Tag Archives: what’s on my mindgrapes

please believe you are worth saving.

31 Jan

Trigger warning: discussion of crimes against children, mental illness, and suicide.

It’s likely nobody cares what I have to say about a celebrity suicide, and that is okay. I’m writing this because I needed to get it out of my brain. And I’m sharing it because of the sliver of a chance that it might help someone.

In the early hours of this very day, it seems that Mark Wayne Salling made the decision to end his life.

Many of you won’t know who that is. Up until a couple years ago, his biggest claim to fame was an acting role on a once-popular, long cancelled television show. In December 2015, however, his b-list celebrity was eclipsed by a well-publicized arrest for possession of child pornography. Legal proceedings took some time. In October 2017 he pled guilty to his crimes before a federal court. He was to be sentenced to years of prison time in March 2018. Instead, today, he died.

Salling’s crimes were horrific. Some of the sexual images found on his computer featured children as young as two years old. There is absolutely, unequivocally, no excuse for this disgusting victimization of vulnerable children. There are undoubtedly people who are rejoicing that he is gone from the world, and I can see their reasoning.

But I’m not one of those people.

I cried when I read about his death.

I remembered that I had sent him a direct message on Instagram within a few months of his arrest a few years ago. His account has been deleted sometime between now and then, but I still have the message I sent, and I still remember the reason I sent it—my fear that he would do the thing he chose to do today. I have no reason to assume he ever opened it, let alone read it.

Tangent: anyone with a passing familiarity with Glee fandom knows that nobody hated Glee like Glee fans hated it. It was a unique show with a promising start, but it was flawed from the beginning and by the end of the first season had become a true trainwreck. The writing was inconsistent and illogical, the musical selections sometimes baffling, the cast bloated with too many adults playing teens. But I still fell in love with some parts of the show, and it was a hard one for me to give up. After Salling’s co-star Cory Monteith died in July 2013 of a heroin overdose, I found it much easier. The loss of Monteith’s character Finn Hudson, the emotional heart of the show, made me too sad to even think of watching another episode.

All this to say,  I “knew” Mark Salling only in the superficial way many of us know public figures—we catch glimpses of who they are in their performances, we see tabloid gossip, we follow them on social media, and that’s it. It’s nowhere near a true knowing of a person.

Acknowledging that we were strangers, I still chose to write him a personal message after learning of his arrest for vile, terrible crimes.

I have known a lot of shame and embarrassment in my life. Some of the things documented in this sparsely updated, long dormant blog are embarrassing to me. I’ve failed a lot in my life, often with no good excuse. I was once fired from a job I liked because even after multiple generous opportunities from my supervisor, I couldn’t manage my mental health well enough to meet minimum attendance standards. Some of these things cause me deep pain and shame. Some of them have taken me years to be able to say out loud. I’ve still never known the kind of shame I imagine gripped someone like Mark Salling his entire life. I’ve never faced the reality of millions of people learning my darkest secrets, and some responding by calling me all manner of names and publicly telling me to kill myself.

Here is a snippet of what I wrote to Salling:

“I want to tell you that even in the worst situations, even when we feel the ugliest and most irredeemable, there is still hope. God loves you and has a purpose and a plan for your life. It may be hard to see, but healing is possible; transformation is possible. Even when there are harsh consequences for undeniably evil things we do—God still loves and still wants to rescue. You are not alone. You are not beyond forgiveness.

“I’ll be praying for you. And I’ll continue to work and pray for justice for the main innocent victims of heinous crimes like child pornography. God loves those children deeply—he wants to see them protected, healed, rescued. But the beautiful, terrible mystery of Christianity is that His love isn’t only for oppressed people. It’s also for their oppressors. I pray that you can find that love. God can make all things new. May it be so for you.”

I am sharing this post, disjointed though my thoughts may be, because it truly breaks my heart to imagine the shame, self-loathing, despair and loneliness that drove Mark Salling to the point of suicide.  I have lost a loved one in this way, and it devastated our family. It grieves me so deeply to imagine the final, isolated, miserable moments of people who make this choice. Like many people who live with depression, I am able to imagine getting to that place. I’ve been nearer to it than I’d ever want to be. It is a horrible, horrible place.

