The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Souls and Stories: Identity, Batman and Doctor Who

I read comic books. So far they have not been mentioned on this blog and thus far a cisgendered male has not written here either, so today I break two molds and hope to begin a discussion on identity - who we are, how we define ourselves, how others define us, and what all that means, if anything. But bear with me, because to get started we have to talk about comic books. When I was in grad school I rekindled my childhood love for superheroes by reading Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Robin, and every other comic featuring the Batfamily. The mythology found in comics, the ethical struggles that oscillate between nihilism and teleology, the question of evil and the hope of a better future mirrored much of my seminary education; comics were just more fun to read than Augustine’s Confessions. I was never much of a Superman person simply because we all know that in a fight Batman would win, every time. Batman, Batwoman, Batgirl et al. have had better writers, artists, story lines, movies, along with the best villains in comics, not to mention the GLAAD award wining lesbian hero, Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, and the first openly trans person in mainline comics (spoilers though, it was in the recent Batgirl 19, you’ll have to read it yourself).

However, it has been Superman’s identities as Clark Kent and Superman that have been philosophized over, and I blame Kill Bill 2 for popularizing that. 
What sets Superman apart is the alter ego that according to Bill all other heroes have. Batman is really Bruce Wayne. In Bill’s line of thought it is Bruce that becomes Batman when he puts on the costume, yet underneath it all he is still Bruce. Superman, on the other hand, is always Superman and the costume that he wears is that of Clark Kent, the bumbling, lacking confidence and somewhat unreliable journalist. Dressing like a human with a suit and tie (without as much class as JT mind you) is the costume that covers Superman. Bill assumes that there is within us and Superman a self, an identity that is lasting, something that makes us us, something that we do not become but are born with. Even if we sometimes wear a cape and tights with our underwear on the outside to cover our identity up, the core of our identity remains nevertheless.

I took a lot of philosophy and religion classes in college and suffice it to say, college ruined my life. The seemingly simple realties of existence were no longer as effortless to understand as they had once been; even the complexities of our existence that I had learned to live with through my adolescence in Iowa were now more convoluted than I imagined.

I remember learning the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore, I am. My professor, who came to class with neat and combed hair that became more and more uncouth with each new thought said to us, “I am a thinking thing, a thing that thinks, but I cannot know that you think and you cannot know I think. I think, I am, you, I’m not so sure about.”

I think, and so I am, you think, I assume, and so you are. But what exactly are we? What is this I; who are you? Does Bruce Wayne become Batman when he changes clothes, or through the course of his life has Bruce transitioned into Batman and is only, truly, himself when fighting crime on the streets of Gotham? Is there a core to our being, some immutable essence to us that makes us us or is the self the result of approximately 100 trillion cells functioning together while electrons fire to and fro, connecting synapses that create an illusion of consciousness and a semblance of the self?

You may have noticed that most paragraphs have began with “I” statements, “I read”, “I took”, “I remember”, and “I think” and if you’ve made it this far I hope you are wondering who does Nate think he is? How dare he write in such a self aggrandizing and narcissistic style on Her/Story about comic books and Kill Bill! Well, I am a straight, white, middle-class, United Methodist pastor currently living in Fairfield, Iowa. I have two sisters, one older and one younger making me the middle child, not only of siblings but of generations, found in the space between but also within generations x and y. Currently I have two cats, even though I had dogs as a kid. I grew up with both of my biological parents and they are still living, though none of my grandparents are. I am in a loving and life-giving relationship that is, for now, long distance. I like camping and I think manicures feel great. Whenever I shave I use a preshave oil and a badger brush to apply shaving cream followed by a moisturizer under eye cream because I like how it makes me feel and look. Whiskey may be my favorite drink, especially ryes, but when I go out to a bar I usually get a Guinness. Most days I go to the gym. My Myers Briggs personality type is INFJ. I am a right handed and a progressive, feminist, liberation theologian with an appreciation of queer theory that reads comic books, but you already knew that. I play video games from time to time and care more than a person in their late twenties probably should about their social media presence. These attributes point to aspects of my personality and identity, yet on their own, none of them makes me me. Some of these traits are shared with many other persons, others are not. In the realm of personality typing INFJ is the least common, shared by maybe 5% of humanity, yet within this 5% exists innumerable possibilities of personality and definitions of identity. Whatever I am, however my identity is found and developed, both through my own self-definition and the ways that others define me, is found in the totality of these, for lack of a better word, things.

