Lent: A Time to Be Free

A wonderful new article by Jim Palmer at Relevant Magazine proposes a different kind of Lenten discipline: What if, instead of giving up food, Facebook and foolin’ around, we fasted from the self-critical and fearful “voices in our head” that keep us from resting contentedly in God’s love?

I wonder what Jesus would think of all our inventive Lenten practices. One thing I know for sure is that Jesus desires our freedom. Jesus said his mission was to set captives free, and that knowing the truth would set us free. I know a lot of Christians who are knowledgeable, zealous, moral, and disciplined, but who are not free. There is always some inner malady or life circumstance disturbing their peace, stealing their happiness, diminishing their worth, disconnecting them from love, or filling them with fear and anxiety.

What would it be like to be free? Free from the emotional baggage that sabotages your life, free from that static anxiety that interferes with enjoying the moment, free to be yourself, free to be at peace regardless of your circumstances, and free of all the self-conscious preoccupations constantly ricocheting around in your head. Jesus never promised we’d be rich or that our lives would be void of difficulties and hardships, but he did say we could be free.

Paul wrote in Galatians, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” I can think of no better Lenten practice for embracing the significance of Jesus Christ then to take our stand in freedom. Sometimes the person who is putting “a harness of slavery on you” is yourself. Paul admonished in 2 Corinthians to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

What if our Lenten practice was to deny every thought floating around in our heads and hearts that compromises the freedom Christ wants for us? What if we took advantage of the Lent season to give up every idea we have that opposes freedom and embrace the truth that offers peace in whatever situation we find ourselves in?

To be “free” would mean you were not affected or restricted by any condition or circumstance. Freedom in Christ means nothing can affect or restrict your experience of love, peace, fulfillment, and contentment because these spiritual qualities emanate from the presence of Christ within you. In every moment, those spiritual realities are alive within you and available to you without condition.

So why don’t we experience these realities? Because we listen to that voice in our head. What voice? You know; that voice in your head that is constantly telling you that you lack something. You know the one? It’s the voice that tells you that you’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, gifted enough, cool enough, creative enough, disciplined enough, spiritual enough, or competent enough. The voice also tells you that if you were somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else you’d be happier.

The voice gets you striving after possessions, money, beauty, success, status, power, recognition, or a special relationship. It promises as a result that you will feel better about yourself, feel complete and loved and worthy, and be happy. What the voice doesn’t bother telling you is that it’s a bottomless hole you are trying to fill. As long as that voice is running your life, you will never be at peace or fulfilled except for those fleeting moments when you briefly obtain what you wanted before realizing it’s not enough, and you need and crave more.

Read the whole article here.

“Thin” by Lauren Greenfield Shines Light on Anorexia and Its (Mis)treatment

Acclaimed photographer Lauren Greenfield’s movie Thin was shown this week at Smith College, in connection with an exhibit of her photographs at the college art museum (now through April 26). This cinema-verite documentary, which first aired on HBO in 2006, tells the stories of four young women with severe anorexia/bulimia who are in-patients at the Renfrew Center, an eating-disorders clinic in Florida. Greenfield writes on her website:

Every girl is affected by the desire to be thin. In the United States, we grow up feeling like our bodies are an expression of our inner selves. To be thin is to be beautiful, disciplined, and even moral. Fat is equated with laziness, slovenliness, a lack of regard for oneself, and a deficiency of self-control….

The making of Thin was a continuation of my decade-long exploration of body image and the way the female body has become a primary expression of identity for girls and women. I spent five years photographing and interviewing girls and women around the country for a book and exhibition called Girl Culture. In that work, I explored the way the body is a medium for girls to express their identities, ambitions, insecurities, and struggles. I was interested in the fact that girls learn from an early age that a woman’s power comes from her body and its display. The way girls present, decorate, reveal, and manipulate their bodies is a reflection of society’s conflicting messages and expectations of women. The female body has become a tabula rasa on which one can view the interplay between society’s imprint and the individual’s voice and psychology.

In this context, the pathology of eating disorders is compelling, symbolic, and important to understand. It is extreme and atypical, but unlike most other mental illness, it has a visible relationship to the values of mainstream culture.

