You have a great body.

It’s summer time, so you might be wondering: do I have a beach body? What about a bikini body? Is my body amazing enough to be flattered or shown or celebrated in broad daylight by myself or others?

Yes.

you look fine

You want a beach body? Place yourself squarely on the beach, and you shall have one.
How about a bikini body? Place a bikini on your body and. . . voila!

Men, are you worried about your body because you don’t have the build of an Avenger? Don’t worry. They look (and are) electronically and (might be) pharmaceutically manipulated. You, on the other hand, look great.

Women, are you worried, because you don’t see someone who looks like you on the cover of a magazine? Don’t worry. They’re not real. But you are. And you look great, too.

Some of you may be thinking something like: I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m skinny.

I’m not ________________ enough.

Nonsense. You are perfectly _____________ enough. You’re rad. You’re awesome. You’re beautiful.

In the Psalms, David says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well”. And the first chapter of Genesis, when talking about how we are made,  says that we all look like God (1:26-27).

flawless

That means that no matter what it looks like, no matter what it is struggling with internally or externally, whether you can change the things you want to change about it or not, your body is a beautiful, wonderful, awesome thing. Take care of it, treat it well. Be nice to it. Definitely don’t be ashamed of it. In fact,  strut down the street inviting others to bask in the glow of your fabulousness.

Because you only have one body. There is only one that looks like yours. And it’s great.

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Opinions are People, Too.

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I haven’t blogged in a long time, because I have been afraid. Yes, afraid to do something I should be eager to do as a writer living in a free-speech loving country: I am afraid to share my opinions, and tell you the stories that form them. I have kept quiet for a long time about many things. But that doesn’t jive with me, turkey.  Because whatever else I have to be to pay the bills, I am a writer. Writing is what I do. I do it to make you think, make you feel, and [hopefully] make you smile. I have to do it. It feels wrong not to, especially when I am learning, struggling, and wanting to grow, since writing is the vehicle I use to do that. I have to speak up. I have to be myself. I have to tell people who that is, because I like her, and I am proud of who God has made her. There is a good case for keeping our mouths shut a lot of the time. But after much thought, prayer and consideration, it is time to break the silence.

Warning: these stories contain opinions that may not be agreeable to all readers:

  • Several months ago, I implied on social media that I think anyone should be able to get a wedding cake from anywhere that sells wedding cakes, regardless of whether I shared the same definition of marriage as that couple did. [My reason being, of course, that if a business owner could decide to deny someone else a good, service, or civil right based on a differing characteristic or belief, I could also concievably be denied civil rights, goods, or services by the same exact line of reasoning.] And there was a firefight. I mean, you would have thought I said I was a cannibal, and that you were next, buddy. The comments made me cry. I lost sleep. It was not an easy time.
  • A few weeks ago, there was a barrage of posts on my newsfeed about how [yes] all women have been victimized, objectified or abused.  Perusing some of the posts reminded me of my own experiences: growing up with a man who made ours a tumultuous house, being flirted with [in the classroom] by male teachers who were twice my age, being asked by random men for a “ride” because of my wheelchair. Remembering made me feel small and sad, and my heart went out to women.  But at the very same time, I was made aware through circumstance and conversation of the countless good men in my life, who have never treated me with anything but love, dignity and respect. Some of the most poignant, loving and heartfelt help I have had working through these things has come from the men in my life- one in particular. And my heart went out to them, too. Good men–no, great men–who were only seeing negative messages from the world at large. I wept for my friends, male and female, as I watched them victimized and villainized. I could not perpetuate that.
  • I have read things bemoaning government assistance, wondering why individuals who receive it have nice phones and televisions. I receive government assistance. I have a nice phone and a television. I also[gratefully] work 2 jobs. But I know people who can’t work for many valid reasons, and I think of them, how grateful they are for what they have, how freely they have shared with me of the possessions and resources such assistance has allowed them to have. I couldn’t agree with prejudice directed at people like those I knew. And iCouldn’t let someone who had no interest in learning about any other aspect of my life make me feel guilty for having a talking phone [I have to admit, it's pretty neat].
  • I have seen posts about how a photo of me in my two-piece swimsuit might cause trouble in a marriage. “My husband shouldn’t have to see your boobs” it read. I agree, I thought. And he won’t, I can assure you. But he may have to see my opaque, normal-for-this-century swimsuit [gasp!]. And I have full confidence in his ability to continue to be lovingly and faithfully married to you after he does.
  • Just yesterday, I was accused of believing in “magic” because I have a deep and abiding faith in the sacraments and the healing power of the Church. I was singled out and belittled by a stranger without a second thought.
  • The same day, I saw the latest title from a popular Christian blogger: “If you want birth control, go buy it. Nobody is stopping you” he said. And I felt ashamed because I would not be able to afford birth control without the insurance [from the government] that helps me pay for it.

