Archive for May, 2011

Most surprising Bible quotes of the day.

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Deuteronomy 23:1.

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity. Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

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Joseph’s Bones.

Over the weekend, I read Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, by Jerome M. Segal.

I downloaded it because I recently started reading the Bible. I’m agnostic, but I grew up going to church and attending Sunday school every week. With that plus a lot of art history under my belt, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Bible. But I’ve been struck by the sheer strangeness of the Old Testament so far.

Here’s just one example, coming from a story with which most people are probably familiar. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and instructs him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses demurs at first, citing his lack of eloquence, until God gets a little peeved and says, basically, “Fine. Isn’t your brother Aaron a good speaker? He can be your spokesman. Now, get going.” So Moses heads off to Egypt with his wife and kids.

But then, in a bizarre turn of events, God tries to kill him on the way. “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.” The whole episode is just three verses long and no explanation is given. God lets Moses go because Moses’ wife, Zipporah, cuts off her son’s foreskin and touches Moses with it.

Then, there’s not one, but three stories in which one of the patriarchs (first Abraham and then Isaac) visits a strange land and pretends his wife is his sister so that the ruler of the land won’t kill him in order to marry the wife. In all three stories, the ruler takes the wife as his own and then gets in trouble with God, which doesn’t seem entirely fair.

In another detail that I once took for granted but now seems remarkable, when the Israelites are wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, God travels with them in the form of a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke during the day.

It’s not just the strangeness—there are many things that just seem wrong or unfair. God is so angry and impulsive. Lot demonstrates that he is the only good man in Sodom by offering his virgin daughters to be raped by a crowd in place of his angel-visitors. Jacob comes off as a real jerk, tricking poor Esau out of his birthright for a pot of soup and then wearing a disguise to trick his elderly blind father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of Esau. I often find myself reading open-mouthed in surprise.

Somehow I took all these things in stride when I was young. Perhaps when you’re a kid, more of the world is strange and new and you’re more accepting, less discerning. Or maybe it’s just that the deck is stacked so strongly in favor of the Bible. It has a lot of authority around it suggesting that it makes sense.

Now, the Old Testament strikes me as nothing so much as the collected folk tales and mythologies of a people who are truly foreign, so distant from me in time and space and understanding that much of it is just plain inscrutable.

Reading it is not that different from listening to our tour guide on our recent trip to Bhutan. We visited temples while our guide told us one tale after the other about Bhutanese Buddhist beliefs and about the lives of the religious figures depicted in the temples. We learned that Guru Rinpoche’s wife turned into a tigress and carried him to the site of the Tiger’s Nest monastery, and that Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, subdued demons with his phallus. We became familiar with the cast of characters and events, but we were always a little perplexed about what was history and what was pure mythology, and about what, if anything, the stories were supposed to mean. At the end of the day we’d get on our phones and search the internet for more information, trying to make sense of what we’d been told. I’m similarly curious about what I’ve read in the Bible so far. I want to know why—I want context, history, explanations.

That’s not exactly what Joseph’s Bones provides, but it was still pretty satisfying. In it, Segal undertakes a purely textual interpretation of the first six books of the Bible, the Hexateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua), positing that those books can be understood as telling a story quite different from how they are usually understood.

In that story, God is immature, rash, and emotional. He’s omnipotent but not omniscient, and not always in control of his emotions. He’s a god trying to find himself, and his self-representations don’t always match his actions. The Israelites seek forgiveness, compassion, and justice from God, and try to teach him to be bound by morality. The Hexateuch is not the word of God, but a story of the struggle and relationship between man and God.

It’s a wholly plausible and well-argued interpretation. Interestingly, it lends coherence to some of the most perplexing bits of the Old Testament I’ve come across so far. For instance, in the episode described above in which God tries to kills Moses, Segal suggests that God knows Moses will become like a god to the Israelites and is momentarily unable to contain his jealousy.

Plus, I just like it. It’s a story that’s rich and endearing and human. Isn’t the story of a forbearing people and an imperfect God who is capable of learning, who makes mistakes and has regrets, more appealing than the story of a perfect God raining vengeance on a sinful people?

An unexpected pregnancy side effect: fear of bears.

Here’s an unexpected side effect of pregnancy: I think it has increased my fear of bears.

I love camping, hiking, and backpacking, but I have a deep and irrational fear of bears. I may be the only person in Washington State that camps with bear spray. I won’t go backpacking in areas with grizzlies unless I’m with at least four other people.

