Mother May I?

I’ve waited for most of my life for permission. For what? Everything. As a child it was permission to stay up late, permission to go outside and play, permission to order a coke instead of water.

As a high schooler it was permission to stay out late, permission to quit piano lessons, permission to drive my parents’ car.

In college there was more freedom, which always creates a little chaos in the beginning; trying to figure out your newfound freedom, finally liberated from the rules of home! But there was still permission needed: permission to take a course not in my major of choice and still get credit, permission to turn in an assignment late, permission to be let into the secret sorority of sisterhood that was going to define my college experience.

I got into the sorority, granted full access to lifelong sisterhood and camaraderie! But my junior year of college when I couldn’t keep up with the payments, I no longer had permission to stay in the sorority, shortening the length of “lifelong” to the end of the month when the next payment was due.

Post college, freedom abounds. Sure, there’s things like rent and groceries you’ll have to figure out how to pay for, which may limit some of your choices, but you’re young and optimistic and “there’s always a way!” Until you move back home, back under their house, their rules. Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time before you’re back on your own again!

The second time I moved out of my parents house, I found a nice little place… in rehab. Rehab made my parents house seem like Woodstock (or Coachella, depending on your age); it was day in and day out need for permission. Permission to use the phone, permission to walk on the treadmill when you didn’t have permission to walk outside, permission to go to the bathroom. I healed a lot in rehab, but I also absorbed more of the mindset that other people knew better than me. I mean, really, can I trust the fact that my bladder is telling me to go, or should I wait for someone to let me know it’s okay?

Aside from the rules of growing up, secret societies and rehab facilities, the greatest permission I’ve felt I needed since first popping onto the scene of life, probably sounds the silliest, but runs the deepest: the permission to exist.

I’m not exactly sure who it is I’ve always felt I needed permission from to just be myself, but the suspicion that I couldn’t has been around for as long as I’ve been shaving my arms, which is the 6th grade when the other kids started calling me Tween Wolf.

Post college and rehab and Portland, Oregon where I did a small stint as a flight attendant before getting fired, I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to find the right career and finally do what I always loved: art.

Though I had given myself permission, when I started working as an artist I felt like I still needed permission to even be a part of the art scene, to even call myself an artist. Permission from myself seemed liberating, but certainly not legitimate, especially because there was this confusing thing to figure out that most artists don’t think about when they deicide to paint for a living: business.

I needed to sell art, but I also needed to struggle as all the great artists do. I needed to make money to be taken seriously by clients and consumers, but I needed to be poor to be taken seriously by artists. The best thing an artist can have when first starting out is friends, who support them and encourage them and remind them that they matter when the world tells them they don’t. The worst thing an artist can have when first starting out is friends, because what friends want is a deal.

While I sell my art sometimes, I get requests for my art all the time, and more often than not, if it’s a friend or a relative, or a friend of a relative, they ask for the “friends and family discount.” If they don’t ask, they simply don’t respond once I give them an honest price point for what my work costs. Prior to getting married I didn’t date enough to get ghosted by men and understand how it really felt, but once I became an artist, I grew to know the feeling all too well.

While the art scene was hard to feel a part of, it was a doggie daycare compared to the comedy scene. Who would have thought that of all the professions in all the world, comedy would be one of the most difficult to be a part of? There’s not really a school for it or a degree for it, you either “got it” or you don’t. On top of which, if you got it, you better be willing to play small for the sake of respecting seniority and knowing you need to stay on the bottom for a while before the powers that be (which is more often than not, a middle aged white man) even considers letting you near the top.

Much like with art, there is a dance with comedy; you have to be funny enough to win the crowd, but not too funny so as to rub the other comics the wrong way, especially the ones who can book you for more shows, those are the guys whose egos you have to look out for. As a woman you have to be grateful for every opportunity, all the time, making sure you credit the men for being the ones who gave you a shot. Every time you rightfully earn a bigger opportunity than a man, you have to accept the fact that it’s only because you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry that is trying to diversify, and certainly not because you are actually funny enough to hang out with, let alone surpass, the big guys.

And whether it’s been surfing or writing or trying to be taken seriously in fantasy football (which honestly didn’t go so well and I can accept my weaknesses in that area), so many feelings have revolved around permission and feeling like I just don’t have it.

To be clear, no one said I don’t have permission, I’m not blaming a specific industry or group or sex, necessarily, I’m admitting my own mental strongholds. In therapy it’s called processing, unfortunately in a blog it’s just called complaining. But I’m not here to complain, despite what it may sound like. I’m simply strapped for cash on the therapy front and just need to sort through some thoughts so they don’t stay stuck in my head and dictate how I live my life.

I didn’t have some huge breakthrough today, other than realizing when I visualize permission, I do often visualize it coming from a man. I don’t know why. From early childhood we’re taught to play “Mother May I?” not “Father Can I?,” so where does this need for a man’s permission stem from? Maybe I’ll save that one for someone who’s at least licensed in therapy. And it doesn’t mean “down with men,” it might mean that just maybe I have some blindspots around the notion of permission, and the person who’s been holding me back the most isn’t actually a man, but me.

And mixed in with my false sense of permission and lack of feeling like I can belong, I’m also aware of my privilege. I know that’s a buzz word these days, “privilege,” but not for no reason.

I have to admit, for someone who still feels like they are flailing in life, it feels awkward and uncomfortable to call myself privileged, I find myself wanting to be defensive. But maybe if I were a little more willing to check what the defensiveness was about instead of just function out of it, I might find clarity, or perhaps a peace that passes understanding all of it. 

