Fantasies and the Fog

'Old Shippingsport Bridge in Fog' photo (c) 2000, Pam Broviak - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Today’s post on faith and parenting comes to us from the uber-talented Leena Tankersley. Leeana is the author of Found Art: Discovering Beauty in Foreign Places (Zondervan 2009), spiritual writings inspired by her time in the Middle East. I met Leena at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing and we immediately hit it off. She is funny, honest, insightful, and committed to her art.  Leeana lives in Bahrain with her husband and three children, Luke (3), Lane (3), and Elle (2 months). She inspires fellow gypsies at GypsyInk.com. Find her on Twitter: @lmtankersley

Enjoy! 

***

Transient

Sometime after my twins turned one, they began throwing food from their highchairs as if it were sport. Bits of turkey, string cheese, and soggy peanut butter crackers were half eaten and then pitched from their perches.

I spent most of my day bent over, butt up in the air, picking up one kind of thing or another. On one occasion, to avoid fainting, I sat down on the floor next to the scraps, piling them up in my hand. Mindlessly, I pick the hair and carpet fuzz off the chunks of banana and sucked-on crackers and then I eat the remains. As if my only sustenance comes from the food I must forage.

This is what we call “a low.”

From my floor-dwelling, my mind wanders . . . to the girl in the Anthropologie catalog. And I want to be her. Perched on a tufted leather sofa, sitting in this most perfectly imperfect artist’s loft wearing ankle boots and a belted bohemian blouse that despite its tunic-ness somehow manages to make me look lean and elegantly unkempt. My children, Pickle and Twice (because I’m just that secure and avant garde), play lovingly in the corner. It’s clear from the décor around me that I’m very talented. It goes without saying that I’m gluten free, passionate about composting, raising some chickens on our roof, and the envy of all who know me. 
Motherhood sits you down on the floor of life, closes the door, and asks you to do your best work, moment by moment, with no one watching. This is torture for someone like me.

I don’t plod well. I certainly don’t plod well with no one watching. I need a crowd, some adoring fans, a cheering section, loud applause, a fight song in my honor. A full color spread in a magazine, at the very least.   

I didn’t know all of this about myself until these two little pink piglets arrived. I didn’t know that hormones would make an otherwise well-behaved woman feral. I didn’t know how much I would long for an escape some days, how desperately uncompassionate I would be with myself, how relentless it would all feel. I didn’t know how desperate I would be to feel seen.  

I didn’t anticipate all the angst, and I didn’t anticipate what a lousy companion I would be with myself in that angst.

I once heard Parker Palmer speak about 9/11. Like everyone, he had been struggling to reconcile the terrorists’ acts with his theology, and the only question he could think to ask himself was, “What do these terrorists and I have in common?” His answer:

“We are all heartbroken.”

Was it possible that, in becoming a mother, I was now confronting my heartbrokenness: My longing for the glamour. My acceptance of the Beauty. And the gorge of grief that stretched between.

After some time, I did something radical: There in my floor-dwelling, I told God I was heartbroken. And I asked if he would mind terribly sending Christ to sit with me.

Three years and another baby later, tiny bits of breathing room have arrived, and I am finally able to . . .  

let myself be scared of how much I love these kids.

let myself be scared of how much I know I will fail them.

let myself admit how tired I am. 

let myself long for a tufted couch and a bohemian blouse. 

let myself grieve the losses. 

let myself drink an entire case of Coke Zero (only once in awhile).

let myself rest.

let myself laugh.

let myself off the hook, finally and after a long time, realizing that parenting isn’t hard because I am failing. Parenting is hard because it’s hard. 

Baby steps. Small miracles. Water into wine. Spit and mud. Healing. 

I just finished Some Assembly Required, the latest from guru-turned-grandmother, Anne Lamott. In the middle of the book, Lamott takes a break from grandmothering to visit India. She dreams of watching sunrise from a riverboat on the Ganges. 

But, on the morning that she is to climb aboard the riverboat, the Ganges is socked in. 

