Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
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The heaviness that settled over my chest that morning was as dense as my husband’s weighted blanket tangled around my feet. I kicked off the covers but the anxiety wouldn’t lift. It was one week into the Coronavirus crisis that had settled over our country like a dense fog.
It started on a normal Thursday when I picked the kids up from school. Headlines were trickling in about rising virus cases in the U.S. but when news came that afternoon of immediate school cancellation, we all felt sideswiped. The torrential news that followed overwhelmed me so that one week later I was lying under its weight.
Shame was another layer of heaviness over the anxiety. My husband still had a job, something I couldn’t say a month and a half earlier. I already worked from home so, while days now became a complicated balance of work, entertaining and educating the children, and keeping the house quarantine-clean, I still was able to work. We had the ability and privilege to stay home; others weren’t as fortunate.
My heart grew heavy with worries for friends stuck abroad or separated from their family, others who had to leave everything to return to their passport country, and our friends who still work among the rural poor and refugee communities in Bangladesh—the truly vulnerable. We had it easy compared to what we could have known had this happened a year ago when we were still living in Dhaka. The guilt said, “Shut up, you have nothing to complain about!”
But my children’s eyes told another story that shattered my heart. They were no strangers to living in limbo. While many of their friends in their suburban Georgia school were learning lessons for the first time about battling uncertainty in highly scheduled and planned lives, my children had become pros in the last few years. And their little hearts were weary.
hey were just six and eight when we told them we were moving to India. Once the shock abated, they were excited to dazzle their friends with stories of monkeys and cows in the streets. The first blow came when we were delayed by a few months due to visa issues. Then, after both my husband and I had quit our jobs in the U.S. and our house was ready to go on the market, the path to India completely collapsed.
Our lives became a series of delays, cancellations, rerouting, and waiting. Throughout the journey to our new home in Bangladesh and unexpectedly back again, we learned the hard way about living in the land of the unknown.
Living in Bangladesh, our family learned what it felt like to feel socially distant—separated from our family by 8000 miles but also from our neighbors by a language and cultural barrier. We knew loneliness well. Monsoon rains and protests would keep us isolated in our flat for days. We were constantly adjusting to new norms and the coursing emotions of culture shock that would strike unannounced. Our son asked us weekly when we would return to life as usual, longing for the familiarity of the U.S.
That was…until we told him we would be returning “home” after just a year and a half. Then he cried, “but Bangladesh is home now!” The bittersweet swirling of emotions didn’t end when we returned to our passport country either. We stepped into what we thought would be life as usual and found that we couldn’t ever go back. Georgia didn’t feel like home anymore and we had to start all over again. We then struggled through eight months of my unemployment and were barely a month into discovering a new normal…that the pandemic had upended again.
I was telling a friend how it pained me to see my kids plunged back into the void. My son’s angry outbursts masked his frustration at being isolated once more. My daughter’s thinly-veiled anxiety at possibly never going back to the school she was just becoming comfortable in was obvious when she emerged late at night, unable to rest.
“Write about it,” my friend said. “Everyone is feeling the strain of the uncertainty now, too. Tell them what you’ve learned.” And, you know, it made me feel so much less alone to think of it that way. We’re all in suspension together and no one is going to come out of this current crisis unscathed.
All of America is learning what it means right now to live in transition—stuck between the life they knew and an unknown future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and each day there is plenty of fear waiting to tighten its stranglehold on us. This isn’t a transition any of us chose. But as I preach the lessons to myself that living in a state of limbo taught us, here’s what I know...
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My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
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