Confessions of a Former Homeschooler

K-12.

All the way.

The only in-person class I ever took was drivers’ ed. That was fun. I got to sit at a desk.

This was not an easy article to write. It’s why I haven’t published any other content on this blog for months. I’ve been on a full writing hiatus/freeze, emotionally trying to untangle the web of my entire upbringing, my life, my youth, to distill into coherent linear form for one single article. I think – I hope – the storm is finally ready to break. Every time I try to write this article, I end up adding new paragraphs to the jumble of ones already there, when what I want more than anything is to produce something simple and hard-hitting. This evening, at a cozy London pub with a live Christmas tree in front of me and some liquid courage in me, I am determined to release some version of this or bust. Honestly, it’s hard not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have so very much to say.

I sat on this one a long time. I know how to explain this life to people outside of the subculture, how to laugh about it with new acquaintances. I travelled the world a bit and found that everyone – including children who are my own students – are shocked and disapproving of the idea of never going to school. What I’m wondering right now is what words to use when addressing the insiders. The relatives who read this blog.

This one is for the home team, and you guys aren’t all going to like it. At first I thought I had to walk a line of moderation, jumping through hoops of assuring everyone that I was grateful for the enormous privileges and advantages that came with being spared so many damaging influences and getting a stellar education (in my case, and in many cases, but definitely not all homeschoolers, not by a long shot.)

I don’t. I don’t have to do that. None of us do. Those things are true but they’re not the whole truth, and we will speak out and complete the story, amending the narrative with our own experience whether you like it or not. Those involved are invested in maintaining the company line here, but the entire rest of the world knows that an overprotective reclusive subculture is just ridiculous. A storm has been slowly brewing inside of me, a storm of confusion and processing and grief, and then anger, as the full extent of my past sheltered-ness became clear to me. I found I didn’t have any easy or concise answers to the question “How do you feel about being homeschooled?”

So instead of getting into all the details of the good, the bad, and the ugly, of explaining how my parents ordered a rigorous curriculum and our reading levels were so much higher than our peers’, of taking aim at the cult-y families we all knew and the educational (and other!) neglect and even abuse that go unreported, of blowing the whistle on the suspicion of social workers, extremely limited media consumption, oppressive outdated gender roles, and raising one’s children to live in a bygone century; instead of sharing fond memories of reading about Charlemange on an overstuffed chair, having plenty of free time after finishing schoolwork mid-afternoon, eating a picnic lunch with mom on the driveway, and checking my answers only after the test with the teacher’s manual myself; instead of sharing cringy memories of Christian nationalist curriculum and written tirades by evangelical leaders against gender equality and multiculturalism, of missing out on my teen and even young adult years thanks to that thief of healthy development called purity culture, I want to tell you a story.

It’s the story of the movie The Village, 2004, by M. Night Shyamalan, starring a young Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix. It’s really better that you watch it; I cannot recommend it highly enough. Those who don’t want plot spoilers, please skip ahead several paragraphs now, because these twists really do deserve to be seen and not heard (or read), but they tell the story I’m trying to tell.

A England Puritan village lives in constant fear of attack from deadly monsters in the woods, and they obey the rules of the elders to be indoors before dark and not stray into the woods, ever, in order to save lives. But when a young man is injured, someone must go to seek medicine from the outside world, and a blind girl ends up being the only one free. Her father takes her into a shed and shows her none other than a monster costume. He lets her in on the secret: it’s been people of the village dressed up the whole time. But she does end up encountering – and slaying – a monster on her journey. Was it real or imaginary? We can see, unlike her, and of course the real monsters are always people. When she finally makes it to a road, she meets none other than a state trooper.

It’s the 21st century. That’s right, these people set up a utopian alternative lifestyle community in a national park with a fence around it. Why? What is the common denominator that would cause these adults to abandon the outside world and raise their children strictly, old-fashioned-ly, with no knowledge of its existence?

Trauma. They’ve been victims of assault and crime, watched loved ones die, and come to the conclusion that this world isn’t for them. They ran from it. And so did all of you.

The separatist nature of fundamentalism open champions raising children in a bubble and showing them a carefully curated sampling of the world instead of preparing them to live in the real one. This extended to withholding basic facts about sex and science. I’ve read all your prim justifications of how you really are teaching critical thinking and you really do believe in being in the world but not of the world. You’re not teaching your children how to make decisions if your version of exposing them to other ideas is explaining in a neat set of talking points “Here’s why everything else is wrong”. (Looking at you, so-called worldview training.)

I can’t. I can’t hold back against this subculture anymore. I have always tried so hard to not scandalize or offend in any way, but I’ve gotten out and there’s no way I’m going back in the box. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet

What frightens me are the ones that never left the nest. Never shook it off.

Picture a plant with roots curled around and around its pot, looking only ever inwards to its own family. Now it’s removed, placed gently in new big outside circumstances with a world full of soil in which to grow. “Here little plant, you’re okay now, run and play, you can grow in any direction you want.” But it sits, frozen, roots curled around itself, shaking its head. Like a proverbial kid making a face, it stuck that way. We missed that wave, didn’t we? Can it come back in the late twenties instead of the teens or college years? Is it ever too late to have a proper teenage phase? Isn’t that shameful, something self-respecting adults should avoid? You know, like a mid-life crisis? Well that’s just another term for a human being waking up and realizing that, if we’re all going to die soon, it’s never too late to act young and start doing what you want and really living. Because if you act like you’ve missed your chance, then you’re just condemning yourself to boredom and misery and less life in your life until you die, and what possible virtue are you going to call that in order to help you sleep at night as you watch that life cruelly drain through your fingers? There is no virtue in it, only tragedy.

That heart needs to find a way outside of that room where the roots have curled around the walls and use some of them to climb down the window. Make a run for it. Resolve to sneak out the window in your heart and run free or bust. Push your way through the maze of inhibitions and preconceived notions and habits and the past and expectations and scramble like mad toward the light and the fresh air, anything new, anything but this, what you’ve had so long. Fight for your freedom, hack away the branches, slip away into the night. Someday you’ll take someone with you, you’re showing so many people the way.

I want very much to leave you with one of my most special memories. I was 27 and had just moved into my own place in Suzhou, China (this economy, go figure). I listened to Bruce Springsteen and absolutely leapt for joy, dancing and spinning around with glee in my work uniform baseball-style jacket and worn khaki pants on the bad faux wood floorboards of my first apartment alone, coming alive and coming of age. I ran through the building complex to to go to work, I was so high on life. The exhilaration naturally led to the sorrow, to the grief of what could have been so much sooner, even though we’re all on our own clock etc. I want you to know that it’s not easy walking around in a world you weren’t raised for, but I love it. I love this world so much. I fell in love with it, with cities, with art and architecture, with coffeeshops and trees. With human faces. With myself and my heart and love and dreams and passion. It happened so fast, in a great flood that knocked down my internal walls, and I fully expect it will keep happening for the rest of my life. And that’s painful but so, so, beautiful.

“Badlands”, Bruce Springsteen

…..Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
You spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place
I wanna spit in the face of these

Badlands…..

