Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 2 and 4 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

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What To Do About That Rapey Song

This is a post about Christmas songs. And Shel Silverstein. And sex. And good wholesome naughtiness. All, I hope, without the side effect of sermonizing too much. Guess we’ll just have to see how this goes.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who performed it with his wife at parties, according to Wikipedia. In 1949, it was featured in the movie Neptune’s Daughter starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. You know this song, of course. It’s a duet, a clever weaving of two monologues: a woman who says she has to leave, and a man who is seducing her to stay.

Lately it’s gained a bit of notoriety. Not because it’s about sex, because that’s actually a recurring theme in winter songs. Let It Snow celebrates the fact that the weather outside is frightful, so good thing we’re inside and together and hey, how about it? Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a little tamer, but even then they’re looking forward to a little necking in front of the fire. Evidently the human response to cold weather is to have sex (which makes sense; at least it’s warm).

But Baby It’s Cold Outside, while pretty much the same theme as Let It Snow, is quite a bit edgier. It’s known as “the date-rape song” thanks to lines such as:

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve disliked the song for years for that exact reason. It makes me anxious, not cozy.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Seems like we could just let it die a quick death, but it’s hard to kill Christmas songs. Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone? Instead, several people are scrambling around doing damage control.

This article from the Washington Post is an example of one perspective. It maintains that at the time the song was written, it was all about women’s empowerment because a woman staying overnight with her lover could expect to come under fire from society. And that is a point. The woman in the song is obviously reluctant to leave, and keeps pointing out all the people who are going to be scandalized if she doesn’t go.

The problem with this patch-up is twofold:

  1. He never offers to protect her from any of the vicious fallout she’ll receive for staying the night with him.
  2. Lady, please. If you don’t want to go, grow a vagina (as the egalitarian saying goes) and say Yes. Stop saying No if you don’t mean it. That confuses good men. (Men unlike your lover who—if you ask me—will ditch you as soon as the family pressure comes bearing down for him to make you an honest woman.)

Others, finding that explanation insufficient, have decided that the song is a total loss as-is. They’ve rewritten it to illustrate proper sexual consent. One version features lyrics like this:

I really can’t stay (Baby I’m fine with that)
I’ve got to go away (Baby I’m cool with that)

My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re fine)

I ought to say no no no (You reserve the right to say no)

 

Okay, so I admire the effort… but it’s like drinking flat root beer. Instead of a predatory lover, now you’ve got somebody who:

  1. Doesn’t want her to stay at all but is too nice to say it outright
  2. Is missing all of her flirty hints by earnestly supporting her rights

Either way, the song gets increasingly awkward as it goes. At least in the original song, you’ve got some sizzle and fun.

That’s the problem with sanctifying things. They’re unobjectionable and a good example, but boring. Like characters in kids’ shows, who always make the right choices. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little naughty for interest.

Shel Silverstein, for example, was a master at writing funny, somewhat macabre, poetry. Kids like them because, well, they’re so wrong.

For instance, Abigail who loved the beautiful pony, but her parents wouldn’t buy it for her. She said she’d die if they didn’t, and they said that nobody ever died from not getting a pony, but guess what? She did die. And her parents were very sorry. The author’s note at the end said, “Show this to your parents if they won’t buy you something you want.”

Or Clarence, who bought new parents. And if your parents nag you or get tired or yell at you, it’s because they’re wearing out and you need to buy new ones too.

Obviously these poems teach a terrible moral. But the kids know it’s wrong and enjoy it.

One reason why the original Baby It’s Cold Outside is (was?) fun is because of the tension of “I must go” and “I want to stay.” It’s naughty.

But that brings us back to why it’s a toxic song for our culture. Even today, sexual consent is widely misunderstood. Several times after Trump’s infamous description of sexual assault, I saw people (men and women both) defend it by saying that women bought Fifty Shades of Grey (the extremely horribly written trilogy about a dominant/submissive sexual relationship), so how can they complain about what Trump said? It’s like people don’t get the difference between consenting sex and sexual assault.

It’s not sex that’s the problem. It’s sex that’s forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

Baby It’s Cold Outside is about someone who wants capitulation, not consent. I don’t trust the man and his dismissive answers to her concerns, his smooth compliments, and his pleas for her not to disappoint him. I’m not convinced he’s going to let her leave if she insists.

Since this song is played over and over every single year to a society that can’t keep sex separated from sexual assault—well, I think it’s a problem. Explaining it away just justifies to all its listeners that its okay for a man to “wear a girl down” (another lyric in the song). Merely rewriting it to “clean it up” kills the thrill.

I see two options:

  1. Rewrite it creatively, so that there’s still tension but not that of a predatory male and a wavering female. Good luck with that.
  2. Just stop playing the dang song already.

And the second option is, really, the best option. Glad we had this discussion.

Now, since it’s cold outside, I think I’ll turn the lights down low and see if my man and I can warm things up. I’m pretty sure he’ll consent.

Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me tries to escape them, scrambling backwards and knocking stuff over.

I’ve got reasons for my reaction, which possibly isn’t as measured and reasonable as it could be.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… it sure does make me happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:

“AmightyfortressisourGodabulkwarneverfailing!”

It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form.

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He did allow some classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. (I practically overdosed on Ungar&Mason’s album, The Lover’s Waltz.) But mostly my available music consisted of hymns arranged in an approved style.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited.Besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns. I liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet part of me still loves many of those songs.