Thin is an excellent, important, heartbreaking film that raises more questions than it answers. For me, and the Buddhist friends with whom I saw the movie, the issue of anorexia was actually overshadowed by what we perceived as the abusive tactics of the clinic staff. In a strange way, the treatment program mirrored back the patients’ obsessively narrow focus on food and weight, setting up a contest of wills centered on starving versus force-feeding. Staff members constantly accused the women of lying, and worked to break up friendships between them, for fear that they would conspire to break the rules. Doublespeak abounded, as when the counselors used the word “support” to describe searching the patients’ rooms, and said that a patient (Polly, one of the four main characters) lacked “integrity” because she had covered for friends who violated house rules about smoking in the bathroom.

It was almost unbearable to watch the scene where the counselors browbeat Polly’s friends into turning her in. After paying thousands of dollars, she was kicked out, still not cured, because she had given another girl some antidepressants and gotten an illicit tattoo. Polly committed suicide in 2008.

Another of the film’s main characters had to leave because her insurance ran out (a not uncommon occurrence at the clinic, it appeared), and others reverted to purging and food restriction almost immediately after treatment ended. To what end, then, were all these violations of trust?

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that women with eating disorders need to be given a collective framework for their experience–a political and/or spiritual analysis to help them understand that the culture is sick, so that they can channel that immense willpower into social change instead of self-destruction. Where are the radical feminist anorexia clinics?

Trusting One’s Self More Than One’s Culture

Teresa Wymore, an author of lesbian erotica who blogs at Flesh and Spirit, has posted an incisive rebuttal to Eve Tushnet’s critique of James Alison’s gay-affirming Catholic theology, which I wrote about here. (If that’s too “inside baseball” for you, read Teresa on Why Sex Matters instead.)

Teresa writes (Eve’s comments in italics):

Like many converts who are drawn to the Church, she seems to be seeking a perpetual engine of moral clarity, as if one’s hard moral choices shouldn’t rely on time, place, or circumstance but come in a handy indexed volume. Post-modern morality is a challenging thing because, like a box of squirming puppies, it means you have to be alert to changing priorities and consequences.

She begins her argument with her own coming out story. And then, there is this:

Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses?

Yes, she’s an apologist. Do you recognize the first step of any institution seeking control? Don’t trust yourself. Tushnet continues:

To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious-but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us.

At this point, I see Tushnet has abandoned her reasonableness. Scripture is a result of personal experience, both produced and interpreted by the personal experiences of a fraction of humanity during ages of class oppression. I do believe it is divinely inspired; I’m just waiting for the divine interpretation. The Tradition that has given us our current understanding of Scripture is based in patriarchal culture, which Tushnet herself seems to acknowledge with a nod early, but now forgets.

And so I ask, with what experiences and values shall we interpret that Scripture? Who is wise enough that they should trust themselves to understand? Finally, Tushnet sums up her experience:

The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.

I feel as if every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian.

I want to ask why she gave up sexual relationships. Did she surrender that expression through discipline or did one desire replace a stronger one in her? My question, you see, is whether she chose her own sacrifice and finds more rewards when she chooses to support tradition and live in conformity with official teaching on sexuality. And yet, she seems to be telling other lesbians who find greater rewards in personal sexual relationships that they are not listening to God.

Tushnet has chosen to make a sacrifice of her lesbian sexuality, but maybe God wants her to sacrifice her attachment to a patriarchal tradition. I would say only she knows the answer to that. She would say the Church knows better than she does.

What would make me more open to Tushnet’s ideas is if she simply made the point that she chooses celibacy because she finds greater rewards in it, not because she’s choosing the moral high ground.

Teresa has hit upon the central question in the gay Bible wars: can I trust myself to know God’s will for me, or must I always defer to the institutional interpreters of the text? If, as individuals, we must be vigilant against letting our judgment be distorted by sin, that potential for error is only increased at the corporate level. It is a lot easier to hold an individual accountable than an institution, which is why scapegoating is such a powerful agent of social cohesion (as Alison tirelessly points out).

I’m sure I will be citing Teresa’s blog again in this space. Like me, she is working to stake out a position that is pro-erotica but anti-porn, that affirms the libido of the creative imagination while acknowledging how that imagination has been co-opted by our culture’s misogyny and violence. (Read her post “Mythbusting Women’s Erotica“.) Hey, anyone who’s a fan of James Alison and Bob Jensen has got to be an interesting thinker.

