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Christianity Makes Me a Better Person, but Feminism Makes Me a Better Christian

One day a few months ago I came across an old blog post I published to this site. It was a review I wrote of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I hunted it down on purpose with the intent of showing it to someone on Twitter who had asked for people’s thoughts on Hemingway. For a lark, I read through it again myself and laughed out loud upon reading a line that said, “I’m no feminist, to be sure.”

Quickly I checked the date of the post. Wow, it’s already been five years since I wrote that? And then, on the heels of my astonishment, some surprise: I actually sound kind of proud to be claiming not to be a feminist. A curious realization, considering how sharply my views have changed since then.

The cherry on top, of course, is the part where, at the beginning of the book review, I claim not to be a feminist and then spend the rest of the review lambasting Ernest Hemingway for his blatant misogyny. So it seems that, even though five-years-ago Audra may have been resisting feminism on a conscious level, its deep moral truths had already woven themselves into, at the very least, my subconscious. How I couldn’t see that for myself at the time, I don’t know. If I were a prouder woman, I would delete that post and try to erase all memory of ever having been such a contradictory yet transparent writer. But I’m not all that proud, and besides, that post is part of my journey. So I’ll leave it on my blog. I just won’t link to it.

So now we’ve arrived at the main topic of this post: feminism. At first, I’ll admit, I did resist outwardly identifying as a feminist, although only because I didn’t understand it. Back then, I found it easy to believe that “reverse sexism” was actually a thing. I am aware that I only fell into the same trap that all young people fall into–erroneously believing that they’ve magically figured out the mystery of life by the time they’re twenty-three, and that all the opinions they hold at that age are going to be their opinions for the next sixty years too. But even allowing for the ignorance of youth, I still find myself embarrassed by some of the things I used to believe, and steadfastly. The older I get, the more I realize how much I’ve never known and how much more I never will know.

But feminism has changed my entire life, and I say that non-ironically and completely in earnest. As a younger woman, I measured my own self-worth only in proportion to how much I was valued by my male friends and family members. I did this because society taught me to do it. I was termed (both by myself and others) as “boy-crazy,” as extremely “flirtatious,” as a “tease,” and as a “heartbreaker.” I wore these sexist and demeaning labels proudly, like Girl Scout badges. I sought the company of the opposite sex at every opportunity and shunned the company of other girls and young women almost exclusively.

In part, society trained and encouraged me to behave this way. In part also, I felt more comfortable in the company of the opposite sex because I never quite grew into the feminine persona that I was told all women “should” be. Since I was raised in a Christian environment, my preference for the company of boys was viewed especially harshly. One male youth worker warned a guy who was actually dating me to “stay away from her; she’s a bad influence.” The boy repeated that warning to my face, I guess because he thought it was funny. But I wasn’t a bad influence. I wasn’t sexually promiscuous, although I did enjoy kissing and cuddling and making out. (What teenager doesn’t, though?)

But there was another reason I didn’t like other girls. Sure, I didn’t feel I could relate to a lot of them; I wasn’t fashionable, I couldn’t do my hair, I was awful at applying makeup, and dressing up was a chore reserved for Sundays rather than an elective treat. But that wasn’t all of it. Other girls were my competition. Or, at least, that’s what society said. Plus, I found out quickly and early that if I made fun of my fellow female adolescents for behaving in ways that perpetuated stereotypes, I gained more favor with the guys. So I made fun of gigglers, of bathroom posses, of hair-dyers, of manicures–you name it; if another girl did it, I made fun of it.

But this behavior didn’t really yield positive results for me. What happened instead was that other girls started talking behind my back about what a nasty person I was. What happened instead was that, when the guys whose company I preferred decided they were ready to date the girls I myself had ostracized, I found myself alone and almost friendless. I noticed the negative results of my behavior when I was in college, and I attempted a corrective action in the form of a New Year’s resolution that I sarcastically called Operation: Be Nice to Girls. But it took me many years to figure out how to engage other women in my life in genuine friendship. It took me far longer than I’d like to admit before I stopped viewing other women as competition for male attention (single or otherwise) and started viewing other women as true potential friends and allies in a world where power has been derived from keeping women down.

It’s easy to look at this behavior and judge it as wrong. For those who have never struggled with this, it might be doubly easy to judge. For myself, looking at it in hindsight, it tempts me to feel shame over the person I used to be. But, as a former pastor and fantastic friend once taught me, shame is not productive or constructive. Shame has no positive side effects, and shame has no place in any life, but especially not in the life of a Christian. (Nota bene: Shame and remorse are not the same thing.) But more than that, my behavior was a form of internalized sexism. A sexist world taught me to believe that all women (except myself, of course) were somehow bad.

Other forms of internalized sexism have manifested in the way women have been conditioned to be perpetually dissatisfied with our bodies; we’ve been conditioned to shame women who don’t act in ways that society deems appropriate for a woman; we’ve been conditioned to see beauty only in what we’re told is beautiful (like thinness or tan skin), rather than what we ourselves might find naturally beautiful if we were never influenced by outside factors; we’ve been conditioned to blame other women for making the problem of sexism worse. To linger on that last point for just a second before moving on: Calling out sexism as the primary role player in these issues does not absolve anyone of responsibility for resolution, but blaming women for perpetuating sexism is as vile, inaccurate, and ultimately unproductive as blaming black people for racism or rape victims for their clothing.

But feminism has opened my eyes to the realities I’ve described here. Feminism has taught me that women are not inherently bad, and they are not automatically the opposition. Feminism has taught me that femininity is not about wearing the right makeup and always crossing one’s legs and making sure to be polite and never using swear words. Femininity is not about being a good housekeeper or a good cook or a tolerant/easygoing wife. Feminism has taught me that I am a woman because that is my physical biology. Not to digress too far, but in that same vein, intersectional feminism has taught me that I am a woman because I feel like I’m a woman. Luckily for me, these two things coincide. I was born with a vagina, making me biologically female, and I also identify in my heart and mind with what biology tells me I am. But we don’t need to argue the merits, the reality, or the morality of transgenderism here. The point is, I don’t have to conform to societal expectations in order to be a woman. I am a woman even though I hate pedicures, don’t brush my hair, don’t love to go shopping, and hate wearing heels. I am not less of a woman for not liking the kinds of activities that society has assigned as girly.

Honestly, that conclusion wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was the piece feminism taught me after that: Other women are not less valuable just because they do like activities that society has deemed girly. Women who enjoy shopping, who love having their nails done, their hair dyed, and walking in six-inch heels are just as validly women as I myself am. I’ve fought so hard to be accepted as a woman even though I don’t want to be traditionally feminine, so it only makes sense that I would extend back to women who want to be traditionally feminine the exact same grace and acceptance I have demanded for myself. People are people, and they are complex. Women are women, and they are complex. Women can enjoy rom-coms, chocolate, and pink. Women can also enjoy sports, science, and technology. Women can be any combination of these things or none of these things and still be women. The beauty of a free life is that we get to choose who we want to be.

For me, figuring out that I didn’t have to be like other women in order to like other women was one of the biggest and most important epiphanies of my life. And, strangely enough, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve turned back to some traditionally girly practices in my life. I like dressing up and looking nice (sometimes). I enjoy wearing heels (if they’re wedges). I’ve even been known to enjoy a craft on occasion (if it’s not too complicated)! Once feminism liberated me from the bonds of feeling like I had to prove that femininity could look like nontraditionally feminine activities and interests, I felt free to turn around and start re-exploring some of the activities and interests that are traditionally feminine.

Feminism has helped me become more open, more loving, more accepting, and more encouraging as a person. Feminism has helped me view other people in the most positive light I can. I used to look for the negative in other women. Now I try my darndest to find the things we have in common, and if we truly have no common ground, I do my best to listen to them and learn about their interests so that maybe I can find a new interest myself or, at the very least, I can understand them a little better. Because understanding leads to love. And love is what I am called as a Christian to do. Maybe not everyone needs feminism in order to be a better Christian. But it has worked for me.

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Let’s Talk Sex(ism) [Part 1 of 3: Equal but Different]

As I’ve gotten older, sexism has become a very important issue for me, and because I think about it a lot, it’s turned into the kind of thing like when you get a new car and suddenly start noticing all the other cars on the road that are the same model. Have they always been there? Of course they have. Well, unless what you got was a Prius in 2008 or a Hummer in 2003. Hello, trendy bandwagoners.

