May 14, 2020No Comments

Why A Great Question Is Sometimes Better Than A Right Answer

I sat in Dr. Therapist’s office recounting my week. It was my Monday ritual, to start the week sitting on that couch and untangling the thread of ordinary and extraordinary incidents. As we came to the end of the session, he concluded in the usual manner: “Any last thoughts or questions?” 

Instead of my customary “no,” I said, “Actually, yes.” I went on to describe a situation wherein I’d caught feelings for a guy who was about to move away from the city probably forever. My brain decided that I needed to confess said feelings before he left, but I was uncomfortable at the prospect.

Dr. Therapist asked why I thought that was a good idea, and listened to my reasoning. I pontificated for a few minutes about the need to be honest. He then asked two questions which hadn’t crossed my mind. “What exactly do you expect him to say if you put him on the spot like that? What would you say?” We walked through both hypotheticals, and I felt a little better. 

But the questions he left me with, the ones that wriggled their way into my brain and refused to leave me alone: “Why do you feel the need to pass off uncomfortable feelings like they’re a hot potato? Why are you unable to just sit with them?” 

I was immediately indignant. First of all, rude. Second of all, you don’t know my life. Third of all, the ever living nerve of this dude. I skulked out of his office, brows furrowed and lost in thought. 

As I pondered the questions, I remembered that Dr. Therapist does know my life, and he is very good at what he does. But my defensive instinct gave me pause. The more I sat with the questions, the more I saw moments of uncomfortable confession peppered throughout the course of my life. And with this new filter, I experienced the memories in a totally different light. I recognized the story my brain told itself to justify those decisions, to make them righteous and noble-courageous acts of honesty and vulnerability.

In those instances, I believed I was making the obvious morally correct decision. But sitting with these questions, I realized that the situation and my motives for confessing might not have been as straightforward as I thought. 

While Dr. Therapist did, in this instance, say, “No, absolutely not, that is a terrible idea,” he also took the time to ask questions that helped me reach that conclusion as well. He gave me some alternative action steps. But he left me with these questions that revealed a deeper reality that had never crossed my mind, something I’d hidden under my desire to see myself as right and good. 

As I gave the question time to settle, indignation turned to curiosity. The clarity was dazzling at first, and I had to wrestle with the uncomfortable feeling of exposure. But eventually, I realized that I also felt a release, a new found freedom to breathe. And that’s what a great question does. 

A great question is one that stops us in our tracks. A great question rankles, equal parts repellant and compelling. It feels a bit like a sucker punch, not because it is especially painful or aggressive but because there is that brief moment of breathlessness and disorientation. It takes off the blindfold we didn’t realize we were wearing. 

A great question cuts through the noise and dithering and the assumptions we clutch with white knuckles and shows us what’s underneath our desperate search for information. A great question is an hourglass, on the cusp of running out of sand, being turned over at the last second and releasing us from the pile we didn’t realize we were trapped under. 

A great question uncovers what we keep hidden, even from ourselves. 

It takes the problem we see one way and reveals a truer side to it. It takes our assumptions about the direction in which we think the solution lies and turns us around to see that it’s actually nothing like what we supposed. 

A great question humbles. It takes us outside of our limited perspective, removing the blinders and showing us an alternative we could never have imagined. 

Information is good, as is knowledge. But so are mystery and nuance. So is the inherent finitude of our humanity. 

I took Dr. Therapist’s advice, sitting down for coffee with the guy and having a normal conversation, at the end leaving the door open to friendship moving forward. Even as I felt the instinct to firmly slam that door out of a desire for certainty and comfort, I sat with the discomfort and chose to engage. And because of that decision, my brain was able to learn that discomfort would not be the death of me. 

The discomfort still happens, but this moment became an example of resiliency to cling to in future uncomfortable situations. And having Dr. Therapist’s question in my back pocket gave me a better filter for making nuanced decisions in my relationships. I realized the wisdom required to resist the temptation to give a blanket answer for what is actually a symptom, and the power of listening in between another person’s words. 

Sitting in my office the day after surviving the uncomfortable conversation, I scribbled a couple of notes and taped them to my office wall. 

The first, “Ask better questions.” 

The second, “Don’t settle for symptomatic solutions. Always go for the root.”

April 3, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Invitation

He’s getting married tomorrow, this guy I liked one time.

I never wanted to be the one he turned to see when waiting anxiously at the altar. I just liked making him laugh. I was never sappy and love-sick, moony or weak-kneed. But we understood each other and at the time that was enough.

