I don't know how to celebrate America anymore

Some days I wonder if I have done a disservice to my black children by bringing them to America. Years ago, when my friend Thabiti shared his fears about moving back to the United States from the Bahamas with his black son, his words struck a chord for me. I, too, knew the feeling of both loving my country and hating how my country treats black children.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but I’ve held off. I haven’t wanted to be misunderstood. I haven’t wanted to be maligned or attacked. But I’ve realized that there’s no way to say these hard things without inviting pushback, so I’ll risk the response instead of hiding behind the privilege of saying nothing.  

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

Before I go further, let me be clear about one fact: I stand by our decision to adopt. I am thankful for the children I have the privilege of parenting. I am thankful we had private investigations done in their home countries before we added them to our family to ensure that international adoption was truly in their best interests. Nothing about this article is admitting some corruption after the fact. Adoption always involves loss and too often includes colonialism or trafficking, but many - ours included - are good.

But our country isn’t. Our country bears beautiful and horrible things. Our adoption wasn’t corrupt, but the country to which we brought our children is. We were so corrupt from our beginnings that many of the forefathers we celebrate were the orchestrators of Native genocide. We are so corrupt in our current day that we elected a leader who leveraged racism for his own political gain. My husband and I brought these beautiful black children into a country in which the second amendment only applies to those whose skin is like mine, in which we’ve declared an open season on black bodies. While we decry the sexualization of children as a whole, we choose to ignore the criminalization of black ones. My white son can play a toy gun in our yard or a park. My black son cannot.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

On the rich clay roads of Uganda, life was hard. But blackness was beautiful and beloved. There, most deaths made sense. Malaria makes sense. Police brutality doesn’t. I can’t explain why Philando Castile or so many others like him have died, not in the same way I can explain the losses experienced on Ugandan soil. Deaths by malnutrition and AIDS-related illnesses can be dissected and described and researched. Moral diseases like racism aren’t even up for discussion among many of our leaders, as they like to pretend it doesn’t exist just because it doesn’t seem to harm them.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I grew up as a white child in a white family in which we saluted the flag and lit sprinklers. The Fourth of Julies of my childhood were full of parades and anthems and ignorance, though not much was said about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Now I’m raising children who are black and white and Asian, and I can see what I didn’t know as a child. Then I believed that America was great. Now I acknowledge that in America whiteness is great.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I’m not disowning my country or denying that which is beautiful here. I love America. But I love her like I love my own children. I nurture them in what is good and right, but I don’t stop there. I encourage them to keep growing and knowing better so that, in the words of Maya Angelou, they can do better.

At the same time, I’m exhorting myself to do likewise, and I’m asking the same of my fellow countrypeople. America, let’s know better. Let’s do better. Let’s be better.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I love this country, and I love independence. But I can’t and won’t celebrate our nation’s independence as if we really are the land of the free. We aren’t, not yet, but I hold hope that we can be. For that to be possible, though, we need to be honest instead of only smiling upon the most sanitized quotes said by Martin Luther King, Jr. We need to stop looking down on places like my children’s birth country as if black children in our own country are safe from harm. I know all of Africa is beautiful, and I’ve had my breath taken away by the abundantly vibrant life and land that is Uganda. America doesn’t have a monopoly on hope or joy or wonder.

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I see pictures of our Vice President laying a wreath at the MLK Jr Memorial only a few months after he wasted taxpayer money on the political stunt of leaving a sporting event because of the peaceful protest of black Americans. I hear the President speak positively about King’s legacy after referring to countries of black and brown people as shitholes. As I do, I can’t help but think of James 3:10: “Out of the same mouth comes praising and cursing; this should not be.”

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

.                            source: Daniel Rarela

I brought three of my precious children from one imperfectly sublime land to another. I love both countries, each almost as dear to me as each of our babies. As we lit sparklers and set off firecrackers and watched parades this summer, celebrating our country like I did each July growing up, we didn’t do so with the side of ignorance I swallowed as a child.

No, we spoke both love and truth, both patriotism and promise for a better tomorrow, both honesty about now and hope for the future. I will keep speaking that truth and love and raising my children to do so, even when it makes others uncomfortable, until independence from tyranny is a reality for all of us in this country.

And I will not stand by while we pretend the white majority would embrace King today, when we never even liked him in the first place until we had shot him down.

 

(Special thanks to the artist Daniel Rarela who created even of these graphics and allowed them for use here.)

Once-broken knees (and the #RubyWooPilgrimage)

My kneecaps are both resting in their proper place, perfectly in the groove where they’re supposed to live and glide and move. This has never been true, at least not since I was 10. Every year, 6 out of every 100,000 people in the US dislocate their kneecaps. For the past 24 years, I’ve been one of those six, every single year.

