What’s Your Comfort Zone?

Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones . . . .

Malachi:

DSC_0599Robin and I recently spent some time discussing comfort zones- for me, particularly, the nuanced difference between “comfort zone” and “gut instinct.” The distinction between the two, I think, is difficult to ascertain sometimes because stepping outside of our comfort zones and having a gut feeling about something can often feel much the same.

But let’s back up and talk about what comfort zones are. At the most basic level, our comfort zone is where we feel the most safe. We know our surroundings, we know the people we are engaging with, the know the circumstances, and we don’t feel threatened in any capacity. Our sense of safety, of self, of ideology, all of these things lay within our comfort zones.

And that’s a great place to be! It’s good to feel calm and self-assured and safe. I think we all need a respite from hard emotional, psychological, and spiritual work sometimes. The problem with comfort zones, though, is that staying within them too long often leads to stagnation.

My mother is fond of reminding me that “we don’t change until it hurts bad enough.” Growth, change, they all come from tension, from butting up against something we thought we believed and finding our beliefs questioned. And in order to do that, we have to be outside of our comfort zones.

I spend a lot of time in therapy, parsing out my unusual comfort zones. I am, for example, perfectly comfortable walking around naked in (designated) public spaces, having sex in public, tying people up, getting tied up, talking about sex hypothetically,

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Photo by NearlyCandy Photography

saying, “I love you,” and so forth. But it feels immensely outsides my comfort zone- that is, it makes me very uncomfortable and, in some ways, vulnerable to the point of feeling unsafe- to instigate sex with a partner, or identify and communicate something that I want. I once noted in my journal, “Why is it easier to say, ‘I love you,’ than it is to say, ‘I want to fuck you’?”

Because comfort is subjective, based on each of our personal and interpersonal experiences. Comfort zones are the boundaries drawn as a result of trauma and struggle, as well as positive experiences. But perhaps that’s a key point in all of this- comfort zones are based on boundaries, a separation of safe and not-safe, a delineation between what reinforces and supports our beliefs and what challenges them.

It’s the foundation of how we draw boundaries in general: boundaries with one another, boundaries with ourselves. Which is where we have to talk about the nuances between comfort zones and gut instinct. Because where pushing outside of comfort zones can be a really positive thing and lead to self-introspection and change, gut instinct is often there to help keep us safe. It’s the feeling that something is off, something isn’t quite right. And that feeling is important, too; that’s often what happens when our bodies pick up on subtle cues that we aren’t consciously aware of. And that edge, that discomfort, that heightened awareness when our gut instincts kick in… often feels much the same as stepping outside of our comfort zones.

The difference is, of course, that one is a perceived lack of safety, whereas the other might be alerting us to something legitimately dangerous. It’s important that we press outside our comfort zones for growth and change, but it’s also important that we listen to our gut instincts. So how do we know, in moments of discomfort, which is which?

For me, especially because my understanding of comfort is fairly warped, I often have to play, “What’s the worst that could happen?” in my mind to remind myself that there is no actual danger in being outside my comfort zone. So, for example, when I am in a position where I want to instigate sex with a partner, and I get that terrified feeling that comes along with that desire, I have to remind myself that the worst that can happen is that my partner isn’t interested and declines. And then I remind myself that that’s not even a bad outcome because I feel so grateful to be with people who trust me enough to not only state their desires, but to state their lack of desire. Someone saying “no” helps me trust comfort zonethat they really mean “yes” when they say yes. There is no actual danger here; only growth and positive communication.

On the other hand, if I’m walking down the street and I start to feel uncomfortable, I do the same thing. I think about what the possible outcomes are. I think about “what area” I’m in, and whether the reactions I’m having are coming from a place of internalized racism (is this a predominantly black part area, and how is that influencing my sense of safety?) I think about the experiences I’ve been having (have I seen anyone? How have those interactions been?) and use as much information as I can to decide whether I’m just… a white person outside of my comfort zone (which I can use as an opportunity for growth and change and tackling my own internalized racism) or am I someone that people are interacting with in a violent or unwelcome sexual way where I should be concerned about my own safety?

I appreciate, for example, that this blog and these discussions often fall outside of people’s comfort zones. We butt up against the status quo, the “accepted” mainstream doctrine for Christianity and Christian belief in openly- deliberately- discussing sexuality and the miracle of our bodies with respect to our faith practices. But there is no danger here. There is thought, hopefully well-articulated for the most part, and discussion, and lived experience. There are people on the other end of these words that don’t have the answers, but want to push ourselves outside the spiritual comfort zone to find new ways of connecting with and understanding ourselves, one another, and the holy. It may be discomforting. It may make us angry, or scared, or uncertain, or all of the things that happen when we decide to question deeply held beliefs.

But at the end of all of this, there is God, smiling as we struggle with complexities of what it means to be human and seek to worship as authentically as we know how. There is a quote that comes to mind from Thomas Merton’s prayer, “Thoughts in Solitude,” though I first heard it paraphrased from a TV show: “I don’t know how to please you, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”

I believe that God is pleased when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, seeking to grow and change and understand God, ourselves, the world, and each other better. Our comfort zones provide a good respite from the daily struggles of the world, a reprieve when we are exhausted, but we cannot live there all the time, for it a place of quiet rest, and not necessarily a place of vibrant growth.

Robin:

“I would like to do that with (or for or even to) you, but it’s not in my comfort zone.” Over the years of my life, I have said this a few times, probably more than I remember.  It also has been said to me.

What is a “comfort zone?” One definition I found says, “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” Obviously, there can be locations which always, or at least generally, feel like comfort zones—home, I hope, although I know that is not the case for too many—but there also can be specific episodes or situations in other places that can feel like they are within our comfort zone. Sometimes, we even find new zones.

It is tempting, and for me often the case, to stay in traditional (for me) comfort zones and to live only in places and situations that are clearly comfortable, and to avoid those that don’t feel that way. As a well-privileged white cis gender male with extensive education and a middle class background, it is not difficult to live only in my social comfort zone. However, there are times when I, we, must act beyond our comfort zones.

My comfort zone does not include stepping into the midst of an argument between two or more people that is turning ugly and seems to be heading toward violence. But I might have to do it anyway, if I want no further violence, bloodshed or irreversible outcomes.  Of course, this depends on my investment in the people (and possibly institutions) involved, and potentially my desire for safety for all of us, including me.

Right now, I feel myself being more of an agitator than is my usual comfortable practice—I like to think of it as being one of Saint Bayard Rustin’s “angelic troublemakers”—on social media sites linked to my faith community, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The details don’t matter here, but what is causing me to act up more than normal is a desire to resist and overcome the debilitating and oppressive power of white supremacy in our history and our present that has been and is infecting policies and practices of our leadership and others.

Doing this feels outside my comfort zone, and yet it also feels right. But sometimes, I feel skittish. I recently reposted an important notice from a leader who was resigning her posts because as an African American woman she no longer feels recognized and heard. I began that post with the words, “This will probably get me in trouble……” Fortunately, I was called on those words, and edited them out, realizing they were only designed to shield me from the discomfort and/or anger of others.

Here is irony: My search for a definition of “comfort zone” lead me a link to the “Comfort Zone,” a novelty and party store that I know, from visits, carries a large array of sex toys, “adult” videos, sexy clothing (especially for women). I have gone there to purchase lube and cock rings. It would not be comfortable for many (probably most) people to visit this store (ironically, I only learned about it because it is next door to our veterinarian’s clinic).

But of course, this blog, Sex Bodies Spirit, is also outside the comfort zone of many people. I started it, joined a little later by Malachi (praise God!) and we then added a monthly online teaching, through Metropolitan Community Churches, but it certainly did not draw much interest from clergy and members (we had, and have a few fans from MCC).  The monthly teaching no longer exists.

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I think that is a loss for the church, but you can’t easily get people to leave their comfort zones. Indeed, church communities are notoriously skittish about talking about sex. Not doing sex, just talking about it, openly, positively, maturely—as if it were a key part of being human (which, of course, it is).

As regular readers of this space know, I like being naked. I would like to be naked more of the time than I am (at this time of year our house is too chilly). And I wish there were beaches and other venues in the near vicinity where I could be naked when I want.

But, as Malachi and I talked about the topic of “comfort zones” 10 days ago, I realized that I had some anxiety about being one of two presenters and discussion facilitators in an online venue where the next topic is nudity. Titled “Naked and Unashamed,” Rev. Dr. Frank Dunn and I will discuss various spiritual aspects of nudity. We will even be nude, and encourage others to do the same if that is within their comfort zones. [This is through Jonathan’s Circle, a group of men, started by Frank some years ago, who participate in various ways to learn more about sexuality and spirituality and their connections.]