I can usually manage my fear, but I’ve spent more than a few sleepless hours listening intently for bears. In my half-asleep brain, the sound of gentle waves on the shore of a lake turns into a thirsty bear lapping up water, and the sound of a windy night turns into a bear rattling the tent. My husband is used to me abruptly sitting upright in our tent, grabbing his arm, and whispering “there’s definitely a bear out there!”

Anyway, two weekends have passed since I found out I’m pregnant. We planned to go snow camping both weekends but we were rained out both times. I’ve been bummed about the rainy weather but also, in a secret part of my soul, relieved. When I imagine being in our tent at night in the middle of the North Cascades I feel a new sort of alarm. How bad is it going to be when I have an actual child and not just an embryo? We’re on again this weekend, so hopefully I can conquer this new uneasiness.

Taking a stand for a slow-paced life.

The other day I saw this comment on Facebook: “Show me a mom who isn’t pulled in a million different directions and I’ll show you one boring person.”

I had an immediate negative reaction, even though I’m not even a mom yet. I’ve never really felt pulled in a million different directions, and I don’t want to feel that way. Does that make me boring? Seeing that comment brought back feelings of guilt and inadequacy I struggled with while deciding to leave full-time legal work.

My first law firm job ended abruptly, when the national law firm I worked for suddenly folded, leaving 700 attorneys and thousands of staff jobless. At the time, I felt lost and confused. I wasn’t excited about going to work at a new law firm, but I felt like I should, and I didn’t know what else to do.

I twiddled my thumbs for a month or two, and then went on a vacation. I went hiking in New Zealand with a group of mostly women from all over the world: Canada, New Zealand, England, the Netherlands, Australia. New Zealand was beautiful and laid-back, but the best part of the trip was that I suddenly felt like myself again. Here were women who were smart and pleasant and interesting, and also between jobs or careers. Or, they came from a culture in which it was normal to take a five-week vacation once or twice a year and work 35-hour weeks. After two years of trying to fit into a world in which I didn’t belong, I could breathe easily again. I stopped feeling like a weirdo because I was unemployed and didn’t really like my career anyway.

Still, I decided it was best for me to try to get another year or so of experience at a smaller law firm, and I did. I stuck it out for almost two more years, though I spent much of the last year having mini-breakdowns behind my closed office door and crying to my patient husband at night. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right for me, but I didn’t know what to do next. I started seeing a career counselor, and decided to work as a freelancer.

There were many reasons for my decision, but one was that I didn’t like my lifestyle. I felt like I was always rushing and that I had to be very focused and scheduled to get everything I wanted to do done. I felt like I was on a treadmill, the weeks passing each one like the one before. I decided I’d rather make less money in exchange for a more relaxed, less regimented life. (Of course, I also felt like I was devoting too much time and energy to something that didn’t give me back that much in return other than money. My job just didn’t make me feel good about myself, or proud, or satisfied. If that were different, maybe I would have been able to put up with the rest).

In reaching this decision, the biggest obstacle wasn’t overcoming my own drive, or fears about money and security—it was the feeling that I should want to be a successful lawyer. That I was weak, or weird, or lazy for choosing something different.

Career counseling helped me get over those feelings, and when I did, it was crystal clear to me how I wanted my life to be different. I want to be relaxed, and present, with time to have fun, travel, have weekend adventures, cook, read, and write. I didn’t want to spend every day in an office sitting at a desk.

It can feel really good to be too busy. It can make you feel important, and and needed. There’s a sort of energy and high that comes along with living at a fast pace. It’s also more in sync with our culture, which favors workaholism over leisure. As a society, we admire the mother who works full time, sits on a few boards, and coaches her kid’s soccer team, and the trial lawyer who gets up at five a.m. to train for triathlons, spends the day in court, and runs a business on the side.

So, there have been times when I was pretty content just because I was busy. But there was still something missing; it was empty. If I’m rushing around and packing my days full of activities, I want it to be with activities that bring me joy and satisfaction. Lacking that, I don’t want to palliate myself with busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. I want to spend my time deliberately. I don’t want to be pulled in a million different directions.

But that comment stirred up the old fears and doubt in me. Am I lazy? Am I boring? No, dammit! (Er, I hope not. It’s kind of a struggle).

A new project.

Okay, I give in. I’ve been un-creative all week because my energy has been focused on one thing: I’m pregnant.

