Spain and Beyond

Here are a few photos from our holiday in Spain:

I’m glad we went. It was hard getting it together enough to buy holiday clothes and pack, and I sometimes found it difficult being around so many people (OH’s family) while I was grieving, but it was also healing, being in such a beautiful place and with children. It was on the day of the second photo, meandering along the shore with my niece and feeling the waves lapping at my ankles, that I realised I was going to be all right. This is a broken world where I have lost two babies but it is also a beautiful world of sunsets and oceans and other children to love.

I sat and meditated on a sun lounger one night and I acknowledged that I don’t know what lies ahead of me. Maybe I will have a successful treatment and give birth to a healthy baby – I hope so, and at this point the odds are still in my favour. On the other hand, maybe I am medically infertile. Maybe I will have recurrent miscarriages, and maybe the next few years will be filled with grieving and loss. I realised that if that is my path, I will accept it, and I will do my best with what I’m given. For me, nothing other than a child of my own (conceived by me or OH or adopted) can fill my need to be a parent, but I can still use my infertility and bereavement to support others in the same boat, and my mothering instincts to be a fantastic auntie and godmother.

It feels as though I’ve come to a new place of acceptance. In May, when I realised my spotting might be implantation bleeding, I promised God everything I had if this was a viable pregnancy. I vowed I would give all the remaining money we have saved for fertility treatment to charity, even though we might need it for other expenses. And it turned out I was pregnant – but that still wasn’t enough for the tiny life inside me to survive. It will never be enough because I’m not being punished, and if I have the child I so desperately want, it won’t be a reward. It will just be what happens, happening.

Over the past nine months, I’ve read several books aimed at Christians who are infertile or bereaved, and I’ve seen two explanations for why bad things happen. One is the idea that this is all part of God’s plan and although we might not be able to understand why, it’s for the greater good. At first, I found this comforting, but it’s a double-edged sword: it implies that God is choosing to do this to me. Why would God single me out for so much pain, and shut his ears to my increasingly desperate prayers, yet look at the woman next door and immediately give her everything she wants? I can’t help feeling that a God who does that is cruel, and a God who is cruel isn’t God. And yes, you could argue that good things can come from adversity – I don’t think I would be getting on so well with my sister now if I hadn’t had the first miscarriage – but I’ll be honest: I would never, never, never, never have sacrificed my child to repair another relationship. No mother would.

The other explanation is that this world has been broken by sin, and therefore is a cruel and unfair place where tragedies happen to people who don’t deserve them. Miscarriages, therefore, are not necessarily God’s plan, but he can work with them. I came across this idea in What Was Lost by Elise Erikson Barrett, and at first it puzzled me, but I find myself increasingly drawn to it. I don’t know which theory is correct, if either, but I know this is the one that will allow me to maintain a relationship with God. I need God and I need to believe that God can work with adversity and bring good things out of shit circumstances, but I also need not to believe that he wanted me to lose my babies.

This is turning into a very heavy post, so I’ll finish with some good news. We’re starting superovulation on Thursday! Despite what I’ve written above, I have a good feeling about the treatment and I’m hopeful that the extra follicles (if we manage 2-3) will boost my chances of conceiving a baby with the right number of chromosomes.

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Just As I Am: On Being Gay and Christian

I’m currently taking part in the Creating a Life that Matters course with my local Metropolitan Community Church, an inclusive Christian denomination based within the LGBT community. The MCC isn’t my own church – I’m an Anglican – but my partner and I have special links with it as it’s where we were married and where she works. When I signed up for the course, it seemed like a good opportunity to develop my relationships with God and other people, and I didn’t expect the fact that it was run by a ‘gay’ church to be especially relevant. However, I have found the course material challenging in a number of ways. One of these is the extent to which inclusive language is used – even the word God is avoided, because some people think of this as a male-only term (as contrasted with Goddess), which came as a shock to me! Another is that there seems to be a slight assumption that participants will have been rejected by other denominations, and/or that other denominations have little to offer LGBT people. I don’t think it ever crossed the authors’ minds (the materials are denomination-wide) that one of their students could be someone accepted within a mainstream Christian church, and this makes me sad. Not because I’m the odd one out – although that brings its own challenges – but because my experience has been overwhelmingly one of being accepted while believing I wasn’t.

I was brought up as a Christian, and began to question my faith and the church’s teachings when I was in my teens. It would be misleading to say that this was all due to my emerging sexuality, or even other controversial ethical issues. I was becoming increasingly aware of atheism and agnosticism, and like anyone who has been taught a particular faith as a child, I needed to go through the process of figuring out what I believed for myself. However, the fact that I was finding myself attracted to other girls rather than boys was an issue. I don’t recall homosexuality ever being mentioned at my church (with its rather aging congregation), or by my Christian relatives, but I sought out more teenager-friendly places to get answers to my burning questions – the youth group at a different church, and the bookstore at Christian summer camp. It was here I learned of the Bible verses forbidding same-sex relationships, and here I was told that ‘all’ Christians believed homosexuality was wrong. One could simply not be gay and Christian. At the age of 18, believing that my childhood faith was incompatible both with my sexuality and with my view that love is love irrespective of gender, I said goodbye to the church.