I have been trying to discern the nature of my anxiety. I can’t believe it is being naked on camera. I have posed naked in front of dozens of people, ridden my bike naked through the streets of Philadelphia with a thousand other naked people in front of many times that number of clothed Philadelphians, and posted full-frontal nude pictures of myself on my personal blog, “The Naked Theologian.”  As the name of that blog says, I am quite willing to be identified with nakedness, and to be seen naked. I even read a poem at a public reading in my town about my fantasy of dancing naked in the town square, how others joined in, and we decided to make it an annual event (no one commented or asked me about it afterwards).

So what is going on? What part of me is being challenged?

I have puzzled about this, and have concluded that for some reason I do not fully understand this particular naked adventure is making my commitment to nudism more real than it has been. Indeed, as soon as I wrote that sentence, I decided to crank up the heat in my study and take all my clothes off.

It certainly feels good to do that, and it helps me understand that, at least in some ways, I am more comfortable naked than clothed. Don’t get me wrong, clothes matter to me (I enjoy color and my own ideas of my style), but if I could, I would live naked all the time.

I have found a new comfort zone.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your comfort zones? Do you ever venture beyond one or more of them? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? How in touch are you with your various comfort zones? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! April 11, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

 

Who Needs An Excuse?

We must work together to change a sex-negative culture . . . .

Malachi:

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Photo Credit: Nearly Candy Photography

We have just finished out Halloween and with it, the season of costuming and playing dress-up…both for kids and for adults. And once again this year, I found myself immensely frustrated at the options for Halloween costumes…both for kids and adults, particularly femme and female-presenting people.

There is a quote from the movie “Mean Girls” that sums it up very succinctly: “Halloween is the one day of the year that women can dress like sluts and no other girls can say anything about it.” As much as I wish this were a Hollywood-ized exaggeration, I look at the costume options available for women and find that to be poignantly true. Sexy cops, sexy firefighters, sexy postal workers, sexy this, sexy that.

My issue with this is two-fold: first, this starts at a very young age and, while I respect that children often develop their own sense of sexuality at various ages, sexualizing children’s costumes is, to me, a pretty disturbing thing. That’s a whole different conversation, although it does bear mentioning (as I have a nine year old daughter, I felt this very personally this year).

The bigger issue I have with this trend, though, is not that women are expressing their sexuality, but rather, that there needs to be an excuse, some sense of having “permission” to exist as a sexual being. The fact that Halloween- a time in which we dress up and “pretend” to be somethingother than what we are- is a time when women are encouraged to claim their own sexuality lends itself to the idea that, at other points, women should not express their sexuality. If we pretend to be something other than what we are for Halloween, then what does it say about what we “allow” women to be in terms of sexual expression the other 364 days of the year?

This isn’t something that’s limited to Halloween, although that is theexample most on my mind at the moment. But we have to create these opportunities where it’s ok for people to claim their sexuality as a part of their whole selves… almost as though it is a hiatus from “real” life. Never mind that women are chronically sexualized by other people on a daily basis… women are allowed to be seen as sex symbols, sex objects, but not allowed to claim and own their sexuality as their own, lest they be seen as “sluts” (as though having a healthy and full sexual life is a negative thing, never mind that we encourage the same behavior in men that we shame in women).

I had a friend recently describe interactions with me as “dripping with sex appeal.” They clarified that it was not that I was inappropriately sexual toward anyone, but that the way that I inhabit my body and move through the world is one in which my sexuality is an active part. I remember hearing this and feeling immensely uncomfortable, as though I had broken some unspoken rule about how we were “supposed” to engage with other people. Should I find ways to limit and/or minimize the extent to which my sexuality influences the way I interact with others?

I don’t think the problem is that I am too sexual; I think the issue is that we are so used to compressing people down into non-sexual boxes and not allowing them to be the full expressions of who they are: physical, spiritual, sexual, mental, emotional. There is a vast difference between “sexualizing another person for our benefit” and “allowing other people to exist as a sexual being.” I think, sometimes, we seek to distance ourselves so much from the former that we also diminish the latter. As a result, we give into a culture that allows for discrete moments of permission that allow people to claim their sexuality in obvious ways, but minimizes it at other times.

Photo credit: Nearly Candy Photography

Juxtaposed against this, I think of the times I spend in the kink community, particularly the week-long, outdoor camping events. One of the hardest things about leaving that space is the recognition that we have to put on our “normal” clothes, go back into the world, and try to adjust our behavior to something that is considered more socially acceptable, which comes down to compressing our sexual selves back into a box. I’ve never been particularly good at that, and it’s not something I want to get better at. I do not want to look for excuses to exist as, among other things, a sexual being, nor do I believe that claiming one’s own sexuality is “asking for” harassment, catcalling, etc.

We live in a world impacted by sexuality and sexual expression, regardless of how we experience sexual attraction (or whether we experience sexual attraction at all). We live in a world that actively seeks to diminish our capacity to experience and express ourselves as sexual beings, instead offering moments of respite in which we can express these things without fear of social reprise or stigma. We live in a world that stigmatizes sexuality- particularly the sexuality of women (rather than the perceived sexuality of women for the pleasure of men).

There aren’t easy answers or solutions to these things, but I believe it

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begins with small changes. Wear that risque shirt. Wear the pants or skirts or fabrics or shoes or makeup that make you feel sexy in your body- not for anyone else, but for yourself. Claim your sexuality as something that is a part of you, for you, rather than something that is on display for the approval (or disapproval) of others. Share that article on your facebook page about safer sex practices or ways to spice up your sex life or interesting facts about BDSM or whatever thing it is that you read and wondered if it was “too much” to share on social media. Write erotica that expresses your sexual fantasies. Change your language in small ways: rather than the “walk of shame” the morning after sex, think of it as a walk of victory. Rather than thinking someone is a slut because they have multiple sexual partners, try to think how cool it is that someone is in touch with their own experience of sexuality that they are able to explore it in many different ways. Consider how you might respond to a behavior if it was done by someone in a different demographic: if a man did it, would it feel as taboo? How do your reactions change if that person is a person of color, older or younger than you, etc.?

We must work together to change a sex-negative culture. We must actively work to change the ways we talk and think about sex… and who is “allowed” to exist as a sexual being, versus who must be given permission (and under what circumstances). We must change the way we claim and view our own sexuality… not as a taboo, isolated part of ourselves, but as simply a part of ourselves that coexists with many other facets of who we are. Owning and claiming these things are necessary and vital- both to changing the culture of how we view sex and sexuality, but also to how we view ourselves as whole, integrated beings. We exist in a sexualized world, and many of us experience a sense of our own sexuality. What a joy it would be to be able to exist comfortably within ourselves as, among other things, sexual people, taking another step toward integrating our minds, our bodies, and our spirits as one.

Robin:

As Malachi and I talked the other day about this week’s blog, he mentioned the over-sexualizing of Halloween costumes for women.  As he explained more about it, I realized I was ignorant of this phenomenon. One reason is because I pay little attention to Halloween (but a quick Google search confirmed a high preponderance of costumes for women designed to present the wearer as a sex object). Also, as a gay man, I pay little attention to what women wear on Halloween.

But as we talked further, it became clearer to me that this emphasis at Halloween is part of the hiding of sex. If many can leer and wink at Halloween, then it makes it possible to pretend that sex is something only to be brought out at specified, sanctioned times, and thanks to sexualizing women specifically, they remain objects. Patriarchy wins again.

That got me thinking about other times we sexualize something so we can “play” with sex without actually really being open about it.

For example, there is the wedding night. In today’s culture, where most couples have already lived and slept together, the wedding night is less fraught with anticipation and anxiety, but there are plenty of couples who have “saved” themselves. And, I still hear people making suggestive remarks about the wedding bed.

bachelor_party_2 The Plunge.com
ThePlunge.com

Then, there is the bachelor party for a straight male partner—inviting a sex dancer or worker is sometimes part of the celebration, in observation of the “last time” the about-to-be married person is supposed to experience sex outside marriage. I am less familiar with bachelorette parties, but do know they sometimes take place in a club or other venue with male strippers.

Less obvious perhaps is special occasion sex—on an anniversary or birthday, of the day of or after a promotion or new job, or winning an award or prize. I don’t meant to suggest there is a problem with this per se, but I do think it can fall into a pattern of needing a reason to be sexual.  I sometimes joke with my Jewish beloved that the Torah instructs a husband to satisfy his wife as part of the Sabbath observance. I appreciate what I call the earthiness of Judaism in this, especially as compared to so much Christian prudery and shame. Imagine if Sunday, or going to church, became an occasion to have sex (not during worship but because of it)! And imagine if we could talk about it!