Abuse of Women, Misuse of Faith

In a new article on the Relevant Magazine website, The Church and Domestic Abuse, reporter Lyz Lenz describes in chilling detail how conservative churches keep women in abusive relationships. Citing the sanctity of marriage, women’s duty to submit to their husbands, or the general Christian obligation to forgive wrongdoing, these faith communities wholly ignore the power imbalances that were the primary focus of Jesus’ own moral teachings. Lenz writes:

I can’t tell you her name or how I know her. This is because she is still living with her husband despite years of emotional and physical abuse. He’s cheated on her and cleaned out their bank account to spend on drugs, pornography and online gambling. She left him briefly after a young girl accused her husband of molestation, but she went back to him after a week. Why? I asked her.

She told me that a woman spoke at their church a couple weeks before. The speaker explained how her husband used to be violent, but she didn’t leave him because she knew that God’s plan for a marriage was that it should last forever. Once, the husband’s violence put their baby in the hospital. When he saw what he’d done, he repented and was never violent again.

“That’s why I went back,” the woman told me. “What if it doesn’t end?” I asked. But the woman didn’t answer. The conversation was over.

According to the Department of Justice, almost one-quarter of Americans were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner or date at some time in their lifetime. Jocelyn Andersen, a Christian domestic violence survivor and author of Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence, argues that the Church’s teachings on women and submission have given rise to an epidemic of domestic violence among Christians. In her book Quiverfull, journalist Kathryn Joyce argues that the Christian belief system, which focuses on women’s submission and the headship of men, encourages the abuse of women. In his book Domestic Violence, What Every Pastor Needs to Know, Al Miles reveals that the theological training and beliefs given most clergy can actually contribute to increased violence and abuse of the victim. Christianity, according to some, is the problem….

Later in the article, Lenz tells the story of a woman who was ostracized by her church for trying to divorce her abuser:

“I was raised in the church and fully intended on marrying someone who fully shared my faith,” says Lisa Van Allen, a licensed therapist and owner of Van Allen and Associates. “I went to a Bible school and came home and met the man who would be my husband at church. There was a total of three years from the time we started dating until we were married. ”

Not everything was perfect. Van Allen found out later that there were some people in the church who knew her husband had problems, but no one told her about them at the time. She says: “When it got closer to the wedding, I had some concerns. He struggled with intimacy. Anything with touch or opening up, he pulled away.” Van Allen took her concerns to her pastor who told her that they were just pre-wedding jitters and all the trouble would go away once they were married.

But it didn’t go away. “In the car on the way to the honeymoon, I knew I had made a horrible mistake,” she says. Her husband began to exhibit bizarre behavior on the honeymoon: He locked himself in the bathroom and ranted and raved in front of the mirror. When they got home, the physical abuse began. Again, Van Allen took her concerns to her pastor, and he told her she was nagging and henpecking. She talked to her pastor a third time he told her, “You go home and you obey your husband and everything will be fine.”

The violence escalated. At one point, he exploded and pushed her down the stairs. Van Allen tore a ligament and hurt her back. She told her parents who confronted her husband, but it didn’t help. “The way I was raised,” Lisa says, “divorce was never supposed to be an option.” Van Allen and her husband moved and went to a new church, but there she experienced the same accusations and stonewalling she endured at her previous church. “No one did anything,” she recalls. “Most of the time I was put down, I was told I was ‘pushy’ and not being ‘in submission.'” The violence escalated and Lisa reached out to a professor she was working with in graduate school. He got her husband into a drug trial and his personality improved. “Toward the end of the trial,” Van Allen says, “I went to the pastor and I told him how sick my husband was and how the drugs had helped, but that I knew he would go off them. I asked them for help and again, they blew me off, like they did before.”

Van Allen stayed in her marriage for 10 years because of the advice of her church. “It was hard for me,” she says. “I was raised to believe that pastors were second to God and that wives were supposed to be submissive and that divorce was not an option.” But that changed the night her husband tried to kill her. When her church found out that she had filed for divorce, they disciplined her. “They told me I could no longer serve. They told me I could come if I wanted, but I could only sit on the pew. I couldn’t sing anymore, I couldn’t play the piano, I couldn’t work with the kids. I was treated like a pariah.”

“Looking back,” Van Allen says, “what [the church] did to me was abuse. They used their power to control me—to not help me but to add to my pain.” After the divorce, Van Allen left the church and went on what she calls a spiritual journey, visiting and working with different churches. When her husband started stalking her, those churches provided refuge. Van Allen recalls once when her husband broke into her apartment; she fled to the Episcopal church she had only recently started attending. “The pastor there sheltered me and went with me to make sure my apartment was safe.”

Read the whole story here.

