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According to the Buddha, right speech is a statement that is timely, true, kind, helpful (connected to liberation), and spoken with a mind of good-will. Let us all try to observe this precept.
My prison pen pal "Jon", who is serving a life sentence in California for a burglary-related homicide, continues his efforts to grow in self-awareness and spiritual maturity through writing. I thought this recent poem was one of his finest, expressing compassion for his child-self alongside remorse for the flawed path he took as an adult. It's a simple but deep story that I imagine many troubled young men will recognize as their own.
Of Father, From Prison
I used to smile in wonder
at the barb of the fish hook
and however you managed to get worms
so delicately placed and pierced.
Then even when you showed me how
I still couldn't do it on my own
and sometimes couldn't bear to look.
I used to sit and wander
as the landscapes became cities
with people beneath the lights of day.
Drifting by in gusts of winds
of mountaintops and Mayberrys
and cow filled fields and stars.
Watching from the passenger seat
while you drove your precious truck
and I waited for my turn
that had finally never come.
I used to be amazed
at all the grand and well told stories
of the life you really never led.
I realized I never even knew you
when I noticed they were lies.
You were gentle, very quiet
always private and reclusive.
You could fix anything inanimate
yet never repair the troubled minds
of yourself or those around you.
And I can think of all the places
you would take me as I grew.
Leaving us with memories
of decaying and joyless days,
of worms, fish hooks and barbs.
And I would be amazed
if you ever came to know
how very much alike
we've finally become.
I do not wander in wonders anymore
but sometimes think of who you are.
You living in your solitude
and me stuck within my own.
Where computers are your company, while books become my best of friends.
Your prison is in a house
and mine within a cell.
Inside the worlds of our own making,
trapped within our mortal shells.
Poetry by William J. Reiter: "Jimi & a hundred & one blue airborne rangers"
I recently got an email from Bill Reiter of Iowa, a poet, Vietnam veteran, and National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient for playwriting. We haven't been able to confirm whether we're related, but all Reiters are welcome at the Block. He kindly shares this poem with our readers.
jimi & a hundred & one blue airborne rangers (the summer of love 1967)
it was a hall
an old movie house really
in the city of saint francis
near the ocean called peace
a grace slick-like chick
was jumpin’ in blue white strobe lights
amorphous light shows pulsating walls
all just a prologue to hendrix
he came out at last
a ‘fro imitation of a black ragdoll
escaped from some absurd beckett cast
surely a tragedy or farce was about to unfold
in the silver screen-less seat-less theater
above a stoned blue clowning crowd
he struck left-handed
upside down strings
a bell-bottomed blue heron
with piercing dark eyes
heavy with one guitar wing
he looked down at us as if into san francisco’s blue bay
from coit’s tower
as if to jump from another hughes burly bird
i pushed to the front to hear
his voice soft wings
on the wind cries mary
gliding around us
around the statue of saint francis
in the city of saint francis
near the ocean called peace
like a cable car hushing up telegraph hill
i wanted to know about over there
and he played alarums purple haze
murderous intent in hey joe
pain of rejection star spangled banner
with its true blue taps near the end
jimi left the stage that night
prophesying his own end
which came eventually street easy
a barbiturate permanent sleep
he was right-on however about over there
and as he knew coming back was worse
Who is like the Lord our God, the one who sits enthroned on high?...He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. (Psalm 113:5, 9)
Mother's Day has always been a difficult holiday for me. Unlike Christmas or Thanksgiving, there's no larger goal to take the focus off one's personal life and the ways it conforms or fails to conform to a Hallmark card.
Because of her trauma issues, my biological mother never felt sufficiently loved or special. On Mother's Day, she was especially disappointed and confused by the contrast between how she was supposed to feel and how she actually felt. No matter what we did, it wasn't enough. Now that she and my other mom are apart, her ex-partner has had space to grow into the mother I need, no longer forced into the shadows. But it's been a long time coming.
Many infertile and waiting adoptive moms can relate to the loneliness of those years when Mother's Day came around again and we still didn't have our child. We belonged to an unseen minority who couldn't help but recognize the complexity of this thing we call "motherhood", so oversimplified by the sentimental mainstream. Birthmothers, too, may wonder what this day should mean to them. There are no words for loss in the language of this holiday, just pink flowers and brunch and cards that say "you're the bestest".
Last year, on my first Mother's Day as a mom, I was depressed, and ashamed of it. I loved my one-month-old son. I was so proud to sit in the "parents with small children" pew in church for the first time ever. But the pain of our adoption journey hadn't healed. I felt pressured by the rhetoric of motherhood to pretend that everything was hearts-and-flowers, that this moment made all the past betrayals worthwhile.
It didn't help that it coincided with the date when our birthmother's consent became irrevocable. Now it's REAL. Help me, mommy! I called her up to give her good wishes and support. Her confidence in me, her comfort with her decision, made me believe I really deserved to celebrate, at last.
Just as I push back against aggressive projections of masculinity onto my 13-month-old (I swear, he comes by that cowboy swagger naturally), I continue to deconstruct the false choices inherent in popular ideas of motherhood. Adulthood and sacrifice versus immaturity and freedom. Being ridiculed for hypervigilance yet blamed for anything that goes wrong with one's child. Mothering, as opposed to generic "parenting", is by definition a female activity. And we all know what fun it is to be female in our society. Maybe that's one reason I was so afraid of it.