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akacatholic.com

Indeed, in my view, Christianity is a, if not the, major culprit in creating and perpetuating sex and body negativity (and in many ways patriarchy and misogyny as well). The irony of this is stunning, not just because of our Jewish roots but also because allegedly we celebrate God come to earth in embodied form. As Richard Rohr writes, “Christians worship Jesus because he did not forget but fully lived the union of human and divine. . . The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Note that it does not just say “Jesus,” but “flesh.”

Sadly, we are left with no record of Jesus actually living as a sexual being. I have long believed that the wedding at Cana was an occasion after which Jesus enjoyed sex with someone (a male or female disciple or another partner or even his wife). Nor was that the only time Jesus acted on sexual desires; despite the tradition, he did not die a virgin. The tradition’s reliance on his conception as a “pure” act rather than messy human intercourse also contributes to sex negativity.

nudist groupI want to come at this another way, too, to point out that there are times when we can be so determined that there not be sex that sex can sound like something bad (to be clear, when I say sex, I mean consensual sexual activity; anything else is abuse and violation). As a recently confirmed nudist, I note that most nudist or naturist organizations push very hard against the common misconception that gatherings of naked people automatically lead to sex. Indeed, it is vital that participants, women and men and people who present as either or both, feel safe to be completely exposed.

At the same time, I sometimes experience the efforts to create safety as sex-negative, almost as if nudists never have sex or don’t like sex or think sex is bad. This is tricky in U.S. culture where non-full-frontal nudity—female and male—in an advertisement is used to create desire leading to buying the product. Corporations sexualize bodies in order to make a sale—it is acceptable to be a sexy model in an ad.  Of course, only certain types of bodies are used in this way—I am unlikely to see my 71-year-old, wrinkled body, or any other older person’s unclothed body, used to sell anything!

elder sexOn the other hand, I have noticed recently a growing number of articles in various publications about elder sex. The first point often seems to be that is okay, even good, for older people to be sexual. Some of my contemporaries tell me they are grateful for this while pointing out that they have been doing it all along, with or without permission. That is surely true for me.

My soul and body tell me that that sex is a regular part of life, to be enjoyed as often as possible, because it can be so much fun and contribute to the well-being of consenting people enjoying themselves and experiencing divinely-inspired union(s). Being sexual is a gift each of us, and all of us, receive as part of human wholeness. We don’t need an excuse or permission to be wholly ourselves. I pray we stop setting up some people and groups as sex objects, and denying the sexuality of others, as a means of keeping this most natural of human activities under tight control.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you ever felt or do you feel you need a reason, other than desire, to have sex? Have you ever felt, or do you feel, you feel you need permission to have sex? Have you participated in “special occasion” sex, and if so, how did it feel? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! December 13, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

 

Summer of Transformations

Robin: 

revrobin2-023The three months since our hiatus began in late June have been filled with adventure and change for me.  I think of this as “My Naked Summer,” but this is about more than taking off my clothes. Another way to understand this time is to realize how much I have made friends with my own body, and in the process become more deeply connected with my soul.

I began this process with a four-day spiritual retreat at The Woods, an LGBT clothing optional campground near Lehighton, PA, in the Poconos. I packed gear and drove the 150 miles, excited to be on my way.  I pitched my tent, hiked trails and found secluded spots for periods of contemplation of nature, my life, and God.

Robin journaling at The Woods
Quiet time at The Woods

I had been unsure about why I desired a naked retreat, but as soon as I had a few hours of walking around sans clothes, with other people similarly undressed (and some dressed, too), I felt this great elation. I thought to myself, “this is the way I would like to live all the time.”  It seems clear to me that God called me there to learn this truth.

When I returned from camping, I knew I had to find more ways to be naked outdoors and among people. The ninth annual Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride in September beckoned. I am so glad I went—I experienced great joy hanging out with upwards of a thousand other naked or mostly naked folks, riding for more than two hours through downtown Philadelphia.

That’s me riding in Philadelphia, “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

There is a palpable sense of happiness and freedom in every group of naked people I have ever known, and this was no exception. It felt good to experience the approval of so many “textiles” watching us on every street, too. You can read more about it, and see a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies) here as well as a reflection on the ride and my feelings before I went here

Again, I realized how much I yearn for nudity outside my home. So, right after I returned from Philadelphia I began learning more about several nudist groups I had joined but with which I had yet to connect.

The first result of that search is an event that sent my spirit soaring: standing, sitting, and lying nude in the studio of a photographer and artist. I was photographed extensively in various poses and then he spent an hour drawing my genitals. I loved the experience with the camera—my whole body felt alive, and I stopped worrying about my “Imperfections”—and want more, but watching him draw my dick and balls—he sat less than two feet in front of my sitting body—was fun and so very affirming. In that time, I shed more of my embarrassment (and shame) about my small “package” than in all the therapy and self-affirmation over many years. I look forward to more, even hoping to hire out for modeling in art classes.

Photo by J. Wayne Higgs (also shown drawing)

But this is about more than baring my body. Through that I am connecting more deeply with my soul. As I have become more comfortable with my physical being I have experienced a new sense of self as a gender queer cis gay male lover, Christian theologian and poet.

It feels like another coming out—there have several over the years in addition to coming out as gay in 1982—this time as a free, or at least freer, spirit, willing to move beyond a lifetime of obeisance to social norms. Even when I violated a norm, say sexuality in the 80’s, I compensated in other ways so no one would forget what a good guy I am.

I am still a good guy, at least I try to be, but that no longer includes hiding the beauty of my body, indeed the beauty of all bodies and it means being even more determined to talk about sex (and race, so connected to all this) in religious contexts—in fact, it means that I am becoming a more active, committed advocate for greater body and sexual openness in our society.  I am surely glad to continue this work with Malachi.

Soon I will change the name of my personal blog, “Make Love. Build Community,” to “The Naked Theologian.”  This new blog is not intended to focus on naked bodies, but it will not hide them (including my own) either.

My intention is to provide resources for an ongoing movement of free thinkers and free bodies, especially within, but not limited to, faith communities.  Liberation, justice, freedom are always about bodies. When our bodies are free, we have a better chance to be free in our whole selves, and to promote the freedom of others.

I recognize the risk of rejection and disapproval by some, but the call of God on my soul, and my body, is strong, and I am now, at 71, ready to respond to that call with renewed energy, joy, love and hope.

What a summer it has been, and what adventures lie ahead!

Malachi:

This has been a period of transformation. In many ways, this has been the culmination of lessons that began early this year and came to fruition throughout the course of the summer.

When Robin and I decided to take a hiatus from writing, I admit a sense of relief. This had begun to drain me more than feed me, and I had a summer of conferences and conventions looming that I knew would take every ounce of emotional strength I had. So I confess, I welcomed the respite, although I have missed the discussions Robin and I would have every week to reflect and prepare. As much as I needed the break, however, God does not. Though I wasn’t doing this particular work, I began to recognize that this may have been by design. After all, God had some work to do on me.

Much of what we have written about in the past is our own internal sense of our relationships with ourselves and the holy, how that manifests through the expressions of our bodies and the work of our hands and the exploration of our sexualities. For me, these things have come together in a singular way: learning rope.

photo by honey_bare

Rope (and rope bondage) is often portrayed as a sexual activity, a way to restrain a partner during intimacy. In reality, though, it is so much more than that. Rope can be performative (for those who are familiar with aerial silks, it’s not dissimilar). It can be meditative, it can be cathartic, it can be connective, it can be spiritual. For me, specifically, rope isn’t inherently sexual, but is a way for me to let go of anxiety around my body and body language. Because I spend so much time aware of my presentation- am I being open and accessible with my body language, or closed down and unapproachable? What do people see when they look at me, and is it what I want them to see?- rope gives me a respite from that. Someone else is arranging my body and positioning. Someone else is in control of what my body presents, how it moves, what it’s saying. It’s a specific type of comfort and freedom that’s difficult to explain, but it’s a place I have found a lot of peace.

This summer, I found connection unlike anything I have experienced in years with someone through tying with them. At one of the kink events I attended early in the summer, I met someone to whom I was immediately attracted who is part of the rope community, which is a subculture inside the larger BDSM community. He and I did a rope scene together in which he tied and moved me in various ways, and through that interaction, we both recognized a chemistry and connection that we both wanted to explore further. That dynamic quickly became sexual, and we have spent the summer building a relationship that feels mutual, balanced, and pushes both of us- both inside and outside of rope.