A few months ago, I discovered Chris Rice’s song “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”. It’s written in the style of an old mountain hymn, very simple words* and tune; but all the verses together trace a thread through the life of a Christian, from “sing to Jesus” to “fall on Jesus” to “dance for Jesus,” and finally death — “fly to Jesus.” It’s surprisingly touching, especially since Rice doesn’t try to make it fancy. He just sings.

When I found a 2007 album by Rice called “The Hymns Project,” I thought maybe he could salvage some of those old songs I really want to love. He didn’t disappoint me.

He liberates a couple of hymns from their swingy-slidey rhythm (“Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”). He takes one song that drags like a toddler going to bed, and gives it energy (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”). And he included one hymn that I love almost no matter how it’s arranged, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

The best thing about this album is that Rice just sings. He doesn’t try to make the hymns more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s actually a lot to them.

I didn’t like every song (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). That made me happy, too, since it reminded me that I’m free to pick and choose.

So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

*The lyrics “Like a newborn baby/Don’t be afraid to crawl” is a slight jar, I admit. Newborn babies don’t crawl, and the only thing they’re afraid of is starving to death immediately right now even while a nipple is being inserted into their screaming mouths. But it’s minor. Just go with it.

 

 

 

Words of Art

“She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom.”

Several years ago, I finally got too tired of being good enough. I gave up. I told God, “If you’re so big, you can handle all this yourself. I’m done.” I did the spiritual equivalent of shrugging off my backpack, peeling off my restrictive clothes, crawling into bed, and pulling the covers up over my head.

And God said, “Good. You just rest. I’ll pick all this up. Do you need anything right now? I’ll check in on you.”

As I lay with that blanket over my head, I gradually realized that I could breathe again. It didn’t hurt as much to move. For the first time since I was a teenager, the fear of punishment and God’s wrath receded. The feeling was both exhilarating and painful, like when you flex your fingers after you put down a strap that’s been biting into your hand.

Sometime during that spiritual sabbath, I discovered  JA Photography & Design. Jenn creates and sells letter art, and I was especially caught by this piece:

20151215_093738

I teared up when my print arrived. My faith is a lot wobblier than it was years ago when I knew all the answers. Life is a lot messier. But this word represents the hope that keeps me going.

Deep spiritual moments aside, I just plain love Jenn’s eye for seeing shapes in everyday life and making sense out of them. Since my decorating style is basically, “Hang stuff up on my wall,” art-into-words is pretty much everything I need.

20151215_093953
Is my S upside down? It routinely gets knocked off the wall.

In a shameless plug for this art, let me also add that it’s inexpensive (about $4 per letter) and easy to customize.

Tired of pre-printed signs urging you to “Live, Laugh, Love”? (I am.) Get in touch with Jenn and create one that spells out your name, a personally-inspiring word, or “Live More, Die Less.” *

Or, you know, “grace” — a word I’ve got up on my wall to remind me of the incredible freedom that comes when you finally let God carry the weight.

*”The more you live, the less you die.” That’s a line in the song “Raise the Roof” by Carbon Leaf, the band whose music got me through the final shattering illusions when the “truths” of my teenage years were revealed for certain as a sham.

The Ministry of Shania Twain

shania_twain_up

Up until I was 14, I listened to secular pop music. But I spent my teen years under a Venerated Teacher who assured me that ungodly music would give Satan ground in my soul. He even used a diagram that showed my soul as a grid. Every time I listened to a “rock song,” I surrendered a square of that grid to Satan. (Apparently Satan advanced his kingdom by square inches, who knew?)

We all learned to draw this diagram, including little black fortresses on the “ground” we’d surrendered. The only way to reclaim it was to pray, specifically, that God would take back that ground. Oh, and to stop listening to rock music.

So for almost ten years, I carefully avoided anything with a certain beat, a certain sound, or from certain eras. I wasn’t sure how much square footage my soul contained, after all.

I got married at 23, and that was about the time I started realizing that my Venerated Teacher taught more nonsense than wisdom. Within a couple of years, I dared to venture back into the world of ungodly music.

Throwing concern for my soul to the wind, I bought three CDs: Sara Evans’ Born to Fly, Jo Dee Messina’s Greatest Hits, and Shania Twain’s Up.

The interesting thing about these choices is that they all have a major kick of girl power. And of all of them, Shania kicked the hardest.

Recently, I pulled out that music again. It took me back to those early years when I still lived on the fringes of a culture of womanly submission and sexual repression.

I remember now that it gave me a zing to listen to a song that said, “You’re a fine piece of real estate, and I’m gonna get me some land.” And coming from a world where a broken courtship was deeply embarrassing and morally questionable, it was therapeutic to hear a woman say, “It was never gonna work/You were too much of a jerk… I miss you now and then but would I do it all again? Nah.”

I needed that sass and confidence. I needed permission to disagree with accepted opinions… or just say, “Nah.”

All these years later, I’ll still listen to the Messina album. Evans’ “Born to Fly” is still one of my favorite songs. (Obviously I was channeling Bekah Richards years before I put her into words.) As for Up, I wouldn’t say that the music has aged extremely well. In fact, most of the songs are downright cheesy. But they’re also fun, flippant, and assertive. For better or for worse, they played a big part in my recovery.

I still had a long walk ahead of me as I remembered who I was, not who I was supposed to be. But I have to confess… Shania gave me a running start.

*****

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