She writes:

It was a thick, white pea-soup fog—a vichyssoise fog—and apparently we were not going to see any of the sights I’d assumed we would see, and in fact we had come here to see.

But we saw something else: We saw how much better mystery shows up in fog, how much wilder and truer each holy moment is than any fantasy.

This is the spiritual discipline I must practice every day, every minute, sometimes every second, if I’m honest: To believe that “each holy moment” can and does supercede “any fantasy.” 

God, I love the fantasy. And every month when the Anthropologie catalog (“retail porn” as my husband calls it) shows up, I am bewitched all over again. Wanting to escape into a life that looks so much more enchanting than my own. Wanting to disappear into an image. Wanting to believe that glamour pays better than Beauty.

I believed motherhood would be the Ganges in all its glory. Turns out, some days the whole landscape is so socked in, you can’t see from one moment to the next. 

The work, the holy work, is to believe that somehow what is happening in that fog, that haze, that soup—if we will allow ourselves to sit in it and even invite Christ into it with us—is actually the whole point. 

***

Don't forget to check out Leeana's blog to read more! 

Read the rest of the posts in our faith and parenting series.

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Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe.

Transient

Today’s faith and parenting post comes to us from the talented Beth Woolsey. Beth is the writer and humorist behind the Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids blog. She has been described as “optimistic, authentic, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, [capturing] the mom experience with all its pathos and humor,” and was named one of Sheknows.com’s Top Five Moms Who Will Make You Laugh Out Loud.

Beth and her longsuffering husband, Greg, are parents to five kids. Their kids are adopted and homemade, singletons and multiples, and some have special needs. Most importantly, Beth says, “they’re all our very own.”

Beth was raised as a missionary kid in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia and the jungles of Southern California. She holds a B.A. in History and Religion from George Fox University. She continues to question all things spiritual, cares deeply about living a Christ-centered life, and creates all kinds of problems by living out loud; she blames her family for continuing to encourage her.

Enjoy! 

***

I used to prefer for God to live in a box.

Not a jewelry box. Or a moving box. Or a giant refrigerator box. Or even one of those pet store hamster boxes with breathing holes like the one I bought in 1980 with my best friend, Tracy, because two seven-year-olds co-owning a hamster is always a good idea

Nope. My God-box was different. 

My God-box was more like a Lunchables box. The kind that’s well-shaped with plastic compartments for neatly stacked crackers and round spheres of pressed meat and contoured for protection against breakage. 

That was, to my mind, the very best, most structured kind of a God-box, and my God deserved the best. 

I liked my boxed God very much because He was neat and tidy, and also a He with a capital H. And everything in my life fit into my God-box compartments. 

I think that’s normal for a kid raised in the Church, and it isn’t bad or wrong. It just turned out to be, well, a little too easy and preserved for the realities of my life as it unfolded. 

I became a mama for the first time in the Fall of 1998 when a foster mom, in the dark of night in a tiny home in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam placed a nine week old baby girl into my shaking arms. It was eleven days shy of my 25th birthday, and my husband and I marveled over Abby's fingers and toes and the fact that two whole governments were willing to entrust us with her little, perfect life. 

I had everything I wanted. A husband I liked nearly all the time. A daughter I adored. A home. And a personal relationship with JesusChristMyLordandSavior. 

I was wildly, deliriously happy and fulfilled.

Except when I was terribly unhappy. And except when I was oddly empty. And except when I felt like I was choking in the dark of night as I sat for hours and hours on the hardwood floors outside my baby’s room and my butt grew numb while I wondered why I lacked for peace when I had gratitude and faith. 

My confusion and bewilderment felt a lot like drowning or despair which I suspect are two words for the same thing. The wild flailing of arms. The gasps of air at the surface that were too brief to provide real respite. The rather desperate panic at the idea that, perhaps, being a mother wasn’t enough and being a follower of Jesus wasn’t enough, either.

Both ideas terrified me beyond description. How could they not, raised as I was by a loving Christian community to understand that God always fills the empty spaces and that a woman’s satisfaction comes from being a wife and a mother?