In any case, I see examples of sexism everywhere because it’s ingrained in our culture to the point that, unless it’s blatant sexual harassment, most people (men especially) don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s similar to how people don’t have any clue that gypped is actually a racist slur, or that thug is an offensive term that should not be used to label any given adolescent who happens to be wearing baggy pants. When it comes to sexism, terms that our society considers harmless insults are thrown around every day, especially in the sports world: throws like a girlsissycrying like a girl, etc.

So, because I’ve trained myself to stop ignoring sexist comments or treating them as harmless, I’ve become a bit of a Sexist Nazi, much in the same way that I’ve been a Grammar Nazi my entire life. It’s a soapbox issue, and I know certain people view me as beating a dead horse, or as crusading a pointless cause. I also know, however, that other people are listening, and some are even examining and changing their own behavior and language as a result of heightened awareness. And for that reason, I will probably always raise my feminist voice when I think it’s needed.

However, something I’ve noticed recently is that sometimes the line is blurry between what is sexist and what isn’t. Believe it or not, there actually are some legitimate differences between male and female human beings, and acknowledging such a truth does not make one sexist. I had to confront this reality for myself recently during the Sochi Winter Olympics. For instance, as far as athletic ability, male bodies appear to be predisposed (at least in some sports) to a higher level of elitism than female bodies, which is why they separate the competitions by sex. If the female snowboarders and skiers were pitted against the male snowboarders and skiers, then women would rarely – if ever – reach the podium.

This truth became the most evident to me while watching women’s slopestyle snowboarding just a day or two after watching the men’s competition. The men’s slopestyle competition was impressive. Those guys can do things I would never dare attempt, even underwater or in a padded bounce house. And the judges gave the men impressive scores for their impressive tricks. All right. Cool. I could handle that. A few days later, the women took their turn in the same event, on the same course, with what I presume to have been the same group of judges.

However, even though the women – like the men – did things I will never be able to do, they didn’t seem to be performing as many tricks or turning around in the air as many times as the men had. (Keep in mind, this is the viewpoint of someone who knows nothing about snowboarding, but my untrained eye perceived the women to be turning only once or twice in the air instead of two and a half times or thrice like the men had.) Despite that, they received comparable scores to the men for what seemed like fewer tricks, and less impressive technique. This bothered me because, in my mind, if a man jumps and turns three times around and receives a score of 90, and then a woman jumps and turns around one and a half times and also receives a score of 90, that’s an unjust imbalance, and it’s insulting to both parties. It’s insulting to the man that half as much trick gets the same score, and it’s an insultingly patronizing way to treat the woman. It makes the woman feel like the fat kid who gets a head start in a foot race.

Before I was able to reconcile my indignation with the scoring disparity, the snowboarding announcers (I heard their names were both Todd-something, but I’m unfamiliar with them) made everything worse by making comments such as, “That would’ve been a really good run even for a man!” and, “[She] snowboards better than some men I know, and the men get paid to do it!” It is clear the announcers were trying to pay compliments to what they considered impressive feats of athleticism, but was it necessary to be so condescending?

If a feminist such as myself is going to accept the premise that in some respects, such as athletics, men have a natural ability to achieve higher levels than women, then shouldn’t men accept that there is no need to remind the world that women are inferior? In my mind, it was bad enough that the judges were inflating the women’s scores, but the announcers didn’t need to pile on by opining that it was impressive, for a woman. If everybody knows that, why does it need to be stated outright? I can concede that, no matter how good Jamie Anderson gets at her sport, Shaun White and Sage Kotsenburg will probably always be just a hair better. Not because they work harder but simply because their ceiling is likely higher than her ceiling.

It is a biological fact we can all agree on that, in general, men tend to be taller and more naturally muscular than women. God just made it that way. (Okay, we may not all be able to agree on God’s role in it, but that’s irrelevant.) So, as far as inflated scores go, I get that. If they graded the women on the same scale they graded the men, then gold medalist Sage would stand next to gold medalist Jamie with a huge score disparity. Sage’s gold medal score would be 91-point-whatever, and Jamie’s would be (according to the scale by which they scored the men) 70-point-something, probably. And then people would be up in arms about that because it would feel sexist and insulting, even if it technically isn’t. So I can get on board with separate competitions for each sex, and even with adjusting a scoring scale and inflating or deflating the numbers based on competitive ceiling.

But I cannot get on board with the condescending comments toward women. If we’ve established that the competitions need to be separate events, and scored on a slightly different scale, then why do we need to remind everyone that the cute little women just aren’t as good as the men?

Well gosh-darnit, you gotta give those girls some credit. Sure, they can’t do what the men do, but golly, them li’l firecrackers try their best, and it’s just adorable, and boy, do their boobies look great in those jumpsuits, don’t they. Garsh. I hope my mom/wife has a warm bowl of soup waiting for me when I get home from this taxing, bread-winning job.

That’s what I heard when the Todds made their ignorant and insensitive comments.

I am slowly coming to terms with the concept that the genders being equal does not mean the genders are the same, nor should it mean that. But if men could dispense with the patronizing comments, I could make my progress a lot more quickly.

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I Was Raped

Yes, you read that right. I was raped.

Don’t worry. It wasn’t last night, or last week, or last month, or last year. But it happened, and this is the first time I’ve said that without qualifying it in some way. I rarely use the R-word when I discuss it.

Shortly after graduating from college, while I was still living in a state I hadn’t been born in, hundreds of miles and a five-hour drive away from my family and any actually reliable support system of friends, I experimented with alcohol and excess and drunkenness. Why? Because I’d been raised in a Christian bubble, right up through four and a half years of undergrad at a private Christian school. I wanted to know what the World was like.

My boyfriend of three years (who was three years younger than me) had broken up with me because he no longer believed in God, and I still did. There were other reasons (another girl, opposite goals and dreams, stages of life that were too different – I was a burgeoning adult in the real world; he was still in early undergrad). But the main issue between us was our difference of belief about faith and religion, and it drove us apart, and that’s okay.

But there were other things that had occurred in that relationship – things that caused me to question whether I was valuable as a person, and desirable as a woman. That boyfriend and I never had sex, but I was not a virgin when we met. I (willingly) gave up that title and became a statistic at the age of 17. For the next six years I allowed guilt and shame over my deflowered, marred, damaged status to conquer and rule me because the church mandates that it should. Premarital sex is wrong, the church says. Period. And, because the church says that it’s such a black and white issue, the implications that accompany the wrongness of the act heap a load of guilt and shame – mostly the shame – upon the person who engages in premarital sex but still wants to be part of the church – and especially so when that person is a young woman.

A lot of people know this fact about me – that I’m not a virgin. A lot of people probably also have suspected it over the years. I have been a flirtatious girl since the time I was four and obtained my first boyfriend, so it would be an easy speculation or conclusion to draw for the speculating and concluding types. But a lot of people also don’t know it. Or, at least, didn’t know it, until just now.

Near the end of my college career, and just after, I ran with a group of friends I’d gone to school with, and in retrospect I can admit that it was a fairly shallow group, catty and petty at times. It was also a very inclusive group, though. Anyone who wanted to hang out with us could, and we had a good old time when we went out drinking and carousing. We got drunk often, and woke up on one or another’s floors on many occasions.

It was through that group of friends that I met a guy we can call Camden. Camden was what many might call a “good ol’ boy.” Big, football linebacker type of guy, sorta square headed, and honestly not all that attractive when it came down to it. But I was getting over my boyfriend of three years, who – even though he discarded his faith – refused to have sex with me, which I took personally, as a rejection of my womanhood, even though he gave lots of other, perfectly acceptable reasons (we were too young; he was a virgin, it was important to him that his first time be…special; there was a pregnancy risk, and we weren’t ready either to get married or deal with the responsibility of a child).

So, back to Camden. Who wasn’t hot by any means, or even mildly attractive, but who found me sexually desirable, especially after we’d been drinking. My natural tendency to be flirtatious encouraged him, which is of course not surprising. Plus, and this is something else the church likes to shame women for, I have a sex drive. My body physically responds to sexual stimulation, to sexual attention, and to sexual hints and flirtatious comments. Sadly, it isn’t just the church that condemns sexuality and libido in women. It’s most of the world at large. But the church is the  context I know.