When I step back and look from a wider lens, I can see how in some ways, if not many ways, yes, I am privileged. The thing about privilege is that it’s not an all-in-one package deal. Privilege in some areas doesn’t mean you come fully equipped with self confidence, and the ability to walk through any door you please; it doesn’t even come with the feeling of belonging.

Privilege is interesting because while it’s supposed to, it actually doesn’t guarantee success or status or that people will even like you. Privilege has helped many people do a lot of things, and it has also not helped at all, clumping you in its category with all the others, “Privileged.” And after all those years of trying to say something, trying to matter, trying to be accepted, by who? Who knows, who even cares! You realize, especially now, no one wants to listen to someone who’s been afforded privilege. 

And so what else can you do, but make fun of yourself so it stings less when someone else does.

I realized a while back that in order for me to believe that other people’s voices matter, I have to also believe that mine does; it seems counter-intuitive to the service over self mindset, applicable in many situations, but not all. How you treat people externally is a direct response from how you feel internally. When I have seasons of hard work and confidence in my own craft, I am not threatened or jealous by another friend, or even frenemy’s, success… I celebrate it. I want that to be my norm, a celebration of people for who they are and how far they’ve come.

I want to own my privilege and my struggle, dismissing neither, using the former for good and the ladder to raise awareness. While it’s easy to say things like “you are only as stuck as you choose to be,” a great pin for a Pinterest board, and I don’t disagree, sometimes choosing isn’t all that simple. Sometimes there are factors beyond our control and our choosing, like mental illness, disease, poverty and addiction.

The other day I heard a woman say, “my dog chose me” when asked where she found her furry friend. Other than being slightly annoying, it was a beautiful sentiment, but I wondered if we treat people with the same sort of grandiose cuteness in regards to mental health, “I didn’t choose my illness, it chose me.” Would we believe them? This coming from someone who is happiest when she’s sad and confused when she’s happy, not sure if she has permission to be happy when she’s been diagnosed depressed.

These days I genuinely have more good days than bad, which I’m incredibly grateful for. I’ve mastered no life hacks, but I’m working on giving myself permission to be myself, regardless of the day or degree of its goodness.

I booked my first comedy show in my new city for this weekend and while I am excited to perform, the panic has officially set in. I’ve missed performing during the pandemic, but I did not miss the anxiety coupled with it, especially as someone who has no trouble finding something to be anxious about. The tendency to self-sabotage is strong with this one.

I’ll spend the next couple of days convincing myself that I’m good enough, smart enough and doggoneit, people like me!

And then hopefully by Saturday I will have annoyed my own reflection so much with my daily affirmations that I’ll have to get out of the house and verbally process somewhere else… like the stage I’ve been given permission to take. In this case, I would be the only one stopping me from doing so.

I’ll let you know if I get in my own way or if I kindly give myself permission to show up… the verdict’s still out.


Elderly Love Part 2

 (Continued from previous post)

Aunt Jackie did a double take in the middle of her generic hello when she clearly realized it was my mom, “WELL HEY! Oh my goodness, it’s so good to see you!” My mom pointed to herself, “it’s Lydia,” she said. “I know it’s you,” Aunt Jackie quipped like how dare you think I don’t know.

“And this is JJ!” My mom pointed to me and I pulled my face mask down for her to see. “JJ!” She yelled, “JJ! WHOOO look at you, JJ! Great Scott!” I remember Aunt Jackie saying “Great Scott!” long before I ever heard Doc Brown say it on Back To The Future. She repeated back to us what we said to her, so we still weren’t entirely sure if she fully knew who she was talking to, after all, it had been three years since we’d last seen her, and things were getting more “fuzzy” back then.

The three of us sat silently for a moment all looking at each other, the Golden Girls still playing in the background. Aunt Jackie put her hand on my mom’s knee, “Pawleys Island,” she said with her slow Southern draw. My mom and I looked at each other as if to say she knows! We both got emotional. Our hometown of Pawleys Island was Aunt Jackie’s favorite place to visit. She loved the ocean and made annual trips with her own group of golden girls to soak up the sun and salt water. “That’s right,” Mom said, trying not to cry. “You lucky birds,” Aunt Jackie said.

I told her we had just come from Pawleys Island, “don’t say it too loud,” she said, “people might get jealous.” Already she was off to making us laugh. “Did you get in the water?” she asked. “Yes, JJ did, she went surfing,” Mom said. “She went to what?”

“Surfing, she went surfing,” Mom said, and I added, “in the ocean.” Aunt Jackie sat back in her wheelchair, raised her eyebrows as if she finally processed what we had just said, “that’s an ugggly thing for you to saaaay in front of me!” We both laughed and she asked if the water was cold, “it was freezing,” I said. “Oh!” Aunt Jackie took a sip of her coffee, “then I won’t feel so bad, ah ha haha!”

Aunt Jackie’s laugh is just as classic as her Southern accent, a much more sophisticated Phyllis Diller type laugh (and more enjoyable to listen to, in my biased opinion, but it has tones of the Diller cackle in it). As an old school Southern woman of devout faith, Aunt Jackie would die if she knew I compared anything about her to Phyllis Diller.

