Author: Bekah McNeel

Affirming is an Action Word

As my faith shifted and changed, I found myself in what I could call the borderlands. I vacillated between conservative evangelicalism and affirmation of queer identity, egalitarianism, and solidarity with my BIPOC neighbors in a way that runs counter to capitalism and nationalism in many ways. I’d always leaned toward acceptance in relationships, but when pressed, I’d hold the conservative, Christian, patriarchal line.

That started to change as I met more and more people outside my conservative, Christian, patriarchal bubble, and as more people—people I loved—left it. I got very, very uncomfortable with those old arguments.

But a lot of us were there, weren’t we? In churches trying to stay relevant in a changing culture. With complementarian leaders trying not to look like relics of the Stone Age. Trying to figure out what to say to our LGBTQ friends and family. With the line between nation and kingdom suddenly causing problems.

All but the most stringent and certain had to find a place that at least looked and sounded more loving. But I’m worried that’s where many stopped: at looking and sounding.

If that’s where we end, holding on to our former theologies, but reasoning that “Jesus hung out with sinners,” we aren’t all the way there. We’re living as renters in a borderland, and if we aren’t honest about where our mortgage is, we’re going to hurt people. Being cool, non-confrontational, and avoidant will only delay the pain to our neighbors who start to trust us.

While we are in the borderlands we need to be honest. We need to tell the truth if we still hold a mortgage in the patriarchy, even if we’re thinking about moving, or actively looking for a home on the other side. If you’re not there, you’re not there (to be fair, if you’ve moved your address to the progressive side, it’s fair to share that with anyone who might be invested in your doctrinal position as well).

But that doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers before you change your address.

You can commit to being queer affirming or egalitarian or anti-racist before you’ve got every Bible verse reconciled.

You can vote.

You can advocate.

You can put a woman in the pulpit.

You can perform that wedding.

You can use the right pronouns.

You can march.

You can step aside to let a person of color speak.

In fact, what you do to be affirming might be far more important, far more outward focused, than a handful of doubts or arguments still rattling around in your brain. As long as you are committed, and not going to pull the rug out from under anyone.

That’s where I ended up. Somewhere around 2018, my brain was too crowded to read all the books I needed to read or listen to every podcast on the subject. I had two tiny kids, had started freelancing, and was in many ways feeling very alone. My desire to have things tied up in a neat little bow wasn’t going to be met. But in the chaos the Spirit spoke up, and said, “it’s time to commit.”

So I committed. I started living an affirming life. I claimed my new address. It took some time to move all the furniture in, in some ways I still am. But that furniture—the specific beliefs and nuances—have somewhere to live, a spiritual home built on affirmation, saying “yes” to loving my neighbors.

Your Kids are Privilege Shelters

When you have kids, you want to give them the world. It’s biology, it’s social, it’s personal. It’s love.

When Moira was born, I immediately began doing all the things to give her the best start science could manufacture. All the books, stimulation, language exposure, you name it. There were little things we could do at home, and then there were things we could *invest* in. Following the science was one thing, but there are other advantages money can buy. We weren’t in a place, financially, at that point to upgrade to the Cadillac brain development model, thankfully.

I say thankfully, because while I was running the Moira Show, I was also learning more about public education. I was learning that “good schools” come with a price tag, and the desire to give your kids “the best” comes at a cost, not just to your bank account, but to those who can’t afford to keep up with your spending.

This is a hard truth: inequality is preserved through the resources we pour into the next generation.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be giving your kids all the love, health, curiosity, calm, confidence, and support you can. I am saying we need to bravely look at a system where so many advantages are available for purchase, or require significant parental resources to secure. We have to look at how the market drives life outcomes because “best” (best here being defined only as “most situated for financial and social advantage”) is only available to a few.

The same is true for the insistence on specific “patriotic” or nationalistic narratives. If we raise another generation to believe that whiteness is the central hero in the American story, we raise another generation where whiteness is an advantage.

White parents, if this bothers you, if today’s power imbalances and inequalities disquiet your soul and you find yourself wondering what you can do, the uncomfortable answer is to look at your kids. Where are you trying to make sure they are comfortable and advantaged, rather than secure and fulfilled?

Wealthy parents, where are we trying to buy a spot in line for our kids? Are you reinforcing unjust systems in the name of doing what’s best for them?

All parents, where are we believing total-life-capitalism’s lie that the “best for our kids” is having a competitive advantage over the other people with whom they share the quickly depleting resources of this planet?

Go to hell…jk, please don’t…jk, there’s no hell…jk jk jk patriarchy, ugh.

In the faith system I came from, not wanting sinners (i.e. Democrats) to burn in hell was a sign of weakness. It was mushy.

You know what else was weak? Girls. That’s why we couldn’t be pastors.

So what do you do if you’re a girl who wants to be seen as strong, logical, rational, totally-able-to-lead? You get real cool with hell.

Gandhi? Hell. Unreached peoples? Hell. Sweet old ladies who supported a woman’s right to choose? Hell, for sure.

I could condemn you to hell without flinching, and that was my way of proving that I wasn’t weak like the other girls. I could hear all your arguments about innocence and intentions and mercy and shrug. My God was a man’s man and I was a man’s girl.

This, my friends, is what you get in a patriarchal religion. Girls trying to prove they are man enough to be trusted by condemning people to hell. And the therapy has been pphhhheeeewww pricey.