All of these things mean something to me, and you, regardless of whether you share a trait or attribute with me or not, you understand the word as a representation of said thing. Our understandings, however similar, may be different. Take the word, “Queer.” In an essay on queer theory Annamarie Jagose wrote, “If a potentially infinite coalition of sexual identities, practices, discourses and sites might be identified as queer, what it betokens is no so much liberal pluralism as a negotiation of the very concept of identity itself...queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.” (emphasis was the authors). For myself, queer is a continual critique of what I understand to be normative, a way of embracing myself as a masculine and feminine person while remembering that masculine and feminine are socially constructed. For others this may not be the case and probably isn’t. Some persons that claim queer for themselves my not see my life as queer at all. My identity is not the same as it is for others that identify as queer, especially as I understand myself to be a cisgendered male that is attracted to females.

For example, contrast my identity and understanding of queer with that of Jack Halberstrom.
Jack is a professor of English and she is also the director of the Center for Feminist Research at USC. He teaches courses in queer studies, gender theory, literature, art, film and has written many books, recently on “Gaga Feminism”. Now, I switched back and forth between the pronouns “she” and “he” originally for Jack, but from now on Jack will be he because as he said in an interview, “You know, people are kind of calling me he nowadays. I’m going with that.” While Jack goes with he, he is also known by a few folks as Judith, others call him Jude and Jack has found comfort in the mixing of names, pronouns and identities, allowing them to be what they are. Jack identifies himself as butch but readily admits that when he started using the term in the 1990’s it meant something to him that it may not mean to people now. There are assumptions about “butch” that seem to point to some masculine ideal, yet an ideal creates a normative classification where there is one real butch identity at the center with other butches on the margins only attempting to be truly butch. The idea and identity of butch has been colonized for some, though for Jack butch is a term and idea without a center. This is similar to Jack’s gender identity. Jack calls himself a “blanket” saying that he is blank in terms of gender and just added the “et” to it. Jack’s queer identity if found in the space between Judith and Jack, where masculinity and femininity meet and overlap, separate and dance together in whatever ways he wants them to and whatever ways feel right and speak to his identity at that moment in time and space. There are some similarities between Jack and myself, yet we are nevertheless different when it comes to our understanding of what it means to act on our queer identities. Jack sums up why this is ok, but still complicated, “Nobody should accept one standard way of saying things, but I want this to be clear too, that at the same time you can’t have endless varieties of people naming themselves, we do live in a world of categories. Some of these categories have contemporary currency and some don’t.”

It has almost become cliche in postmodern conversations of identity to view ourselves as the sum of our social relationships and to use these relationships to define ourselves in such a way that does not present one stand way of saying things. We are the culmination of our DNA combined with the interactions we have had, a mix of nature and nurture, we are the persons and situations that we have loved, hated and felt indifferent about. Who we are can be understood through the lenses of our socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, education, ethnicity, and so on. For me, it is jarringly peaceful to realize that I have been, and continually am, shaped and developed by forces beyond myself. I am, whatever I am, becoming who I am and will be through this ever growing sum of social relationships. Identity, it seems, is about becoming, developing and changing.

But what of the narrator of our story, the internal editor that seeks to make sense of our social relationships, that attempts to integrate the new experiences of who we are becoming with who we have been? What is it that creates continuity and stability in this ever changing and ever becoming self? To make sense of this I have to consult the Doctor.