“So what have you been up to?” Mom asked. “What have I been up to?” Aunt Jackie repeated back as if it was obvious, “this!” she said, “this is what I’ve been up to… sometimes I move over there, or over there” and she pointed to different spots in the sitting area, “but mostly I just sit here and they roll me around wherever I need to go.” We laughed at her sense of humor about it, but also knew it must be hard to live confined within the walls of a place you can’t leave.

“It’s okay though,” she said, “most people just sit around here until the end, but not me, I’m busting out of here soon.” She nodded her head as if to say you know what I mean? and took a sip of her coffee. We laughed at the thought of Aunt Jackie busting out of assisted living. “Well if anyone can do it, you can,” I said.

“Yea,” she agreed as she nodded, “there’s a two-way highway right out front of this building. The only problem is, once I get there, I can’t figure out which way to go!” Mom and I were rolling in laughter. “Well tell me about the children,” Aunt Jackie said, “there’s one of the children right there,” and she pointed to me. Mom told her all about the kids being grown up, some married, some dating, one with a dog. The dog is what most excited Aunt Jackie, “Ohhhh, tell me about the dog! Now, what kind of poochy!?” We told her all about my brother’s corgi and she responded with “ooooh how cute” to each detail. She told us she had a dog but could’t remember her name. “Claudette,” mom said. “Who?” Aunt Jackie asked. “Claudette, that was the name of your dog.” It didn’t seem to ring a bell, Aunt Jackie shrugged, “well if you say so!”

I later found out the dog’s name was Tallulah, so both Mom and Aunt Jackie had a little memory slip there, but at least Aunt Jackie remembered what her dog’s name wasn’t. She told us about her horse, Solomon, who died 20 years ago but she seemed to think it just happened. “I think they did something to him,” she said, convinced that someone had prematurely put her horse down. This was where her memory was “fuzzy,” she clearly remembered things, but the order of events was disoriented. “I remember Solomon,” I said, “we used to ride him with you.” She looked surprised so I pulled up an old picture I had saved on my phone of my sister and I riding Solomon, Aunt Jackie standing beside us. Aunt Jackie gasped, “Oh! there he is,” and she began to mimic kissing the picture, “mwah mwah mwah, oh I love him so much.”

“I think they did something to him, you know?” and she sat silently for a moment as she thought about it. We weren’t sure who she meant by “they,” but it was clear that though the memory was fuzzy, it left an impression. After talking about Solomon for a while she asked about the children again. Mom went through and told her about each of us again, a little less detail than the time before, but included the part about the dog. “Ohhh, tell me about the poochy, what kind of dog!?”

The longer we stayed the more obvious her lack of memory became. She was sharp in that she could remember stories from her childhood, stories from our childhood, and pretty much anything we would remind her of, but where her memory failed was by the time we finished talking about a topic, she’d have forgotten we talked about it.

Aunt Jackie pretty much helped raise my dad, who’s own parents were always traveling as music evangelists with Billy Graham, America’s Preacher back in the day. Generations now don’t really know him, but any generation my mom’s age or older tend to have an idea of who he is. He prayed with every America president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, my grandad always at his side.

Aunt Jackie started as my Granddad’s secretary, but quickly became a caregiver to the five children who grew up with a dad the whole world knew, who’s own children barely knew him. That’s another topic in and of itself, and there’s been peace and resolve made about that. I only bring it up to say, Aunt Jackie was just as a vital role to the family as a parent or grandparent to all of us. With all my grandparents now passed, she’s the closest thing I have left to a grandmother. She’d never accept the title grandmother though, “it sounds too old,” she’d say, so much like my dad called her when he was growing up, we’ve always called her Aunt Jackie (despite her being the same age as my grandmother).

I showed her all the pictures from when she worked with my granddad and Billy Graham, she remembered all of them and gasped with delight at each picture. I got to a picture of Billy Graham kissing me on the cheek, “this was at Nana’s funeral,” I said. “Who’s funeral?” she asked. “My Nana, Bille Barrows.” She sat back with a look of shock, clearly remembering who but not quite remembering that she passed. “Where was I?” she asked. “You were there,” mom said. “I was?” She asked with a sigh of relief, “okay good.”

It didn’t dawn on me that with the order of events being fuzzy, it might overwhelm her to know who of her friend group wasn’t around anymore. Aunt Jackie is one of the last ones left from the generation of friends who poured into our family over the years, having long outlived her husband, but she didn’t seem to notice. Probably a blessing and a curse, to not remember, there’s a sadness in the sweet memories not being there, yet a gratitude to not relive the pain all over again.

“Well what else can you tell me?” Aunt Jackie would ask, trying to think if there was any news she hadn’t heard yet. “Well what do you want to tell us?” Mom asked. “What do I want to tell you?” Aunt Jackie asked, “about what?” “About life,” Mom said, “if there’s something you’ve learned about life that you’d want us to know, what would it be?”

Aunt Jackie paused, “now I’m thinking, which is dangerous, but I gotta think.” She looked around the room and then looked at my mom and I, “don’t take life too seriously. Everything doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Just enjoy it,” she said. We agreed that life should be enjoyed more, which was humbling coming from a woman in a wheelchair at an assisted living facility.

“Do you want to tell her about your comedy?” Mom asked me. I proceeded to tell her I was a Stand Up Comedian, “Oh I love it!” She said. I explained to her that my sets included stories about her, “I always tell people about Aunt Jackie!” She laughed, “Ohh, don’t tell them everything!” I proceeded to show her my clip from Dry Bar Comedy where I tell everyone about my great Aunt Jackie. She needed me to repeat the punchline, “what’d she say?” when she heard the audience laugh. I retold her what she had said to me so long ago about how to be an artist when I grew up, “just get married and then you can doodle all day long!” She laughed hard at her own advice, “you can,” she said.