Because the logical arguments for hell are pretty weak. The Biblical arguments are inconclusive (please don’t leave your favorite proof text in the comments, we don’t do that here). The ethical arguments are sort of disturbing.

And you know what? That part of you that cringes at the thought of sending people to hell? That part of you that was afraid of hell? God made that part too. Emotions are not inferior to logic! Feelings are a way of knowing! Those feelings are there to clue you in to something real: that compassion and fear are opposing forces in this world, polar destinies for every moment. One we call heaven and one we call hell.

Words of Life

We’ve really not done right by the Bible, y’all.

Here’s this book, a collection of poetry, stories, national histories written for peoples in exile, allegories, visions, contextual letters—all of it collected and written by people who were experiencing God.

And we’ve turned it into a checklist. A series of criteria to judge whether you are in or out. In or out of this doctrinal club or that denomination. We debate, debate, debate the right interpretation or the literal meaning and then we have to reconcile that with science and history and the rest of the Bible.

Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, Angela Parker, Rachel Held Evans…these scholars are begging us to take a more life-affirming approach to the Bible for the sake of the souls it is meant to nourish. Reading their work made me so excited to look back at old passages, to rethink the ones that had hung over my head like the sword of Damocles for so long. When a rigid insider vs. outsider reading of the Bible made me weary and burdened, an ever expanding experience of belonging filled me with life.

This isn’t a new idea, nor is it an “outsider” or heretical impulse. Augustine lived in the 4th century AD and he wrote this in On Christian Doctrine: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love ofGod and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

I love giving my kids tools to weather the slings and arrows of growing up. I love equipping them with language to describe their feelings and our commitments to them. I love watching them live their identity. The Bible, when we don’t interpret the life out of it, is a wellspring of those very things.

The poetry of the Old Testament plumb the soul in all its unruliness. The law and the epistles are full of reminders of God’s commitment to be near and guide us. The prophets and gospels are an invitation to a justice-loving, death-conquering identity.

I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to retrain my mind out of using the Bible to argue, even against itself. But as I do, as I learn to use the hermeneutic of love, I’m growing more free.

Authority vs. Knowledge

When I was a kid, I thought that my parents knew how to get from place to place because they knew how to drive. Like once you had a driver’s license, all the maps of all the roads in the city magically downloaded into your head. Or maybe there was a secret to the way directions worked, like a formula you applied.

I thought that being authorized to operate a vehicle made you all knowing on matters of transportation.

Turns out, we just lived in the city where they’d grown up.

I was terrified when I realized I would be authorized to drive before knowing every single road in San Antonio. Two years later I moved to Los Angeles, and was even more terrified. Four years later I moved to London, where I knew I had no business even trying to drive. When I ultimately returned to San Antonio, and my car-dependent lifestyle, I was pleased to find that soon I could drive through the city with the same confidence I’d observed in my parents.

My authority to operate a car had nothing to do with my knowing how to get from point A to point B. In every new place I had to learn directions, street names, and landmarks anew.

After my church meltdown in 2012, I had to learn how to do a lot of things.

I had to learn how to pick a church, for one. I had to learn how to meet friends. How to describe my religious affiliation. Lots of new skills in this new world.

But the biggest challenge was just to make decisions. For all of my 28 years up until then, I’d run most major decisions up a flag pole, not of advisors, mentors, or friends, but authority figures. They didn’t offer advice or insight. They offered answers.

Just like I’d assumed the authority to drive imparted knowledge of directions, I assumed that authority figures had the right answers on all matters. Oh, they’ll tell you I had my own ideas, because I did. But having the ideas and trusting the spirit are two very different things.

The idea that the Spirit of God only spoke through authority left little use for my spirit. It could not sense unseen realities moving between me and the rest of the world. The spirit could not make sense of my desires or my ambitions. Because I believed it could not understand God, it left little for me.

So I was 28 when I finally had to learn how to listen to God for myself. How to let my spirit play a role in the decision making, not just my logical assent to the opinions of authority around me. I was 28 with the decision making skills of a child, and soon I would have children.

It would get very complicated. And I would write a book about it.

Sounds like not-a-me-problem

When I was younger, in my certainty-loving, ultra-controlled churches, there was a right way to hurt and a wrong way. Comfort and compassion were for those who had done no wrong, who had been brave, who had managed to save a few people on their way out of the burning building. Comfort and compassion waited to see how you would handle your grief.

Asking questions or pointing out flaws, especially of those in authority, turned into a me-problem. My tone. My disrespect. My ingratitude.

Prophets are told their anxiety disqualifies them. Anxiety is the thing that tells you something is off, friends. Of course prophets have anxiety. Maybe not chronically, but also, maybe chronically.

Helpers are told to withhold grace. They must choose between quenching the spirit and obeying authority while everybody waits for the hurting person to say the magic words.

I believe we can do better, but we have to get rid of some things first. We have to get rid of certainty and hierarchy. We have to welcome back the prophets, and embrace mystery and belonging.

Tolerance of question-askers and mess-makers is not the goal. Those are the prophets, the new day welcomers. They are essential. They should be celebrated.