My friends know my knees have been a pain for me, literally. I worked for a summer camp program in Florida when I was 16. My co-workers watched my right kneecap dislocate, positioning itself on the outer side of my right leg until I tapped it to pop it back in place. (I apologize to you, queasy readers, but please hang in here. I promise to keep the graphic details as few as possible.) It happened again later that week. It happened again at swim practice a few months later, and again and again and again until my coach and I decided that I would only do flip turns in actual meets until my knees were better. That helped, because as a long-distance swimmer who regularly swam the 500m race, I had lots of flip turns.

Physical therapy helped too. My orthopedic doctor then didn’t consider surgery for two reasons. First, he was kind of a jerk to me, barely listening to my concerns and mocking me for saying that my knees dislocated instead of that my kneecaps did. Second and more importantly, I didn’t tell him the whole story because, even if I had trusted him, my mom was in the room.

The dislocations continued, every year, multiple times a year. I worked hard on keeping my quads strong uniformly so the muscles could hold the kneecap in place. That helped some. In college, my unstable knees helped me tread water more effectively as the goalie for UNC’s water polo team. My wonky anatomy never gave me an advantage any other time, but it was nice to get one benefit out of a lot of agony.

When Jocie was 4 and Robbie 2, my right knee started locking up. I hurt all the time, but sometimes I couldn’t even get my knee to bend. Even if I held still, the pain was overwhelming. I found a new orthopedic knee specialist who came highly recommended. We did a minor arthroscopic knee surgery just one week before my youngest child was born.

I wasn’t pregnant then, to be clear. She was being born on the other side of the world in a clinic in Taiwan where her first mother decided to place her for adoption. We’d find out about her a few months later, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another time.

The surgery didn’t work. I mean, it helped, but my kneecap still slid out of place. Basically, it didn’t know how to stay in place. By my best guess, my kneecaps have dislocated at least 125 times. By the time I returned to Dr. Barker last spring, both of my kneecaps permanently rested out of place, not quite dislocated but far from being in place. Subluxed is the medical term. But in my opinion, you might as well say they were dislocated, because I felt pain whether they were partially dislocated – that is, subluxed – or fully dislocated. I felt so much pain in my knees so often that I barely noticed it anymore. It was background static to my life.

Dr. Barker offered a surgical option that he said would be best but that I needed to know had a serious recovery protocol. He knows me. He knows I have six young kids. He knew six weeks on crutches, minimum, after each knee’s surgery was a huge ask, especially when that also meant a minimum of six weeks not driving after the right leg and two weeks after the left one. Thinking it would be way too much to consider, I asked him to explain what it would entail. No one likes to hear about cutting bones and screwing them back into a better aligned location – aka tibial tubercle osteotomy – or reconstructing a ligament using a cadaver graft, which would also involve drilling into the side of my kneecaps in two places and my femur (that is, thigh bone) in one place.

None of it sounded fun, but I knew this offered a possibility of something I had never imagined, stable knees. I said yes. He did it all, plus a little more arthroscopically. I was left with three small, two medium, and one large scar afterward, as well as some new hardware and new-to-me tissue in my knee.

That’s the intense surgery – done twice, once on each knee, the right in March and the left in September – that has my knees resting in place for the first time I can remember. By the end of 2017, I will have spent four months on crutches and some time, on and off, in my manual wheelchair. During that same amount of time, I have been required to rest a lot, which has been hard in a year in which I’d prefer to rest less and do more so I could distract from the news cycle any given week.

But here I am, almost on the other side. Sure, my surgeon says I need to stay on crutches a few weeks longer this time because the bone they cut hasn’t healed fully yet, but that feels like nothing. I'll keep up with physical therapy for another few months. I might need more surgeries in the future, but I’m good for now. My knees feel healed. My kneecaps are in place. Pain that I didn’t even notice anymore is now gone.

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I wish I could go back and tell 11-year-old me that this day would come. I wish I could tell her healing is possible. I wish, as her kneecaps were dislocated the first time as her knees were forcibly spread just prior to yet another middle-of-the-night rape by a male family member, she could have known that life would get better. I wish I could rescue her as that same scenario, more often with dislocations than not, played out far too many of her middle school nights. I wish I could go back in time, put him in prison like he should be, get little me the medical care I deserved, and expose our parents’ negligence and abuse that allowed it to happen in the first place. I wish I could smash their one idol, being seen as the perfect family, and the altar to that god on which they sacrificed their little girl. I wish they had cared more about me than their own public image.