I recorded most of our time with her, and my mom recorded me showing her my Stand Up clip. It’s footage I’ll treasure for a long time.

Before we left she made one last declaration, “As for me and my house,” I was certain she was getting ready to quote scripture, “I’mma blow this pad first thing, you know!” We all laughed and she looked at my mom, “ain’t that right?”

I don’t have resolve for this post. We left on a happy, high note. I was so glad we had decided to make the trip. But it’s never as simple as leaving the facility and moving on with your life, well, it is and it isn’t. I still think about her being in there, alone in the sense of not with family or friends anymore. She had a whole life that looked so different than where she is now, all of it changed merely by the aging process.

I think about my own parents and what the aging process will look like for all of us one day. I even think about my own 98 year old self, wondering where I’ll be and if I’ll even make it that long. I hope to remember my husband, and yet I can’t imagine living without him should I surpass him. He knows, however, that if I die before him, he’s getting in the casket. “You coming with me,” I joke.

I over processed the whole visit on our drive home. I’ve thought about it for days after. Yesterday I re-watched the footage while laying on the couch and I heard Aunt Jackie say again, “don’t take life so seriously, just enjoy it.”

I sat my phone down, got up and put on my shoes to leave. “Where are you going?” My husband asked as I headed for the door. “I’ve been sitting around long enough, I’mma blow this pad!”

I went for a walk in the cold air, warmed by the sun, and I simply enjoyed it.

Elderly Love Part 1

A few years back I got to film my first comedy special in Provo, Utah with Dry Bar Comedy. It was a unique situation for me given Dry Bar’s religious affiliation. They don’t promote anything religious, in fact, you wouldn’t even know they were (except for maybe the name “Dry Bar,” meaning no alcohol- even at the bar), but I suppose that is the beauty of a company who can hold their own values without forcing them on someone else. I appreciate Dry Bar’s approach… they don’t ask other people to be religious, they just ask that everyone be respectful of what they value if you are going to perform on their stage. Fair enough.

It was unique because given certain religious values, you had to not only work clean, but their version of clean, which is a little cleaner than church clean. I work clean, so I wasn’t technically worried, but their version of clean knocked out at least three of my favorite bits, none of which are dirty, but perhaps a little suggestive and leave room for you to imagine what I may be talking about. There was no room for imagination with Dry Bar, there was only pure, unadulterated fun… along with no alcohol.

I had to do some rearranging, which really wasn’t too difficult, in part because of who would end up taking center stage of my material given the omission of at least three big bits. The new focus of my material would be less about awkward dating situations in my 30s, and more about my slightly senile 98 year-old Aunt Jackie. I hear a lot of comedians do jokes about their kids, and while I’m sure children produce golden material for parents, I don’t have any kids, so I can’t count on a kid saying the darnedest thing to put in my act. In recent years, after spending time with my Aunt Jackie, I realized I didn’t need kids to make good comedy, because it’s not just kids who say the darnedest things… so do the elderly.

I’ve always loved the elderly, had more of a heart for them than kids, which is funny to me because part of what I love is how childlike they can be at such an old age. For some reason childlike at an old age is more endearing. Childlike at a child’s age is just normal, sometimes annoying.

For as sweet as it can be, I know there can also be really difficult things about the elderly reverting to a childlike state, losing their memory, forgetting who people are, or even who they are… it’s hard.

In processing aging parents and memory loss with an older cousin of mine, she shared that her mom (a different aunt) had put a tide pod into her Keurig machine. Thankfully, she was caught before she drank it. While my cousin tried to keep her mother in her own home for as long as possible, it was getting too dangerous for her mom to be alone at all. Fretting over whether or not she was doing the right by putting her mother in a memory care unit of assisted living, her mom kept showing sign after sign that she couldn’t be alone, like walking the dog with an electrical cord.

They had pictures up all over the house, her mom constantly asking who these people were, “these people” being her kids and grandkids. Physically, her mom was in great shape, which perhaps made it even more dangerous as she’d wander off outside and walk down the street until she got lost, not knowing where to return home to.

“She stopped living after my dad died,” my cousin said, “she stopped engaging, stopped going to activities or meeting up with friends, it’s the isolation that I think took her memory.” The day they took her to assisted living she protested, “you can’t leave me here with all these old people!”

We laughed and we also felt sad. “You laugh or cry,” my cousin said, “so sometimes you just gotta laugh for it to all feel okay.” I realized I didn’t want to make fun of the elderly, but I wanted to make light of a hard situation, especially for the families going through the aging process with their elderly loved ones. Sometimes you just need to laugh, not to avoid what’s hard, but to be able to endure it.

When I shared my material about Aunt Jackie in my Dry Bar set people loved it. “We want more Aunt Jackie,” people would comment, along with things like “women are not funny.” But amongst the trolls and their insecure criticisms of other people were compliments and love for essence of Aunt Jackie.

My special came out in fall of 2019, which meant a few short months later the world would shut down due to COVID. The last time I saw Aunt Jackie was the time I shared about in my comedy special, just a few months prior to the performance. She was also living in a memory care unit of assisted living, diagnosed with dementia. Aunt Jackie had no idea she was a hit, and two years later, she may have had no idea who I was at all.

