ESCORT SERVICE by Esther Nelson

These days, I spend most of my time in Roanoke, Virginia.  I moved here—a three-hour drive west—from Richmond, Virginia.  One of the ways I’m settling into my new community is by volunteering as an escort at Planned Parenthood.

The job is straight-forward:  Greet people as they exit their vehicle when they arrive at the medical facility’s parking lot.  Usually, there are several protestors in front of the building, and clients must drive past them before turning right into the driveway.  Protestors wave pink, plastic bags filled with anti-abortion literature as well as pamphlets that outline a specific, Christian view of “salvation.”  Not many drivers stop.  If they do, I walk over to the line that divides Planned Parenthood property from public space and wave the cars forward.  The drivers are grateful.  So many clients are nervous, upset, and unsure of protocol.  One woman asked me if I was associated with “those people out there,” pointing to the protestors.  “Not at all,” I assured her.  She smiled with relief.

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Despite halting attempts to live my life with hope, I’ve failed. My experience is not unique. We suffer. The recent pandemic, including its side effects of loss and displacement, is but one example. Suffering can leave a sense of hopelessness in its wake. One place I look for balm is in poetry.

As with most poetry, Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) work requires me to pause and ponder. What is being said? Not easy to tell, nonetheless, I often do find meaning in her poems. If I understand her thrust at all, much of the meaning I glean disorients me.

Continue reading “HOPE, PAIN, DESPAIR, AND JESUS by Esther Nelson”


Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977) popularized the song “In the Ghetto” written by Mac Davis in 1969.  The following TikTok video, featuring an artist with whom I am not familiar, is better—in my opinion—than any other rendition I’ve heard.  Such depth!  Such raw passion!  Such strength!  Such vulnerability!

Here are the lyrics:

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto…

Continue reading “PATRIARCHY’S OFFSPRING by Esther Nelson”

Love and Other Fruits by Esther Nelson

The modern-day play “J.B.,” authored by Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) and published in 1958, portrays a modern rendition of the Biblical character, Job, someone who became a pawn in a battle between God and Satan. God “allowed” all kinds of misery (sickness, loss of reputation, loss of wealth, and loss of children) to befall his faithful servant, Job. In MacLeish’s telling, we see that J.B. (like the biblical Job) undergoes setback after setback. In the end, J.B. comes to the realization that “He [God] does not love. He is.” Sarah, his wife, responds, “But we do. That’s the wonder.”

We (humans) spend a lot of time talking, singing, and writing about love. Sometimes we even claim to behave in loving ways. Yet, just what is love? Why do we love?  How do we love?

Continue reading “Love and Other Fruits by Esther Nelson”

From the Archives: They Really Do Hate Us* by Esther Nelson

This was originally posted on Nov. 20, 2020

A year or so before the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, a private Facebook group now titled “Wives of the Deplorables! Go Vote!” came together because many women were distraught about the political ideological rift between them and their husbands—a rift that became more evident as Election Day 2020 drew nigh.  Women, stunned and disappointed by the Trump-like behavior (angry, petty, and argumentative) of their Trump-supporting husbands or partners, encouraged each other virtually as Biden (now President-elect) moved closer and closer to winning the White House.

From the group’s private Facebook page: “This is a group created after a CNN report about the wives of Trump Supporters. This is not a politically affiliated group….This females only group is created to support each other and help women share their thoughts.”My sister Betty joined the group. Her Trump-supporting husband, she said, had been brainwashed by Fox News. One need not have a Trumpster spouse to be part of the group, but one must be supportive of the members who are upset, even devastated, by having become the target of their partner’s anger and rage when they discover “their women” voted (or planned to vote) for Biden.  Thanks to her invitation to join the group, I have been able to get a glimpse into the lives of these 2,000 or so members who feel demeaned—and yes, even hated, by their spouses. The group remains active post-Election.

