Sunday, April 5, 2015

when Jesus speaks our name

Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden, that Sunday morning. I’ve been reading and re-reading this passage for years, wondering and pondering and haunted by the vulnerability and intimacy it captures. Can you imagine being Mary, weeping outside the empty tomb? How grief wracks you and you need something to hold onto. These women, broken and impatient throughout the anguished hours of their Sabbath rest, longing to go find their Lord’s body and pay their last reverence, cling to what they had left of this carpenter from Nazareth whose life had changed everything. What were they supposed to believe when his death, again, upended the world?

I imagine being Mary, longing to just cling to his body and anoint him with my tears, and then he is gone. Again. And there is not even his body to hold, not even this final way to show my love. And I can feel the choking grief, the desperation.

How the darkness must have weighed. I wonder if she could hear her demons howling, rising up to choke her again. I wonder if she was terribly afraid that all the light, all the healing in her life would be gone with Jesus? They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.
Her healer and teacher that she had followed, her Lord, stolen away, and now she didn’t even have his body, the proof that he had been real and that light and love were possible, that the last few years of healing in her life had actually happened.

And then she sees Jesus and doesn’t recognize him, just again begging to find his body, willing to go anywhere to find him, when he’s standing victorious and humble before her.

And then the moment that makes me reel.

Mary! Jesus said.

What holy intimacy is this when he speaks her name?

We are told that we love him because he first loved us, but I think also we know him, because he first knew us.

Mary does not recognize Jesus until he recognizes her, calls her by name, and she knows it’s him, her Jesus, because no other voice could say her name like that.

She knew his voice. The voice that knew the names of her demons, and the face of her fear. She had been a woman acquainted with death, with a life that yawned black like the tomb, with darkness and demons inside.

Mary, called Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven demons. Seven, the Biblical number of completion. Her life had been completely consumed by darkness before Jesus, and then there was his voice, cutting through her prison cell existence and bringing light. The voice that with the Father had swirled the constellations into being, breaking into her life, calling her to freedom.

I don’t know her demons, but I know mine. Self hate, shame. Whatever her demons were, Jesus named them, faced them fully, went into the darkest corners of her soul and cast them out. He brought light into her shame and broke every chain.

She recognized him, because no one else could know her like that, through and through to the hidden broken places no one else could go, and no one else could love her like that.  Through and through.
Fully known and fully loved, isn’t that the cry of our human hearts? To have all our darkness seen and to be loved anyway?

And it was that impossible miracle that was in the voice of Jesus that morning, standing by an empty tomb. Full knowledge and full love, as he said Mary.

It was that love that conquered hell and death, in his voice as he spoke her name.

And she cries Rabboni, teacher. And I can picture her, falling to his feet and clinging to him as she’d longed to, but not to his empty body, but to the resurrected man: victory over darkness in miraculous human flesh.

Don’t cling to me, Jesus says, but tell my brothers that I am going to my Father and your Father, my God and your God. And she goes out, because what other response is there to a love like this than to proclaim it loudly to the word? This love that speaks into every crevice of our cracked and bleeding souls.

Come and see.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

joy is repetitive

Re-reading my gratitude journal is a strange re-living of joys, all jotted down hasty with my scrawling cursive impatient with happiness. Most entries brim with sunshine, but some recall late nights and anxiety, gripping to hope hard when the world is too big and too broken, choosing to hold onto and record the good.
But re-reading makes me laugh a little too, because who but me might find this interesting? My journal is terribly repetitive. I can’t count the times I’ve counted coffee cups and long conversations amongst my daily joys. They must be mentioned in at least thirty percent of my gratitude journal entries. I’ve become quite the proselytizer of this process of counting graces and the joy it gives. Sometimes people’s eyes widen at the mention of 1663 joys recorded, like who is this girl and what is her life that she’s got 1663 new happy things all the time?
But the truth is I don’t, just an endless recycling of the same happy themes, hugs and cuddles and dance parties and Jesus talks rejoiced in again and again. I’m not that creative. Flip pages and you can find verbatim the exact joy, “coffee in the morning with mama” colored with cold-fall air and brilliant leaves about, instead of the warm sand on summer toes coffee morning joy of months ago. 
And for me that’s been part of the secret; gratitude and “giving thanks in all things” is opening my heart this quiet, consistent joy. I’m learning contentment is not a great big searing joy, but delight in mundane joys in endless variation.