This last Monday my mom and I made a trip to finally go see her. Between COVID, COVID restrictions, and long distance there always seemed to be some reason for why we couldn’t quite make it. Knowing her time was limited if for no other reason than age alone, we made the trip.

We were warned before going to see her that she may not remember us at all. We prepared ourselves mentally but held out hope that she would be the same sharp and witty Aunt Jackie we’d always known, loved, and quoted over the years.

Once we were in the facility, we walked down a long hall passing door after door, most of which were wide open, revealing elderly men and women, some of whom were asleep with their mouths open, some of them reading or watching T.V. As we passed a door where a woman was reading a magazine I heard her yell out, “Dolly Parton is 75 years old!” She wasn’t talking to anyone so much as just remarking out loud. I love Dolly Parton, so naturally I lingered to see what the old woman was going to say, she did not disappoint… “What the hell am I doing in here?”

When we got to Aunt Jackie’s room, her door was slightly open. She had a roommate who’s bed sat next to the door and Aunt Jackie was nowhere in sight. “Hi,” my mom said, “we’re here to see Jackie Wallace.” Her roommate pointed towards the bathroom, “she’s in the tub.” By herself? we both thought, is that allowed? “She knew she had company coming,” her roommate said, “so she wanted to wash up.” Well that seemed like a good sign, at least she knew someone was coming.

My mom and I waited in a sitting area just down the hall from their room. After about five minutes we heard all the nurses making a fuss, some even arguing about a lost patient, probably a frequent argument in a memory care center. My mom and I gave each other that look you give someone when something awkward happens but you can’t say anything- it’s all in the raised eyebrows.

After another five minutes or so my mom whispered, “I hope she’s okay.” I said I’d go check again. I walked back to her room and peeked in when a nurse noticed me and asked if she could help me. “Yea, we have an appointment to see Jackie Wallace and her roommate said she was in bathtub so I wasn’t sure how to go about checking to see when she’d finish.” The nurse had an A-HA look on her face, “Oh my God, that’s where she is.” She rolled her eyes as if to say “duh,” and said they had been looking for her. “Why no one checked the bathroom is beyond me,” the nurse said, “I’m sorry, we’re usually a little more put together than this.” Apparently Aunt Jackie was the missing patient the nurses were trying to locate, she remembered she had guests coming, but didn’t remember she’s not supposed to bathe alone.

The nurse had someone go in and help her finish while we waited in the sitting area. The Golden Girls were on the big screen T.V. and it felt like too perfect of a setting. Rose was making omelets for the girls without the yolks, “so we don’t get too much cholesterol,” she told Sophia, but she hated to throw all the yolks out, so she decided to bag them up to give to the homeless. “Your heart’s in the right place,” Sophia said, “but I don’t know where the hell your brain is.”

There couldn’t have been a better quote to sum up a memory care center.

“And here she is!” A nurse said as he rolled Aunt Jackie into the room. She started to say a generic hello, one that every southern woman knows; you act pleased to see someone even if you aren’t sure how you know them.

Would she actually remember us, or possibly pretend like she did? “HEY!” my mom and I yelled, and we pulled down our face masks just to see if our faces would ring a bell.

To be continued…

the freedom to be confused

I woke up from my nap and did what I normally do after I wake up from a nap… I went to the bathroom, ate a fig and checked Facebook. As I was finishing off my fig and scrolling through the Facebook feed, my only source of news these days, I noticed an odd looking picture of who I thought was Tina Fey. “Well she looks different,” I thought to myself as I looked at her slung across a couch in a navy blue dress. I looked closer… “is that her?” I squinted and decided someone photoshopped her. “Why are people always photoshopping people!? And why would anyone photoshop Tina Fey!? People are crazy!” And then I asked God to give photo-shoppers something else to photoshop other than people.

But then I read the title above the picture of the photoshopped Tina Fey and I realized it wasn’t an altered Tina Fey but an altered someone named Caitlyn Jenner. “My bad, Tina,” I said, “I didn’t know there was a Caitlyn in the family.” I knew enough news to know the name and assume it was someone related to Bruce Jenner, but clearly not enough news to realize it was not someone related to Bruce Jenner, but Bruce himself. “Wait,” I said as I looked closer, a little confused and unsure if I was seeing things right. I don’t really know what rock I’ve been under but this was the first time I had heard of Bruce Jenner becoming a woman, so I was shocked, because that’s what shock is, a sudden (or violent) disturbance of the mind, emotions or sensibilities (according to the dictionary). And so when I say I was shocked, I don’t mean it in a judgmental or appalled kind of way, I just mean I had no idea all of this was going on, leading to a sudden disturbance of what I thought I knew to be true in my mind… that Bruce was a man, then suddenly (to me), he wasn’t.

And so, if I can be allowed the time and space to be honest about my initial reaction to Caitlyn Jenner, it was neither love nor hate, which seemed to be the only options in regards to a response, it was just shock. I didn’t have words of praise or slurs of hate, I had questions. I want to clarify that they are questions because I’m curious, not judgements because I’m disagreeing or failing to celebrate with everyone else. Call me the party pooper, but it’s hard for me to party when I don’t understand what is going on.