It’s been a year since our little chat, when I explained why I needed to take a step back from our friendship. There isn’t a template for that conversation, by the way. In youth group, I never learned how to tell a friend’s significant other that I had feelings for him and our friendship was no longer healthy, and then also know how to talk to her about it or if I even should. 

In a classic, evasive move, we chatted normally for half an hour, and when he said he needed to go, I said, "Cool. Before you go, there was a serious reason I called." I then proceeded to recite the speech I’d been running through all week. We signed off on good terms, though without the intention of resuming a friendship. Or so I thought. 

I received an invitation to their wedding eight months later. Maybe there is a human who could waltz into that situation filled with foppish aplomb, jauntily skipping to her seat with all dignity and presumption. I am not that person.

When I RSVP’d, there was a box to write a message to go along with my response. 150 characters, a blank box and a cursor blinking judgmentally at my rejection of the invitation. How does one communicate such complicated feelings and reasoning in 150 characters? That’s not even a full tweet. Did I go all southern belle on them? “SUPER bummed to miss your big day!! Congrats! I’ll be there in spirit <3.” The obvious subtext being “I am clearly overcompensating because I’m uncomfortable and do not know what to say.” My instinct was to send that Randy Jackson meme which says, "It's a no from me, dog," but there wasn’t an image option. 

I left it blank. 

The eve of the big day, I’m left with recollections of awkward moments, messy feelings, and the back and forth pull of wanting and not wanting. I sit with the memories of two friendships, once vibrant but now broken. I’m turning the scenes over in my head, wondering when the shift happened, and how much of it was my fault. 

I don’t regret my decision to not attend, and I’m not weeping into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. But oddly enough, seeing the pictures already on social media leading up to the day, my feelings are complicated. I’ve gone from wanting to block them both to feeling an impulse to comment on how amazing the bride’s hair looks, and occasionally pettily holding out likes on Instagram as if they will even notice because, hi, they’re getting married tomorrow.

It is an inconsequential weekend in September, but many of my friends are out of town. I would have to make a concerted effort to find someone to hang out with. Turning my options over in my head, I’m leaning toward isolation. 

I didn’t call it that at first, obviously. I thought, You know, I just really need to make sure I’m taking care of myself spiritually and spending quality time with Jesus. But no matter the purity of my intentions, my day would not live up to any of my optimistic plans for spiritual renewal. I know myself too well. I would do some reading and writing, have pretend arguments with various people, meticulously laying out my point of view, defending my frail dignity to thin air, then end the day writing at my favorite bar, surrounded by people but completely alone.

Letting people see me when I am so emotionally conflicted and unsure sounds like an actual nightmare. By retreating I can pretend that I am running to Jesus, when really I am just folding into myself. 

Pondering my situation, I think about when Jesus was in the garden, sweating out drops like blood. He asked his closest friends to stay up and keep watch with him. They immediately fell asleep… thrice. But still. If Jesus, on the brink of humiliating and excruciating torture and execution, reached out to God and his derpy friends for support, why do I think I am above it?

Mulling it over, I decide that I don’t want to sit and wallow. Texting my work husband from my restaurant days, I ask if he’s tending bar the following night. I envision walking in, him greeting me with a squeal and a “Hey, boo! French 75 with a splash of St. Germaine or an Old Fashioned?”, taking my seat and pulling out my book, my other friends and former colleagues occasionally sneaking over for a hug or a story about a ridiculous guest. We’ll all go to The Old Haunt after they’re cut, and laugh over the pervasive nonsense of the industry. 

I smile to myself as I picture it. Why sit alone overthinking my feelings when I could spend that time with people who have already seen me in innumerable moments of unguarded stress and joy?

My phone buzzes. His message says that yes, of course he’s working. I shoot back, “I’ll see you then!” A tension releases in me with those words, and I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. At least for the moment, I have this plan. And it's enough.


*Note: Some details have been changed to respect the privacy of certain characters.

March 28, 20202 Comments

The Parable of the Lice, Part 2

After our initial lice party, we realized how woefully unprepared we were to address our problem. A week later, we checked each other again, only to find a thriving colony in most of our tresses. With the exception of the one who didn’t have lice before, in whose hair we found a single louse.

That’s when we went into purge mode. 