I know why you did it. I know your stories, your family background. I know the shit you dealt with as kids – the abusive/harsh father you fought with, the alcoholic parent you pleaded unsuccessfully with and covered for, the mother who didn’t like or nurture you, the workaholic parent who was never there, the mentally ill parent who wasn’t able to be there for you. I know why you grabbed your kids and ran, throwing up fences around them and swearing to give them the perfect, golden-haloed little upper middle-class suburban Christian family lifestyle you never had. I could weep at the strength of that desire to give your kids the stability, security, and care you never had. I applaud it. We applaud your cycle breaking, and drink to you. Now we will pick up the baton from where you left it, and run with it. We build on your foundation. We will not be defined by the trauma or fear that we either experienced or inherited. We’re breaking free and setting our priorities like you did, only we have leveled up further than your younger self ever had the chance to, ever could have possible dreamed of.

You don’t have to run from this world to be at home. You can be at home amidst it. Out there are horrible people and damaging societal narratives, yes, but also wonder and beauty and good people too. Face your fear, wrestle and conquer it. Your children are asking you to. They need you to. If they can do it, so can you. Don’t be afraid.

We turn you, grown and strong now, and demand, “Get up. Stand and fight.” Get a therapist. Shed your close-mindedness. Once upon a time you stood in the water and held up your arms for us to jump, saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine.” We say that to you now. We former homeschoolers may be many things, but we are not cowards. You raised us on stories of Daniel, Esther, and the three young men in the furnace. Of martyrs and missionaries and heroes. What did you expect? That we would be too cowed to call out anything wrong when we saw it? Not likely. You raised us to laugh at peer pressure and be willing to walk through fire for what we believe. It worked.

Holyrood Palace – A Bloody, Beautiful Home

Mary Queen of Scot’s chambers can be seen here, her royal rooms the scene of a shocking and very personal murder. By way of very brief context, Mary was the younger daughter of Henry VIII and younger sister of Elizabeth I, queen of England. Elizabeth was Protestant, like much of the country at that point, but Mary was staunchly Catholic.

A stained glass image from Mary’s quarters.

Before that happened, though, she married the Scottish Henry Stewart, better known as Lord Darnley, in Holyrood’s chapel in 1565. She found him quite handsome; upon agreeing to marry him she claimed to be “half in love with him” already based on his portrait. At first the couple seemed well-matched in addition to the union working politically. But he was “arrogant and violent”, according to my audio tour headphones, and became jealous of the influence of her secretary, David Rizzo.

Portrait of Lord Darnley as a teenager, seen here with his younger brother

Rizzo was also rumored to be her lover, but there seems no way at this point to know anything for certain in that respect. There must have been some truth to the rumors, though, or at least a high degree of closeness or influence, to awaken Darnely’s level of jealousy. One night he and his men burst into Mary’s chambers to remove and murder David Rizzo. He hid behind the very pregnant queen, but to no avail – he was dragged out and stabbed 57 times. Yes, you read that number correctly.

A plaque marking the location of Rizzo’s body, with artificial bloodstain added much more recently for emphasis

To imagine this scene going down, to envision a prince actually sending armed men into the queen’s chambers, possibly endangering his wife, the country’s queen, and the child she carried, in the middle of a dinner gathering and completely illegally without any plausible pretext of war or treason, is pretty mind-boggling. Storming past such a domestic boundary in their very own home, without any kind of warrant or decree, seems an almost unheard-of breach of…well, everything. But then Scotland’s history is rife with infighting, betrayals, royal upheavals and bloodshed (as is England’s too, of course), so perhaps that’s why Lord Darnley was not held accountable.

Not legally, anyway.

These events happened on the 9th of March, 1566; Mary had only just married Lord Darnley the year before. The following year, on the 10th of February, 1567 – almost exactly eleven months after the event – the Kirk o’Field house there in the city of Edinburgh was destroyed in an explosion. The bodies of Lord Darnley and his servant were discovered, but here’s the kicker – the bodies were in the garden, not the house, and they were untouched by the explosion. They did, however, appear to have been strangled. Mary and her most trusted nobleman, the Earl of Bothwell, were immediately (and obviously) suspected, given that they had the clearest motive. Bothwell was acquitted at his trial two months later, and one month later Mary married him in the same palace she had married Darnley and witnessed Rizzo’s murder.

These stairs lead to Mary’s chambers. It was this very stairwell that Darnley’s men used to enter and seize Rizzo that night.

In the ensuing years, Mary was driven from the throne by concerned Protestants, imprisoned comfortably for years, and eventually executed for treason (against the fervent wishes of her sister Elizabeth, whom the Catholic plots were directed against). But the child that Mary carried inside her that fateful night at dinner – James Charles Stuart – would grow up to be king of Scotland and then of England as well. (Wagging tongues have since questioned his legitimacy, of course, much like the rumors about Diana and a red-headed palace guard, but it seems pure conspiracy theory.) He united the two thrones and is known as King James 1 of England.

Now, about the palace itself. Holyrood Palace was constructed by King James IV in the early 1500s as the home of the Scottish monarchy. After the later uniting of the thrones under the British crown, Holyroodhouse became the home of the British monarchy when visiting Scotland. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed there for a while every year and practiced their drawing skills on the view from the bedroom windows overlooking the back gardens. Queen Elizabeth II still holds official events there during one week out of every year.

These paintings were all done by a single artist at the king’s commission. The effect on the eye is a bit odd – everywhere you turn, the same style meets your gaze until it all starts to swim together.

If you pick up the headphones for the free audio tour included in the price of admission (I highly recommend it), you can hear Princess Anne discussing how much she has always liked Holyrood Palace. Rather fascinatingly, she alludes to what seem to be well-know rumors of ghosts and hauntings and, rather than dismiss them outright, says that it’s been the opposite of her own experience. She goes on about how the palace walks the line between functional and cozy, without using those specific words, and conveys a real love for the place. The beloved, no-nonsense, down-to-earth royal, who has no taste for royal glitz and glamour, loves Holyrood. It’s easy to see why; Holyrood may have plenty of space and royal trappings, but at the end of the day, it’s also sensible, functional, and dignified.

If you’re ever near Edinburgh, do take the chance to see it if you can.

How Horrible are the Elsie Dinsmore Books?

They need to be taken out of print immediately.

The behavior of these adults is not portrayed as villainish, and that’s a huge problem. This stuff is normalized, not presented as a tragic backstory or obstacle to overcome. Children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Cinderella to A Series of Unfortunate Events, but especially Victorian literature, are filled with mean, neglectful, and frequently dangerous adults behaving badly. So is the real world. Jane Eyre’s family were hard on her and her stubborn, strong will, but we as readers were always rooting for that little kid who tried to hold on to her worth. We never thought that spirit inside was something she needed to learn to let go of. And we never take the side of adults who are mistreating the protagonist!