Camden made lots of advances that I rebuffed. I enjoyed the flirting but wasn’t interested in dating him (either casually or seriously), so in my mind that meant no sexual interaction needed to occur. But he kept joining our group on bar outings, and he kept seating himself next to me, and he kept touching me – first my hair (which was quite long back then), then my arm, my hand, my hip, my lower back, my knee, my upper thigh.

I don’t remember all the details of how things progressed (alcohol was invited to all of our get-togethers too, remember), but things did progress. Light kissing, making out, grinding, and all of the other things that good and creative Christians do when they feel the need to draw the line at actual intercourse. We never went on a date. I never asked for a date, and he never offered.

Though many will start to judge me at this point in the story, I did not feel cheapened by our interactions at the time. Everything we had done, I had agreed to do. And there were plenty of things he asked to do that I did not agree to do, and we didn’t do them. He was pushy, and asked for various acts multiple times in a given hangout session, but I was always firm with the lines I had drawn, and I always “won,” even if only because I could say no for longer than his drunk body could keep his mind awake or his erection stiff. And yet, the church and much of the world would want to label me at this point. Tease is a common word, and slut usually follows soon after.

He certainly thought I was a tease. Why would I flirt with him, text him provocative messages, invite him over at midnight, if not to allow him to penetrate me? How cruel I was. I couldn’t tease him like that. Once his penis was erect, it needed to be satiated, relieved. It was a physiological, biological fact. It’s why men have to masturbate. But not women, right? We don’t have a bulging, throbbing flagship of physical proof. Well, there is physical proof of a woman’s sexual desire, as any educated person knows. But for a woman to seek masturbation for sexual satisfaction, as a relief of sexual tension, as a physiological necessity: That is Wrong with a bolded, capitalized, underlined, italicized W. Women can turn it on and shut it off like a pressure valve, and society says we should. Men can’t, though. Men must expunge their tension, and any woman who raises the tension (literally) but then refuses to relieve it is a tease, a bitch, a slut, a cunt for doing so. But men are not to be blamed for their needs. It is primal, instinctive, and natural. Wet dreams prove that, right? (Hint: Women can have orgasms while they sleep too.)

I eventually broke off my dalliance with Camden, realizing that I wanted better for myself than a midnight booty call. I wanted better than a non-relationship that was only sexual (if not intercoursal). And I wanted better than a man who repeatedly ignored my protests and my NO, treated me as if “no” were a game. As if I were a plantation maiden being proposed to in 1861, and saying ‘no’ was the proper, decorous thing to do but that, if pressed enough, I would give the answer I really meant, and wanted to give, which was ‘yes.’

How many times have we heard that bullshit from some frat guy on TV, in a movie, or in real life? “Her lips said no, but her eyes said yes.” Unfortunately, there’s a wildly popular song here and now, in 2014, that uses that exact same logic, with lyrics such as, “I know you want it,” and “the way you grab me” and “must wanna get nasty” and “you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature” and “you wanna hug me, what rhymes with hug me?”

Frankly, Mr. Thicke, that is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life.

But I digress.

So things with Camden ended, and we each moved on. By that time my main post-college friend group had broken up and gone separate ways, and I had started to meet and make new friends. I didn’t see or hear from Camden for a long time.

Then, months later, one day out of the blue, I heard from his best friend; let’s call him Eddie. Eddie was having a birthday party at one of the clubs downtown, and I was invited. Given how long it’d been since I’d heard from either of these guys – not even a peep on Facebook (and this was back when we actually used Facebook to communicate) – I was surprised. I was reluctant to go. Nobody from the old crowd except these two was going to be at the party, and it didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. I hemmed and hawed on the phone with Eddie, told him I wasn’t really digging it, etc. He begged and pleaded, said it had been forever since they’d seen me, and they both missed me and would love to hang out again, “like the old days.” I finally relented. “Oh, and by the way, would you mind being DD?”

So that was why they wanted to see me so badly. They wanted to get totally hammered and then get home safely. Well, my conscience kicked in, and I went to the party. I drank water while everyone around me drank everything behind the bar, it seemed like. Then Eddie and Camden and three total strangers somehow piled into my car for the drive home during the wee hours for the afterparty, which was at the house Eddie and Camden rented together. Well, I was game for some house drinking. It would be safe, I wouldn’t be driving until the morning; Eddie had said I could crash on their floor. Wasted Camden made a lewd joke about how I could have as much of his bed as I wanted.

On the drive home, Camden threatened to throw up from the backseat. I threatened his life if he did. I had just bought my car. Alcohol-infused puke was the last thing I wanted to break it in with. I rolled down a window for Camden and sped the rest of the way home. He made it, but just barely. As soon as I pulled into the driveway, he stumbled out of the car, took two steps up toward the house, and spewed the contents of his stomach everywhere. Mmm, sexy.

We all went inside and began the drinking all over again, including Camden, who, freshly emptied, was good as new. It didn’t take me long to get drunk, and I also grew very tired. I wandered into an empty room and slumped on a couch, dazed and hoping to doze off. Camden – drunk again – found me before too long. He touched me in ways that my body found arousing, and I eventually started kissing him. We made out for a while. He tried to take me back to his bedroom, but we only made it as far as his closet. I have no idea what happened after that. I woke up on the floor of the closet, in a pile of clothes, mine included, Camden sprawled on the floor beside me, totally naked. He began to stir when I moved, and he sort of lumped himself on top of me again. I said no, I was tired, I just wanted to sleep or go home. “Here,” he said, “we can sleep. Let’s go to the bed, though.” I started to grab my clothes and was instructed to leave them. I was wearing my underwear and maybe my bra.

We both collapsed on the bed, and I immediately fell asleep again. I’m not sure whether he did, or how much time passed. The next thing I knew, he was on top of me again, groping me again. I tried to push him off, but he was football linebacker big, and far too strong for me, especially as a drunken deadweight. I remember foggily telling him “no, no, no,” and I remember him ignoring me. His hands, his fingers roamed all over. He sloppily sucked at me, he clumsily thrust fingers inside of me, and I wriggled and tried to get far enough away to fall back asleep. I remember saying, “I’m not even wet” as an attempt to deflect his focus from my vagina.

Finally he got up, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I drifted back to sleep.

The next thing that woke me was a stinging, burning sensation inside my vagina. Camden had gone to the bathroom and gotten scented lotion to use as a lubricant. I don’t even know if he had a condom on. I didn’t have time to think; the burn was all I knew in that moment. I shouted, “OUCH THAT HURTS GET OFF OF ME” and shoved him as hard as I could. I didn’t send him flying or anything, but he did pull out, and lazily rolled over.

I didn’t say anything else to him. I calmly sat up, gauged my level of drunkenness, deemed it to be drivable, and went to the closet to retrieve the rest of my clothes. By the time I put them on, Camden was on his back on the bed, snoring loudly. I found the rest of my things, tiptoed through a house scattered with crumpled bodies, went out the door, got in my car, and drove home, where I crawled into my own bed and fell asleep for several more hours.

When I woke up later and recalled the sequence of events, I wondered briefly, Was that rape? But I dismissed the thought because I was a Law and Order: SVU addict, and what had happened to me was nothing like what happens to the girls on that show. Camden wasn’t a stranger grabbing me off the street, after all. He was a regular guy, whom I knew. It was natural for him to think I’d want to have sex with him. I’d teased him (there’s that word again) and encouraged him, and fondled him and let him fondle me plenty of times. Plus, we were both drunk. It’s easy to get the wires crossed. But didn’t I say no? Didn’t I tell him I didn’t want to have sex? I’m sure I said no. But we were drunk. It was my fault for getting him all wired and ready to go. It was my fault for making out with him at all. It was my fault for driving them home and drinking at the afterparty. It was my fault for falling asleep on their couch. It was my fault for agreeing to go that night at all.

It wasn’t long before I had convinced myself that what had happened was not rape at all, or anything close to it. Everything was my fault. I never considered calling any authorities or trusted mentors or even close friends. Nobody would know. I had made a mistake, and I had been punished for it. There was no reason to admit my sin to anyone.