Though we lacked a drier, we had the Nicaraguan sun. We sealed most of our clothes, pillows, sleeping bag liners, and towels into black garbage bags and left them in the sun for an entire day. We did not have access to lice shampoo, but we did have mayonnaise. After washing our hair, we slathered it with mayonnaise, thinking the lice and their unborn would suffocate, put grocery bags over our hair and slept on it. The next day we ditched the combs and went straight to using our fingernails. Those sneaky a-holes didn’t know who they were dealing with. 

It dawned on us at this point that our teammate who had never gotten lice dried her hair everyday. Connecting that with the heat used to kill the lice in our clothing and pillows, we realized this was likely why she remained free of this scourge. 

Our actions thinned out the lice population, but one teammate in particular seemed to have caught a particularly pernicious strain of lice. While most of us had lice off and on for the next couple of months, hers were demonic. They traveled with us to the Philippines the next month, where we couldn’t break the language barrier enough to find shampoo. We found mayonnaise, only to realize upon slathering it onto the positive cases' heads that it contained relish. Another delousing train later, most of the team was once again lice-free. Except for the one with demon lice. Those jerks defied any collective wisdom we’d heard about the fiends up to that point. 

After 3 months of periodic positive lice checks, we elevated our game to Olympic level. 

We were in Thailand at this point, in the city of Chiang Mai where we had access to everything we’d missed in the past two months. She washed the medicated shampoo out of her hair, and our teammate (who was a hair stylist in real life) professionally dried and straightened her hair. We then took shifts over the course of the next 14 hours picking each and every louse and egg out of her hair. One teammate was in charge of entertainment and meal breaks. 

Slowly, bug by bug, to use a gross adaptation of that Anne Lamott quote, we searched and picked and went back through and picked some more. The heat of the hair dryer and flat iron had, mercifully, killed the eggs. But they still needed to be pulled from their vice-like grip on their respective strands of hair. 

After that, we were lice free, but cautious. Our lice checks became routine. We knew the hot spots to check first, and were free to suggest and request an inspection. The rhythm of taking a seat and letting a teammate tilt my head this way, then the other, leaning close and picking a bit of lint and inspecting it under her headlamp to be sure it didn’t have legs. Once a week, then once a month, and then when we separated, not at all. 

I told this story to the senior pastor of my church the first and (thus far) only time we had coffee. Why? The world may never know.  I regaled him with the make-shift dryer substitute, the moment we realized the mayonnaise we bought had relish and the final marathon. I paused, then said that if I got lice today, I didn’t know who I would call to pick it out of my hair. I have close friends who would almost certainly oblige, but the idea of admitting I was powerless to address the problem on my own? 

I sat back and wondered who I would call. At that moment, I didn’t have an answer. But I’d ask around. Just in case. 

March 27, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Lice, Part 1

Sage and Amanda crept into the small room filled with bunk beds where I was reading. It was election day, or at least the day we could go to the US Embassy in Managua and vote. “Hey MaryB.,” Amanda said. “Don’t freak out, but we just checked and we both have lice.”

“What,” I replied,  my brain sluggishly processing the words and their corresponding meaning. 

“Lice,” she repeated. “So, we need to check you and figure out where to get shampoo and combs.”

It was month three of our eleven month mission trip. The trip took us to eleven countries in eleven months, where we would partner with local churches and organizations and do whatever they needed.  In my preparation and research, I learned that many teams get lice at some point. In order to minimize this possibility, I walked into my salon and asked Jim to chop off my hair. Ever the preemptive problem-solver, I decided that several inches of hair were a small price to pay for a lice-free eleven months. 

Month two was El Salvador. We spent that month living in an orphanage in a suburb of San Salvador. We taught English, made minor repairs to the homes, and set up fundraising pages so the kids could attend a private school that would set them up well for the rest of their lives. As our team consisted of seven women, we stayed in two rooms tucked away at the end of the hall on the second floor of the girls’ house. While we were there, they had an outbreak of lice. 

We were charged with cleaning the house and the girls of the brutes. Though we had never done it before, the “tias” (house moms) instructed us to strip the beds, gather the dirty laundry, and wash and dry everything. The girls washed their hair with lice shampoo, and we set to work combing and picking. 

A week after our tearful goodbyes, it was not a complete shock to hear we had picked up lice. We went to a pharmacy and bought combs and shampoo. We followed the instructions--wet hair, massage shampoo into hair, let sit for ten minutes, rinse-- then set to doing for each other what we had done for the girls. 