Doctor Who has been around for 50 years now and the Doctor has lived through a number of transitions and changes through the centuries of his life. The Doctor’s body changes with every new incarnation, as does the Doctor’s style and personality. My favorite Doctor is 11 and I am partial to Amy and Rory as the best companions ever, plus, bow ties are cool.
Throughout all of the incarnations, the various changes, the transitions from being known for wearing a long and multicolored scarf to an overcoat with a suit and chuck taylors to bow ties and a fez, something of the Doctor has remained constant. The Doctor is always the Doctor. In the recent episode, “The Rings of Akhenaten” this continuity through change was witnessed. The Doctor, and his new mysterious companion Clara Oswin Oswald, save a young girl from a Sun that is worshiped as a God. The “old God” sometimes called “grandfather” feeds on the souls of others, which in this episode means their stories. It is our stories, our memories, that shape us and make us who we are.

Our identity, the essence of who we are, may be found in who we have been, the stories that shape us, and all of the experiences that bring us to where we find ourselves now. It is the story of the Doctor, the stories of those hundreds of years and adventures that has made the Doctor who he his and the memory of these stories, the chapters that keep getting added, create and continue his ever evolving identity and soul.

We all have a unique story to tell, and in it we come to know our ever becoming identity. I may not know who I am, but I know who I have been and I have a sense of what I want to become, what stories I want to live. Memory can be a fickle thing, but without it, who would we be?

So who are you? What story will you tell and how will your soul, that spirit of you (that I still believe in even if I can never exactly say what that ineffable essence is) that creates continuities between all your stories, edit, revise, and become who you are invited to be?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Running: A Love/Story

This piece is going to take two, count them two, disclaimers.
Disclaimer 1: This story was written prior to, but edited after, the Boston Marathon explosions. The timing was a coincidence, but I decided to publish the story anyway, hoping that it doesn't communicate any sort of insensitivity, but rather the incredible sense of community people can develop by doing the same thing at the same time. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by yesterday's events.
Disclaimer 2: Unlike most pieces written on Her/Story, this one lacks a thesis statement, a conclusion, and maybe even an argument. I've taken the name of our blog seriously and told a story, modeled off of a couple of storytelling venues that I adore: The Moth and Modern Love. Check them out!

I was 19 and a month into training for my first marathon when my grandfather, one of the best men I have ever known, died suddenly. I spent the next several months running in the midst of my confusion, trying to process my devastation, attempting to grasp what to me felt like true injustice. When my training ended, I completed the marathon, patted myself on the back, mentally checked "Marathon" off my bucket list, and stopped running.

Marathon Finish, Des Moines, IA 2008
Four years later, I would move back to Iowa to take care of my grandmother who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

There's this saying in life that you should live like you could die tomorrow. It took Grandma and I an entire month to get over the grief and realize that Grandma needed to stop thinking she was going to slip off any moment. She needed to die like she was going to live tomorrow. And me? I needed to get out of the house more.

So Grandma and I started talking walks and I started training for another marathon.

It's been eight months and Grandma has officially outlived the time she was given by her doctor. And me? I'm still living in her house and I'm still running. I stay with her Sunday night through Friday afternoon, and other family members take care of her on the weekends. This means I get to spend my weekends visiting friends all over the Midwest.

Last weekend, I went to Kansas City to watch several friends run a half marathon. I was standing at mile 9, cheering like crazy for these random people that I didn't know, waiting for my friends to run by when I was absolutely struck by how amazing this whole thing was. Here was person after person running by me who had dedicated part of their life to doing exactly what I was dedicating part of my life to doing: running. Running a long freaking way.

Half Marathon Starting Line, Kansas City, MO 2013
There was a woman on the other side of the street cheering for the runners with her two kids, and I knew immediately she was a runner. There's this thing about runners that's just like with lesbians, they don't have to be running down the street or holding their girlfriends' hands (respectively), if you're one of them you tend to know who the other ones are.

So this lady and I are cheering loudly, and at some point the slower set of runners run by us and I'm watching them, yelling my guts out, and these people start looking at me, right in the eye, and saying "thank you." Thanking me. In the middle of their 13 mile runs. And I flash back to my 16 mile run the day before when I could have really used someone at mile 9 yelling for me, and I start yelling my guts out for these strangers, yelling because I get it, because I've literally been in their shoes, literally felt their blisters, literally wanted to quit just like they're looking like they want to quit right this very moment. And that's when the tears start flowing down my face, quite unexpectedly, and I'm surprised because, although I'm both a runner and a crier, they don't normally fit into the same section of my life.