Continue reading “From the Archives: They Really Do Hate Us* by Esther Nelson”

FRAME THE CHAOS by Esther Nelson

No matter how much we may want absolute control over our own lives and destiny, most of us realize that’s just not possible. Life itself is chaotic—both on a global and individual level. War, famine, drought, earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics, poverty, sickness, ignorance, disability, divorce, and ultimately death comes calling for everybody living on planet Earth—a planet which will no doubt  eventually die as well. 

How do we maneuver through such dire straits?  Can we make sense of and find meaning in our day-to-day chaotic existence both as members of individual families/communities and as global citizens? Perhaps so, however, it’s impossible to tackle the tumult all at once. Hence, the title of this essay—“Frame the Chaos.”

Thanks to my former colleague Dr. Cliff Edwards for this phrase, gleaned from his reading of Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher (1925-1995). “Chaos is defined not so much by its disorder as by the infinite speed with which every form taking shape in it vanishes.  It is a void that is not nothingness but a virtual, containing all possible.”

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The phrase, “separation of church and state,” crops up frequently in conversation these days. I hear it most often when someone wants to clinch their argument on a politicized subject. Lately, it’s been concerning one’s “right” to an abortion. “It doesn’t matter what your church says, we have separation of church and state in this country.” That phrase, though, is not in the Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who paraphrased the Constitution in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, “…building a wall of separation between church and state.”

The first part of the 1st amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” All manner of questions have been raised with this statement. What does it mean to establish a religion?  What is religion? Is religion something intrinsically good? Most Americans think of religion in terms of God. What/who is God? 

Continue reading “RELIGION, GOD, CHURCH, THE STATE, AND ABORTION by Esther Nelson”


I’ve been told that most children in the United States learn to write haiku in third grade. At the very least they learn that haiku is a traditional poetic art form using  seventeen syllables divided into lines of 5 – 7 – 5. The idea is to capture a moment in time. The famous Japanese poet/priest, Issa (1763-1828), focused on creating haiku using his love for nature in the process.

I did not grow up in the American school system, so it wasn’t until I took an undergraduate Zen Buddhism course that I learned to appreciate and have fun with creating this particular kind of poetry.

In the following haiku, I try to capture the moment I experienced the natural scene in front of me. Taking a photograph and then writing an accompanying haiku can be a meditative exercise. I keep striving to make that exercise a daily happening.

Ominous dark clouds
Follow me around the lake
Pushed by a brisk wind
Continue reading “SNAPSHOTS FROM SUMMER by Esther Nelson”

FREE OUR CHILDREN by Esther Nelson

I remember a poignant conversation with my sister when our children were young.  Our biggest fear at the time? How would we ever manage if one (or several) of our children refused to speak to us as they grew into young adulthood? Stories swirled around our social circles about a son or daughter who wanted nothing to do with their family of origin. These estranged children frequently put physical distance between themselves and their parents.

That fear eventually became my reality.  I despaired.

Like many parents, I lacked experience and maturity while raising my children. I didn’t have the wisdom to understand, trust, and apply the message of the Lebanese-American writer/poet, Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). Had I done so, not only would I have avoided a lot of grief, but my children would probably have had an easier transition from childhood towards independent adulthood.

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From the Archives: Abortion–the topic that won’t go away–or even morph

This was originally posted on March 12, 2014. It was Esther’s first FAR post.

Recently, I got involved in a conversation about abortion.  It happened on Facebook when a relative posted that her heart hurts when she considers her “sweet baby girl” and how the law (Roe v. Wade, 1973) in the United States gave her the choice as to “whether [or not] I would have her killed.”  She’s sincere.  Many of her friends “liked” her post and, with few exceptions, commented in agreement.  I was one of the exceptions.

March celebrates Women’s History Month–a month to remember the accomplishments of our foremothers, noting their work helping to secure for us (their progeny) certain rights, most notably the right to vote (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902) and reproductive rights (Margaret Sanger, 1879-1966).  Support for abortion nowadays almost always falls under the rubric of “women’s reproductive rights.”  So when we hear, “It’s my body and I’ll decide what I’ll do with my own body,” the speaker is giving voice to what many consider to be a fundamental right–the right to be autonomous and exercise free agency over one’s own person.