In August, I worked another event at which I was able to witness one of the most breathtaking rope performances I have ever seen. The performer took herself through a series of different body positions and manipulations through different ways of tying, creating an image of a chrysalis, and then cutting herself free. It was transformative- both the content of the performance, but also the impact it had on me.  Watching this ignited a passion in me- I wanted to learn how to do that– and I decided to begin-again- the journey of learning how to tie.

I’ve dabbled in learning rope before, but it hasn’t been the right time, and it’s never stuck. My own fears about being “bad” at rope often got in my own way, and I didn’t seek out the resources to learn how to be better. Immediately after watching the performance, however, I had a conversation with a friend who handled me a small length of rope and taught me two or three things to practice to get started, supporting my first steps in this journey. Not long thereafter, I had a conversation with someone who is the first person I ever tied with, explaining that I wanted to start learning, but I wanted to do so in a space that was more queer and femme-focused- voices that, much like in mainstream culture, are often drowned out by the voices of cis white heterosexual men. They concurred, and began organizing a monthly rope skill share at their home with a collection of queer and femme people who love rope. It has been in that space, more than any other, that I have found confidence, community, and support.

These interactions- meeting my now-sweetheart, watching that performance, and joining a queer rope group- have been the foundations of my explorations inside of rope. The performance was a catalyst to get involved in a community on which I have been on the periphery for years. The rope group gives me a safe place to learn and try new things without fear of judgement when I (inevitably) mess up. My sweetheart who, coincidentally, is also an engineer, built a rig in my home so that I could have a space to practice more. And through rope, I am constantly learning and challenging my own sense of perfectionism and fear of failure through the process of learning something new and very skill-based. I have found a deep peace when I tie, something that feels calm and meditative, something that feels like a way to deepen connection with my own body while simultaneously stepping out of self-consciousness. I am learning how to feel strong in my body, how to view my body as a source of strength and power.

Although in many ways, rope has felt like the catalyst, the reality is that there has been so much work to prepare myself to be open to new ways of engaging. Rope is a manifestation of openness and, while it is the most prominent, it is not the only one. New relationships, different means of understanding and articulating boundaries, and a powerful sense of autonomy and self-expression have all come from a sense of openness and willingness to be vulnerable and honest. That openness needed some time to settle and feel sustainable and safe, and for that, I am still immensely grateful that Robin and I took a period of time to pause and reflect. But we are- and I am- back now, and excited to push forward on the powerful and transformative journey of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Have you experienced transformation through your body? If not, do you want to? What does your body teach you spiritually? Have you experienced profound change due to taking a break from work or studies or some other activity? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! November 8, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.

Family Secrets

Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.

revrobin2-023Robin:

Jonathan and I have become invested in a television drama called “A Place to Call Home,” about a “to the manor born” family in Australia. We like it for superb acting, engaging plot lines, and the general lack of violence (Note: it is available through Acorn TV, “the best British streaming TV,” –we access it through ROKU).

As the first season unfolded, the characters became increasingly complex, and we got hooked, especially as one by one various characters revealed secrets. In some ways the main theme of the program is the hiding and disclosing of family secrets.  As you might imagine most of them involve sex in one way or another.

As I told Malachi about the program, we began to realize we had each experienced, and even yet experience, some aspects of keeping, being, and revealing secrets [as you might expect, his experience is less “mainstream” than mine].

As a pastor, I heard secrets.  Many, if not most, of them were about abuse of various kinds, especially sexual abuse and violence in the home. Most people would tell about it as they sought to explain feelings they wanted to change—attitudes and fears that had been induced by the ugly behavior.

Of course, in a church community with many LGBT people, and in a relatively conservative area (Richmond, Virginia) some members felt they had to keep their sexual orientation and non-cis gender feelings secret—either due to family issues or potential loss of jobs and housing, or all of the above. However, non-LGBT people also talked about secrets, many of them related to sex.

Two very dear friends of mine have harrowing histories of sexual abuse—one due to boys forcing sex on him in the boys’ bathroom at school, and the other due to a parent being utterly inappropriate in describing to my friend in some detail the parent’s disgust at sexual behavior by the other parent in their marriage.  Both friends continue to feel effects from these incidents, many years later.

In fact, my friend who suffered from sexual assault had blocked the memory for decades. It came out in intensive therapy due to sexual issues with my friend’s partner. My friend acknowledged a feeling of sexual “frozenness” (my word) and sought help to be freed. It is a work in progress.

I hid my sexual attraction to men until I was in my mid-30s. But I had realized it much earlier, and on two occasions broke my silence. The first time I told my parents, and they seemed to listen but then returned to watching television. They simply did not know what to do with their 16-year-old son standing in the middle to the living room telling him he was “homosexual” (five or six years before Stonewall). And then, when I was in college, I told my priest and asked him what to do. He spoke to my parents, and then, with their permission and my acquiescence, arranged for me to see a therapist.

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Supposedly, after some months I was “okay,” at least “better.”

I did not entirely fool myself, however—for example, Playgirl magazine came into being a year or two before I was married in 1974 and I ordered a subscription, allegedly for my new wife. I was sad when she showed little interest in it, and I—who had eagerly consumed the pictures in each issue—had no excuse to renew it.

And before we were married, she asked me about an observation by a friend of hers in our small town that I was “homosexual.” I assured her I was not—that the therapist I had seen while in college had “cured” me.

When I did come out to her, she told me she had never quite let go of fear that her friend had been right. And my mother told me that she had felt relief as we had several children. Surely, she reasoned, I could not be “that way” if we were having babies! But she also told me, after I came out, that a cleaning woman had found a copy of Playgirl in a file drawer in the room where I occasionally slept when staying over to help her care for my invalid father.

I had a secret, but so did they.  Secrets breed secrets.

Why do we keep sexual secrets?

One answer is shame. “There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex,” says Marty Klein, a sex therapist writing in Psychology Today.

But why shame? One reason, according to Klein, is “sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it.”

One “rule” is the prohibition on the public display of naked bodies. That prohibition seems to rest on the idea that nakedness equals sex (an equation strongly disputed by naturists).

I have long been enamored of nudity, my own and that of others. I like being naked. But I think I made a mistake when, years ago, I was naked, with other naked male friends, at the beach when my daughters, then in their teens and pre-teens, were present. I have carried shame about that behavior.

My shame became more acute after my half-sister, the daughter of my father from his first marriage, told me that our father went around the house, when she was a teen, without his pants on and thus showing his genitals (she told me this 20 year

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s after he died). She hated it, as did her mother. This never happened in the home in which I lived with our father and my mother (not hers).

Thus, I continue to worry that my writing about nudity—and perhaps choosing at some point to call myself “The Naked Theologian”—will once again cause me to engage in shameful behavior, at least toward my daughters. As I ponder and pray about that possibility I keep wondering if I need to give my daughters “veto power” over my decision.

Then, I think about church. Do I give “veto power” to the people at church who don’t like my writing about sex and bodies, and most assuredly would not be comfortable with “The Naked Theologian?”

Church of course, is a major contributor to rules about sex. Many church people, and others, even think that sex is the major focus of the Bible.

Knust Unprotected TextsThere is a lot of sex in various parts of the text, and there are texts that contain prohibitions and judgments. But there are other texts, other stories, which do neither (and even “normalize” things prohibited elsewhere). In fact, as Jennifer Wright Knust writes in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, “When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies. . . .”

One way to reduce the power of sexual secrets, and move forward in overcoming abuse and violence, is to discard the idea that the Bible is a reliable sex manual.  Then we might begin allowing God into our all parts of our lives, including sex.

I suspect God would like that, and we’d be happier, and safer, too.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I’ve been the family secret. In fact, in many ways, I’m sure I still am, partially of my own choosing, partially of my family’s choosing. I haven’t stayed in touch with most of my family of origin- my grandmother asks my mother about me, but beyond that, I don’t know that much of my extended family really makes an effort to know much about my life. After all, I was the illegitimate child born out of wedlock and raised by lesbians- they were, for much of my life, the “family secret.” Now, I’m a transgender, queer, non-monogamous, kinky sex educator. At some point in the journey of my life, my extended family stopped reaching out to me. My family is no stranger to secrets.

Family secrets are a complicated thing. Whether they are born from a place of shame or an attempt to “keep the peace” at family gatherings, they’re like the big pink elephant in the room. Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.  I think that’s the thing that makes them “secrets”… it’s not so much that they “aren’t known,” but simply that they “aren’t acknowledged.” It’s not, for example, that anyone had any misconceptions about my parent’s relationship: they were obviously more than friends and roommates, and very clearly were lovers. It wasn’t a secret in the sense that no one knew they were partners. It was a secret in the sense that their partnership was never publicly acknowledged or respected as equal to other people’s partnerships. I certainly felt that tension in how I was accepted (or not accepted) as family with my non-biological mother’s family.