Therefore, mothering, for me, is also an invitation to lean into the political responsibility that goes along with adulthood. This passage from the "Motherhood and Daughterhood" chapter of Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born spoke to me during those early days of transformation into Shane's Mom:
The "unchilded" woman, if such a term makes any sense, is still affected by centuries-long attitudes--on the part of both women and men--towards the birthing, child-rearing function of women. Any woman who believes that the institution of motherhood has nothing to do with her is closing her eyes to crucial aspects of her situation.
Many of the great mothers have not been biological. The novel Jane Eyre...can be read as a woman-pilgrim's progres along a path of classic female temptation, in which the motherless Jane time after time finds women who protect, solace, teach, challenge, and nurture her in self-respect. For centuries, daughters have beem strengthened and energized by nonbiological mothers, who have combined a care for the practical values of survival with an incitement toward further horizons, a compassion for vulnerability with an insistence on our buried strengths. It is precisely this that has allowed us to survive...
We are, none of us, "either" mothers or daughters; to our amazement, confusion, and greater complexity, we are both. Women, mothers or not, who feel committed to other women, are increasingly giving each other a quality of caring filled with the diffuse kinds of identification that exist between actual mothers and daughters. Into the mere notion of "mothering" we may carry, as daughters, negative echoes of our own mothers' martyrdom, the burden of their valiant, necessarily limited efforts on our behalf, the confusion of their double messages. But it is a timidity of the imagination which urges that we can be "daughters"--therefore free spirits--rather than "mothers"--defined as eternal givers. Mothering and nonmothering have been such charged concepts for us, precisely because whichever we did has been turned against us.
To accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in ourselves is no easy matter, because patriarchal attitudes have encouraged us to split, to polarize, these images, and to project all unwanted guilt, anger, shame, power, freedom, onto the "other" woman. But any radical vision of sisterhood demands that we reintegrate them. (pgs. 252-53)
My Poem "The Name-Stone" at Utmost Christian Writers
My poem "The Name-Stone" just received an Honorable Mention in this year's contest for Christian poets at Utmost Christian Writers. This Canadian website has been very supportive of my work over the years. Read all the winners here. (Some are still in the process of being posted as of today, April 18. Check again in a few days if you don't see a link to the one you want.)
The poem was inspired by a discussion in my church's adult education group about a verse from the Book of Revelation: "To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it." One of our members, a retired Anglican priest, said this could refer to the ancient Near Eastern practice of friends making a keepsake at parting. They would write their names on a stone or lump of clay and break it in half, each one retaining a piece that uniquely fit the other.
I will give you a stone
with a secret under it.
As children in the Galilee
wrote friendship's names on both ends
of such a shard, and broke it
and went away, each to his own desert.
nothing to give one another
but a ragged edge
to its companion, meant love.
Where do the gouged letters lie,
in temple midden or the royal road's thorns?
What hands crushed the clay?
I will give you a piece
of unmarked earth.
Not the name
your mother pressed onto your lips
to seal the scroll of her sorrows.
Not the name
your father spilled
like an ox-dragged harrow,
a plow with no sower.
They only know the name
that decoy, death,
reared above the spot
where you left this ground.
Granite praises granite,
over the marble lamb,
speak both parts
of the absolving script.
But I will give you a riven rock
to drink from its flood heart,
the rock I broke myself
to fit you.
Just this morning in church I was thinking about the Middle Ages, how their artwork was full of death, real death with grinning skulls and rotting flesh, and how this is considered the era in Western history when Christian belief was most alive and all-pervasive. How many of us who walked through the door this morning literally believe the words on the banner over our heads: "Christ is Risen"? Do I believe it? And by "literally" I mean "in a way that robs death of its power". For me that also means "historically true". For you it may not. But either way, that's the job that "Christ is Risen" has to do.
I'm reading this absorbing, brilliant, painful novel called Swimming, by Nicola Keegan, which I found through this excerpt in Narrative Magazine. It's about an Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose competitive drive is fundamentally an escape from her oppressive consciousness of death, triggered by family losses in her childhood and her mother's subsequent spiral into housebound depression. Replace swimming with academic achievement and you have my life story. As I near the book's end, I keep wondering why the heroine is proceeding down the very modern track of turning to therapy rather than religion when talent fails her and she has to face her long-buried feelings. Unlike my largely secular childhood, this fictional girl was immersed in Midwestern Catholic-school culture and has great respect and affection for the nuns who mentored her. Yet that framework proves powerless to help her or her family surmount their despair when confronted with mortality. Why?
Maybe it's because modern Christianity doesn't depict death enough. The church doesn't spend enough time on the shadow side, allowing sorrow and pain to have their say, not prematurely silenced by happy endings. (If I ran the world, I'd have a second Lent halfway through Pentecost. Do we really need 29 weeks of ordinary time, people?) Those who are still angry and grieving may feel that the only way to validate their feelings is to reject the faith.
Later today I found some of these sentiments echoed in Robert Gross's paranormal gay romance story "Dark Lapis", published in the online journal Wilde Oats. Reiter's Block readers may recall his poem "Poor Souls" reprinted here last month. The plague that passes through his fictional Renaissance city is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s-1990s, and the younger generation's tendency to dismiss it as old history even though new infection rates remain high. It also reminded me of post-9/11 New York City and the shallow slogans ("Fight back! Go shopping!") that were supposed to return a stricken populace to business as usual.
From "Dark Lapis":
...The city was returning to its weddings and babies, lawsuits and public executions, and the anomalies were generally spoken of with a sigh, a shake of the head, a pious reference to the long-term costs of the pestilence, and an abrupt change of topic. But Magnus was drawn to anomalies. Though he would not admit it to anyone, he distrusted the return of the city to normalcy just as much as he was horrified by the return of spring. He preferred the fog, the darkness, the lapis lazuli ring on his finger. The incised griffin turned inward toward his palm, caressed with a thumb.
