Author: Bekah McNeel

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.

The Smell of Drowning

For most of my childhood we lived near water—either the ocean, a lake or a river— the perfect buffer between adrenaline and death.

We’re all very good swimmers, my mom made sure of that. I started swim lessons at nine months old. This was in part just general precaution, our house had a deck that hung over a canal along Corpus Christi Bay. I had already rolled down the stairs, I’m sure my mom thought a tumble into the silty, lukewarm bay water was inevitable. 

But looking back on life around water with my dad, Mom’s urgency about the whole thing takes on a new significance.

Jumping off of things is a favorite pastime of my dad. He was always looking for somewhere to hang a rope swing or see how many flips he could turn off of a cliff. And he absolutely encouraged us to join him. I’m glad I took him up on it. I think it made me a better, braver, more fun person who can honestly say, “I’ve survived some stuff.” 

Soon I was jumping off my own cliffs.

In high school, my boyfriend and his friends planned a “couples’ hike” that ended at a jumping-off spot on a cliff over the Frio River.

When we set out, the boys in the group had promised a romantic walk to see the sweeping Texas Hill Country vistas before we jumped. To me and the other girlfriends involved, this sounded like a swim suit and sandal situation. Three miles, two sweaty armpits and eleventy-hundred blisters later, we reached the part of the hike where we had to slide down the face of the bluff through scrub brush, laced with cactus and fire ants to get to the limestone ledge where we would jump 40 feet into the river below.

I was about midway down the bluff, vowing silently to break up with my boyfriend, and I could hear the others hemming and hawing on the ledge beneath me. Who would jump first? One girl was now too scared. Had anyone confirmed that the water below was in fact deep enough?

 The butt of my white board shorts were caked in mud. I could smell my body odor. My skin was itching everywhere that it wasn’t stinging. I was willing to jump 40 feet into the unknown just to get away from my boyfriend. 

“Move!” I yelled from above, and ran like a mountain goat down the final, brushy, six-foot slope and, as the observers across the river later told me, came flying out of the bushes with no warning, no countdown, flailing like I was on fire. 

Being the first to jump will get you a beer, get you laid, and eventually get you paralyzed from the neck down. For a tea-totaling fundamentalist teenager, only one of these was a viable possibility.

Fortunately, I had super responsible girlfriends in high school.

One summer, while hanging our feet in a trickling creek, I left my friends in their bucolic state and scrambled up a boulder on the other side. The boulder was about 15 feet tall. The stream below was just deep enough to cover the rocks in the creek bed. But it was crystal clear, I reasoned, so I could avoid the larger rocks and hit the water with about three feet of cushion.

“Get down,” my best friend said, “Now.”

“If I bend my knees when I hit the water, I’ll be okay,” I called back. (My dad taught me how to do this.)

“You will not. You’ll have to learn to paint with your teeth,” she said. Here, our evangelical upbringing might have saved my life: she was referencing Joni Erickson Tada, the Christian author and painter who suffered a diving accident as a young person that left her paralyzed from the neck down. She paints with her teeth. 

And now, thanks to Lee’s quick thinking and our shared catalogue of women’s devotionals, I do not. 

Seeing me prepare to jump, I had always assumed something deeply maternal fired in Lee’s animal brain. She recently corrected me, explaining that it was a “weary stating of the obvious.”

Jumping wasn’t the only way to die in the water. There was also drowning.

In New Braunfels, where we grew up, the odds are not in the weak swimmer’s favor. I doubt my mom foresaw this when she enrolled me in baby swim classes, but she’d also probably split the credit with God’s will. 

Schlitterbahn, the world’s largest waterpark, sits adjacent to the Comal River with its various dams, man-made rapids, and springfed pools with cavernous bottoms. The Guadalupe River runs through the town as well.

And if you live in a town like New Braunfels long enough, eventually you visit all of these inherently dangerous places at night, sometimes with alcohol and hormones involved. Someone almost always has a near death experience. Nearer than all the other near death experiences.

I’ve spent a cumulative 40-50 minutes of my life trapped at the bottom of an undertow, watching squishy butts wedged into black rubber tire inner tubes pass between me and the sun. Or trapped under a pool float. Or held under by a cousin.