This book blurs the lines and tricks us into doing exactly that by making Elsie’s views unsympathetic to modern readers. This child gets into a royal battle of wills with her father over her refusal to play the piano when requested on Sundays. And read a book to her sick father. And go for a walk. As punishment, she is forced to stay seated on the piano bench for hours, skip meals or socializing, etc. A protracted standoff ensues, lasting for days (possibly longer, if memory serves), as there is a collective attempt to break Elsie’s will. Absolute obedience is required, and her wishes and moral objections will not be taken into consideration. Her father doesn’t need these things from her. He wants them. And he is determined to fight a battle to the death rather than drop the issue. How mature is that?

Elsie’s dad is over-the-top cold to her, choosing to not relate to her with embraces or any sign of warmth at all upon his return after having been out of the country for most of her childhood. He inexplicably, cruelly, responds to the other children of the family with affection and warmth, but not to his own. Elsie is made to feel that she is on some kind of probation where she needs to earn his love by proving herself at every little thing she does and being on the best behavior possible.

Elsie herself is not a particularly likable character – she’s a sanctimonious goody-two shoes who supposedly was born with a strong will and rooted it out of herself through spirituality. She also has a bizarre religious belief in “not telling tales” even if, as it turns out, the situation requires it. An abuser’s paradise. That’s right, she scrupulously considers herself honor-bound to let not a word escape her lips of another’s wrongdoing, even into her teen years when her dangerous, bullying, thieving, drug-addicted cousin begins threatening her for money! In addition to being a terrible role model who seems to almost intentionally maneuver herself into martyr-type situations for their own sake, Elsie is not the kind of character that children can consistently sympathize with, and therefore we find ourselves playing devil’s advocate for the horrible adults in her home.

Perhaps strict Sabbatarianism would have struck a spiritual nerve of Christian devotion and religious persecution with the original readership, but I suspect it jangles as a bizarre, artificial, made-up legalism to any modern readers who identify as Christian. Activities that used to be viewed as secular and wrong to engage in on Sundays are not forbidden to any current believer I ever met, and I was in church ever single Sunday of the year. Young people reading these books are not going to understand where Elsie is coming from, at all. Elsie also wants to convert her father to Christianity, which adds another complicated and problematic dynamic to the ongoing power struggle.

It is not the job of the child in any situation to de-escalate, but the adult’s. I learned this lesson in no uncertain terms when I started working with children as a teacher! Kids push you to your limit surprisingly quickly, and you’re still responsible for the direction that you choose to take the situation, every single time. Oh, and obviously, no child anywhere, ever, should once be made to feel they have to earn love. This has gone beyond the old-timey cautionary tales meant to scare children into obedience (little Timmy wandered off and fell in a well, maybe children should listen, hm?) into one of those Reddit “Am I the A**Hole?” threads where the vote returns as ESH: Everyone Sucks Here. This is just an extremely uncomfortable abusive situation, and we as readers are clearly being given the option of victim blaming a young girl.

Stories work because we’re supposed to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist, even if their actions are far from “right”. But the author has set up a situation where our sympathy hinges on whether or not Elsie’s stand is morally justifiable. If it is, she is truly a persecuted religious victim, an explicitly Christianized version of the suffering white-dress Victorian heroine. But if Elsie’s position is indefensible from a Biblical point of view, she has no other leg to stand on, because that was the premise of the whole thing. There is no other reason for her to be doing what she was doing, and now she looks to be nothing more than the obstinate, willful, troublemaking child her relatives are accusing her of being – arbitrary and putting her own opinions and desires above the well-being of others.

Worst of all, wrapping up the story with a reconciliation between the two, a happy ending held up as a promise that the one who hurt you could be the one to heal you if you just keep trying to earn favor, is the definition of a trauma bond. People like these, unfortunately, are not people you should be pushing closer to in hopes of doing your part to establish peace and goodwill.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

It is not loving to torment, withold food from, and publicly shame/humiliate a child. Over and over, in front of the rest of the family. That’s exactly what happens in these books.

The Elsie Dinsmore books are born out of and explicitly perpetuate a toxic, damaging, tyrannical version of Christianity that believes that the presence of a human will at all is wicked and sinful, and the goal of not only God but parents and even husbands (Oh yes, I’ll get to that bit at the end) is to drive it out of you. Obedience is prized above all, even at the expense of love, as we see here in these books. A person who has actually been psychologically broken is an appalling sight. Have you ever seen it? A strong, vibrant soul, broken and crushed and manhandled into a spiraling mess of self-loathing, shame, and blind, eager codependence?

I have. It was awful. If I never see another person I love trapped in spiritualized self-hate it will be far too soon.

The Elsie Dinsmore books send the message that bad treatment from others is for your good, and that you should have a fundamentally negative view of your heart, emotions, will, desires, etc. Both messages will destroy you if you let them in, even a little bit. Stand your ground. Some pride in the sense of having dignity, self-respect, and self-worth, is necessary for survival. It’s not wicked or sinful. It’s that sacred place inside ourselves Maya Angelou talked about.

Chadwick Boseman talked once in an interview about how everyone needs to see themselves as the hero of their own story. Authoritarian spiritual environments and teachings reject this idea in favor of seeing your self/will/spirit, as inherently problematic obstacles in the way of the story. Others may attempt to remove them for you – this is for your benefit. It is a gracious blessing on your quest to root out sin, and of course God would agree. But this is horrifying. A person has to have a healthy, well-adjusted relationship with themselves or they don’t stand a snowball’s chance of navigating the ups, downs, successes, failures, and relationships of life.

At the very moment Elsie enters into the fight of her life, a battle of wills for nothing less than her own autonomy, self-determination with regards to conviction and conscience, a struggle for freedom of basic actions and choices, the uprising not of a toddler or teenage spirit but the holy human spirit itself, , the right to behave as her own person instead of a trained object, to exist on her own terms – the reader’s support wavers. It should never be stronger. She becomes less likable, less relatable, when she should never be more so. The author has made her cause a bit ridiculous, and it undermines the struggle considerably. And the struggle itself is anything but ridiculous. We feel confused about how we feel towards Elsie in her greatest hour of need, when our hearts should be going out to her. No young person should feel this way about themselves in their greatest hour of need.

Take a look at some of the other (much briefer!) online reviews below. I found these after I had already composed this article and was just re-arranging the paragraphs in the final round of editing. I just wanted to confirm that they were, in fact, still in print, but when I looked them up, I saw this host of confirming voices using phrases like “creepy”, “emotionally abuse”, “bully”, “milksop”, “doormat”, “caricatures”, “most stressful reading experience of my life”, and “horrifying”.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/611861.Elsie_Dinsmore

Oh, and I’ve buried the lead – a controlling marriage between a 21 year old man and a 15 year old girl! That sickening, heartbreaking storyline, comes along much later in one of the later books in the series. This child is orphaned and a family friend steps in and marries her to make sure she is provided for. This would have been legal and above-board at the time (and in many U.S. states until rather recently). It’s not implied at all that they’re actually sleeping together, if I remember correctly, but he takes the role of a guardian and tells her what she can and cannot do. The incident that stood out to me was when he comes over to her as she plays with the younger kids and tells her to come down out of the tree. He scolds her for being unladylike and says she can’t do that now that she’s married.