The cruel fact was Magnus missed the pestilence. He could scarcely contemplate the immensity of this truth to himself, nor could he communicate it to others. To think of it was like holding a hot poker to your flesh, but there it was-the truth-and it rarely left him. Not that he was anything like the mad monks who raved on the street corners at the height of the pestilence, relishing how the Scourge of God had smitten the sinners. Not that he wished another human soul a moment's suffering. But he was not yet willing to put it out of his mind as the others seemed to have done, and he walked at night searching for proof that it had not yet lapsed completely into forgetfulness.
The city had marshaled its efforts behind recovery; religion had become reasonable, gentle, and omnipresent. Services were watercolor washes of music and flowers, and the ministers wore white as if they were officiating at weddings. The goal, their flock had been admonished, had been to persevere and in time forget the bad memories and continue with only the good. As if, Magnus thought, the horror were the flesh, the final memory the skeleton, and time were decomposition. He found this offensive. How could he ever forget the worst that had happened? The boils. The vomiting. Fever and ravings. The remedies as violent as the pestilence, which never worked for long if at all. Later he found it loathsome. What good was memory that was so skittish and indulgent, so afraid of pain that it locked the door and boarded it over?
Those days had been a light so unspeakably brilliant you could neither open your eyes to it nor close your eyes tightly enough to keep it out. Even with your eyes shut you were blinded by it. It was so intense that only in retrospect could you take in its excruciating vibrancy. The change, the loss, the revelation; the multiple obliterations of them, of everything. The vividness of one minute corner of existence until it threatened to set you and the whole universe ablaze or tear you open like a knife ripping through canvas. And now nothing had that. Not even the spring blossoms could match it.
Rapper Macklemore is best known for his comical music video "Thrift Shop", which went viral this year. But it turns out his awesomeness goes way beyond an ode to my favorite pastime. His song "Same Love" provides the soundtrack for this heartwarming 7-minute movie in support of gay marriage.
"Crime Against Nature": A Lesbian Mother's Poetic Manifesto
Minnie Bruce Pratt's Crime Against Nature is everything a poetry collection should be. Politically urgent but never one-dimensional, in language that's always clear but never pedestrian, this groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life.
The speaker grieves, rages, yet bravely refuses to take the blame for the impossible choice forced upon her. "This is not the voice of the guilty mother," she writes. Connecting her loss to other forms of oppression and violence against women, she dares to dream of a world that "will not divide self from self, self from life."
Crime Against Nature was originally published in 1989 by Firebrand Press and won the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize, a second-book award from the Academy of American Poets. A Midsummer Night's Press, in conjunction with the lesbian literary journal Sinister Wisdom, reissued it this year in an expanded edition with historical notes and an author essay. It is the first book in their "Sapphic Classics" series reprinting iconic lesbian poetry that is now out of print. Subscribers to this excellent journal will receive future Sapphic Classics (one a year) as the equivalent of one magazine issue. Crime Against Nature does double duty as Issue #88.
Sinister Wisdom editor Julie R. Enszer has kindly given me permission to reprint a sample poem below. I chose this one because I could relate to the speaker's dilemma between speaking and not speaking about trauma. In the end it is better to speak, even when it hurts. It sets free others' "tongues of ice", as well as your own. Thank you, Minnie Bruce Pratt.
Justice, Come Down
A huge sound waits, bound in the ice, in the icicle roots, in the buds of snow on fir branches, in the falling silence of snow, glittering in the sun, brilliant as a swarm of gnats, nothing but hovering wings at midday. With the sun comes noise. Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter, splinter, speak. If I could write the words.
Simple, like turning a page, to say Write what happened, but this means a return to the cold place where I am being punished. Alone to the stony circle where I am frozen, the empty space, children, mother, father gone, lover gone away. There grief still sits and waits, grim, numb, keeping company with anger. I can smell my anger like sulfur- struck matches. I wanted what had happened to be a wall to burn, a window to smash. At my fist the pieces would sparkle and fall. All would be changed. I would not be alone.
Instead I have told my story over and over at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass.
Ashamed, people turned their faces away from the woman ranting, asking: Justice, stretch out your hand. Come down, glittering, from where you have hidden yourself away.
Counties Hoard Prison Rehab Funding, Few Inmates Helped
Two years ago the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding, which had reached the point of unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment". The state then released numerous low-level offenders and granted funding to county officials to run rehab programs for the probationers. The only problem, according to this article in the Sacramento News & Review, is that the counties actually hoard the state dollars instead of directing it toward non-state-sponsored rehab programs with a proven track record. Probationers wind up in a revolving door of re-arrests for petty offenses, because the high recidivism rate helps the county argue that it needs more state funding for probation officers and jails. From the article:
Tim Gene Sanders is about to get busted for possessing a saltshaker.
It’s February 2011, and Sanders is on his way home from a community center in Citrus Heights. He hangs a left on Auburn Boulevard when a patrol cruiser pulls him up short for making an unsafe lane change. The hangdog ex-con with the rebel-cool hair knows the drill. He’s on probation, so the cops get to toss his vehicle. Inside, they find a saltshaker and an empty sandwich bag. Sanders was snacking on hard-boiled eggs, but Citrus Heights’ finest assume the white granules at the bottom of the shaker are meth.
By the time the charges are dropped, the damage is done. Sanders spends 19 days in county jail and loses his car to a prohibitive impound fee. His house goes next.