It was more than a year before I told anyone what had happened with Camden, and by the time I did, I had moved back to Kansas City and left behind the drinking, partying, sex life I cultivated after college. By the time I did talk about it, I spoke flippantly and placed all the blame with myself. I never used the R-word; I didn’t even consider using the R-word. The first person to whom I described the scenario used that word, and I cringed and recoiled from it. No, no, it wasn’t that. Not nearly that serious. No way. It was just…drunk sex. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have gotten drunk. I should’ve just gone home after I drove them.

“Audra, did you agree to have sex with this guy?”

Well…no. But-

“No buts. Audra, that is rape. I don’t care how drunk either of you were. Someone having sex with you after you’ve said no is RAPE.”

Well, okay. If you say so.  But..

And so on. Over the last few years I’ve had multiple conversations that went just like that. I describe a downplayed, heavily guilted version of events. My conversation partner clarifies by using the R-word. I deny it, retrace my words, emphasize my own culpability.

The conversations always ended either with agreeing to disagree or – more often – with me pretending to agree that it was rape and then changing the topic quickly. Over time, I began to accept that the situation was far more serious than I ever let myself believe. I began to refer to it in my mind and in later conversations as an instance of non-consensual sex. Even now, writing this today, I don’t like using the word rape. That word implies a victimization of some kind, and I have never seen myself as a victim. I was not attacked, or assaulted. The encounter was not violent in any way. My vagina was not torn, I got no STDs, I did not get pregnant. Hardly anything at all happened, actually.

But something happened. I was advanced upon. I indicated more than once that I was not interested and that the advance was not welcome. I was ignored. And I was physically penetrated against my will. (And, thanks to the fact that he used scented lotion – which is not intended for sexual employment – I was also caused physical discomfort.)

Slowly, after more and more stories like mine surface, I have begun to realize that – alcohol or no alcohol – what happened in that bedroom that night has a label; it has a name; there is a word for it, and it does, unfortunately, start with an R.

And I’m tired of dismissing it as “no big deal.” No, my life didn’t change an especial amount afterward, except for the fact that I cut off all contact with Camden. I stopped taking his calls, did not answer his texts, took his number out of my phone, and blocked him on Facebook. He was persistent for a long time after that. He created new Facebook profiles more than once and tried to friend me as if nothing had ever happened. (It’s actually kind of funny – or maybe a little disturbing – to see how many profiles of the same name appear on my block list.) He messaged me something casual once, asking how I’d been and saying we should catch up, it’d been a long time since we talked. I have not spoken a single word to him since the last time I saw him. The last thing I said to him was OUCH THAT HURTS GET OFF OF ME. I am still in contact with his friend Eddie, who has brought me multiple reports over the years of Camden asking how I’m doing. I know that at least one time I told Eddie he could tell Camden to fuck off.

So, except for that, nothing really changed about my life, externally or internally. Except for my intense guilt and shame in hiding the truth. Except for my belief that I deserved what happened to me. Except for the disservice I’ve done to other young women and men by not being honest about what happened.

I live in a world where it’s not only normal that I blamed myself; it’s accepted. It’s expected. The church is failing women in this regard. Society is failing women in this regard. Men are failing women in this regard.

Having been wronged, violated, doesn’t have to make you a victim. Am I going to fill out a police report? No. But I’m going to stop denying that something horrible happened to me. And I’m going to (try to) stop feeling shameful about it. And I’m going to stop focusing on why it was my fault, or even whether it was my fault.

I’m not sharing my story so people can feel sorry for me. Please do not do that, in fact. I’m telling my story because I know I’m not the only one who’s been holding onto a story like this. I’m telling my story because this story has to stop being written. I’m telling my story because I have young female cousins and a young niece, and I don’t want my story to become theirs.

The simple fact is, no matter what led up to the event, no MEANS no. And nobody, no matter how horny, no matter how intoxicated, no matter how physiologically tense, has the right to ignore that.

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Live Simply So Others Can Simply Live (Or, Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone)

It is part of my value system to employ a philosophy of simplicity in as many areas of my life as I can. In some areas (like the amount of debt I have), I shot myself in the foot early on because I haven’t always valued this particular philosophy, so now I’m just trying not to drown. But I’m doing pretty well in other areas, like the amount of “stuff” I own, the amount of money I spend recreationally, and the time I spend doing anything besides what I consider to be the purest of life’s pursuits, at least for me: reading or writing (and now, watching baseball).

Ever since I decided that I wanted simplicity to rule my life (which was circa late 2009 or, probably more accurately, early 2010), it has been fairly easy to make cuts and be choosy about what I spend my money on. For instance, I unplug everything in the house that doesn’t need to be plugged in at all times. That means right now, at this very moment, my major appliances (fridge, oven, washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher) are the only things that stay plugged in all the time. Everything else only gets plugged in when I need to use it. This includes my TV (that I never use and, therefore, never plug in), microwave, toaster (that I recently gave away because of non-use), hair dryer, straightener, computer, phone charger, and even internet. Yes, I said internet. I go so far as to turn off and unplug the power strip that hooks me up to the internet when I’m not using it. Obviously, that means when I leave the house and when I go to bed.

I also do my best to keep the cost of my utilities down by waiting as long as possible during the ‘between’ seasons to turn on heat or AC, from March to sometime in June or July, and from September to November or so. Even when I do turn them on, I put them at the lowest & highest possible settings that I can stand and still be mildly comfortable. And, of course, I schedule it to extremes for during the day when I’m at work, which I hope doesn’t adversely affect the dog too much. So far he is always alive and wagging his tail when I come home, so I assume that means he’s all right.

And don’t forget water. It’s a utility too. I do all the basic things that normal people do, such as not running the tap excessively when it’s not being used (while doing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.), not running the dishwasher for just a couple of plates, and not using the washing machine for only one garment. But I also shower every other day, give or take some frequency on either end. Sometimes I do it sooner than that; sometimes I wait longer. (It usually depends on my running and dating schedule. Dates usually get showers; running obviously does not – until after.)

People don’t believe me that persisting in such frugal use-of-electricity practices actually lowers my bills in the long run, but it does. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand. I’ve compared my bills side by side after adopting certain practices, and the differences are not only noticeable; they’re significant. Living alone goes a long way toward this being a meaningful practice. Not all of my roommates/housemates have shared or respected my philosophy of simplicity, although the one I had the longest (who, surprisingly, was a guy) was the best at it. Not sure if that was a coincidence.

The strength of my conviction and commitment to my values has been challenged recently, though. I have lately discovered that my financial frugality has thus far been an easy philosophy to uphold because I didn’t really have a choice. It was either live as cheaply as possible, or get foreclosed on/get car repossessed/accrue more credit card debt/overdraft the bank account, etc. My finances were stretched paper thin, what with a car payment, school loans, a dog, regular housing bills, a mortgage, and general other necessary expenses like insurance and groceries. Oh yeah, and trying to cover all that with a paltry, laughably small paycheck.

Well, the paycheck is still paltry, but it’s better than it was, and I have “enough” to get by (even after tithing!), even if I don’t necessarily have extra. Before, not only did I not have extra; I rarely even had enough. I overdrafted a lot, and I never tithed. Or went out to eat. Or bought people gifts. Or did anything besides pay bills. It sucked.

Now things are a little different. I don’t have a lot of money, but I sometimes pay all my bills and realize I have a good chance of making it to the next paycheck without overdrafting. I might even be able to go grab dinner with friends or get something fun at the grocery store – like Oreos. And, when that happens, I find it difficult not to maintain my discipline status quo. Which forces me to confront my stated conviction and philosophy and challenge myself about whether I actually believe it. And think about why I believe it.

A few years ago I read some study where they polled a large sample size of U.S. Americans and asked them what their philosophy of spending was, and the majority answer came down to this: If I can afford something, I have zero reason not to purchase it. Surprisingly, and discouragingly, the second-most popular response was this: If I can’t afford something but really want it, I buy it anyway, on credit.

Having “enough” money has caused me to have to make this decision more often. Do I buy Chipotle tonight just because I can? Do I get dessert at the grocery store just because I can? Do I get a pack of gum just because I can? These are very small things, but it’s true with the big things too. I could never previously consider getting a new garage door or new plumbing or a new roof (probably the three biggest things that could be fixed/replaced on my house right now) because the money just wasn’t there. At all. But now I can address the question: Should I start saving for one or all three of these projects, just because I can? Or should I save for something more practical, like traveling? Or retirement, for that matter. Of course, there are also medium-size considerations that I used to avoid because I couldn’t afford it but now am allowed to consider. These are simple life-maintenance things that add up after awhile – things like regular haircuts, oil changes, small house projects, even routine doctor visits.