A New Year

I’m 38! The most exciting year! Just kidding. There’s nothing magical about 38. Except that this is the year my book comes out. If you’d told 18-year-old or even 28-year-old me it would take this long to meet this particular life goal, I’d probably have felt a little sad, to be honest. I’ve always wanted to write a book, and 38 sounded ancient.

But it’s not. Thirty-eight is just old enough to really get into some healing. To know what I mean when I say “perfectionism is killing you.” If I’d started this journey before 38, I could not have enjoyed it. It’s taken me exactly this long to prepare myself to be able to handle my life. My messy, joyful, sometimes making it harder than it needs to be life.

Until now, a book would have joined the pile of other amazing things I was not able to enjoy. It would have been, like everything else, a living contradiction: you have everything you want, Bekah. Why can’t you enjoy it?

Because it could be better. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.

Because I could lose it. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.

Because I’m too busy trying to maintain it, thinking it all depends on me. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.

My knuckles blanched white on the steering wheel, I found no joy in climbing the mountain of perfection. This year, I hope you and I both find a road less icy, less steep, where we can enjoy the ride. Maybe even an exit ramp, down hill, wide lane, with gorgeous views and places to stop for photos and picnics. Or even a gas station for some junk food.

The first, rebellious thing we do is to say, “what if I have the thing I’m still striving for?”

What if I have goodness?

Even if the goodness is just opening our eyes to another day, or putting our heads on our pillow at the end—that’s the start of an exit ramp. To hear God’s declaration that we are good. Creation is good. God is good. That’s the beginning of an exit ramp from the mountain that tells us it’s never enough, always in danger, and up to us to maintain it.

I want more health, more wholeness, more security and equity for everyone as well, don’t get me wrong, the work doesn’t stop. This is not weaponized contentment, an admonition to be happy with your lot in life. The mountain isn’t the work. The mountain is the reason for the work: the belief that the goal is to reach the elusive top.

The work is what we’re here to do. But I want my work—life, book, family, marriage—to be joy, not perfectionism. I’m taking notes from adrienne maree brown’s vision of Pleasure Activism. And Diana Butler Bass’s spirituality in Freeing Jesus. And from my own, riotous children.

So I hope that you enjoy hundreds of things this year, whether they are tiny daily graces or huge life goals. I hope we all see progress, and enjoy each step forward. I hope we have victories, and stick around to enjoy the after party.

Living With Ants

This is the second in a multi-part series in which I talk about mental health through metaphors in the natural world. Because mental health should be part of our natural worlds. As much as we tend our skin, muscles, and bones we should do for our brains and nervous system. Our spirit, God’s Spirit, is not apart from the stuff of the earth—it moves through it, is a part of it. 

The first wave of ants showed up in late 2019. It started with a cluster around a dropped crumb—entirely explainable, even expected. Like everything else that would unfold over the next 12 months, it did not stay that way.

Within days a few more could be seen trawling the kitchen, reasonably expecting that the slobs who live here might be having croissants or granola bars again.

“Slobs” was the word the ants used. They were judging me.

Soon, there were more. I couldn’t tell what they were after anymore, so broad was their reconnaissance of our kitchen.

Lewis told me he barely noticed them.

Not surprising. As newlyweds, our house had become infested with fleas from an under-medicated indoor dog. He hadn’t been bothered by the fleas, either. It wasn’t that he thought it was okay for us to let them take over, but he dealt with them in slowly escalating proportionality. He was content to set off the recommended number of commercially available smoke bombs, while I was Googling “how to make napalm and will it get rid of fleas?”

History has shown that I was right about the fleas. You cannot DIY your way out of a flea infestation, unless you really are ready to DIY your own arson.

But ants are different from fleas, Lewis reasoned, when I brought this up. These were not fire ants, the backyard terrors of our youth. They were merely little black ants. Harmless, really.

Of course online I could find plenty of harm done by little black ants, which can carry diseases as they crawl all over your food. And sometimes I did find them on the food, and so I had to throw out food, and started keeping things in the refrigerator that did not belong in there, and so some of the food was unpleasantly hard and cold, the kids insisted.

And salmonella-free, I insisted back.

The kids thought the ants were fantastic. Pets, even. The kids had been lobbying for indoor animals for some time, but I keep saying “no,” for reasons that should be obvious. We have one dog. She lives outside. I don’t want to know what kind of mites and parasites are carried by guinea pigs or iguanas.

Off to school they would go, and my husband off to work, leaving me to start my days working from home as a freelance journalist. Those days started later and later as I spent more and more time each day smashing my children’s pets.

The ants, the children decided, would do.

Finally, I did what most bothered people do, and posted about it on Facebook.

Ant remedies appeared in droves, and no sooner was I reading up on diatomaceous earth than a knock sounded from the front door.

It was my friend Gina with a brown paper bag full of baited traps. Gina lives in an old house near a river, which is apparently prime ant real estate. The only thing she ever found to get rid of ants were these ant traps.

At first, she said, the traps will call out more ants. They will be everywhere. Let it happen, she said, they will carry the poison back to the colony and then they won’t come around anymore.

This is Gina, woman of action. She would never let me get carried away by ants.

I laid the traps everywhere, and soon enough the lines appeared. Little black ants—this is their technical name—marching in trails that became freeways, climbing over carcasses to get access to the sweet Borax poison in each of the nine traps.

Not killing them, “letting it happen,” as Gina said, was like not popping a pimple, or picking a scab. Not only was the compulsion there, but so was the “ick” factor.