One of my most profound sensory memories of childhood is the smell of almost drowning in fresh water. Salt water is not the same, I found out when I tried surfing for the first time. Salt water feels like a stone mason is scraping out your sinuses with a crusty trowel. Cholrinated water smells like a chemical burn. When fresh water shoots up your nose— either from your own jump, an undertow, a overturning tube, or the wake of a boat— it smells like primordial life…about to end. Like suddenly the oxygen you breathed has something both natural and deadly in it (it’s hydrogen). It blasts through your sinuses, leaving your throat raw and irritated, I assume because of all the decomposed algae and fish poop. 

The smell is impossible to separate from the burning sensation of running out of air, the sight of warbled sun above the surface, and what would be total silence if your inner person were not screaming “this is IT! This is where you DIE!” 

As kids, we lived for that smell. 

It was not only the smell of nearly dying, but the smell of living at your edge. If you could enjoy a float down the river or a trip to the waterpark without having your sinuses pressure-blasted at least once, you were hanging back. Next time you should try it without your life jacket. Trade the skis for a slalom. Try to add another back flip when you jumped out of the tree. 

That’s what I’m still doing, probably. Pitching news outlets out of my league with stories too big for me to tell. Applying for jobs I want, but am in no way qualified to have. Taking my kids to the grocery store on a Saturday during a pandemic when they haven’t been to a store in eleven months. I’m looking for my edge, and I’ll know it blasts through my sinuses. 

“I’ll cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

One night in college, a group of girls in my dorm were hanging out, getting philosophical about empty threats. Like the professor who was way too lazy to make everyone rewrite the papers he would have to then reread. Or the student life staff member who would not actually remove our dorm doors if we snuck boys in (it was a Christian college).

I thought of one: “Like when your mom threatens to cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

Six pairs of perfectly circular eyes silently fixed on me. It was like I’d just said…exactly what I’d just said. 

“Hyperbole, right? We’re talking about hyperbolic threats?” I stammered, as though it was the literary concept I had misunderstood, and not the dynamics of parent-child relationships. “So like, when your mom threatens to ‘beat you like a piñata’, or ‘pinch your head off and tell God you died’…that’s how you know you’re not actually in that much trouble.”

Finally, someone else spoke. “Moms don’t do that.”

My mom sure did.

My mother was all about the grisly threat. And they were hyperbolic, and hyperbole was a tell that everything was going to be fine. If she couldn’t think of a legal way to punish you, you were in the clear.

It wasn’t just she who was going to kill us. It was everything else too. Whenever she needed to explain why we could not have what we wanted, the reason was some version of, “because you’ll die.” I don’t think she was overly worried about our dying, actually, she let us take a lot of healthy risks like playing sports, driving, and staying out reasonably late. But rather than argue about “fair” and “taking turns” and “whether or not she was ruining our life” she just told us it would kill us.

Me: Mom, can I set the space heater up in my room?

Her: No, you’ll catch the drapes on fire and we’ll all burn to death.

Me: Mom, can we get the internet at home?

Her: No! The internet is full of predators who will steal your information and then sneak into your house and kill you.

 As a mom myself now, I get what she was doing, because I want two primary things for my own children: 1) to stay alive, and 2) to stop arguing with me. My mom’s methods were colorful, and the colors were dark. It was kind of her brand.

When we built our house out on the fringes of a small town in the Texas Hill Country, we were disturbing, apparently for the first time, uninterrupted wildlife evolution. Either that or we built the house on the site of some midcentury nuclear testing zone, because the insects on that property were gargantuan. Not like “everything-is-bigger-in-Texas” big. These were mutants.

The grasshoppers had facial features. Like little eyebrows they would raise as they watched you shriek and wail in fear. The moths were like birds of prey. There were also birds of prey, but they were normal-sized.

Most harrowing of all the insects were the centipedes. They were like something from the Jurassic Period. Huge, with detailed red pincers and yellow legs. They grew up to five or six inches out there in the nuclear zone.

To keep them intact so that we could all admire, my mom would catch the centipedes alive in Tupperware and put them in the freezer. Something about their biology makes them die in strange defensive and striking postures, and my mom saw the chance to add to her extensive collection of taxidermy.

We already had deer and fancy deer cousins, a turkey and fancy turkey cousins. Also a very stern-looking sheep cousin (but no ordinary sheep). My mom started posing the centipedes in battle scenes around the house.

It scared the shit out of the maid one day. This gave my mom the idea to move the battle scenes around the house so that they would scare the shit out of everyone.