“That’s the system,” Sanders says. “That’s how the system works.”
He would know. He got out of Sacramento County Main Jail only days ago for taking Tylenol with codeine No. 3. The pain meds—prescribed by a doctor after Sanders got out of the clink and hoofed it 10 miles on arthritic hips to his car—made it appear there was heroin in his system. Before that, Sanders went to jail for seeing the doctor instead of his parole officer.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It's Personal
The first day of April, the day after Easter. A breezy spring day, clouds speeding across the shining blue sky. Outside our town courthouse, a new flag has joined the Stars & Stripes atop the flagpole on the lawn. On a red ground, six paper-doll cut-out children, all blue except for one red body.
Awareness months and colored ribbons have their drawbacks. They can feel hokey and self-congratulatory, or smack of tokenism for issues that deserve year-round attention. But they can also provide a conversational opening to broach an uncomfortable topic. As my Lenten discipline recedes into the rearview mirror, I can attest that a month of anything is a manageable spiritual practice, while a lifelong resolution can seem overwhelming and self-defeating.
I had all those reactions, positive and negative, as I gazed up at the red and blue flag snapping in the wind. One child was different from the others. It didn't help me to think about that. I guessed it was a reference to the "1 in 6" statistic, meant to send the message that child abuse is more prevalent than we'd like to believe. The logo was probably a gesture toward normalizing survivors, but my gut reaction was the opposite. It looked like a representation of how abuse victims feel--singled out, conspicuously tainted, separate from the human community. The logo reified this division. Red and blue. Us and them.
I don't know how you'd put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common--with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe--about God, power, knowledge, sexuality--that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?
I didn't realize I was a child abuse survivor until a few years ago, because the violations weren't physical (as far as I can remember). My biological mother was physically abusive and controlling to her partner, which took center stage in how I thought about my childhood. I had to encounter abuse in other contexts, as an adult, before I recognized the pattern in my past.
First, vicariously, as an advocate for gay rights, I started to notice how the religious arguments against homosexuality would forcibly rewrite a gay person's interpretation of his own bodily sensations and affections, trying to brainwash him into feeling pleasure as pain, integrity as brokenness. This is similar to how a sexual abuser teaches a child to dissociate, to disbelieve what her body tells her. As Martha Beck contends in Leaving the Saints, her memoir of incest in the Mormon Church, a religion creates split personalities when it commands adherents to accept demonstrably false facts. Such training primes people to be both abusers and victims.
I was raised by two moms, but the homophobic theology didn't just offend me as an ally. It felt like it struck deeper. It was like a sword poised to sever me from my awareness of God. And I couldn't explain why.
When I spoke up about this, I hit an emotional brick wall with some Christian friends. Our study groups were no longer a safe place for honesty, for me at least. Some conversations detoured around me as if I hadn't spoken. At other times, my boundaries around discussing certain personal matters were ignored, because my feelings were merely human preferences that couldn't stand in the way of my friend's obligation to save my soul. We were adults sitting in a room having tea; why was I speechless with terror at my sudden invisibility, why tearfully desperate to wring compassion from a heart gone cold?
Searching for a better way to re-imagine my faith, I obsessively read feminist and pro-LGBT Christian websites. One of these led me to the "escape from Christian patriarchy" blogs such as No Longer Quivering and Love, Joy, Feminism. Though my upbringing included neither Christianity nor a patriarch, I was astounded to find how closely my experience mirrored that of girls raised in a fundamentalist breeder cult, right down to the "prairie muffin" dresses.
The penny dropped when these blogs did a series on emotional incest. I never knew that was a thing. I used to say, "Well, my mother was really really enmeshed and co-dependent with me...and OCD...and she hated it when I got married...and she had a breakdown when I tried to have a baby...and...and..." Now, I was like, "So that's why I have so much in common with my BFF who just recovered her incest memories!"
The point is, I wouldn't have been ready to face this truth about my past if I hadn't been prepared with analogies to other forms of oppression, such as homophobia and spiritual abuse. These common factors gave me a sense of solidarity, overcoming some of the isolation and stigma I relived when I saw the courthouse flag today. I had a political outlet for my anger instead of expending it all in the secret confines of a therapist's office. This solidarity continues to help me overcome the memories of being stunted, shut away, wasted, consumed.
Should I be telling you this, my readers? Should I embarrass the person who gave me life, whose own life is lonely and empty now because of a thousand choices to turn away from health? All I can say is, I could blog about "child abuse" in the abstract, I could link to a dozen resources run by "out" survivors whom I admire immensely, but I would still be dishonest if I kept silence in a way that implied, I'm one of the blue children on the flag, not that red one. No, I was just a child. This is my story.
Poet and dancer Robert Gross, whom I met last year at the Ollom Movement Art summer program, has kindly given me permission to reprint this prose-poem. It was first published in the current issue of the St. Sebastian Review, an LGBTQ Christian literary webzine. As I read it, "Poor Souls" suggests that every sin and regret that seems to separate us from God is trivial compared to the magnitude of God's love, if we could only see it properly.
Little by little, they unfold out of purgatory; origami figures undone in silence, each a metaphysical yawn, a backbend out of time. Everything slow-motions to the beat of rosaries and suffusions of incense, the unclocked passage of steady repentance. Atom by atom, the gilt wears off; innocence emerges. Back then, I would’ve given anything . . .