Holy crap. It’s so messed up. It’s a soul-crushing storyline. She ends up writing a note and running away one night, because she feels so unhappy and feels like it’s all her own fault. Because this is a moralistic Victorian tale, her dress gets caught on the door and she stays there trapped in the dark, thinking about how she could be at the mercy of any man who comes by, until she faints away (told you this was Victorian!). But oh, what a lucky, happy ending! Her husband comes home and finds her and they agree to not say anything about it. She is relieved and properly ashamed of her silly, wild ways, and promises to be a good wife for him from then on. It’s a cautionary tale to instill fear in girls who don’t feel inclined toward the prospect of submitting to a man’s authority in marriage – see, you could die or worse without him. You’re lucky. You’ve been a stupid child. If you’re very, very lucky, you will be forgiven and we’ll forget all about this. And then you can submit your whole heart and soul to this person who…who parents you.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

Loving husbands do NOT teach their teenage wives that they’re not kids anymore and it’s time to act like a grownup now.

I hope and suspect that most of the readers of the first Elsie Dinsmore book who are responsible for those five star reviews on Goodreads never read the subsequent books in the series. Like, seriously, I do not think the vast majority of people make their way all the way through all those books. (Most of them are less compelling than the first book but they do carry judgy overtones throughout, as their basic purpose is still moralistic.) So it is at least a relief to know that most impressionable young girls reading what they thought was a good Christian lesson-teaching book never had to encounter that tragedy.

But I did.

I was about 12 or 13. I read these books on my own, put them back on the shelf, and endeavored to forget what I had just read without processing it at all – by myself or with another person – because the messages were just a tad too close to what conservative evangelicalism had been pumping into me my whole life. To challenge these dynamics would have been to challenge the very foundation of what I knew of family life and morality. I knew that the books were vaguely, generally messed up and kind of looking-down-over-one’s-nose, but didn’t have the mental vocabulary of ideas and categories to call any of it out by name. It felt like when, at that same age, you knew an adult that gave you the creeps, but never told anyone because you couldn’t explain it and didn’t want to have it dismissed.

Martha Finley wrote these books in the late 1800s during the prudish, self-denying, holier-than-thou morality of the Victorian era. I remember they were being recommended among moms in the homeschool community, and I was surprised that my little sister’s friend was reading them.

She was in elementary school. I didn’t like that idea. They didn’t seem thematically appropriate, and yet they are actually intended for this age range!

There are plenty of rave review of them online, so these messages have clearly found a ready audience. Whatever damage has already been done to those who read those books long ago as children is done. It is everyone’s responsibility as adults to think critically now about how relationships work and identify any bad messages they received when they were younger. Grownups can fend for themselves, but when I think about any of the eager faces that looked up at me in 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School class in Tennessee or English class in China, I would go up against anyone, any teaching, any institution, any belief system if it came to defending their well-being.

What bothers me is not that grown women won’t change their minds on this issue but that even one girl that I ever knew, ever babysat, ever taught, ever waved at, ever chatted with, ever exchanged names with, might one day pick up these books and absorb even one thing written in them. It’s the next generation I’m worried about, not those who have gone before. This generation is bright, powerful, perceptive, ambitious, and compassionate. Their light is too bright to be tamed by this tangled mess of unhealthy dynamics.

The Elsie Dinsmore books need to be taken out of print immediately so these ideas don’t get any more airtime in front of young minds. If you have the time, please read the articles below, written by a blogger named Libby Anne in 2017 following the Roy Moore scandal. In them she explores the child marriage dynamic in much more depth. (Multiple examples, unfortunately, are found in the series.)

According to Wikipedia, “A new Elsie Dinsmore series of eight books was adapted and abridged from the old one and published by Zondervan/Mission City Press in 1999, dubbed “Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith“.”

So if you want to contact the publishing company, start there.

Leftover Impressions of China

Dongbei, the region composed of three provinces in the very northeast of China, was particularly well-represented in our company for some reason none of us could figure out. A blunt, sometimes rough-around-the-edges people even by Chinese standards, Dongbei-ren (“ren” means people) have stories of icy winters, growing up without a phone in the house, coal- fueled air pollution that stains white coats, and potentially deadly bar fights. Dongbei-hua is a gruff sounding language, and the Dongbei-ren sound VERY different from Suzhou-ren when they speak Mandarin. Even if you only know a handful of words or phrases, you will soon be able to tell the difference.

The “arrr” ending to all words in the Beijing style always made some of us foreigners snicker; we were just so used to hearing the sing-song southerners add a cutesy “ah” sound to the end of words instead. People from Dongbei and Inner Mongolia sound like pirates, we decided. It’s not exactly the Chinese version of a “posh” accent, but then neither is the Taiwanese style of speaking – one woman asked my Taiwanese/Chinese/American coworker “Are you a gay?” immediately upon meeting him. (China isn’t exactly politically correct on most social issues, and communication is either indirect hinting or brutally blunt.) Poor dude, it wasn’t fair that we always snickered at his distinctive Taiwanese way of speaking Chinese. It’s alright, though – the British and Australian and American coworkers were giving each other crap about accents and dialects as well. So much cross-cultural learning going on.

The people of China are very dear and are often willing to go out of their way to help a stranger. They bundle their children up against the cold as if they’re going to catch their death from a cool breeze, and they put the food into their mouths well into elementary school sometimes. Racism against Chinese people is common everywhere in the world and I have no tolerance for it; behaviors like “rudeness” or “loudness” or “no personal space” are cultural differences that are not perceived as rude within China, so I don’t think we outsiders have any business taking that kind of thing personally.

In “Shadow of the Silk Road”, Colin Thurbin quotes Central Asian people groups such as the Uighers as saying that the Han (majority ethnic group in China) have no soul. That’s untrue, of course, but there are reasons why they say that. I think part of it has to do with the helpless tendency to keep ones head down and look the other way when something wrong or unfair is happening in society or the workplace. If you know anything about what happened in China during the 20th century, then you know that the Chinese people have learned the hard way that minding one’s own business can be a matter of life and death – or at least prison. It’s really hard to make deep friendships in China. Guarded on the outside, warm on the inside is a good generalization of the people. Presenting a perfect mask to the outside world is so valued that you can consider yourself lucky if you catch wind of anyone’s private problems. People are quicker to trust a friend to make a huge financial purchase on their behalf than to hear any personal information about their life without using it against them.

Whenever I left China for a vacation abroad or a home visit, my heart would sink at the thought of returning. Other expats reported feeling it too. I knew it would never be home. In the airports I would reluctantly go to the China counter and hear the language on the overhead with distaste, an uncomfortable sinking feeling of “I don’t want to go back.” Sometimes it feels like life itself has been sanitized and regulated out of Chinese society, scrubbed away with that same dirty mop that the elderly use to polish the floors of the shopping malls. A special blend of chaotic and organized, dirty and spotless, full of people and yet not always full of life.

