On being an unpopped kernel

Blue paper sign reading, "Watch out for 'old maids'. Though we sift our kettle corn the occasional unpopped kernel will show up..."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Friends, I’m obsessed with popcorn.

What’s not to like about it? It’s the crunchy ambrosia of movie theaters and carnivals.

Over the years I’ve invented my own gourmet flavors, like buttery ginger. Usually these days I make it with olive oil and salt, sometimes with nutritional yeast to give that cheesy taste.

Air-popped, it’s reasonably healthy, unless you drench it in butter. And it fills you up.

Each kernel is unique in shape, I’ve been told.

As a kid, I remember referring to unpopped kernels as “old maids,” and my mom was displeased. “I don’t like calling them that,” she told me. “That makes it sound like, if a woman doesn’t get married, she’s an ‘unpopped kernel’ and she’s not worth anything.”

I was annoyed that popcorn had become political. The next time we were eating some, I carefully referred to “unpopped kernels” instead of “old maids.” My mom thanked me for using better language. I wanted her to just let it go.

But now I see that she was onto something.

*

Some Christians—and others whose religions include an afterlife—see all of us, here on Earth, as unpopped kernels, waiting to be thrown in the kettle of heaven to explode into our true, full identities. (Though I guess the fires of hell might have the same effect.)

I don’t see buy into this “waiting room” theory. Our heaven and our hell are alive within us at all times, just waiting to be activated. And we’re not in God’s waiting room. We’re in God’s world.

So what does it mean to pop?

*

Unpopped kernels feel smooth and cool to the touch. They’re appealing to plunge your hands into a huge bucket of.

But if you bite one unexpectedly, it’s awful. You’re expecting a delicious crunch, and instead, you get a broken tooth or a loosened filling.

Those little kernels have a mission in life: to scatter to the winds, and create more corn plants. Or, to be eaten by humans or animals, and to return to the earth as fertilizer.

As humans, we can “pop” through doing good in the world. We can pop through finding something we enjoy doing, and immersing ourselves in that experience of deep flow.

We pop through getting married and having babies.

Or through becoming a soldier, and putting our life on the line for our country and our brothers and sisters in arms.

Through throwing ourselves into a creative endeavor, even though we think the story or song we’re writing won’t make sense to anyone else.

There are many sources of heat to transform us.

*

Maybe our job, as earthly kernels, is to subject ourselves, as much as we can, to the right kinds of fire. The loving kind. The kind of the spirit.

The kind that takes us out of ourselves, like a popcorn kernel, whose insides become its outsides.

If kernels could think, would they fear that transformation?

Or would they be excited?

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Danger! Do Not Walk on Ceiling

Sign on the ceiling of Boston's North Station, saying "Danger: Do not walk on ceiling."
There’s a sign on the ceiling of Boston’s North Station. It says “Danger: Do not walk on ceiling.”

Here’s a better close-up of it.

I take the train from North Station up to Maine fairly often, and always mean to ask someone at the station, “What’s up with that sign?”

It’s a warning that begs to be violated. Like Bluebeard telling his young wife, “You can go into any room in the castle—just not that room.” Or God telling Adam and Eve, “You can eat from any tree in the garden—just not that tree.”

When I was a kid, I remember getting up on a high slide. My dad told me to keep my feet together as I went down. I was going to do that anyway, but since he told me to, I spread out my feet, and fell off the slide. Two stitches.

I’m wondering if the issue was a missing “because.” My dad probably felt the “because” was obvious: “…because otherwise you could fall off the slide and hurt yourself.”

In Genesis 2, God offers a broad but scary “because”: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But that begs another “because,” kicking off a chain that winds through the centuries, from Eve to us: “Why will we surely die? What does that mean? What’s wrong with knowledge? Don’t you want us to understand good and evil, so we can choose good? And PS, why will I fall off the slide?”

There’s a level of dizzying choice when someone tells you not to do something, but doesn’t tell you why. It’s a compelling fairy tale convention. As soon as the hero is told not to do something, we immediately, viscerally want her to do it.