Continue reading “From the Archives: Abortion–the topic that won’t go away–or even morph”

TULIP by Esther Nelson

I’ve been blown away this Spring by the abundant beauty and sheer number of tulips planted throughout Roanoke, Virginia, a city I’m beginning to think of as “home.” 

If I were to pick a favorite flower, it would be the tulip, yet I find it impossible to look at a tulip without being reminded of my religious upbringing regarding “salvation” as represented in the acronym of Calvinism’s “Five Points.”  Each tulip displays five petals in its flower.  Each petal stands for one point.

T=Total Depravity

 U=Unconditional Election

 L=Limited Atonement

 I=Irresistible Grace

P=Preservation and Perseverance of the saints. 

When my (now ex-) sister-in-law delivered her first baby one Spring, I gave her a pot of tulip plants, reminding her that T-U-L-I-P was the basis of our faith.  The plant didn’t live to the following Spring, portending perhaps my future abandonment of T-U-L-I-P doctrine—doctrine being an interpretation of Scripture.  T-U-L-I-P  lays out an understanding of soteriology (doctrine explaining human salvation) hammered out by the French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and developed further by his Protestant followers.

Calvin had pushback to his five points from Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) and his disciples who disagreed vehemently with Calvin.  Both Calvinists and Arminians claimed to be Christian, believing Christ to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin and necessary for blissful, eternal life. The discussion/debate remains an intramural one.

Seeing and engaging the world through a T-U-L-I-P lens does damage to the human spirit.  It’s especially harsh on those people who have been systematically marginalized throughout patriarchal history—women, the LGBQTIA+ community, poor people, and Black/Brown people (especially in the US).  After all, marginalized people have been considered “depraved” (first leaf of the tulip) by those who have power in our hierarchical society to develop and enforce doctrine that keeps the status quo for those in the upper echelons.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 What is salvation?  How does it happen?  Who gets to be saved?  Why are some saved and not others? 

Today these questions don’t plague me as they once did.  I find them curiously interesting, but not personally relevant.  Nevertheless, these very questions and T-U-L-I-P, as a viable explanation for the human condition, used to hold me in their grip, crippling me while sucking joy from living in the here and now.

A brief explanation of T-U-L-I-P:

TOTAL DEPRAVITY—Not only have human beings inherited original sin (sin being the transgression of divine law), but are totally incapable of doing any good whatsoever without God’s intervention and help.  Sin has infiltrated our thinking, emotions, and will.  Only God can break through that murkiness before we can receive the free gift of salvation accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

(The following four points are dependent on the “truth” of the first point.)

UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION—God chooses who will be saved (the “elect”) for his own purposes, not based on anything an individual may or may not do.  Nevertheless, we humans are responsible to see/believe the “truth.”  (Huh?)

LIMITED ATONEMENT—Christ (the ultimate sacrifice for sin) did not die for everybody—only for those “elect” that God gave to Christ.  Not everybody can be or will be saved.

IRRESISTIBLE GRACE—Those whom God “elects” to salvation cannot ultimately resist the offer or internal call of God’s grace for salvation.

PERSEVERANCE (AND PRESERVATION) OF THE SAINTS—Once Christians have been saved they cannot lose their salvation.  God will see to it that the “elect” will persevere in the faith to the end.

So, why is this at all pertinent?  Because our religious communities’ theological doctrines (handed down from our ancestors) have seeped into the social fabric of society.  How often have we (those humans not “equal” to other humans) been told we don’t know things, don’t measure up, and will never achieve?  We are lacking in countless ways and only our “betters” can enlighten and save us.  (This is one way “total depravity” has worked into the interstices of society.)

T-U-L-I-P,  Re-imagined:

Instead of Total Depravity, might we consider Total Perfection?  We come into the world completely vulnerable and gradually learn to navigate our particular circumstances through the various communities we belong to.  We express ourselves within the boundaries of our humanity.  We love, hate, cry, get angry, and express joy.  In much of Buddhist thought, these emotions are just that—emotions.  We retain our perfection while being “angry Buddha,” “sad Buddha,” or “happy Buddha.”  Emotions are not a moral issue.  We are perfect in our humanity.