Being the family secret is a form of silencing and erasure. It’s a way for people who are supposed to love us unconditionally to choose not to see a part of who we are. For queer people especially, it entirely removes our capacity to exist in the world as whole people: rainbowspiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual. Our sexuality, our genders, our relationship configurations and familial configurations are erased, hidden, and ignored; our capacity to be sexual beings is denied.

This month, we celebrate Pride month. Pride at being able to live authentically, to be who we are- all of who we are- when so many of us have lived for a long time as the family secret. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the subtle verbal acknowledgement of one queer person to another used to be, “Are you family?” We made our own families, families where we found unconditional love and support when we refused to allow who we are to be a secret, something to ignore and work around, a burden, a discomfort.

This week, we also honor the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting at Pulse

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nightclub where 49 young people lost their lives in a tragic hate crime aimed at permanently silencing queer people of color. The queer community- particularly queer communities of color- are no stranger to secrets, either. I think of those people who may have been outed simply by being at Pulse that night- both those who died, and those who lived and suffered the consequences of trauma. What families who had skirted around, never acknowledged, or tried to ignore the sexuality of a loved one must be feeling. I think of the toll of family secrets, and the crushing weight of regret that sometimes comes when we realize we have forever lost an opportunity to show unconditional love.

We are- our queerness, our lives, the ways we love and fuck and connect and build families- we are working against a lifetime of being taught that who we are should not be acknowledged. That who we are makes people uncomfortable, that it causes waves, that it is better kept a secret. We celebrate Pride as a response to these messages, a deliberate way of opening up our own family secrets- and in many ways, opening up our families. One of my mothers has a beautiful phrase that I have adopted as a mantra in my own life: “the only eggshells in this house are in the fridge.” We don’t tiptoe around truth and reality and important conversations because they are uncomfortable.

In my adult, chosen family, I hope we never have family secrets. As I continue to raise my goddaughter, I hope that she never feels the sense of silencing, the shame, the shifts in language, the awkwardness that I felt as a child growing up. I hope she never feels that she is part of a family secret- and a source of family shame.

As a trans, queer person myself, I consciously make the choice not to engage with much of my extended family. Not because I think they are bad or incapable of changing, but bisexual symbolbecause I am not willing to do the things my parents did (and to some degree, still do) to self-silence, to shift, to alter who they were. I am not willing to pretend to be something- or someone- I am not. So perhaps, for them, I exist in the stories my mother tells about me, however twisted and convoluted she presents my life. I recognize that, in many ways, she is still in the same place of seeking love, acceptance, and affirmation for her life, struggling against being the family secret while also wanting to keep the peace. I know that the ways she represents my life aren’t accurate; it’s her choice to make, and it’s mine to not engage with my families of origin to give a more accurate perspective.

We each come out in our own ways, at our own times. Pride reminds us- and the anniversary of Pulse reminds us- how dear, how precious, how important authenticity is. Our sexuality is not inconvenient. Our sexuality does not need to be a secret or something danced around in awkward pauses over family dinners. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we see our sexuality as a part of the whole image of who we are. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be silent or circumnavigated. Now, more than ever, we must break our own silences- in whatever ways they manifest- and refuse to be the family secret.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What is your relationship with family (or community) secrets? Have you been asked to hold the secrets of others? Have you felt like you were “the secret” in some capacity? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

 

third Thursday
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us TOMORROW, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Our focus will be “Creating Consent Culture in Our Churches.” Malachi and Robin will discuss how church leaders and members can foster an atmosphere of trust and exploration through mutual concern and consent while considering difficult topics such as various forms of sex, the spiritual ground of sex, and sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Sex, God, and Unicorns

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Robin:

One of our readers sent me a link to an article—she called it “horrible”—as a way of encouraging me and Malachi to keep writing. “Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex” by Rachel Pietka (read it here) is, in my view, an attempt to stall or reverse any movement within Christianity to talk openly, and most importantly, positively, about sex in all its varieties, and even more to stand aggressively against openness to premarital sex (and although it is not named, I am sure also against same-sex sex and other “abominations”).

The author’s main point seems to be to stop people from making sex into God. I am aware that there are people for whom sex is an idol—on a par with making tons of money or being at the pinnacle of social or career success or having a “perfect” body—and I evrevrobin2-023en know a few men who think the cock (theirs and all others, too) is God. But by and large, in my experience within Christianity, even in Metropolitan Community Churches, there is a much greater danger that sex is the devil, Satan’s agent to lead us astray, and/or it is so spiritually dangerous that we should not talk openly about it. If we pretend not to know about it, then it will surely not bother us.

But that default position is not at all accurate. I grew up in a time when sex talk of any sort was really taboo. That did not stop people from having sex.

I remember when I was about eight (1954 or so), my mother’s best friend and her husband (she was a high school English teacher and he was the high school principal) invited people to their home for a reception in honor of their son and his new wife (a surprise to all because there had been no wedding invitations). What became immediately obvious was that the young woman was pregnant.

pregnant womanPeople sat around, sipping tea and maybe taking a bite of cake or cookie, in more or less stunned silence. No one knew what to say. We lived in a small conservative town 40 miles northwest of Detroit—and this sort of thing was not supposed to happen (never in the “better” families).

I have some small memory of the strangeness; I think I might have been the only child present but am not sure. I know my parents, shocked though they may have been (and they may have known of the situation in advance), would not have abandoned their friends.

What my mother recounted many times about the afternoon was her gratitude to her future son-in-law who came with my sister (she was friends with both newlyweds). He did not grow up in our town, and was in some ways a stereotypically “brash” Jew (there were no Jews in our town). He mingled with people and doggedly worked to create small-talk—breaking the silence. He was an actor, and for decades a well-regarded professional stage director, and he knew how to get people engaged. My mother often said, “Bentley saved the day.” But even he could not get people talking about what was really bothering them—and I am sure my mother was also glad of that!

I recount this story, well aware that much has changed in the 60 years since, but also well aware that in other ways little has changed. We still cannot really talk about sex.

You can't say that in church jasonkoon net
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And while we may agree when someone, like me or Malachi, speaks of sex as a gift of God or writes about the godliness of sex or divinely inspired eroticism, we never speak of it in church. When was the last time you heard the word “sex” used in a prayer in church or any public gathering? Is your sex life on your personal gratitude list? Or if in your mind it does not merit gratitude, is it on your prayer request list? Do you ask God for more sex, better sex, perhaps both?

My point is simply this: far from needing to police people’s desire to have good sex lives, we need to help all of us openly, joyfully, claim our desire for great sex, to pay attention to what kind of sex we want and even to learn more about how to get it.

And here’s the corollary for me: God wants us to have great sex, too. That’s why our bodies are wired the ways they are, we are created as sexual beings. How did we get here anyway? (I know its not nice or polite to think about our biological parents having sex, but I assure you they did).

So, I am going to pick up where my brother-in-law left off 50+ years ago: I am going to talk about bodies and sex.

Robin naked at desk 1_edited-1I am sitting at my desktop writing this, and I am naked. Of course, being naked is not the same as sex. Being naked is simply being our authentic selves, not covering up our body, the body we have from God. We are created in the image of God, and thus our bodies are part of the divine portrait. After many decades of not feeling good about my body, I finally learning to like it, indeed love it. Nakedness helps.

Sitting here naked—which I like to be as much as possible—allows me to “touch myself” as I feel moved to do so. I run my hands over my chest, tousle and then smooth my unruly hair, rub my sore feet and aching back as best I can. And I touch my penis and testicles (I call them my cock and balls—someday I may write a piece on why I choose to say “cock” rather than “dick”).

And at times, I do more than touch them. I massage them, I stimulate them. I do this as I write—and not just when writing this blog focused on sex, bodies, and spirit; I do this when writing more heady and traditional theology or poetry or other social commentary. Sometimes, I do this while I am feeling stumped about a word choice or when I am trying to discern what the next paragraph or stanza should be. The situation may have nothing to do with sex, but my body, my genitals, crave some stroking.  I respond, with pleasure. Sometimes, I just touch them to express self-love.

And of course, I also touch myself erotically when I think about a hot time with my husband (or even just picturing him) or a scene or a body I have seen online or a story I have read at Nifty Erotic Stories Archive, a place for gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender (often but not always non-professional) writers to post their erotic stories (sorry, I don’t know the location for similar non-LGBT erotic writing—I am sure there are many). Nifty asks for donations to pay for the site, but it is accessible free of charge.

