hostage, threatened our lives, robbed us, and raped us. The fact that we victims were white, and the rapists were African-American, simply pushed the story further into the land of cultural myth.

But while I was a perfectly innocent victim (wearing a flannel nightgown, asleep in my own bed on a Sunday night after attending church) the story is not a fable. And it turns out that being a “perfect victim” does not protect a person from shame, guilt, and recrimination. Not only was I consumed by shame, but I was also furious at God, who allowed this to happen. The church heaped on coals, assuring me that everything happened according to God’s will.

I was largely alone on the spiritual journey that followed. It was my faith in God, not my connection to a church, that helped me find my voice and discover my sense of agency. Eventually God was not only the place I lodged my fury, but also where I found my comfort. I came to realize that we are all more than what happens to us.

Sexual violence happens too often, and is too often treated with complacence. It is time for the church to change its response and to be of real help to victims.

I wrote this essay for “Voices of Faith” column in the Albany Times Union on May 19, 2017.

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This 2 minute video introduces the pilgrimage, March 5-16, 2018.

It’s filling up but we still have a couple open slots. Are you the person we’re looking for?

Contact me and I’ll send the registration form which has more detailed information.

When Grief Sucks Us Dry

how to rehydrate creativity

My little church experienced two unexpected deaths in two weeks — fatal heart attacks of otherwise healthy persons. During that same period, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a month.

I did all the things a pastor does. I visited hospitals and put together funeral services and preached the resurrection. But I surely felt the toll of all that emotion, both my own grief and the grief of others. I felt sad and shriveled up.

I wondered how — and even if — I could replenish my well of creativity. I stumbled across one answer unexpectedly. Months ago I purchased tickets for the whole family to see a musical, “Fun Home.” It was to be an early Mothers Day celebration. Our daughters were excited about the show and that was enough for me. I like to experience a show with a blank slate, so I was glad I didn’t know much about it — only that it was a memoir set to music, and much of it takes place in a Funeral Home.

As life would have it, my friend’s memorial service was set to take place at noon on the Saturday of the show, in downtown DC. The matinee began at 2:00, just a few blocks away. I wondered if it would be better to sell the tickets and book something for another day. I worried that we might all experience emotional whiplash, going from a real funeral to a staged one.

In the end we decided to do both. The show was near the end of its run and rescheduling would be impossible. Besides, my friend who died, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Krehbiel, had been the type to live large. He would smile to know of our plans. So we attended the memorial service all together, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The sanctuary is gorgeous and historic and the service was a beautiful testimony to a life well-lived. We listened to every word, shed tears, sang the hymns, greeted a few people (far too few because of our rush), then got ourselves to the theater.

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When Your Thoughts Are Unthinkable

after sexual assault

I wrote this essay for the blog at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY because I spoke there May 20 and 21. What an energetic and responsive congregation!

 

After I got raped, one of my problems was that my thoughts were unthinkable. This problem joined other, more pressing ones. Where could I be safe? Where could I sleep? And how could I get through the impending hours of darkness? I continually felt like I was jumping out of my skin.

I’ll admit that I’d never been terribly comfortable in my skin. I was raised by Calvinists, after all. Everything important was housed from the neck up. But after the rape I couldn’t just escape to my head. My very thoughts—such as they were—became heretical. They weren’t complete thoughts, just words lying in proximity to each other. Profanity. The divine name. Unanswerable questions. I tried to stop the words from lining up, but when I got tired enough, they did, and taunted me: “Where the eff was God?”

To back up — the rape occurred in 1978 when I was a senior at Calvin College. Two masked intruders broke into the home I shared with housemates. They held us hostage for hours, then took turns sexually assaulting us at gunpoint. After the criminals left and we got loose from our bonds, we debated whether or not to call the police. That conversation was a work of theology, although I didn’t realize it at the time. We were trying to reclaim our sense of agency because complete strangers had just taken something that we would never regain.

That semester I was taking Linguistics and World Religion. I was a true believer in the Reformed doctrine in which I’d been catechized. But the sovereignty of God was no longer a comforting thought. Had God willed this awful experience? Who, exactly, took away our agency?

“Put it behind you,” our professors advised. Yes, that was the response of our faith community — deafening silence. Meanwhile, the denomination was embroiled in a fight over the ordination of women. Male pastors debated: What does scripture say on this issue? But I knew what they were really debating: What’s a woman good for?

Eventually I found my way to the Presbyterian church, to seminary, and to ordination. I have been in ministry since 1990. When my own daughters became college-aged, I realized I had unfinished business about the trauma I endured. I wanted to figure out how, exactly, it shaped me. So I began to write. What message did I want to convey to my daughters about living in a woman’s skin? That writing became my memoir, RUINED.

I am passionate about the life of faith, which isn’t a thought exercise. Discipleship is living as God-breathed beings on a God-created planet. We live in bodies, and women’s bodies are too often in peril. The church can break its silence and become a powerful support to victims of sexual assault. There are more of them in your pews than you think.

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Blood is Thicker Than Water

A Reflection on John 19:26 "Woman, Behold Thy Son"

This is a guest post by my sister, the Rev. Susan Joy Huizenga. She preached this sermon on Good Friday (4/14/17) at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center; Saginaw, MI. Some of you know Susan from an earlier post about being a living kidney donor.

 

One day when I was about twelve years old, my sister Beth demanded to know all about a conversation I had with a friend in the neighborhood. She thought I knew some sort of secret, and she demanded to know.

“She made me promise not to tell” I objected.

My sister persisted “Come on, Susan! Blood is thicker than water!”

To the best of my recollection, I never did cave into Beth’s demand. But I got the point. Blood is thicker than water.

In New Jersey, when I was growing up in the 1970s, the mafia was much in control of certain aspects of life. Also, we lived in an Italian neighborhood. The ideal of family and clan loyalty was strong. Later, while I was working in Trenton NJ, the students were discussing the TV series “The Sopranos” and one of the students stated emphatically “I cannot watch that. My friend’s father was killed by the mob. It hits too close to home.”

{Law Enforcement realized they could not keep up with the number of murders and mayhem that this mob crime situation presented to them. Lawmakers and law enforcement got together and passed a law RICO to take out the financing of the operation. It worked. So the mob is still there but much diminished in power and scope.}

Hearing this ancient story about what Jesus went through, reminds us that thinking ‘might makes right,” or the rule by those with swords, or the fear of protesters, or the incompetence of those in authority, or inadequate human systems … none of this is new!

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