Instead, I found myself as a young mom lost in a wasteland of spiritual and emotional loneliness. Adrift. Isolated. Living in the opposite country from the illusive and idyllic Village where I was sure all of my friends’ children were being raised by content mommies who were far more Godly than me. 

And so it was that becoming a mother stripped me down to nothing and left me bare, exposed to my fears and my not-enoughness and my God. It was there, in that empty space, that I slowly began to unpack my Lunchables box, trying to discover whether any pieces of my God-meal matched a more significant, infinite, loving God who could sustain me… whether I could somehow mesh my easy, compartmentalized answers with my difficult, messy questions…. and whether, perhaps, I might find myself in the process.

My box was loaded with things that were striking to me in the way they didn’t fit with my understanding of a loving God. Things I was surprised I’d carried for years and in secret because I thought I would be shunned by the Church if I discarded them. Things that I thought were core to being a follower of Jesus, but which I found out… weren’t. Things like:

  • a Letter of the Law fundamentalism that’s married to mob-mentality politics,
  • “the Lord helps those who help themselves” and “love the sinner and hate the sin” and other trendy sayings that embrace a cringe-worthy sense of entitlement or judgment and, strikingly, aren’t in the Bible,
  •  and the pressure to deliver the Horror of Hell story with enough conviction to scare people toward a merciful God and into Heaven 

These and a thousand thousand other things stuck in my throat and became increasingly difficult to swallow. They clogged my faith and made it hard for me to breathe. And so, with the cacophony of “but you must believe these things to raise righteous children” and a great deal of uncertainty ringing in my ears, I let them go. 

I let them go for the risky pursuit of an authentic faith. A faith based on the person of Jesus in the Bible. A faith based on Christ as my present, accessible, here-with-me-now teacher. A faith that embodies my desperate longing to see all people treated equally, to follow the deeper Spirit of the Law, to welcome strangers, to reject fear, and to love people with abandon. A faith that’s far scarier and more thrilling than platitudes, easy answers and trendy sayings because it means telling my children that I don’t know everything.

Jesus said a lot of earth-shattering things, but now that I’m a mom, I think this was one of the most radical of all:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” - Matthew 7:7-8

It seems to me that Jesus’ words are a clear directive.

Ask, Jesus says. SeekKnock.

And then, if I’ve got this right, Jesus follows up a few verses later by saying that God will actually respond. God God, the Lover of us all, will reveal divine things. To me. To you. To, oh, anyone who asks. And God will do it without discretion or conditions. Without caution or prudence. Without making a list first of who has a right to which truth or who will handle the answers the best.

The revolutionary, almost subversive, thing about asking is that it goes beyond making it OK to have secret questions and inner doubts and gives us permission to raise our hands in God’s classroom with a “Pardon me, but I don’t get it.” Or “Really, God? Can you explain further?” Or “I just can’t bring myself to believe what the rest of your class is telling me.” 

I suspect – a sneaking suspicion that gets louder as I age – that we’re somehow expected to keep asking. Out loud. And to keep seeking. And to keep knocking. Which has crazy implications on parenting from a Jesus perspective because typically when we don’t know something, we pretend we do. That’s in the Parenting Manual. Or the Being a Grownup Manual. Or the Christianity Manual. Or maybe it’s just being human. 

Transient

If I am a parent who follows Christ and is honest about all of my not knowings, though, about still being in process, about being an asker and a seeker and a knocker, then I have to change my Christian parenting paradigm. I have to say to my children, instead, “I know only some of God’s heart, but I’m willing to share what I have” and then humbly leave that piece sitting on the counter for them to accept or reject.

But if I do that – if I tell that truth to my children – what will happen to their faith? 

The truth, it turns out, can be an extraordinarily painful thing to tell. When I’m truthful, I find myself wading through my doubts, flashing my insecurities in public, and flipping through my dog-eared and coffee-stained questions like they’re well-worn copies of my favorite books.

If I say to my kids, “I don’t know; I’m a seeker just like you,” have I fallen down on the Christian Mama job? Have I led my kids astray by failing to hand them the answers? Have I abdicated my responsibility as a spiritual leader?