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Every single time I found myself in possession of a strong opinion after reading [or receiving the brunt end of] these social shenanigans, I simultaneously wanted to shut up about it and shout it from the rooftops. And I have kept quiet, for a long time.  Truth be told, I was a wimpy-wimpface who used my insecurities as an excuse to be so. But I had to cut loose [footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes!] Because my opinions are not just tenets or ideologies.  They are indicators of my feelings and passions, my shortcomings and wants. They remind me where I am on my journey of empathy, compassion, understanding and faith.  They are my stories. And coming to this realization has shown me something important.

Just as my opinions- when you read or hear them- point directly to myself and my circumstances, opposing viewpoints from people whose opinions differ from mine, are still glimpses of who they are. If I am angry at an opinion and I state that anger plainly and without tact, it will hurt the people attached to those differing opinions. It will make it a battle of correct and incorrect, instead of an effort to do the right thing.

To counter the knee-jerk reaction to talk about how right and awesome I am, I have tried a new strategy of late. I have intentionally read opposing or differing viewpoints, to get a sense of the stories people are trying to tell me.

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As a result, I enjoy reading about and discussing men’s issues, LGBT issues, minority issues, stories about the military, blogs by rabbis and Muslims, you name it. [And surprisingly, I have not turned into an LGBT Jewish Muslim man yet!] The whole thing has challenged me, taught me new things, and made me more aware of “the other side” of a lot of popular debates in the news and media.  I especially like to read opposing views from people I know. I can flex my empathy muscles and make them big and strong. Which is important because:

  • Everyone has opinions on everything.
  • Those opinions are strong, often because they are tied to a real-life experience the person has had, or a deeply-held belief or tradition.
  • There is much more to a person than their opinion on one issue.
  • People’s opinions change over time, and can even change as a result of an exchange of opinions with someone different from them.

And most importantly, the opinion I don’t agree with belongs to a person with a need, a hurt, or a story. A person I am obligated by my humanity and my theology to love, from right where they are.  Because that’s just the right thing to do, in my opinion anyway.

 

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Love, Needs, Giving: A Partner’s Perspective on Disability [Guest Post by John Thielman]

Happy spring! Today the blog breaks its unintentional (but by no means surprising by now) silence with a special treat. Yesterday marks 3 years since one online exchange began a friendship, which grew into a relationship, and is on its way to becoming a marriage. Since May is the month John and I met, I am honored and proud to share his guest blog with you, which offers his perspective as the partner of someone with a disability. I am sure his kindness and honesty will encourage all of you, as it does me every day.  Enjoy!

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K Summers Photography, 2014

Beth often shares stories with me of her odd encounters with well-meaning, but socially awkward, strangers. One of the questions she gets most often is: “So is your fiancé in a wheelchair, too?”

It’s tempting to try to laugh that question off, but the more I think about its implications, the less I like it.  Nobody asks me if my fiancé needs glasses too, or if she is also Caucasian, or is also going grey at the temples.  Everyone seems to recognize that a woman wouldn’t have to share my bad eyesight (or any other arbitrary, superficial characteristic) to be interested in marrying me, but for some reason it’s very common to assume that only a man who also has a disability would be interested in a woman with one. It’s as if people believe “typical” cannot love “different”. And this assertion that is not only false, but painful.

So, how does a relationship work when one of the participants has a disability?  Truth to tell, I don’t know how a relationship works when neither does (I was in a relationship once before, with someone without a disability, but I can’t say the relationship actually worked).  Ours is like any other relationship: we talk to one another, we listen, we try to help.

As far as I can tell, everybody needs help with something in life.  Some people are bad at doing their taxes, some are late everywhere they go, many have insecurities and some have legs that don’t work properly.  So just as Beth doesn’t think anything of helping me with my insecurities and the challenges I face as a student in a foreign country, I think absolutely nothing of helping her get up and down stairs, preparing a meal for us to share, or helping her around the house.