My mom loves scaring people. When I was in middle school I learned the story of Emma Voelker, who was axed to death at age 12 by a family friend who broke into her house looking for his estranged wife. This all happened in New Braunfels, the town where I grew up. The ghost of her murderer, William Faust, supposedly haunts a hotel in the next town over.

Shortly after reading this incredibly sad story, my mom and I were staying at my grandparents’ ranch, way out in the middle of nowhere. No one else was there. My mom went to the restroom and didn’t come back. Soon the windows and doors started rattling and creaking. Once I was good and scared she burst into the kitchen and yelled, “I am the ax murderer!”

It was the most terrified I have ever been. Except when she snuck up outside the kitchen window of our house while I was baking and lunged forward out of the darkness like some kind of poltergeist, plastering herself onto the window.

Actually, no, scarier than that was the time she pretended to be dead in the pool.

Dark humor is not for everyone, but it’s absolutely for my mom and me. So is hyperbole. It bothers me a little when I meet people who seem genuinely disconcerted by dark humor and hyperbole.

Like in an interminable meeting when I whisper, “Oh my god if he talks for one more minute I’m going to jump out this window.”

And the person next to me whispers back, “That’s a bit overdramatic.”

No, no, Stan, I would actually incur serious bodily harm over a slide show. That’s exactly the kind of stable person who can hold the kind of job where you watch two-hour long Powerpoint presentations on insurance plans. The kinds of people who go jumping out of windows to express their annoyance.

I know I’ve found my people when, instead, they whisper back, “I’m going to push him out the window.” 

People really seem to want me to be optimistic, bright, and cheery. Maybe it’s a woman thing, maybe it’s a mom thing, maybe it’s a Christian thing. This was a difficult essay to write, because I had to keep erasing things that my internal editor flagged as “too dark.” But I’m saving all the deleted bits, because my mom will think they’re hilarious.

Too often, “gratitude” is mistaken for “sunshine blazing out of every orifice.”

When I have to pretend everything is okay, I actually feel less okay. The more pressure I feel to overlook the grim bits, the grimmer they seem. Like the thing I’m quashing really is too big and too scary to look in the face. I think Tig Notaro’s famous “I have cancer,” set at Largo lives in legend because it proved how badly we all need to transgress the rules when the rules are telling us to be scared.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have gallows humor because I see gallows everywhere. The anxiety and the resistance co-exist, always. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

The world needs cat videos and surprise engagement on live television, yes. But it might also need the cauterized nerves of people who lived with foreboding long before a global pandemic and, as of today, a colossal failure of deregulated utilities and laissez faire governance leading to the slow freezing of an entire state.

Foreboding is not just “worrying.” It’s more creative than worrying. It’s worrying with cinematography.

When Lewis and I first married, I was sure every siren was an ambulance on its way to scrape him and his mangled bike off the street. When he turned 31 I made him go to the dermatologist to get a “baseline assessment” of his skin so that I could watch it for moles.

Now that we have kids, he’s on his own. My foreboding has moved on.

In just about every scenario, I involuntarily picture my children dying. When we were sailing through the fjords of Patagonia — which is a real sentence I can’t even believe I just typed — I couldn’t help picturing my 6-month-old wiggling free of my iron-fisted grip, falling overboard, and disappearing into the icy waters below. 

I picture them getting hit by a freak runaway delivery truck plowing into our driveway.

They are 4 and 6 years old, but I imagine them accidentally smothering themselves with their stuffed animals. I took those “crib safety” checklists to heart, apparently.

Remember that scene in Gravity when Sandra Bullock’s character tells about how her daughter died of a bump on the head? I think about it ALL THE TIME. In fact, in that entire merciless anxiety attack of a movie, I think about it the most. But you know what? I also pictured my children drifting away from me in space like George Clooney. We’ve never even been to space!

The key difference between me and the mothers we typically think of as “worriers”: I don’t do anything about it. My kids still play in the driveway, sleep with a gazillion stuffies, and hang over the edge of the boat to look into the icy waters below. I take reasonable precautions, and then proceed. If they want to be astronauts, I’ll not stand in their way. After six years of parenthood, I’ve learned that my level of foreboding is not one of those “red flags” you’re supposed to listen to. It’s the “Caution: Contents are Hot” on a steaming cup of to-go coffee. It’s always there, and never necessary.