For good advice on the difference between healthy Christian forgiveness and submission to abuse, I recommend the book Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, and the Boundaries book series by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4, TNIV)

The Guardian’s Andrew Brown Makes Christian Case for Gay Marriage

In today’s blog post, Andrew Brown, a religion columnist for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, makes a pithy case for why Christians should support gay marriage. Brown deftly avoids both the liberal fallacy that sex between consenting adults has no public moral dimension, and the conservative fallacy that gays are just disordered straight people.

Brown observes that before the issue was forced into the open, the Church of England quietly ordained gay men who were in stable long-term partnerships, on the theory that they made better priests than potentially promiscuous singles of either orientation. Writing about one London bishop who had this sub rosa policy, Brown says it is important to recognize that “it wasn’t in the least bit liberal. He did not believe that the sex lives of his clergy could be a private matter, still less that they ought to be. He would have agreed with St Paul that sex could be so disruptive and so dangerous that it must be channelled.”

This insight about sex informs the conservative Anglicans who feel that gay marriage is a threat to the family. They’re protecting important values, they’re just wrong about where the real threat lies. Brown continues:

When they say that they are defending the family, they are sincere. They understand that families matter, and that restraints have to be put on adult sexual behaviour if children are to be brought up reasonably selflessly. Children need hope and self-discipline: they don’t invent them all by themselves, and if they do they don’t hang on to their inventions without encouragement. They learn them from the adults around, who can only teach by example.

And the adults, in turn, keep themselves on the strait (not straight) path of righteousness partly because they are afraid of being found out. It may be reprehensible to do the right thing for a squalid and ignoble reason, but it is better than to do the wrong thing for a squalid reason. So one of the great slogans of the liberal society, that it doesn’t matter what consenting adults do with each other in private, turns out to be false. It does matter what other people do in private, even when they are not parents. Our natural prurient interest in gossip reflects this fact in a rather repulsive way. Other people’s sex lives are a legitimate matter of public interest – not just in the News of the World sense that they interest the public, much though they do – but because they also affect everyone around them, and influence their behaviour as well as their feelings.

Thus far the strong case for a conservative sexual morality. But there is a final twist. The stronger the case is for reining in sexual appetites, the more wicked it becomes to scapegoat gay people, and in particular open, monogamous ones like Gene Robinson. They are not the problem. As the wonderful New Yorker cartoon has it “Gays and lesbians aren’t a threat to my marriage. It’s all the straight women who sleep with my husband.”

What the Akinola-ites deny is that there is such a thing as a natural homosexual. To them, a gay man is merely a turbocharged straight man, like the Earl of Rochester, who boasted of his penis that “Woman nor man, nor aught its fury stayed.” On the other hand, what many of their opponents deny is that there must be painful restraints on our sexual (and other) appetites if civilisation is to survive. It’s hard to tell which are furthest from Christianity. But the people who believe in unrestricted sexual freedom tend to grow out of it; the pleasures of scapegoating and self-satisfaction only increase with age.

(Emphasis mine.)

Transgender Civil Rights Video: “Everyone Matters”

As the Massachusetts legislature considers the Transgender Nondiscrimination Bill, a coalition of activist groups (MassEquality, GLAD, and the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition) has put together this moving and informative 10-minute video about the lives of transpersons and their need for civil rights protections:

If you live in Massachusetts, call your representatives and ask them to vote for the bill.

Self-Care as Lenten Discipline

I give up strange things for Lent. During a high-pressure year in college, I gave up my superego. Another year, I stopped going to church, because arguments over theology were making me prideful and distracted. The goal of these counterintuitive resolutions was always to jolt myself out of legalism, to develop a healthy sense of humor about my so-called good behavior and start living in God’s grace.

But this year, I forgot all that. I made big plans. Lent was the equivalent of a corporate productivity retreat. Six weeks! Surely that would be enough time to write a book on gay theology, work on my novel, be a good friend to everyone on Facebook, and (oh, right) do my job.

Now I am cranky, exhausted, yelling at the telephone, and dreaming about being the unpopular contestant on “Stylista”.

It is hard for me to believe that the world, my world anyhow, will not come to an end if I do what I really want to do: dial back my social life and service projects so I can be alone with God and my novel. I can’t pretend that I am closing the door and turning off the phone for the benefit of anyone but myself. “People aren’t supporting me,” I say, when I’m actually the one who isn’t telling them what I need–because I’m afraid that they aren’t strong enough, or that they will stop loving me, or that it’s just plain weird to tell a flesh-and-blood person, “I’m sorry, my novel character outranks you.”

