Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Every Sunday night I go to a church in a bar filled with people with stories, all kinds of stories. Stories we believe are “the word of God for the people of God,” because God is still speaking in and through our lives. This month we’ve been talking about adult friendships – finding them, keeping them, losing them, and starting all over again. In a world full of lonely people, we don’t talk about friendship enough, or even make room for it in all the things competing for our attention and priorities. And as adults? We often are at a loss when it comes to making the kinds of friendships we want. (The Nancy podcast has done some great stuff recently on how queers can find a “gaggle” of friends, but I think we all need that help.)

This is the story I had the opportunity to tell this week. It’s one that’s still going…

——

It was Easter Sunday 2014. We’d had the sunrise vigil, and the Easter breakfast, and I’d just finished leading the liturgy I wrote for our Easter service. I was walking with my friend Angela to our cars in the parking lot, and I remember telling her, “I think maybe this should be my last service. Everything is good, but if I want my life to be different – and I do – nothing’s very likely to change if I don’t change something.”

I was 41 and tired of being tired of being single. I hadn’t had a date in seven years, and I wasn’t meeting possibilities. Something needed to change and church seemed like the most doable thing.

And that was scary to say, because church meant more than the place I went on Sundays. Church meant six years of friendships, of lives lived together with a group of families and a few singles who lived in my neighborhood. We had dinner together every week. I’d known most of their kids since they were born. When I was sick, they brought me extra plates of dinner and DVDs. When there was a birthday, we threw a party. Some of their children were the only kids I’ve ever felt move and kick and squirm in their mama’s belly.

I spent the years after seminary building my life around these relationships, and now I was going to change that, and I didn’t know what would happen. What all that would mean.

So I started visiting churches.

At the first one, I met a pastor – another single woman – who came from a conservative background not too different from mine. We had lunch and met for coffee and started sharing our stories (she didn’t tell me then about her dream of starting a church where people could share good food and tell true stories and make beautiful worship together!).

At the second one, when I told a work acquaintance and his wife why I was trying to make changes in my life, Judy – a woman who is five feet (maybe) of major general, cheerleader, and CEO all rolled up together – gave me marching orders: “I’m proud of you! And I want you to go home and sign up with a dating site online! You need to go where the men are, and that’s where they are! And I mean today! Report back to me with a text this evening.” And like I imagine everyone in her life, I obeyed. (And had ten first dates in the next three weeks!)

At the third church, I found a community of gay couples who also knew what it meant to be a deep disappointment to a conservative family, as well as how to be a chosen family who could keep me afloat through that storm. I ended up landing in that church, and they gave me the support I needed as I started dating, then moved into the city, changed jobs, and even as I got involved in the queer, quirky new church in a bar my pastor friend was starting.

And when my last birthday came around, I looked across the table at the improv club where we were laughing and celebrating. There was my first friend from my new job, a beautiful friend from that new church, and two of my closest friends in the city – both of them men I met dating. And one of them came with his girlfriend of the past year, who I’d enjoyed hanging out with on many other occasions.

Those friends from my old neighborhood in the suburbs? They weren’t in the city celebrating with me that night, but they cheered me on through it all. I still go up north for the breakfast we all have together one Saturday a month. And I’m still a part of their kids’ lives. And this summer, they all loaded their kids up one Saturday morning (no small feat!) and hauled them into the city to have breakfast at my place.

One of the hardest thing I’ve had to do, the thing that never seems to get easier, is knowing how to keep friends in my life as a single person when life is changing for everybody. It turns out that sometimes that means letting go.

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Swiping Right

Swiping Right

Online dating comes with inherent risks – I knew that when I waded in five years ago or so now. Anytime you’re meeting someone you don’t know, your expectations for reasonable human behavior can be upended. And anytime you have an intentional space for people to meet prospective romantic partners, you will have people who seek to use that space for their own purposes.

I knew there were risks, and I decided they were worth the potential benefits. I wanted to meet men who were interested in dating, and that wasn’t happening in my everyday life (and hadn’t been for quite a few years).

I approached online dating the way I approached most things in life, with reasonable precautions. It was a big step outside my comfort zone relationally, since I had been raised to completely avoid even a date with someone I didn’t already know to be basically marriage material for me (evangelical Christian with conservative beliefs, never married, committed to sexual purity, etc.). But in other ways, it wasn’t such a stretch. I’d been building friendships online for my entire adult life. I’m a part of online communities and friendships that are ten or twenty years old. I’d met several of those folks in person when we happened to be in the same city, and even transitioned a couple of friendships to regular in person connection.