Yes, Big Brother is uncomfortable. Yes, China often feels like it’s missing something. I still deal with lasting health effects from air pollution. I also think back on my time there with a lot of fondness. The smiling faces of the students, the peaceful parks, the hordes of motorbike drivers bundled up in rain gear…it was a home, and a good one.

(The red paper sign on the door in the picture above is a New Year’s good luck sign. Everyone buys a new one at the time of the Lunar New Year and then leaves it up all year until the next New Year celebration.)

(This post was taken from my drafts folder from well over a year ago. If I hadn’t written this stuff down at the time, I probably would never have thought to do it later as my impressions faded. To all fellow writers – and humans! – let’s keep on sometimes remembering to journal mundane stuff as well as pertinent thoughts whenever inspiration strikes.)

No “They”, Only “We”

There is no default kind of human being! There is so much freedom in not seeing yourself or people like you as the standard norm for society. This “one of the bunch” mentality unlocks something more refreshing and rewarding even than superiority. You are not interesting or worthy because you’re the right kind of person, or the best kind of person; you’re interesting and worthy precisely because you are A person.

I’m currently staying for a while in London, an ancient, bustling, cosmopolitan city that is incredibly diverse. People from all imaginable ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds walk past each other on the streets and wear masks next to each other on the underground. It’s normal. It’s fine. It’s fun. It works.

The above picture is of a fountain in Hyde Park, London. It’s a tantalizing departure from a city full of standing statues, mostly British men of the past. These figures, in contrast, are very much alive. They’re nameless, vibrant, anonymous, non-European, swimming, ambiguous, dancing, enjoying themselves. They are humanity, and it’s bursting into life.

Regarding racism and anti-immigrant sentiment – Who are you to think that society is “yours” to grant or disallow to newcomers in “your” city? You don’t own it any more than anyone else does. You did not erect its buildings, pave its streets, sit on its zoning committee when your neighborhood was built. Mother****er, it’s not your sidewalk! You just can’t call dibs on the world. You were merely born into it, just as “they” were- whoever it is that you choose to think of as “they” instead of “we”. Everyone currently living inherited this world from the past. None of us currently living built the society in which we now live, so it takes hubris to try to keep anyone out of our little slice of it.

Society is just another word for people and the world and systems they’ve made. It’s made up of everyone, full stop. Lack of inclusiveness toward anyone – woman, disabled, foreign language speaking, etc – is an oversight to be remedied as as soon as possible, not debated as if it were a legitimate defensible “position” in the name of conservatism or devil’s advocate or anything else. No one has the right to stand in anyone’s way while debating whether or not that person deserves access to the same opportunities or representation that they themselves enjoy. It’s the kind of privilege of a child who has snagged more than her fair share of the communal playground toys and won’t let anyone else play with them because they’re “hers.”

Photo by Grace Broadwell

Any artificial system of supposed superiority resulting in oppression is incredibly unnatural. The reality of our intrinsic equality has also been present since birth. Egalitarianism is the truest, final reality of humanity no matter how many times it is trampled on.

Of course it’s a very natural impulse to see people different from you and think that you’re the normal one and they’re the weird one, but we’ve got to mentally struggle our way uphill towards maturity on this issue by decentering ourselves. The whole “Different is icky and I don’t like it Mommy” initial reaction to new things is born of basic survival impulses that don’t know when to quit. Your subconscious brain looks at something it’s never seen before and can’t tell what’s a threat and what’s not. Fortunately we are adults now and can observe and figure out what merits our fear and what merits curiosity.

The fear of difference also applies to other religions, expressions of gender and sexual orientation, etc. Focusing on people’s differences in order to distance ourselves from them makes us see them as primarily a problem instead of a person. Enter fear and callousness. Once you’ve deliberately shut off empathy for any group, you’ve opened the door for certain lives – notice especially statistics for those who are imprisoned, undocumented, low-income, LGBTQ, or elderly – become more dispensable than others. “Othering” people who don’t happen to move in your own social circle results in political and social policies with deadly consequences. We cannot afford to do it, ever.

Let’s flip the script, remember how this thing called life really works, and band together against common obstacles and in favor of common interests with everything we’ve got. Rights are not privileges. Everyone gets rights, and we’ve got to fight for that tooth and nail. But that’s just the basics. Nothing stops us from going higher, so much higher, as high as we want to when it comes to creating deep connection and belonging among and across all the wonderful disparate groups that together make up society. We don’t have to be afraid of each other or avoid each other; we can be in each other’s homes and grocery stores and neighborhoods and schools and places of worship and pubs.

Moving as far as one can get from my homeland of the USA opened my eyes to the fact that the way I was raised, and the culture I came from, were not standard but unique and surprising in many respects. It was such a glorious, exciting, giddy feeling, like a sheltered only child dropped off at rough-and-tumble camp for the summer, to find out that I was just one of the crowd. People didn’t have a good frame of reference to use as a shortcut to understanding my life story – I was going to have to explain things. Sink or swim – you’re not a little kid anymore! This is the delightful side of being an emigrant – you gain a much deeper sense of your own national and cultural identity when it’s held up in contrast with others’ backgrounds and customs for the first time. (Apparently it’s weird to sell pancake mix when that’s basically just flour?? Apparently not everyone else was brought up in a conservative religious environment like in the “Bible Belt” region??” Apparently some people cook spicy food??)

Everyone is different in some way, and so are you. Once you and your group (s) stop holding yourself up as the ideal universal bar (static, lifeless, feels like not having an identity at all because you’re just “normal”), you get to actually be special for the first time. Life is like a party: No one walks in and says, “How will you all prove that you’re equal to me?” or, “I don’t have a problem with you being here but I don’t like to hear you talking near me”. The buffet has tons of different dishes, everyone brings what they like best and explains it to everyone else, your contribution will stand or fall on its own merits (sorry about that), and you earn respect the old fashioned way – telling stories, or out on the dance floor.

What can you offer, what do you bring to the table, what is your party trick or cool story, that you bring to a multicultural society where no one group holds the reins and there is no standard? Jump in and join the fun. The water’s fine. Let’s bump shoulders, learn a few things, and make some new friends.

Being Alone

Being alone is hard, worth it, draining, empowering, and lethal to overdose on. Do it, learn to enjoy it, do it often, and know when to quit.

It’s more than just taking yourself out to eat or on a solo vacation. It’s watching major life moments – the happy ones – happen in front of your eyes, dreams coming true, just standing there on the sidewalk, trying to press record in your brain like Wall-E did during extra special moments so you don’t forget anything. It’s bittersweet in the kind of way you’ll always remember. It deepens the experience, making it into one of those gold and blue memory orbs from Inside Out – a “core memory”.

There were some times that I felt a bit sorry to not have someone with me to share the experience, but other times were just pure wonder and focus on the experience of living. For anyone considering solo travel, I assure you, there is far more sweet than bitter in the experience. It’s quite liberating and empowering, actually. I can’t recommend it enough as a precious experience and confidence/strength boost.