Sometimes I think it was easier when I didn’t have to make these decisions. The answer was always no, so I never wrestled with the questions. But then I remember the fear and constant discomfort I lived in with never having enough money. If something happened to my dog, if something happened to me, if something happened to my house, my car, my computer, my phone… The list of fears and questions about how I would pay for routine maintenance situations that, for me, constituted emergency situations was endless. It is not fun to live in fear. It is not fun to live in emergency mode.

So, despite the influx of questions that having “enough” money brings with it, I’m not sorry to be out of constant emergency mode. Not that I’m very far away from it. I’m grateful to have my job because if I lose my job, I will likely be homeless within a month. And, luckily, not only am I grateful for my job; I’m good at it, and I like it. So I’m in a fortunate position right now.

But a slight paycheck increase raises the question too: What constitutes enough? I still don’t have enough to get a new garage door, new plumbing, or new roof. I don’t have enough to eliminate my credit card debt in one blow or my student loan payments in one blow, or my car payments. I don’t have enough to keep my dog on the regular medications that he technically needs. I don’t have enough to buy season tickets to the Royals or to take really any kind of vacation. Obviously, considering I’ve gone however many years without these expenses, they are not needs. So that’s fine.

But, once I get to a place in life where I have the ability to spend a little more money on pleasurable pursuits, or upgrades to my house, where will I need to draw the line? That’s what I’m wrestling with right now. How do I balance having enough money with continuing to live simply? It’s an ongoing struggle that I haven’t figured out yet. Especially because of the why portion of the question. Why do I believe that I should live so simply?

Well, the easy answer is in the title of the post. But what does that mean? If I’m living simply “so others can simply live,” what does that look like exactly? How do my choices affect other people? I guess I see it mainly as a consumption problem. If I consume excessively, I’m using resources that someone who can’t afford them now, because of my decision, cannot even access. This doesn’t seem like a problem on a small scale, but step back and look at the big picture – and the shrinkage of so many of our natural resources – and it becomes rather a huge problem. No, I’m not slipping cash under my neighbors’ front doors. No, I don’t regularly support a charity (other than the church, with my tithe). No, I don’t hand out cash to the homeless people I drive past on street corners. Largely I don’t do these things because, financially, I still can’t.

And that’s why I choose to live simply instead. Yes, consuming fewer resources is probably a good idea for the sake of the earth, but am I as one person really doing anything about the state of the earth? Not really, no. Living simply for me is more about solidarity. I am privileged. I know this. I’m privileged because I’m white, because I was raised middle class, and because I’m educated. These things do not make me better than anyone else; please don’t think I’m saying that. But they do afford me more opportunities. I own my house, I own a car, and I have a full-time job. Rather than exploit these advantages by consuming and accumulating as much as I am able just because I’m able, I want to do what I can to live as simply as I can so I can understand those around me who have fewer advantages and opportunities. In order to love people, one has to be able to understand and relate to people. I can’t relate to the poor urban populace if I seclude myself from them in luxurious suburbia.

Until a couple of months ago, my refusal to get a smartphone had more to do with inability to afford the phone bill than anything else. Sometimes I pedantically (and often sarcastically) said it was because I’m not materialistic, which probably hurt some people’s feelings or offended them. But the truth was, I just couldn’t afford it. Now I probably can afford it, and I’ve been trying to decide whether to get one. On one hand, it’s getting to be more of an inconvenience than not, simply because everyone just assumes that I have one, and they try to interact with me in ways that are impossible. This was never a glaring issue until my parents got smartphones and my brother had a baby. But now I miss a lot of shared pictures and videos and group chats because of my phone.

But I don’t want a smartphone because I go out in public and can’t even make eye contact with strangers anymore because they’re all tweeting or Facebooking or texting constantly. I know complaining about this makes me sound like an old person, but it really has gotten ridiculous. And I just don’t want to be that person. Who can’t sit through a movie without tweeting. Who can’t hang out with friends without checking social media. Who checks Facebook at every stoplight. Who posts online about how much fun I’m having with my friends although I’m not even interacting with said friends. I like the fact that, once I leave my house or my desk at work, I’m internet free until I get back home. I like that I have to learn the corners and secrets and ins and outs of my city streets because I can’t just pull up Google Maps on my phone. I truly believe that not having a smartphone makes me smarter. Or at least keeps me from getting dumber.

I did recently promise, both on Twitter and Facebook, to get a smartphone as soon as the Kansas City Royals make a roster move that takes Jeff Francoeur off the team. Knowing Royals management, that could take anywhere from another couple of weeks to the whole rest of the season, and it’s probably the latter. But I must admit, I do want to be able to view pictures and videos of my niece. And when I’m out to dinner by myself, it might be nice to be able to pull up an article to read once in awhile. And I love Twitter. It would sometimes be nice – if I’m out and about alone – to be able to continue to interact with my followers when they at-reply me, instead of finding out when I get home and replying four hours late.

I’m still trying to discern how valid some of my desires are. I’m mostly trying to wait on the smartphone thing until one of my major expenses is eliminated. In November my car will be paid in full. So maybe Thanksgiving would be a good time to make the switch.

Until then, go ahead and keep mocking me for being cheap or out of date, but at least now you know my decisions are intentional.

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Why Are the Sexes Still Battling?

*Obligatory Structure Apology: This post covers the surface of two or three gender-related issues but doesn’t delve deeply into any of them. It flits from surface to surface without looking back and is more on the scatterbrained side of things than I hope my usual writings are. But consider it a free-write exercise or a stream-of-consciousness editorial. Faulkner got famous with that style.*

So, I wanna talk about The Gender Thing. Yes, capitalized. And it might get uncomfortable for you. It might even get uncomfortable for me. That’s okay. You can leave any time you want. I won’t mind. Promise. But if you decide to stay, put on your seatbelts and your thinking caps.

First and foremost, I have realized that the older I get, the more feminist I become. I’m not sure if this is a result of increased awareness, of some sort of defiant personal statement about my own situation in life, or just because feminism (or rather, gender equality, as I prefer to call it) actually does make more sense than any other alternative. Whatever the reason, as I have aged, my beliefs about women’s place in this world and how they ought to be treated have changed pretty dramatically. The world has come a long way too, even just since I’ve been alive, but not as far as it could come, and not as far as I have come.

Growing up, I actually had no concept of male dominance or gender inequality, or even gender roles. Mom and Dad both cooked. They both cleaned. They both mowed the lawn. They both drove the car. And they both worked full time. I do not have a single memory of my dad sitting on his butt while my mom did “women’s work,” nor do I remember my mom putting off yard work or car maintenance “until Dad got home.” When something needed to be done (with a few exceptions that I assumed – and rightly so, I think – were the result of procrastination/apathy more than gender-role assignment), whoever was around and able to do it, did it.

Parents make lots of mistakes raising their children, and my parents made plenty, I’m sure. (And I’m not just talking about the obvious injustices of not letting me go to the movies alone with my seventh-grade boyfriend, or revoked privileges when I broke a rule.) But one thing I had no idea my parents were doing right was The Gender Thing. Sometimes my dad made final decisions, and sometimes my mom made final decisions, and sometimes they both made final decisions. But nobody kept score (that I knew of), and neither one acted superior to the other.

My dad is ridiculously artistic, so he is the one who experimented on my hair when I was a kid. He gave me haircuts (using Scotch tape to adhere my bangs to my forehead and cutting straight across underneath the tape; early ’90s genius); he curled my hair using pink foam rollers; he braided it in tiny braids for me to sleep on overnight (I found out as a young adult that more well-off kids actually had plug-in devices to achieve the same effect); and he styled it into numerous variations of ponytails and pigtails. Once, on school picture day in fourth grade, he even gave me Farrah-Fawcett-feathered bangs. I was too young to appreciate it, and so were my classmates; I got made fun of mercilessly that day.

Growing up, though, I always got weird looks when people complimented me on what my mom had done with my hair and I told them it was my dad’s work. I wish I had understood then what I do now and been able to tell them, “There’s no such thing as a gender role at our house.” But I didn’t, so I just shrugged off their incredulous looks and instead replied, “Yeah. My dad is pretty cool.”