I think people are afraid of asking why. I am. From a young age we are sort of taught not to ask why, even if not directly. When a kid asks why to everything, they simply want to know something, but all too often it is found annoying or to be a silly question, and even if disregarded nicely, a kid can easily pick up on when they are being a nuisance. Asking why is a nuisance. “Why?” you hear a kid ask. “Because I said so,” you hear a parent respond. I don’t have kids and so I don’t want to turn this into a parenting post, I just want to address the fact that it would seem many of us learn at a young age to stop asking why. But if we stop asking why then we stop thinking for ourselves. I think. Even If I don’t get an answer, I would like the freedom to at least attempt to understand why people do what they do, in part to understand humanity, because I’m human and I’m trying to understand my own self. And in part to understand God, for as much as one can, as I’m beginning to think I’ve had Him or Her all wrong for a really long time… at least the part about Him hating the people I hate.

At first I felt bad for having questions. I felt bad that my initial response was to ask why Caitlyn did it, as if asking why implied that I was judging her for doing it. But I took a step back before shaming myself for not jumping on the band wagon of political correctness and social acceptance, and I treated myself as if I was still that little girl who always asked why in response to any and everything. Instead of responding to that little girl in me with “because I said so,” or “because they said so,” I treated that little girl as if her question mattered and I allowed her the time and the space to be confused about something. After all, the whole reason that little girl always asked “why” in the first place was because she wanted to understand, not because she hated.

This is why I think it is dangerous for us to stop asking why, because it means we’ve stopped trying to understand, and trying to understand someone is a way of loving them, or at the very least doing well by them even when it’s hard to love them. I might not have wanted to praise Caitlyn Jenner right off the bat, but it doesn’t make me a bigot or judgmental… it makes me a girl who wants to understand where another girl is coming from.

As I processed all of the information I read, and all of the responses to the information I read, I found layer upon layer of things that I had a hard time with, and none of them had to do with the Bible. In any shocking news event you’ll find three types of people; the loving liberals who love everybody but hate the Christians, the Christians who hate everybody but love God, and the Christians who hate those Christians. Basically, it seems like you need to figure out if you love or hate the person or topic at hand and pick a side. But as I watched people take swings at each other and at God, I realized that regardless of who you are and what you believe, we’re all capable of love and guilty of hate, and I think many of us have lived out of our guilt more than our capabilities. 

I allowed myself to sit in the tension of asking why. If given the chance to sit with Caitlyn, instead of telling her what I think of her, I would want to ask her why she did it. Why did she feel the need to change who she was? How could she trust her feelings to make such a decision? What was she so unhappy with before that becoming a woman would solve? Was becoming a woman the ultimate fulfillment to whatever emptiness she felt in being a man? What did it mean to her to be a woman? What did it mean to her to be a man?

It was when I got to these last two questions that I started to feel more uncomfortable with my feelings because I realized I was starting to feel a little angry and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t want to feel angry. We have enough angry Christians and I don’t want to be one of them. I want to love people, not hate them, but feeling angry wasn’t hating, right? And what does it mean to love people, what does that look like? Does it mean to not ask questions? I think if you love someone, you do ask questions, you get to know them. Okay, I assured myself again that asking questions was okay, but what happens when you start to feel angry in response to some of your questions; perhaps this is why people avoid asking questions, they want to “keep the peace” by not stirring any uncomfortable emotions or prolonged uncomfortable conversations. But instead of avoiding my anger, I paid attention to it. Why? Why is it there? Why do I feel angry? It can’t be for no reason, it can’t be personal to Caitlyn, I don’t even know her. She is clearly stirring something that is already there, but it’s not about her, it’s about me. Or is it about her? I couldn’t tell.

I went back to look at the pictures of her and I felt angry. But I didn’t feel angry because she used to be a man. I felt angry because she changed everything about herself in order to be okay with herself. She manipulated every part of her body in order to be “free” and she got a Vanity Fair cover for it and over 2 million followers in about four hours. And why did she get such praise for all the plastic surgery and body manipulation? Because she used to be a man. Not only was it okay for her to change her body, but it was considered brave. It was brave because she used to be a man. I’m just trying to compute all of this.

Growing up as the runt of the litter, insecure and depressed, sometimes still hoping to hit puberty so I can fill out a bra, I tried to change my body so many times it eventually landed me in treatment. I’ve been hospitalized on more than one occasion for the things I did to my body all because I didn’t like it, and never once did the word brave come up. I was put on all sorts of medication and processed every hurt imaginable that could have possibly led me to such a violent eating disorder. Wanting to change everything about me meant something was wrong with me, not that I was brave. I’ve never liked my body. That is so hard for me to admit. I still don’t like my body. That is even harder for me to admit. Millions of women don’t like their bodies, resulting in eating disorders and plastic surgery of all kinds, and yet we rip them apart for being so shallow. So I started to feel angry.

Why is it that a guy who gets plastic surgery is considered brave, but a girl who gets plastic surgery needs to learn how to love herself? I feel like I’m back in high school… the guy who slept around was cool, but the girl who slept around was a slut. There’s a double standard going on that is being missed because everyone is so caught up in either being politically correct or religious. Plastic surgery is brave so long as being male is involved in the equation, be it that you started as a male or are changing into one, but getting plastic surgery makes you the brunt of every joke if you are a female remaining a female. I can’t help but wonder if people realize that they are only enabling gender inequality in their praises of a man becoming the same type of woman that millions of other women try to become but get made fun of for it. If Caitlyn Jenner had already been a woman and just gotten plastic surgery, I don’t think she would have been considered brave and on the cover of Vanity Fair. And I’m not saying that against her, I’m saying that against the media. And as a woman, this bothers me.