What about Unconditional Love, not Unconditional Election?  What if we were to give ourselves and those who cross our path unconditional love?  No judgment, no agenda to mold people into this or that—only acceptance of our perfect humanity?

Why not Limited Experience instead of Limited Atonement?  We are human and bound by what we often call “laws of nature.”  We fall at times.  We forget what we need to be doing.  Ideally, our family and community are supportive in ways that teach and encourage us, not limiting or withdrawing their support as we explore our environment.

Let’s talk about Irresistible Beauty, not Irresistible Grace.  Beauty surrounds us.  Beautiful art arrests us every day—both in the natural world and in the art humans produce.  Navajo people focus on walking in beauty, meaning walking in harmony with all things—people, objects, animals, and life itself!

Pensive Perseverance rather than Perseverance (and preservation) of the Saints although the latter sounds good as long as “saints” refers to all people traversing the earth.  Pensive (or critical thinking) Perseverance will enable us to flourish as we discover our own path.

My revision of Calvin’s acronym doesn’t answer all of life’s BIG questions, however, I do think a revised version of T-U-L-I-P—one that doesn’t straight-jacket our humanity would better nurture and sustain us on life’s journey.  Perhaps we can begin with contemplating, planting, and even painting the earthy, garden-variety tulips that flourish in the springtime!

Painting by Cliff Edwards

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.

A COMPLICATED CHOICE by Katey Zeh – Book Review by Esther Nelson

Katey Zeh, an ordained Baptist minister, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and a contributor to this Feminism and Religion (FAR) blog recently published her newest book, A Complicated Choice  Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement (Broadleaf Books, 2022). Not only does Zeh push back against those individuals who are dead-set against giving space to pregnant people to make their own decision about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, she dares to imagine a world where people are not just free to easily access an abortion procedure, but are also given the support to grieve (if need be) and heal without being bogged down with shame heaped on them by the larger society. 

One of the strengths (given the current religious-political climate in the U.S.) of this slim volume is that Zeh uses Christian Scripture to illuminate the way for pregnant people to embrace their inner knowing, something that helps slough off the stories that our society (collectively) has given them that silences and shames them “from speaking up and speaking out” about their abortions. “There is a culture of silence around abortion, and that silence is shaming and isolating on both a personal and a collective level.” When we break the silence of isolation and give voice to our difficult and painful experiences, we are then free to find healing and wholeness.

Continue reading “A COMPLICATED CHOICE by Katey Zeh – Book Review by Esther Nelson”

Abortion Rights (?) by Esther Nelson

Slowly, yet systematically, women, men, and everybody else along the gender continuum, are losing access to a timely, legal, and safe abortion. This is not breaking news. Pushback in the United States against abortion “rights” has been happening in various state legislatures for decades.  These days we find ourselves more and more constricted as laws across the country reflect a tightening of accessibility to what some people refer to as a “scourge” in the land.

My first-ever blog post on FAR (March 2014) wrestled with the subject of abortion.  In that essay (one that’s still relevant), I suggest we broaden our thinking about a subject that has polarized Americans. Is abortion (a) right?  Is it wrong? The two sides have become entrenched.


Continue reading “Abortion Rights (?) by Esther Nelson”

Transitions by Esther Nelson

It’s been a rough couple of years.  Even though thousands of miles distanced us from the first-discovered Covid-19 outbreak (late 2019) in China, the virus soon traveled the world, doing what viruses do best—infect us, spread, morph, and then infect us, spread, morph all over again.  More than five million people worldwide, including close to one million Americans, have died as a result.  Shutdowns affected us economically and socially, making it difficult (sometimes impossible) to stay connected with family and friends.  