My parents told me the same thing all parents tell their kids when they’re young: You can be anything you want to be when you grow up. Yes, all parents say this to their children. Unfortunately, I don’t think all parents really mean it. But that’s a different blog post. My parents, however, totally meant it. And they never said anything to me about the limitations I might encounter because of my gender. Until I was about fifteen, my only career aspiration was veterinary science. But if, as a child, I had told my parents that what I wanted to do with my life was get a bachelor’s degree, work as an editor, buy a house at the age of 25, and stay unmarried, I am about 93% sure their response would’ve been: “Cool.” Because my parents believe in supporting my decisions. (Or at least, if they don’t believe that, they do a darn good job of pretending they do.  Come to think of it, they are both skilled actors…)

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t believe that people can be or do whatever they want, and I have encountered some harsh instances of gender inequality in my life, most of them coming in the form of sexual harassment. For whatever reason, we live in a world ruled by men (you can’t argue that; it’s sociological fact); and, unfortunately, they often rule it with their penises.

From the time little boys are taught to pee standing up, they learn early on that their penises are powerful devices, able to be used for whatever purposes they can dream up. It’s why boys have peeing contests. It’s why the four-year-old I babysit once peed all over his bedroom. It’s why a young child a friend of mine used to babysit stood at the top of the stairwell in his family’s house and peed down to the bottom of it. It’s why men lord it over women that they can pee anywhere they want, any time they want, and we can’t. And it’s also why there’s so much phallic-shaped art in the world. Men get a kick out of drawing attention to their penises and what they can do. 

Contrarily, women are told that, because we have vaginas and because they sometimes bleed, that makes us unequal. After all, how can a woman who has wonky hormones once every month possibly be a good leader? Interesting logic, considering that male leader after male leader after male leader (including at least two beloved presidents of the United States) has proven that his hormonal tendencies are even more irregular – and often more frequent – than the average woman’s. At least with women, we can track it on the calendar and predict when hormones are going to get a little out of whack. With men, you never know.

It might be because a pretty girl makes eye contact from across the street. It might be because the wind blows a skirt up for a fraction of a second. It might be because a bra strap is showing (or at least, that’s what church camp said). Or heck, it might be because a guy stares at a blade of grass for too long and randomly springs an erection that has no discernible explanation. How often do men get erections? Healthy men, aged 25-50? At least once a day. I guarantee it.

Anyway, my point actually has nothing to do with who is better equipped to function in any given capacity, because people are equipped by natural or learned skills that have absolutely nothing to do with gender. So let’s not get further sidetracked by discussions of periods and erections. I guess my point is that this is a messed-up, completely broken world, and I’m pretty angry about the fact that I’ve experienced more than my fair share (if there is such a thing as a “fair share”) of sexual brokenness because of guys who thought they deserved to treat me and my body however they pleased, simply because my body exists, and because their penises communicated a desire to their brains.

And, honestly, I have wished in the past for those certain males to have something painful happen to their man parts. But that wouldn’t solve the larger problem, and anyway, in the interest of telling both sides of the story, there have been other instances when I’ve found myself in problematic situations and have made my own mistakes that I have had to take responsibility for. So I’m not pointing fingers at men or at women specifically.

am pointing fingers at the world in general. I don’t understand why it’s 2013 and the majority of women still earn lower salaries than men. Or why certain healthcare policies exclude or ignore women’s needs. Or why women compete with other women in any capacity other than pure athletics. Or why men still rape women (even their wives). Or why women still get cat-called or otherwise inappropriately addressed in public. I don’t understand it at all. And it makes me sad, and it makes me so angry.

But I’m grateful for the way I was raised as it regards gender roles (or the lack thereof, rather). And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be an aunt to a little girl whom I hope to teach early and often the truth about gender, and how that truth differs from what the world may try to tell her.

In some ways, feminism has been really good for this world, and in other ways it has simply made things more ridiculous, more difficult, more complicated. But my friend Karly articulated it well several days ago in a co-ed discussion about stay-at-home mothers. Feminism was originally about fighting for the right to choose, rather than the right to judge. If every person in this world was truly created equal, and if every person was truly created in the image of God, then terms like gender rolemisogyny, chauvinismfeminism, and sexism shouldn’t even exist.

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Good Aid vs. Bad Aid: Is There a Difference?

My post today is a reaction to this article, and you would better understand this post if you read that article first. (Go ahead – it’s short. I’ll wait.)

A friend of mine at work sent around a link to a blog post that had been written by his friend in support of the above article. My response is mostly to the original source and is not directed at the friend my coworker pointed us to – mostly because I want to get at the source, not merely someone who supports the source, but also in part because the friend’s blog post did not delve deeply enough into the issue for it to be fair for me to take her to task.

However, one thing she did mention is that people (mostly Americans) only support TOMS shoes because they get something out of it – namely, a cool pair of shoes. And that statement is what led me to read the original article and decide that I needed to sort out my thoughts via a written response. So here we go.

I have mixed feelings on the subject as a whole. I don’t think the desire for a cool pair of shoes is the driving force behind the TOMS consumers, but I could be wrong – after all, $50-60 for a pair of shoes is the only reason I don’t have any.

I definitely see where the Day Without Dignity campaign is coming from, and I agree that the issues being addressed won’t be solved until the systems are attacked. I think that is common knowledge.

But where the Day Without Dignity campaign fails is inclusiveness, and that is where campaigns like TOMS succeed. Companies that promote in-kind donations may not be fixing systemic problems or overthrowing the cycles that perpetuate these issues, but what they are doing is helping people learn to become globally aware. And while, for some, this might be a one-time, distant, “I did my part and I’m done” thing, for others it changes their lives and teaches them to live outside themselves, rather than just step outside themselves once in a while (in the form of donating food or money).

Campaigns like A Day Without Dignity do the opposite. They say, “change the local government;” “find a way to purify their water;” “clean up their soil.” Well, frankly, these are not things that just any ol’ Joe can do. These are things that will only be accomplished over someone’s lifetime of working for them because it’s not that easy. (If it were, there’d be clean water and soil and more stable local governments all over the world by now.)

And working for change like that involves it being a career – a lifestyle – and it’s not going to be everyone’s lifestyle. Not everybody is going to be a social justice lawyer or public defender or global diplomat or politician or whatever it takes to get to the root of a system and change it. So people who want to help but do not have the education, background, intelligence, finances, or whatever else to be a part of huge, systemic changes turn to campaigns like TOMS, where at least they can continue to cultivate that outside-themselves mindset rather than do absolutely nothing.

A couple of other terms this article throws around (or maybe some of the articles associated with it – I’ve clicked so many links by this point that I can’t remember) are “good aid” and “bad aid,” and these terms rub me the wrong way. I don’t think I agree that there should be a distinction made between the two, especially because it vilifies the spirit with which the aid is given (not to mention the person giving it). Aid is aid. After all, if one child’s life is changed because a pair of shoes was given, how can that be called a bad thing? If one family is able to keep its electricity and water running for another month because a sack of groceries was donated, how can that be a bad thing?

It seems to me that instead of working against each other, these campaigns (and others) could work in tandem and accomplish a lot more. (After all, how many different clean-water campaigns are there? What if they all joined forces and worked together?) I appreciate the purpose behind the Day Without Dignity campaign, but I am having trouble appreciating the attacking/mocking spirit with which I feel it has been led.

That article also has a four-minute video on the subject. The video spends the first two minutes talking about how donations strip these people of their dignity and hurt the local market because handouts are competition for local economy. Okay, I get that. That’s a great piece of information to have, and what truly compassionate human being would be okay with continuing an action that has such negative impact (assuming these claims are true)? But then I started to get irritated because my thought was, Okay, so what’s next? What’s the solution? How can I help in a positive way?

I felt hopeful when the video transitioned then and seemed to be about to tell me how I could help. But then I got frustrated again when it didn’t. It provided vague, general answers like the ones I already mentioned above (government, water, soil) – the kind of broad, big-picture answers that limit my ability to be helpful (and even my desire). The video says to educate myself on what the locals need. “Ask a local” is one of their suggestions. Really? Ask a local? I live in Kansas City. For many reasons, I cannot just choose a random phone number from the World Phone Book – one from Cote d’Ivoire or Ethiopia, for instance – call it up, and say, “Hey. What do you need besides shoes? How can I help?”