Each head of hair presented different challenges. Sage’s hair was thick and wavy. My hair was the same color as the lice eggs. Abby’s hair was too fine for the combs to work properly. It was meticulous work, as it would only take a few errant lice eggs to make all our efforts fruitless. 

It was a vulnerable position to be in, I realized as I sat picking and being picked. None of us could de-louse ourselves. We were entirely at the mercy of the precision of the teammate combing and searching our hair. My steadfast independence was ripped from my hands by a tiny bug with an impossibly high rate of spawning. 

In all of this, there was one teammate who remained louse-free. How? We were all living in the same house in tight proximity to each other. How had she escaped our shared fate? The answer eluded us as we sat in a gross version of a massage train picking bugs and eggs from each other’s hair. 

After our initial lice party, we realized how woefully unprepared we were to address our problem. A week later, we checked each other again, only to find a thriving colony in most of our tresses. With the exception of the one who didn’t have lice before, in whose hair we found a single louse. 

That’s when we went into purge mode.

To be continued...

March 11, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Crush

Perhaps some of you were gifted with the social skill known as “flirting.” When the charisma fairy was sprinkling that down the line, she seems to have skipped this slightly feral farm-child. 

Spring semester of my Freshman year, I broke up with my boyfriend of two and a half years. Early fall of my sophomore year, I learned that he was officially dating someone else. This gutted me, and left me more than a little gun shy. Yes, I was sad about the rejection and felt replaced by a new, improved, more Southern Baptist model. But the thing that cast a ripple effect over my dating life for years to come was how completely wrong I had been. I thought that come hell or high water, he and I were destined to be together forever and ever amen. ‘Twasn’t the case. 

Spring of my sophomore year, I had developed what one might call a crush on this guy. We’ll call him Jeremy. He and I had conversed all of once, but he had a quiet confidence that I was drawn to. In spite of my complete lack of trust in my instincts, I reasoned, It couldn’t hurt to get to know him. And so I began strategizing. I knew that Jeremy frequented parties thrown by these four dudes that lived in a house off campus. Therefore, I deduced that my best chance of winning Jeremy over was in the fun, casual atmosphere of one of these gatherings. 

As I pondered the best way to approach Jeremy and win him over with my utter lack of feminine wiles, I considered asking my roommates for support. I did not, however, want to admit to them that I was interested in this guy. Every time I considered being totally honest with them, I got a squirmy feeling in my gut. I worried,What if they think I'm dumb for thinking a guy like that would ever be interested in me? But I still didn't want to walk into this party solo. I told my friends that I felt like it would be a good idea to make some guy friends, and Jeremy just happened to be one of those dudes. This was just accurate enough to get the support I wanted from my friends without the vulnerability of admitting my true motives. Nailed it.

I talked one of my roommates into going to this party with me. The night of the party, we got ready together then walked the ten minutes from our dorm room to this house.

I strode in with my roommate and my carefully crafted I don’t care, but in like a fun way attitude. Though I immediately noticed Jeremy, I did not go over to speak to him. My roommate and I meandered through the party for the better part of an hour. I introduced her to the people I knew, and we danced for a bit. Though I was acutely aware of where Jeremy was at almost any given minute, I wanted my approach to be organic. You know, a natural moment where we happened to catch each other’s eye, then I’d wave and sidle on over there with a casual, “Oh hey, Jeremy, I didn’t know you were here! How’s it going?” 

Around 11pm, my roommate and I decided it was time to leave and go to sleep. All this time, I had played hard to get in the sense of pretending like I had everything better to do than acknowledge Jeremy’s existence. This strategy was so effective that Jeremy seemed to have no idea I was there. He was sitting on the couch, conversing with the girl he came to the party with. I was torn between wanting to talk to him, and wanting to bury myself in a cauldron of Mac N Cheese and never come out. But I knew that if I left without at least making an attempt, I would feel like I’d failed in my mission at that party. In a panicked moment as my roommate and I were about to walk out the front door, I turned around, stared at Jeremy until I caught his eye, waved, then all but sprinted out the door.

As we walked back to our dorm room, I assessed my performance at the party. Why was it that, in spite of my mental preparation and strategizing, I couldn't bring myself to talk to Jeremy? I talked to people all the time. Why was it that my instinct in this situation was to attempt to get his attention by completely ignoring him? In what world would something like that actually work?