And of course, sometimes I get pretty worked up, and even ejaculate. That feels very good.

sex is divine arealrattlesnake com
arealrattlesnake.com

Okay, I have outed myself as a sexual being.  I have done this to make two points: first, we need more openness, more celebration, not less, about sex—especially in churches, communities called together by God who loves sex and wants us to like it, too.

And second, it is up to us to lead the way. I am glad to start.

How about you? Maybe you’d like to out yourself, too. It can feel pretty good! Even godly.

We could start a new spiritual movement—or rejuvenate the old one. God would be pleased.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I have a habit of referring to myself as a “unicorn;” that is, a somewhat mythical being that doesn’t quite seem to be real. This spans across many different facets of my identity, but I bring it up here specifically because I am a second (and in some interpretations, third) generation queer person.

As I have spoken about elsewhere, I was raised in a lesbian family and identify as queer myself. But beyond that, many of the people who mentored and nourished my growth were also mentors to my parents, some of whom were old enough to be their parents. As a result, my family as I understood it consisted of people who have lived, and fought, as queer people over the span of three generations.

This directly impacted so many parts of my life- not the least of which was my concept of sex and personal sexual growth. In my life, neither my mothers (nor any other trusted adult in my life) told me that I should “wait until marriage to have sex.” For one thing, my parents (and most other adults in my life) were queer, and thus denied the rights of marriage. It would have been hypocritical at best to espouse a “no sex until marriage” code when it wasn’t one they were able to follow themselves.

Certainly, they had commitment and were, in the eyes of God, married, even if the state didn’t see it that way. Nonetheless, though, they didn’t tell me that I should wait until marriage- they told me that “if I couldn’t talk openly about it with my partners, then I probably shouldn’t be doing it with them.”

During sex education in high school, I certainly understood and heard the message that the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies was to abstain from sex, but I was also exposed to information about birth control and barrier protection methods (I discovered later that I was immensely lucky for the sex education I received).

But beyond sex education in school, I found my growing sexuality supported and

hitachi
Hitachi Magic Wand Photo Credit

encouraged by many of the adults around me, all of whom I met through church. For example, one woman was teaching me to drive stick shift, and over the course of the day, the topic of sex came up. She asked me if I felt comfortable masturbating, and encouraged me to do more of it, noting that some of the best sex of her life had been with herself.

Another adult encouraged me to “wine and dine” myself: that is, take myself on a date and allow self-pleasure to be the result of desire, rather than necessity.

But perhaps my favorite story is when I was coming home on a break from college at 18 and spending time at my godmother’s house. In college, I began to aggressively explore my sexual identity, and had been having copious amounts of sex with a variety of people. Feeling a little full of myself, I was recounting my sexual exploits to my godmother, who promptly asked me, “Are you being safe?” I looked at her with a puzzled expression and stated, “Well… everyone I’m sleeping with was assigned female at birth, so…”

She looked at me again, and said, “Ok. So, are you being safe?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She then went into her bedroom, came out with a box of nitrile gloves and a dental dam, pulled out a tub of ice cream from the freezer, and proceeded to teach me about safer sex methods, using the ice cream as a prop while she explained (and demonstrated, on the ice cream) how to use a dental dam.

I say all this to say, I had a very unusual experience in my own introduction to sex, and most of it came through the church, and from generations of queer people who had done the hard work to overcome much of their own sexual repression and were eager to counteract the puritanical social messages they knew I would receive.

Yet even I have hangups about sex. Despite their best efforts, I felt a sense of internalized shame about some of my own sexual desires, and still had to deal with the impacts of social messaging that taught me that desiring sex, as a woman, was shameful. But for me, so few of those messages came through the church- in fact, the church is where I found the most affirming messages about sex.

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And that, to me, is the key, the crux of MCC. We have generations of stories and people that have struggled and fought to overcome their own sexual repressions. Why are we not leading the charge to be a Christian movement that not only accepts, but loudly rejoices in our existence as sexual beings? (I say this, of course, recognizing and respecting those who are asexual and do not necessarily identify as sexual.) In this regard, I don’t want to be a “unicorn”- I wish everyone had stories like mine, of going to a place of worship and finding not only acceptance, but open celebration and support of who they are as sexual beings.

I recognize that these conversations happened one-on-one, and not inside of worship. Yet we should know that our churches and our sanctuaries are places where we can find people with whom to have these conversations. We should know that our whole selves- including our sexual selves- will be celebrated and embraced when we walk through the doors of an MCC.

We receive so many messages about sex every day: messages using sex to sell us a product, messages telling us that certain types of sexual expression are wrong, messages that enforce the “right” kind of sexual behavior, messages that shame us for our sexual desires, messages that blame victims for sexual violence, and so forth. Shouldn’t our sanctuaries be a place of true refuge from the sexual oppression- and repression- that we face every day?

Silence is so often complicity. When so many others are speaking vocally in oppressive and repressive ways, why do we stay silent, or speak in whispers? What levels of shame and sexual repression do we still need to overcome in our own lives so that we may speak our truths? I challenge each of us to consider, deeply, the messages we have received over the course of our lives- the positive and the negative. Which have we done the work to reject, and which do we still carry with us? Which help our growth in community, with God, with one another, and which hinder it? Which feed the shame and silence, and which support the foundations to speak our truths?

We seek to live our lives out loud, but we must remember that our sexuality is a part of our lives, of our spirits, of our means of connecting with one another and with God. To silence that aspect of ourselves is to silence a portion of the holy that lives within each and every one of us.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your feelings about talking about sex? Do you want to, but feel you can’t most places? What were the messages you received as your grew up about sex, and about talking openly about it? What role does shame play in your relationship with sex? If you 40 and older, what changes about sexual attitudes do you see in our culture today? Are you comfortable with them? Why or why not? If you are under 30, is society (and/or church) open enough or do you want more? Why or why not? Do you think we can mention sex in church with appreciation and candor?  Do you pray about sex? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us next week, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

A Summer without Body Shaming?

let’s come from a place of loving our bodies . . . .

Malachi:

My day job is in a coffee shop. The past week or so that I’ve been working, I’ve noticed a14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_n significant uptick in the number of sugar free, nonfat, no whipped cream drinks that have been ordered. As I’m chatting with customers while making their drinks, I’m hearing a lot of comments like, “Time to get that beach body back!” or “Gotta lose these pounds now that it’s getting warmer!” or some variation thereof.

There is also an increase in gym membership deals right now (I know this because I have been shopping around for a gym, and all of a sudden, there are a whole bunch of really attractive offers). There are also more and more ads on social media for “lose 10 pounds in a week!” or some new fad diet or reminders that we may have fallen off the New Year’s Resolution, but now is a great time to recommit. All of this is to say, it seems to be the season where people are focusing more and more on their figures.

And I think it’s great to be healthy. Please let me say this first: being healthy, caring for and supporting our bodies is a great thing to strive for. But far too often we equate “thin” with “healthy,” and around this time of year, we are more focused on how we will look in a bathing suit (or naked) than we are on making substantive changes that will have a long-term effect on our overall health.

From this perspective, I think we need to be really careful about how we approach these warmer months, and be aware of our capacity for body-shaming… not just other people, but ourselves. I would hope that people wouldn’t make negative or derogatory comments

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about another person’s body, but we know that those comments happen, and they are immensely hurtful. But as much as we need to ensure that we do not do that to others, we also have to be careful that we are not body-shaming ourselves.

Again, this comes down to the focus on health vs thinness. If we are saying to ourselves, “I don’t feel very good in my body and I want to get healthier,” that’s one thing. But if we are focusing on appearance and thinness, then we run the risk of shaming ourselves for our bodies which, in and of itself is hard enough, but it also has a cascading effect.

In this society, we tend to associate certain physical traits with certain character traits (which is the heart of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). We associate thinness with success, beauty, responsibility, self-control. We tend to associate heaviness with laziness, out-of-control (particularly eating habits), irresponsible (especially with food choices), and not attractive. So when we view ourselves as not-thin and reinforce those messages, we are also reinforcing the connotations of those messages: that we are not attractive, or make poor choices, or aren’t responsible, or are lazy.

For example, it’s easy to slip from, “I really need to lose a few pounds,” to, “If I were motivated enough, I would start walking around the block,” or “I feel so guilty for eating that brownie; why did I do that?” or “No one will be interested in me if I look like this.”

The truth is, health and weight are related, but they aren’t the same thing. Some bodies

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are simply larger than other bodies. I have friends who are larger than I am, but significantly more healthy in their consistency of working out and how they eat. Conversely, I have other friends with significantly more unhealthy habits, but a high metabolism, so they are consistently thin and slender.