Foreboding, to me, is just awareness of the obvious. Things could go really wrong, and they still will even if you pretend they won’t. In fact, pretending that they won’t, or pretending that they haven’t, or pretending that you have nothing to do with the reason they did is the recipe for making them worse. Like, for instance, the way the Electric Reliability Council of Texas handled this week. Or take COVID-19, for instance. Everybody from the federal government to the party people next door could have used a little more foreboding.

I could probably get by on less.

Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies, or read too much in the checkout line at the grocery store. I also suspect there’s a genetic component. My mom was always reminding us not to play on the stairs, because she’d had her tubes tied and “couldn’t get another one.”

Death is the ultimate hyperbole, because it’s literally the worst outcome of every situation that is also going to happen to everybody. It’s shorthand for all the ways life is painful, terrifying, and the lonelier gallows that I’m not ready to talk about yet. For those who will eventually die, death is the absurd punchline to life. The resolution of tension set up by continuing to live, continuing to strive, continuing to fill my heart with delicate joys. It’s the left hook out of nowhere, the ironic turn.

I want the gallows to know I’ve got a bead on them. I’m the one telling the joke. I’m not making light, but making the darkness livable.

My darkness is my bullshitting tell. I really am rooting for you, humanity.

Pro-Boob Propaganda

 Though he died when I was only 18, Billy Wilder seemed to have a knack for imprinting things on my brain.

It was he who said that Audrey Hepburn “might single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past.” 

He was also the one who directed Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot, to lament that, because of her boobs, “nothing ever hangs right.”

I know exactly why Billy Wilder’s boobisms stick in my brain: I’m wildly insecure about my breasts. By age 14, I wore the same bra size I would wear until I was nursing children, and basically felt like a walking D-cup with no other features. 

The Audrey assessment confirmed everything I had suspected. The hype around boobs was a sham. They were a thing of the past. 

When I heard the Marilyn line, I thought it was nice to have camaraderie, especially with someone who was, I think we can all agree, more attractive than me. “See! Even Marilyn Monroe gets it.” Boobs were nothing but trouble, and the reason all my shirts hung like circus tents.

A girl with less on her chest might have glossed over Billy Wilder’s anti-boob statement. When watching Some Like It Hot, my more streamlined friends might focus on the reaction of the male characters who heard Marilyn’s complaint. The movie makes it obvious that the men see no problem with the way her shirt hangs. 

Whatever you’ve got, it’s going to be the wrong thing. You can be Audrey or you can be Marilyn, but you can’t be happy.

A therapist told me recently that psychologists are starting to believe that it’s not possible for the majority of Americans to have a positive body image. That neutral is the best most of us can hope for. Hating our bodies is as American as the apple pie we ate after everyone went to bed and then purged into the toilet.

As a teen it felt like the only pro-boob propaganda out there existed in the trashy cartoon, plastic surgery, and porn worlds—neither where I was, nor where I wanted to be. Boobs could be objects, but they could not be assets; not for a woman like me.  I was more of an arts, culture, and academy kind of girl. Later, when I discovered feminism and leftist politics, I felt like my genetics had sold me out to the patriarchy.

Are there any other body parts that take over so much of your identity?

It wasn’t all in my head. People noticed. 

At a slumber party for my cheerleading squad, my far less developed friends begged me to let them see what kind of fruit would fill out my bra. Cantaloupe is the correct answer. 

Contrary to stereotype, cheerleading was boon to my body image. I am sturdy and strong, and so was able to throw the little pixie-like squad members into the air. I could finally see the purpose of my body being built the way that it was. Most of the time, I was hounded by the arbitrariness of my entire body, especially my breasts. I wanted to point to some evolutionary advantage of my big boobs, but there isn’t one. There isn’t really a purpose to them being this big at all, they just are. Like an appendix or vestigial tail.

In cheerleading, at least they were attached to a powerful, purposeful body. All the jumping and tumbling, however, was an endless source of angst for my mother. 

My mom didn’t know about the specialty market that exists for big-breasted athletes. Later in life I would spend $90 on a bra so tight that came with instructions on how to slowly acclimate your lungs over several days before actually wearing it to work out.