If you are anywhere near this place, I am begging you to get whatever help you can get. Call a friend. Call a coworker. Send a DM to a buddy from Tumblr. If you don’t feel able to reach out to someone you know, call 1-800-273-8255 (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). Text “Hello” to 741-741 (the Crisis Text Line). Both of these are completely anonymous ways to receive support.

Your life is worth something. Your life is valued. Your life is TREASURED. Even if you have committed horrible crimes. Even if you’ve failed in mortifying ways. Even if you’ve been rejected by people who you love. There is no depth from which your life cannot be rescued and saved. I really believe it. I hope you can have the courage to try, to hope, that you can believe it too.


“i have some bad news. that person is also your neighbor.” Jesus, maybe

25 Apr

I was incredibly privileged growing up to get to experience truly ecumenical Christian worship with people from all over the world. We shared our Easter sunrise potluck feast with Pakistani Lutherans, Polish Catholics, Peruvian Methodists and Texan Southern Baptists, among others. This kind of diverse community necessitated compromise on things like musical worship, liturgy or lack thereof, baptism and confirmation practices– in truly diverse churches, Christians must compromise on everything non-essential, and they must agree that what is essential is truly essential.


It’s a difficult thing to practice and it’s also a truly beautiful thing to behold. For every painful goodbye I said in my childhood, for every time I was the awkward new kid who never seemed to get better at making friends– this is one of the immeasurably precious gifts my upbringing gave to me. A picture of the Church that resembled what I imagine heaven may look like. Unfortunately, it’s a picture that few American Christians get to experience.

Before I knew I was learning it, I was learning what it meant to serve a God of All Nations. One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my faith as an adult has been trying to reconcile these truths with the nationalistic perversion of mainstream American Christianity– perhaps especially in the Conservative, Evangelical churches my family chose to attend when we lived in the States.


Like many of my friends (they’re calling us Old Millennials now?), I came of age politically at a time when patriotism and religion were becoming deliberately and powerfully linked. More intelligent folks than I have written commentary about where this has led us in the Age of Trump. To summarize broadly, there are many, many Christians who identify as Americans first and Christians second… people who are full-heartedly for a literal “America First” doctrine, for example.

I have come to crave the company and fellowship of Christians whose first allegiance is not to their home country, but to Christ. This doesn’t make for great preservationist foreign policy choices. But it does make for communities of believers ready to be used by God to change the world.

Here’s the quote that inspired me to write this post, distilling some thoughts that have tumbled around my brain for years now.


“If our citizenship is in heaven, this truth should change the way we talk. The word ‘we,’ if a person is truly born again, will refer to the new people into whom a Christian has been born – the church. Christians can no longer refer to ‘our troops’ or ‘our history’ as other people do because of our new identity. Fabricated boundaries and walls are removed for the Christian. Our neighbor is not only from Chicago but also from Baghdad. Our brother or sister in the church could be from Iran or California – no difference! Our family is transnational and borderless; we are in Iraq, and we are in Palestine. And if we are indeed to become born again, we will have to begin talking like it, changing the meaning of ‘we,’ ‘us,’ ‘my,’ and ‘our.’

“We must connect our prayers to the rest of God’s children throughout the world and through all time and space, people who are reading the same Scriptures, singing the same songs, praying the same prayers, and grafting their lines into the same old story of a God who is forming a people who are set apart from the world to be God’s light and to show the world what a society of love looks like. Today, more than ever before in history, we have a keen sense of what it means to be part of a global neighborhood. We are aware of how beautifully diverse and terribly dysfunctional the human family is… We are reminded that we have friends in Sudan and China, Afghanistan and Iraq, Palestine and Israel, whether they are our Facebook friends or not. They are praying with us. And the bond we have in Christ is more real than any virtual social network. This is what it means to be born again. We are part of a global neighborhood and a beautifully diverse family of God’s children.”

From the introductory pages of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro.

praying for peace in the midst of fear, despair, and disappointment

18 Feb

If you listen to our 45th President, you know we are living in fearful times. Times of carnage. Violence. Hatred. Press that tries to mislead the public without shame. Paid protestors rioting in the streets for causes they don’t even care about. The integrity of our voting systems in utter shambles. Immigrants swarming our borders to rape and pillage our communities and resources. Our global neighbors and one-time allies in opposition to us. Our safety and security at imminent risk. 