In fact, it is this act of helping that brings us closer together.  In order to allow her to help me, I have to make myself vulnerable to her emotionally, which is never easy (well, by now it’s easier because we’ve been doing it for so long), and in order to allow me to help her, she has to be very vulnerable to me physically.  It all requires a lot of trust, but our trust in one another is always rewarded.

Honestly though, it is the distance between us (not her disability) that has always been the biggest problem to overcome.  We have never lived in the same city, and never less than 800 miles apart.  Now it’s more like 4,600.  But we talk every day on skype, often for hours, sometimes more than once. [Since starting our relationship in September 2012, we have only gone 2 days without Skyping!]  We’ve been told that we talk more to one another than do some couples who live together.  This is no surprise, since we can’t do much more than exchange words, so we exchange lots and lots of them, and we weigh them carefully.

So, distance has become our teacher, helping us learn to communicate honestly and lovingly with one another.  And because being apart forces us to find a silver lining, each of us strives to discern the best and most loving interpretation of the other’s words.  When we can’t find that right away, we push through any negative feelings, and ask for clarification.  We do our best to understand each other’s needs and to help fulfill those needs.   And it turns out not to matter so much what [or even whose] those specific needs are; the remedy is still the same. We speak, we listen, we understand, we give and take, we help each other. We love each other. That’s really all there is to it.

***

Originally from Menomonie, Wisconsin, John is earning his Master’s Degree in Historical Linguistics from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and holds a B.A. in Classics from Gustavus Adolphus College. He enjoys tailoring, cooking, and all things Tolkien. His favorite pastimes are reading, sipping fine whiskey, and shooting the breeze with his Intended. 

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I’m Not Giving Up for Lent

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We’re smack in the middle of Lent, y’all:

That feared-but-blessed 40 days of fasting undertaken by the Faithful before we revel in the joyous, holy Feast of Feasts: Pascha [that's Orthodox Christian for Easter]. For those of us who observe Lent, the experience is varied. Some give up things they love or have dependence on: chocolate, booze, and social media come to mind. Some choose to add-in rather than take-out, and incorporate good habits- like exercise and meditation-into their daily routines. For Christians following older traditions, there are prescribed fasts (see: Orthodoxy, Catholicism).

One thing rings true about Lent no matter your tradition: it’s hard. We live in a “whatever makes you feel good” culture of consumption and instant gratification. Saying “no” is looked on with suspicion, especially when it comes to denying my own wants and impulses.

Not only is it hard for me to keep my body in-tune with Lent, my perspective is often skewed as well. If I’m being honest, I tend to interpret “how Lent is going” one of two ways:

Fail-centric: I can’t believe I ate that cheese cube! And then the other cheese cube! Why didn’t I do better?! And how many times did I forget to pray today? Probably like a thousand. Boy, am I terrible at Lent!

-or-

Fast-centric: Looks like I made it through another week of eating nothing but chickpeas, black beans and almond milk. I would love to join you for dinner, but it’s God’s will that I eat yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, seasoned with tears. Boy, am I great at Lent!

The problem is both of those thought patterns are are self-focused, with little attention being paid to God’s help, or the actual point of the fast. Not to mention they are the opposite approach to the one Christ tells his followers to take in the Gospel [essentially: if it's to make you look better or more pitiable, you're doing it wrong, Matthew 6:16-18].  I became frustrated with the emotional pendulum swing between my two approaches, so I took it to Confession. “I just don’t like Lent,” I said. “It’s hard, I don’t enjoy it, and I’m not very good at it.” Father turned to me and said quietly, “It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re probably doing it right.

ImageSo Lent is not about whether or not I am winning the struggle to be righteous. It is about whether or not I am struggling to be righteous at all. If it’s difficult then  I’m struggling. If I’m struggling, then I need God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. If I realize this and turn to God for that grace, I will receive it, which will bring me into closer communion with God. The point of Lent it’s not to be perfect, it’s to be in touch with imperfection. It’s not for everything to be easy and well done; it’s to continue to push through the difficulty in prayer and humility toward God and others.

If your Lent is hard, it’s real. If you’re failing, you’re doing it right. If you’re struggling, you’re receiving grace. Even the smallest step forward is one toward Pascha and the feast.  So, hang in there. If you’re “not doing great at Lent”, keep up the good work. No matter what you’re giving up for Lent, just don’t give up.

 

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i have a disability (like it’s my JOB).