But here's the truth about people like me who take at least 10 minutes to run a mile: we don't run long distance to beat the person running next to us. We don't run long distance for exercise either, because if we wanted to get that we'd just run 5ks. No, no, for people like us there's something much deeper at stake. There's something about identity, something about seeking ourselves going on. Maybe we're running from something, maybe we're running to something, or maybe we have something to prove. But the truth is you can't spend hour after hour hitting the pavement without having to confront yourself even if only just about, at bare minimum, how freaking tired your legs are. Maybe for these reasons, I have dated people who are runners almost exclusively over the years.

My very own cheering squad, Des Moines, IA 2008
I spend an hour cheering at mile 9 and then I move on. I head to the finish and I stand right next to the mile 13 marker, a tenth of a mile from the finish line. And I notice immediately that no one next to me is cheering. They're standing, watching quietly. And I make a quick decision to give the runners every bit of energy I can muster. Suddenly I'm screaming; I'm clapping so hard I have to take breaks because my arms get so tired. I'm saying things like "You're almost there." "The end is in sight!" "Power through!" But what I really want to be saying to these people is "Look! Do you see it? You accomplished your goal! You did the thing you wanted to do, the thing you spent hours training for, and even though you feel like total shit right now, you have conquered this run."

But the words won't come out of my mouth. They get stuck in my throat because by now I'm crying, full on crying, because I feel so proud of these perfect strangers. So I keep yelling the one-liners, praying they understand that I am mentally with them, one hundred and ten percent. And these people are looking up from the pavement at me, and I swear they are seeing my whole self. I swear they're seeing things in me I didn't even know existed. And a couple of them, even at the very end of this whole freaking race, tell me thank you as they run, sometimes stumbling, by.

My last friend finishes the race and still I can't pull myself away. These people have come too far, I keep telling myself, not to get cheered for in their last tenth of a mile. So I stand there, clapping, yelling, and crying, until I am totally exhausted (which is funny because I'm not even running). And finally I slowly walk away to meet my friends, the only three people at this race that I actually know. Leaving the race seems so strange though, because in this moment I'm feeling like I'm walking away from a crowd full of friends I've known my whole entire life.

Love Always,

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Questioning Christianity

I call myself a questioning Christian.

I call myself a questioning Christian because I don’t know what else to call myself. I don’t have a label that fits. I’m not, “spiritual but not religious.” I’m not an atheist. I’m not agnostic. I believe in God most of the time. I think Jesus was a righteous dude (please hear this in the secretary’s voice from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

I don’t believe Christianity is the only way to what we call, “heaven.” I don’t know what happens to us when we die, though I am confident that it is good. I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe that religion is what makes people good (or bad). I believe religion is imperfect because people are imperfect.

I love going to traditional services at church. I love going to Catholic and Lutheran services because they are grand and romantic and beautiful. I love that I will generally know what to say and when to say it. I love the repetition. I love being a part of something greater than myself. I love having a community.


The reason I call myself a questioning Christian is because other Christians drive me crazy.

It drives me crazy when Christians spout hate in the name of, “loving the sinner, hating the sin.” It drives me crazy when Christians ban people from coming to church or when they make people feel unwelcome. It drives me crazy when Christians claim homosexuality is a sin, but fail to acknowledge that Leviticus 20:9 says that whoever cusses at their parents deserves death; that these Christians decide that one line in the Old Testament is enough proof to discriminate, but the rest of that chapter doesn’t apply.

It drives me crazy that Christians claim anti-Islamic hate, but conveniently forget about all the damage and death we have caused over the years. It drives me crazy when Christians are manipulative; when they pretend to be nice to get you to come to church with them, or to give them enough “bonus points” to get into heaven. It drives me crazy that even though the Bible tells us not to be judgmental, Christians are - without a doubt - the most judgmental people I know.