Brene Brown said that when you’re forced to stand alone in life, “…your heart gets marked by the wild.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_sYCThUQc8&list=WL&index=17

Something I have seen almost no discussion of in online chat groups for solo travelers is the crippling loneliness that comes with being a digital nomad. Done right, it has truly been an exhilarating fairy tale dream come true. Done wrong – chronic self-isolating – I’ve watched my mental and physical health drain away. It’s been an eventful road, for sure.

Loneliness is a serious health risk, according to medical studies. Too many of us went through so much more than our fair share of it in the past year and a half of Covid-19 lockdowns and distancing. Truly the pandemic has been a long-term collective trauma, and I wonder how many of us have made permanent lifestyle changes as a result – not going back to the office, or perhaps getting a little too used to not meeting up regularly with other people? The CDC website says “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.” https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html

Just because I CAN endure it, doesn’t mean I HAVE to. (I saw that quote on Instagram, and that concept, without a doubt, has changed my life.) Don’t operate on a scarcity mentality, doing and feeding yourself only as little of what you need or want as necessary to survive. You. Can. Have. What. You. Want.

Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t slip into hermit-hood and darkness without a fight. Don’t you deserve community and belonging? Don’t you want it? It gets so lonely it’s genuinely dangerous out there, in the dark on your own. If you’re getting cold and hungry out there in the wilderness of isolation, march up to the door of some happy lit-up house and knock. And then keep knocking, on as many doors as you have to, until someone answers. Gyms, places of worship, dating apps, online meet-up groups, that person you met at the party, your friend on the end of the phone in another town, that kid who needs a kind word, your elderly neighbors, anything. Your survival, and equally importantly, your thriving, are at stake.

And just maybe, theirs as well.

“Hello Sunshine”, Bruce Springsteen, 2019

Had enough of heartbreak and pain
I had a little sweet spot for the rain
For the rain and skies of grey
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always liked my walking shoes
But you can get a little too fond of the blues
You walk too far, you walk away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always loved a lonely town
Those empty streets, no one around
You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always liked that empty road
No place to be and miles to go
But miles to go is miles away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

Albanian Wedding Traditions (Interview, Part 2)

“We in Albania have weddings like before, we have it about 8 days, a long week.” 

Me: Maybe a day is too short for a wedding.

“But a week is too long. You get exhausted.”

“Relatives come and stay after midnight, talking, laughing, decorating the house. And each day they meet each other. On Thursday they prepare the mom of the bride, also the groom, each of them into their house. On the wedding week the bride and groom shouldn’t meet each other. On Thursday the moms cook a kind of bread with chickpeas. They use it to have good luck. They cooked it during the night, so the dough rose, and in the morning they put it in the oven to get baked. But they worked it and prepared it during the night. On Thursday the family of the groom goes to the family of the bride to take her clothes, but not the groom himself.”

“On Saturday the family of the bride celebrates the big celebration. Now it’s in restaurants, but before my grandma has told me they took outside all the beds and tables and celebrated in their house, according to the space. In the middle of each village was a building that they used for weddings, death cases, and meetings of government, according to the size and conditions. Before midnight the grooms family comes to celebrate, and they stay only two or three hours, not up to the end. But in the next morning the groom wakes up and shaves his beard with the other guys of the fmaily, and there are some rituals where they slap him on the face and say now he’s grown up enough to have a wife, they joke like this among guys. Among his family, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts uncles, go to the house of the bride and takes her.”

“It depends on the culture; I come from an orthodox tradition so we would go to the church, other go to the mosque. Those who do not celebrate in the faith tradition go to the municipality and afterward to the grooms house. When they go to the house of the groom, there should be a little girl and a little boy. The little boy has a small bottle with wine and some fresh flowers on it. The oldest brother of the groom or a cousin should help the bride to put on the shoes, and also he should put some money in her shoes. And she will say that they are too small and she can’t wear them, and when he puts money in them, then she’ll say that it fits. And while that brides enters the house of the groom the mother of the groom takes some honey and has the bride take some honey through her fingers and put up to the top of the door. That means for the bride to be sweet with the new family like honey. Even though now that new couples live alone, they do it as part of tradition, maybe to respect the mother.”

“And when the bride goes inside the house of the groom, a child should come to take off the shoes, and he or she takes the money. The bride gives to him or her because they helped her to have rest. During that time up to the celebration in the night, but they are waiting on people that are entering and going to wish them well. This is the reason I told you it is exhausting, even though it is very fun. And in the night, before midnight, the family of the bride came also, but they stay only for two or three hours, eating together and dancing together.”

“And near to the morning hours, 3 4 or 4 5 in the morning, it’s almost morning, the groom has to burn a new handkerchief, that means that the singleness is over now. They dance with friends. And on Monday in the morning or after lunchtime, the family of the bride came, and they bring fruits to visit the daughter, but as my grandmother has told me, the meaning of it is another (laughs). But now it has changed. My grandmother has told me that the next day the family of the bride comes to ask, how was the girl. But nowadays it doesn’t happen.”

“Also something else that my grandmother has told me, but it doesnt happen to try family, but it was part of the culture from the beginning, that after the groom sleeps with the bride, he should take the blanket and show to her mother. But it doesn’t happen, when I say that it doesn’t happen to my mom or aunt, it changed many many years ago. It’s something only between the couple and no-one should know it. [This must have been a very ancient custom, as a similar procedure is mentioned in the Hebrew Old Testament. ]

“It was in the beginning when people celebrate in the beginning, they should clean and tidy the house, the aunts and cousins come and stay all week and the mother of the groom and bride should prepare something. Now they give them to us but it’s just part of a kind of tradition. They prepared a new apron for each of the relatives that came to help them, and they all had the same apron. My aunt has given them to Christiana and I even though we helped them, it’s just part of tradiiton. During the week, at the moment that the groom came to take his bride, all the ladies of the family sing traditional songs. On Saturday I think, the girl should wake up early, and has to go to the sources of water to bring fresh water into the house. Sometimes people do it just for fun nowadays, but before it was a tradition.” 

Antonella Bogdani, 29, was born and raised in the lovely mountain town of Korce, Albania. She works as a traveling English teacher to students in the surrounding villages, some of which are quite remote.

When to Step Away

Not every close relationship needs to – or can – stay close forever.. Some relationships reach a place where they should no longer be at all, at least for the foreseeable future. And some just need to hit the snooze button for a while.

There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing; a time to search and a time to count as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Old Testament (Holman Christian Standard translation)

Did you feel the relief wash over you too when you read that there is a good, right, and proper time for so-called “negative” things like uprooting, tearing down, avoiding embracing, and counting as lost? We are often explicitly taught how to avoid these unhappy activities and replace them with the “better”, “right” way of thinking, doing, or, most problematic of all, even feeling.

But things like giving up, weeping, conflict, and destruction are not only natural aspects of life on this earth, but actually necessary for things to progress in a healthy way. Instead of persistently dodging life’s unpleasant aspects by having a smiling, chin-up attitude all the time, the most freeing way to deal with life is to just accept these more painful parts with an open heart and let the moments pass as they will.

Forced positivity is not a spiritually or ethically higher practice, not a requirement to prove how much you love Jesus, not a test of your salvation or character, nor a reasonable condition to meet in order to see yourself as a good person (or the “bigger person”!). Let it go, and allow yourself to live in the real world.