An effective vaccine arrived on the scene in early 2021, yet many Americans (half?) eligible for vaccination have refused the life-saving injections, citing a variety of reasons:  distrust of the vaccine—“It was developed too quickly;” invincibility—“I never get sick, never even had the flu;” and individualism—“Nobody gets to tell me what to do with my body.”  (Many of those “hands off my body” people, though, have no problem telling those of us who have a uterus what we can and cannot do with its contents.)

Continue reading “Transitions by Esther Nelson”

Professors, Sex, and the Academy by Esther Nelson

Amia Srinivasan (b. 1984) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford.  Her recently released book, THE RIGHT TO SEX: FEMINISM IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, is a series of essays, drawing on earlier feminist tradition, dealing with topics such as pornography, power, desire and more. 

The following New York Times opinion piece authored by Srinivasan, “What’s Wrong with Sex Between Professors and Students? It’s Not What You Think,” sheds light on that thorny question, pushing us to think further and differently about the stereotypical older male professor/younger female student sexual alliances at colleges and universities.  Although Srinivasan focuses on heterosexual relationships in her article, she also gives an example of a relationship between a lesbian professor and female student in an academic institution.

Continue reading “Professors, Sex, and the Academy by Esther Nelson”

Looking for Home by Esther Nelson

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for home—home being both a beautiful, comfortable, geographic space as well as a peaceful state of mind/being.  For most of my life, I’ve “made do,” settling for wherever or whatever appeared before me.  I thought that was “good” and selfless behavior—shrinking my desires and wants to a size that made other people happy.  For women in our patriarchal society, shrinkage is a highly-prized quality, useful not just as a survival skill, but as a way of being in the world that allows things to run smoothly for somebody other than yourself. 

Recently, I’ve been trying to find some kind of balance while slogging through several major changes in my life that include loss of family, friends, and job.  Part of that balancing act involves looking for an esthetically-pleasing shelter/home in a place surrounded with natural beauty.  In addition, I would like to live in community with people who are adventurous, open to new ideas, and kind.

Continue reading “Looking for Home by Esther Nelson”

All We Have is Our Heart by Esther Nelson

One of my former students recommended UNFOLLOW to me, a memoir written by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps (1929 – 2014), the (in)famous pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, Kansas.

Some people may not be aware that Fred Phelps began his career as a civil rights attorney—someone who, in the 1960s, took on racial discrimination cases no other lawyer would touch.  Today, he is best remembered as a preacher who vociferously opposed homosexuality, spreading his message “God Hates Fags” both in the pulpit and while picketing in public spaces.  He and his followers also picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Phelps believed soldiers’ deaths (as well as natural disasters) to be God’s punishment for the country’s “bankrupt values,” especially the “sin” of homosexuality.  Hence, God unleashes calamity and catastrophe on the United States, a nation in dire need of repentance.

Continue reading “All We Have is Our Heart by Esther Nelson”

What Does a Woman Want? by Esther Nelson

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), well-known Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, “…said once to Marie Bonaparte: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul is, ‘What does a woman want?’” (“Was will das Weib?”) ― Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones.

I don’t believe Freud ever answered the question posed here satisfactorily.  Women’s desire—even today—hovers in the taboo category.  After all, in our hierarchal, patriarchal society women’s wants/desires are mediated through social structures and institutions that favor men.  It’s easy to overlook since we all are spawned and then swim in those patriarchal waters.

Continue reading “What Does a Woman Want? by Esther Nelson”

Anorexia Nervosa Take 2 by Esther Nelson

This past year (2020) has been a year of tremendous upheaval and unwelcome change for most of us due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the second time in my life (first time I was in my 40s) where I’ve responded to stress with anorexic behavior—not consuming enough calories to sustain a healthy weight.

Continue reading “Anorexia Nervosa Take 2 by Esther Nelson”

Is Authoritarianism a Christian Value? by Esther Nelson

Many Americans described the recent (January 6, 2021) attack on the Capitol in Washington DC as shocking.  I believe the event reflected one of the many times we’ve reaped the fruit of what we’ve sown throughout the course of American history.  Thomas Edsall, in a New York Times article (1/28/21), wrote an excellent piece titled, “The Capitol Insurrection is as Christian Nationalist as it Gets.”  He quotes a variety of experts on religion and other disciplines while contextualizing the incident within a religious narrative—something that is sorely lacking from our news outlets.