I’m not sharing this to draw attention to my pain. I’m not fishing for the empathy I should have gotten back then. No, I’m sharing this because it’s true.

I’m sharing this because a couple weeks ago, I got to see perfectly aligned kneecaps in an x-ray of mine for the first time ever. I’m sharing this because sometimes the darkness feels like it will never lift. I’m sharing this because I’m living proof that the light can break through one day. I’m sharing this because, in the words of John 1:5, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (In the long term, at least. The darkness pressed in with little perceivable light at times for me.)

Even more so, I’m sharing this because domestic violence is too common. I’m sharing this because the pain of rape doesn’t expire. I’m sharing this people still say things like “isn’t it time to move on?” and “how is something that happened so long ago a big deal anymore?” I’m sharing this because people ask why survivors don’t speak up sooner, when the reality all too often is that we’re tending to our own wounds. I’m sharing this because there should be no statute of limitations on sexual violence because there’s no statute of limitations on how it impacts the lives of survivors afterward. (We are not ruined, though. Never ruined.) I’m sharing this because I’m one of the lucky ones who could still go to the cops at any point, because in Florida, where I grew up, there is no statute of limitations on the rape of a child younger than 12 by a perpetrator older than 18. I’m sharing this because we choose far too often to look away from the pain of this world, and that’s how countless adults missed the signs that I was living through hell. I’m sharing to challenge us all to pay better attention.

Furthermore, I’m sharing this because no one knew for far too long. I’m sharing because you’ll encounter other people today. I’m sharing because we can never know the darkness others have survived. I’m sharing because you might have been more gentle with me at times if you knew what I was dealing with, right? I’m sharing because we can offer that same gentleness and grace to others without having to visit their dark spaces and know their secret pain.

Go forth, my friends, with perfect knees or imperfect ones or no knees at all. Care. You don’t have to know the stories. You don’t have to look for a #metoo post. You don’t have to know the details. You can simply know that we all have felt pain, we all deserve healing, and we all can offer grace.

Amen. Let it be.

One last thing… I’m sharing this because I’m leaving Sunday on a trip with a diverse group of Christian women leaders, speakers, and writers, on the RubyWoo Pilgrimage. We’ll be exploring the stories of our foremothers, of intersectional women’s history in our country and in the church. We’ll be discussing present day topics of vital importance to us today. On our last day, we’ll be on the Hill, advocating for voting rights, criminal justice reform, and immigration. The fourth and final issue we’ll be discussing? Domestic violence.

I’m not the only survivor who will be on the trip. Our stories matter. Our stories are important. And, God willing, our stories may influence change so that the stories of others might be different from our own. With him, we are writing new endings for ourselves and, hopefully, for more than just us.
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a #metoo story about marital rape (by anonymous)

This brave and precious woman reached out to me in the wake of #metoo trending, a movement actually begun by Tarana Burke ten years ago but turned into a hashtag by Alyssa Milano recently. My friend isn't able to share this story publicly under her own name, and I am honored to share it anonymously in this space. Marital rape is rarely discussed for a variety of reasons. I know and trust and believe this warrior woman, and I'm thankful for the brave ways she's using her voice within boundaries she's set for her emotional, physical, and familial safety.

Remember, survivors, owning your story is part of healing. Sharing your story isn't. Well, it might be for some of us, but it's definitely not for all. Speaking out isn't what makes you courageous. Living in the after is brave. Period. You are believed, you are enough, you did not deserve what happened to you, and look at you now, still here. You might have lived through hell, but hell didn't win. You can do this, and you are doing it already. Keep on keeping on, and if you haven't already, find a friend or a therapist who can help you own the story and write your own ending.

Also, drinking too much doesn't make rape okay. If a woman has too much to drink, what does she expect? A hangover, that's what. Having a natural pleasure response doesn't mean it wasn't rape. That happens to the author in this story, and it happened to me in some of my rapes. All it means is that our bodies are wired to respond to sex, not that the act of rape is ever the way that was supposed to be stimulated. Promise.

One last note: only supportive comments will be allowed on this post. I will delete others. I let critical and even cruel comments at times on my own posts, but I won't let that happen here. Now, without any more introduction, here's a brave and, in the words of my friend Glennon, brutiful - brutal yet beautiful - post...

I would like to start by saying that I am only able to write this with my marriage in the rearview mirror. It has taken me 2 years to get the point that I can even acknowledge this account, much less verbalize it to a few people I trust. I am not writing this for sympathy or out of shame, but rather to share the story that I believe many women can relate to. As the accounts of #metoo begun flashing across my social media feeds this week, they ate away at me… not just because of the sheer numbers of my dear friends who have identified themselves as part of #metoo, but rather because I was unable to type them myself. 