I have a history of diet pill abuse and addiction. I remember the positive reinforcement I got when I was underweight and how much harder it was to quit, knowing I would have to endure comments about gaining weight. It has taken a long time to learn to love the body that I have, and I still have to be careful. I’ve joined a gym recently, but only after having long conversations with my partner about where I was coming from (wanting to be in better shape) to make sure I wasn’t in a toxic place of self-shaming and wanting to be thin.

We don’t always know what’s going on with someone else’s body. But we can be aware of what’s going on with our own. So as we approach these warmer months of bathing suits and shorts, nudity and tank tops, let’s come from a place of loving our bodies. A place of perfectbody.jpgnot comparing ourselves to an unachievable (and very white) beauty standard. We can want to improve, strengthen, and support our bodies. We can seek to be healthier. But if our bodies are temples, then approaching them with self-deprecating messages isn’t the way that we make space for them to be holy places.

Let’s be kind to ourselves, and be aware of the messages we are sending to ourselves, and strive to love the bodies that we have- rather than listen to the messages of the bodies we are told we should aspire to have.

Robin:

I have heard several people in the past couple of days speak about getting back to the gym—“summer’s coming,” one said, “and I want to look my best!”  Frankly, I have seen that friend naked and I think they already look fabulous. But I understand that most, if not all, of us have insecurities about our bodies, specifically about how they look—not only to others but also to ourselves.

I have been talking about looking for a new bike because I want to start regular riding. Around our home are some good streets for riding, including bike lanes, and I want to enjoy them and outdoor exercise. I also need to build lower- and mid-body strength and flexibility.

But the biggest impetus for me to ride now is to be prepared to participate in the World Naked Bike Ride in Philadelphia on September 9, 2017 (click here for more information, and let me know if you are interested in sharing it with me). But this is not a competitive or long-distance event, so I don’t need lots of preparation.

What I do want (as opposed to need) is to look my best. When I take my clothes off in public I don’t want excess body fat, I want to be, and feel, lanky (see “Who Is Your Type?” for more about my lankiness), sleek, while riding and while standing around with lots of other unclothed, and even clothed, people. I want to look my best in photos, too (and I hope there will be photos).

I remember my New Year’s resolution to lose 10-15 pounds—the commitment I failed to keep for more than a couple of weeks, if that.  Why did I drop the ball, not the pounds? I think a major reason is that I need more incentive to eat less and exercise more.

It doesn’t even have to be the beach or a naked event. We are getting ready to change wardrobes, too, wearing fewer and less bulky clothes, making our bodies more visible. We want to look our best, and for many In our culture, that seems to mean “thin,” or at least not “fat.”

Who tells us that? And how are “thin” and “fat” defined? How do we feel about whatever category in which we, or others, place us?

According to a standard BMI (Body Mass Index) chart from the National Institute of Health, I am overweight, not obese. Do both mean fat? Probably, at least not thin.

According to a different standard, offered by the Smart Body Mass Index, my weight is appropriate for my age, height, and sex. So I am not overweight? Not fat? But am I thin?

I want to be thin!!!

BMIAccording to the standard chart, I’d have to lose 22 pounds to be “normal” (as opposed to “overweight,” “obese,” and “extreme obesity.”) What is that? I have never thought of myself as normal, and don’t intend to do so now.

The use of that word on the government chart speaks volumes about the feeling so many have about our bodies.  We want to be “normal” and seek some sort of “Good Bodies Seal of Approval” for ourselves—and most of all we want to feel we can apply the approval to ourselves. But we are sure we fall short. We are not normal; the (mostly white) models in magazines are normal, our neighbor without any visible body fat is normal, the hunky guy or curvy woman at the gym is normal. We are not.

So we carry shame, or at least embarrassment.

beauty pageant swimsuit competitionFemale-bodied persons generally carry the heavier burden, because they, more than male-bodied persons, are subject to constant aesthetic scrutiny—standards about everything from hip and breast size to hair and makeup (they are the ones expected to wear make-up), and certainly weight. Some of this is not under their control—hip and breast shape, if not size, come with the body. Genes count—even though they are rarely considered by those who judge.

But that is not to say that men don’t have issues, too. I have known some really gorgeous men—by worldly standards as well as mine—who carry negative feelings about at least some aspect of their bodies. For some, it can be penis shape and size, or it can be “spindly” legs or flat butts, and just like women, they come with the body (working out doesn’t always change legs or butts on men). There are men, as there are many more women, who feel they can never be thin enough.

I don’t want that sort of thinness and I do not suffer from anorexia, but I want to lose my belly. The rest of me is pretty good for a 70-year-old man—not muscular but not seeking big biceps, etc. I wouldn’t mind being more toned and defined, but it is the belly that really gets to me.

Of course, my husband loves my belly. And I love his belly. But I want mine gone. This has at least something to do with the fact that my father had a belly, too. He had spindly legs and while strong—he spent his days in physical labor—was not muscular. But his belly was big. I never liked how it looked.

food plus feelingsBut there are social factors at work, too. Pictures of beautiful (mostly white) people who are thin do much to create the social standard that beauty is thin. Moreover, incessant advertising about the joys and coolness of fast food and good feelings when enjoying desserts, lead many to adopt unhealthy eating habits.

I know from personal experience that it is easy for parents to use food as a way to incentivize good behavior, and even to use food to convey love. As a parent, I hope I did not do either of those too much. I know as a child that my parents used food to anesthetize feelings, their own and mine, and to convey their love for me and each other.

In fact, I was a skinny kid until about age 10 when my father began making a large batch of peanut butter milkshakes to share with me every night. In one school year, I went from skinny (early lankiness) to overweight, teetering toward really fat. I have been fighting it ever since.  The only time I have ever been thin since then was when I was diagnosed with adult mononucleosis at age 36—considered a very serious illness at that age—and lost more than 70 pounds. Then I was truly skin and bones. Too thin.

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I have woven personal history with some social commentary because body image is both a major social issue and a deeply personal one. We carry our own feelings, our shame and disappointment in ourselves, but that personal reality affects those around us, too.

We are at our most spiritually and emotionally healthy, as individuals and a society, when we realize that no body—including our own—whatever its shape or condition, reflects anything other than our innate beauty as beloveds of God.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you feel about your body? Why What standards do you apply in evaluating it, and where do they come from? When and how do you judge the bodies of others, or don’t you do that at all? If you do this, what is the source of the criteria by which you judge others’ bodies? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
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Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in about three weeks, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

WTF Do We Do with Lent?

God isn’t something we can schedule in; God shows up when God is ready

Malachi:

We are a little more than halfway through Lent, a period of time which calls us each to reflect on our relationship with God, and what things we want to change in our lives to deepen that relationship. Often times, people will give something up for Lent- something they feel detracts or distracts from their relationship with God, in order to make space for these reflections.

I’ve never really understood the concept of “giving up something for Lent.” When I was in school, I saw kids giving up red meat, or chocolate, and I didn’t really understand. I interpreted it to mean that Lent was about sacrifice- giving up something you loved as penance or a means of sacrifice to show your love for God. As I got older, I came to understand “giving something up” as a means of creating space. The time and energy we would have devoted to whatever we were giving up, we instead used to focus on prayer or other things that we felt connected us to God and God’s calling in our lives.

But to be honest, I had a hard time with this interpretation and understanding as well. It still has a feel of impermanence to it- we remove something from our lives for a set, finite period of time to make room for God, but then we bring it back into our lives at the end (usually with some sense of relief or enthusiasm that we can have whatever the thing is again). By doing that, it sort of feels like kicking God out again- very

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much a feeling of “I created space and had wonderful reflections, but now I’m going to go back to how my life was before; this was just temporary.” I’m sure that’s not how it feels to those who practice it, but that’s how it has always felt to me.

Anyway, I say all this to say, I don’t really give anything up for Lent because, for me, I haven’t been able to do that in a way that feels congruent with my faith. And yet, here I am, in the middle of this period of Lent, and I find that I am working through many of the same struggles of loss, grieving, and temptation that come from giving something up. Because like all things that we give up, it feels good, initially, to make changes in our lives that are healthy and beneficial…and then we hit a point where it gets hard, and I feel like that’s about the mid-way point of Lent- where we are right now.

So far, this year (2017) has felt like a period of setting down old baggage for me. It has felt like- and continues to feel like- a time to look at my life and recognize those habits, behaviors, and patterns that have not suited me well, and work toward changing them. That’s a tall order, and not as concrete as giving up chocolate, but it feels authentic to my understanding of faith and God in a way that Lent never has.

It’s been important, I think, to do these things- and to continue to do them. I’ve been learning to be more transparent about desire, learning to state (and ask for) what I want from friends and partners, learning to be more vulnerable with people I care about, learning to be more transparent about things as they are happening (rather than jut in retrospect).