If you listen to DJT’s opponents, you also know we are living in fearful times. Persecution of vulnerable people. Desecration of vulnerable land. Corruption of the highest offices, including possible treason. A leader who seems to see himself as infallible and unimpeachable (both of character and under the law). Our leaders lying to our faces, refusing to combat said lies, or powerless in the face of them. The values our country is built upon, threatened. 

This is some legitimately scary stuff, either way you slice it. 
Peace, Be Still

As a Christian I am called to pray for “peace that passes understanding.” Such baffling peace is not something I can muster up. It is a gift from One who sees what is done in secret, who is the Enemy of fear and death, who exposes Truth and loathes lies, who loves all people with a particular concern for poor, marginalized, exploited, and displaced people. Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings I aim to follow, taught his followers to return evil with good deeds and kindness. He taught reconciliation and radical forgiveness instead of eye-for-an-eye “justice.” He spoke of a mysterious, upside down kingdom where the rich and powerful could not peddle their influence but would need to submit themselves, humbly, in their service of others. 

I feel heartbroken as I see that so few Christians seem to embrace what Jesus called us to. I say that as someone who fails daily as deep down I am selfish, fearful, prideful, and sometimes mean. But I am trying to love the things that God loves and to serve my role in the upside down kingdom. I am trying to make different, better choices every day and to let God make me more like Him. 

To know that a supposed 81% of my fellow (Evangelical) Christians voted for DJT, and that tens of millions of Christians continue to support him despite his behavior over his first weeks in office– it is devastating to me. Not because I am an oversensitive millennial. Not because I am a sore loser. But because despite my prayers, conversations with others, and best efforts, I just can’t wrap my mind around the motivation of DJT’s supporters and defenders. 

As an American only, I see his condemnation of a free press, his distain for the separation of powers at the core of our Republic, his contempt for the Constitution, and I feel shocked and appalled. But as a Christian, I am so grieved. This man deliberately opposes the values of Jesus. He cares nothing for truth, only believing and spouting his self-serving version of it (THIS IS NOT TRUTH). He boasts of his own grandeur, power, wealth, and brags about not asking forgiveness. He returns even the smallest perceived slights with shouted insults and taunts his opponents. His words and actions point to no concern for poor and marginalized people, but instead to his desire to elevate his cronies and monied interests. I do not believe that someone dedicated to “draining the swamp” would appoint a team of billionaires and lobbyists; these people seem more intent on burning the swamp down around us all. 

DJT has not sprung any of his character upon the American people in a bait-and-switch. He has been who he is for years and years. He is doing what he did on the campaign trail and what he promised to do. Calling Mexicans rapists and criminals? He did that the literal day he declared his candidacy. Boasting about sexually assaulting women and cheating on his spouse? He did that a decade ago, that we know of, and last year dismissed it as “locker room talk.” Insulting anyone he dislikes, and accusing his critics of lies? Years and years of precedent. Espousing policies that are illegal under the Constitution? He campaigned upon them. Thanking minority voters for not voting in the 2016 election? He did that after his win. Painting refugees as threats to our safety? Complaining about a rigged system– against him in his wins and losses, somehow– riddled with fraud? None of this is brand new. And there are tens of millions of my fellow Americans, including Christians, who are clapping along and crowing with delight. 

I’m sad. Or as DJT might say, “Sad!” I am struggling not to be fearful as I see American families threatened, American legal residents persecuted, American journalists maligned and attacked for trying to do their jobs… And an American President who, at best, is vindictive, deliberately uninformed, self-obsessed, and drunk on his power. This is not politics as usual. Our country is in crisis, and I find it chilling that so many of my fellow citizens are witnessing the same behavior I am witnessing, but considering it refreshing or even worth celebrating. I am afraid of where this man’s leadership will take us, and I am discouraged by the fact that I cannot see eye to eye with his many supporters. I feel powerless as I contact my representatives as so many of them seem willing to choose their Party agendas over the good of our country. I believe they will come to see the error of ignoring the concerns of their constituents. Support for a President who loathes the laws at the foundation of our country will not be remembered fondly. I hope. 