I think many people think of religion as something inherently good or at least as a neutral phenomenon belonging for the most part to an unearthly, apolitical realm.  Charles Kimball writes in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: “History clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior… more wars have been waged, more people killed…in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.” Continue reading “Is Authoritarianism a Christian Value? by Esther Nelson”

Good(?) Grief by Esther Nelson

The current pandemic has kicked our collective butt by putting a huge dent in our ability to maintain relationships so necessary for keeping our social gears greased and running smoothly.  Grabbing coffee with a friend or meeting up for lunch in order to “catch up” with one another are activities that in times past we took for granted.  Meetings nowadays (both work related and social) are done primarily via Zoom.  Even a doctor’s visit can be accomplished electronically—a mode that, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired.

Besides feeing socially deprived over the past year, I’ve experienced a number of other losses.  I’ll mention a few of them, but am not prepared to write about the ones that sting the most. I gave up my house in Richmond, Virginia, and moved to a high-rise condominium just down the road.  I’ve yet to make it “home.”  Halfway through the Spring semester, all classes at the university where I taught went online. The Fall semester followed suit, delivering classes (mainly) online.  I didn’t want to box myself in on a screen.  I find classroom interaction meaningful in a way that I cannot replicate on Zoom.  I gave up teaching.  In August, I drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and have been here ever since except for a brief visit in September to New Jersey for my brother’s funeral—another loss. Continue reading “Good(?) Grief by Esther Nelson”

They Really Do Hate Us* by Esther Nelson

A year or so before the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, a private Facebook group now titled “Wives of the Deplorables! Go Vote!” came together because many women were distraught about the political ideological rift between them and their husbands—a rift that became more evident as Election Day 2020 drew nigh.  Women, stunned and disappointed by the Trump-like behavior (angry, petty, and argumentative) of their Trump-supporting husbands or partners, encouraged each other virtually as Biden (now President-elect) moved closer and closer to winning the White House.

From the group’s private Facebook page:  “This is a group created after a CNN report about the wives of Trump Supporters. This is not a politically affiliated group….This females only group is created to support each other and help women share their thoughts.” Continue reading “They Really Do Hate Us* by Esther Nelson”

Embroidery in the Time of Covid by Esther Nelson

In her recent essay on this “Feminism and Religion” site, Ivy Helman wrote:  “Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling to write posts.  This month is no different.  I am currently sitting with four different half-drafts on three semi-related topics, none of which I seem to be able to complete…I write.  I erase.  I rewrite.  I copy bits of one into another to save for some other time.  I’m left with one sentence….”

I think all writers have this experience—writing, erasing, and then rewriting over and over again.  Writing during the current pandemic seems more difficult than ever.  Perhaps it’s because our dealings with the outside world have been drastically curtailed.  Writers need a variety of social interactions and experiences to sort out, reflect upon, and then create into a work of art that appeals and connects with an audience.  At least I find this to be so. Continue reading “Embroidery in the Time of Covid by Esther Nelson”

My Brother John—1949-2020 by Esther Nelson

My 70-year-old brother, John, died recently.  As far as we know, he had not been ill although the death certificate listed “hypertensive cardiovascular disease” as the primary cause of death—something that doesn’t happen all of a sudden.  He shied away from doctors.  His obituary is linked here.

This picture was taken in January 2017 when he drove a bus, filled with activists, to the Women’s March in Washington DC.  Some of the women presented him with a pussy hat, something he immediately donned and wore with pride. Continue reading “My Brother John—1949-2020 by Esther Nelson”

Where Am I Going? by Esther Nelson

My sense of direction is, at best, poor.  In spite of that, I love a road trip.  With the advent of affordable GPS (Global Positioning System) devices, driving long distances has become easier.  Unfortunately, that tool (GPS) is not always reliable.  Sometimes I get lost.  I have a hard time figuring out how to get back on track.  Like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I’m forced at times to depend on the “kindness of strangers.”  Getting lost, though, becomes part of my road trip adventure.