I’ve written lately about my life as a poly person, about going on dates with someone new, my issues with sex, and my struggles to be a real, authentic person. These, I think, are some of the culmination of this work I’ve been doing to try to be more honest and intentional about the relationships I have in my life and how I interact with them. I asked someone out on a date (asking for what I wanted) and told them beforehand, “I would be interested in fucking you” (claiming and stating desire). I’ve had a friendship transition into a sexual relationship, and was able to do so in a way that didn’t cause any issues in our polyamorous configurations (being transparent about things happening in the moment). I’ve let friends see me frustrated, sad, weary, but also giddy,

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excited, nervous, and looking forward to things- something I am usually not good at doing, because I don’t like other people seeing me disappointed if the thing I’m excited about never comes to pass (learning to be more vulnerable). I’ve written erotica and sent it to lovers. So many of these things are connected to my sexual and embodied self, but they are also connected to how I live in relationships with others, what I offer and what I give, what I allow others to see and how I choose to interact with the world around me.

And damn, I’m tired. I’m weary. My heart seems to be saying, “radical vulnerability is nice, but you’ve left me open and exposed for a long time now and I think it’d be just as well that we stop all this nonsense and go back to being safe and protected and guarded because I’m tired of being so open all the time.” It’s so easy for the old demons and insecurities to come to the surface. I want a finite period of time where I know I can go back to life the way I have always lived it, and I won’t be weary and tired and afraid of vulnerability.

But the truth is, I don’t actually want to go back. I want to move forward to a point where these things aren’t terrifying because I have moved through them. I want to create more permanent space in my life- to actually learn how to be authentic and lay down some of this baggage for good. I want the ways in which I’m shifting to stick around for awhile, even if the journey getting there is difficult. I don’t want to lose this period of reflection and contemplation. I don’t want to give up Lent after Lent.

The “moving through” part is the hard part. Being present in the discomfort of change. Allowing yourself to feel loss- even if the things that you are letting go of are toxic and unhealthy, there is still loss. Before we figure out how to do it better, before we figure out how to fill the space, there is an emptiness, a hole where we have set one thing down but

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haven’t picked something else up yet, and we realize exactly how tired we are.

It’s easy to cling to the devil we know. But in this period, we are encouraged to consider and contemplate how we might strengthen our relationships with ourselves and with God. And so, as I continue to put

down some of my old baggage, as I continue to intentionally work to change unhealthy habits, as I struggle to navigate situations in ways that are not damaging or toxic, I think about this period of Lent. The midway point. Because even though these things don’t stop for me when Lent ends, it’s a good reminder to me that change is not always easy, or comfortable.

At some point, things get hard, and that becomes the part where we are actually making space. Do we allow those things which are hard, which push us, which ask us to stretch and grow to move us further away from God? Or do we allow these things to change us in ways that deepen and strengthen our relationship with God? Do we move in ways that are authentic to our callings, or do we move in ways that are more comfortable to our habits? This period of Lent- or whatever period of time you take to intentionally reflect on your relationship with the Holy- asks that we create space in our lives with intention, and find ways to hold that space beyond just the time we have set aside.

Strengthening our relationship with God is not something we can do for finite periods of time. God isn’t something we can schedule in; God shows up when God is ready to. All we can do is work to prepare a place, to cultivate space in our hearts for when we feel that small voice stirring. Because before we can follow our calls, we must first be willing to listen.

Robin:

revrobin2-023In the past week or so I have been having trouble staying focused in my writing. I have felt pulled in several directions; I have more interests than I have time to write about them all, or at least that is how it feels. I had begun to feel overwhelmed, sometimes even despairing, wondering what kind of writer am I? What might be my signature, what subject or genre is most central to me as a writer?

A conversation with Malachi helped me see that this might be an outcome of my Lenten fast this year. I pledged not to partake of those internal messages that say I am not capable of responding to the call on my soul to be the writer God creates me to be.

What if, as a result of not letting old messages shape my life, my vision, I am becoming more open to all my possibilities?

This would surely reflect my long-time view of Lent as a time of growth rather than solely a time of penitence.  I am not opposed to penitence or penance, and certainly benefit from deep inner reflection and owning my shortcomings. But too often, in my experience, Lent is seen as a time of punishment—feeling often to me like a time of beating up on ourselves, even beating our bodies, for the guilt of Good Friday to come again, and our continuing participation, or at least complicity, in violence and oppression.

Be love for Lent
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Instead of punishment, however, I have found that Lent provides an opportunity to go deeper into spiritual truth, and to be changed by experiencing that truth. In my case, right now, I feel I am being given an opportunity to make conscious choices about the nature of my work as a writer.

That is an extraordinary gift for someone who has long been engaged in work that, while good and often productive and even satisfying in many respects, did not reflect who I am deep in my soul. As I continue to move more fully into claiming writing as my vocation, my ministry, my calling, it seems I am being given a menu of options so I can, with God’s help, shape my life to reflect more of what is most important to me. This may seem easy, but at the moment I am really having to probe deeply into my soul to learn what matters most. The reality, hard to face, is that I cannot focus on all the topics in which I have an interest, nor can I work in all the genres I might wish to try.

Your body is preciousLent this year, then, has become about discernment.  One thing that clear to me is that my interests—theological/spiritual, poetic, creative—center in bodies:  Feeling bodies, dead bodies, Black bodies, brown bodies, LatinX bodies, queer bodies, Trans bodies, male-born bodies, female-born bodies, white bodies, naked bodies, sexy bodies, Palestinian and Israeli bodies, Gazan bodies, Sudanese bodies, Asian bodies, Native bodies, aging and aged and wrinkled and sagging bodies, polyamorous bodies, young (younger than me at least) buff and not-so-buff bodies, skinny bodies, fat bodies, smooth bodies, suffering bodies, malnourished and distended bodies, hairy bodies, lesbian bodies, gay bodies, bi-racial and bisexual bodies, and the whole rainbow of precious, godly, human bodies.

And my body, too.

In that regard, I received a jolt. It began about ten days ago as a result of the nudist party about which I wrote last week (Can Prayer Be Erotic?)

The experience I described in that post as well as my reflection on it, touched and enlarged my awareness of how much nudism or naturism means in my life. A journalist visiting that gathering interviewed many of us about our attitudes toward and experience of nudism, and when I told her I am a theologian and retired pastor she probed me about the spirituality of nakedness. During our conversation I told her I had wondered if I might write as The Naked Pastor (or Preacher).  She asked if she could quote me, and do so with my full name (some at the gathering wanted her to use other names). I said “yes” to both. I have no idea when or where or even if her piece will be published.

And then, two days ago, as I read a blog post from a man who writes about being naked in a wide variety of situations (The Naked Jade), it came to me that what I might really want is to be The Naked Theologian.

The Naked Theologian? Yikes! Would that mean pictures of me naked, like The Naked Jade, while writing, speaking or teaching (where would that be)? And what would my husband, my family, say, and my church? Would they, the church, even let me in the door, let alone continue as Writer-Theologian in Residence? Would anyone take me seriously?

Prior Lake Robin
This is the body of a theologian

Such concerns, anxiety—okay, fear—arise from two sources. One is that my body, unlike Jade’s, is far from photogenic. I have wrinkles and sagging skin (I am 70 after all) and am very far from well-endowed. And the second may be even more fundamental: people, especially most religious people, are not open to nudity as an acceptable public presence (heck, a lot of people don’t even feel comfortable with nudity in private).

I do not know where this will end up, but I feel I need to stay in this exploration, this journey, to become the me I am called to be.  On that way, I am reminded of a Celtic prayer:

Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that stems from Eden.
Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that can still spring forth
in me and all that has life.

The goodness that stems from Eden . . . . hmmm . . . this contradicts what I learned in Sunday school and in the church of my youth. What I heard was that although Eden may have been beautiful, bad things happened there. Stay away from Eden.  In fact, much of the Lenten tradition that I identify with punishment seems to flow from that view of Eden.

However, perhaps I am being given a new view. Maybe Lent is really about rooting ourselves in the joy and hope and pleasure of Eden, so we can walk in wholeness and love with Jesus wherever he leads?

Happy Lent, anyone? Or Naked Lent? Or at least Loving Lent, Holy Lent, Joyous Lent?

Whatever. I hope your Lent is as interesting and filled with sacred possibilities as mine.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you experience Lent? Is it a time of openness to new things in your life, or a time to revisit comforting ideas or practices from the past? Does it feel like rules or a holy pilgrimage? What are you “giving up” or moving away from during Lent this year? What are you hearing from God? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us in about two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.