I called my best friend, Anna, to talk it through with her because I had so many feelings about Caitlyn. I felt so personally affected and I didn’t understand why. Anna had said when all the hype wears off and the party winds down, Caitlyn is still going to have to face Caitlyn and whatever it was that she was so unhappy with to begin with. “No matter how hard we try,” Anna said, “we can’t get rid of ourselves.” “I know,” I said, “I’ve tried, maybe that’s why I’m so upset, because I’ve tried to change what I’m unhappy about with myself, but it was considered unhealthy instead of brave.”

When I am most honest, the girl in me still wants to lose 15 pounds, at least, which is ridiculous. But there is a lie I believe that if I lost 15 pounds I would feel more like a girl and I think I would be a little more happy with my body. And if I’m stepping out further into the truth, if I could afford plastic surgery, I’d get a boob job, but I can’t, so I opt for weight loss, because desirable girls are either stick thin or incredibly curvy. I am neither. I’m a pear, small up top, bigger on the bottom, stuck in the middle between not too thin and not too thick. I am what I’ve always been afraid of being… average. And as I’ve tried to be the girl who I feel like I am inside, the one I’ve seen pictures of all my life that tell me what it means to be a girl, as I attempt to step out and not be average, I’m not considered brave, I’m considered shallow and in need of a therapist. Why? Because I’m just a girl who wants to be a different girl.

“I have to be honest,” I said to Anna, who knows my struggles and my recovery stories, “I still hate so much of my body,” and before I said anything else I started crying. In my tears, the revelation hit me. “Oh my God, I think that’s why I’m so upset.” What I saw today wasn’t someone being brave for being their true self, what I saw was another depiction of what it means to be a woman and what it is men desire... a busty, full-figured woman, popping out of her corset, posing in her underwear. Brave? That picture and the praise for that picture fed into every lie that I believe about myself as a woman, that I’ll never be desirable because I don’t have a perfect body and I can’t afford one, and clearly that’s what men want… either to have for themselves or become themselves.

“That’s not what it means to be a woman,” Anna said in regards to the Vanity Fair cover. “I feel objectified that that is how she represented her womanhood. If that’s what it means to turn into a woman, I have no place in that,” Anna said as she told me about her love for tools and building furniture, which didn’t make her any less of a woman. Caitlyn is a reflection of Bruce’s view of womanhood, and honestly, I wasn’t okay with portraying womanhood in a corset and underwear, nipped and tucked, primped to perfection and photoshopped… all of this done so that a woman could be true to herself. It’s all so very confusing, which isn’t a judgment call, just a fact.. confusing. And honestly, heart breaking. Even as a female, I looked at the former Bruce Jenner and thought to myself, “I’ll never be able to be a woman, I just don’t have the body for it.” And I cried. 

My beef is not with Caitlyn or Bruce or the liberals or the Christians, my beef is with myself and the role I have played in believing the lie that being a woman is about having big boobs and a small waist, posing in my underwear, wearing high heels and red lipstick. My beef is mostly with the media, but also with myself for the ways in which I have treated myself and own body because of what I believed it meant to be a woman. My beef is with myself for thinking changing my body is going to change the condition of my heart. It’s not. I can’t get rid of me, so how do I learn to love me without having to change everything about myself in order to love myself? Perhaps this is why I would want to talk to Caitlyn, I want to ask her why she did it. Did she not love herself? Did she not love her body? And if she didn’t love her body, did changing it fix what she thought it would? And does she think “change your outsides to match your insides” is a good message? Was she given room in a safe place to talk about how she felt inside before thinking she had to change the outside? What would she say to a girl with an eating disorder who hated her body? Why is body mutilation okay if you are transgender but not if you are solely male or solely female? Again, not judgements, just questions, because I’m curious, and yes, I’m upset, but I also want to understand. Attempting to understand Caitlyn, or anyone transgender, would seem to be the most loving response possible, much more loving than disregarding them, right?

I want to understand, like my friend Anna said, “why as a Christian is it not okay to stand up for the sacredness of your body?” And I don’t even think you have to be Christian to consider your body an epic vessel. Our bodies are miracles, but rarely do we treat them as such, we usually find what is wrong with them and adjust accordingly. Which is perhaps what furthered my tears… I get why celebrating the emancipation of Caitlyn is a big deal, but I think it’s also a big deal that Bruce had to be killed off in order for Caitlyn to be set free. If every body matters, then Bruce mattered/matters too. Why was Bruce not okay with himself? In the process of all of this, wasn’t Bruce hating himself? Why do people seem okay with that? Why does it seem like people are quick to either praise another objectification of women or condemn a man for not being himself, but no one is really taking the time to make note of that fact that in that person on the cover of that magazine is a very hurt person trying desperately hard to fix something that a gold medal couldn’t fix and neither will the nip and tuck of a sex change. Becoming Caitlyn won’t fix Bruce’s brokenness anymore than getting a boob job will fix mine. I might feel better for a few days, maybe even take a selfie just to finally give my ex something to look at, but when the hype wears off and I’m left with myself, there I still am. And I feel crazy, I feel crazy because I feel alone in how I feel. I feel like I’m just supposed to accept things so as not to offend anyone. I feel like I’m not allowed to ask questions or express my opinion, unless my opinion agrees with the masses. And for as brave as she may be, I think Caitlyn is still confused as to what it means to be a woman. A woman doesn’t need to reveal her body to be a woman.