The kids were thrilled, their sadness at the death of their pets replaced by the thrill of carnage. They invited friends over to watch.

“Quick,” they said, “They’ll all be dead soon.”

They were, and for about six months no ant darkened the gap in our doorframe again. In that six months, the pandemic began.

I assume that word got around, and the collective grieving cast the specter of untold horrors, mysterious and catching, upon our house. Similar to how people talked about the pandemic. Humans stayed away from bars, the ants stayed away from the house.    

By mid-summer they got over it, also similar to how people behaved at that point in the pandemic, as their desire to stand in a tight circle in the shallow end of an apartment complex pool and drink White Claw with loose acquaintances outweighed their desire to ever see their grandparents alive again.  We’d only signed up for the 30-day trial pandemic, and the thing was now on auto-renew. People were asking to speak to the manager.

The ants returned right about the time I was seeing more and more social media posts of my friends brunching in large groups, with wide maskless grins and captions proclaiming how the pandemic had taught us all the preciousness of being together.

Meanwhile the infection numbers in Texas skyrocketed.

The traps, like the social distancing recommendations, did not work this time around. The ants were over the threat of borax. They had learned the value of scavenging, and were too blessed to stress about it.

No amount of hashtag-blessings can keep me from stressing.

When the pandemic ratcheted up the general anxiety in the world (though the stadiums and concert venues in our neighborhood were quieter) I started taking a lot of long walks, as many people did. The walks calmed my mind and allowed me to escape my children whose summer activities had all been cancelled.

On my walks, I noticed a steady proliferation of yard signs.

My tastefully wealthy and fashionably liberal neighborhood loves yard signs. In addition to the Biden-Harris signs there were yards full of Black Lives Matter, Y’all Means All, and Love Thy Neighbor signs on just about every other block.  As a sugar-coated counterpunch to the blessed brunch crowd, yard signs had begun popping up reminding us that we were “in this together.”

That’s a neighborly way of saying, “I saw your Instagram. Thanks for endangering my sister who has an underlying condition.”

The “in this together” signs just made me think of the ants, who were building momentum.

Each little black ant was easy to kill. Their bodies are soft. But the ease of squishing them came with no satisfaction. From an evolutionary standpoint, a species so defenseless only survives by developing other strategies: they quickly reproduce in epic numbers and they walk fast. They’ve invested nothing in durability or longevity, like elephants or alligators have.

 Little black ants win by confounding. They, like all ants, communicate by pheromones so they seem to be creating orchestrated chaos, calling nonstop (in)audibles before you can figure out the game plan. Their adaptive zig-zag movement pattern gives the appearance, when there are many of them, that they are truly everywhere and in everything and that there is no corner of the floor that is not covered in ant feet, and now, of course, salmonella.  

If you listen closely, they are singing a marching song about the glory of lazy and filthy human beings.

Most mornings the ants were few in number, zipping around the kitchen and under the dining room table, the likely places food would be dropped the day before. I tried not to reward their efforts, but being home all the time, we were making a lot more crumbs, validating their strategy and emboldening them. One morning the ants filled the sink, all over a dirty plate left from the night before.

I continued placing fresh bait traps, though they had proven to be ineffective against this new bout of pandemic ants.

“Everyone is having ant problems right now,” my husband said, still determinedly unconcerned, and channeling his own all-in-this-together attitude. “It’s just a bad year for them.”

First of all, I wanted to snap, the ants seemed to be having a great year.

But I knew what he meant. It was the weather.

In 2001 Stanford researchers found that Argentine ants, a common cousin of my little black ants, invading California homes were entirely tied to weather. The study depressingly found that nothing within man’s control could stop them, unless you consider the effect we have on climate change and that fewer droughts mean fewer ants in your house.

South Texas had a mild winter last year, with no hard freezes, so the ants didn’t need to slow their metabolisms and hibernate. They stayed busy. The multi-queen — this is another secret to their power, both biologically and poetically — colonies were booming as the dry, hot summer raged. Right about the time remote learning started up again for the kids, the ants started mating and invading “everyone’s” houses.

My husband often tells me what “everyone” is going through as a way to alleviate my worries over what I’m going through. He assumes that because he takes comfort in knowing everyone is having the same problem, I will as well. He also has a certain amount of pride in being able to handle these universal problems with more chill than everyone else.

He’s notoriously unbothered, and I am almost always bothered. I’m bothered by loud noises and normal-volume noises. I’m bothered by other people’s hubris that has nothing to do with me. I’m bothered by rules that don’t make sense, and people who break rules that do make sense.

Part of the reason I fell in love with Lewis is because he cares only about things worth caring about, while I seemed to be incapable of caring about anything at the appropriate level.  I am either completely ambivalent about things everyone else seems to care about— like home décor or when my children last had a bath— or I care an off-putting amount about things no one else knows anything about, like public school finance.

When I talk about those things, I sound hostile.

“I’m not angry, I’m adamant,” I told my husband once. This is exactly the kind of chill, unbothered thing I say regularly.

Caring is unpleasant when I do it. Like being hugged too hard.

I am not comforted by what “everyone” is going through, because in my darkest moments, I know I’m completely out of my depth with ordinary life, overreacting, over-sensing, overthinking. The hostile tone is because I’m not coping well with things that everyone else is coping with just fine.