So I knew to be careful with personal information – name, address, workplace, etc. I always meet new people in a public place, and let a friend know my plans and who I’m meeting. And I take the “trust but verify” stance – take someone at face value and verify what they tell you about themselves with Google.

It’s not easy to hide your life these days, and a person’s “online footprint” can confirm a lot. I’ve learned to check all the avenues where I protect myself to confirm that a man is who he says he is and that the circumstances of his life are what he has portrayed them to be.

And in five years, I’ve never been surprised by what I found. Until now.

After meeting a man for a lunch date, that went extremely well, we made plans for a second date. He’d told me enough about what he does for a living that I could look him up online even without his last name. I found him and quickly discovered that he has a wife and children and a bit of history that is less than savory.

He never outright lied to me – I never asked him directly if he is married or has a family. He gave a very intentionally crafted impression that he is single, and has to be because of a job that requires constant travel. He has carefully cultivated a way to talk about his life that creates a lie out of the truth (the circumstances of the job) and omission (the family he very much has). It’s not that hard for him to live a double life, it appears.

Needless to say, I back peddled out of the second date, but I didn’t call him out. Part of me very much wanted to, but it would almost certainly antagonize someone I don’t know. And the only likely change in his behavior would be to sharpen his hiding skills. The risk is not worth the possible benefits.

It’s a common cautionary tale, and I’ve heard even worse online dating horror stories from other women. I’m very grateful that I haven’t gotten lazy about those online checks.

But here is what I want to remember: this is the first time in five years it’s happened. I’ve easily met fifty men or more, and nearly all of them have been genuine gentlemen. Most men are decent human being who are trying to make life work as best they can.

Dating is not easy, and there are risks far beyond the one I had lunch with. But there are far more benefits out there, and I’ll never have a chance to meet them if I don’t start with swiping right.

Losing Sight

Losing Sight

It’s so easy to lose sight of each other. To see only what we expect or want to see instead of what’s really there. To see one particular sliver of someone and stop looking for anything else.

We do it without even noticing – that’s the problem. We don’t notice what we’re not noticing.

It doesn’t matter enough to us. We do fine with what we do see, it’s sufficient to get us through the day and so we become okay with erasing each other. With caricatures that hide people.

It’s the other way we use masks – not just to hide or protect ourselves, but passing them around to those we encounter, hiding the real people and simplifying the world for ourselves.

The professor. The black man. The boss. The uniform. The head scarf. The pretty face. The old woman. The clerk. The suit.

I see them every day. But I don’t see them. I only see the idea, the caricature I’ve been content to see. And they are more.

They are each a person with a life as full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd as mine.

But I can’t handle that.

I’m too caught up in the full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd life that is mine, and I don’t have room for them.

Except…

I get tired of going around in the circles of my own life. I keep at it like it’s my job, my obligation. And in at least one sense, it is. But it’s only my job in so much as I can get enough of a hold on my own life to yank it out of the way. To be able to look beyond myself and really see everyone else as so much more than a supporting cast of character roles in my life, my story.

Because the truth is I don’t have a story, not one that is just mine, at least.

We have a story. A full and complicated and delightful and tragic and absurd story that we all make together. Turning each other into villains and heroes (usually turning ourselves into the heroes) as we try to make it smaller and more manageable and easier to tell ourselves as we fall asleep each night.

But that story is a lie, or at least as much lie as the truth. Because the story is always bigger and messier and more delightful and tragic and absurd than we are ready for.

So tell me your version, please. And maybe – hopefully – it will help break me out of mine and shape it and change it beyond what I know. Maybe we can figure out how to tell a bigger story together so we can stop losing sight of each other.

Not What I Ordered

Not What I Ordered

One of the greatest challenges in life is what to do when what you got ain’t what you ordered.

It happens in so many ways, large and small. The party you plan doesn’t turn out like you wanted it to. Your job takes an unexpected turn. The person you love chooses something different. An election goes haywire. It rains on your beach party. Something arrives you never saw coming.

What do we do when life serves us up something that’s not what we ordered – not what we wanted?