Does that urge show our sinful fallen nature, as my Baptist friends believe?

Or is it just our innate curiosity, the thirst that drives so much of our positive and negative progress?

In any case, the first chance I get to walk—or dance—on the ceiling of North Station, you better believe I’m taking it. Unless someone gives me a good reason not to.

 

The Fine Art of Arguing

“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”

The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.

GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.

Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.

As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.

GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.

Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.

Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.

Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.


Photo by jon collier via Creative Commons.

Facets of forgiveness

A rainy urban rooftop with a sign saying "Forgive"“Forgiveness” is one of those limp, floppy words that create resentment. It sounds vaguely Biblical: If thou art a good person, thou shalt forgive others. It’s not a fun or sexy concept.

But in practice, it can be powerful. Transforming.

Forgiveness is a weightlifter. It removes the burden of anger and resentment that’s weighing us down.

*

In her new book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explores trauma and forgiveness from many different angles.

It’s hard to do true crime well. It can feel exploitative, especially when it involves the death and possible molestation of a child.

Where do we draw the line between taking a ghoulish interest, and striving to understand a deeply human pathology, such as pedophilia?

Marzano-Lesnevich spins out this crime in multiple dimensions. The criminal in question is Ricky Langley, who killed young Jeremy Guillory and confessed to molesting multiple kids. She looks at Ricky’s own childhood, and skillfully weaves in a parallel story of abuse from her own family history.

What saves the book from being cold-blooded is the writer’s compassion. Without excusing the multiple, overlapping crimes in the narrative, Marzano-Lesnevich finds new lights to shine on these dark areas.

She also understands the complexity of story: the deep intertwining of cause, effect, and other influences that are not so binary or linear.

One of the questions she keeps getting pulled back to is this: When is forgiveness a beautiful, healing, generous action?

And when is it a way to let someone off the hook, to avoid confronting someone about their destructive behavior?

*

I watched a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure recently, which dealt with the same questions: How do we, as flawed humans, judge others? Do we even try?

We have to, for our society to function. But how do we balance justice with mercy?

Is there a value in offering forgiveness for something terrible?

Does taking that action excuse the wrong-doing?

Or, does it elevate both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

*

At church last week, the pastor talked about a Bible chapter focused on forgiveness. In the passage (Philemon), the writer (Paul the Apostle) offers to take on someone else’s debt: to erase a robbery by paying off what was stolen.

We are all indebted to others, the pastor explained. And we all have chances to take on each other’s burden of debt–not just financially, but relationally.

For example, if two friends of mine are having discord, I can shoulder part of that burden by mediating between them.

But what if one of my friends injured the other, out of spite or fear? What then? How can I get beyond taking sides?

How can I broker forgiveness between others, if my own grasp on it is so tenuous?

*

The larger and more inflamed our egos are, the lower our capacity for forgiveness. I like Roland Merullo’s metaphor of constantly, carefully sanding down the ego over time, so it gets smaller and smaller, and controls us less and less.

That’s a challenge in a culture that pumps up our egos, where pissing matches are the order of the day (from the playground to international politics).

*

Will you join me in this exercise?

Think of someone who’s injured you. Think about what their intentions may have been. Think about their backstory, what brought them to that point.

Hold the pain of that injury in your heart. Pray about it if you pray. Meditate on it if you meditate. Sit with it if you sit.

Then picture that pain and anger filling a balloon you’re clutching, making it buoyant with the dark air of that injury.

And let go of the balloon.


Image by Adams Carroll via Creative Commons on Flickr.

One Question Never to Ask

A cat stretched out in the sunshine, exposing its bellyThe other day, an acquaintance asked me when my due date is.

I’m not pregnant.

Yeah. So that was less than good.

*

Now, just to give some context, I was wearing a form-fitting outfit, and that form includes a substantial bust and a curved belly. I don’t look particularly pregnant, but I could see how, if boobs + belly = pregnancy is an equation in someone’s mind, they could jump to that conclusion.