However, the neon pink $30 sports bras of high school were not up to the task of my ample bosom. Even when I layered two of them, there was significant bouncing as we cascaded onto the basketball court to get the crowd going at halftime. My mom’s solution was to buy me a full corset with three-inch-wide straps and about 30 eye-hook fasteners, and cups made of inflexible material that gave my breasts a distinctly Happy Days shape. 

One day before practice I went into our cheerleading squad’s dressing room to find my corset hanging on the wall, with two fully inflated balloons filling it out. My mischievous squad mates again claimed to be jealous, which I didn’t believe. They all bought their prom dresses in the trendy junior section, while I was trying to find a bridesmaid gown that didn’t make me look like someone’s spinster aunt.  

When dealing with insecure teenage girls— who all exist discontentedly along the Audrey-to-Marilyn spectrum— it’s impossible to tell when they knew how mean they were being. 

One friend, from church, also had big boobs, but she was six inches shorter than me, and wore size two jeans. Her boobs were more problematic, she insisted, because they were out of scale with her “tiny body.” I should be glad, she said, that mine were at least proportional. 

A giant body to go with my giant boobs. 

Trying on clothes once during my ultra marathon-running years, another friend said, sounding genuinely surprised, “Wow. You actually have a small waist.” Then she trailed off, as if to herself, but fully audible: “It’s just those boobs…”

Most of the time my breasts made me feel either matronly or raunchy. When I tried to put on a tighter shirt that made me feel less like the evil headmistress of a nineteenth century school for unwed mothers, I would get called out by youth group leaders and Christian school teachers for immodesty. 

Ironically though, as much as my parents, pastor, and Christian school teacher were griping about the loose morals and gay agendas of Hollywood, they found themselves in agreement on women’s responsibility to be thin. 

When I was in middle school, my pastor’s daughter—a stunning, lanky college student—led a girls’ summer Bible study about being the kind of woman that pleases God. I remember nothing except that there was an entire lesson devoted to keeping a trim figure and dressing in a flattering, feminine way. 

My jiggly D-cups, in contrast to all the training bras and countable ribs around me, were anything but trim. When I dressed in a feminine way, my mom told me to go upstairs and change.

Pleasing God, the workbook made clear, was synonymous with pleasing one’s future husband. So having a body that boys liked was really important, like Ten Commandments important. But we were also responsible for their purity—those youthful penises weren’t going to keep themselves flaccid.

Which made the Audrey Hepburn ideal very, very desirable for girls who were trying to be the right kind of desirable. Audrey was a fashion icon. Marilyn was a sex icon. Men go gaga over both women, but stills from Breakfast At Tiffany’s seem less likely to be taped to the underside of a 15-year-old boy’s bunk bed. 

That’s how boobs, and the women who have them, are framed in American culture—masturbation fodder. Or as the evangelicals call it: temptation.  We can openly admire eyes, shoulders, legs, and arms, even lips, in an aesthetic, non-sexual way. But breasts are private parts, like the sex organs. Except they’re not. They are visible all the time, at least in silhouette. Imagine if men had to wear thin, stretchy pants all the time… and were always fully erect. Not so private. 

My own disdain for my breasts, and the weird religious messaging surrounding them, somehow twisted around in my brain until I believed that they—as the primary feature of my general appearance—were the reason boys didn’t like me. 

For all the jokes about boobs, and boys who “tripped” in front of me in the hall, I figured, what they really wanted must have been a gamine fashion icon who could wear a Givenchy coat with nary a wrinkle. Boobs were just too brazen, too obvious, too much. A thing of the past.

I was bemoaning my breasts to one of the two culprits who gave them to me: my maternal grandmother, Jo Nell. 

Jo Nell, cigarette in hand, gave a reassuring chuckle and said, with all of the certainty of a gorgeous woman born in 1930, “One day those boobs are going to make somebody real happy.” 

I left her house thinking, wistfully, if not glumly, “Maybe one day I’ll find a guy who likes big boobs.”

(Cue hilarious faces from Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis.)

Boys not liking me occupied a lot of my coming of age mental space. I have a high IQ and a lot of energy, and probably could have applied that to making the world significantly better.  Curing cancer, that sort of thing. Instead, I spent it on relentless self-improvement, or what I thought was improvement. What I was really doing was trying to figure out the science of attraction, solving, of course, for the liability of my oversized breasts.

To help boys overlook my glaring bra size, I reasoned, I would have to cultivate a winning personality.  I was constantly taking notes about how to not be the kind of girl that irritated men. This led to the least feminist season of my life, sandwiched between my evangelical Christian upbringing and my first grad school course in Gender Studies.