It drives me crazy when I hear about churches who brainwash their congregants; who tell them that the answers to their difficult life questions are easy, who give answers out like candy on Halloween and get angry or dismissive when students in Sunday school ask questions. When churches tell their members who to vote for, or what “issues” are important or not. When churches spread fear instead of love, or say that a neighbor church is too liberal or conservative.

When Christians pressure their friends to come to church with them and ostracize them if they chose not to. When Christians claim to be pro-life while ignoring everyone suffering outside of the womb, starving or unwanted. When Christians judge their own brothers and sisters in Christ for who they date, how they date, or how modest their clothes are. 

When Christians claim that their particular way is the only way. When Christians claim that Jesus said condoms are bad. When Christians cite Bible verses like rain drops in a storm, yet haven’t learned about the social context of the text and have no desire to. When I’m told that I am sinful for being educated on religious matters instead of rejoicing in ignorance.

I’ve been told that I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, but a book written by human men who were inspired by God. I’ve been told I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe in Hell.

I have never told anyone that they were not a Christian.

Sometimes it seems like I agree with atheists and agnostics more than other Christians. Sometimes when Jake and I have religious discussions, he will say something negative about the Christian church, look over at me, and apologize. I tell him there’s no need to apologize. Whatever he’s said, I’ve thought about or said myself.

Through all of this, I don’t want to stop calling myself a Christian.

It’s not that I care what people will say or think if I said I was agnostic. My mom would be upset, but I have already forever disappointed her for loving pixie cuts better than long hair, so I’m sure she would get over it. I have a lot of Christian friends, but I also have a lot of friends who don’t believe in God at all.. I just really, really love The Church.

I love what The Church does for the poor. I love that The Church advocates for people who have nothing, who go hungry, who feel alone. I love reading the Old and New Testaments and finding something new each time I pick up the pages. I loved being a religion major and thinking critically about these things, not just accepting them as Truth and moving on. I love that the core of Christianity is radical love!

I love that the ELCA church embraces doubt and questioning, because without them, faith would be flimsy and weak. This church is the reason that I don’t worry about questioning my faith, because I know that every time I come back to it and say, “Yes, I am a Christian after all!” my faith has just become that must stronger than someone who has never doubted.

I love my friends who are Christians, because they remind me every day that although Christians (aka people) are imperfect, there are many Christians out in the world who do their best to be understanding and loving. I love that Erin Broich wrote about why she loves the Catholic church even when she doesn’t always agree with its practices or teachings. I love that when Erin Guzman was trying to decide on a denomination, she made a giant pro-con list on our wall. I love that Hannah is joyful about her faith, but is okay with questioning it. I love that Kelsey is thoughtful and curious about her faith and doesn’t judge me when I’m confused. I love everyone who went to RLC Worship last year on Wednesday nights and made me feel at home when I was fully prepared not to. I love that we hugged during the passing of the peace. I love that people of all backgrounds and faiths came to worship, and that I didn’t always agree with them.

I call myself a questioning Christian because I don’t know what else to call myself.

Maybe what fits me better is a hopeful Christian; someone who sees how imperfect and awful Christians can be, but also sees a light at the end of a tunnel. Even while I see Christians who are judgmental, ignorant and cruel, I similarly see Christians who are gentle, kind and loving and give me hope for the future of Our Church. I have hope that I will want to associate myself, unapologetically and without shame, with Christians again.

For now, I’m holding on by faith.

xo Madie

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Little Pocket of Hope

Sometimes the world sucks.  That’s just a fact of life.  And sometimes the world sucks so much that you are on the verge of losing all hope that there is anything in it that can give you any kind sense that humanity can do better.  You feel an almost bone-crushing despair at the state of the world and start to think, "What's the point?" when it comes to fighting for what you believe is right.  But then, something happens.  It can be a big something, like the Supreme Court finally hearing cases regarding same-sex marriage in the United States, acknowledging that this isn't something that is just going to go away, but is an issue of equality that cannot and should not be ignored.  Or, it can be something little, like the opening of a pregnancy center in a small town in Iowa that is actually trying to practices what it preaches about pro-life.  It’s the second hopeful something that I want to focus one in this post.  But before I actually begin, I have a confession to make.