I turned these questions over in my mind, berating myself for giving into fear, for being too awkward to know what to do in this social situation, and for all I hadn't done. As I got into bed and waited for my brain to wear itself out, I found myself at an impasse. I wanted to improve in this area, but I didn't want to admit how insecure and inadequate I felt. That day, the latter desire was stronger. As sleep overtook me, I thought, Maybe one day I'll be ready to deal with this. But it wasn't today.

February 26, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Dishes

My dirty dishes taunted me from the sink. They were out of my sightline, but I knew they were there. Piled up, gunked over, and filled with murky water. It takes me all of fifteen minutes to load the dishwasher, then hand wash pots, pans, and sharp knives. And yet there is something about the whole affair that nags at my sense of “should.” I must plan the meal, shop for the meal, prepare the meal, and eat the meal. For some reason, cleaning up after the meal is where I drew the line. It is at the moment of dish care that I thought, This is too much

Early in their marriage, my parents struck a bargain. My mom most regularly cooked, my dad stepping in to grill as needed. But after dinner, they decided that my dad would do the dishes and my mom would bathe the kids.The ritual remains long past the time my brother and I no longer required assistance bathing. Mom cooks and uses, as my dad claims, “Every pot and dish in this house.” He loads the dishwasher with the precision born of his engineering degree, hand washes the All Clad pots and pans they’ve accumulated over the forty years of their marriage, then dries methodically before settling into the couch with a glass of Glenlivet 12 year. 

Sitting on my couch, I recalled snippets of moments, insignificant and yet formative, of our daily family dinners concluding, the rising from the table, the individuals scraping scraps into the trash can, the setting of plates and utensils in the sink, the walking away as my dad rolled up his sleeves. There was a sense of team in the ritual, a dispersal of responsibility that gave me pause as I contemplated my own dishes. I was reminded of the other minutiae that fall like pins onto my shoulders. No single thing is overwhelming, but added together? Surely there is someone else to do one of these things. 

I sat stubbornly on my couch, as if ignoring the dishes will make the reality of the task vanish. If there is a dish fairy, surely his or her magnanimity depends on my averted gaze. This strategy had not worked for the last four nights of putting off the task. But maybe this time… 

I sighed. My indignation against cleaning my dishes will not make my other responsibilities disappear. It will not pay my bills or craft my budget, organize my time or sort through the feelings I don’t want to feel. They’ll just sit there and fester. I got up, threw my hair in a bun, and yanked up my sleeves. As I let the water warm up, I pulled out my drying mat and drizzled soap onto the sponge. It’s just one dish and then another, I told myself. 

One dish and then another. As I scrubbed and stacked, I thought about my list of mundane and inconvenient tasks. I thought about my friend Sheila who works in finance, how she’s far better with numbers than I am. And my friend Kelsey who is also in therapy and also learning not to be afraid of her feelings. My friend Joe, the introvert with good boundaries. Ron and Leslie, who love to gather and connect people. One dish and then another and then it was over. 

I sank into my couch once more and reached for my phone. I texted my friend Kelsey to see if she wanted to grab lunch and catch up. My pruny hands sat folded in my lap as I focused back in on Sherlock. As I watched Benedict Cumberbatch stand on the rooftop of St. Barts, my shoulders released just a bit and my breath deepened. Tomorrow I would have to do it all over again. But for the moment, it was finished.

February 12, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Discotheque

It was 2010 and my classmates and I ventured to Mama Africa, a discotheque in the heart of the small Peruvian city in which we found ourselves. For the month of January, we studied the culture and heritage of the Andes by visiting important sites all over the country and taking Spanish classes. Somehow I got a non-lab science credit out of it. I was a sophomore in college, not quite twenty, and freshly single enough to have bangs. In truth, it had been almost a year, but only a few months since he started dating someone else. So there I was, nineteen and traveling around Peru for knowledge and enjoyment. 

The discotheque was relatively empty when we arrived at the early hour of 10PM. But the DJ was good, and there were enough of us for a quorum, so we started dancing. For me, this resembled an exuberant imitation of a wounded wildebeest. The year before I discovered an enthusiasm for dancing when I joined the Ballroom Dance Club. I did not, however, discover a particular talent for it. 

After an hour the club filled up, and a large group of Brazilian men arrived. Many of them began dancing with my female classmates. Due to an incident in the seventh grade, I have a specific fear of the being-asked-to-dance process. In order to avoid a potentially embarrassing misunderstanding, I looked at the floor whenever a dancing-together scenario seemed possible. The theory being, “Why risk rejection when you could just avoid the situation altogether?” This question could be the subtitle of my memoir. As my classmates were picked off one by one, I found myself alone in the crowd on the dance floor. 