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For the most part, I have been blessed to rarely be on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances or harassment in the 30 plus years of my life. I was never the girl guys whistled at walking down the street or whispered lewd remarks at unwanted times. Maybe I have an icy exterior, maybe I am too aloof to notice. However, as the #metoo began circulating through my days, one thing came to mind over and over, and that is this: I was raped by my husband.

Honestly, my story is not that different from legions of other women. I was on a “date” with my husband. The kids were in bed. We had curled up to watch a favorite TV show, ate some cheese and crackers, and shared a bottle of wine. I probably had more wine than him as he would often just pour “a little more” to get me relaxed. And relax I did… I curled up on his lap as he rubbed my back. I looked forward to maybe some nice, comfortable sex once our show was over. But, as is common with a working mom, the combination of wine and fatigue overtook me and we went to bed... no hanky-panky involved. Sounds like a typical date night for two busy parents to children… and it was.

Sometime in the middle of the night… I woke up to my husband pressing himself to me… my underwear were no longer on. I was still really sleepy… probably 2 or 3 am during my typical REM sleep time (at least according to my Fitbit)… when suddenly I felt him press into me… anally.  For some of you, anal penetration may not seem odd, and I am not judging anyone else, but for me this was a clear boundary that I had set on numerous occasions. I had gone so far as to tell him that under NO CIRCUMSTANCES would I ever participate in that willingly, and if he found himself in a place where I seemed willing, he should stop, until he clarified in the clear light of day. Well, that is not what happened on this night… he continued the full process, and part of me did enjoy it because he seemed to enjoy it so much, but really it is such a blur. It was over quickly. By the time it was, I was fully awake, in pain, literally and figuratively, and really, really upset. It was either at that point or the next night that I pulled down an empty mattress and moved into another room for a period of a month or so, sleeping on that mattress on the floor. I actually asked him to move out of our bed instead, but he refused, saying, “I did nothing wrong, you seemed to enjoy it.” If he did apologize, it was only half-assed. I do remember him saying, “well, it was something I always wanted, but now know it isn’t really that good." Eventually I moved back into the bedroom and tried to pretend it never happened. He didn’t think he was in the wrong, and he said I was just being a “prude”.

Now, as I sit year years later, I am finally able to come to terms with what he did. I wish I could say that when this happened, I had the courage to leave him, but I was scared and felt that in leaving him, I would lose everything – my kids, my home, my pets, and even my own family. Ultimately, it was he who left me for another woman. Turns out she is just one of many in the line of women that I shared him with, unknowingly. 

I am writing this now to tell women that yes, rape happens in marriage, and it is never okay.  I still feel the typical guilt… maybe if I hadn’t had that extra glass of wine, or if I had been firmer when I first woke up to realize what was really happening, or if I had insisted he leave the house, or even called the police… then maybe… I don’t know… maybe something would be different. But, I cannot change the past, but maybe someone out there reading this will have the courage to find her voice like I have now.

telling the truth, with blades and words

My tattoo placement is intentional. For example, the word enough on my wrist is placed just below the scar from my middle school suicide attempt. My forearms are covered with other meaningful art, tattooed atop shiny lines from other self-inflicted wounds.

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Today marks one year since the last time I made one of those cuts.

It also marks the longest period of time since I was 11 that I’ve gone without carving into my skin.

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I’m fine, I would have told you if you noticed fresh red stripes. But you wouldn’t have. A few decades of hiding self-injurious behaviors meant my habit wasn’t on your radar. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar. My husband didn’t even know. My therapist didn’t know until I told her. If I ever did talk about cutting – like I did in this article and this one, both more than a year ago, both published before my last cut – it was always in the past tense, even as my forearms or upper thighs told a different story.

Why didn’t I tell the truth with my words then? Well, I had two reasons. First, I have a personal rule to only write from scars and not wounds. The wounds need to be addressed, but that work is private and sacred. To heal open cuts from the inside out, I needed to limit this truth to those who had earned the right to hear it. Now that all I have is scars, I’m sharing from a place of healing.

And second, I was telling the truth. I was. I was telling the truth in the only way I knew how. In the words of Glennon Doyle in her TEDx talk about life in the mental hospital,

I remember this sandy-haired girl who was so beautiful, and she told the truth on her arms. And I held her hand one day while she was crying, and I saw that her arms were just sliced up like pre-cut hams. In there, people wore their scars on the outside, so you knew where they stood. And they told the truth, so you knew why they stood there.