In the midst of my fear, despair, anger and hopelessness, I remember the God who called me into His upside down kingdom. I remember that I have been called to faith, to hope, to righteous action, and to champion the cause of oppressed people. I remember that I need to forgive those who feel like my enemies and even more, to love them more than I love myself. 

And I remember the promise that the Truth will set us free, so it’s worth speaking. The Light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. My help doesn’t come from earthly leaders, but from the Most High God. 

I will keep praying for the nation whose citizenship I am lucky to bear. I will keep praying for our leaders including those I feel to be my enemies. I will keep praying for my fellow Americans to see the truth and to hold it in high esteem. I will keep praying for my brothers and sisters in Christ, to be united in following after what Jesus commanded. And I will remember that ultimately, my citizenship is not from any earthly nation tainted by evil in history and in present day. I will keep praying for peace that the world can’t understand, especially when I struggle to understand it myself. 

Don’t Listen to Hasselhoff! And Other Thoughts on the Single Life

22 Jan

I never imagined that I’d spend as much time thinking about singleness as I have. When I was younger I had this vague idea that one day I’d meet someone, maybe while grocery shopping or wandering the library stacks or some other meet-cute scenario. I’d just meet someone and then I wouldn’t be single anymore. I never had much idea of how that initial spark in the produce section would develop into a lifelong partnership, though. Too many movies and not enough practice, I guess.


I’m only 26, and objectively I know that isn’t very old. But as I age, I have fewer single friends, and it continues to be hard to avoid the slippery slope that is comparing my own life to others. My mother had two children by the time she was my age (I was one of them). Some of my friends from high school and college are now celebrating 5th and 6th and even 7th anniversaries of their marriages. For whatever reason, things haven’t unfolded that way for me. I’m single, and I’ve been single for the entirety of my adult life. I don’t usually volunteer that information to strangers, but I don’t hide it either. For a long time I was preoccupied with the questions about what was wrong with me? Why didn’t guys want to date me? But I’ve experienced a lot of healing in the past few years, and while there is always more work to be done, I don’t think I’m single because of something inherently defective about my person. In many, many ways, I am thankful for the time I’ve spent as a single woman and the good gifts God has given me along the way—gifts I wouldn’t have experienced the same way as someone’s girlfriend or wife.


Not everyone really lives the single life. I have friends who seemed to be dating someone from fifth grade onward. Of course dating in fifth grade looks very different from dating in your twenties and thirties and forties and so on, but still. It’s a different life experience to walk through life romantically alone than it is to walk with a partner of some kind.


I’ve had the following conversation more and more as I’ve gotten older:

Well-Intentioned Family Member/Coworker/Dentist: So, are you seeing anyone? Do you have a boyfriend/fiancé/husband?

Me: No. It’s just me. (Usually some awkward silence as I try to think of something else to say. What else is there to say?)


In fact, there is a lot more that could be said about singleness, and I’ve had a few blog posts on the back burner as I tried to put the words together to share them. I also have a couple books in my TBR pile that I am hoping will provide me with some better perspective on this issue and maybe I’ll post reviews of them here, in that case.


In the meantime I want to talk about a scene from the neo-noir teen drama Veronica Mars. Most fans of the show, myself included, love the pairing of spunky detective Veronica and Logan, who is both troubled and sweet– a bad boy with a heart of gold, oh, what a trope! In dorky fandom news, their relationship portmanteau name is LoVe (appropriate). But for a while in the show’s final season Veronica dated a very nice boy, a music afficionado named Stosh Piznarski. Don’t hold the name against him. People can’t help what their parents name them; that’s why there are kids named Mykinzi and Jaxxson running around (apologies to any loved ones out there who like those names…). Anyway, Veronica and Piz. There was this great scene before they got together where they talked about the hookup culture that abounds in college, and let’s face it, post-collegiate life as well.


veronica and piz


Veronica: The whole chasing-hooking-up-people-go-round… Parker has been going nuts, like I’m some kind of freak because I’m not grabbing anything within ten feet. It’s exhausting.

Piz: Totally. It’s like music, you know– I love music, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen to it at all times and anything will do. I mean I’m not going to throw in a Hasselhoff CD just because I left my Neko Case in the car.