They stagger out of the dead-letter office, each one exhausted by the dusty bins of misaddressed intentions, insufficient postage, the vast shabbiness of venial offenses. They squint, contemplate the deserted plaza, sigh. No such thing as an original sin, they chuckle, just the steady dissipation of extenuating circumstances, endlessly recycled . . . the gun misfired. . . I couldn’t get it up . . . I thought desirously of his lips, then sneezed . . . sins of omission and implication, of reverie and miscalculation, inertia and cliché. Nothing and everything mortal.
I was determined to offend big-time but my mother came to visit . . . Imperceptibly, each infraction becomes unfascinating, silly, dwindles before the massiveness of love. I even considered . . . I know this sounds ridiculous . . .I can’t remember how . . .
One by one, the penitents come unmoored and are carried out to sea. A delicate flotilla awash in perpetual indulgence and plainchant; crystalline buoys impelled toward a luminous horizon.
Reiter's Block fans, I apologize for the shortage of original material lately. I have been keeping my vow to give up worrying about my writing for Lent, and accordingly have been working hard on a scandalous and completely unpublishable experiment in personal prose. I hope you have been enjoying the poetry reprints from writers I admire.
For Christians following the Western calendar, we are now in Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, when we commemorate and meditate upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Here are some timely links that I found helpful to my Lenten reflections.
At the Jesus in Love website for queer spirituality and the arts, Kittredge Cherry is showcasing a Stations of the Cross paintings series by Mary Button. These arresting images find parallels between the stages of Christ's journey to Calvary and pivotal moments in LGBT history. For instance, Button pairs the nailing to the cross with a gay person forced into electroshock therapy to "cure" homosexuality.
Last week, a number
of Christian and former-Christian feminist bloggers participated in
Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week. Progressive evangelical writer
Rachel Held Evans has posted a good overview of the series. I particularly liked this quote from her interview with Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E., an organization that educates churches about how to combat sexual abuse: "In the nearly two decades I’ve worked as or with prosecutors, I never get asked about false allegations of burglary, robbery, arson or a host of other offenses. However, nearly every time I speak to lay persons about child abuse the question of false allegations is among the first things lay persons ask." Yes indeed...why do abuse victims have the additional burden of convincing people that the crime really happens? Our uncritical acceptance of rape myths is a good place to start our repentant soul-searching.
Christian feminist blogger Sarah Over the Moon, inspired by James Cone's liberation theology, rejects the abusive image of God in traditional "penal substitution" atonement, in favor of a vision of Jesus who stands with the oppressed, even unto death:
The cross cannot just mean that we are “saved from sin,” and “going to heaven.” Our speaking about the cross cannot just sound like those cliched platitudes that Christians often tell those who are hurting. The cross that Jesus reclaimed from the Roman Empire has fallen back into the hands of oppressors, becoming a tool of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of heterosexism and transphobia, of the military and prison industrial complex, of those who wage warfare on the poor.
But I want to reclaim it, like Christ did.
If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.
The cross of Jesus reveals the ugly truth behind oppressive power, and then the cross mocks that power through the resurrection.
The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.
The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed–in a world that tries to convince us that we are not even human–that we are not only made in God’s image, but that God came to earth to be made in ours.
The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed that we can take up our crosses and our protest signs and join together, armed with the power of love, to defeat the powers that rape, abuse, and murder us.
The cross of Jesus tells us that they can kill our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they win.
Poetry by Donal Mahoney: "Woman in the Day Room Crying"
Reiter's Block contributor Donal Mahoney describes the inspiration for this poem as follows: "Fresh out graduate school in English in 1962, I had a pregnant wife and couldn't find a job. At that time, a degree in anything qualified a person to be a caseworker in Chicago. Seeing hundreds of clients, one sometimes suspected child abuse in the adult the child had become. PTSD isn't the product of war alone."
Woman in the Day Room Crying
Lightning bolts in childhood
can scar the soul forever.
They're a satanic baptism
when the minister's your father,
mother, brother, sister,
anyone taller, screaming,
shooting flames from the sky
all day, all night.
The years go by
but the scars remain.
The pale moonlight of age
makes them easier to see
and scratch until they burst
and bleed again,
another reason I wake up
at night screaming.
When the daylight comes,
I talk about the scars
when no one is around
to say shut up!
I draw the details in a mural
on the walls and ceilings so
everyone can see the storms
that never left a rainbow.
Poetry by Rosalía de Castro: "Dos Palomas" (The Two Doves)
Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885) was a Spanish Romantic poet who is recognized as the most outstanding modern writer in the Galician language. Australian writer John H. Reid, who is affiliated with our Winning Writers contest resource website, also happens to be an expert on de Castro and introduced me to her work. He kindly shares his translation of her poem "Dos Palomas" below. Apologies if the accent marks in the Spanish version don't appear properly in your browser.
Rosalía de Castro
Dos palomas yo vi que se encontraron
cruzando los espacios
y al resbalar sus alas se tocaron...
Cual por magia tal vez, al roce leve
las dos se estremecieron,
y un dulce encanto, indefinible y breve,
en sus almas sintieron.
Y torciendo su marcha en un momento
al contemplarse solas,
se mecieron alegres en el viento
como un cisne en las olas.
Juntáronse y volaron
y un mundo nuevo a su placer buscaron
y otro más puro ambiente.
Y le hallaron al fin, y el nido hicieron
en blanda cama de azucena y rosas,
y en ella se adurmieron
con las libres y blancas mariposas.
Y al despertar sus picos se juntaron,
y en la aurora luciente
sus caricias de amor se retrataron
como sombra riente.
Y en nubes de oro y de zafir bogaban
cual ondulante nave
en la tranquila mar, y se arrullaban
cual céfiro süave.