I’m pro-life. 

Your reaction is probably:

There, it's out there.  Now, before you jump on my case about feminist (which I do consider myself to be one) ideals and choices, let me actually explain what I mean when I say that I am pro-life.  What being pro-life means to me (and what I think it should mean for anyone who claims to be it) is that I am pro-guaranteeing a quality of life for everyone, which includes at least the basic comfort and needs of survival without question, as well as preserving lives.  Pro-life should not only mean anti-abortion, but should include being anti-death penalty and pro-affordable health care for all, whatever that looks like.  For me (personally) it also means being pro-contraception in order to offer a better quality of life for all people (but that is a whole issue in and of itself that I won’t get into here).  It should (for everyone again) also mean having a respect for all the lives around you, no matter the gender, race, religion, sexuality, or class, and working to bring about a world that isn’t going to ignore people when they cry out for help. 

Sadly for many, it seems being pro-life has been reduced to merely meaning anti-abortion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro-abortion, but I understand it as an unfortunate solution that has developed because of a much deeper problem within society.  That problem is how our society approaches sex and sexuality, and specifically when attaching it to women and women’s health.   Let’s be honest, when a U.S. Senator, an individual who is educated and in the public forum, makes a claim saying women can’t get pregnant through “legitimate rape”, you know something really fucked-up is going on.  That’s about the time society as a whole should look at itself and say, “Hmmm…this is a problem.  We should fix this.  Do we actually know what we are talking about anymore?”  When people say that women get abortions because they just don’t want the baby, period, they are straight up wrong.  Yes, some abortions happen for that reason, but some happen because of rape or health, and a lot more happen because a woman (usually a young one) makes a mistake.  She and her partner didn’t really understand how much complexity there is in having sex, and then she didn’t have the resources or the support to do anything but terminate the pregnancy because society just decided that, “Your mess, you fix it”.  So while I am not necessarily pro-abortion (and I honestly don’t think many of my strong, independent, pro-choice feminist female friends think that abortion, at its root, is a good thing), I am pro-let’s-actually-look-at-these-issues-bringing-women-fully-into-the-conversation-so-we-can-figure-out-what-really-needs-to-happen-in-our-society-so-that-this-doesn’t-need-to-be-an-option-and-oh-yeah-Jesus.

Oh no, she brought Jesus into it.  Yeah, I did.  I went there.  You want to know why?  Because this is an issue religious people tend to have a lot to say about.  I get it.  I’m religious, I care about the issue, and I have some stuff to say about it.  What often happens, though, is that Churches, religious organizations, and the people who are apart of them focus their pro-life beliefs only on being anti-abortion.  But the actual problem doesn’t go away when the abortion clinic shuts down.  If you’re going to preach it, you have got to be prepared with something else to offer instead.  That is why when I cracked open my paper from back home the other day (yes, I get my hometown paper…shut up), I was pleasantly surprised to find an article about the Cornerstone for Life Pregnancy Resource Center that has just recently opened.

It’s a small operation so far, but hopes to expand its network of care within the near future.  Currently, the center offers pregnancy tests and counseling, and is forming counseling ministry for those women who have had abortions and seek such an outlet for their feelings towards the decision.  They also hope to partner with an adoption center, which gave me a bit of personal happiness.  There are a lot more things this center hopes to accomplish as it grows, but what it is ultimately offering is a support system.  It is a place for women who are unexpectedly pregnant, and don’t necessarily want to have to go the abortion route, to go and be a part of a community of people they can relate to and receive support from.  While I don’t know every detail about the center, just its existence gives me hope.  It shows that there are people in the world who aren’t just looking for a band-aid solution, but recognize a need for much more intentional involvement in solving the bigger problem.  And they are doing it while maintaining their faith, by not just preaching it but by actually going out and acting on it in a way that could be beneficial to society at large.  I pray that more religious people and Churches who preach the message of pro-life can look to this example of active faith.  That through this relatively small thing our world can get just a little bit better…a little more hopeful.  Does it give you a little more hope?  Let me know what you think. 

Bye for now!
Erin B.          


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