Ironically, at this point in late summer 2020, no one in the world was coping just fine, and everyone’s tone was hostile.

Yard signed appeared that said, “Open the schools or refund our taxes.” Middle class parents across the country were demanding that schools reopen, community spread or none, because remote schooling was “unsustainable” “ a disaster” and “simply not working.”

Meanwhile for kids living in poverty, it was exactly that.

About the pandemic I kept a certain amount of perspective. My life was not an emergency situation. We had help. We had good days and bad, but I trusted our school and teachers to make the best decisions.

Meanwhile I was going full white-lady rage on the damn ants.

The ants made it up to my room, where I sometimes ate lunch while I worked, as the kids had taken over the dining room for remote school.

I bought an organic ant spray, made with essential oils. It kills the ants on contact, smells nice, and only makes the wood floors a tiny bit too slippery to walk on. So I just kept it with me.

Until one night I found an ant on my skin while reading in bed. This somehow felt like an escalation of aggression and I immediately went online to deepen my research, a task that would last from about 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. when I am convinced a Google algorithm surfaces more drastic and alarming results.

Ants were in my house, the late-night internet told me, because of  “inadequately sealed doors and windows.” Which is why I now have an unused-but-outgrown disposable swim diaper, sprayed with ant spray, stuffed into the crack under the door to our porch.

Internet marketing is as shrill as the ants themselves on the issue of what I’m doing wrong with my “improper food storage” and “inadequately sealed doors.”

An ant free life is possible, apparently, for those who are proper and adequate.

The only answer was to try harder, which is how many of us approached the various shames brought on by parenting during the pandemic. Our kids are all watching too much television. We were trying to remember to mute their Zoom call before we bribed them with chocolate chips to participate in whatever compromised learning activity they were rejecting like a bad skin graft. 

We were ashamed this was so hard and ashamed we weren’t doing better at hitting “pause” on modern life to bask in the slow pace and glowing hygge of a global pandemic that— if it has not plunged you into abject poverty and killed your loved ones— has brought school and work into a space that was formerly reserved for family life and bathtime.

And there were ants in that space.

By now I could feel them on my skin all the time, even if they weren’t there. I started to refer to them as ghost ants, but Tapinoma melanocephalum already exists. It is another kind of real house ant. To avoid confusion I just stopped telling people about the phantom ants.

I was thinking about the ants when I should have been double-checking a name I misspelled in a story. When I should have been monitoring a pre-k Zoom call. I was killing ants when I forgot about the thick-cut bacon in the oven, resulting in a minor kitchen fire, smoke damage, and some real looks from the team of firefighters who came to the rescue.

instead of a wake up call to deal with my clearly deteriorating mental health, the mistakes just reminded me what a huge intrusion these ants were, and increased the energy I put into keeping them out of the house.

I put aside my work one day to don our newly ubiquitous household PPE and some costume accessories while I spread diatomaceous earth around perimeter of the house.

 “You’re keeping that outside, right?” Lewis asked warily as I blinked at him from behind the steampunk goggles I was using as protective eyewear.

But then I saw ants coming from under the defunct stove, which was waiting to be replaced. So I didn’t think it would hurt to spread the diatomaceous earth around the stove. No one was going near it any time soon.

A steady line of ants came and went from the air conditioner floor vent, and I came close to sprinkling diatomaceous earth into the ducts. Thankfully I remembered what happened with the rat poison I dropped in the air ducts in 2018 during a very similar anti-pest campaign that ended in total renovation of our laundry room. Lewis is an architect so he could handle the renovation, and also, because he knows how houses work, explained that you can’t put poison or eye irritants in the air ducts.

Now, in addition to the ant spray for spot treatment, I kept an eye out for the ants’ entry and exit points, and quickly deployed the diatomaceous earth as well. At least once this involved getting the toolbox out to remove a cable jack cover plate that had been covering a hole in the sheetrock where a steady trickle of ants came and went. The hole is still there, and I’m not sure when we’ll patch the sheetrock, but the ants no longer use this entrance, so I don’t really care.

My friend Denise said I really needed to get up under the house and mix in the diatomaceous earth with the soil. She then offered to do it for me, and she would have, if I had let her. Denise is the kind of friend who sends random texts to let you know she’s thankful for you, to ask how your spirit is, and to tell you the world needs you.

Things were starting to calm down with the ants right about the time one of our kids went back into the classroom for in-person instruction.

Within three weeks, she was in the nurse claiming she was pretty sure she had coronavirus because her “legs, throat, and left nipple hurt.”

During a normal school year, my daughter would have gotten a drink of water and a pat on the back before returning to class. In 2020, she got sent home. The list of symptoms to be on the lookout for is so long, there seems to be very little that could send a child to the nurse without triggering COVID protocols.

She could not come back to school without a negative COVID-19 test. We immediately went to the doctor, cashing in on our one insurance-covered rapid test, foolishly thinking this would be our one brush with the virus.

It was negative. But the subsequent strep test was positive.

So she ended up at home, with antibiotics.

That’s the kind of Rube-Goldberg shit you do as a parent. That and ant-control. That’s why we can’t let it bother us, Lewis says, and that’s exactly why it bothers me.

All I want, all I ever really want, is for life to be unbothered. For my brain to be a quiet workspace, free of existential ants.

This is not a realistic ask.