Another solution suggested was to read blogs or books authored by locals. And again, I ask, really? First of all, if they are in need of help, who of the locals is taking time (and money) to write a book about the kind of help they need? This seems more like something a concerned investigative journalist would be doing, so why would I not look there first? Second, finding a blog written by a local isn’t as easy as it sounds. (I promise – I just spent half an hour trying.)

The last solution the video provides is for me to stimulate my own local economy. Now, I know that stimulating local economy is trendy and cool right now. And for a good reason. But as a solution to how we can help a global problem, I fail to see the correlation. How does me helping to line the pockets of a Kansas City entrepreneur help a small country in Africa get a more stable government? Or cleaner water? Or better schools? I’m not being mocking here – I’m honestly asking because I don’t know, and if this is such an obvious solution, then clearly there’s something I don’t know about the  business world.

Except for Chai Shai, a local restaurant I support because the food is delicious and because I can walk there from my house, I am not aware of how local KC businesses are helping fight international problems. (Chai Shai has a tip jar that clearly states that all tips/donations made will go to help Pakistan flood victims and refugees.) But unless other businesses make it obvious to their consumers that they are doing something like that, I kind of thought that all their proceeds went either in their pockets or right back into their own businesses. Which is fine – but remember, my point is that I fail to see how that (i.e., stimulation of local economy) helps solve a majority-world problem.

Since my coworker sent the email and link originally to our entire department at work, I replied all and sent most of these thoughts back as a response that I hoped would stimulate intelligent discussion amongst the group of us. Unfortunately, not one person (even the person who’d sent the original email!) replied to my response, and none of them even acknowledged that I had responded.

I really wanted some discussion on this topic. So then I shared my thoughts and the link on Facebook with a friend of mine with whom I’d discussed a thread of this subject very recently. He also did not respond. Thus, I am putting my thoughts a third time to a larger audience to see what happens.

And by the way, I am going to take one suggestion from the video to heart. I’m going to research something I’m interested in and see if I can find a reasonable way to help: education and specifically illiteracy. I hope to report back in a post later on about my progress, but I learned a long time ago not to make promises or guesses about the kinds of blog posts I will feel like writing in the future. But just know – I’m going to make an attempt.

So how about you? What are your thoughts on this topic? Or, if you’ve found a solution that works for you, what is it?

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The Crippling Burden of Fear: Reflections on Japan’s Tragedy

As you will see if you are not Google Reading (or email subscribing), I’ve added a new feature on my sidebar, one I’ll update on a regular basis depending on what I’m currently reading. Because I tend to keep a bookmark in multiple books at a time (I’ve never been the girl who packs too many clothes for vacation because she doesn’t know what “mood” she’ll be in each day; I’ve always been the girl who packs too many books.), some of the books on this list will stay there a lot longer than others. For instance, you’ll notice that two of the books are classics, and they are indeed numbers 2 and 3 in my 12 Classics project. So they will likely stay there longer than the other three, one of which I actually did already finish last night.

Tonight’s reading pleasure drew me into what has so far been a fantastic novel, told from the perspective of a dog. I absolutely promise it’s not cheesy at all. (And by the way, why nobody recommends these kinds of novels to me, I will never know – come on, people. You know I love dogs.)

The book in question is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. This is one of those books on the cover of which it is necessary to include the words A Novel in lieu of a subtitle, lest potential readers mistake it for a memoir or some other nonfiction book that would be impossibly boring (like a how-to manual explaining the particulars of actually racing in the rain). Given that it is a novel, though, the title is rather clever, and the book itself is certainly engaging. I was tipped off to its existence by the NPR Books Facebook page, which has been a book-recommendation enlightenment, to say the least.

So this afternoon I was thinking about a specific issue I wanted to flesh out in writing. I decided to put it on the back burner for a few hours, but when the substance of this very issue presented itself in the pages of the book I picked up tonight, I decided it was time to get the thought out.

Here is the quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain that goes so well with the thoughts I was chewing on earlier today:

The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles…in order to triumph. A hero without a flaw is of no interest to the audience or the universe…

So this afternoon I was thinking (as everyone has been the past three days) of Japan. I watched a really horrifying video of the tsunami waters rising to unbelievable depths in a matter of minutes.

We’ve all heard of floodwaters so strong they engulf everything in their path as they rage along their fated course, right? But I bet not as many of us have witnessed such a terrible event in person, and I bet even fewer of us have stopped to comprehend what this really means.

For instance, when I have heard statements like this in the past, I’ve merely imagined something akin (but perhaps on a lesser scale) to what I figure the biblical flood would’ve been like – a basic submerging and washing out of everything (or most things) visible. Houses submerged. Cars submerged. Multiple-storied buildings perhaps half or partially submerged. The usual flooded basements and underground dwellings and, in especially tragic circumstances, some truly ruinous above-ground damage.

But, whether consciously or unconsciously, and maybe as a result of my lack of experience with or exposure to truly disastrous natural occurrences, my mind has always imagined scenarios in which everything stays where it is. Everything gets sort of swallowed up by these raging waters, and yes, things get ruined, but everything stays put.

But that is not at all what unfolded before my eyes during this horrific, six-minute video of the tsunami in Japan. The obvious things were swept along with the waters – anything untethered or freestanding fell victim. But so did bigger, heavier things, like giant trucks and 15-passenger vans. This tsunami water was a different animal entirely, with a current so strong it was not only engulfing and sweeping away these less than rooted things – it was quite literally having its way with the town through which it surged.

I watched as the perspective of the camera turned toward a shop with some displays still hanging in its windows. The camera held steady on the spectacle as the water effortlessly opened the doors of this shop and swirled inside, effectively destroying everything in those front windows, of course, along with any other inventory that would’ve been in there.

Fittingly, the most disconcerting and climactic event happened during the last 30 seconds of this film, during which an entire building – think, community center, rec center, some sort of public place of gathering or business of some kind, this huge building – suddenly detached itself from the ground – intact, foundation and all – and floated on top of the floodwaters like nothing more trivial than a child’s dollhouse. I watched for a few more seconds as the tide carried it in the same path as everything else, and I thought, What happens when it reaches a tight spot it can’t fit through? It’s just going to crash into something – forcefully!

The camera, for the briefest of seconds before shutting off, then trained its eye on a group of spectators on the other side of these torrential waters, standing and staring as their entire lives were literally uprooted and carried away before their very eyes. That is when the video ended, and I was left with the indelible memory of a) this enormous building floating along purposefully and swiftly – someone’s livelihood, most likely – sure to meet a crashing doom with someone else’s livelihood not far down the road; and b) this group of stranded, desolate people who must be wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do now.

And I uttered a prayer for them and for everyone in Japan (and everyone worldwide) who has been affected by this horrible, awful catastrophe, this “natural” disaster that is at once everything that defines natural but also completely and incredibly and terrifyingly unnatural at the exact same time. And then the next prayer I uttered, before my conscience could keep me from it, was, selfishly, for myself.

And then a very interesting (and revealing) conversation with the Holy Spirit (or God, or Jesus, or whichever member of the Trinity you’re most comfortable imagining conversations with) ensued (my thoughts in italics; divine response in parentheses):

God, please keep me from encounters of such disaster in my life.
(My word, what a selfish prayer. You’d better amend that, Audra.)
Okay. God, I apologize for my fear. But in the last five years of my life, it seems like the number of “natural” disasters has increased dramatically over anything I can ever remember happening at any other time in my life, and I guess I just feel like there’s nowhere to run; there’s nowhere to hide, and eventually, if they keep up at this rate, I’m going to end up being personally affected in a very deep and scarring and hurtful way. And I’d like to avoid that.

(Wow. Well, nice job staying self-involved. But consider this: When you moved into your neighborhood and people asked you if you feared for your life or your personal safety, you often flippantly answered, “If God deems it my time to leave this earth, he’ll take me whether I’m in the suburbs or the desert or the heart of the city.”)
Yes. What’s your point?
(Well, you have arrogantly boasted of your trust in the Father when it comes to the matter of your death.)
Yes. Again, your point?

(Well, what of your trust in the Father when it comes to your life?)

It was at this point that I realized that my fear is not death. In the middle of the United States, here in Kansas City or down in Oklahoma City, where I spent seven years of my post-high-school life, the climate-related disasters are usually of the cyclonic variety. I realized that I have no fear of being killed by a tornado. If that’s the way I’m going to go, so be it. Death holds no power over me.