I recently drove (for the third time) from Richmond, Virginia, to Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I’ve chosen a different route each time.  On this trip, I kept the mileage under 400 miles/day.  That gave me time to look around the places I stopped for the night.  This trip wasn’t nearly as taxing as those where I pushed to cover as much ground as possible in a day.  I also made it a point to stay out of Texas due to the state’s high COVID-19 numbers and that added a couple of hundred miles to the drive. Continue reading “Where Am I Going? by Esther Nelson”

“This World Is Not My Home” by Esther Nelson

I’ve been puzzled for a long time why people, especially conservative Christian people who seem to be decent human beings, enthusiastically support Donald Trump, our current president.  My thinking stems from my own experience of being brought up in an evangelical, fundamentalist space.

I grew up with ultra-conservative, missionary parents in a small community of believers who thought they were the only people who understood “life” properly.  Especially relevant to the theme of this essay is their understanding that political leaders are in power because God willed it.  “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1).  Nothing happens in the political arena (or anywhere else) outside of God’s will which is perfect even though we may not always understand God’s strategies. Continue reading ““This World Is Not My Home” by Esther Nelson”

Robert E. Lee Gets a Makeover by Esther Nelson

For the past four Sunday afternoons, I’ve walked along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, to observe firsthand the changes happening to the statues of Confederate generals placed there a century or so ago.  I focus here on the Robert E. Lee statue.  Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) “…was an American Confederate general best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War” (Wikipedia).  These days, Lee’s statue seems to be home base for activists who are working diligently to keep protests and demonstrations ongoing, yet peaceful.

Most of what I see and hear from those visiting the statue reflects a longing for marginalized people—especially African-Americans—to be fully included in our country, much of which was built by means of their enslaved labor.  Some people are angry about the destruction of property.  “What good does that do?” Or, “This [graffiti] is ridiculous.”  Once I heard, “I’m a fourth generation Richmonder and they have no right to do this to my city.” Continue reading “Robert E. Lee Gets a Makeover by Esther Nelson”

My Green Spaces by Esther Nelson

I don’t do well being cooped up (staying at home) all day and every day.  Thankfully the state of Virginia, where I currently live, has kept their parks open during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For two months, I intentionally scheduled a “green space” time into my daily routine.  Usually I’d hike.  Sometimes I’d just sit in the car and look at the natural scenery in front of me.

The James River at Pony Pasture Rapids was my “go-to” place during the pandemic lockdown.  In addition to refreshing themselves by the river, people use Pony Pasture as their launching point for a variety of floatation devices, but mostly kayaks, to paddle around the river.

Pleasant Creek Trail is one among many paths along the James River at Pony Pasture.  After meandering a half mile or so, I came upon this view.  I call this scene “Entering the Emerald Forest.”

Showcasing Richmond, Virginia, in an attractive cityscape.  I walked along the floodwall to capture this Richmond skyline.

One day, I went to a local park (Maymont) and stared up at this tree like infants do with their mobiles hanging over their cribs.

Straight, sturdy tree trunk

Spreading its leafy branches

Green shelter in place

Richmond has had a goodly amount of rain this spring.  This is the James River after several inches of rain throughout the state.

Even when the rain came, I made it a point to get out of the house, sit in my car, dream a bit, and read from my Kindle for two or three hours.

Had a visitor one day while enjoying the sunshine and breathing in fresh air at Byrd park.

Bench-sitting alone
Cold winds blowing through the trees
Mother Goose visits

Earlier in the spring, I watched the dogwood tree bloom in my front yard.

Amidst clouds and chill
Nature still blooms pink and white
In my damp front yard

One of my favorite days at Pony Pasture Rapids put me in touch with this family.

Blessed be!