It’s not realistic because, even without climate change we will have rainy and dry seasons and, according to the entomologists, ants will continue to come inside our houses in some number. Pandemics will happen again. When both of them subside, the dogs will still bark, the internet will still go out, and the economy will still rise and fall.

Unbothered life is also not a realistic ask, because my bothered state is not a glitch. My entire career as a journalist is because I’m bothered. The bother churns anxiety into questions and worries into words. Writing is the exhausting resolution of my inner disquiet, and the only way I can live with the ants.

And you don’t know it, but it’s how you live with ants too. If you aren’t the obsessive one in your life, someone else is doing it for you. And it’s probably the person bothering you.

Our momentary ability to get along and get by is not how we survived. Rather our persistent inability to get along and get by is how civilization has survived.  I’m the reason Lewis didn’t die of the bubonic plague when the house was infested with fleas, or seven years later when it was infested with rats.

Some threats will come to fruition. The ants will come inside. The kids will get sick. My fear of ordinary life may be stronger because of some sort of over-firing neural pathway; I’ve been looking into it. But we’ve all had a year of watching from our isolated, lonely screens as markets bounce, employment skyrocket, and hospitals overflow—is anxiety really a pathological response to anything anymore? Isn’t anxiety even more rational for those who don’t have health insurance, or who live with older relatives?

The remedy is the same whether it’s ambiguous mental unhealth or entirely rational nerviness: we need support, we need tools, and we need it on the good days as well as the bad. We need to know that when (not if) the threats become real, that someone will be there with us, and help will grow to meet a challenge we could never have faced alone—whether that challenge is ordinary life or extraordinary trouble. And we need to know that those people who help us will appreciate the survival skills we contribute to the village too. I need Lewis, and Gina, and Denise. I need my growing mental health toolkit of breathing exercises, prayers, and noise-cancelling headphones. Some folks need medicine. Some need to change jobs or relationships. We all need functional government and community and economic policies. We all need people to make good on those yard signs about being in it together.

It’s tempting to believe that when the pandemic passes, I’ll feel better. As it fades, it probably will, slowly, free up a lot of headspace for many, as we recover, process the various traumas, and pick back up the challenges that never went away. But those challenges that never went away are as big as poverty and racism, and as small as conflict with loved ones and doubts about God. For me, the ants were not just my pandemic anxiety manifesting in something I could semi-control. Remember, they showed up before I’d ever heard of SARS-CoV-2.   I wish they were a pandemic proxy, because that would mean that one day it would end, and I would be the chilled out, unbothered, zen mama I’d always wanted to be.

But I know myself better than that. The ants seem to be mostly in retreat, but we just got new neighbors, and they have dogs that bark.

Birding in Winter

This is the first in a multi-part series in which I talk about mental health through metaphors in the natural world. Because mental health should be part of our natural worlds. As much as we tend our skin, muscles, and bones we should do for our brains and nervous system. Our spirit, God’s Spirit, is not apart from the stuff of the earth—it moves through it, is a part of it. 

A few weeks ago I went birding for the first time in a long while. It’s so rewarding to look at birds when the trees have no leaves. Even though the idea of bird watching in full blossom of spring is nice, it’s hard to see through the leaves. 

In 2013 I started birding when I joined our area’s Master Naturalist program. I was 29, and, as my friends joked, living someone’s grandfather’s best life. I wasn’t retired, technically. I was working in travel marketing and writing more and more frequently for a startup nonprofit newsroom that would become the San Antonio Report. 

I was retired in that I was exploring things I’d never done when I was pursuing a brief, ill-advised career in ministry. I had neglected hobbies not because I had been consumed in more important things, but because I had been conditioned not to be curious. Instead of being curious, I had been keeping busy.

I had come to believe that the most valuable use of my spare time was reading the recommended books and attending church social functions at large houses in nice neighborhoods, all involving some subcategory of the church population (women, singles, etc) making small talk over buffet food, or sitting down to listen to someone in authority talk about sin in a way specific to the assembled demographic. 

This was what I wanted. A cohesive, singular social group where everyone affirmed my life decisions. We would all grow old together, honing our beliefs and behaviors. I was living a leafy life, full of external symbols that everything was fine, with no time to notice the birds in the trees.

When I left total immersion in church culture by way of the spectacular collapse of my ministry career, I was in the same social place as the empty nester retiring to a warmer climate—but the angry type of retiree who shouts at youths.

My calendar was empty. My job was just a job, not the kind of “calling” I’d thought I had (that would change once I got over myself). Nights and weekends felt like a void, so I filled them with writing and, eventually, birding. Others might have gone for heavy drinking or carousing, but I don’t do things that interfere with my habit of reading before bed. Yes, I was born this old.

My first two birding experiences were designed to get me, a beginner, hooked. 

At Mitchell Lake, a manmade wetland system south of San Antonio, birds stop over while returning from their winter homes in Central and South America. More than 98% of migratory birds travel through the funnel of Mexico and South Texas before fanning out across the US to their summer habitats. 

Mitchell Lake is a rare body of water in the dry plains of South Texas. In the spring it is a birder’s paradise, with exotic and common water fowl, predators, and song birds. They land in the various ponds and tanks, easy to spot and identify. 