Six years later, my partner and I were invited to join a church choir. I had turned down many such invitations before, and I don’t know what was different this time, but I entered the church tentatively believing we would have to be very discreet about our relationship. All such illusions vanished as soon as we met the other choristers. Not only did they already know we were a couple, several of them were gay themselves. I had stumbled across something I thought didn’t exist – a mainstream church where LGBT people were welcomed and same-sex relationships were not considered to be a sin. But the revelations didn’t stop there. In coming out to my family, and re-engaging with the Christian community, I learned that my previous church – yep, the one I walked away from – did not have a problem with me being gay. Nor did most of my relatives, and nor have many of the Christians, including clergy, whom I’ve met in the decade since. What I still find heartbreaking is that I cut myself off from my faith, from the people who could have supported me, and from God, largely because of an incorrect assumption. Rather than opening up and listening to the people in my life, I relied on a few fundamentalists to represent the views of ‘all’ Christians.

Some other time, I want to write about the theology of all this – why some Christians (understandably, in my view) believe my marriage to another woman is sinful, and why others have no issue with it. I want to write about the political climate in the UK, the proposed Equal Marriage legislation and why some of the debate dismays me on both sides. I want to write my plea for reconciliation between those Christians who believe same-sex relationships are wrong and those who do not – do we not all follow the same Christ? But today, I want to share my story, and I will finish with an exercise I wrote as part of the MCC course. The assignment was “Describe your first experience of the Sacred”.

* * *

It’s hard for me to say when I first experienced the Sacred, because I was brought up as a Christian and talked to Jesus from a very young age. I identified strongly with this man who didn’t quite fit into society, and who was ridiculed by soldiers before his crucifixion – every Good Friday, the passage where the crown of thorns is placed on Jesus’ head still reminds me vividly of being bullied at school. As a creative child, I coped by withdrawing into books and into my inner world, but where many kids in my position would have had an imaginary friend, I had God.

Or at least, I talked to God. I don’t remember much of how he responded, and over time he must have become less real to me, because when I was twelve – shortly after realising how many people in my life and in the Western world did not believe in God – I lost my faith. I then spent my teens yo-yoing between atheism and born-again Christianity. There are several re-conversion experiences from this period that I could write about, but owing to the fundamentalist views of some of the organisations I was involved with, the ‘faith’ that I had was quite a damaging one, and I’m still trying to sort out what was genuine from what was not.

That’s why I’ve decided to write about a later meeting with God, one that happened after I had come out as a lesbian and cut all ties with the church. I was twenty and spending three months studying in Italy as part of my degree. Just the experience of being in the country felt like an awakening of my soul, although I didn’t view this in spiritual terms at the time. I had gone from northern Europe, where everything was grey, my job made me miserable and I couldn’t afford to furnish my sparse one-room flat, to this land of sunshine and delicious food and friendly people. It was not necessarily a happy time – I missed my friends from the UK terribly, and was wrestling with some big questions about myself and my future – but the simple pleasures of Italian living made a big impression on me.

On the day in question, most probably a Saturday in early May 2001, I caught the bus to Assisi, a nearby town best known as the birthplace of St Francis. I don’t have any photos of the trip, only of a later visit with a friend, but as I remember it the weather was hot and the sky was blue. I made my way down narrow lanes lined with stone and terracotta houses, some of which were still being rebuilt after the 1997 earthquake. I think the construction workers were at the stage of applying the finishing touches, because nothing looked too damaged, but I remember seeing scaffolding with rubbish chutes running down into skips. It felt a little as though the world were being recreated.

Eventually, my wanderings brought me out into the main plaza in front of the Basilica di San Francesco. When I entered the church, the air was refreshingly cool. I remember a combination of dark wood and vivid frescoes, which had already been painstakingly repaired. The air smelled of incense and polish, but the atmosphere is harder to describe. There was something solemn and mysterious about it, but very still and very calm, and for the first time in a long while I felt completely at peace. There was an area set aside for quiet prayer, and although I had been an agnostic for three years, without hesitation I moved away from the other tourists, found a seat and bowed my head. I was in no doubt that I was in the presence of God.

I don’t remember what I said to Him, other than that it had been a very long time. I know I made no promises or guarantees, and it wasn’t a conversion of any sort. I walked into that church as an agnostic, I left as an agnostic and I didn’t resume my relationship with God for another three years. But what is important to me is that despite all this, I heard God’s voice in that moment and I came to Him just as I was.

The Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

The Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy