Author: Bekah McNeel

Thinking about love, pt 8: desire

Like any good exvangelical, I have a complicated relationship to desire.

Growing up, believing that my essence was rotting, putrid sinfulness, I grew to assume that if my crooked heart wanted something, that something must be sinful. Be it fatty foods, a boyfriend, or to be acknowledged for my contributions. Even the act of wanting was illicit, in a way. Wanting something was a sign that I was discontent with what God had already given.

Desire also immediately calls up the idea of sexual appetite, which we evangelikids of the 90s were taught to DENY and SUPPRESS. So there’s that. Even the word “desire” sounds like it should be wearing a negligee.

I’ve left the doctrine of total depravity and purity culture behind, but every time I dip back into religion or spirituality of any kind, I run back into this fraught relationship with desire. The Stoics, the Buddhists, the Hindus…for all of religious history, they’ve framed desire as the great hindrance of spiritual enlightenment or virtuous living. It’s led me to believe that there’s something true about this common thread.

But at the same time, the best things I’ve given this world have been fueled by desire, by a deep hunger for something that is not yet fulfilled. I desired to be married, which led to the existence of Moira and Asa. I long, with my biggest emotions, to see justice and spiritual liberation for our world, so I commit work toward it. I crave time and space to write things that mean something to others and give them fuel for their own quests. I’ve told Lewis that I don’t really feel like myself unless I can feel desire.

So what is this potent, mystical force that apparently keeps me alive but unenlightened?

Eros- the life force

The current Yoda of happy monogamy, Esther Perel, recently posted this on social media: “Eroticism is not sex per se, but the qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive.” It’s the sense of being guided by something other than our will and reason. It’s the difference between running a marathon and racing to the door to greet the long awaited guest. The difference between climbing a mountain and free falling on a trampoline.

As someone who tends to power through most of life, always weighing and measuring and making sure things are in balance, it’s easy to see why I get such relief from the self-propulsion of the eroticism Perel is describing. To feel momentarily overtaken not by what I’m building, or what needs to be done, but by something that is whole and complete outside of me inviting me to partake of it. It’s like an additional internal person comes to my aid, but her whole existence is to desire. Otherwise she sleeps.

The idea of life-giving desire pairs well with the way Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s talk about Eros in their book Getting the Love You Want. It’s a pretty traditionally motivated book. Their goal: Help couples stay together and be happy. You expect to find a lot in there about commitment and work. And you do. But they also acknowledge the role that desire has in our choosing and learning our partners.

They describe Eros as the life force. The urge to be connected to the world (and its inhabitants) around us. To do. To know. To ask. To explore. To experience. To be loved. Not just with our minds, in theory, but with our senses. I would include in “the senses” that magical, intoxicating sense of another person’s attention or affection.

Eroticism, it would seem, is pleasure brought by something outside, independent of the feeler. It is a response, not an achievement. We experience an impulse to bring our whole selves into a connection with the thing that pleases us, but until the point of connection, is only an idea. Erotic desire, maybe all desire, is that conversation between the possibility outside and the reality inside.

Yearning- how to meet the depth of yourself

Until I was married, yearning was my auto-setting. Sometimes for a specific person. Sometimes just for connection in general. Not only for sex (remember, former evangelical here), but I yearned for love, to know and be known, to be wanted in return. I didn’t date after high school. Not in college. Not in grad school. Not after. I didn’t even experience temporary reprieves from the sense of deep, impossible loneliness and the ache to see it end.

I was desperate to end the yearning, but when I did (or rather when Lewis did) I realized that I had traded in a valuable way of experiencing the world and myself in it. Yearning had been, for me, the sense that was sharpened by the limitations of the other senses. It was miserable, but I was fully surrendered to it, and I was used to seeing my own darkest corners with clarity. In love and happiness they were softened by the haze.

There’s a a beautiful, complex cavern in the soul that only opens its passageways for ache. There are colors we can only see when they are splashed across our unmet desires, and the loves that we wish we had. Music sounds different when you can hear the frequency of longing. The hollow in your ribs contains worlds.

Queer writers write a lot about yearning, especially in contexts where their love is considered illicit. I think this perfectly captures the essence of longing, because it’s an unstoppable, even natural desire that doesn’t have the context to manifest. Virtue and reason are no antidote for yearning, because our deepest knowing is that the object of the yearning is irreplaceable, even if forever withheld. My colleague Ezra, in a gorgeous review of the latest Sufjan Stevens album, wrote this: “Queer yearning is a well-documented phenomenon. It’s evident in the music of Frank Ocean and boygenius, in movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Moonlight, in the experience of anyone who has fallen in love at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or with the wrong person. When love cannot be expressed, it must be felt from across the room. When partnerships are restricted by religion, culture, or law, they must be imagined instead of lived out. It’s no wonder why queer people do so much yearning. For many of us, it’s the only option.”

I’ve never been queer, but I’ve fallen in love at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong person(s). I have wanted things I wasn’t allowed to want. I’ve also been held in limbo before, not only waiting, but wondering.

It’s not that I want to go back to yearning, but there are nights when street lamps cast that certain light on the sidewalk, when it’s raining and cold and I’m running anyway, when a Bon Iver song comes on in a public place, and my sense memory for yearning comes back. I remember the shape of the cave, the brilliance of the color, and also the sharpness of the pain. Yearning was being alive in a different way.

And sometimes I still come alive in that way. Sometimes the sense memory shows up and I find that it has a landing place.

Yearning seems to be spiritually productive. Some mystical traditions—those more steeped in dualism that puts a separation between God and humans—use erotic language to describe the desire for God. They describe the not-yet of union with God in a fragmented world as a state of passionate desire. It’s awkward, frankly, but also stunning and arousing. It’s beyond metaphorical. It is the same process of becoming one that gives intimacy its sanctity. The act of coming together, of unifying, is itself sacred whether between people or with the Divine.

I was struggling with the Buddhist (non-dualist) idea of desire being the root of suffering, and a friend, who is a devout Buddhist, pointed out that it’s not the wanting, it’s the grasping of the thing, allowing possession or satiation of the desire to triumph over virtue, connectedness, and peace. Forcing something instead of letting it happen. For me, yearning is the experience of that desire without possession. It allows for stillness, waiting for the desired to arrive of its own agency. The work that it does, as it waits, is to expose more and more of ourselves to consciousness, opening more of us to ourselves and universal connection. The cavern comes to life, and we see that God is in there too.

Hunger- make the masters tremble

When I think of the conflicted relationship between religion, even nondualistic spirituality, and desire, it really comes down to control. The problem with desire is its strength. We use “want” in such weak ways in English, in fact we juxtapose it with “need” almost as a way of diminishing it. But when you change the word to hunger, it gives you a better glimpse at what the sages were worried about. Hunger isn’t something you can scold your way out of, like a parent asking their child whether they “need” a Nintendo Switch or whether they “want” a Nintendo Switch.

Our appetites, our hungers, are linked to our survival, and it is very difficult to tell where the needing ends and the wanting begins. It’s not always as clean as a handheld gaming device. Because we can’t not want food or sex, even if we can keep those wants within certain boundaries. Further, the ability to satiate our hunger is power. More power means that meeting needs and meeting wants become equally do-able, and thus, harder to differentiate. We’ve seen this unfold in places of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Unmet needs are stronger than rules, virtue, and altruism every time. Even when those “needs” are essentially the hunger of the ego.

When you think about it, eating and sex, our two strongest appetites, are the primary voluntary actions that contribute to the continuance of our lives as individuals and as a species. Of course they are strong urges. Of course they pose a threat to the boundaries placed by religion and spiritual practice. But I do wonder, and always have, if it isn’t about wanting things less—less food, less sex, less life—and instead wanting something else more. What if the check on our appetites isn’t renunciation, but love? What if the journey is about harnessing all that intensity into the service of love?

Energy- your warp and weft

It’s nice not to have to war within yourself between serenity and desire—so I see the appeal of living totally in that internal connection to source. But part of our spiritual work in the world is to be just that, in the world. How do we propel that work when the world is too big for one person to do it all? A well-attuned experience of desire has to be part of what guides us to the work we need to do. Not the only thing, obviously, or we’d all think it was our role to be a wealthy benefactor.

Theologian Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We discern God’s call by letting ourselves feel both desire and compassion. Be wounded by the needs of the world, and energized for healing by the craft, practice, and work that lights us up. We are all fibers in the tapestry, and the hunger of the world is the warp, the vertical thread that doesn’t move on the loom except to rise and fall with the heddle (the thing that moves up and down and keeps the warp organized). Our gladness is the weft that weaves in and out of the warp at different intervals to determine the design. That’s us. The weft, and our desires move us through the warp of life.

Ultimately, that’s why I can’t fully get on board with full relinquishing of all desire. It’s obviously nuanced and multi-faceted as I cultivate Eros, remember yearning, manage hunger, and direct my energy. And I think it’s good to be able to step into the all-fulfilling Self, into communion with God. As I kick off my next decade, I’m trying to find a little space where I can actually get a spiritual reprieve from my own intensity. Just to go deep into my soul, get a little breather, and then come back out to the world for more of the loving I need to do, and the desire that fuels it.

Thinking about love, part 7: nurture

Last Wednesday night, I noticed that Sir Fluffy Meatball, our six-month-old guinea pig, was looking a little listless. Nicknamed “Zoomer” the little guy was looking a lot less…zoomy… than usual.

By Thursday morning he was barely moving. Last night’s carrots sat untouched. He drooped over my hand as I lifted him out of the cage.

The kids had been back in school for one day. After two weeks off and endless holiday disruption before that, I had so much work to do. But instead I was going to spend the day finding a guinea pig vet (harder than you think), and then sitting with Sir Fluffy Meatball while they examined him, rectal thermometer and all. Then coming back two hours later to pick him up and sitting through the lengthy tutorial on how to syringe feed a 10-day course of antibiotics, pain meds, and liquid diet; how to bathe him while he was too sick to clean himself; how to keep him separate from his buddy, Snuggles; and what exactly I would be monitoring for in his scat. I am now an expert on guinea pig feces.

And then they brought me the bill. $300 on a $50 guinea pig. Not to mention the host of new supplies we will be buying now that we know Sir Fluffy Meatball is prone to bladder infections.

For a moment, my rational brain, the brain I have depended on to keep me safe and well-respected for so long, was enraged. The money! The time! Why does this crap fall on the mom?!?

But I looked at Sir Fluffy Meatball, our Zoomer, and saw the living, grunting manifestation of everything I’ve been learning for the last three months. So I write this with a little bit of liquid meal replacement smeared on my sleeve.

Not a Nurturer

I never thought of myself as a nurturer. Before I got married, I wouldn’t even get plants, because I didn’t want anything dependent on me. Part of this was internalized misogyny. I didn’t want to get sucked into the caring roles. I wanted to do things. Things that I’d been told women could not do…like think and communicate Important Thoughts. Argue. Get paid.

But more than that, as bell hooks has noted, care, strictly speaking is not the fullness of love. You can put food on a table, bandage a wound, or even donate blood to someone without being deeply invested in their thriving. You can do that stuff because it’s your job or your obligation. I didn’t want to be a caregiver, but even more I was loathe to give anyone access to my emotional and mental resources. To have my well-being linked to anyone else’s wellbeing was simply too vulnerable. But this is what the nurturing aspect of love requires, that link of life forces.

Thus, nurturing is inefficient and messy. It creates space for other people to not-yet-be-fully-healed and to take the time they need. It requires an unspecified amount of energy and an indeterminate number of resources. As someone with a very weird relationship to physical and emotional resources (living in constant fear that they will not be there, but also not doing anything to stockpile them because it also feels outside my control), giving someone access to me as nurturer felt very scary.

To me, good relationships meant independence. Two beings who didn’t need each other, deciding to gift one another with discrete acts of love and friendship. The Japanese proverb “there are formalities between the closest of friends” was for me, the ultimate ideal.

Wait, Maybe a Nurturer in Spite of Myself

Then I met a series of people and animals who taught me what it actually means to nurture, and how different it is from what I’d been avoiding.

I met a spitfire child who needed a special adult to walk a long and bumpy road to adulthood.

I met a man who felt like no one would ever understand him or love him, and who simply could not imagine a safe place to be known.

I met a dog at death’s doorstep who literally chased me home one morning in a last-ditch effort to live.

I met a friend resigned to a life of loneliness.

None were projects or tasks. I adored them all from the first moment I met them. My soul loved them, but I also just liked them. Even the terrifying Rottweiler sprinting toward me at 7 a.m. with no one around to hear me scream. So it wasn’t altruism, and I didn’t “save” them. But neither was it simple affinity. Because there were definitely moments when walking away from each of these relationships would have been much easier and left more room for my Important Thoughts. And none of these relationships would have been the same if I had maintained my stance as a committed non-nurturer.

The more I spent time with the child, simply showing up and holding space, the more joy I found in their growth. They are still a special part of our family.

The more I met resistance and isolation with persistence and connection, the more the man began to delight in others, including me. We got married.

The more ailments we addressed with the dog, the more devoted and protective the dog became.

The more I reached behind the austere demeanor of my friend, the more I was invited into their warm and attentive company. A place of mutuality that I still treasure.

None of these relationships were, or are, all about one person’s needs. None of these four beings were invited to take endless advantage. I stood up for myself and set boundaries. Each of them has, at this point, given me as much life and joy and safety as I have given them (maybe more in some cases). But none of them were, in the beginning, equally independent and emotionally resourced. The child was a child. The man and the friend were, frankly, as bad off as the dog. Loving each of them was like walking out onto a tightrope suspended between skyscrapers. My Self, with her confidence in the Spirit, would charge out onto the tightrope, absolutely knowing that this Creature (human or canine) was so incredibly beautiful and necessary in the world, but also so desperately in need of a certain kind of, in the words of Sally Lloyd-Jones, “never stopping, never giving up love.” I knew how to connect to that love.

But out on the tightrope I would occasionally pause and look down. I would see the long drop of resources I don’t have, the time this might require, and wounds I might be opening myself up to. My pre-existing wounds would scream about being unappreciated. My fears would list the number of things that I could be doing with this energy and time. My deeper fears about what these beings could to do to me.

And now I have children, which has only widened the chasm to the size of the Grand Canyon. The need for nurture is as huge as I had feared, and my resources never feel matched. I live almost every day on a tightrope, and on the good days I don’t look down, but there have been long stretches where I’ve stared down into the canyon as though I were searching for a single pebble somewhere at the bottom. Caregiving is still difficult for me, but, thankfully, in the last year, I’ve been able to merge some of the Spirit-driven energy with my conscious experience of nurture, and pull my eyes back up.

Instagram Self-Care as the Enemy of Nurture

Before I get to the mystical experience that pulled my eyes back up most recently, I want to say a word about therapy-via-meme. I really enjoy funny and insightful memes. They make us feel like other people are as weird and wounded as we are, which is nice. But too often people end their grand unified theory of wellbeing with what is, essentially, a quote they read on Instagram. These pithy things that get shared the most because they resonate the most, meaning they make us feel the best, meaning they aren’t actually pushing us into greater consciousness as much as they are affirming that our woundedness is actually the preferred state of the world and we have no reason to change.

It’s well intended. In our protector-driven attempts to repair the ravages of patriarchy, we often advise women to be extra protective of themselves. To cut out anyone who needs more than we want to give. And for sure, most women and people socialized in femininity need better boundaries. But I do think Instagram and self-care culture often cheers for those boundaries without the subsequent opportunity to grow.

Not every discomfort is life-draining. Not every uneven relationship is toxic. The setting of boundaries and negotiation of needs and expectations is how we stay connected, and there are times where it requires you to expand your window of tolerance—the range of emotions you can hold without going into overwhelm or numbness. You cannot nurture someone beyond what your window of tolerance will hold, because the first thing you give when you nurture is safety—the assurance that they are loved for who they are, not who we want them to be. But I can’t hold real people if I cut out every opportunity to expand my own window of tolerance.

No one can make you expand your window. That’s part of the problem that breeds more memes. The millennials are all sharing: “you have to cut out your toxic parents or you’ll never be healthy!” And their boomer parents are sharing: “forgive your parents, because they did the best they could.” Friend One posts “cut out anyone who isn’t as committed to your peace as you are,” and Friend Two posts “your real friends will let you be an absolute nightmare and still love you.” I have paid so many thousands of dollars in therapy to learn that all of that can be true and none of it is helpful without a lot of context. It makes love sound like a constant balancing of scales, a constant war over resources. Like…commerce.

We’re just horrible at encouraging each other’s spiritual growth without using bald marketing tactics (shame, fear, and authority). We are so bad at offering resources instead of selling them. Growing your window of tolerance and your ability to nurture has to be something you do through your own healing, your own agency, and your own connection to the internal resources that were always there. And it’s work. No one can demand it, but beware the people telling you not to do it.

Giving Life

Here’s the mystical experience that has totally changed the way I think about myself as a nurturer, and radically expanded my window of tolerance.

At the end of September, I was struggling with some work-related stuff. All those Important Thoughts and things that I would rather do than nurture were being frustrated, and I was feeling unimportant and left out. Naturally, I blamed it on the fact that I give so much of my time to caregiving and have tailored my work life around wife/motherhood. Easy target.

I set an intention to change my relationship to nurturing and my growing feeling that I was hauling people behind me on the tightrope, exhausted and depleted.

Sitting with the full moon, trying to release some of this bitterness, I felt invited to visualize the professional affirmation I’d been wanting. I saw a huge dining hall, and long table piled with food and all around it were the various gatekeepers I’d sought approval from, laughing and discussing Important Thoughts. As I watched, the table transformed into a rotting pile of garbage, and the gatekeepers withered into skeletons. It looked like something from a fantasy novel or a pirate story. Clear as day, the question came, “Why do you want a seat at the table of death, when you were born to give life?”

A few weeks later, unrelated, we got the guinea pigs as a way for our kids to practice nurturing and as a way to co-regulate emotions, because animals are good at that. And it began working immediately. Our children have blossomed under the care of the rodents.

That week I went to see Paige, the energy healer, and in a meditative state, I could clearly hear guinea pigs squealing so loudly that I asked, “Does someone have a pet in this office?” There were no animals in the building. The day after that, I went to a friend’s house and her incredibly well-behaved dog somehow broke out of her enclosure, fought her way through a closed door and several other barriers, and ran to me, placing her paws on my arms in a sort of hug. We sat like that for a while while my friend watched, gobsmacked at the dog’s uncharacteristic behavior.

Two days later our 12-year-old family dog died very suddenly, and the guinea pigs were there to comfort the kids, and I understood my friend’s dog’s intuition.

A few days after that, I drove out to East Texas to report on a death row inmate about to be executed. The friend who gave up a whole work day to drive with me spent the entire time tending to my nerves and occasional overwhelm, a steady infusion of grounding and safety. It created space for me to give myself to the intensity of the emotions involved in the story, to breath life into it, and to write possibly one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. A week after that, the inmate received a stay of execution, and a source close to the case told me they were pretty sure the story played a small role.

I’m not telling you any of this to proclaim that I am saving lives or rescuing people. I’m not at all. Not the four lives I mentioned earlier (child, man, dog, friend). Not the inmate on death row (I genuinely credit his tireless legal team who made a compelling argument about unconsidered evidence). Not even the guinea pigs or my own kids.

I’m relaying this wild series of living and dying and loving because it radically changed the way I view nurture. I am not saving lives; WE are giving life. This connection we have to each other, to Spirit, to God, to Earth, to Creature, this is the life-giving connection and it’s what we are made for. Nurture is being that connection for someone. Not carrying them across a tightrope, but grafting them into a root system of constant nourishment and growth. The nurturer is also part of the system, but not its Source. I look at my friends, my family, the animals who both nurture me and are nurtured by me and I realize that the full moon was right, this is what it means to give life, and this is what I was born to do. We all were. When the work comes from this, the work too, is life-giving, not ego-seeking. This is where work and love come together.

And so, with that, I’m going to go feed Sir Fluffy Meatball another syringe full of liquid meal replacement, because that’s what I was born to do.

Thinking about love, pt 6: expression

In 2018, I submitted my childhood journals to a show called Mortified and a group of professional comedians picked their favorite entries for me to read aloud on stage in Austin. What made them laugh, they said, was the vocabulary. In the vocabulary of a 19th century war widow, I expressed the desires of a 10-year-old, whose imagination for how to fulfill those desires was shaped by the writing of middle aged women. It is wildly funny.

I am really lucky to have a highly verbal brain. I started talking early, which reduced the conflict between my parents and me, as I was able to tell them “I want a cookie” instead of standing by the pantry and screaming incoherently. So, naturally, they thought of me as extra compliant (in addition to my actually being very compliant).

In school, being verbal made me sound smart, so I was treated as though I was smart, and thus I was challenged and grew smarter.

I was able to articulate my wants and needs, convince people to do what I wanted, argue my case with teachers and parents, and deliver withering insults when the time was right. I was the class president type…so I was the class president.

In middle age, I can come across as highly evolved and self aware, because I can describe every feeling, instinct, and intuition in my body. This is partially a trick, of course, because I have yet to fully learn the difference between identifying things and integrating them, but I can dazzle you with accurate descriptions. And so they let me write books.

The world was built by verbal people for verbal people, so it looks like I’m a lot better at life than I really am. Nowhere does this show up more than in loving. I talk a big game about love, I’m really good at exploring its contours and commitments, and I say loving things to my people that do genuniely help them thrive and grow. I’m good at the verbal part of the clear communication a good relationship requires. But like everything else, I’m learning that there’s more to it.

Love Languages

We’re all familiar with the idea of love languages. Whether you buy into Gary Chapman’s categories— quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, touch, and gifts—or you see it more as a moment by moment “what does my person need right now?” sort of equation, the idea of a love language has to do with expressing love in a way that others can receive it, communicating it. My post about the elemental energies in love had a lot to do with how we show and receive love.

From the same root network of love, various flowers of expression spring up, guided by our unique situations and resources. There’s freedom and creativity and so much goodness that comes from the variety of expressions. We love the gilded lilies of words, but there’s so much beauty in a fragrant patch of jasmine, or a sturdy and stalwart thistle.

The important part is that love is expressed somehow. Love cannot just be felt in my own little private heart. I can’t assume that others know how I feel if all I do is think about how great they are. And it has to be expressed in a way that the beloved can receive. That’s the bitch about communication: it’s not just about one of us, it’s about both what I need to say and what you need to hear. Good communication, in itself is such a gorgeous conduit for love because it requires the desire to connect and it is enhanced by all the same things that enhance love: honesty, attention, care, and openness. Sometimes clear communication requires more than words, and actually may not always require words, but it always requires intentional, agreed upon signals. You can hug another person tightly, and feel them squeeze back. That’s a form of agreement. You can show up at someone’s door step with soup, and they can say “how did you know this is what I needed?” And that’s agreement. It’s a lot harder to have the tougher conversations without words. It’s really difficult to explain how someone hurt you, or ask how you can make amends without using words. I think I’m always going to speak up in defense of words.

But no expression of love can cover up for a lack of love. You really can’t fake it. We know the hollowness of saying, “You’re my favorite person” while actively neglecting their needs, or the slow death of relationships where someone does their duty but never expresses kindness or affection. We know that a single expression of love, in any language, cannot make up for explicit signals of unlovedness.

When communication feels off, I think we find ourselves looking for the expressions of love that live underneath the classic “languages.” Deeper expressions that work through the mechanics of things like words, time, gifts, service, and touch.


This is probably my number one non-verbal expression of love. In fact, this is the thing, to me, that turns the language of time into an expression of sacrificial love.

Before I got married, I didn’t have a “number one.” I swam in an ocean of communal needs and desires, working in ministry with no hierarchy of whose broken heart, broken car, or broken promises I needed to address. Knowing that I was “free” of husband and children, the people in my life called up on me indiscriminately.

When I became engaged to Lewis, we were out to coffee one day and he was sharing something deep and painful that had happened in his day. My phone started ringing and it was someone who needed something. I felt torn. These folks were used to me picking up the phone and being at their side, and I felt the impulse to do as was expected of me.

Then Lewis said, “Do they have someone else they could ask? Because you’re the only person I can really talk to about this.”

I suddenly had a number one, and I had to begin a whole new negotiation. Now I have three number ones and it’s really complicated, because half the time they all need different things, AND they would collectively absorb my entire body and soul if I let them. Being devoted to the transpersonal goal of human thriving and justice, I do sometimes have to balance their needs with the other things I’m called to do, as well as with my own survival. Having other people in my life I care about, I do sometimes have to ask whether being the field trip chaperone is the right call, or whether I should use that day to be with a friend who will be observing a tough anniversary. It’s not simple calculus, but the outcome of that calculus has to be orderly priorities.

Lewis and my kids do not get every second of my time, or my undivided attention every second that they are alive. But I am the only wife and mother they have, and so when there are things that only a wife and mother can provide, I’m there, letting them know that being their wife and mother is something I take really seriously, and delight in. What’s important to them is important to me. And I’m committed to helping us all align our priorities with love for the world, and pursuing the good of our neighbors.

My friends, though they do not get to be number ones, also get priority status. When planning our annual girls’ trip, the four busy participants realized early on that the perfect day wasn’t going to appear. We were going to have to prioritize being together, and say no to some other things. Some of the deepest love I have felt from friends is when they have communicated to me, “I’m incredibly busy, but I want to make sure I see you, so lets put something on the calendar.” OR “It was difficult to clear this day to help you, but it was really important to me to do it.” Some friends will show me a crowded calendar and say “see anything on there that would work for you?” I don’t need them to say “oh it’s nothing! No problem at all!” That might make me feel less insecure about asking for help or time, but when we’ve been honest about the effort it’s taken to prioritize our time together, the quality time has been amplified. Prioritizing others is inherently sacrificial, and it expresses love.


Lewis and I were recently discussing what makes a good gift (it being Christmas and all, this is on our minds). I love gift-giving. I love it so much, but only when I’ve done my homework. I only like giving gifts that I know will be useful, delightful, or honoring to the recipient. Which means that when I’m giving you a gift, I’m really telling you how interested I am in you. I’m showing you how much time I’ve spent learning you, noticing what lights you up, what you wish you had, or where your life has earned an upgrade. The gift’s intention is to communicate: I am interested in what makes you, you, and I’d like to contribute to you being more you.

That’s not the only way to communicate interest though. Not every person’s essence translates easily into tangible things, and not every person is good at connecting “what makes you, you” and tangible goods.

Some of the most loving people I know express interest by learning about what their loved ones like so that they can talk about it together. They watch movies they wouldn’t usually, either because they want to share the experience, or so they can learn more about the beloved. What we like says a lot about us.

Interest in our communities and strangers is also how we love them. It makes our acts of service acts of solidarity, because we’ve aligned ourselves. It takes listening, it takes work. But you cannot be a disinterested ally, co-conspirator, or comrade. You must invest in the learning.

As someone who creates a lot of content in the world, I am also genuinely touched and feel almost overwhelmingly loved when my friends and family read or listen to my work. It’s different from strangers with mutual interests—that’s my audience. When people who already know me well take time to just listen to me talk or read my work, I feel honored. It’s an expression of love that encompasses time, effort, and value.


Really, vulnerability is the core of the core of expression, the giving of love. Prioritizing someone is vulnerable, because you’re admitting they are more important to you than other things. Showing interest is vulnerable because you are placing yourself in the position of the learner. You want to know more, connect more, and to want without demand is inherently humble, because it admits that you don’t already have. It’s vulnerable to make time for someone, to open up a hole in your day that, if they chose not to fill it, will simply be empty.

Touch requires vulnerability too. To take the first step toward offering a hand or a hug. To lean in for a kiss. Whether asking for consent in that very 2023 way, or a tentative half-way gesture waiting for someone to cross the other half…those seconds between offering and being taken up on the offer are the most vulnerable known to man.

But the vulnerability that gets me the most—and it is my most potent medicine—is speaking my intimate feelings. The hard part about being as verbal as I am is that I can build fortresses of nuance and double speak. I can construct escape hatches of sarcasm and irony. I can choose my words to ensure plausible deniability and a laid back detachment that belies the utter chaos in my chest as I await a friend’s reply about a simple lunch plan. I can protect me at the expense of you ever knowing how deeply, deeply loved and wanted you are. Saying “I want to see you.” Or “I miss you.” Or “If you weren’t in my life I would be sad.” Or “I’ve been thinking about you, are you free for coffee?” is terrifying, because it shows you where desire has opened up a soft place, and gives you the power to decide whether or not love will be withheld.

In my best moments, I speak honestly from a place of love. I tell my people I love them, how amazing they are. I say yes to mentoring and supporting and holding space. I put my best effort into anonymous projects. When I am in Divine connection, I can do this without the need to receive anything in return, because whatever love I give is the love I have. I am Self-sourced. But there is a little wounded part in me, the wound I mentioned in part one, that feels the twist of the knife every time I do that. She panics, wondering if the intensity of that truth will push the beloved ones away, or the willingness to give freely will become an emotional Black Friday sale at Walmart. She screams to me “you’ve exposed me!” Her protector part says, “they’ll take advantage” if they are colleagues, or “they’ll take you for granted” if they are intimates.

But the secret strength of love is this: that little wounded part is the one who has truly sacrificed for love. She has felt every ounce of love I’ve expressed, and cried because she feels so exposed. I have asked her to be strong, to trust Self, to look away, so that I could love my people, love strangers, love the world. And the truth is, with all the priority, interest, and vulnerability I’ve received, in all the varied expressions, it’s time to ask her, the wounded part, to sit and look through them with the eyes of God, like presents on Christmas morning, and consider how loved she really is.

Thinking about love, pt 5: fidelity

The summer before my junior year in high school I worked at a Christian summer camp. It was the best summer of my life, and I am pretty sure it’s the summer I first “fell in love” in that very coming-of-age way that you do when you have a new driver’s license and spend half your life in a bathing suit. Love was very much on everyone’s mind, because my boss, one of the women’s directors, had gotten engaged to one of the men’s directors and it was all just sunshine and roses. They got married in the fall and throughout the next year, we’d get coffee and check in. I noticed almost immediately that the sunshine was growing dim. When she filed for divorce the next year, the storm clouds were undeniable.

Her needs were not being met, she said. That didn’t shock me—I knew the guy, and I knew divorced people. Not every marriage is good, I reasoned, gotta choose better. But then, a frustrated mutual friend and mentor to us both, delivered what would be, for me, a stunning blow: “It’s marriage. Nobody’s needs get met.”

And that’s when, I think, the seed was planted for 1) my own premarital panic attack, and 2) everything that I’m about to say.

Before you go thinking I’m in an unhappy marriage

Listen, I love being in a committed partnership. I love predictability, connection, and closeness. Also, Lewis is easy to champion, because he’s funny, and humble, and sweet, and he likes me. So committed am I to our vows that I am going to recite them to you, reader, throughout this loooong long post. Because even though we got married knowing each other less than a year, we wrote some killer vows, not the usual hot mess of “we wrote our own vows.”

It’s uncanny though, because I will tell you that my imagination of marriage—panic attack notwithstanding—was completely unrealistic. The vows really did outsmart me.

Lewis and I are happy because we’ve allowed our commitment to grow and evolve. We have acknowledged that it was desire that brought us together, not just desire for togetherness, but desire for a certain kind of life. We share a desire for meaning in our work, quiet contemplation, and community. Lewis also needs and desires things I cannot provide—like professional goals, certain kinds of space, and deeper appreciation of some subjects than I can share—and vice versa. So it’s been important to figure out what it means to love each other in those desires, and what it means to be faithful when our desires extend beyond what we had previously imagined marriage to be.

“I, Bekah, take you, Lewis, to be my husband”

Just like the vows suggest, the question of “why get married?” or “why commit to a partner?” is actually really personal and contextual. It has to do with our personal purposes and the gifts we have to offer. In the context of sacrament, marriage’s importance is derived from the Divine love it is supposed to embody. In the context of survival of the species, partnership is a commitment to giving kids what they need. In the context of the American legal system, marriage is taking responsibility for one another’s property. All of these are important things, but if you said that the union was only that, you’d have a mob after you.

We, the 21st century mob, want all of those things to flow out of what the union is at its essence. We want our sacraments, childbearing, and laws to reflect the ideal of what marriage IS.

The bummer is, I don’t think we know what marriage is, essentially. I think marriage has always been constructed around the purpose that it served, the container that it gave to love. The legal classifications are more negotiable now, we’re asking more questions about what kinds of adult relationships best serve children. And I think that’s a good thing.

Churches (where many of us get our imaginations of marriage) have a terrible habit of taking what’s available to us today, casting morals around it, and then claiming that these are the morals that have always been in place, always should be in place, and are somehow etched in the mind of God. I don’t want to debate the biblical absolutes of 21st century marriage, because I really think it’s a misuse of the Bible. And religion has a weird history with desire. I spent too long associating desire with sin, and not just questioning my own desires, but unquestioningly assuming they flowed from my evil, selfish, heart. That said: true faith informs our ethics of marriage and partnership, and guides us in the very deep sense of what it means to love in any context, including the context of desire. I’m interested in marriage or committed partnership as a context for Divine love, because I think it affords a surprising amount of latitude for the particulars, if we’re willing to consider them. In whatever arrangement you find yourself, love. Seek their best.

As sociologists have pointed out, marriage has evolved over time. It has served different purposes in different contexts: financial security, political alliance, social status, romantic ideal, family foundation, and, as Eli J. Finkel pointed out in his book The All or Nothing Marriage, it’s now a means of self-fulfillment. We typically only add purposes, we rarely subtract. So we’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure onto one person. At the same time, as therapist Esther Perel famously pointed out, at least two of those purposes—Eros and security—are mutually exclusive in the same moment. In order to get them both from the same person for all of time, we have to be relational shapeshifters who know how to cultivate both distance and closeness. We must support but also destabilize, open up but also hide, share but also withhold. We create a budget, trade off who gets to take the new job, help balance each other’s family obligations, and then also place obstacles between us so that the sexual desire stays alive.