When I was 11, I was too familiar with pain for a girl my age. That’s why I tried to end it, with a deep cut to my wrist. I couldn’t cut deeply enough with the blade I had, though, so I lived. I didn’t want to, but I lived nonetheless. (And I’m deeply thankful that I did.)

In that moment, though, I found a power I had never known before. As an abused little girl, I was the object to be hurt with no ability to do anything else. When I opened my skin, I got to cause the pain. I controlled it. And unlike the abuse I never deserved or understood, this pain made sense. You cut, you bleed, it hurts. For the first time in my life, something that hurt also made sense.

Over the years, the reasons changed. Sometimes I cut because I thought I deserved it. Sometimes I cut because I found the action and release to be calming. Sometimes I cut to stop feeling. Sometimes I cut to feel something. Sometimes, after I stopped drinking, I cut because I wanted alcohol. Sometimes I cut because cutting became familiar. Sometimes I cut because I hated myself.

As Demi Lovato put it in a 20/20 interview with Robin Roberts,

It was a way of expressing my own shame of myself on my own body. I was matching the inside to the outside. And there were sometimes where my emotions were just so built up, I didn’t know what to do, and the only way that I could get instant gratification was through an immediate release on myself.

I don’t regret cutting. I don’t judge the scars. They are each evidence of my survival. When I wasn’t safe enough to tell the truth with my words, I survived by telling the truth with a blade. Every shiny white line is a stone of remembrance of where I’ve been and how God has transformed me since then.

Now, I’m safe. Cutting was a tool I used until a year ago, but my toolbox has been updated. Self injury doesn’t serve me or my healing anymore. In intensive therapy, I’ve learned to tell the truth in ways that do no harm to my body.

And now I think it’s time to tell the truth with my words. I hope self harm is in my past. I pray it stays that way. I’d love for this to be the first year of many with more scars than wounds. Only time will tell.

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But I know this one thing for sure: my hope that cutting is in my past is uncertain, but my hope in Christ is steady. Each stripe on my skin is evidence of the tension in which we live, a world in which God has declared his forever promises but hasn’t yet fulfilled them all. And each shiny white line glorifies my Creator, because it’s not just the healing that declares his goodness but also the choice to keep showing up in a world that isn’t always good.

This is a world that tells us to hide our scars. Jesus is a God who readily showed his, which he bore even after his resurrection. May we, as his people, be willing to share the truth of our own scars, of our own resurrection, of our own humanity. Yes, the scars and wounds are part of our stories, but so is the rising.

Why are we talking about rape as a preexisting condition?

Rape is a preexisting condition under the AHCA. Or is it?

Those two sentences sum up the most flashy coverage about what the US House of Representatives did yesterday. Both inaccurately oversimplify the issue, though. This is an important conversation, and we deserve more nuance than soundbites in our discussions of this (and every other policy issue, for that matter). 

The ACA - aka Obamacare - let me breathe deeply, knowing that my odd collection of health conditions no longer made me uninsurable, either because companies would reject me or because they would price me out of coverage. The AHCA - aka Trumpcare - weakens those Obamacare protections. This is all true.

Neither bill includes a list of preexisting conditions, though. Neither says, for example, rheumatoid arthritis - which I have - is a red flag. Obamacare, however, guaranteed that it wouldn't be. No insurance company could reject me or increase my rates for that sort of diagnosis. Meanwhile, Trumpcare would let states make their own decisions on hiking up costs for those people who already have the highest medical costs. 

And rape survivors? Well, here's what I tweeted about that earlier today...



































































Deep breaths. That was a lot to tweet before my morning coffee, and it's a lot to re-read now.

But why are we focusing on rape as a preexisting condition anyway? 

The honest answer? This whole topic is theater. It had to be. Somewhere along the way, we stopped reacting with dismay that we might be a country that denies affordable healthcare to a mom with rheumatoid arthritis or children with epilepsy, cerebral palsy, HIV, anxiety, ADHD, asthma, autism, or congenital heart defects, all conditions represented in our family picture. 

Quite frankly, hearing about another sick kid needing a GoFundMe to live is too common of a story to move our hearts if it's not our kid. (But maybe, just maybe, we will care when it's Jimmy Kimmel's kid.)

So we have to go to the extreme. We have to perform a new pain. We have to dig up Boston Globe stories from the healthcare reform days back in the 1990s about domestic abuse victims being denied health insurance. (While this is theater, it isn't fiction; more on this is documented in a book from the Department of Justice.) 

Is the concern about insurance coverage for rape survivors real? Yes.

But I'd say the greater concern is for our collective humanity, when the most extreme examples are the only ones that compel us to care anymore.