I periodically looked around to make sure my classmates were still nearby, and each time I did so, I noticed a guy around my age looking at me. He was what one might call… extremely nice to look at. So naturally, I assumed that I was mistaken and it was a coincidence that we had made eye contact thrice in a row. It wasn’t until he came up to me and introduced himself as Pedro that I realized I was incorrect. Looking directly at me for an extended period of time did mean he was interested. What a world. 

I had never been in this situation outside of Friday nights at Ballroom Dance Club, but my classmates seemed to be enjoying dancing with their respective strangers. In that moment, any theology potentially relevant to my situation evaporated from my mind in the face of this beautiful Brazilian man who wanted to dance with me.

It was my first time in this situation, dancing intimately with a stranger, so there were an awkward series of moments where I had no idea what I was doing. The myriad of unknowns of the situation and my moral qualms about it caught up with me when I realized that this was a leap I maybe didn't want to take after all. As we danced, I found myself wondering, Where is he from? Who is he? What does he believe about life? What does he think happens when we die? How was conflict handled in his family of origin? You know, the basics.  

After a few moments, he started kissing my neck. And by few moments I mean almost immediately. Looking around, I noticed that many of my classmates were now making out with their dance partners. I thought, Oh, I see now what is customary in this scenario. 

I have severely overcommitted

 My first thought was of the social etiquette involved in extricating oneself from this type of scenario, because I’m Southern. To be clear, I found Pedro to be extremely attractive. But in spite of what my bangs implied, I was not down to rebound. My ex was the only person I had ever kissed, and while it was an enjoyable experience, it also left me conflicted. I now knew what it was to kiss someone for a prolonged period of time. It was nice. And yet, the idea of doing so with a stranger felt less straightforward. 

I weighed my options. If I were to go for it and kiss this stranger, would I likely feel relaxed or anxious as I tried to fall asleep that night? I reasoned that the overall the probability of feeling anxious was high, and I would like to avoid that. With that decision made, I wondered if could I keep dancing with him and avoid any escalation? I deployed my standard avoid-eye-contact technique. After a few moments of that, he asked, “Why won’t you look at me?” I mumbled incoherent excuses.

I deduced that he would absolutely try to kiss me if I did not extricate myself. I concluded that I was done with this whole situation. I made eye contact with one of my male classmates and mouthed Help me. He pulled me away; Pedro accepted this turn of events with stoic perplexity. He melted back into the crowd and our group left shortly thereafter. 

It was an unfamiliar calculus I had to do in those moments. I reflected on it as we all walked back to our hotel. How was it that I both wanted and definitely did not want to kiss Pedro? Finding myself in an unfamiliar situation, I had little concept of what may or may not be expected to happen if I partook in said kissing. In my panicked mind, it was an inevitable slippery slope ending in either sex or death or both. 

Not once in my calculation did it occur to me that I had the power to say, “No, I would not like to do that.” That does not mean that he would automatically respect my “no,” but I didn’t get an aggressive vibe from him. And even if he had continued after I said no, I had support in the form of male classmates who agreed to assist in any extrication before we even arrived at the discotheque. 

But I assumed that, in spite of being stone cold sober with the moral flexibility of a piece of rebar when it came to sex, I would be so swept up in the moment that all inhibition would vanish and that would be that. Simply because there was a moment when I thought kissing him might be enjoyable. In that moment, I wasn't particularly afraid of not liking the experience on the whole, I was afraid that I would like it so much, it would release something in me and that one time experience would become a habit. And then, ten years down the road, who would I be? I didn't know.

 That night back at the hotel, I stood in the hallway talking to my classmates. One of the girls who had made out with her dance partner stood at her door brushing her teeth for seven full minutes. The hygiene element of the evening’s dilemma hadn’t occurred to me in the noise of the discotheque. I had no idea how I would feel about that night in a month or a year. But watching my classmate’s aggressive brushing, I was grateful that that night I would not lie awake wondering if Pedro had a head cold or mouth herpes. And for the moment, that was edifying enough. 

February 5, 20201 Comment

The Parable of the Unmade Bed

I gazed at the pile of twisted sheets and blankets lumped atop my mattress. This was a moment. I stood there pondering the mess of it all and realized that there was nobody to insist I make it up. I glanced around my apartment as if to double check. Yes, the world was still spinning. The sun was still shining. Jesus had not, so far as I was aware, made his second appearance on this earth. I exhaled and walked away. 