My fear, however, is of living through a natural disaster. My fear is of survival. My fear is of rebuilding. Of things not being the same. Of financial uncertainty and insurance nightmares and the loss of material objects that seem crucial to my existence – my car, the shelter over my head, my tax papers, my means of identification – of proving that I am who I say I am. Worse than this, my fears are of surviving alone – losing my family, my friends, my place of employment – heck, even my dog.

I guess what I was really praying for when I pleaded, Don’t let disaster come to me was, Don’t test my strength of character. I like to believe that I have a strong and independent personality. But I don’t want to be put in a situation where I have to find out for sure. Because what I’m really afraid of? Is that I have no reserves. No tough to “get going” when the going gets tough. No resourcefulness, no deeply buried strength or independence or integrity. No tenacity.

So, in the hours since I had this revelation, my prayer has changed once again to something more earnest and more frightening (for how much trust it requires): Take my fear, my weakness, my instability. Help me be not afraid.

During one of my family’s many hospital vigils near the end of my grandmother’s life, my aunt Leigh and I were taking our turn sitting with my grandma by her bed. My grandma squeezed my hand and whispered so softly that we  both had to lean in to hear her, “I’m afraid.”

And my aunt Leigh, without missing a beat, squeezed her other hand in return and said gently, “Do not be afraid. Do you know how many times the Bible tells us not to be afraid?” Slight pause while my grandma shook her head. Leigh continued, “365 times. That’s one for every day of the year.”

Easier said than done, that’s for sure. But part of my Lenten commitment this year is to learn to be present; to empathize; to help shoulder some of the very heavy burdens that others less fortunate than I are being forced to bear.

Because, as my friend Danielle said the other day, “That’s what we’re all here for anyway, isn’t it? To help each other.”

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The Difference a Zip Code Makes

About four months ago, I edited an article we published at work on one of our websites. This article discussed the problem of injustice and how we can become more aware of the injustices around us, since awareness is the beginning of action. The author of the article, Sarah Arthur, a valued voice in the world of youth ministry whom I greatly admire, said, “Change your zip code.” She went into detail about how simply moving into the neighborhood gives us new eyes and more genuine compassion. It compels us to care about injustices because they aren’t happening to someone else. Sarah posited that when you change your zip code and move into a neighborhood where injustice runs rampant, those injustices become a part of your own life. They happen to you too. You own them.

Sarah’s article inspired me, and here is my response to it, some of which I sent to her.

I did change my zip code—not because I had the specific intent to become aware of injustices (or even to do anything about them—at first) but because I wanted to purchase my own home.

To the dismay of my parents—who (understandably) don’t like to imagine their 26-year-old, unmarried, youngest child in precarious situations—the house I found that I fell irrevocably in love with, the one that felt like home as soon as I stepped in the front door, was—is—located in an urban part of town, where violence and poverty are both prevalent.

I’ve lived there 8 months now and have gone from never dialing 911 in my life to not hesitating to call when something happens on my street. I have lived by myself for more than four years now and have always felt 100% safe. Now I feel 100% reliant on God for my safety. My house has been broken into. I’ve cowered below my bedroom window with the cops on the phone while peeking just over the sill to watch someone shoot a gun and two guys get into a fistfight at 3am on the portion of the street directly in front of my property. People have been arrested in my front yard.

What a wakeup call it has been to live where I live now. Most of the time, when I tell people where I live, they blink and ask, “Really??” I live in a neighborhood where the color of my skin stands out pretty starkly. And ever since I moved in, I have been confronted time and time again by prejudices I didn’t even know I had—latent prejudices drilled into me by the suburban school, economic, and social systems in which I was raised. Some of these prejudices have even been fostered by spiritual institutions. They are prejudices so natural feeling and so deeply ingrained that I don’t even realize they are prejudices until I’m standing in conversation with one of my neighbors and silently wondering, Did he break into my home? Or walking my dog(s) down the street and fighting the urge to cross to the other side to avoid passing closely by a dark-skinned, hat-wearing, baggy-pants-clad strange young man.

My point is, changing my zip code has revealed to me how much I have to learn, how far I have to go, how much space there is for me to grow. My intent in moving in was not to become aware of injustice or to do anything to help. But my worldview has expanded since I moved in, and God has slowly been working on my heart ever since so that, maybe, heightened awareness might lead to a desire—maybe even a need—to do something.

Thus far, my desire to get to know my neighbors has battled with the knowledge that I need to be smart about my personal safety. As a young, single, and somewhat small white girl, it doesn’t seem particularly prudent to go knocking on strangers’ doors all by myself. But God has provided small opportunities here and there for me to open up.

In the fall, I befriended Jackie, the crossing guard for the elementary school across the street. She parks her car right outside my house and stands on the corner at the end of my walk. Often, in the mornings, Soren has run down to the corner to greet her, and he is the reason I met Jackie in the first place. Our conversations are short and superficial, sticking to surface-level topics that can be covered in the 45 seconds it takes Soren to do his business. But every morning that she is there, she never fails to say hello to me, and I call her by name, hoping to communicate by doing that the message that she is valuable and important and worth remembering.

Over the course of the summer I befriended a young man who lives in the house behind mine and often walks up and down the sidewalk in front of my house. His name is Antwon, and I have wondered a time or two what his story is because he often walks alone, early in the morning, and mumbles to himself. I don’t think he has a job, and many days in the summer, I came home from work to find him throwing a football in the field across from our houses. Always by himself. So I don’t know if there’s something going on there mentally, but our conversations are often stilted and sporadic. We jump from topic to topic, sometimes without really finishing what we started discussing. But Antwon makes me feel welcome in the neighborhood. He has asked me on more than one occasion how I like living there and even once asked me, “Where did you grow up? Because you sure don’t seem like you’re from around here.”

But the main reason I’m intrigued by Antwon is that I think he goes unnoticed most of the time. Just like with Jackie, I call out to him by name whenever I see him. One day I had just come home from work and was climbing the steps to my porch when I happened to turn around and see Antwon shuffling along on the sidewalk, as usual. I called out, “Hey, Antwon! How are you?” He stopped and we chatted for no more than five minutes.

But when we said goodbye and I turned to go inside, he called to me, “Hey. Thanks for saying hi to me.” I told him of course and then had to rush inside so he wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.

Keeron and Keevon (not sure of the spelling) live next door to me. They are in third and fourth grade, and they like to tease Soren. They are really sweet boys with a penchant for mischief, and I really hope they are receiving a good education and upbringing so their mischievous spirits don’t get them into serious trouble when they’re teenagers. One day Soren and I spent an hour outside with them in the front yard. I gave them tips on playing with Soren (he likes to fetch), so they took turns finding big sticks and throwing them across the yard for Soren to chase and return. They told me about the costumes they wore for Halloween and how on Friday nights they like to go out for pizza and a movie (I assume with a parent or guardian).

It’s been a slow process, but God knows how to handle me, and he has been gradually molding and softening my heart toward my neighbors.

And this morning, I experienced a neighbor’s selfless kindness for the first time since moving into this house. The snowplows were on top of things this morning after the 6+ inches of snow we got last night, and when I went out to try to go to work, I found that my car was buried in mounds of snow. After I spent 30 fruitless minutes trying to free my car and ultimately getting it pretty badly stuck (and sitting sideways in the road), a neighbor walked down from a house up the street with a shovel. He efficiently dug my car out of the drifts. I thanked him profusely and drove away fast because I was late to work. As I turned off my street, though, I mentally kicked myself when I realized I hadn’t gotten his name. But I won’t soon forget his kindness.

On Saturday of this week, I’m getting a housemate. A male. (When I told one of my friends this, she said, “Eeee! You’ve always wanted to live with a boy!” And this is true. I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a guy roommate. But that’s beside the point.) The point is, I hope that living with a guy will help me make more progress in my quest to befriend my neighbors. I hope that having some muscle mass living under my roof will embolden me and encourage me to go more out of my way when it comes to having conversations with people on the block, learning people’s names, and generally being more of a friendly presence on the street. I don’t want to be simply “that little white girl on the corner with the little black dog.”

So how can you help? Pray for me. Pray for Jordan (my new housemate). And pray for my neighbors. Sharing life and attempting to foster community is not always easy. But it’s exactly what I want to do.

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