Most of my life the church taught me that what I got was what God meant for me to have, and he knew what I really needed better than I did. While I can believe that God might know me better than I know myself, that does not mean everything that comes to me is something he ordered. When life brings you evil and death, you can be sure those are not from God.

We live with the consequences of evil in the world, and we suffer because of other people’s choices – some of them long gone. We construct systems that are bent in ways that hurt people, sometimes intentionally, often blindly. We make choices to hurt each other, to lash out in frustration, pain anger, hatred. And sometimes we hurt people because of ghosts from our pasts we’ve never dealt with.

Everything that comes my way was not sent by God. Everything that comes is not in some way “good for me” or anywhere near what I need, much less want. And sometimes what comes is just different – not what I had in mind.

So what do we do? As much as I’ve learned since those days when I thought the only faithful thing to do was accept it all as from God, I still struggle to figure it out.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I go back to that prayer over and over again to remember both the agency I have and its limits.

Sometimes I can say no and refuse to accept something in my life. I can create boundaries, and recognize what is healthy and what is not.

Sometimes I can choose to try it and be open to being surprised. To accept the gift that’s given, even if it’s not the one I was asking for.

Sometimes I can choose to wait and see if things will change. People do change sometimes, and how I feel can change, too.

And sometimes I can choose not to wait.

Sometimes I can choose to get moving, to change myself, my mind, or my circumstances. To do my best to move towards goodness, love, beauty, peace, joy.

And sometimes I can step back, look at all the pieces, and choose to tell a different story with them than the one I was given.

That’s hard. The stories we live and believe shape the way we see the world and the way we understand ourselves. The stories we see ourselves in produce the choices we recognize. Letting go of the stories that made me who I am is scary. I can’t know what the new story will look like or what it will create in me.

But sometimes, it’s time. If I could just be sure when.

Race, Language, and Intent

Race, Language, and Intent

I once had a friend yell at me and call me a liar because I told him that a meeting he led had made others who were there “feel attacked” (something they had expressed to me). He’d asked me about reactions to the meeting, but he couldn’t accept the answer. He heard it as an attack on him – on his intentions and character – rather than as a report of impact and results.

While that particularly instance was extreme, I don’t think the confusion is unusual. It bothers us when what happens isn’t what we meant to happen, when someone hears something that isn’t what we meant to say. We want to be judged by our good intentions rather than by whatever somehow went awry between those intentions and the outcomes.

If we can take a step back, wisdom tells us that, while our intentions are important, they are far from the only contributor to what actually happened, especially when communication is involved. Context matters, and history is a part of that. Shared meaning and/or purpose is part of it – or not, as the case may be. But all too often, we want to believe that we can control more than we do, and that our intentions are the most important thing.

I see it happen most often when we’re talking about race. When something someone says or does is called “racist,” white Americans want to talk about what their intentions were, what was “in their heart.” And when told they are participants in “systemic racism,” white Americans tend to recoil. We hate the idea that we could be part of something we didn’t choose, something that flies in the face of our good intentions and the way we think about ourselves. Something we don’t want to be true, much less responsible for.

But what if it is true? What if, in spite of our good intentions, we are actually doing harm? Perpetuating harm we don’t intend?

It’s a terrible thought. And the only thing worse than thinking it is not thinking it.

The ways we tend to use language about race are all wrapped up in avoiding the thought. Stereotype. Prejudice. Bias. Bigotry. Discrimination. Racism. White supremacy.

We all recognize these words as negative. White Americans tend to see them as moral defects in personal character – bad intentions and ugly, false beliefs. Black Americans tend to see them as negative as well, but in more nuanced ways.

A stereotype is an idea, an over-generalization. “Black people are good at sports.” “White people like yoga.”  We can know a stereotype and not believe it.

Prejudice is a feeling. “Southerners make me nervous.” Bias is a tendency, an inclination for or against something. “I just like to date taller men.” We can be unaware of our prejudices and biases – they often function subconsciously and influence our choices and decisions in ways that may even undercut our conscious intentions.

Bigotry is believing a stereotype and being prejudiced against it. But people who are bigoted rarely see it that way; they believe the stereotype is really true and dangerous in some way, so they usually see their actions as simply protecting themselves. “Black people don’t keep up their homes, and if one moves onto our block, the value of my house will go down.” Well-intentioned people who are bigoted allow for exceptions: “That black family that moved into the neighborhood, they’ve actually got the nicest yard on the street!” For various reasons (social stigma, financial incentives, etc.) bigoted people may not actually act on their bigotry.