Here are some really important reasons for getting someone out of your life immediately, full stop. No additional reason needed, and no need for guilt or questioning whether this decision is right. Safety is paramount and non-negotiable.

  1. They have engaged in abusive or dangerous behavior. (Physical violence, violating sexual boundaries, verbal abuse, derogatory language (eg sexist, racist, homophobic slurs), control of your finances, destruction of your property)
  2. They have shown “red flags”, aka warning signs, of abusive or dangerous behavior. (e.g. behaving in a physically threatening way, being sexually inappropriate or not respecting your boundaries, belittling, possessive, controlling, vindictive, etc.)
  3. They are consistently toxic and treat you or your loved ones badly with no real remorse.
  4. Your gut is telling you to stay away.

That’s a going no-contact situation, as of yesterday! You’ve got to get away from anyone who fits that description. Don’t go down that road. Lack of safety and trust are total dealbreakers. Your gut is as important as anything else on that list, by the way, and imminently trustworthy if we only listen to it.

Now, here are some possible reasons to go low-contact and just get a good amount of distance.

  1. You fight a lot, and attempts at communication/resolution have been unsuccessful.
  2. They keep trying to change you.
  3. You keep trying to change them.
  4. You don’t like who you turn into around them.

If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. Is there really any chance of this relationship dynamic spontaneously changing? If your issues are clouding your judgment and you keep taking it out on them, you need space to work on you and figure out why you respond the way you do. You can come back later with a clearer head. It’s not their job to walk you through the process of self-improvement; this is a responsibility that you absolutely can handle on your own.

Sometimes the combination of two people’s personalities and/or issues is always going to set one or both of them off, and there’s honestly only so much you can do about that. You’re not required to be best friends with everyone. People grow apart sometimes and it’s okay to let some relationships fade away naturally. Other people never do click to begin with!

There’s a lot of advice on social media these days about “cutting off” people who are bad for your mental health and well-being, but sometimes you only need to go as low-contact as needed to prevent problems. As a general principle, in relationships where safety is not at risk, I believe in retreating only as far as necessary to preserve your own peace and mental/emotional well-being. That amount of distance is likely to look very different for different people. Only you know. Many people are not so difficult as to prevent the possibility of growing back together some day once they, you, or both of you have changed and grown, or once they finally get the message about your boundaries. Communicating those, sometimes quite firmly, can prevent bitterness on your part and is the only shot at a healthy relationship moving forward.

Then again, there are people that inspired the block button! They’re always going to be problematic and you’re going to have to set much harder boundaries, probably permanently. You are the only one at the end of the day who can figure out who and what you’re dealing with – and capable of dealing with – and makes the best decision. It’s important to make the decision based on a demonstrated track record of behavior instead of solely on lofty, well-intentioned beliefs, like “Every day is new day and people can change.” That’s a nice sentiment, but if they don’t seem interested in or capable of changing, then you’d be crazy to bank on them doing it anytime soon. Someone who has (a) actively caused serious hurt, (b) demonstrated through their actions that hurting you doesn’t bother them, and (c) will have the opportunity to wound you further if you continue put yourself around them, is someone you definitely will be wanting to steer clear of in the future, because they’re a guaranteed repeat offender. Some people really don’t care about the consequences of their actions, and so you’re going to have to care enough about yourself to take preventative action.

As they say, good fences make good neighbors! If being around a person or people is pretty much a guaranteed situation of conflict or hurt, and you’ve tried and failed to establish peace with them, then the only way left to have that peace is without them. This doesn’t have to be done out of pettiness or anger, just a respectful distancing for the sake of your own well-being. It’s not unloving. Getting rid of closeness or even most contact is sometimes the best way to love both of you – or yourself.

When to step away?

When your well-being requires it.

Interview: A Post-Communist Childhood

Antonella Bogdani (pictured on the left) was born and raised in the lovely mountain town of Korce, Albania. She works as a traveling English teacher to students in the surrounding villages, some of which are quite remote. She lives with her parents and her younger sister Kristina, who works as a radio host for a local Christian radio station. Both are devout evangelical believers, a small minority in a nation of often nominal Orthodox and Muslim believers.

It’s not the first time Antonella and I have gotten coffee together, but it is our first time at this place. It’s only a couple years old and is located a bit up in the hills near my neighborhood, bordering Birra Korce. We sit under umbrellas on the most spacious terrace in town, feeling the warmth of late July even in this relative haven in the mountains.

The first time we met for coffee, back in the winter, I remember her telling me that her father remembers having to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to get ready to stand in line outside the bakery for food. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid communist dictatorship ended in Albania at the same time the USSR fell, around 1991. I marvel to think how Antonella and I are almost the same age but grew up in such different circumstances.

The coffees arrive (cold ones, in this heat!) and I open my laptop to begin typing. She knows how to pause frequently enough to allow me to get it all down.

[The following has been edited for grammar.]

What was it like growing up in Albania in the 90s? 

I was born in 1992, and as my mom says to me, it was quite difficult to raise a child with all things that a baby needs. For example, it was quite difficult to find pampers for me, and she used some pieces of cloth that she washed by hand to be clean for her daughter. For food, it was difficult to find the best quality of food. If I compare with my sister born in 1998, the food was quite different. My sister had a lot of fruits in her diet, and milk and eggs; for me it was not everyday.

Also about toys, again if I compare my childhood with my sister, I haven’t [toys]. I played with simple toys that my mother made fo rme. I played with old plastic things, which all children had the same [toys]. After Kristina was born, after about age 10 I started to have some toys because my aunts immigrated to Greece. And then we had the most beautiful toys in the neighborhood, and we always shared them with our friends, always. Kristina and I would bring them out without thinking twice whether they were ours.

If you didn’t have fruits and milk and eggs, what kinds of things did you eat?

For example, my mom has said to me that my grandma prepared something with flour, I don’t know the name and I haven’t tasted it anymore, I don’t know how it tastes anymore. 

What did your parents tell you about life under the dictatorship?

One of the most things that my father has suffered a lot is that they were afraid to speak freely and share their ideas freely. Also it was forbidden for them to listen to foreign radio stations and television channels, the government had put something to not let the frequency of other channels enter into that nation. And also they couldn’t watch movies from other countries, sometimes Macedonia and things from China and Russia. 

Also, for example, during the young age of my father he wanted to have another style of wearing [clothes], but it wasn’t allowed. All the guys should have the same style of wearing; the government gave them some limits and they should respect them. Also for hair, my father told me that he liked to have long hair, but it wasn’t allowed.

The family of my father, they worked rugs, and my father’s grandmother made them. During communism it wasn’t allowed to have private jobs, only to work in the jobs of government. My father told me that they put the [rug-making] equipment in a room where people could not hear or see, because maybe the neighbors would go to the government and spy. But food, it was like the size of food according to the members of the family [rations]. It was called tallona. It’s a measure of food for the members of the family. For them it was a problem, for both families. My mother was grown in a village and they worked in a garden but not their own garden, it was forbidden. It was for the nation and they got paid. Both my grandmothers were very hardworking women and knew how to raise their children and how to secure and each single mealtime to have food on their tables.