My husband, another stunning overachiever, talked to me recently about the discipline of renunciation. He has been increasing the time he spends in meditation, and working on his impatience to change the world all at once. Suddenly, “renunciation” began to sound like a sweet word, a blissful self-indulgence, like getting a massage.

Just as awareness of sin is only tolerable and productive after awareness of being safely held in God’s forgiving love, healthy renunciation requires a prior commitment to one’s own self-worth as a child of God. Just after Ash Wednesday, the womanist blog The Kitchen Table published a wonderful post about how the Lenten call to sacrifice can be mis-heard by women who have been socialized to suppress their own needs. Blogger Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote:

I was sitting in the audience at an extraordinary event honoring the intellectual contributions of black womanist theologians Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, and Jacquelyn Grant. These womanist foremothers are the sisters who courageously challenged the deep and often destructive assumptions of academic theology and ethics.: assumptions that either ignore or silence black women….

I had been looking forward to this event for a month. It turned out to be the perfect way to spend Ash Wednesday.

These preeminent scholars themselves were not on the panel. Instead, the panel was composed of second generation womanist scholars who were their students: Rev. Dr. Joy Bostic, Dr.Teresa Delgado, and Rev. Lorena Parrish. Together they articulated an ethical and theological vision for black women in America and in the Diaspora.

Their message was a challenging one on the precipice of Lent because at they offered up a message that black women must refuse being transformed into sacrificial lambs for the good of everyone but ourselves.

These women refused to uncritically embrace the notion of sacrifice. Instead they forced us to ask what would happen if we imagine that God and our communities are deeply, unalterably invested in the existence, survival, and thriving of black women. Would a God, a church, a home, or a community that was committed to our survival, our joy, and our redemption be so willing to use and abuse our bodies, our talents, our hearts, and our gifts while offering so little in return?

These sister scholars laid hands on the discomfort I’d felt earlier in the day and lay it bare before the entire gathering. The created new insights by drawing on the work of white feminist scholars, black male liberation theologians, and even traditional church doctrine to craft new meaning from the Christian imperative for Lenten sacrifice.

Dr. Delgado asked us to reconsider the communion assertion: “This is my body which is broken for you.” What if we read that idea in light of contemporary women’s experiences of forced sexual slavery, intimate violence, and soaring HIV infection? It seems that the bodies of poor and black women are indeed broken by and for others.

Dr. Bostic then offered a stunning counterpoint by invoking Toni Morrison’s powerful, woman preacher from Beloved: Baby Suggs Holy. Morrison, through Baby Suggs Holy, calls black men and women to love their flesh and to resist allowing it to be broken. This woman preacher, standing in space she clears for her prophetic witness, encourages black men and women to love their embodied selves. “Here in this here place, we flesh; Flesh that weeps, laughs; Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” The holy act is cherishing and nurturing the self, not denying it, not limiting it, not covering it in sackcloth and ashes.

Yes, I agree with your assessment that as a nation of privilege we are called to sacrifice our consumption and privilege to end oppression and inequality. But as black women we must be careful to complicate and challenge the idea of sacrifice. We have too often internalized this Christian call for self-sacrifice so fully that it became self-denigration. We nail ourselves to a cross just to serve and please others. And others allow us to do it. They smile on our sacrifice, claim that our suffering is redemptive, and enjoy the ways we relieve them of discomfort. They act out their patriarchy and racism all over our lives and we too often accept it as though it is the cross we are supposed to bear in order to prove ourselves worthy of divine love.

From the audience the Rev. Dr. Joanne Terrell reminded us of her work which constructs a new theology of joy and fun. She admonished us that we act as though loving our lives is a sin. We behave as though pleasure and happiness are ungodly. Dr. Terrell sounded like Baby Suggs Holy to me, telling us to dance our way into the arms of a God who loves our audacious, happy, fabulous, whole selves and does not need us to crawl to divinity half-starved and over burdened.

Poem: “Wedded”

This poem of mine was chosen by Chris Forhan as a runner-up for the 2008 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry from The Broome Review, and also appears in their Spring 2009 issue and on their website.