I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you why.

My sister-in-law, Kim, has been wandering around our faith community lately asking hard questions about the way the Church loves and harms people through acceptance or exclusion. About our collective fears. About the ways we engage in conversations. She’s letting her questions fall out all over the place, raw and beautiful in their authenticity. And she’s making people uncomfortable – or giddy – with her inability to accept the class’s answer and her insistence on raising her hand over and over and over.

Kim said two things that struck me as inordinately true during her questioning process. The first is her belief that the way we engage our conversations may be more important than our conclusions, for if we abandon love, kindness, forbearance and gentleness in favor of fear, self-righteousness and anger, what have we gained with a mere conclusion? And the second thing she said is I wonder if we trust Jesus to be enough?

I wonder if we trust Jesus to be enough. 

As a mama who cares about my kids’ relationships with God, I have to ask myself… am I engaging in spiritual conversations with them with love and kindness? Or am I fearful and angry about their doubts and conclusions? Do I actually believe that God will answer my kids’ questions with true discoveries and open doors? Or am I trying to rapidly solve their theological dilemmas by assuring them that God has already gifted me with all the answers and so they needn’t bother God by asking themselves?

I had a conversation recently with my father about whether we’re obligated as Christians to be aspirational.

“Are we,” I asked, “supposed to hold ourselves up as an example of the Godly life? Because I’m afraid I lack what it takes for others – my children, my friends, my blog readers – to want to aspire to be like me and, therefore, like God.”

You see, I have a lot of inadequacies in the aspirational areas, but the main one is that I know too little, and I admit it too often. I confess to cleaning my toilets and my children with embarrassing irregularity. I make people wear shoes in my house because I’m not sure what they might step in, and I should probably make people wear shoes in my theology for the same reason. I parent less-than-perfect children in less-than-perfect ways, and I actually prefer it that way

“This is no way to be an example to others,” I told my dad, “no way to point the way to Christ, despite the relief I feel in living this life. Some days, I don’t strive to be the best Jesus-follower I can be. Some days, it’s all I can do to breathe.”

But my dad said the most amazing thing to me in response to my self-flagellation. 

My former-Marine father who likes things to be orderly,

…my Christian missionary father who stashed emergency-reference copies of Dr. Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child throughout my childhood home,

…my traditional-interpretation-of-Scripture father who wonders where I get my wild and crazy theological ideas,

…that father of mine said, 

“What if the root word of aspiration isn’t only to aspire to? What if the root word of aspiration is also to aspirate? To expel or dislodge the things that make people choke? To tell a truth that is so wild and so free that it helps people learn to breathe? What if you’re called to be that kind of aspiration?”

And I thought, by God, if this life is about helping people breathe, I can do that

Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe.

I used to prefer for God to live in a box. Neat and tidy. Quiet and nice.

Now my life is full of questions. It’s messier and louder, more disruptive and fulfilling, than I imagined.

And I? 

I can finally breathe. 

***

Check out Beth's blog. Find her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter.

Check out the rest of the entries in our faith and parenting series.

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Missing

'Wheel 090520081760' photo (c) 2008, Roland Tanglao - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

For our faith and parenting series today we are joined by the incredibly talented Michelle DeRusha.  Michelle lives in Nebraska with her husband Brad and two boys—contemplative Noah and red-haired Rowan.  She writes a monthly column for the Lincoln Journal Star and his a frequent contributor to The High Calling. Michelle is working on a memoir that I’ve had the chance to take a peek at, and, let me tell you it’s amazing. She blogs about finding and keeping faith in the everyday at Graceful.

***

Transient

 “Mommy, do you think you miss people when you’re in Heaven?” he asks, calling the question over his shoulder as we pedal across the empty parking lot.

“You mean the people we leave behind on Earth?” I ask. My eyes are on his back. His shoulder blades jut sharply beneath his tee-shirt.

“Yeah,” says my 10-year-old son, Noah. “Do you think when you’re in Heaven you miss the people still on Earth? Because, you know, it seems like you would.” 