In sunnier weather, I’d visit beautiful, old Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  From the web: “Hollywood Cemetery was designed in 1847 as a “rural” style garden cemetery to escape the grid-like monotony of city cemeteries. Landscape architect, John Notman, specifically left trees and other plants untouched when designing the cemetery’s landscape in order to create a peaceful haven for Richmonders. Today, our 135 acres of valleys and hills are covered with heritage roses, stately trees, and other blooms that live up to the name of a garden cemetery. In 2017, Hollywood Cemetery was named a recognized arboretum with the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program.”

One day I went hunting (and I did have to hunt!) for inscriptions that made me take notice.  There’s such a paucity of creative, interesting text on tombstones.  Of those I’ve seen so far, Andrea Smith Kauder’s is my favorite.  “Neal, Adam and Bryan–I love you very much. I thank everyone for visiting. Now go and be happy.”  Andrea died as a relatively young woman—44 years old.  I think I would have enjoyed knowing her.

And, I’m moving again!  Going to a condominium just three miles down the road from my current address in Richmond, Virginia.  Wonder where in the world I will eventually land.  I can’t seem to settle down in any one spot.  Here I am scrubbing the floor of my new condo in preparation for move-in.  My only green space on this day was the green gloves I used to protect my hands during the onerous chore.

My grandmother, Jessie, often told me, “Only way to clean a floor, honey, is to get on your hands and knees and scrub.”  Jessie was right.  Perhaps a fitting text on my tombstone might reflect the necessity of women’s domestic labor to keep the wheels of society moving.

She cleaned like a fiend

Hoping…yes, always hoping

For a little dirt.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Not My Story Anymore by Esther Nelson

The meaning we derive from stories—especially religious stories we’ve heard and become familiar with since infancy—shape how we perceive and understand the world.  Our beliefs are an amalgam of “my story” (my individual life experience in a specific context) shaped by another story.  Who I am is heavily informed by particular narratives and their (often) codified interpretation.

I was raised on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  Doctrine is an interpretation of story, the substance of which is thought of as “truth” by believers.  The story informing substitutionary atonement is a familiar one, especially to those in Christian circles.  Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew living during the Roman occupation of much of the Mediterranean region, was crucified circa 30 C.E.  Jesus was a teacher who attracted many followers and often spoke (according to the writers of the gospels) of a coming Kingdom of God.  This threatened Roman rule so the Romans killed him.

Is the story factually true?  Perhaps.  As with so many narratives that are passed down through generations, there are many versions.  We find meaning (or not) in the story we have at hand.  On one level, Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates the lengths governments will go to in order to keep themselves in power, showing the oppression, fear, and suffering people endure under despotic rulers.  On another level, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died to pay for humanity’s sins) is an interpretation of that story.  So often the stories we carry with us, along with a specific interpretation (doctrine), become conflated.  Rarely do we stop and unravel the story from the meaning we’ve been given and sometimes appropriated. Continue reading “Not My Story Anymore by Esther Nelson”

Feeling Squeezed by Esther Nelson

Tyler Foggatt, associate editor of The New Yorker magazine’s, “The Talk of the Town series,” recently contributed (March 23) an essay titled “Cooped Up.”  She notes that China, the first country to shut down due to COVID-19, is now in the process of opening up.  More than ten million people in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, were under lockdown.  She writes, “When restrictions were eased, earlier this month, the city’s [Xi’an] divorce rate spiked.”  Marital conflicts, often existing underneath the radar, bubble to the surface and sometimes explode during periods of quarantine (forced togetherness).

According to Foggatt, American psychologist Lawrence Birnbach predicts that the divorce rate in the U.S. will rise as the current pandemic unfolds.  Two of his patients, married to each other and self-quarantined together, reported they have argued more than ever, mostly having to do with how thoroughly (or not) one person washes their hands and wipes down surfaces.

I think many of us can relate to this.  Long before the current health crisis developed, my spouse and I went about our lives quite differently.  At times we clashed.  Keeping our distance from each other—even before social distancing became the “right” thing to do—was effective inasmuch as that strategy kept things from boiling over, at least most of the time. Continue reading “Feeling Squeezed by Esther Nelson”

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