On that first trip, I didn’t need to look into the trees, because there were so many birds to see out in the open. My head was spinning from the variety of plovers, cormorants, and flycatchers, which I was only just learning to differentiate from a “duck” or a “bird.” 

A few weeks later, as part of my Master Naturalist volunteer hour requirements, I manned the children’s blind at the Kreutzberg Canyon May Day celebration. Sitting in the large plywood box with a plexiglass window overlooking some bird feeders, I helped about 40 squirming children spot their first painted bunting, the most gratifying of all song birds. 

Male painted buntings have brilliant indigo heads, scarlet backs and bellies, and tiers of green and chartreuse along their wings. My friend Tina has one tattooed on her arm, an homage to their daring beauty. (Tina is also a daring beauty and bird lover.) The female painted buntings, like the rest of the bird kingdom, are more practically dressed, but even their shades of green seem impossibly exotic for South Texas, alongside the subtle grays and browns of our mockingbirds and wrens. 

Seeing a painted bunting would make even the most screen-addicted indoorsman consider taking up some casual birdwatching. 

Some of the May Day kids would get frustrated if they didn’t see a bunting right away. Their exhausted parents, happy to sit in the shaded blind for a while, tried to ease the children into a peaceful sit-and-watch, but the kids were clearly anxious that they were missing the good stuff. 

I knew how they felt. My own jaw was perpetually clenched as well. I too was anxious about everything I was missing. Not in the bird blind, but in life.

Professionally, I was starting from scratch while my grad school peers were finally starting to land adequately paying jobs in exciting cities. They were getting promoted, and I had barely started “putting in my time.” 

I was angry. I felt like my entire life had been a set up. 

Growing up, nothing had been more important than Jesus. Our lives revolved around the church. I went to Christian schools. By the time I was 23 I had attended over 2,000 worship services. When I dreamed big, I dreamed about doing big things for Jesus. 

By contrast, the “world” outside the church was dangerous and full of compromise. Succeeding there could mean trading your soul. Of course I had wanted a ministry career! (Here I deleted a loooong digression about how “succeeding” in ministry might be more dangerous to your soul than Wall Street, Washington, or Hollywood.)

But “want” is a scary word for women in conservative religious traditions. In “wanting” to write, teach, and build an actual career, I was a grenade with the pin barely in for most of my time employed by the church. Of course it didn’t work out! 

(Here I deleted another looooong digression about how preacher bros will tell you they don’t have a “career,” they have a “calling” or a “ministry,” and it operates by different rules, different metrics. In theory, sure. In practice, that’s complete bullshit. Demand receipts.)

Not only was I starting from scratch, but I was doing so with a lot of pent up anger. Therapy became a regular part of my life.

Gaining language is a critical part of every journey. I had to open myself up to words like “kingfisher” and “chickadee” and “scissor-tail” in order to be a successful birder. Meanwhile, I had to open myself up to words like “bitterness,” “disappointment,” and “anger” if I was going to have a balanced life moving forward.

As leaves — the rules and rhythms of church life, the social values of the polite people who went there—fell from the tree, it was becoming easier to see some of the birds in my trees.

“Birds” like my need to hear, “this is the right answer,” in order to proceed. 

Like my mistrust for any voice other than condemnation.   

Like anger and hurt.

The leaves eventually came back to the tree as I began to enjoy my new career path, downtown marriage, and travel. Lots and lots of travel. It was a springtime of life again, and I was busy frolicking, tending here and there to the birds I knew about, but only when I felt like doing so.

I knew about the angry birds (ha!) in the tree, the cynical birds, the bitter birds. But I had no idea what else was in there. Other birds are harder to see.

This is true in nature as well. The dense, old-growth ash juniper trees that terrorize allergy sufferers throughout central Texas are home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. They are hard to see.

Ash juniper is abundant, but each warbler needs its own mature tree. Real estate and ranching are competing with them for space. Texas Parks and Wildlife conducts surveys to track the population and ensure their habitat is protected.

When I showed up at Honey Creek State Natural Area for the surveys with my basic binoculars, wide-brim sunhat and short-sleeve hiking shirt, I quickly realized that in wilderness birding, this was not the right look. These were not the sunny walkways of Mitchell Lake or the tended blinds of Kreutzberg Canyon.

After three early morning hours of crawling through uncleared brush, trying to get closer to the dense corona of ash juniper, my arms were red and swollen with irritated scrapes, my hat had nearly garroted me several times, and my binoculars were banged up from where rocks and my own knees had knocked them around as they swung wildly from my neck. 

Surveying warblers relies almost entirely on sound—their song sounds like “La Cucaracha.” It’s easy to spot, thankfully, but while we walked, the more experienced members of the team would quietly pick out the numerous other song birds in the early morning symphony, going only by sound. 

Sounds in general are difficult for me. I cannot “just ignore” things I don’t want to hear or focus on only the things I do want to hear.  Birding by sound requires the ability to do just that, and more.

The birder stands in silence, letting sounds of rustling leaves, babbling brooks, and distant highways pass in and out of their consciousness. If surveying for the diversity of species on a piece of land, birders log the species of each unique song. 

When surveying for the population of a single species, rather than diversity, the listening game is upped, considerably. Birders must know the territorial range of a bird. Once they hear one bird, they must know how far away will they have to go before hearing another. At the edge of one territory they stop and listen. They listen closer to determine the direction of the call, and whether the bird is on the move. 