Juntas las dos al declinar del día
cansadas se posaban,
y aun los besos el aura recogía
que en sus picos jugaban.
Y así viviendo inmarchitables flores
sus días coronaron,
y nunca los amargos sinsabores
sus delicias turbaron.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
¡Felices esas aves que volando
libres en paz por el espacio corren
de purísima atmósfera gozando!
The Two Doves
rendered from the Spanish of Rosalía de Castro
by John H. Reid
I saw two doves flying in the sky
when suddenly their wings touched
and they were momentarily joined together...
A light touch it’s true, perhaps by magic,
but the two trembled. They were shaken,
and a sweet charm, brief but indefinable,
infused their souls.
Suddenly their two single flights
became twisted into one,
and they were happily rocked in the wind
like a swan on the waves.
Joined together, they flew tenderly attached.
To their pleasure, a visionary world opened,
and a more totally captivating environment.
At last, at the end of their flight,
they jointly find their nest
in a soft bed of lilies and roses,
where they sleep together,
free and white, like butterflies.
At dawn, they raise their beaks together,
and in the shining light of the new day,
their loving caresses make a bright,
cheerful parasol over their nest.
In clouds of gold and sapphire,
they row a rolling ship
in a tranquil sea,
and coo gently
in the day’s
Together the two exchange
the honey in their beaks.
And thus their days were capped
in these living, unfading flowers,
and bitter disappointments never
disturbed their delights.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Happy those peaceful birds flying free
enjoying the expanse and purity
of a virginal atmosphere!
Second only to Jesus for today's Republican politicians, the libertarian novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand is their favorite author they've never actually read. If pressed, they'd mumble something about cutting welfare and returning to the gold standard. But that's where the overlap begins and ends. Rand--an atheist, intellectual elitist, pro-choicer, celebrator of the sexual life force, and opponent of all state-sponsored coercion and pork-barrel politics--would shudder to be associated with the militarism, corporate welfare, and religious fundamentalism of our GOP.
However, most liberals viciously reject her, too. Some of it is guilt by association. Anyone Glenn Beck admires must be an evil kook, right? Another problem is that feminists have never known how to react to right-wing women. Rand frustrates feminist categorization because of her hyper-masculinity combined with sexual masochism. She brazened her way into the male-dominated field of philosophy, sang the praises of career women during the "Leave It to Beaver" era, and became a bestselling author and lecturer, but despised traditionally feminine characteristics (emotion, softness, intuition, "weakness", altruism) and wrote sex scenes that anticipated 50 Shades of Gray.
More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, Rand's novels continue to be wildly successful 31 years after her death, but you'll never see them on those highbrow male-dominated lists of the Greatest 100. One could say that The Fountainhead was the Twilight of its day. It's not only that Howard Roark and Edward the vampire (oh, I'd love to read that slash fanfiction!) display a similar icy-hard beauty and ruthlessly self-controlled masculine energy. It's also that their audience is that much-despised breed, the lonely teenage girl.
The sensitive girl. The girl who reads. The girl whose feelings are so strong she needs an 800-page-book to hold them down. The victim who would be more than a victim, who would fling her masculine shadow-self against the universe and dream of him returning to her as a glittering protector.
The trauma survivor.
Tragically, for someone whose watchword was integrity, Rand's work is shot through with the faultlines of unhealed psychological splitting.
On one side, all the parts of the self that could make a person prone to trauma (or to remembering it): The subconscious. The unknowable. The need for connection to others. Empathy. Emotion. The female body. On the other side, all the traits of her fantasy protector: Reason. Control. Independence. The macho machine. One must identify completely with the "strong" traits and wipe out the "weak" ones.
Rand's detractors have pointed to this obsession with strength as a sign of fascist sympathies. In this case, though, the personal isn't political. Rand's politics were always closer to free-market anarchism than fascism. The war is not against the untermenschen but within the self.
I began to understand her this way after reading some essays in the excellent anthology Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Revisiting Rand's quoted sex scenes, which I hadn't ever read very closely, I was struck by her fascination with the near-invisible line between rape and rough play. Each of her heroines tests how close she can get without going over the edge. Rand had a homeopathic approach to consent; one molecule of it, apparently, could transform a sordid violation into a grappling of titans. The omniscient narrator always assures us that the heroine signaled her desire (without anything so pedestrian and vulnerable as talking about feelings, naturally), and that the hero would stop if she indicated otherwise.
Several essays in the anthology predictably debated whether Rand was anti-feminist because she glorified rape, or feminist because she wrote unashamedly about the complexity of women's desires. Coming from a trauma-theory perspective, it seemed to me they made the mistake of assuming that Rand said exactly what she meant. Certainly that was the claim she always made for her fiction--all conscious planning, no subconscious counter-currents. As if any writer could do that.
I think, instead, that these scenes represent an imaginative rescripting of a powerless experience into a powerful one. The raw material is so raw that it can't be acknowledged directly. It has to be hedged around with flowery abstractions so that any possibility of a real, un-enjoyable rape disappears from view, becoming simply inconceivable in the novel's universe.
Do I have any evidence that Rand herself was repressing a sexual assault memory? No. The trauma of her family's persecution by the Bolsheviks may be enough to explain her lifelong quest to expunge or reinterpret any symptoms of powerlessness in her writing. In this she reminds me of Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett and Rhett's legendary rape-seduction scene in Gone With the Wind can be understood as a reaction to the perceived emasculation of Southern white society after the Civil War. Like Dominique and Dagny, Scarlett is an unwilling feminist icon. Her dominance is actually a sign that the men around her have failed to lead, until Rhett restores the proper order of things. But that's a subject for another post.