Veronica: Like why bother with something that’s not… good. ‘Cause if it’s not good…

Piz: It’s bad! Exactly. But these guys were all like, “As long as she’s got a pair of–” (gesturing to his chest) You know, it was indelicate.

Veronica: (innocently) What’s indelicate about shoes?

Piz: But I figure, you know, I mean, I know what I like. Why waste my time?

Veronica: Like why bother with something not good just because it’s something.

Piz: Especially when you know the difference, which not many people do. I mean, do you?

Veronica:  I think I do.

Piz: I think that’s like 90% of life, just knowing the difference.


When I take a step back and really think about it, so many of my friends have married people who have become dear friends of mine. They got it right. They knew the difference between just “something” and someone really good. And they trusted their romantic future to God and his timing.


So that’s what I try to do too. Not to worry too much about that perfect moment in the soup aisle, or finding just the right profile, or having the most winsome opening line. But to keep in mind the difference between “something not good” and Something Really Good. And to keep remembering that my value isn’t determined by my relationship status. I am loved by a creator who knows my hopes and dreams and has a purpose for my life.


I hope that all my friends, single and married, know that last sentence to be true too!

Dying World. Living Hope.

25 Apr

Here is the truth about the world we live in: it can be a dark place.

I haven’t lived a long life (yet) but I’ve experienced some of this darkness. I’ve watched as a beloved relative drew his last breath. I’ve had dear friends disclose to me that they are survivors of childhood molestation, sexual assault, emotional abuse. I’ve grieved for another family member after he succeeded in taking his own life—although perhaps it would be more accurate to say I will always be grieving him. Last month one of the clients I have cared for the past nine months, and come to love, was moved to a nursing home to wait out the rest of his life. And I’ve experienced the soul-sucking black pit of depression myself, the weight of years of self-hatred and nagging doubts about my own worth crushing down upon me.

The world is dark. It’s true. We don’t need the social media storms around Joseph Kony or Trayvon Martin or the Chardon High shootings to know it. We live in a world that is dying and death is all around. People don’t value each other. Even worse, we know it isn’t just the brothel owners or factory bosses who trample human life, it’s you and me, when we shop for the cheapest items no matter the cost to those who sew our t-shirts or harvest our tomatoes. When we judge people by their appearances and strip their worth down to what they can do for us. When we celebrate the life of someone like Snooki but couldn’t care less about the suffering of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the voiceless around us.

How do we hold on to hope in this world? Where do we find the wellspring?

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King there is a paragraph that I find incredibly beautiful. Last year during one of the darkest periods of my life I found myself meditating upon it and clinging to what it promises. At this point in the novel, Sam and Frodo find themselves despairing of ever completing the Sisyphean task of destroying The Ring. But then,

“Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

So perhaps that White Star is the beginning of an answer. The knowledge that however dark the darkness is, the Light will triumph and cast it away. Scripture is full of these promises—that “[In Jesus] was the Light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it;” that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ;” that the light of “a city on a hill cannot be hidden.” We are promised that “even the darkness will not be dark to [the LORD]; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to [Him].”

Here’s another truth: it’s hard to believe this stuff sometimes. There are times when it is hard, desperately hard, to have faith that the battle against death is already won. There have been times in my life when I just haven’t believed that. It’s likely I’ll have similar times in the future. In the murky depths of our dark seasons the perfect light can seem too dim, or too far away, or too impossible to be real.

The final truth, though, is that the light is real. The light is the cornerstone of my faith actually, and it’s a compelling reason to keep fighting good fights and dreaming impossible dreams and to get out of bed in the morning when I’d rather wallow in despair. Despite the fact that we live in a world of death and dying, Jesus has won that ultimate battle. For those of us who know and walk with him, we have a Light to follow and we carry a torch within ourselves. There is hope! For healing of wounds. For reconciliation where there is brokenness. For satisfaction where there is hunger. For peace where there is war. For chains to be broken and slaves to be freed! For those mired in darkness to be lifted out of that pit! We can be a part of spreading light and life in this dark world. The best news is that we can do that even when we feel crushed by that darkness—perhaps especially then.