One of the stories that my aunt has told me is that she was at the hospital giving birth – she was a nurse there – and she said to me that new moms, after giving birth to their child, would be given something special like an apple or a package of coffee. My aunt has told me that they would save it and use it only for special people that came to them, to respect them and to treat them honestly. For guests. My grandmother on my mom’s side told me that real coffee was really expensive, and even if you had the money to buy [it], it wasn’t in the shops. It was only for people with really good job positions or workers in the government. My grandma used barley for coffee.

Also something else my uncle’s wife has told me, was that when she came to our house as a new bride, it was a tradition that the mother of the groom should have the new bride cook. And it was difficult to find flour. They had some pasta in their house and put it into the water during the night, and in the morning it was like dough. And they cooked a pie. They find ways to cook. Interesting. Now we laugh, but for them it was terrible, I think, to be a new bride and not know how to cook.

A Critique of Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery is a Christian faith-based version of Alcoholics Anonymous. So far, so good.

It also purports to help people find progress on non-addiction issues – any and all “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The latter is a serious mistake, in my opinion.

It is at best useless, and at worst abhorrent, for Celebrate Recovery to purport to offer help for grief, anger issues, codependency, depression, anxiety, any kind of unwanted sexual urge, self-harm, control issues, and – believe it or not – aftermath of sexual abuse! – with a 12 step program. It’s the equivalent of medical malpractice. 12 step programs were created as a model for moving out of chemical addiction. None of the above issues resemble addiction and shouldn’t be treated as such. Mental health issues, along with one’s emotional and psychological well-being, belong squarely in a counselor or doctor’s office.

The leaders of these small groups are only qualified in the sense that they have been through a 12 step program themselves and a Celebrate Recovery training retreat. That’s literally it. There’s no issue-specific education in this program whatsoever. The fact that a leader also deals with some version of “emotional issues” themselves is no qualification at all, because their experience and progress are measured solely by the length of time they’ve been in this addition-model program. Participants and leaders alike are expressly prohibited from offering any feedback on what is shared in the group sessions or recommending counseling except if someone’s safety is at stake. No tools, suggestions, insights, best practices, research, or helpful strategies are shared at all. No one seems to even be seeking them out on their own time, just showing up week after week to have parachurch about it. It’s a lot like a placebo, but with good people who feel like friends, so you want to keep coming back.

Cheerful, rote stagnation. Progress is just a chipper slogan along with “Keep coming back!”

Now, there is nothing wrong with – and plenty good with – an addiction support group that explicitly references Scripture and includes prayer, worship, etc. Celebrate Recovery meetings are structured as church services but focused on self-help or self-improvement in a 12-step model, with small group session afterwards to go through 12 step-inspired discussion questions regarding the message.

People absolutely have the right to faith-based support groups and/or treatment. It’s a huge priority for many, since addiction is an issue that lies in the middle of a very important Venn diagram – lifestyle/behavior change and spiritual journey. For earnest believers, these two categories are almost one and the same. They’re living their life in the middle of both circles and they want a recovery program that matches that convergence so they don’t feel like they have to leave their biggest support system at the door when they come to meetings.

To have to do so could possibly leave some people feeling embattled, unheard and unseen, make it difficult to trust, and put them at odds with their treatment program instead of wholeheartedly on board. It’s important that one’s core beliefs are upheld and respected in a process like this, and during the difficult, personal process of recovery, it becomes necessary to many to be in a space where those beliefs are also celebrated, encouraged, and openly preached. They not only want but need to be around like-minded people who will uphold their priorities on the road, because they’re only recently beginning to uphold them themselves.

Now.

About those other groups – “Emotional issues” etc.

What. Are. You. Getting. Chips. For?

Attendance. I kid you not.

The benefits of the meetings and group sessions for non-addicts lie almost exclusively in finding fellowship, hearing messages of hope and healing, and being in a vulnerable space where you realize you’re not alone and everyone else is dealing with stuff too. That is to say, the benefits for non-addicts lie in the people in the program and not in the program itself. Those attending week after week who clearly needed a change of meds or a good family therapist were the saddest cases. More insight could have be gained in one or two counseling sessions than in six months in the program, I dare say.

This will likely ruffle many feathers among those who found genuine community and support in the program, but I’m going to follow all the good inspirational advice that you and I have ever heard, and choose to speak out about my convictions anyway. This won’t be the last article I post in critique of something, nor will it be the most controversial. Sometimes your life circumstances put you in a unique position to see something that others in a community don’t. What you have in your mind and heart to say in those circumstances is almost always incredibly valuable and necessary, and only after speaking out will you find many others with similar experiences.

I’m writing this article to point out that joining a parachurch 12 Step program is hardly the logical solution to a lack of community or healthy peer support! You shouldn’t have to attend “recovery” meetings indefinitely with people who are just sort of camping out there permanently with no intention of leaving, define yourself as a person with issues week after week, and chant the Lord’s Prayer, 12 Steps, and Beatitudes (as good as those are, of course) in order to be accepted and loved as you are with all your brokenness. Most importantly, you shouldn’t be led to believe that doing those things is going to result in any kind of breakthrough in your personal life, because it just won’t.

A legitimate support group, on the other hand, focused on specific issues with informed leaders who were familiar with a variety of resources would actually be helpful. And if you just want to be around believers, go to church or small group. If you can’t vent and be vulnerable there – and unfortunately you frequently can’t – about all of the pain and mess in your life, turn to the realest people you know and invest in those relationships, or find another church group to be a part of (seriously).

Those pursuing sobriety are the best suited for the program, as they are going to be attending meetings of some kind anyway and will likely be very well served by a faith-based program. Their work with incarcerated individuals through CR Inside, as well as those in residential programs/halfway houses, is to be highly commended. But many of the folks without addiction I have some reservations about. So very many people have been helped by this program, but what about all those who weren’t helped? They showed up because of false advertising, essentially. How many wasted their time pursuing a friendly but at best inefficient approach to what they were going through?

I assure you there was no “progress” being made there for most folks. Friendships, yes. That was the main reason for going, and that’s not good enough. It’s the blind leading the blind.

If you’re at a really low point in your life, CR is a great place to come with your brokenness and be welcomed and accepted with it. It just may not be the best place to find a path forward out of it.

In hindsight, CR should have stuck to addiction – but that wouldn’t sell the program booklets and other materials, now would it? Yes, I “woke up today and chose violence”, as the kids are saying on the internet these days. Look, the people of CR are very sincere and enthusiastic about helping people and participating as much as possible in the program, and that gung-ho group mentality can be manipulated in a cultish way to focus more on salesmanship or evangelizing for the program rather than ever asking once if it’s the best solution for what everyone is going through.

Celebrate Recovery made a likely well-intentioned, ignorant mistake in widening its net beyond addiction. There is a lot of good and value in the program, but there’s no denying that it holds out the promise of help in areas in which it’s neither qualified nor interested in becoming qualified to do so.