And the harder entries, the times when I had to fight hard to find hope in bleak days, those are some of my favorite to re-read. They’re more real, they’re a testament to the fact that God is truly teaching me to be content in whatever circumstance I am in. And I’m not always guaranteed coffee in the morning and days that make me want to dance, but I pray and write and hope that this journaling and joy counting becomes so ingrained that I can face the future with praise on my lips and pen in hand all my days. 

all photos by merry y. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

what skype and homesickness taught me about God

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know fully even as I am fully known. -Corinthians 13:12

Today I realized my relationship with God is something like a bad Skype connection.
After 3 ½ months in Cameroon, Central Africa, and looking forward to another 2 months of internship away from my family, I know something about bad Skype connections. I know calculating time differences and desperation to see the faces of the people I love, miscommunication and missing them by 2 minutes, lying awake in my mosquito net re-reading gratitude journal entries about family because I’ve run out of internet credit and Camtel isn’t open till Monday.
But I know also the joy of my Yaoundé balcony seat, curled up telling my family my adventures and worries; I know sitting shoulder to shoulder with my Kribi sister Marcelle, the unstoppable smiles as my sisters meet across the world; I know memorizing details in the middle of the market, storing up my best stories for them; I know how this stilted connection helps homesickness and makes it worse simultaneously, it’s a taste of the real thing that comforts and entices. I played catch up, splicing together their delayed image with garbled words, gathering enough of the gist to give joy but prolong frustration.

Because the fuzzy pixelated beauty of my baby sister’s face cannot compare to the moment when I was finally home and could kiss her chubby cheeks. Squealing with my sisters about boys and impatiently demanding they Skype the next day to give me the next installment of their current life-story meant I missed out on being physically there. But I was delighted to find that, a continent away, I was still very much a part of their life story, and they mine. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to get me through.
And that, I realized, is God. Through sunshine and coffee morning devotions, underlined passages and dog eared  Bibles, late night conversations with people who know my soul, tall pines and red needle carpets, I get little pixelated images, but I have to do the brainwork and put together the picture, the face of God in my life.

And these glimpses of God satisfy my soul and makes me more hungry at the same time, it’s a taste of the homecoming that’s coming, when he shall live amongst us. It’s realizing that all of history is leading up to the real homecoming that waits.

Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. -Revelation 21:3 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

how getting outside helped me get outside of self-hate

Yoga helped save me from self hate.

Learning to love my body has been a long journey. In high school, I used to fall asleep thinking about how ugly I was; self-hate and body-image issues haunted my life. When I discovered yoga and learned to windsurf, I took the first steps towards healing. Exercising had always seemed like a punishment to me, but I fell in love with yoga and windsurfing for the sheer fun of it, for the tension of sails and wind and water on my windsurf board, for the joy of holding crow pose two seconds longer, for the thrill of challenging myself and growing. I discovered that my body is capable of more than being looked at.
It’s through my body that I get to experience the world, I get to hug my baby sister, dance through fall leaves crunching under my bare feet, taste triple chocolate brownies. While loving my body for its own sake was still a long way off, I slowly began to appreciate my body for all that it allowed me to do. I began to exercise to celebrate, not punish, my body.  And eventually, the day came when I was able to appreciate my body for its own sake too.

I’m thrilled that this fall, the Annual Women’s Center “I Love My Body Day” on Wednesday, September 10th will coincide with a new social media campaign #girlgetoutside which encourages girls and women to engage in outdoor activities. As a participating college, we’re also using #sienagirlgetoutside to join the nationwide campaign. Join us. It just might change your life too.