Wow-wow-wow kiddos, what a year thus far. You know as well as I do that I am all flattery and empty promises when I talk of blogging regularly. And with a new job, and a wedding to my Favorite Human to plan for later this year, I have to admit: blogging for all you fine people has taken a backseat. I am up to my eyeballs in thoughts, feelings, financial obligations, and to-dos. So while my Social Network [and Skype, of course], have been a-buzz with activity, the blog has been silent. Recently, though, my friend Mary Evelyn wrote about her son [probably my second favorite human, let's be honest]. She wrote about Sim’s disability: about why it does define him, and how she’s okay with that.

Along with my usual being moved at her kind, honest self-expression and love, I thought:

Wait a second. I have a disability. Does mine define me? And if it does, am I cool with that?

I started to really think about my life, and how my Cerebral Palsy [and the brain damage and physical limitations associated with it] have affected me:

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Photo by Juliana Finley

It dictates how I carry out every single daily activity: getting in and out of bed, getting ready, commute/traveling, the layout and use of my office, meal prep and cleanup, social time and entertainment [I'd love to come along! but are you sure it's accessible?]

It has influenced my social circles: From infancy forward, having “disability” in common has helped me forge a strong, loyal subgroup within my peers.

It has ended up setting my path for my career, and my education. My work has been entirely disability-community focused for the whole of my adult life, and it is precisely because of my interest in those not-for-profits that I pursued a Master’s, I wanted to be able to work more effectively for the disability community.

It affects the way I view the body in general: no illusions about a perfect one here

It has attuned me to social issues. Many people with disabilities are living at low income and are marginalized/discriminated against, made to feel distant from their otherwise peers because of an arbitrary characteristic. Because of experiencing this first, second, and third-hand, I can’t stand to see any subgroup marginalized or mistreated, no matter how different from me they are.

It has affected my spirituality and worldview: I have flatly turned down a barrage of faith-healers, insisting that there is more to faith and healing than they are offering. And it has made me think deeply about how I see myself in my subconscious [helping me grapple with the uncertainties of self-perception and strange dreams]

"Autorretrato con el Retrato Dr Farill" (Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Dr Farill)

Frida Kahlo

It’s true: my disability has determined and dictated almost all of my life decisions: what I do and how I do it, who I know, and even the apartment where I live [ground floor, baby!] Yet, that doesn’t satisfy me. My disability might have  a lot to do with how someone would describe me, but to define me, you need to take into account much more. What about Orthodoxy? Or Beatle-fandom? What about social and political beliefs? What about my interests outside of disability advocacy?

I was still stumped: does my disability define me or doesn’t it? If it doesn’t, what does? What am I going to tell Mary Evelyn?! WHO AM I??

Then I thought about how having a disability often turns you into a spokesperson. Like it or not, to survive and thrive as a person with a disability or a loved one of that person, you become an advocate. You learn to speak up for your rights, your needs, and your wants in a world that is sometimes unsure how to communicate or interact with you. For me, having a disability is an [almost] 24-hour-a-day job. I represent disability to some, I speak for it to others, and I am expected to be an expert at it. Living with a disability and making the best of it is part of my purpose; it is literally my life’s work.

While discussing this with John the other night, I smiled and said: if my disability is my job, you must be my time off. You may be an advocate: for yourself, for your child, for a cause, for the civil rights of yourself or a friend. That’s great. Keep living your life passionately and with dedication. But keep balance, breathe deeply. Take your advocate hat off every now and then, just long enough to recharge. And remember to have people near you who can be your advocate, your cheerleader; with whom you can be fully yourself.

Yes, I have a disability. Sometimes it feels like my vocation, mostly like my occupation. Disability describes me; how I choose to face it, and any other challenge or victory in my life, defines me.

What are some of the things that define you [and how do you feel about being defined by them]?

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5 Things It’s Okay to Say (to a Person who uses a Wheelchair)

Recently, there have been a lot of posts on my newsfeed about what not to say: to single people, to married people, to parents, to kids, and-most recently- to people who use wheelchairs/have disabilities. And all that awareness is good.

Person-first language is important and necessary. It’s generally good to be sensitive and tactful with what we say, because language reveals where our emphasis and values fall in the scheme of things. However, I am sure it can be challenging to know exactly what to say, if all you’re ever confronted with is a list of “noes”.

best buds

Photo by M. E. Smith

So, for my part, I’d like to help. Because it’s good to know what to do. And because I don’t feel like being negative today:

5 Things It’s Okay to Say to a Person Who Uses a Wheelchair [This Person, at least]:

1. It’s okay to say, “Can I [or may I] help you?”

This is a perfectly natural and normal question to ask anyone if you think they could use a hand. So there’s nothing wrong with offering to help a person who uses a wheelchair. In fact, offering is infinitely preferred to assuming that help is needed, thereby pushing my wheelchair or otherwise assisting me without asking. If I say no,  I may need the exercise, the quiet time, or the opportunity to try to complete a task independently. But there are many times I accept help gratefully when offered.