It’s the first time I’ve been pregnant, and I didn’t really believe it was possible after so many years of not getting pregnant (intentionally so, but still). Earlier this year when I thought I might be pregnant by accident I felt like a deer in headlights, but I’ve gotten used to the idea since then.

I found out about a week ago, and it’s still sinking in. At first I was sure I would get my period on schedule, despite the mounting pile of positive cheap pregnancy tests in my bathroom. Now I’m sure I’ll have a miscarriage, but I know the odds aren’t in favor of that. Instead, it’s highly likely we’ll be making room in our apartment for a baby in about eight months.

I’ve had a day or two of terror. I like my life now. It involves a lot of freedom and fun. I don’t feel any moral duty to breed. I don’t think it’s immoral either, I just don’t think the world has any particular need for my offspring. And I don’t feel confident that having children will make my life happier. I suspect that biological forces are brainwashing us into wanting to have children, but I can’t do anything about it. The forces pushing us towards having kids feel inexorable. It’s going to happen, and it’s too late for second-guessing.

On the other hand, it also feels like the most fun project I’ve ever taken on. I cannot wait for all of the new interesting experiences that are coming, and there are so many new things to learn. I think we are going to have loads and loads of fun. And I’m lucky to have a husband who, in addition to other good qualities, is exceptionally patient, reliable, and even-tempered. (He can’t exactly say the same about me, but he’s taking his chances). I feel really sure that he will be a good partner, and a good parent.

So. It’s interesting. And taking up a lot of my brainspace. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next two months. Work is slow, and I hope it picks up so that I have something to distract me until we can start telling people and planning.

The time the universe bought me a Gatorade.

When people talk about miracles, I zone out. Like evil or patriotism, the concept of miracles just isn’t real to me. I stick to the concrete things in life.

And so, for years, when I thought about whether I’d ever experienced a miracle, I thought about a hot summer afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I went to college.

One August, I quit my job waiting tables in Virginia Beach and returned to Charlottesville early. Most of my friends and roommates were still out of town.

Summer in Charlottesville is hot and humid. You start to sweat as soon as you get out of the shower, and the air is heavy. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the air conditioning in our new rental house.

I napped to escape the heat, and woke up sweaty and languid.

I started going for long walks in the afternoon to pass the time. Now, I walk everywhere. But then, fresh from my suburban childhood, I felt like I was doing something odd.

One afternoon, I was on a long walk and I got very thirsty. I hadn’t thought to bring money or water, and I was miles from home.

Eventually, I found myself on a two-lane country road with no sidewalk, just a shoulder. I was excited to see a small convenience store on the other side of the road. Hot, dusty, and desperate for water, I planned to ask for a drink in exchange for a promise to return and pay later.

Just as I was about to cross the street, I noticed two dollar bills on the ground on the shoulder of the road. I picked them up, went into the store, and bought the best Gatorade I’ve ever tasted.

I felt like the universe had given me a gift. Sure, it was a trivial moment. I wasn’t in the Gobi about to die from thirst. (And if I had been, I’m sure the shop clerk would have given me some water on the house). But I needed something, and suddenly it was there, in a very unlikely way.

Yes, finding two dollars on the ground has been the most miraculous event in my life so far.

Three things I’m proud of that I shouldn’t be.

1. Walking through revolving doors. I know this is something many, many people do on a daily basis without a second thought. But I can’t help it–whenever I walk through a revolving door I’m briefly conscious of the coordination, timing, and balance I bring to the task. I feel like anyone watching must be impressed.

2. Dressing appropriately for the weather when running. This is especially ridiculous because I live in Seattle, where the weather is literally the same 60 percent of the year. Nonetheless, I feel like I’ve really figured something out in life. I only wear a handful of things running: a hooded lightweight jacket, capri-length pants, a wool hat or a quick-drying baseball cap. Paired with the right shirt–from a tank top to a long-sleeved merino wool T-shirt–this combination gets me through almost any conditions. And makes me proud of my dressing skills.

3. Using rolling file shelves. For those who don’t spend as much time in law firm offices as I do, I’m talking about these. They are not complicated. But I used to be sort of confused by them, not to mention scared of being crushed. Now, I feel a distinct sense of accomplishment when I stroll into a file room and confidently start rolling the shelves around to access files. (Just to be safe, I still rehearse in my head how I’ll react if someone fails to notice my presence and inadvertently tries to crush me between shelves.)


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