Integrity USA, the group that works for LGBT inclusion within the Episcopal Church, recently announced the winner of their St. Aelred's Day sermon contest. Rev. Heather O'Brien from the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, was honored for her sermon "The Heartbeat of God". She preached about how her relatives' homophobic attitudes prompted her, a straight ally, to search for a better way to imagine the God of love. Read her sermon in PDF format on their website. Here's an excerpt:
It wasn’t until I got to seminary that I found people who knew the God I had been looking for. The God whose most core trait was love, not judgment.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Aelred. Aelred was a monk who eventually ended up leading the monastery of Rieveulx. One of his most famous works is called Spiritual Friendship. In that work, he writes that God is not our Judge but our Lover. Judgment can only inspire change through fear. But love transforms us; changes our hearts. Aelred saw Christ as a companion for our soul, longing for union, rather than a ransom to be paid.
Aelred wrote at length about the ideal relationship of love between Jesus and his beloved disciple John. As one author describes it, Aelred portrays John as striving to hear the heartbeat of God in Jesus and Jesus showing the secrets of his heart to John.
Imagine, in the chaos surrounding thirteen men eating dinner, John quiets, leans over and presses his head to Jesus’ breast. Jesus accepts the show of love and affection as John closes his eyes and allows his heartbeat to begin to echo the one beating against his ear, beating in his soul since before he was born.
God’s grace and love are not forces that must twist and change us into something new and stamp out our true nature in order to re-form us. Rather God’s grace and love are a reminder of a memory so old and so basic that it was a part of us before anything else was. Our hearts have forgotten in a world grown loud – like trying to remember lyrics to a favorite song when the radio is blasting music so loud you can’t think.
God sent Jesus not to sit in judgment over creation but rather as a showing of God’s love for creation. Through his life and death Jesus’ lifeblood beat out the rhythm of God’s heart beat for all to hear and remember themselves. Though we are often weighed down and may feel like we have cotton in our ears. The beat remains a clarion call to all who would remember, to all who would dance.
Former marriage equality foe David Blankenhorn, founder of the conservative think tank The Institute for American Values, made waves last summer with a New York Times editorial describing his conversion to supporting equal rights for same-sex couples. He describes his journey of belief in more detail in a recent interview with Brent Childers of Faith in America, a foundation that combats religion-based prejudice against LGBT Americans. The 20-minute video is well worth watching.
I was inspired and impressed by the depth of Blankenhorn's new understanding. He might have stopped at mere inclusion of "them" in "our" social institutions, but instead he was led to examine his own privileges as a straight white Christian man, and to refocus his theological priorities from legalism to empathy. Around the 13-minute mark, he discusses his realization that any time we use our doctrines and scriptures as a wall or a veil to avoid seeing the other person's full humanity, we completely miss the point of our faith.
What changed Blankenhorn's mind and heart? He says he had been parroting anti-gay rhetoric from his conservative Christian culture, but the people affected were still only abstractions to him, till he met actual queer families and heard their life stories. Ironically, these encounters occurred because of his role as an expert witness in favor of California's gay marriage ban, Proposition 8. Looks like Harvey Milk's advice still works: real-life examples of "out" LGBT people have the power to break down the myths that keep oppression in place.
I'm reminded also of Rachel Held Evans's recent post, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart", where she chastises her fellow Christians for being willing to suppress compassion in the service of doctrinal correctness. While the examples she cites have to do with natural disasters and genocide, her point applies equally well to privileged straight Christians' glib dismissal of the burdens they would impose on LGBT people.
...[W]hat makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?
Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level. I suspect this is why this new breed of rigid Calvinism that follows the “five points” to their most logical conclusion, without regard to the moral implications of them, has flourished in the past twenty years. (I heard a theology professor explain the other day that he had no problem whatsoever with God orchestrating evil acts to accomplish God’s will, for that is what is required for God to be fully sovereign! When asked if this does not make God something of a monster, he responded that it didn’t matter; God is God—end of story.) And I suspect this explains why, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, so many evangelical leaders responded like Job’s friends, eager to offer theological explanations for what happened instead of simply sitting down in the ashes and weeping with their brothers and sisters...
More than 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, Christians still debate the relative importance of good works versus faith in Jesus for salvation. Each team has its favorite proof-texts. Catholics may cite the Epistle of James for the proposition that "faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26) while Protestants lean on St. Paul's words in Romans 3:28 ("a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law").
Never mind that the two authors were probably addressing different issues: St. Paul the question of whether Jewish Christians had an advantage over Gentile ones, and St. James the problem of hypocrisy among professed Christ-followers who didn't show care toward their neighbors. Humans being humans, any religious rule can be turned to self-serving ends, as illustrated by this satiric Lenten contribution by Donal Mahoney, who describes himself as "a believing but misbehaving Roman Catholic".
Waiting for the Umpire by Donal Mahoney
Ralph never planned on dying
but when he did, he was swept away
like a child's kite blown astray.
When he arrived at his destination,
he heard angels singing, harps playing
and Louis Armstrong on the trumpet
so he figured this must be heaven.
A nice old man at the gate, however,
waved him away without directions.
This confused Ralph until he found
an open window in the basement,
climbed in and found an elevator
that took him to the top floor.
There a smiling angel with big wings
walked him up a thousand concrete stairs
and showed him to an empty seat.
Ralph was in the bleachers now
with millions of others, simply waiting.
None of them had a cushion to sit on.
But down in the padded box seats
Ralph saw rabbis, priests and ministers
sitting in the front row, simply waiting.