When I informed my questioner that I’m not pregnant, she apologized, and I told her it was OK. Then I left the venue where we were and went home, feeling sick and weak, as if I’d been groped by a dirty old man.

*

I was angry at my questioner. But I realized that my feeling of illness and violation didn’t come from her question. It came from my telling her that her question was OK.

My instant reaction—gut reaction, speaking of bellies—was to take away her discomfort and embarrassment, instead of voicing my hurt feelings.

I don’t like schooling people or calling them out, even when they’re wrong (or I think they’re wrong). I don’t enjoy debate or discord.

But I need to develop some game in those arenas, because the default of saying “It’s OK” when it’s not feels so toxic and nauseating.

*

I still don’t know what the “right” response would have been. Maybe “I know you didn’t mean to, but your question hurt my feelings.”

But with a question like that, there is no correct response. How do you respond to a question that should never have been asked?

Humor would have been great, if I could have mustered any. I was about a million miles away from a quip to defuse the moment.

I’ve been trying to love my body extra hard since this ego-blow. And I’m reminding myself that this was one moment of thoughtlessness—hardly a ripple in the ocean of my human interactions this week or this month.

But damn. The power we have to start an earthquake under each other’s happiness.

Maybe the moral of this story is that I should take an improv class.

Readers, what would you have said?

Photo by liz west via Creative Commons on Flickr.

In Praise of Low-Salt Language

 

Salt Shaker

Am I a prude? Am I uptight? No one’s ever told me so.

But the conversations I overhear every day gross me out.

A lot of this comes from overuse of one word: shit. People always talk about how their sports team “shit the bed,” or how work was a “shitshow” today.

The words we use bring a particular energy into our lives. Language reframes our reality. That’s why Republicans and Democrats use different vocabulary to describe the same thing: “illegal aliens” versus “undocumented immigrants,” for example.

If a topic is being debated, one word changes the flavor and texture of that debate.

If we talk about shit all day, why are we surprised when we feel shitty when the day is over?

Watch Our Language

A lot of the signs at the Women’s March said stuff like “Get the Trump government out of my fucking twat” and “My menstrual blood will rain down upon you, President Douchebag.” (Can you tell which one of those I made up?)*

Many of those signs were funny, and they did help blow off steam. But their tone alienated many moderate and conservative women who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the marchers’ cause.

Graphic: No Longer Novel?

The general public conversation has taken a turn for the graphic. We’ve come a long way from when Lenny Bruce was arrested for his stand-up. He’d barely be rated PG-13 today.

It’s terrific that comedians like Nikki Glaser and Amy Schumer can be frank about sexuality, bodily functions, whatever. But as with anything, “strong language” weakens when it’s overused.

Obscenity can be deployed for humor, for shock value, for emphasis. None of those work when it’s utterly routine.

We can still speak our minds while speaking carefully.

Flaunting Brainpower

When she was in 6th grade, my friend Calista’s teacher pulled her aside to ask her to swear less. “Why?” Calista demanded, chip on her shoulder.

“When you swear, it hides your intelligence,” her teacher explained.

Calista still remembered this moment 20+ years later. It was a powerful message: Anything that hides our smarts is a hindrance.

A Modest Proposal

Guys, let’s put the “gentle” back in gentleman. You don’t have to be super-saintly in your discourse, like my friend Joe, who often drops H-bombs (that’s for “heck,” of course).

But listen to yourself. See if you’re repeating the same phrases over and over. If so, are those your words, or someone else’s?

And are they saying what you really mean?

Women, when you hear yourself being salty, ask yourself if that’s the flavor you’re going for. Maybe it is. In that case, great!

But as in cooking, when language is oversalted, it gets unappetizing. And can raise blood pressure.

Join me in this experiment. For a day, or a week, talk as if your grandma or grandpa were listening in on your every word. If you start to get crass or obscene without purpose, find other, more creative ways to express your ideas.

Let’s elevate our language above the run-of-the-mill shit.

* The second sign’s wording is my own invention.

Photo by Araceli Arroyo, via Creative Commons on Flickr.