Why can’t the dog and the cat get married,
the postman to the bishop, the nurse to the queen?
In the days when mud was chocolate
we could march the egg cups down the table,
humming that universal tune.
The teddy bear and the piggy bank,
the lightbulb and the tomato.
Not all of these relationships would work out,
as we knew from the sound
of cloth tearing in another room.
Still we imagined,
in those days when peppermint was money,
that a bit of lace thrown over
the cat’s spitting head would make her beautiful,
and a dropcloth would stop the parrot quarreling
with his mirror mate.
We were dizzy with weddings,
even when the books fell to the floor
inky and torn, face-down like bridesmaids
with their mascara running.
Why do the things that were sold together,
the obvious salt and pepper,
rows of rolled socks like dull neighbors,
always go missing?
So we married the glove to the mitten,
in those days when morning was bedtime,
when lunch was rice flung in the street
after the tin-can fugitives,
we matched the boot to the baby’s shoe
and no guests came.

Maureen Sherbondy: “Vanishing Sarah”

This piece first appeared in the Knoxville Writers’ Guild Anthology, Low Explosions: Writings on the Body. Maureen Sherbondy’s collection of short stories and flash fiction, The Slow Vanishing, will be published this fall by Main Street Rag. Visit their New Releases page to buy this book at a pre-order discount price of $9 (normally $13.95). MSR has also published two of Maureen’s poetry chapbooks, After the Fairy Tale and Praying at Coffee Shops.

Vanishing Sarah

Bit by bit, Sarah vanished. It began slowly — a swatch of fingertip tugged off. Everyone wanted something: her five children, her corporate husband, the in-laws, the neighbors, her two terriers, the PTA, her four younger sisters, the church parishioners. They were the takers, and she was the giver; this is the way it had always been. She barely noticed the initial throb of missing fingertip. The dull pain was interrupted by the disappearance of the small toe on her left foot, removed by her husband. Then, an ounce of flesh above her hip, which, really, she didn’t mind, as there had been so much extra flesh since that fourth pregnancy. The removal of flesh was like being gnawed by a very large rat. Chomp chomp. First she swatted the hand of the taker, a PTA parent this time; then she accepted this loss and waved goodbye as the ounce of flesh floated out the open window.

Phones rang endlessly with additional requests: to bake two dozen cupcakes for the school bake sale, volunteer for the book fair, organize the church charity talent show. Then the takers became ruthless. They descended, a swarm of hands and teeth. A finger, wearing her wedding band, floated away from the four-bedroom brick house, and then a large toe left the suburban cul-de-sac. Her slightly bulbous nose sprayed with tiny freckles drifted into the sky, a loss which made smelling the burning cupcakes difficult. She saw twenty freckles in the night sky lit up like red stars.

At night, achy, feeling scattered and lost, she closed her eyes (still intact, she had covered those with palms, no fingers) trying to find a dream where only givers lived. But, piece-by-piece even dreams parted.

When the children and husband and in-laws and PTA and church parishioners searched for Sarah, to ask just one last little favor, all that remained was a stain — a perfumed outline of who she had been.

I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Fallen World

Few things give me such pure, long-lasting happiness as finding a treasure trove of vintage Barbie clothes, as I did yesterday at the Happy Valley gift shop in Northampton. I’m counting the months till the Hadley flea market opens, when I can once again wander the muddy pasture, eating corn dogs and searching for Kens to squire my fashionable girls around. And don’t get me started on the Brimfield antique fair…the only thing that will get me out in the sun in July. (This cold-weather gal even skipped the second half of her Harvard graduation.)

Today, Barbie turns 50. Canada’s CTV has a good history of Barbie’s unusual careers (paleontologist? NASCAR driver?) and photos of how the doll has changed through the decades. Check out SkyNews for “German Chancellor Angela Merkel Barbie” and highlights from the tribute to Barbie at New York Fashion Week.

Of course, Barbie has her detractors. Some feminists argue that the doll, like the fashion industry generally, promotes unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty and perpetuates the problem of women being valued for their looks alone. Not so, says Courtney E.Martin, author of a well-regarded book on anorexia, who says girls are influenced much more by whether the adult women in their life have a positive self-image.

Why do I love Barbie? She represents pure femininity, with all its contradictions, pushed to the point of campiness and playful self-parody — as this video shows:

When I’m with my Barbies, I can simply enjoy being a girl. I can pretend that I’m working on narrative structure by inventing elaborate storylines for them — TV show producer Barbie, transgender fashion designer Barbie, 12-step rehab Barbie, closeted evangelical gay teen Barbie, Korean radical feminist ex-stripper Barbie, and the rest. But the truth is, I just love clothes. Frilly, tiny, pink clothes. Gender is performance, and Barbie puts on the show of a lifetime.