We know that we believe in the all-or-nothing ideal, because we cry equally for the woman whose husband no longer expresses sexual desire and for the woman whose husband does not allow her to share her deepest fears. We think it’s romantic to “marry your best friend” but we have to remind our spouses that being treated like we are their parent is the opposite of an aphrodisiac. We can’t agree on what desire in marriage is supposed to feel like or what commitment requires of us, so we just went with “everything I could ever want and nothing that I don’t.”

“To delight in your happiness, and rejoice in your growth. To be sad when you are sad, and to help and comfort you

This is where I could take the evangelical turn and, with my former mentor, say “marriage isn’t about your needs!” And certainly not your wants! Grow up!

But that’s not the route I want to go. Just because something cannot fulfill your every need or desire doesn’t mean you should pursue it only as a form of martyrdom. First of all, you don’t have to pursue it at all. There are plenty of ways to love and serve people without the lifelong vows, without being propositioned for sex right after changing a diaper, without the in-laws. I do not think marriage is more noble than any other life lived in love. If marriage sounds awful to you, don’t do it.

I also think that we do, many of us, have a desire for some kind of safe place to be known and accepted for who we are. Our souls and our survival instincts agree on the idea of committing to someone else’s highest good, and receiving that support in return. It’s possible that many of us realize that in order to grow, we will need to let another person see us as we are, and feel that exposing ourselves in that way without the commitment to stay connected is too terrifying.

The happiest our marriage has been was not when it was “about our needs” But our happiest times have been when we cultivated a love that inherently considers and desires to meet those needs—and thus is willing to let our ego step aside when we cannot meet the needs. He is air, not earth. I am earth, not air. He craves harmony, and I crave progress. He dreams, I do. His “what ifs” are utopian. Mine are plans already half in motion. My delight is not in being all to Lewis, it is in being the one who affirms and delights in his happiness and growth, and helps whenever I can. He does the same for me. We have the all-or-nothing marriage, but it’s not about what we can be for each other as much as it’s about what we desire for each other.

“In difficulty I will run toward you. In strife I will forgive you. I will trust you and tell you the truth.”

Marriage or committed partnership cannot be everything, but neither is it nothing. Commitments like this are a unique opportunity to love someone, giving them the kind of acceptance and security that will allow them to accept themselves more deeply, and extend out toward others. Love of any kind expands the Divine in us. Whether it’s economic security that allows you to be generous, emotional security that allows you to be bold, or a partner who marches alongside you so that you’ll never be alone in the mission. (Notice I said “or” not “and.” Your marriage doesn’t have to provide all that.) Ideally you receive whatever kind of love you give in return, and everyone is feeling safe and held and expansive. If that sounds like the kind of core commitment you want to make, marriage is what our society offers you.

Would I love to see that offer extended to other constellations of partnership that did not have any interest in whose genitals go where? I do. I would love to see community surround and celebrate more ways for people to intimately commit their lives to each other. Whether they are sharing every secret, sharing a bank account, making medical decisions, raising children together, or having sex, I want us to expand our visions of what intimacy and commitment mean. But for now, if you want people to know what you mean when you describe your partnership, you’ve got limited options, and marriage comes with the most legal benefits.

But loving someone enough to commit to their highest good and take the inevitable challenges that brings can look a lot of different ways. I think that we should be able to say what our marriage is about, and what its core commitments are.

I think that you should be able to get married to have and raise children. Or for a green card. Or to increase your financial security. Or for status in your patriarchal community. Or for companionship. I think those are all legitimate reasons—if clearly communicated and agreed upon—for two people to get married. But they need to outline what they are and aren’t committing to, and what faithfulness looks like in their context.

And while I promise to choose you over anything else in this world, I will not look to you to provide what only Jesus can.”

Before I get to the “over anything else” I am first just going to say that the “I will not look to you to provide what only Jesus can” part of the vows has outlived my evangelical intent in writing it that way. I would still say that the Divine Creator is the Source of all love, both permeating and transcending what we give to each other. Which is actually what makes the rest of this conversation possible. Onward.

We really, really want to get absolute on this “over anything else” bit. I feel it. We want to say that faithfulness is not circumstantial. That it is given by an authority outside us. We want to say that the imagination we have is God’s imagination, and the boundaries inherent to it are God’s inherent boundaries. But we actually only really believe that about sex.

Allow me to explain. This is going to be a bit of a ride, so hang on.

Fidelity is, in some ways, unique to each marriage.

I have a personal bank account. I happily contribute to family expenses, but I also do not have to tell Lewis how I spend that money. He does not know how much my Pilates classes are. We generally don’t spend tons of money without telling each other, because we value each other’s input, but our threshold for unilateral purchases is very high. Our spending has, for our entire marriage, been our own business.

If we had committed to making all financial decisions together, as many couples wisely do, or had set a limit on the dollar amount that could be spent unilaterally, then abiding by that agreement would be a matter of fidelity. If, in that context, he found out I’d spent $3,000 on accommodations for a girls’ trip and then hidden it, he’d be right to say I’d broke my promise.

If Lewis were a video gamer or if I was an avid golfer we would have to set boundaries around how those time-consuming interests intersect with our vows to choose each other over all else. I have friends who are not bothered to be golf widows, and couple friends for whom video games are a togetherness activity. We all get to choose how we relate to time and attention in our marriages. It’s a mark of how much we’ve let capitalism weigh in on this that even the most marriage-centric purists don’t consider it abandonment when a partner works 50, 60 hours per week. If a wife delights to reap the financial benefits of her workaholic husband, or vice versa, no one is going to tell them they are in an open marriage with their careers.

Sometimes fidelity is a matter of degrees.

For me to demand that my husband share all of my weird-ass interests, talk deeply with me about all of my wild-ass feelings, or allow me to complain about him, to him, at any moment…we’d agree this is irrational. If my husband was too busy to watch a movie with me, or didn’t have the bandwidth for me to talk about the difference between ennui and lassitude, or if he maybe walked out of the room while I was mid-rant…would we call that unfaithfulness? He promised to run toward me in difficulty. He promised to delight in my happiness. Sure, but obviously this interpretation is unreasonable, and probably not even healthy.

But if I brought him my favorite movie, and said “it would mean the world to me if you’d watch this.” If I needed to share a feeling that was weighing on me so heavily I felt I could not breathe. If I needed to tell him the small thing he’d done that hurt me. Then, it might be fair to say that he would be living into his vow to love me by making time.

Conversely if he were to belittle and disdain my interests, refuse to acknowledge my feelings, and insisted on continuing harmful behavior, we might consider that a betrayal. If he continued to emotionally neglect me, I would say he was being unfaithful. (Lewis McNeel would never, by the way. This is where he shines brightest.)

What is important to me, in our marriage, is not that I know his every move and expenditure, it’s not that he spend more time with me than anywhere else (though that had to be negotiated early on), it’s not that I’m the only woman who ever catches his eye. What matters to me—how I apply our vows—is that he will support me as I think, feel, and grow. He will make time, take the kids, stay awake, and steel his heart in order to let me know that I am accepted and safe. He will not reject me because of something I believe, feel, or desire (or when I talk about theoretical open relationships on the internet).

Lewis maintains that all he wants is for me to like him. I like to think I can give that a little pizzazz. In addition to making sure he gets time with his friends, exercises, and sees his therapist, I also surprise him for his birthday, and sometimes just for fun. Lewis is a subject I study, and have become expert in, for the purpose of knowing exactly what would make him feel special and seen. I’ve stuck by him through difficult seasons and given him two children that he wanted very, very much. That’s what I was agreeing to when I married someone who said he didn’t think he’d feel fully fulfilled unless he was a dad.

So each marriage, maybe even each partner, has unique priorities and degrees of fidelity. Should exclusivity be a measure of fidelity?

A few of years ago some friends from church started a group text that has grown into a full blown best-friendship as we supported each other through the hardest and most transformative years of our lives. It was the first place I felt I could truly and fully share ALL my feelings without judgment. Even my feelings about Lewis, when I was furious or feeling unseen. The intimacy in that group text (which also includes as much face time and in-person time as we can possibly afford, being now scattered across the country) is pretty deep. I tell them things I don’t tell my husband.

But it was never a threat to Lewis. He values that friendship very much. Our friendly intimacy has never been what he might consider unfaithfulness—even though I do sometimes go to them for things I might have otherwise gone to him about. Why? Well, first, Lewis needed a break. I am a lot. I mean, I’m like this all the time. He’s happy for me to disperse the intensity. Second, and more to the point: I’m like a 1 on the Kinsey scale. Maybe a 2 if you put a LOT of stock in Tig Notaro. He was okay with those female friendships because there was very low probability of sexual connection.

By contrast, I went on a trip out of state a couple of years ago, and asked Lewis if he’d think it was weird if I went on a hike with a male friend who lived in that state. This friend and I were very close when we were single, but never romantically involved. Lewis balked. Just the idea of sexual compatibility made him feel territorial over the kinds of experiences I had with this man.

We had to talk about that. The intimacy I shared with my groups of girls is way more potent than a hike. Women have left their husbands for intimate girlfriends, and sexuality is dynamic, so it’s not even really about the threat to the marriage. Lewis, to his credit, has done the hard work, with me, of asking whether our boundaries are based on our own insecurities, or the actual strengthening of our marriage. He’s opened himself to the ways some male friends can nurture and care for me in ways that he can’t—based on their unique gifts and desires and, in some cases, his own exhaustion. Watching him evolve has been, frankly, quite a turn on.

He’s even acknowledged that what the Greeks called ludus—flirtatious love—is a potent source of energy for me, and that, similar to full-heat Eros, ludus requires a pretty unique mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Banter. Innuendo. I live for that shit. Lewis and I enjoy our fair share of ludus, but it’s not as potent when you already know you’re going home together to fold laundry. Or when you’ve just collapsed onto his shoulder cried your eyes out about how mean one of your kids is being.

There’s risk of sexual desire developing in sexually compatible, ludus-heavy relationships, sure. But that risk exists just by being a person out in the world though. We’ve all seen the ridiculousness that ensues when “avoid attraction altogether” is how we maintain sexual exclusivity. But desire also doesn’t mean that you cross that boundary. We did promise sexual exclusivity when we got married. Fidelity, for us, requires that our marriage to be the container where sexual desire can serve the purposes of love, until we decide otherwise.

And I think we get to decide. Lewis absolutely HATES these hypotheticals, but I subject him to them all the time: If something happened and I was no longer physically or emotionally able to have sex, I wouldn’t want Lewis to live the rest of his life without it. I wouldn’t want him to only have casual sex, or tear through half the state, either. I’d want there to be some way for him to give and receive love in that way. To experience that particular bond, even if it’s no longer with me. I would hope that he would not abandon me, like we’d still have our home and kids and love and serve each other in all other ways. I would ask that anyone who was bonded to him in that way to refrain from trying to steal him. I would hope that their shared imagination for their relationship would not be tied to sexual exclusivity as the basis for all other exclusivity. Even as they became inevitably close, I’d hope that it would be an expansive bond that included me. I would want to know and love that person. Other people (most people) feel differently about all of this. That is fair.

I, personally, think the meaning and specialness of sex does not come from exclusivity. It comes from the way we love and serve each other through it. Sex is special because it is generative (it literally gives life) and pleasing. It creates a bond—though not the eternal, unbreakable bond the church told us. There are other ethics besides exclusivity. Like mutuality, generosity, responsibility, even commitment—it doesn’t have to be monogamy to be a commitment. Non-monogamy and boundless promiscuity aren’t the same.

Exclusivity certainly strengthens my bond with Lewis. But it’s definitely not the foundation or even the core of our bond. The core of our bond is the commitment to be for each other. So that’s the big question: could having sex with someone other than your partner be, in any way, a benefit to your partner? Only you and your partner can answer.

Until death parts us, with all my spirit and body, I am for you.

So I guess this is my argument: In a world where marriages are expected to be ev-er-y-thing, most of us already have open marriages. We have emotionally open, socially open, spiritually open, and financially open marriages. We have boundaries around that openness—we don’t want them to undermine our commitment to our spouse. But that is just as much an invitation to look at the demands we have placed on our spouse as it is a reminder to make sure we are fulfilling our duty.

I promised to always be “for” my husband. To align myself with his best interests. My intimate friends—and sometimes my therapist— will validate my complaints about Lewis, but they also support reconciliation ALWAYS. The day they start cheering against my marriage, that’s the day this friendship violates my vow to be “for” Lewis. I used to imagine that to utter any complaint about him was a violation, but then I had to ask if the mountain of resentment was serving him any better.

I know that like 90 percent of people reading this will think I’m entirely wrong about monogamy. There will be some argument for the objectivity of marriage or the duties of partnership. And most of us have had our imaginations formed by particular visions of sexual exclusivity, and if we are in relationships that match that vision, we’ll want to keep it that way.

But we also have really high divorce rates. Lots of people have harmful affairs. Many languish in their marriages, and love struggles to extend past their own day to day survival of each other. My friend wasn’t all wrong when she said “It’s marriage! Nobody’s needs get met!” But I think she was definitely looking at the problem, not the solution. For those whose marriage is either in need of air, based on legitimate earthy needs, desperate to move like water, or consuming them like fire, I think we need to have a discussion about what we imagine a good marriage to be, and what other human connections might sustain it.

Thinking about love, pt 4: authority

I’ve been asked lately, for a book club, to find my guiding principle. What is the goal that shapes my life? For me, that’s the easy part. It’s love. It’s always been love. Love God, love others. Not like emotional affection, but active, seek-your-best, establish harmony, shalom-seeking love. But that quest, per the book we’re reading, Life Worth Living, begins with a question: who do you answer to? For me, then, who gets to say whether what I’m doing is loving? Who gets to say what love requires? And that, dear reader, is where it gets messy.

Authority demanded Obedience

In my first career—a short lived and ill advised foray into Christian ministry— “loving” meant pointing people toward the moral and ethical structures of Christianity as interpreted by current discourse among pastors and preachers. Those pastors would say their authority is “the Bible,” but I didn’t tell a single damn college student to marry pairs of sisters, pillage Jericho, or wear a head covering. The real authority was the discourse about the Bible, and it included a love that was often painful and even cold at times, in pursuit of “alignment with God’s purposes ” or, for short, “God’s will.” I owe about a million apologies for my participation in the discourse, but I was also being eaten alive by it.

I was bad for others, and I was bad for me. Those purposes of God (for women) as defined by the heavily capitalistic, patriarchal cabal of leadership were pretty simplistic: “Deny your desires for anything that feels good until what feels good is volunteering at church, pleasing your husband, and raising babies at home.” In that awkward time when I was not married, that meant no sex and using my free time to support women who were volunteering and having babies, or in some other way get more people to go to church. Any love, attachment, or desire that did not further these ends this was temptation. If was lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, or the pride of life: the temptations resisted by Jesus after his time in the wilderness.

In this season, I took my name-brand advanced degree and spent it raising my $16,000 per year salary, and regularly having my writing and work dismissed, diminished, and demeaned. I treasure the lives of the college kids I mentored, but professionally I was constantly, and egregiously disrespected. But, I told myself, this was what love required, that I starve out the idol of ambition. The idol of respect.

Idealism demanded Perfect Selflessness

My ministry imploded, and I gave myself to ambition. I worked two jobs, hustled, networked, and traveled. I met people who re-awakened my soul and my imagination. I rekindled a love for not just the world, but aspects of the world I’d been told to ignore or run away from. The purpose and desire and delight of that season was so heady.

And then I had children.

My imagination of motherhood was one of deep nurture, in which I would delight in the intimate knowledge of their needs and my unique ability to meet them. I would feel the glow of that life-giving bond cascading onto my marriage, and onto grandparents, aunts, and neighbors. The reality of motherhood was near constant conflict between their needs and mine. They needed to nurse while my nipples were bleeding. They needed to be held while I desperately needed to sleep. Lewis, who is now the most amazing partner in the whole keeping-the-children-alive project, was not fully *there* yet. I had gone from the wife who believed that my purpose was fulfilling his every dream (at the occasional expense of my own), to the mom who believed that my purpose was fulfilling my children’s every need (at the constant expense of my own). Lewis was not yet adjusted, and because he was used to depending on me to shine like the sun, he did have some legitimately unmet emotional needs.

When my children cried, it felt like an indictment. I literally said, about Moira, “She wouldn’t cry if I hadn’t somehow failed to meet her needs.”

Friends, she was two months old. There’s nothing a two month old is better at than crying.

I struggled every time I left the house, even though I quickly learned the truth of the third-wave feminist axiom: working makes me a better mom. It was good to take some of the intensity off of them, to go get my complete thoughts and achievement-oriented energy out somewhere else. But I also felt rotten for having that need. I felt like it was selfish, not my selfless ideal, to need anything that was more than simply “to see my children thrive.”

Love, in this version of family life, required me to have no needs outside what was fulfilled by meeting the needs of my husband and children. It required me to be superhuman—not a thread in the tapestry of our life, but the loom on which is was woven.

All I can Be is Faithful

When my youngest was two years old, I took a career risk that ended with me unemployed and freelancing while stuck in San Antonio, one of the most difficult places in the country to build a freelance career (or a journalism career at all, for that matter). Meanwhile I was being mom to two toddlers. The scope of all I would not be able to do, the ambitions that would not be fulfilled, the impact unmade, would often overwhelm me. I’d feel the need to strategize and create contingencies. To somehow prove that I had not thrown my career away, and stolen time from my children all for nothing.

And then, miraculously sometimes, I would feel a calm connection with God, and I would think: just do what’s in front of you with integrity. Do the best you can, and trust that the next thing will come.

It became my mantra to this day: Just be faithful.

My career has grown more slowly than I’ve wanted it to, but with great joy. I have pursued not only projects that were “good” in the noble and moral sense, but ones that brought me pleasure. I have found the place where my delight and the shalom of the world intersect, and in that found the small part I am to play as a single instrument, limited but unique, in the symphony. My role is small, but it is not demeaning or subservient the way my ministry was. It is guided by both desire and Spirit, and a constant commitment and practice to bring those two things more and more in line. The more I cultivate connection to Source/Spirit/God, the more these tiny notes are imbued with the significance of the song of the universe.

Faithfulness is also all I can do at home.

What faithfulness requires with my children is an ongoing revelation. They need me to keep them alive, and to affirm the deep value of their lives. They need me to do my duty and feed their bodies, but to prioritize the connection between us that will feed their souls. Moms are all different, and we manifest our love and care in different ways. The same actions can come from striving perfectionism in one mom and from exuberant love in another. My friend loves making these ridiculously adorable lunch creations for her kids—to their mutual delight. She’s not trying to prove anything. She also travels for work a lot, and goes out for drinks with friends. She does other spiritual and emotional things with and for her kids as well, obviously. All in freedom.

My mutual delights are 1) adventures based on the kids most obscure interests, and 2) talking about “stuff that matters.” I enjoy talking to them about God, sex, and universal basic income. Whatever they want to ask about, they know they can ask. Openness is our jam. Gourmet dinners are not. We watch too much television. I lose my temper more than I want to. Sometimes I sit in the car in the grocery store parking lot and listen to podcasts because I’m not ready to go home and interact with anyone yet.

A lot of times 1) what my kids want, 2) what I enjoy giving, and 3) what is best for them are ALL at odds. They want to watch f-ing Mr. Beast on the Roku channel, I enjoy letting them binge Bob’s Burgers with me, and really they should have been off screens an hour ago. This is the normal dilemma every parent knows. We all do our best to prioritize long term goals, but fall back on short term sanity when we need to. We are faithful to the project of giving our kids the best we can, and that is going to mean easing up on the ideals sometimes. It certainly means rejecting those authorities whose interest in your core relationships is financial or political. Or really even those who don’t share your goals.

I have a very hard time really believing that I, with all of my shortcomings and not-enoughness, am the right mom for my kids. They need me to be present, but also to step back when I’ve become a destabilizing presence. They need me to tend my own shit, so that I can help them grow into adults who can tend theirs. Would it be ideal if I were never myself an emotional typhoon? Yes. But refusing to acknowledge the typhoon (because taking time to care for myself might rob them of some nugget of constant maternal nurture) is the recipe for disaster.

I get the concern, which I’ve mostly heard grumbled by unhealed people, that a mom doesn’t have the luxury of tending to her every wound. Sometimes we have to just grit our teeth and do what our kids need. I mean sure, if they are crying and we want to cry too, maybe we tend to their tears first. But also there’s this fear that if we allow ourselves to say “I’m doing this because I need to” then we will say that about everything, and before you know it, we’ll get all pedicures and piña coladas in the name of self-care.

But might I suggest that all that obedience training in our youth…and the imagination of selflessness in our families…is actually what leads us to think that we cannot trust ourselves to know the difference between needs and wants? That we don’t know where faithfulness ends and martyrdom begins? Or subservience? I think we need to talk about reclaiming goodness of desire in the context of faithfulness.

Speaking of that: you may have noticed that discussion of marriage was conspicuously absent from this post. Marriage was nibbling around the edges, but I didn’t really GO there. That’s because it’s about to get its own post. Because that’s where the big test of desire and faithfulness happens.

Remember that pleasing my husband was ingrained in me as a core purpose. Remember I was told that marriage was about duty to God, and my desires couldn’t be trusted. In the ideal of family life, I felt like any need Lewis could not meet was a need that I should not have. ANY NEED. Conversation, companionship, intellectual stimulation, excitement, desire, adventure, laughter, logistical assistance, help around the house, emotional support. I’m going to devote a whole other blog to that list, honestly, because I truly think that we, culturally, have been evolving the wrong way on this for a long time. We’re heaping more expectations on to one person, making marriage some kind of one-stop shop for every form of human connection AND AT THE SAME TIME reducing the goal of marriage to sexual monogamy. I have a whoooole thing about this and I’m going to write about it as soon as I have dress picked out for being burned at the stake.

Thinking about love, pt 3: weights and measures

Sometimes my son and I play a little word game. I will start with “I love you as high as the sky” and he will say “I love you as far as outer space.” That’s fairly standard mom-child fare, but then we see how weird we can get.

I love you as deep as the Mariana Trench.

I love you as loud as a rock band.

I love you as green as grass.

I love you as slimy as a banana slug.

I love you as quiet as silence.

I love you, inevitably, as smelly as a fart.

Our little game is about adjectives and nouns, of course. But it’s also about the ineffability of love. We measure EVERYTHING (thanks enlightenment). Why not love? How much. How big. How deep. The volume or area or mass of love of course cannot be measured. But what can we measure? How do we describe the experience of something we can give, receive, or long for in different ways, in varying degrees and textures?

Generativity: measuring love by our mutual thriving

What my little game with my son reveals is that love is measured by how close it is to our essence. The height of the sky, the greenness of grass, the quietness of silence—without those attributes, the entities would not be what they are. What I’m trying to tell my son is this: my love for you has made me me, and everything my being adds to this world is saturated in love for you.

To be made of love, at our core, is to have a place where the line disappears between giving and receiving, desire and sacrifice, you and me. It is participating in the unity of all things where loving you feeds me, heals me, nurtures me, because I am made of this stuff, and to fill you fills me. To touch you touches me. I am grass getting greener. I am a rock band rocking. There has to be a Source, of course, I cannot generate this kind of love from nowhere, but Source is inherent. It is freely given, and sometimes it flows back to you through others as well. Sometimes.

Like my love for my son defines me as a mother, our commitment to the next generation, our willingness to sacrifice and grow and rise to the occasion for them defines us as a species. Our love is measured by how our children thrive. Not just my children. Their classmates. The children of drought and famine. The children of Gaza. This love is intimate, because there’s a thriving unique to my, Bekah’s, place in the lives of my people, particularly my children. But it is global, because that love can blow you open to the role you play as part of humanity.

The wounds and scarcities of life might limit the ways I can show my love to my flesh and blood people in this oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen world. As bell hooks famously pointed out, love and care are not exactly the same. Care is how we show love, it can be fueled by love. It can put a measurement on love. You could say I love my children thousands of meals’ worth. But that’s not the essence of my love for them. The obligations and duties I take on as a mother wear me out. My insecurities make me draw back from friends when I should reach out. We all experience compassion fatigue. I get tired and cranky because energy, unlike love, is exhaustible. But love expands how far I can go, how many snacks I can make, how many nights I can stay awake. The love is that deep commitment to their thriving, to the eternal generative question: how can I nurture you best?

Growth: measuring love by its pervasiveness

My daughter recently asked me if I loved her more every day. “Of course!” I said.

“Does that mean you loved me less when I was a newborn?” she asked, like the tiny lawyer she is.

“I loved you minutes, then I loved you hours, then I loved you days, and now I love you years,” I said. “I’ve always loved you the most I could in that moment and as I’ve had more time, as you’ve gotten bigger, as we’ve both learned more, the love has grown with it.”

We’ve always used this logic to explain God’s love as well. God loves us totally, and since God’s totality is larger than our totality, God love us “more” than we could possibly love each other. But we grow in our connection to that infinite love, and that makes the love for each other bigger too. It makes us more patient, kinder, more confident, more content. It increases the number of things we can bear, believe, hope and endure. But even when those things are less in number or intensity, it’s still love taking us to the end of our capacity. This is why, when looking at our flawed loved ones, many times, we say “they’re doing the best they can.” The choice is up to us how to accept the love or put a boundary around the pain of a love so severely limited by unhealed wounds.

This whole equation depends, of course, on not withholding. It means not thinking of love primarily as a set of obligations to be met or desires to be fulfilled, checking boxes and going home. I think so much of our wobbly understanding of love comes from our desire to define the container we put love in (friend, parents, sibling, partner) rather than letting the love grow and leak into new dimensions. When we believe that nurture must come from biological parents, or intimacy only from a spouse. When we think that everything a person is to you has been settled by the label on the relationship. We end up casting a play wherein everyone must say their lines and hit their marks. We fire those who drop their lines, and limit what we will say and do for those who have not been cast for more.

But love that overflows those roles does so when all this unruly growth carries the love into and equally expanding spread of canopy and root. The love below expands to fuel the growth and blossoming above. The nutrients of companionship, admiration, camaraderie, desire, enlivenment, challenge, forgiveness, shelter, safety, affirmation, celebration, of seeing and being seen nurture different people in different ways, but the growth is undeniable. It could be a parent who we support as a friend. It could be the spouse who we let off the hook from being our most intimate confidant, without resentment. The question becomes: How should I expand to fuel your expansion?

Generosity: measuring love by its abundance

It was really tempting to use the word sacrifice here. Because in a world of scarcity, where there aren’t enough minutes or resources to meet every desire (sometimes even every need), someone is usually having to sacrifice for the good of someone else. But I think that when we frame it this way, we tend to think of what I lost as more significant than what you gained.

I might be wrong about this. How much it cost me to give you what you needed may be a better measure of the love I carry for you. But when I find myself in the philosophers quandary over “is there any truly selfless act” I wonder if I have missed the point. When I find myself thinking that love is only pure if it costs everything and gains nothing…I wonder why it’s so puny. Surely love, or Love in its godhood, has woven all our needs, desires, gifts together with more creativity than that. Can’t erotic love be a gift to the desired as well? Do my children feel the glow from the sense of pride I have in seeing them healthy and thriving? Do my friends feel nurtured by my delight in them? Biologically we know there’s a purpose to those good feelings that accompany the relationships necessary for the continuance of the species. What if our ethical, spiritual connections are just as mutual, but for the all too regular interruption of scarcity, the great opposer of Love?

I want that to be the case. I want to believe that our willingness to sacrifice is but one aspect of a love that is actually driven by mutual flourishing, and that rather than simply choosing to sacrifice because that’s what we’ve been told life is all about, we can get creative and find a way to let flourishing break through. Probably not all the time. I’ve got an entire book coming out about the cross-bearing this world requires. But in the places where we are not so far gone (that book is about our most intractable conflicts), I wonder if there’s a place to model the kind of love that, from its very strength generates life, healing, and shalom. Not because of its asceticism or its dutifulness, but because of its potency in asking: what can we delight to do for each other?

Thinking about love pt 2: the elements

Of all the gifts this past year has given me, perhaps the most helpful has been the relational language of elements: earth, fire, air, and water. I came to it via astrology, but I’ve found these fundamental life forces to be incredibly helpful all on their own when describing not just the energy we carry in life, but in love. In particular, what we are able to give to each other, why we need each other so, and why no relationship is an island.

In addition to the fact that we are made of the same stuff the rest of the universe it made up, most of us are a mix of elements, astrologically speaking. As above, so below. For whatever reason, most of us manifest certain elemental energy—even if they aren’t the most dominant in their birth charts—in a palpable way. My therapist exudes an earthy, practical, helpfulness that can handle all sorts of weird stuff that comes out of my mouth. Paige, the energy healer, is pure air that expands the space inside and around you in a way that feels both dizzying and peaceful.

I hadn’t put a lot of stock in the elements until I was trying to describe the way I felt after spending time with intimate friends, family, and, naturally, my partner.

The elements are described in astrology this way: earth is our material self, our bodies, our shelters. Water is our emotions, our ability to be feel with others. Air is our intellect, our big connection to humanity or community. Fire is our drive, our desire, our instincts. Different interpretations will push harder on one aspect or the other of this, but that’s the general understanding.

As I think about the elements in relationship, I think about my loved ones who embody that energy most potently, and how it feels to love them and let them love me.

I’m just going to give you a heads up. This post waxes REAL poetic. I don’t indulge this kind of writing as often as I do the more wry, ironic voice or intense, persuasive, intellectual voice. But we all know what that’s about. To be poetic is to be vulnerable, to show that you feel, to risk bumping up against the armor of those unready to be soft. Today I feel soft.

I think about my airy Lewis, the night sky of my life whose constellations are both mystery and guide. When I put too much on him, too much expectation, too many timelines, too specific goals, he begins to deflate. He once believed he needed to be unchanging, but nothing else moves quite like air, and I knew that to love him was to make room for him to think less about “the plan” and more about the possibility in our life. To applaud the dreams and creations, affirming that this is the process that will carry humanity forward. And then the stars began to twinkle and the breeze blew through. Loving air means helping it circulate, letting it carry the scents and shivers it gathers without demanding they be put to use, and give it space to flow in and out of “maybe” without having to say “yes” or “no” right this second.

And to be loved by air is to be inspired. To have breath in your lungs. To stay up late sharing ideas and dreams and walking to the edge of what is possible. It is contemplating the mysteries and being dazzled by the unorthodox. Air subtly surrounds with love.

I think about my fiery children. The blazes of urgent merry-making and indomitable mischief. There is no warmer heart than my son’s hand on my cheek as he sleeps. No more valiant friend and brother. There is no more ambitious plan for shared adventures or ways to possibly break ones leg. My daughter’s fire is a the bonfire of invitation, the magnanimous dominance that says “I can make room for you.” It is her crackling mind that never, ever, ever, stops because it is not fueled by ideas but by her need to share her passion with us. It’s tempting to be afraid of the fire, and yes, in a child it needs to be trained. But when we try to stamp it out, their brightness and warmth go too. Fire it is what keeps our family from growing cool and complacent. It is demanding more of us, making us better. To love fire, you simply have to dance around it. Your loving feet will beat a burn line to keep it from consuming itself, and your joy will let it know that it is never too much.

To be loved by fire is to be desired. To be always sought, always and pursued. Fire loves to spread. Fire love will lend you a candle when your match is lit so that whatever purpose your own fire serves, it can serve longer and brighter. Fire enlivens with love.

I think about my water friends. The ones who can carry any emotion from its depth of ineffability to the shores of growth. I think about how they move effortlessly between the inscrutable trenches to the sustainable surface, delighting in both, sometimes with no demarcation to say where one stopped and the other started. I think water feels the most shame, because it does not stay orderly or invisible. It is present and, sometimes, messy. To love water is to be sometimes a container and sometimes a surfer—but never to cower away for the sake of staying dry. Sometimes offering to dive into the waves, and sometimes being the shore where the waves can crash—but never avoiding a little sea spray. Water loves for love to be spoken. You have to tell your water people that you love them, and let them tell you wild and wonderful feelings, even if it makes you feel weird.

Water washes away the boundaries of who we are allowed to be, and tells us that we are all “the ocean in a drop.” It loosens our own emotions so that they don’t get stuck. It meets us where we are, and carries us to where we need to be. Water moves with love.

And finally earth. I am mostly earth, and so learning how earth loves has helped me know how to ask for love, how to receive it, and what not to shun. I thought I was shallow and vain for loving gifts. Thought I was needy for wanting time. But both of those are just a longing for something that feels real. Loving my earthy loved ones is about presence. It’s about being as there as there can be. Hugging. Feasting. Making the effort. Earth loves meaningful rituals and to know what’s next, not because it’s anxious (okay maybe a little), but because it needs to know you’re willing to manifest, prioritize, and stay long enough to absorb the gifts they try so hard to give, but gifts that soak in slowly. While it seem like they value the instant gratification of a gift, or a touch, or a shared meal, earth wants to hold that tangible thing until they can feel you moving through it and into their soul. They want you to do the same with the gifts and time they give you.

Earth lends you roots to absorb all the blessings of the soil through their shades and cradles. Earth takes all feelings and the longings and the pain and says, “how do we grow from this?” It can feel like being weighed down, but really earth just wants to make it real so that you can be nourished by it. It knows eventually we all need shelter. Earth holds in love.

While we all have dominant elements, we also all have days when the other elements come forward. I have friends who can say “it’s a water day” to explain that the emotions are flowing in unruly ways. We honor it. I can say to others “I need a little earth” when I need somewhere to gather my scattered energy, to help me make a plan. We can carry the fire for friends whose anger grows unbearable in loneliness. We can lift each others faces to the sky when we are stuck.

The elements themselves, in nature, also give us this love. Leaning into the tree. Floating in the water. Breathing deeply. Sitting by a fire. All of that is available to us when the people aren’t available. And, I’ve come to believe, that while nothing can be as potent as the human connection, if we are quiet and still enough, the presence we are longing for is there in the natural elements themselves. It’s more subtle, but some who have lost loved ones know what I mean. We are made of this stuff.

And God is in all of these elements, loving us completely in the oneness at the center of them all, the totality that they compose. God’s presence in each of our unique compositions is potent, and so is God’s presence in the love between our elements, how we nurture each other.

Thinking about love, pt 1: Touch the wounds

This morning both of my kids crawled into bed with us and asked for a “kid sandwich.” The boy child said he was “the meat, because of my huge muscles,” and the girl child said she was the pickles because “I like pickles.” Then the boy child said, “Mom’s the potato, because she’s thicc!” (Thank you, Lankybox, for introducing my children to “thicc”. Having seen “thicc Shark” and “thicc Foxy” you will realize this is not the kind of thicc we were talking about five years ago. This is not Rihanna. Appropriation has killed it.)

“No!” said the girl child. “She’s the top bun because it’s round!” (Clearer now?)

My husband, sweet man that he is, tried to reroute them, but they doubled down, explaining that there’s nothing wrong with being the potato, that women who have babies sometimes become round-shaped, and that, the boy child added “she’s shaped like that, because I got stuck coming out of her and we both could have died. We should be thankful she’s alive.”

That was about all the family snuggling I could handle, so I got up and ran six miles. I’d planned for that, by the way, it wasn’t driven by the comments about my potato-shaped body. But I did run very fast.

I don’t need my kids to affirm my physical attractiveness. I don’t need them to realize that being their mom is not the only thing my body has ever done. I am their mom, and that is the single most important role to them, and if I’m learning nothing else right now, it’s that we need to be able to be give different love to different people. They didn’t know that they were putting their meaty, pickled little fingers right on the very place I’ve been trying to heal lately: my unworthiness wound.

See the wound

I discovered the unworthiness wound through a series of encounters with energetic healers. It lives on my right side between my iliac crest and my false ribs, surrounding the unexplained occasional muscle tension I’ve had since high school. My amazing Pilates instructor, who also does energetic body work, had once put her hand on it and said “something is going on here.” It’s a tight, swirly collection of energy protecting a tender little spiritual wound I’ve had for as long as I can remember. That’s how wounds work, explained Paige, the energy healer who helped me begin to unravel it. We have a part of ourself that hurts (what IFS therapists call an exile, or Jungians might consider a piece of our shadow), and then we put a lot of energy around suppressing it, protecting it, keeping it from being aggravated (what IFS calls protectors or managers, and Jungians identify as ego). When we allow Divine energy to encounter the wound, it moves things around and creates room for Self—the part of us that is one with God—to heal the wound, unburden the protectors, hold the exile, and integrate the shadow.

Self is REALLY good at loving. We want Self around. Self loves like God loves.

Before this sounds like me just bleeding on the page: WE ALL HAVE THESE WOUNDS. If we talk about our shit, we can all make sense of it, and we can get love flowing. That’s how this works. No one heals alone! No troll left behind! (Side note: This is what the latest Trolls movie is all about.) And this is how we heal our communities too. There’s plenty of woundedness in the world, protectors fighting protectors. Healing can happen at every level if we get brave.

But here’s the catch, Paige explained. This was not a wound I could heal through meditation and communion with God alone. This wound was given to me in relationship, she said, and it will be healed in relationship. To prove her point, she had Lewis take my hand, and he felt the wound in his own side, and then tracked the tension as Paige moved some energy up away from my side and out my mouth in a big, gasping breath. Yes, you should totally go see Paige Britt.

She said something important: the people in your life can feel your wounds. It affects them. And that, my friends, is all the impetus this mother, wife, and friend needed to get down to some serious healing.

Know the Wound

It’s not a mystery where my wound came from. I grew up on a steady diet of “you’re a sinner who deserves hell” and, well, diets. I was never thin enough. It’s the culture we had, nothing more to say there. The wound/shadow/exile at the center is an intense, chubby little kid who is terrified you’ll see that she’s really selfish and surly, and doesn’t feel appealing or attractive enough to make up for it. Her protector is the overachiever, the marathon runner, the dutiful daughter, the cool girl. That part uses affections and interests that are absolutely genuine, but also works really hard to make you like me. The protector’s job is to get a little fix of love to take back to the exile. And as I got older, that protector needed a protector too, because she kept getting taken advantage of, and was also very tired. The bigger protector, who adds superglue to the energy around this wound, is the part that pushes you away or closes my heart if I feel an imbalance. She does not wait around to hear you explain why she’s unworthy.

Again, before you think “geez woman, get ahold of yourself,” I remind you that you also have a version of these systems. We all do. This is being human. This is learning to love.

So the protector’s protector—I like to think of her as Bev from Midnight Mass, if that helps—is really, really hard to get past. She’s always on the look out for you to signal that you see the unworthiness, that you don’t love me as much as I love you, that you only love me for what I give you. She tells me stories about “what they might be thinking” so that I can get ahead of the blow. Bev has an origin story, every protector does. She has a “never again” moment. I’m not going to share it here, but Bev didn’t make something from nothing. She’s just…vigilant.

So while the little overachieving protector—I like to think of her as Shirley Temple—will fly across the country, or rearrange my schedule, or plan you a surprise party, or drop everything to talk to you, the Bev protector will immediately be on the lookout for you to reject me immediately after. Her ability to turn things into harbingers of rejection is truly astonishing. Ten out of ten ghosts for that girl.

Touch the Wound

It’s been a little overwhelming to see all of this, because Paige was right: this wound does work its way into my relationships, even my most cherished ones. So when my husband misses a cue, or my friends can’t talk, or my kids call me a potato…the little wound system tightens up. Trying to figure it out alone is almost impossible. I cannot reason my way through. It’s really difficult for me to tell which relationships really do need better boundaries, and which ones need me to chill the fuck out. It’s made me really confused about what love requires, in terms of giving and receiving.

But a magical thing has happened as I have begun to allow the people in my life to place their hands on the wound. Not to literally touch my side, but to learn to accept love that is directed right at that most tender place. I have been honest about how vulnerable it feels to show love when I’m not always sure I’ll be able to recognize it when it comes back to me. These special ones have been able to tell me “this is how I’m loving you”— through constancy, caring for my kids, sending memes, thoughtful seating arrangements, and affirmations that my intensity is okay (even endearing to a couple of them)—and their love has seeped into the the ball of energy around the wound. It has loosened. There have been fascinating physical effects in my back and hips as it does, and, conversely, a sharp pang in my side has become a good warning sign whenever I’m operating out of the wound and need to reorient.

And once loosened, my most beloved have been able to touch the core of the wound. Some of them have managed to reach not Bev, not Shirley Temple, but that intense, chubby little diva at the core. They’ve given me a place to be fully me, which has helped me stop trying to impress my way into people’s hearts. They have given love freely, without agenda or expectation, which has freed me from the endless search to figure out what I can do to earn approval or belonging. As these soulmates have placed their hands on the wound, it has loosened, and the Divine confidence, compassion, and curiosity of Self has flowed in. Because even though healing happens in community, the connection to Self is what makes it durable and allows me to give the love back without fear of losing everything.

It’s the difference between loving and loving freely.

Loving freely allows me to be just mom-the-potato to my kids, because I don’t need them to feed affirmation the wounded parts. By healing, I give them all of “mom” without panicking that potato is all I am.

My kids aren’t the first people to unintentionally aggravate my wound through the body image part. My sister used to tell me that my vibe was the little girl in the bee costume from the Blind Melon “No Rain” music video. When she told me that, I was deeply, deeply offended, because it made me think that my pathetic little exile, not my very cool ego, was what people could see. But as I re-watched the video today, I realized how much I do relate to that bee kiddo, and how good it feels when you find people who see and celebrate your exiled parts. When you see her with the people who love her, you see the gifts she had to give all along.

How Shadow Work is Different from Sin Hunting

For as long as I have been out of Reformed Theology and in therapy, I’ve had a visceral reaction to anything that smells like “sin is the root issue.”

There was the time I was frustrated by a relationship and the therapist told me to consider how I might be contributing to the dynamic. I grimaced.

Another time I identified a behavior I wanted to stop, and a therapist said, “first we have to figure out how this was serving you.” I scowled.

And finally, I encountered some persistent reactions and big emotions, and a therapist suggested they might belong to my shadow self. I folded my arms.

All of this fairly basic psychology language sounded, to my hyper-vigilant ears, like the summons to go on a sin hunt, and I did not want to go. My resistance to sin hunting was keeping me from moving forward in therapy. Therapy that carried no moral judgment whatsoever, to be clear. But then I participated in a kambo ceremony (look it up) and in the physical and emotional purging, I was thrust into shadow work. It was time.

Or rather, it is time. I’m beginning what will be a lifelong journey of accepting and integrating my shadow self, and it’s shed a lot of light on sin hunting and my relationship to it.

What is Sin Hunting and Why Did You Do It?

Sin hunting is the search for the root sin or corruption that is leading to whatever is bothering you. Or whatever is making you bothersome to those around you. Or whatever is just bothering the person in authority. We sit down, usually in a pastoral or “let’s go to lunch” situation, and see if we can’t figure out what morally askew desire, what selfish impulse, what rebellious will, or what failure of perfect obedience is causing you to feel discontent, frustrated, anxious, or hurt.

You’re not anxious, you see. You’re “not trusting God.”

You’re not hurt. Certainly not by those in authority. No, more likely you’re selfish desires and vanity are just not getting the gratification they want, and so you’re miserable.

Institutions train people to counsel like this. Or they just let pastors counsel people despite the fact that they really aren’t trained for it. Most of the time you either end up feeling the like the fox being chased by a hound who is determined to convince you of your sin. Or you feel like someone is digging around in your soul until they find something they can call a sin. Quarry or quarry. Both definitions work.

I underwent this kind of sin-hunting counsel and leadership for 28 years, because for 28 years I believed that there was nothing wrong with the world except the evil in individual hearts, and that if I was feeling anything negative, it had to be because of the evil in my own heart. That’s the only explanation I’d ever been given. If someone else had sinned against me, then I might be upset, but my moral virtue would bob me to the surface like a life jacket. The only reason I’d stay under was if my sin was weighing me down.

Speaking of being under water, that’s what a sin hunt feels like. When I was a kid I would play with my cousins in the pool. They were all bigger, and mostly boys. They loved to hold me under the water while I struggled. It was less fun for them if I went limp, and didn’t struggle. They’d dunk me, I’d ragdoll, they’d let me go. And that’s eventually how I learned to sin hunt. The more I struggled for dignity or the right to name my own feelings and beliefs, the more the authority or confronter would hold me under. As a child, a teen, and an employee of the church, I was not in the position to walk away or win the wrestling match, so I learned to ragdoll. To as quickly and bluntly as possible get to the sin I should be repenting of. I’d even try to beat them to it, which is how I developed the compulsive confession behavior that continues to perplexed my co-workers and bosses outside the church.

Look, I’m not saying sin doesn’t exist. It does, but I think it’s a lot more symptom than problem. That’s all I’m going to say about that right now. I get into it in my next book. You should buy it.

What Were Your Therapists Talking About When You Were Triggered by the Spectre of Sin Hunting?

Glad you asked.