My morning ritual has always been a sacred, efficient fifteen minute affair spent in dower silence. Upon receiving the independence of an alarm clock, then a driver’s license, I crafted my mornings to maximize my sweetest commodity: sleep. If my mom awakened me even five minutes before my alarm with a light knock on my door and a, “MaryB., it’s 7:15,” hell had no fury like the vitriol I grumbled before barking, “I KNOW,” and slamming a pillow over my ears. 

One such morning, when I was sixteen and filled with repressed rebellious teenager rage, I was awakened prematurely by a terse rap on my door. “MaryB., it’s 7:20. You need to get up.” I glanced blearily at my alarm clock, which read 7:18. The audacity. The everliving nerve. The injustice. 

I rolled out of bed, staggering to my closet where I picked out some jeans and a polo, then lumbered into my bathroom and shut the door. After completing my morning ablutions, I walked out of my bathroom to find my mom standing in my room next to my unmade bed. “MaryB., you need to make your bed before you leave.” 

“Why?” I shot back.

“Because it’s important for you to make your bed.”

“Why would I make my bed when I’m just going to have to unmake it tonight to get into it? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Come on, it’ll take thirty seconds, you could have already done it by now.” 

“No. I don’t have time, and making my bed is a waste of time anyways. Nobody is going to see that it’s not made except you and me, and why does that matter?”

“You are not leaving this house until you make this bed,” she declared as she exited my room. 

I fumed as thoughts scrambled around my head, struggling to make themselves coherent. This isn’t fair. It is the most inefficient waste of time and it is throwing off my entire carefully honed morning routine. I literally never do anything I’m not supposed to, and this is the one thing I’m pushing back on. Why can’t she just let me have this one thing? I glowered at the thirty-seven decorative pillows and stuffed animals that littered the floor, thinking that was a perfectly adequate place for them to live. Though everything in me wanted to defiantly walk out the door leaving my covers in a glorious heap representing the hill I was prepared to die on, I felt the nag of guilt, and the anxiety of intentionally doing something “not good.” 

I compromised by yanking the duvet up over the disheveled top sheet and blanket, then strategically tossing the pillows to cover the lumps that threatened to betray my negligence. 

I raced down the stairs, now truly on the cusp of tardiness. I’d have to park at the far end of the unpaved, constantly muddy junior parking lot and all but jog. I considered, Will I have time to go to my locker or should I go straight to Chemistry without my book? My mom interrupted my mental arithmetic. “Did you make your bed?” 

I glowered beneath furrowed brows. “Yes.” 

“Did you do it right?”

“I did it well enough.” 

She let out an exasperated sigh, “MaryB…”

“WHAT? You said to make my bed, and I did it even though I didn’t have time, and now I’m running late, so I need to go.” With that, I grabbed my lunch and walked out into the garage before she had the chance to go into a tirade. My gut squirmed as I anticipated a lecture upon arriving home, praying she wouldn’t get my dad involved in the kerfuffle. 

As I sped down the driveway, the words "inconsiderate" and "disrespectful" chased me. I thought to myself, Why is my unmade bed some sort of personal insult? It’s just a bed. 

A decade and change later, I make my bed when I’m having a party or just after I have changed my sheets. But otherwise it remains unmade. Even when I have friends over. If they think I’m sloppy and inconsiderate they haven’t said so, and it certainly hasn’t kept them from accepting my hospitality. Visiting my parents, there is a moment of hesitation when I get out of bed. What was once a principled act of dissent is now commonplace. It no longer holds the same thrill, but the quandary remains. 

I visit my parents twice a year. It is still my home, but I am also a guest. Most days you could toss a coin on whether I will make the bed or not. But at the very least I make it on the last day. On the final day, I leave it as I found it. I offer to strip the sheets, but my mom says it’s ok. There are inevitably things I leave undone, a shirt flung to the side and forgotten, an errant pair of old flip flops I didn’t think I would need in December and dug from my childhood closet. But not the bed. Each pillow is precisely back in its place. 

Perhaps there will come a day when I understand the merits of making one’s bed. But it wasn’t that day, standing in my room looking at my bed. On that day, I left my apartment and didn’t think about my bed until the moment I crawled into it that night. Yanking the covers from their crumpled bundle, I cozied up with The Fellowship of the Ring until my eyelids drooped, then turned off my lamp and fell asleep. 