Friends, this week I’m praying especially for some people in my life who are in dark places. Those who are feeling crippled and oppressed by physical illness, emotional pain, the devastating loss of someone dear. Will you join me in these prayers for those who can’t see the light right now? May we all become better at pointing others towards the miraculous White Star who literally conquered the grave.


21 Apr

Last night I found myself both excruciatingly embarrassed and appropriately humbled. I acted more like Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott character than I ever have—and anyone who has seen The Office knows that’s not a good thing. I was using my GPS to find my way on an unfamiliar gravelly country road. Now, in feeble defense of what I am about to describe, I’d like to say it was very dark and I was distracted by the delicious Chocolate Xtreme blizzard I was eating. The GPS told me to turn left to continue towards my destination. To my left, there was no actual road, but what looked like an empty field. In a regrettable moment, I went ahead and turned, hoping that I’d be able to see this mysterious road in the path of my car’s headlights. Nope. Still just a field. At this point I realized I was going to have to turn around. As I pulled my car around in the dark, I drove right into a ditch. I didn’t know it was a ditch at first… and I managed to get my tiny compact car with front wheel drive completely stuck in this ditch.

Picture this scene: it’s dark. You are stuck in a ditch in an unfamiliar and remote part of Ohio dairy country. You drove about a mile on a gravel road before getting stuck in said ditch. You are stuck in a ditch because you did something idiotic at the direction of a computer. You can see a light about a half mile in the distance from what looks like a farmhouse.

If you’re feeling sympathetic traces of panic and humiliation in the pit of your stomach, I am sorry. I haven’t felt so moronic in quite some time. I imagined the difficulty of explaining how I had driven into a ditch to the burly driver of a tow truck. I imagined the complication of getting a tow truck driver to find me in the darkness in the middle of nowhere between a gravel road and a field of unknown address. I began to feel the telltale beginnings of an anxiety attack. And then I saw the light of the farmhouse turn off and a truck begin driving towards me. Say it with me now… AUUUUGHHHHH.

However, this is not a story about being chased through an empty cornfield by some shotgun wielding farmer, or about being soundly berated for acting like an incompetent weirdo on a stranger’s property. I am incredibly relieved to say that this is a story about complete strangers showing grace and kindness to someone who didn’t deserve it. The husband and wife who lived in the farmhouse were nice to me. Astonishingly, they didn’t make me feel dumb. It is true they were confused about how I got so soundly stuck in their ditch. They were also confused about what I was doing on what turned out to be their private driveway, not a public road as my GPS had suggested. Still, despite their confusion they treated me kindly and even helped me get my car out of the ditch. They accepted my apology for inadvertently trespassing on their farm and for driving directly into their ditch. Within a half hour I was on my way home and listening to Mike Doughty’s “I Hear the Bells” on repeat in an attempt to calm my jangling nerves.

This experience is hardly the first time I’ve experienced undeserved grace and mercy. I share this story not to further cement my embarrassment at behaving like a terrible Regional Manager of a midlevel paper supply company, but to rejoice in the kindness of strangers. Like a lot of people, I’ve made mistakes time after time in my life. Sometimes I’ve done things intentionally and then regretted them. There have been so many times when I deserved to be punished, or at least verbally rebuked, but have instead been shocked to find that people extend a hand of understanding and compassion.

Friends, have you experienced a stranger’s kindness in a similar situation? (For the record, I hope it wasn’t a very similar situation!) In the wake of this experience, I am resolving to be that gentle stranger to others whenever I can. And also to never drive into a ditch again.

toddlers, tiaras, and louisa may alcott

30 Aug

I need to start by saying that as a 25 year old woman, I’m still learning what beauty is. Some days I wonder why it’s so challenging to be comfortable in my own skin and to be content with the face God gave me. And some days I feel like I’m getting there, like it’s easier to remember what real beauty is and how little it depends on my face. As cliche a statement as “beauty comes from within” may be, I see evidence of that truth in the people I know and in what God says through scripture.

Somehow, I made it to the summer of 2011 without ever having seen an episode of TLC’s show Toddlers & Tiaras. As of a few weeks ago, I can no longer claim blissful ignorance. For those still living in that happy place, let me give you a bare bones explanation. The show, which debuted in January 2009 and is currently airing its fourth season, is a documentary-style view of child beauty pageants. Of particular fascination to viewers are the so-called “glitz” pageants, in which even the youngest babies are decked out in full makeup, wigs, false teeth, and glitter.