When asking me how I contributed to a bad relationship dynamic, my therapist was not asking me to go on a sin hunt. She was not asking me to consider how the person’s toxic behavior was my fault, or how I was merely perceiving the behavior as toxic because of something sinful in me. Instead, she was asking how I had, perhaps, accepted the role of trash bin, and stayed in relationships where people just dumped their emotional trash and then went on their way.

Which is funny, because what she was really asking was this: how has your view that you deserve misery led you to stay in miserable situation?

Which is funnier still, because the reason I think I deserve misery comes from three decades of sin hunting. That therapist was inviting me to exercise agency, but agency and sin were synonymous in my past life. Taking responsibility didn’t mean making decisions in your own best interest. It meant taking blame, and acknowledging that you don’t deserve to act in your own best interest.

Now that I can take responsibility without automatic punishment, I can draw boundaries. I can consider how I’m allowing a bad dynamic to continue, and I have the authority to change it.

Figuring out how my troubling behaviors have “served me” is not an invitation to look at how my selfish heart is benefitting, or how my pride and arrogance are being stroked by some antisocial habit. When we consider how things like overthinking, over analyzing, rushing to fix things that are not broken, hyper-vigilance, defensiveness, and coldness are “serving me” most often what we mean is protecting. The things that exhaust me, drive wedges into my relationships, and suck the joy out of life are not predominantly behaviors born of my moral insufficiency. They are ways I developed to protect myself.

Which is funny, because the primary thing I needed to protect myself from? Sin hunters.

Which is funnier still, because considering how those behaviors have served me allows me to get to the real root of the problem. It’s not sin. It’s pain. Now that I can name my pain, I can heal.

Sin hunting wasn’t enabling me to grow. It was preventing me.

Which Brings Me to Shadow Work

Shadow work is about getting to know, understand, and accept the parts of yourself you’ve pushed into your unconscious. Most likely you deemed those attributes unacceptable. Or there were behaviors you had to avoid, to you rejected the desires that fed them. That sort of thing.

Shadow work is dangerously close to sin hunting. Except that instead of mortification and further exile, the goal of shadow work is acceptance and integration.

Because in the process of becoming whole, we see that there are no bad parts of us. There are wounds, but they need healing, not shaming or “discipline.” There are maladaptations, but they can be reoriented. There are harmful behaviors, but we can speak to the burdens and wounds that drive them. There is sin, but it’s about our functional theology of scarcity, not our failure to be as good as God.

Shadow work is uncomfortable, and I kept hearing people talk about it like “oh boy, brace yourself.” Being in the throws of it, I’ve been laughing a bit, because while yes, it is uncomfortable, it is nothing like the pain of being quarry in a sin hunt. Or being quarried in a sin hunt. The biggest difference is the amount of agency I have in shadow work. The joyful pursuit of wholeness, feeling brave when I face my shadow, and tender when I feel her wounds, and merciful when I see how tired she is…those are my decisions to make as the Self, whose connection to God enables her to decide when to push, when to hold, when to honor. There is no one here to hold my head under water. I dive and I come up of my own free will, and that alone is healing.

Mediums, Quantum Mechanics, and Abundant Life

A panentheistic installment of the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series

I saw a meme the other day that said something to this effect: all you people who wish your younger self could see you now clearly did not grow up evangelical. That’s me. If my younger self could see what I’m about to type, she’d be shaking her head and saying something about being “just so sad.” But beneath that she’d be judging. And beneath that she’d be jealous.

My younger self felt the need to judge anything that wasn’t orthodox evangelicalism for a couple of reasons: 1) judging other beliefs and practices was how we identified ourselves as “in.” 2) I had to judge it so that I wouldn’t try it. Because I have ALWAYS been curious about the mysterious and ethereal. I’ve always been drawn to hippies and mystics and earthiness and airiness.

So in that sense, younger Bekah, if you’re somehow seeing this on the astral plane, congratulations. We’re getting there. And guess what, you wear a bunch of crystals now and you talked to a medium. Oh yeah, friend, you went all in.

Back in January, for my birthday, my friend Rebekah gifted me a session with her medium. My attitude at the time was, “why not! I’m opening myself up to new experiences, might as well do this too!” The way one would order the most exotic thing on the menu, not because it sounds like what you’re craving, but because if you’re at a restaurant that serves blowfish, you get the blowfish.

But it took the medium and me some time to connect. Six months, in fact.

During that six months my whole relationship to mysticism and the spiritual arts changed. Eventually the most exotic thing on the menu was exactly what I was craving.

Relevant change #1: Panentheism/Christian Animism/Theistic Naturalism

Learning more about ancient religion, world religion, and mysticism has led me to believe that God is truly in everything. Not that God is outside working through creation, but that God is actually an essential element of everything that makes up the cosmos. “In him we live, move, and have our being.” I grew up saying “in Christ” to mean that I was under the banner of Christianity. That I was marked as “in.” To live “in God” meant to live according to God’s rules and desire for my life.

I understand that differently now. I believe that a unified Spirit connects us all to God, to each other, and to the processes of biology. God is not separate from photosynthesis. Created beings are in God by our nature, but none of us have understood all of God. So we learn from each other, we grow in our understanding of God through connecting to each other, to nature, and by directly increasing awareness of the Spirit. I recently read my friend Cameron Vickrey’s new children’s book My Love, God Is Everywhere, and it resonated with this new understanding. We have some old Biblical, churchy, theological language that can hold new life—or rather the life it was always intended to hold—if we will open ourselves to that meaning, as Cameron and her co-author have done.

What does this mean for mediums and crystals and all the woo woo? Well, as I explained it to my gem obsessed daughter, the thought that God would imbue rocks with healing properties is no more odd than the healing properties of plants. We’re all made of the same minerals and atoms, if God is working through natural processes, it makes sense that metaphysical and physical push and pull would inhabit the same places. There’s enough connection between all things for us to make more meaning that we know what to do with.

It also means that, since matter can never be created or destroyed…there could be something to the enduring access to our ancestors. If the matter of the cosmos has been shaped into innumerable forms without every ceasing, wouldn’t its Spirit nature do the same?

While Moira was getting into gems, Asa was getting into his ancestors and runes. Using rune readings as a way to probe deeper into the parts of our lives that puzzle us has been fun, not because the stones or cards are telling our future, or seeing something we don’t see, but because they are helping us connect what the Spirit already knows. Our ancestors have passed down genetic and spiritual reality that like all matter cannot be created or destroyed. Tapping into that wisdom and rootedness should be helpful. It should remind us that we are the result of survival and connection between people, nature, and God.

Relevant Change #2: Connectedness

When I told Lewis that this would be my year of mysticism, his response was “And I’m finally going to get into quantum physics.”

Those two things might sound unrelated, but they aren’t. Serious mystics are geeking out over the revelations of quantum physics and the way the physical world behaves in ways we have always described as spiritual. One of those ways is synchronicity and entanglement. Our energy really does go out into the world and change things. Particles far apart really are mysteriously linked. Quantum physicists are not out there validating the mystic arts, don’t get me wrong, and none of these principles are as broadly applicable as we’d like them to be. Things happening on a particulate level don’t necessarily have big cinematic effects at a perceptible level.

But there’s SOMETHING going on. There’s an abundance of meaning to be made.

Which leads me to the day of my visit with the medium.

Hours before our appointment, I was reading the book The Awakened Brain, by Dr. Lisa Miller, about the science of spirituality. She also gets into quantum mechanics, and it is life-giving and fascinating. Miller’s premise is that tapping into our capacity to connect to others, Spirit, and a world full of purpose and meaning is helpful, because it aligns us to a reality. Spirituality has protective effects on mental health the way water has a salubrious effect on physical health. We are made of it. We need it because we ARE IT. At the prompting of the book, I did one of the meditation exercises to help readers understand the part of our brain wired for spiritual connection. It prompted me to envision my “council” — the people I trust to have my best interest in mind. I did. Around the table were dearest friends, family, Lewis, a mentor. Then the meditation invited in God and Self (the aspect of me connected to God), and ask the room “what do you want to tell me?”

One by one, the people around the table started to say “Go!” Then louder and louder until they were all (even God!) chanting, pounding the table around which I’d summoned them: “Go! Go! Go!”

I smiled at their encouragement, and went on with my day. Had I summoned spirits on the astral plane? I don’t know about that. Maybe it was just my brain reminding me I had people who loved me and wanted me to succeed…but that’s pretty great too. I held it loosely and went on.

The Medium

That evening, as I met with the medium, she began with a moment of asking our Selves, with all their access to the universal Spirit, to meet up and start talking to each other. Aha, I thought, so that’s how this works, quantum physics. By this time, thanks to IFS and ketamine and meditation, I was comfortable thinking about the aspect of myself that lives in a spiritual dimension, with access to far more than I can hold in my hands or perceive through sound and light waves. That part was going to go chat with the medium, to tell her some things she needed to know.

And she must have. Because the medium’s knowledge about my life was uncanny. Things not on the internet, things I don’t really talk about. I’m not going to list them here, because some of them were too personal or would require miles of backstory. But there were two things I do want to share.

The first is a spine tingler. Those who know me know that I really want to leave Texas. I have a deep desire to move, and have for a long time now. Lots of reasons. It is a huge theme in my private conversations, but I have not talked about it publicly, certainly not written much about it. About midway through the session, the medium was looking at her cards and she suddenly said, “Oh! Wait. You’re moving?”

I laughed. “Please tell me you’re seeing that we are going to move.”

That’s not really how it works, though. It’s not fortune telling. It’s more like cosmic advice giving.

The medium could see my desire to move and the steps I had take to make it feasible. Then she named one city, one state, and one region and explained the effect each option would have on our family and careers.

All three were places we had specifically considered. Places I’d looked at Zillow or job boards. Her assessments of the pros and cons were correct. And that gave me all sorts of chills. She also advised against a place that had been at the top of my list.

Then, later in the session, she said she was hearing from my maternal grandmother. We chatted a bit about that, and moved on. We were talking about a few other things when she said: “Hold on. Your grandmother is saying something. She is saying, ‘Go! Go! Go for it!'”

My grandmother was saying exactly what the council had been saying. I had told zero people about this. Not even the spying NSA could have known.


This is the last installation I have planned for Heterodox and Fine, I Guess. There will be more as I evolve, but this is the last of the well that had filled up over the first half of the year. So here’s my conclusion: the Spirit has always been in me, with me, moving through me, but orthodoxy was filtering the information into small, heavily controlled bites. When I grew out of the doctrine and tradition of my first 28 years of life, I never questioned the assumption that spirituality was contained in orthodoxy. So I lost my connection to it, the felt presence of the Holy Spirit.

Rekindling that awareness, bravely considering things that used to make me cringe or judge, has been water in the desert, health to dry bones. The world is becoming beautiful again. I am regaining mastery of my emotions and sturdiness in my love for others. Opening myself to synchronicity and intuition has given me more confidence and delight in the things that seem to “just happen,” to see a benevolent God. I’ve been able to see the kind of mother, wife, and person I want to be, though that’s still the fuzziest part. The best part is that my mind has been reconnected to a source of delight, I can feed on religion and drink from the wellspring of spirit and feel truly nourished.

Freedom has come from doing all of this without the need for an authoritative sign off, and without the goal of becoming an authority unto myself. By making religion a pathway to authority we have made it competitive, exclusionary, violent and fearful. But what if authority—both the authority over what is permissible, and the authority to demand certain behaviors and tributes—is not the goal? What if our connection to God isn’t about getting others to listen to us, or attaining the position that allows us to dictate what is right and wrong? What if it is to give us life, and to give it to us abundantly?