I got outside; I got outside physically, I got outside of my comfort zone and challenged myself, I got outside of my prejudices about what “exercising” had to look like. Most surprising of all, this helped me get outside of the cycle of self-hate I’d lived in for so long. I’m signing my name on our “I love my body just the way it is” banner with a proud flourish, because thanks to God and getting outside, it’s finally true.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Dance class, I’m twisted on my back while pounding the floor with my fist, jumping and singing and stretching.
Coming home from class, the door is locked and my family in Dschang don’t have a second key. So instead of attacking the pile of homework I’m trying not to be anxious about, I curl up in the chair my neighbor provides (each of the three times it happened)  and instead listen to his playlist of Cameroonian and American music, and tell him how excited I am about the women’s day outfit I am having made.
Showering by the light of a non-electric flashlight because the electricity is cut, I’m just grateful that the water is back on. I was starting to smell after the water was cut yesterday.
Walking by the group of Cameroonian guys building a wall, when one guy holds out a hammer and asks if I want to try, I say yes for once and impress them all with my long-unused drama crew skills. Not to brag, but I’ve used a circular saw before, hammering a nail into thresh wall isn’t that hard. Being confident and comfortable enough to interact solo with a group of six Cameroonian guys is harder, but they are all friendly and we laugh a lot.
Saying bonjour first while walking down the street, trying hard to be culturally competent and aware. The “ma chères” I can handle, but it’s hard not to be freaked out by the half kissing/half hissing sound which is a perfectly normal and appropriate way to get someone’s attention in Cameroon. Especially coming from guys on the street, it’s hard not to feel degraded but I try because I know it’s just a cultural difference.
Dance class, power cuts, ambling walks, pausing to talk to everyone; they’re all teaching me flexibility. I think it’s one of the best things I will take away from this beautiful country. I knew flexibility would be required; it always is with new things. I was prepared to be flexible with different cultural approaches to time, with food and language and even myself. What has surprised me most was that I’ve also needed to be flexible with my own internal values. 
The very first weekend here, thinking about my reaction to constant comments on the street from Cameroonian guys made me realize I need a deeper type of flexibility. I would have to choose between two things I value deeply: Feminism and reform against objectification, and being culturally competent and respectful. Do I go all activist and campaign against what I see as harassment, or stretch myself to see another perspective (even if I disagree with it?) I want desperately to always defend bodily autonomy and integrity, that is one of my core values as a feminist, but I am also someone who wants deeply to respect and embrace other cultures. It’s a strange thing when some of your core values are in conflict with each other; it’s requiring a lot of thought and internal negotiation. It’s a dance that requires a flexibility of worldview, and  I am sure I will mess it up as frequently as I mess up in dance class, but I am going to keep stretching myself and trying. 

thoughts on walking home

I spent last weekend in Bamenda, one of Cameroon’s two English speaking regions. Speaking English on the street was a nice break for my brain, but it also made me more aware of street harassment.

            I’ve gotten used to the constant “ma
chère, ma chère/La blanche, la blanche” in Yaoundé and Dschang, but being able to fully comprehend everything enthusiastically shouted at me and my friends this weekend made the experience more intense. As we threaded our way through the dripping rain and busy streets of Bamenda’s main market (a colorful and hectic experience) we understood every word when asked “Can I find a wife amongst you?” and the repeated “I love you, you are beautiful, I love you!” shouted at us as we scurried away.

Usually, I miss a fair bit of it because of my French comprehension. But the language barrier is a good defense mechanism too, when I want to ignore a comment in Yaoundé or Dschang I often fall back on “je ne comprends pas” which usually works. Until, of course, that one guy who simply repeated distinctly in English “I think you are very pretty.” “Oh, uh merci.” But that still doesn’t mean you get to walk me home, and thanks, but give me back my hand I wanted to finish.
            Overall though, I have been shocked by how little it’s bothered me. Before arriving in Cameroon, homesickness, French competency, and verbal street harassment were my main worries. The times I’ve encountered street harassment in the U.S., I’ve felt a slimy sense of violation and a choking rage at my own vulnerability. Quite frankly, it makes me want to turn around and shout rather obscene suggestions for what they should do to themselves (because I certainly won’t). But while whirling around and shouting “fuck you” is my enraged urge, out of shock and fear I’ve never done that.

            But the harassing language I’ve either overheard or experienced in the U.S. is very different from what I hear walking down the street here. “I want your pussy, shaved or not” is a far cry from “ma chère, ma chère, tu es belle.” Men still don’t have the right to comment on my body, it is not here for their viewing pleasure or awaiting their judgment and affirmation. So while the comments here are much more innocent, I still initially objected to them.

            But my fifteen year old neighbor gave me a very good piece of advice while showing me around the quartier my first weekend here. I walked along soaking in the crowded, colorful streets, aware in my peripherals that as usual I was being stared at. Luic commented “everyone is looking at you” and I responded that it made me uncomfortable and so I just ignored it. He told me “They just want to know you. Just say bonjour.”

It’s good advice, and following it has made me realize several things: The street commenting really is cultural, and is usually not meant in a degrading way. “La blanche” is an overture for friendship. These days I actually “bonjour” people first.

I figure, well, this is quite literally a two way street. If Cameroonian guys stare at me because they think I am pretty, honestly it’s mutual. I think they’re pretty too, and I’m not sure how much that contributes to me not minding their appreciative reactions to me. But more importantly, there’s a fine line between appreciation and objectification, but the smile and quick head nod I often get is somehow very different from a slimy ogle which undresses you with its eyes. This feels like genuine appreciation, curiosity and friendliness.

But the real reason I “bonjour” people first these days is it puts me in charge of the interaction. I am no longer being commented on, like a prize pony in a horse show, I am initiating the interaction and firmly anchoring it in the realm of friendliness, negotiating any objectifying undertones by creating space for friendliness sans the “unwanted commentary” aspect. For me, it’s been a small way to embrace and respect Cameroon’s welcoming, people oriented culture without surrendering my agency. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy Month Anniversary, Cameroon

A month ago I was in the backseat of the SIT car, driving too fast through Yaoundé on my way from the airport to Benedictine monetary/hostel at the top of Mont Febé which was home for a week of orientation. I’m slightly addicted to driving too fast, and Cameroonians have this down to an art form. There was wind in my hair and a bit of dust in my lungs and the smell of heat and city, and just so much joy because I was finally, after four years, back in Africa.

Despite the relaxed Cameroonian attitude towards life/time, I still feel like I’ve been flying since then. I can’t believe it’s been a month already. There are so many thoughts and experiences I have wanted to capture, but I have been too busy living them to bother writing them down. My head’s constantly a blur of new information and impressions, but here is a snapshot of some of them over the last month:

          The sound of Annie, my host mom in Yaoundé, singing nonstop around the house. After just two weeks in Yaoundé, Annie’s lilting, not quite off key singing sounds like home. 
My shoe, vaulting over heads in the fancy nightclub when my 30 year old Cameroonian dance partner dipped me and whiskey and soda and his impressive dance skills made me mistakenly think that I, too, could dance. I proceeded to try a leg/kick/flip thing that I kind of learned swing dancing years ago, with unfortunate results.
·         Tonight, dancing around the living room with my little host sister.

·         Madeline, Justine and I bent over laughing, collapsed on the dusty intersection on the road to the SIT office in Yaoundé. When Madeline fell with her giant backpack when we were packing up for Dschang, and none of us could get up we were laughing too hard.

·         Omelets inside a baguette, baguettes with Tarentina, baguettes with dinner, a whole baguette eaten on the way home from class without even realizing it, marching through Dschang happily munching.

·         Luic, my 15 year old sort-of neighbor in Yaoundé, and the laughing head shake of incomprehension he has when my French is particularly horrible.

·         Swamp ass, all day everyday.

·         This feeling of complete awe at everything I have to learn. I know nothing and I want to know everything—the language, what books about women and Africa Professor Noupa thinks are best, how to wash my sandals correctly, at exactly what time in the afternoon you switch from bonjour to bonsoir (different people seem to do it differently) where the line between universal human rights and cultural imposition is drawn, what Annie wants to do here PhD research on (I asked once and then forgot and need to ask again), why the dirt is red, everything.

·         Skirt hiked up, squatting in the kitchen with my Dschang host sister, washing dishes and talking.

·         Wearing my pagne (wrap skirt) from Mali for the first time, and my Dschang host mom telling me I am a real African woman and wanting to explode with joy.

·         Simply walking through the streets being happy. It’s hard for me to stress here because it’s simply too beautiful. I’m too busy trying to soak in the noise of taxis and French and constant friendliness, and the aching vibrancy of colors and life.

·         Chopping onions for dinner, all of us dancing in the kitchen of the Yaoundé SIT office on student’s night. These incredible people who share their brilliance and stories of bowl movements with me, the fact that my host mom asked me who my best friend in the program was and I started listing people until I realized I'd listed everyone. 

Cameroonian traditional dance class and our dance instructor literally grabbing my leg and moving it for me because I fail at rhythm, the feeling of being ok with not being perfect, a miracle