2. It’s okay to say words like walk, run, stand, and so on:

You may invite me to go for a walk with you, to run to the store, to stand around and wait for something or someone with you. None of those phrases are offensive, none of them make me sad. It is precisely because I have a wheelchair that I can participate in the same activities you do. I don’t want to roll to the store with you, because a) that sounds deeply weird and b) it is no longer an activity we’re doing together. But a walk in the park with you? That sounds lovely.

3.  It’s okay to say, “My child has a question for you.”:

Children are inquisitive, and some of the most fascinating conversations I have had about disability have been with children [like the school kids who told me that everyone should be able to play on the playground, or the little girl who thought I was a Transformer]. I welcome questions and interaction from children, even if they seem perplexed or intimidated by my wheelchair at first. Something as simple as “Why do you use that?” is an opportunity for me to help a child be more aware of disability and how it affects people.  Not to mention it encourages a natural dialogue and helps to counter the Fear of Difference that kids sometimes struggle with.

[I would also encourage parents to think of age-appropriate ways to discuss disabilities with your children on your own time, in case you are in a setting where your child sees a person with a disability and is curious, but immediate conversation with a new person is impractical.]

4.  It’s okay to say, “Excuse Me”:

Too often, I have unknowingly been in someone’s path, and that person has attempted to squeeze by, inadvertently bumping my chair [or worse: moving my chair without my permission: gross].  Beyond that, I have been apologized to for being in someone else’s way more times than I can count. It is perfectly fine to say, “Excuse me” if the need arises. In fact, it’s downright polite. Your mom will be proud.

5. It’s okay to say, “Hi.”:

Sometimes, when we see people different from us, we look right at them. It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. I’ve gotten caught staring myself a time or two, I’m sure. When I notice someone staring at me, I say, “Hi!” to break the ice. It [hopefully] snaps the person staring out of it, in a kind way.

So next time you see a person in a wheelchair, if you don’t know what to say, just try hi. It eases the tension, and you might brighten someone’s day.

 

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Go Sox: In Defense of the Playoff Beard

Earlier this afternoon, I read this blog, in which Amanda Hess of Slate takes a turn berating each Boston Red Sox player for his Playoff Beard. Calling them “dumb”, “gross”, “lazy”,”without self-control”, she compares one man to a Troglodyte, and saying that the beard of another resembled pubic hair. She also spent a whole paragraph implying that the wives and girlfriends of the players probably are [or should be] disgusted with the beards of their men. She agreed with another author who implied that waking up to a man with a formidable beard would be like waking up next to a dog.

Whoa, now.

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While I fully comprehend her piece is meant to be comical, something about it bothered me all day. And I figured out what. So, I decided to write her a note here:

Amanda,

I read your post today after a friend shared it on Facebook. Of course, I get that your goal is humor. However, I was bothered by the tone of your piece. It came across as shaming, emasculating, and belittling to the men you wrote about, and to other men who look like them. By now, you’ve guessed it. I love someone with a beard. And never have I confused him with a Pomeranian, a sheepdog, or a caveman, even when his attitude toward his facial hair was more fancy free. I felt awkward even talking about your blog with him, imagining how he would feel reading it, knowing that he and many of his friends have worn looks like you are describing.  Contrary to the studies you’ve read, I find his facial hair manly and attractive no matter what its style, and I’m fairly certain it has magic powers. It is a built in pillow during snuggle time, and allows him to resemble a mid-to-late-Beatles George Harrison. Point is, we live in a society with far too much shaming: and it hurts me to see more, even when it is supposed to be in jest. There is already too much humor on the Internet and elsewhere aimed at making someone else feel small. As women, I’m sure you and I both can remember times when we’ve felt ugly or unattractive because of someone else’s words about how we should or shouldn’t look, no matter how funny they intended to be. It is no different for men.  One more thing: I’m not a baseball fan, but I love the Red Sox beards: yes, they’re wild and crazy, but so is WINNING the World Series.   And you and I both know why they won: there are a million tiny reasons, growing all over their chins right now. Enjoy your weekend, and your No Shave November.

[for JPT]

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