Trying to be “not like the other girls,” ironically, was supposed to make me more appealing, romantically. The heroines in most books and movies I liked were plucky tomboy types who stand out from the demure crowds in an appealing way. Laura Ingalls. Jo March. Calamity Jane. And until Elsa of Arendelle changed the paradigm for a new generation, the disinterested heroine always got her man. 

In one useless way, it worked. By the end of college, I had heard the following: 

“Why can’t every girl be like you?” 

“You’ve got me really spoiled thinking all girls are like this.”

“You should, like, teach a class on how girls should act around guys.”

“I wish you could convince my fiancé to read more ‘serious’ literature. Like you.”

None of the boys who said those things wanted to date me. All compliments were given solidly inside the friend-zone by boys who had no idea that I had a massive crush on them. I had kept that fact hidden because girls who like boys, according to the movies, are not the girls boys like. This is a strange mixture of the unattainable babe archetype and the evangelical culture of male pursuit. Again, Hollywood and Evangelicalism have more in common than they like to think when it comes to flattening women (pun intended) into two-dimensional objects.

Be austere Audrey hidden behind your iconic overcoat until he decides it’s time for you to be breathless Marilyn in a negligee. 

You’re too much until you’re not enough. 

It’s all bologna.  

In a world where men had all the power I was trying to impress them into liking me, which, it turns out, is not a recipe for true love, even in patriarchal evangeliland. If serious-literature-lover had left his fiancé and run away with me because I was reading Camus in college, I would be stuck in a lifetime of pretentious drivel. Camus’s and the boy’s. 

Being a woman is a war zone, so grab your friends and hop in the foxhole. Audrey and Marilyn are icons, but they were also real people, and they probably could have used some more girlfriends. Sisterhood isn’t perfect, but it’s necessary. Girls have hurt me, I have hurt other girls, but we’ve done so less when we aren’t letting the boys decide.

Healthy people like people who like them back. People like people who do irritating things. They don’t love the irritating things, but they love the person doing them. People like clean lines and curves, esoteric and funny, brainy and brassy. There are no unlovable people. You are not unlovable, so you might as well be you. 

It’s so tempting to make this all about loving yourself, accepting your body. But I don’t have that shit worked out. I don’t always love me, but I have figured out how to be me. 

When I met Lewis, I did not chill out, I did not try to be the “cool girl.” I texted with too many exclamation marks, I invited him to things after he’d made it painfully obvious he wasn’t as into this as I was. I introduced him to my parents the first time I had the opportunity.  I saw what I wanted, and I went for it. Which is pretty damn plucky.

Turns out he’s also that boob-loving unicorn I never thought I’d meet. What are the odds?

To no one’s surprise, least of all my therapist, marriage would not be the end of my body issues. Making someone else happy, which my husband is,  is not the same as making yourself happy.  The boobs survived two children without, as so many mothers complain, flattening to pancakes. Oh they ballooned while I was nursing, sure, but then they went right back to their melon-sized fullness, albeit hanging a little lower on the tree. 

The rest of me is softer and more jiggly as well. And now I have two kids to offer their opinions about all of this.

On the way to a Christmas party one year, my five-year-old daughter said, “Mom has a round belly like Santa.” 

“No she doesn’t,” said my three-year-old son, ever in defense of his beloved mother, “Those are just her breasts.” 

Favorite Things Written and Read in 2020

Okay, since no one else is going to say it, I guess it falls to me: 2020 has been a rough year. Unprecedentedly rough. Crisis rough. Surreally rough. Rough like no other. Roughest. year. ever. Roughness is so 2020. Because 2020, amiright?

Phew. Don’t we all feel better now that someone has FINALLY just said it?

It’s heady to be in journalism right now, because we are writing the first draft of history, which is intimidating and motivating and cool. Not just the pandemic but allllll the history going down right now. Trump. Black Lives Matter. Kamala Harris. Some of my colleagues, I believe, were built for this kind of gravity.

I go on a lot of walks.

In May I started working more or less full time for The 74 Million, reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools. I’m on a team! Just like I wanted! It’s amazing! It is a position created by a pandemic that cost a lot of people their job and I don’t know how to feel about that so I’m just going to try to do really good work and not think about how the pandemic ending would mean my gig ending!

Your lives are more important to me! I swear!

The gig has some very specific vocabulary, that I’m sure we’re all equally tired of: remote learning, in-person learning, COVID-19 protocols, learning loss, enrollment decline. I’ll never forget the moment when contact tracing went from getting flagged as jargon to being common vernacular, along with asymptomatic and asynchronous. I’m torn between never wanting to type those words again and being gleeful at getting away with it. Like when your family visits Hoover Dam so you say the word “dam” as much as you can before it’s outlawed again.

However you feel, fools can’t keep their masks on, so you’ve doomed yourself to another year of it, kids. Time for some asynchronous protocols for asymptomatic learning loss among in-person learners amid the pandemic.

Even though most of us had to write those words more than we wanted, some folks made some very delicious work out of it. Or just did delicious work about other stuff still going on in the world that still needs lots of attention. Cue the lists!

Favorite journalism by others:

This Texas Monthly oral history blew my mind and made me proud. It also explained why, as eerie as things were in those first pandemic weeks, in San Antonio they were not as dystopian and weird as in other places, grocery-wise.

Alec MacGillis’s Dollar Store investigation had me on the edge of my park bench for 20 minutes, then had me bothered for months. Definitely ruined my trip to the Family Dollar in rural West Texas when I realized that I had no other option and then realized that no one in that town had another option. MacGillis also wrote one of the most painful looks inside remote learning debacle.

Maria Godoy on the lingering effects of housing discrimination in Dallas. It emphasized something we saw graphically illustrated in the Somos Neighbors project in San Antonio earlier this year, which I was lucky enough to work on.

Alia Wong wrote about tools to help emerging multilingual learners during COVID-19 in Tulsa, a city which became dear to my heart this year while I was reporting on their refugee welcome efforts.

Favorite Stories I Worked On:

The renaming of Pacific Bay Christian School was something I wanted to write about for over a year before I got to do it. This story was so, so cathartic, for many reasons. I loved working with Sarah Garland at the Hechinger Report as point editor and with The Undefeated. Both were incredibly generous.

The reporting for The Gardeners of Eden (its print title) for Christianity Today was dreamy. I was in orchards and community organizing meetings, driving up and down the California coastline meeting humble, committed people who deeply care about the communities they serve. I want this story to make people think about their food differently, and the complex, at time exploitative and strained system that delivers it. It did that for me. We joined a farm delivery co-op.

Reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools (while living it) has been a trip. I’m particularly proudest of this piece, which involved public information requests, data analysis, and interviews with bold people who got real with me. All the best things.

Favorite Books I Read this Year, regardless of the year they were written:

Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age was amazing, and sent me into the tailspin identity crisis of ohmygodI’mthevillain. Given that it was sent to me as part of the Ally Box subscription from Fulton Street Books…I think that means it hit the mark.

Mothers of Massive Resistance, by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae provides more explanatory ammo for debates with doubters of systemic racism than any one person could ever remember without notes. So take notes. Because if you can’t gain ground in those conversations, you just embolden the doubters.

I began to have some concerns about my brain this year, so I read NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. It was very reassuring, after it stopped being terrifying, and it was entirely engrossing.

My husband gave me Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems for our 10th Anniversary. We were planning to travel to Zambia for the occasion, but a comic book about life with mental illness written by a winsome lady who looks nothing like the monster she depicts herself to be (I won’t hold that against her) was a more than adequate consolation prize.

Calypso, by David Sedaris, gutted me. I like to think I’m willing to bleed on the page, or smile with my makeup off, but when I think about writing the stories of my life that are a distant parallel to the stories he’s telling (we ALL have them)…I feel palpable fear. The fact that we are warmed by these in any way, and drawn to him even, is a testament to how good of a storyteller he really is. Which cued a different kind of panic for me than the panic Kiley Reid called up.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Because I needed something to read on a rainy day, grabbed In the Woods from a shelf of my husband’s paperbacks, and then read the rest of the series, because once I’m really in, I am all in, without the ability to moderate. I then watched the miniseries, and am now, apparently against my will, doing the same thing with The Pillars of the Earth.

Looking back on the list of my favorite books of the year, I see a theme. The theme is “my own crap amid all the crappiness.” I think I was reading books to make myself feel less alone, and more equipped. I hope that some of my writing did that for you.