Discrimination is acting either in favor of or with bias against a person or group because of their perceived race. Discrimination can be indirect, particularly when we want to believe in our good intentions. “I’ve got nothing against black people, I’m just more comfortable dating men with a similar background to mine.” We can act on a racial stereotype even if we don’t think we believe it.

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races. White supremacy is also any system (social, religious, economic, housing, judicial, penal, educational, etc.) that reflects the assumption that white people are superior and gives them preference (even indirectly). That assumption may have been a part of the system from its inception – designed to implement the supremacy of white people; or assumptions of white supremacy may have been added to it along the way. Either way, those who continue to use the system are participants in white supremacy, whether they know it or not and regardless of their personal beliefs.  It is not the intentions of those participating in a system that create white supremacy; it’s the effects of the system. White supremacy is a system that results in the preferential treatment of white people.

Racism is a pattern of harms done to a group of people because of their race.  It is a persistent perpetuation of racial stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The key here is the pattern of harms. Racism is in the effects rather than the intent.

When I was a child, a black family lived across the street from us. I loved them the way a child loves neighbors – though the youngest children were several years older than me and too old to be playmates, they were always friendly to me, and the mother fussed over me and gave me my first popcorn balls (a magical Halloween treat from the days before homemade treats became verboten). When I was five or six, we invited the youngest two children to come to Vacation Bible School. As my mother drove us home that night, the three of us entertained ourselves with a game of I Spy. Trying too hard to be clever, I spied “something green,” and after they finally gave up, laughed as I told them the “something green” was the color of their skin in the glow of the dashboard lights. Appalled, my mother made me apologize and after we got home gave me a stern talking to that I didn’t fully understand. I just thought their different skin color was interesting – it didn’t mean anything to me yet.

But it meant something to them. However naïve my comment was (I won’t say innocent because, while I wasn’t trying to embarrass them for being black, I was trying to best them with my cleverness), it happened in a social and historical context that made it more than I knew. It fed into a pattern of harms. It was racist. I didn’t have to plant the seed of racism – that was done generations before me – but I blithely watered that seed, however unknowingly.

We want life to be more neutral than that. We want to believe we all start on an essentially equal playing field and we all have roughly the same ability to work hard and make something of ourselves. We don’t want to believe we are watering seeds we wish had never been planted.

The world we live in is made from much more than our intentions. Black and white American live with a history every day, a history of racism and white supremacy. If we are willing to step back and look, whatever we believe about our intentions, the pattern of results is clear. Like specks of color in a tweed woven with checks, exceptions are everywhere but the pattern is clear. Changing patterns requires changing the machinery that creates them. And we’ll never change what we aren’t willing to see.

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

When I first met *Schuylar, they were between pronouns. Not quite “she” and not quite “he,” Schuylar was a young person trying to figure a lot out. I wanted to be kind and understanding – I wanted to really understand – but I’d never known someone live and in person for whom gender was such a struggle. I was confused. Their experience baffled me. It didn’t fit the way I understood the Bible, myself, or anyone else. I didn’t know what “right” or “healthy” or “good” meant in this context, and I didn’t have a clue what their experience meant for the community we shared, though I realized it was no small thing.

A friend of mine, a respected Christian leader, recently noted that he sees “transgender issues” as the next big cultural hot button. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate man, so though he tends to have a more traditional perspective on sexuality, I know he is genuine in his desire to listen well, understand more, and respond with love.

I know a lot of folks much like him – much like me where I was several years ago. People who at their best are baffled and confused about the idea of someone being transgender, and who at their worst feel only fear or anger.

The fear and anger hurt everybody. I’m grateful for those who helped me find a way past it.

Several trans friends have shared their lives and journeys with me, and taught me much about myself as both an individual and as a woman. But when I met Schuylar, I hadn’t begun that journey.

One thing Schuylar talked about a lot was their discomfort with gender norms. The toys and clothes they wanted, the things they wanted to do – they understood those were somehow wrong. And yet the things they were given and were supposed to like? Those were the things that felt all wrong. As Schuylar talked about it, this seemed like a big part of what made their gender confusing for them.