To the best of my knowledge, the episode I found myself sucked into watching was standard T&T fare; industry stars Eden Wood and MaKenzie Myers were squaring off at a glitz pageant. There were a few other child contestants featured, including one little girl whose mother seemed to regard every moment in front of the camera as an opportunity to extol her daughter’s beauty. Throughout the episode she spoke of her daughter’s physical superiority: “She’s just so beautiful,” she said. “Her face has a beauty that the other girls’ don’t.” Apologies for my paraphrase, but the sentiment was clear. I doubt that any observer would deny the little girl’s attractiveness, and in the context of the show it shouldn’t have surprised me. But I found the mother’s preoccupation with physical beauty disturbing. Part of it was the spray tan, caked-on make up, and hair extensions that went into showcasing her daughter’s beauty.

Toddlers & Tiaras stars Eden Wood (left, currently age 6 and retired from pageants to pursue a "music career") and MaKenzie Myers (age 5) in full "glitz" makeup, wigs, costumes... and airbrushing.

I came away from watching an episode and a half of Toddlers & Tiaras feeling inexpressibly grateful for the fact that my own childhood bore no resemblance to the experience of these little pageant winners. I was never in the running to win an Ultimate Grand Supreme title or a cash prize or a Princess Canopy Dream Bed as a little girl.

Physical beauty was not something my mother or father placed a lot of emphasis on, and it’s only in looking through the Toddlers & Tiaras lens that I can really appreciate that. Instead of practicing my walk for a creepy swimsuit competition, I was running through sprinklers in a one-piece from KMart, with mud between my toes and scabs on my knees. Instead of gluing plastic hair to my head, my parents just tried to make sure I used a comb occasionally and never fell asleep chewing gum.

In contrast, here is a posed picture of me around age 6. So homely. So blissfully unaware of plastic hair, eyelash extensions, swimsuit competitions, or fake teeth.

What kept echoing in my mind after seeing Eden and MaKenzie and the other girls prance around the stage in sequined dresses and workout clothes “inspired by the 1980s” was a scene from one of my favorite movies, the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The film features a stellar lineup that includes Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and a young Christian Bale. Susan Sarandon anchors the cast as Margaret “Marmee” March, the mother of the four Little Women in question. In a scene adapted from the novel’s chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, she listens to her eldest daughter’s confessions about the way she behaved at her first society party, eager to impress others with borrowed clothes and a coquettish manner. And then she gives the following advice:

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you. I so wish I could give my girls a more just world. But I know you’ll make it a better place.”

As I said, this is an adaptation from the dialogue in Alcott’s novel, which was first published in 1868. The novel has Meg ask her mother whether she has “plans” for her daughters the way the gossips at the party speculated (ie, plans for them to marry wealthy men). Marmee responds,

“Yes, my dear, I do, a great many– all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat’s, I suspect. I want you to listen to my ‘plans.’ I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth; to be well and wisely married; and to lead useful, pleasant lives. Your father and I trust and hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”

This scene is one of my favorites in the movie despite the changes, because it really gets at the spirit of Alcott’s novels about the March family. For all the adventures and misadventures that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy experienced, they were rooted by the love and support of their parents. Contrary to the values of “society” people in their community, Marmee and Father March affirmed their daughters’ strength, intelligence, independence and unique gifts. They saw their children as much more than chattel and expected that their lives display more fruit than physical beauty.

A show like Toddlers & Tiaras couldn’t exist without viewer demand for it. Perhaps, like so many reality shows, people find themselves sucked in to a trainwreck of horror. I know I have a hard time turning off I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, and “trainwreck of horror” just about sums that show up for me. But given the way that Western culture commodifies people and makes celebrities out of just about anyone, it’s especially disturbing to see children featured this way.

My heart goes out not only to the Edens and MaKenzies of this world, but to anyone fixated on what they see in the mirror. Our culture doesn’t provide us many opportunities to see that we are created to bear the image of God. I can only hope that with each passing day, I’ll learn to place less stock in my own outer beauty and be able to affirm the beauty of those around me– not what is “merely decorative,” but what time cannot erode.