And while I’m sure it must have been hard for Caitlyn to feel like she was living a lie her whole live, I can’t imagine it not feeling at least a little hurtful for those closest to her to realize they’d been lied to their whole lives, even if not intentionally. The family seems to be responding very politically correct, and while I’m sure they do love Caitlyn and support her, it would also be okay for them to be hurt too, to be sad. To grieve the loss of Bruce wouldn’t make them unsupportive or unloving of Caitlyn, to grieve the loss of Bruce would make them human. Whether or not anyone wants to say it, the Jenner kids lost their dad. If in fact Caitlyn is solely a woman by association, she is not a father (by gender definition), and it would be okay if any of those kids were sad about losing their dad. And the same goes for Kris Jenner, Bruce’s ex-wife.  I hope Kris knows it is okay for her to be sad and confused and angry, just as any wife would be if they found out their husband had been lying to them their whole marriage. Kris’s sadness or confusion or anger wouldn’t make her a bigot, it would make her a human who’s been hurt by another human. I hope for the sake of her own healing, Kris is grieving the loss of Bruce. Bruce is worth grieving. We all are, because we’re all miracles whether we see it or not. Mostly, we don’t.

I don’t have any answers or solutions or advice. Mostly I just have questions. Maybe that is my advice, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Instead of jumping on one side or the other because it’s easy, start asking the really hard questions. Don’t be afraid to wait for the answers. Don’t be afraid of the silence or the awkward tension you might feel when you start asking tough questions. You’ll start to notice that people aren’t comfortable when you ask why and I think it’s because we’ve always settled for “because I said so.” Don’t settle for that anymore.

I know that we are all called to love people, but realistically, what does that look like? It’s cute to say, but what does that mean? Defending Caitlyn Jenner’s womanhood on Facebook while failing to acknowledge a homeless person’s personhood that you won’t make eye contact with doesn’t mean you love people. And likewise, feeding the homeless while condemning the transgender community as if it were your place to do so doesn’t mean you love people either. I don’t think any of us are good at loving all people, and I think that’s okay, we’re human. But our humanness doesn’t excuse us from trying to love them, or at least doing well by them even when we don’t understand them. Perhaps we could do well by people by trying to understand them and learning to love them when it doesn’t come easy.

Sometimes simply stepping outside of all the arguing is what is needed. When Christians say we need to love Caitlyn, I agree, but what does that look like practically since we don’t get to interact with her? I think it looks like interacting with and learning to love who she represents… not just the transgender community, but people in general. People represent the wide gamut of people in this world, and Caitlyn is a person. People of all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds, all preferences, all religions… you can love Caitlyn by trying to understand someone you might not understand. Instead of trying to argue someone for the sake of being right, ask them questions. You might not only learn things about them, but about yourself, things that might make you uncomfortable, things you wish you had avoided asking because sometimes the truth hurts.

When I saw Caitlyn Jenner’s body it revealed the ugly truth that even after years of therapy and treatment and working with younger girls and teaching them to love themselves, I still hate my own body. Hating the transgender community won’t make me love my body more, and neither will hating women who have better bodies than me. I think when people hate people it is often because they hate something in themselves. It would be easy for me to say something is wrong with Caitlyn, but something is wrong with all of us. We all need to be saved, not from the devil, he’s already been defeated, but from our own selves. Jesus gets a really bad rap, but He offers to do just that, to save us from our own selves, but you have to find out for yourself and not believe me just because I said so. Start asking questions about who He is and why He did what He did. Don’t be afraid to sit in the silence or the awkward tension of feeling human and hearing from the Divine. If you asked Jesus what He thinks of Caitlyn, I bet He’d say He’s quite fond of her, just as He is of you… and me. I still find that hard to believe, that Jesus is fond of me.

For as silly as it sounds, I think this world could be a lot different if we all just started small by being nice to the people around us, including the person we see when we look in the mirror. That person matters, that body matters. Getting rid of that body won’t fix that person. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of yourself, and so loving your neighbor has to start with loving yourself. I know what it’s like to not feel at peace in your own body, and I know that changing your body will not bring you peace within. I honestly believe that having a sex change will not bring peace, but having a heart change will, which is not a judgement call, it is the opinion of  girl who tried to find peace by manipulating her own body only to come up short and unhappy and not at all considered brave. I might not understand being transgender, but I understand feeling trapped in a body you don’t like or feel like represents you, and yes, it’s miserable. I know what it’s like to be considered a woman but not really feel like a woman, mostly because I don’t look the way I’ve been shown I should look as a woman.

I wear overalls and can barely fill an A-cup. I don’t wear lip stick or shoes most of the time and I think Downtown Abby sucks (sorry, not sorry). I hate shopping and I am banking on there being one man left standing who is more into personality and the size of a girl’s heart than the size of her bra. And even if there isn’t one man left standing who’d be into a funny, small-chested, spit-fire and still-slightly-depressed-but-hopeful-enough-to-have-a-Savior type of girl like me, that’s okay.

I don’t need to be the object of a man’s desire, or the object of society’s desire to be a woman, I need to be me, the me who I was created to be, creative and curious, always looking for beauty in the brokenness.

I realize this post is all over the place and my thoughts are scattered, I wish it were more organized, and I wish my emotions were too, it’s awkward to feel upset and to care at the same time, but such is life, and the honest reaction of a confused girl who’s still trying to learn how to love herself and the people around her.

I’m going to allow myself the freedom to be confused, because you can be confused and nice at the same time. Caitlyn, I wish you the best and I hope you find a peace that passes all understanding, even your understanding of what it means to be a woman.