The question springs out of nowhere. They always do. The boys’ paternal grandparents have both died in the last 18 months, and, as a result, I’ve fielded dozens of questions about illness, dying, death, God, Heaven and Hell – most of which I can’t answer. At least not definitively. 

When Haukebo, as my kids called her, was in her last days of hospice care, the boys were curious about the physical aspects of death. 

“What happens to her body?” Rowan, my six-year-old, asked me one afternoon from the backseat of the minivan as we drove to the soccer field.

When I began to explain the notion of the body versus the soul, he interrupted me. “No. I mean what willhappen to her body? Where will it go after she dies?” 

I’d been hoping to avoid this issue entirely. I didn’t relish the thought of delving into an explanation of burial and cremation with a six- and ten-year-old. 

“Well,” I paused, glancing in the rear view mirror. Both boys stared sullenly out the windows. “Sometimes the body goes into the ground, in a place called a cemetery, where people can visit and bring flowers and talk to the person they love.” 

I knew my mother-in-law wanted to be cremated, and I didn’t want to mislead the boys, so I pressed on. “And other times, the body is cremated, which means it goes into a fire.” I decided not to mention the ashes.

Rowan’s head snapped to attention, eyes wide. “What? Haukebo’s going into a fire?” he howled. “I don’t want that!” Noah stared out the window, unresponsive. 

“It’s okay, honey, it’s okay,” I soothed, panic fluttering in the pit of my stomach. “She won’t feel it because she’ll be in Heaven with God. Her body won’t feel the fire.”

I held my breath, gripping the steering wheel with two hands. The conversation turned to Super Mario Bros., the boys laughing over their favorite characters. I drove to the soccer field, swallowing tears.

As we’ve navigated death, grief and loss, I’ve learned that I can’t ever be totally prepared for the questions and discussions that will come my way. I want to have all the correct psychologically and theologically sound responses ready so I can present them to my kids with confidence, assured that I won’t damage them or leave them with lifelong fears or doubts.  I want a cheat sheet I can pull from my purse, run my finger down to the appropriate topic – cremation, yes, here we go – and recite the perfect answer. 

Frankly, I want someone else to answer their questions – a trained professional, someone I can hold responsible. But they don’t want the answers from someone else. My boys want the answers from me. So I muddle along, never knowing when the next question will come or what it will be. I pray a lot, asking God for guidance and the right words. And I answer, “I don’t know” more often than I’d like, admitting to my kids that many of the questions they ask, I still ask, too.

Noah stops pedaling so I can catch up with him, and we coast side-by-side under a canopy of oak leaves. “I think maybe we won’t miss people too much when we’re in Heaven,” I tell him, “because, you know, missing is kind of a sad feeling, and I don’t think we’ll be sad in Heaven.”

He pedals quietly. I can tell he’s thinking about my answer. 

“I don’t know much about Heaven for sure, honey, except that God and Jesus are there, and Papa and Haukebo,” I add as we pick up speed, cruising under the A Street bridge. “I think we’ll find out more someday when we get there.” 

It seems like I offer that answer – the “someday” answer – a lot, because often, it’s the only answer I’ve got.  

***

Subscribe to Michelle’s blog, follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.

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Peace Like a River

Today’s guest post on faith and parenting comes to us all the way from Laos, via the talented Lisa McKay. Lisa is a mother (she is also an author and a psychologist who specializes in trauma and resilience, but during these foggy days of early parenthood, those other identities sometimes feel remote indeed). Lisa’s first novel, My Hands Came Away Red, was published in 2007, and was nominated for a Christy Award.  A memoir, Love At The Speed of Email, will be released in June. Lisa lives with her husband, Mike, and their baby son in Laos, where Mike works for a humanitarian organization. She blogs here.

***

Transient

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if.” After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

***

Posts in our faith & parenting series: 
Leaving Church, Finding Faith: Why We Didn't Stay For The Kids by Kim Van Brunt 
"Will You Always Believe in Jesus, Mama?"  (Anonymous)

Posts by Lisa McKay:
The Blessings of the Bai Si 

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.