It is almost impossible to bird by ear while preoccupied or distracted. Unless you live in the most dense urban jungle, birdsongs are part of earth’s constant cacophony. They are the ambient noise of morning, springtime, and idyll. To find the one she is looking for, a birder must be, above all else, present. 

I am not good at being present. In addition to being a generally loud place, my mind is either worried about what it should be doing or longing for what it could be doing. 

And thus, I misplace things constantly, miss critical details, and probably should drive less.

I once drove 30 miles past my exit on the freeway because my mind was replaying a distressing conversation I’d had at the event I’d just left. People would sometimes use the term “spacing out” to describe this full-bodied distraction, but that sounds blissfully opposite of what I am usually doing in my head, which looks more like a cross between the trading floor at the NY Stock Exchange and the tilt-er-whirl at the county fair. 

Once I had kids, I became even less present. 

My career was starting to gain steam when I decided to go ahead and get pregnant. I was 30, and several friends had recently shared their difficulty getting pregnant in their late 30s. They advised me not to wait too long. I don’t regret taking their advice, because the egg on deck turned out to be Moira. I am certain that I only had one egg in my entire stash with the mix of confidence, pizazz, and intensity that is Moira Sage McNeel. I’m really glad we fertilized it.

My heart expanded to accommodate her, so intense was the love…but it was always present. My whole mind, whole heart, and whole attention were no longer available to anything but her. 

But even she did not get my undivided presence, because the unbearable scarcity of time leaked into most of our moments as I wondered “is she happy enough with that teething ring for me to try to get some work done?” “Will she nap long enough for me to finish this story?” 

Choosing to work as a mom—not needing to, but choosing to—was controversial in the world I came from. Women were encouraged to give into the ravenous, all-consuming desire of children who say Machiavellian things like “don’t go to work, mommy. Stay with me!” 

The leaves had once again begun to fall off the tree as I saw my birds of insecurity over how to discipline her, and my perfectionism birds needing to prove that a working mom could still be a super mom.

But my daughter was amenable to coming along on reporting assignments, errands, and a work trip to Argentina. Her need for me seemed to be mostly a mild preference. I could actually “do it all” with her. 

She left enough leaves on the tree for some birds to hide.

Two years later her brother arrived, just as her intensity hit full-on two-year-old. I didn’t have feel like I had time to go to counseling when I needed to. The tree was stripped bare. 

From our first night in the hospital, Asa has not been able to sleep unless he is touching someone, preferably me. I had to wear him in a sling at all times. If he had his way, we would hold hands forever. As a baby, he would stare deep into my eyes until he fell asleep. This morning, four years later, he told me, “I want to just be everywhere you are so we’ll never be apart.”

It’s as sweet as it sounds, and I feel so lucky to be loved like that. Also true: I’m very, very tired.

He forgets nothing, and has a will of iron. He weened and potty trained himself with almost no intervention from me or any other adult, so I’m certain one day he’ll use it all for the greater good.

My heart expanded again to accommodate him, but my energy did not. My career kept growing. My children were beautiful. My marriage was strong. But I was completely unable to enjoy it. I could not keep the leaves on the tree.

This was different than the first winter. It wasn’t a strong gust of disappointment and sudden change that cleared the leaves. This time it was just the tree, unable to hold on in the middle of everything going fabulously.

For most of 2016 and 2017, I was a bald pile of nerves and pathos, hastily swept into the shape of a human each morning, only to unravel into tears, keening, stuttering, and pacing by night. 

Things were grim. 

If you knew me in this time, and you are thinking “I had no idea!” don’t worry. If you suspected and pushed, like my husband did, I probably bit your head off. The worse off I am, the less likely I am to show it, the less I want to talk about it, except to tell curated stories about how I’m taking it all in stride. Pro tip: I’m NEVER taking it all in stride. Where do you think those intense, iron-willed children came from?

Inherent to my particular disposition is the compulsion to “power through.” It took four years for me to get the kind of help I needed, and the tree remained bare until then. Once I got myself back into therapy (a more intensive version this time), it was time to take a look at the birds deep in the branches.

First I saw the anxiety twittering on the bare branches like a kinglet, nervously hopping from branch to branch just in case a meal is buzzing by. Then I heard the cry of sensory processing issues, shrill and defiant like a jay. Then the obsessing and compulsions like the phoebe, which bobs her tail to let the predators know she’s onto them. 

I had a lot of leaves on my trees before I lost my first career and had kids. Lots of rules I could keep, lots of activities I could do, lots of people I could consult. Warmed by long days of sunny consensus, my leaves converted all that agreement into frenetic energy and hid my inner self from observation. 

If my leaves had not fallen off, if I had had the evergreen life I wanted, I never would have known the birds that lived in my tree. If everything thing had not fallen apart, and if I had not then fallen apart when everything else was going great, I never would have gotten a clear view of my deeply held beliefs, some of which, it turns out, are fully developed neuroses. 

As I’ve gotten to know their nuances, not just the bright buntings, but the shades of wren-brown and dove-grey, the birds in my tree have become less confusing, and easier to predict. There’s nothing wrong with an evergreen life, but I’m thankful that mine has included at least two bleak winters. I’m thankful for a season in which there’s no way to miss the birds. Now that the leaves are coming back, the birds are still in there, so it’s good to know what they are up to.