And I could relate to a point. Growing up, gender norms had never neatly fit me. Much as I wanted my hair to be long, I got very stubborn when one grandma wanted me to have a girlier hair style. I didn’t like dolls very much; I preferred stuffed animals of all genders. I gravitated towards playing with boys more than girls, and once school started, the girls baffled me. I crashed the boys’ game of kickball at recess when they would let me, and when they wouldn’t, largely played by myself. As I got older, the way I thought and related was a closer fit to male stereotypes, and females as a whole continued to confuse me.

But as early as I can remember, those things never made me question my gender. I was a girl, and if someone thought girls didn’t do something that I did, that was clearly nonsense, since I was a girl and I did! I liked being a girl (and as I grew, a woman). I didn’t always like how people treated me because I was a girl (or woman), but that wasn’t a problem with me and my femaleness. That was a problem with them.

It never occurred to me to question my gender, and that made Schuylar’s experience confusing for me. Was Schuylar’s struggle just a different, more extreme reaction to social gender norms that didn’t fit? Or was something more going on?

As I’ve gotten to know more trans friends, I’ve learned their stories can be significantly different. So many different things impact how they’ve understood themselves throughout their lives, and some of their stories helped me grasp just how different their experience of their bodies is from mine.

One friend says that as early as she can remember, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a boy, I just knew I wasn’t one.” A friend from seminary who has since transitioned told me how exhausting, depressing, and even traumatizing it had been for her all those decades to get up every morning and “zip on my man-suit.”

That struck me. The masculine characteristics of her body had always been foreign to her. As familiar with them as she was – she’d never known life without them after all – they nonetheless always remained other. And beyond the personal difficulty of dealing with a body that did not match who she is, that body also brought with it a host of social norms and expectations that also didn’t fit who she is.

The idea of “zipping into a suit” every morning, it’s a vivid picture. It’s a suit that covers everything, hiding a person completely. Trapping and suffocating them. Knowing her now that she is free to be the beautiful woman she is, the effects of that suit on the friend I knew in seminary is obvious.

It’s a given for most of us that – love them or hate them – how we feel about our bodies isn’t what determines our gender. For us, the idea of looking for a newborn’s genitals and proclaiming, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” only reflects the most obvious facts in the world. It’s not complicated – it’s always worked for us. Our bodies are ours, and whether we feel good about what we see in the mirror or not, we recognize them at a deep level.

But in reality, it’s far more complicated than it may seem. And it is those for whom it doesn’t work who pierce the assumptions life has allowed the rest of us to live so easily with.

The assumptions life allowed me to live so easily with before I met people who couldn’t live with them.

*not their real name

Advent in the Dark

Advent in the Dark

It’s dark.

The days keep getting shorter, and what daylight we have in Chicago is often cloudy and gray.

Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas – is always that way (at least in the northern hemisphere). The nights creep ever earlier, dawn ever later, and we live more and more in the dark.

“In the dark” – it means we don’t know what’s happening or what happens next. It’s a lot like the centuries before Jesus came in Israel, and even after he came. They were in the dark. A people struggling to live under empires that could’ve cared less about them. Promised something more, they had no idea where it would come from, what it would look like. Their heroes kept failing them, and for the most part, their hopes got it wrong.

The world seems pretty dark to a lot of people these days, too. Full of fear and uncertainty and instability and failed heroes.

We celebrate Advent with the beautiful words: hope, peace, love, joy. We celebrate Advent like we know what comes next. But the kicker is, they didn’t. And beyond the words of the Christmas story, neither do we.

Advent is about confusion. Living in the dark. Finding enough light to keep living, nonetheless.

The pregnant teenager with no good explanation. The kid hiding their reality in a closet, terrified of how their family and community would respond if they knew. The un- and under-employed, stuck in a system that seems determined to keep them there. The persistently single, longing for a chance to get excited about someone. The refugee longing for a peaceful life when the world has crumbled out from under them.

We live most of our lives in the dark, and it rarely feels safe. So much haunts us there – fears of the past, fears of the future, fears for tonight.

So we light candles of longing, candles of coping, sometimes candles of change. Candles that defy the dark with kindness, generosity, solidarity, risk.

We tell ourselves and each other stories – stories we can’t be sure will be true, but we offer them in hope anyway. We create paths of flickering light with our words, like luminaries in the night that may lead to a bonfire on the beach with something warm to drink, a sweet bread to savor, and others with stories to share.

We look for those flickering lights to lead us to each other, and maybe that’s the only hope we really have in the dark.