*Note: This story from high school is a patchwork of several memories and moments that did not necessarily occur on the same day. My mom and I have had so many versions of this fight over the course of my life, they are difficult to unravel. It does, however, represent a fairly average morning from that period of my life, though some of the details varied. 

January 22, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the B

Meeting new people is exhausting. Upon moving to New York, I found myself at coffee hour after church one day. This is a time in which people mill around a room, drinking coffee, eating a snack of some sort, and theoretically connecting with new people, but in reality talking mostly to people they already know. I’d worked up to this moment. After a couple of months at this church, I finally knew enough people to take the next step. That week, I followed a new friend into the sea of humans hovering around the folding table on which sat cookies that almost tasted homemade. As she introduced me to some of her connections, I had the conversation that has permeated most, if not all, moments of acquaintance. 

“Hi, I’m MaryB.” 

“What was that?” 

“Mary… B”

"MaryB?"

"Yes, MaryB."

“Like B-E-A?”

“No, like the letter.”

“Oh, is that like your last name?”

“No, it’s my middle initial.” 

“So it’s short for something.”

“Yes.”

“Ooh let me guess it!”

“You can try, but you’re not going to get it.” 

“Beth?”

“No.”

“Beatrice?”

“No.”

“Bathsheba.”

“..."

“...” 

“It’s Brantley.”

“What?”

“BRANT-LEY.”

“Oh, is that like a family name?” 

“Yes, yes it is.” 

“Why do you go by MaryB? Is there a MaryA?”

“No, before I was born, my parents decided that Mary was too plain, and I suppose Mary Brantley had too many syllables. Plus, it’s sort of a family tradition. My mom goes by Sarah Jo, which is short for Josephine. Double names are also quite common in the South.” 

“Huh… ”

By this point, I’d expended much of my limited social energy and we only just made it past our names. That’s the thing about having a name that encourages follow-up questions. If my name were just “Mary,” would all be able to move on with our lives. But add one letter and, as the Joker says in The Dark Night, “Then everyone loses their minds.” 

Once the conversation ran its course, I felt compelled to disengage. This presented me with a social quandary. Not only have I already forgotten the other person’s name in the kerfuffle of explaining my own, I do not know on what terms we are leaving things. I prayed that they wouldn’t go for the hug. It would be inappropriate, as we had only just met and I couldn’t tell you one letter in their name with any certainty. I racked my brain for an eject button, landing on the classic, “Well, it was nice to meet you. I need to go get some water. I’ll see you around!” I uttered these words with a wave and a small step backwards, thus curtailing the potential of a hug. I weaved my way over to the beverage table and exhaled. 

As I had been attending this church for a couple of months at this point, I began to recognize people. I possess the memory of a stalker when it comes to anything except a person’s name. I have learned over a lifetime of awkward interactions that not everybody shares this particular gifting. It turns out that remembering that someone you’ve only met once doesn’t like cheese invites a bewildered and wary look. It is easier to assume that people do not remember you and are generally creeped out when you notice and remember random details about their habits or preferences. In looking around the room from the beverage table, I contemplated walking out. I scanned the crowd and noticed people I had seen or met before, but I was anxious that they wouldn’t remember me. 

I noticed someone from my Bible Study group quietly speaking with a rando on the outskirts of the room. I walked up to her and we exchanged some words, none of which involved our names. She asked about my job hunt, which was going terribly, and I asked how work was for her. Our conversation was embedded with enough context and commonality to flow without forcefulness. 

As I walked home, I reflected on the interactions. Why did explaining my name expend so much energy? Why did I find it so frustrating to give someone information they couldn’t possibly have gotten elsewhere? And why was I so attached to the extra letter on my name in the first place? Was it really such a big deal if someone called me “Mary”? Why was the seemingly simple act of making friends so uncomfortable? I remembered talking to my two new friends that day and how nice it was to not have to give a thesis defense on my name, though I once had to relay this information to them as well. Who could say which of the other people I met that night might become friends? But for the moment, I had two. And that was a start.

Note: This story is an amalgam of a few different experiences at separate coffee hours that have been put together for contrast and continuity. 

December 20, 2019No Comments

12 Ways to Leave a Conversation

Today, I'm putting out a special Christmas gift for the socially awkward introverts amongst my readers. This coming week, mayhaps you'll be traveling. Mayhaps you'll be attending more social engagements than you usually do per quarter. Here's a cheat sheet to help you extricate yourself when a conversation has run its course.

Communicator. Creator. Coach.

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