His barber, Al, was sitting with them.
For 30 years Al had been asking Ralph
while trimming his few remaining tufts of hair
if he had finally been saved or was he still lost.
Ralph would always tell Al he believed in God
but that every year he cheated on his taxes.
Sin is sin, Ralph would quietly point out.
Faith is all you need, Al would shout.
Seeing his barber now in the front row,
Ralph figured that maybe Al had stopped
cheating on his dying wife.
Otherwise, Ralph figured, Al would be sitting
in the cheap seats, waiting with everyone else
in the amphitheater for the Umpire to appear.
In this season of Lent, we are told to "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This reminder of mortality is not meant to make us dwell in gloom, but to practice discerning how to spend our time on what matters most.
Thelma T. Reyna's poem below illustrates this truth. It is reprinted by permission from her forthcoming chapbook, Hearts in Common, available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press through April 5. From the publisher's press release: "Hearts in Common focuses on the commonalities that bind us all together. Poems about the dreams, labors, and heartbreaks of immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, and other parts of the world; about nurses in Haiti treating the dying; about Egyptians in rebellion against their oppressors, join with insightful, poignant poems about the people in our everyday lives: husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children, friends--all of us having 'hearts in common'."
by Thelma T. Reyna
She wasn't supposed to die across the
sunbeams, flowered night-
gown twisted around crumpled knees, eyes
widely unaware and questioning.
She wasn't supposed to die while
her coffeepot called, and toast rose
with a gentle click as she
cajoled and roused sleeping children.
She wasn't supposed to die while
she sang to the terrier licking her ankles,
and her husband ambled to her for their
morning kiss, white coffee mug ready
for his brew.
She wasn't supposed to die like this,
arms around his neck, lips pressed to his ear,
warm breath gearing up for morning talk,
her head tilting back to tell him something
But she died a lightning death, her
big heart failing, her body falling in an
the sunlit floor, her mouth circled in pain,
clutching her breast as her children walked in.
No guarantees. There are no guarantees in life, we've
been told and retold. Grab love, fight loss, find
joy, hang on, believe, and tell yourself again and again
and again that this day, each day, is irretrievable.
Award-winning poet Donna Johnson was an assistant editor at our Winning Writers online publishing business from 2009-2011. I'm glad that the demands of updating our contest database didn't keep her from completing her remarkable first poetry collection, Selvage, now out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. I had the privilege of reading it in manuscript and providing the following blurb:
Selvage, a precise yet uncommon word, refers to the self-finished edge that keeps fabric from fraying. Like that cloth, the girl-turned-woman we follow through these electrifying poems must weave strong edges for herself to keep from being pulled apart by others' desires. She flirts dangerously with alternative selves--the prostituted woman, the fierce nun--to understand her body's potential as it chafes against the proprieties of Southern white girlhood. Selvage sounds like salvage, too, the hardscrabble work of children seeking nourishment and mementos from the wreck of their past. Every poem digs up treasures of insight, words pungent as the air outside the tannery, ineradicable artifacts like the bullet in a slave woman's unearthed spine--not always comfortable to contemplate, but satisfying as only the truth can be.
Donna has kindly given permission to reprint two sample poems, below.
Notions (for Della)
Your mother had notions. Wouldn't buy Ivory soap--
not because she saw the irony, that whiteness
equals purity, not because it reminded her
of all the carved tusks looted from Abidjan ruins
curled around the wrists of Belle Meade denizens--
she thought it smelled common. Cornrows
and Kente cloth were out of the question.
She clung to her book of proper, as if
it could keep one from harm: the hands of boys
inching down your pants, police slowing,
tinted windows rolling down, all because you crossed
the highway that divided the two halves of town.
She taught you to look ahead (like you don't see nothin)
balancing flute case across handlebars,
approaching the house of the first clarinet,
with its lawn boy positioned at the gate,
coat and exaggerated grin, freshly painted red.
Eve Gets a Makeover
I don't like to say anybody's hopeless. But, that yellow Dotted Swiss you just bought--you know, the one with the full dirndl skirt and gathered waist--makes you look wider than you are tall. Enough material in it to patch the Hindenburg. Don't fret, though hon. You got your charms. Jes gotta make use of em before they're gone: a little contour cheek powder, a shade darker than your natural, some highlights. What you waitin for? Plenty women gettin all their stuff done. Who's gonna throw stones? Your kids are clean, their hair is combed. Your make cakes from scratch; once a week you bring that broccoli casserole to the nursin home. I know what they told you. Jesus first, others second, yourself last spells J-O-Y. But joy ain't beauty. And I don't see you displayin much of the former, anyhow, worryin about your husband workin late, maybe findin someone younger. Anyway, the King James did get one thing right: all flesh is grass. That's why you best be ruthless with it. I can help you there. I know flesh. And I know ruthless.
Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Abuse in 2 Minutes (With Music!)
Forget Ariel, Belle, and Tiana. For me, the supreme Disney princess is Rapunzel from Tangled (2010). Underneath the lush colors and catchy songs, this retelling of the fairy tale is a profoundly serious and truthful depiction of a young woman's escape from a cult-like family system.
From the IMDB summary: "After receiving the healing powers from a magical flower, the baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from the palace in the middle of the night by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel knows that the flower's magical powers are now growing within the golden hair of Rapunzel, and to stay young, she must lock Rapunzel in her hidden tower. Rapunzel is now a teenager and her hair has grown to a length of 70-feet. The beautiful Rapunzel has been in the tower her entire life, and she is curious of the outside world. One day, the bandit Flynn Ryder scales the tower and is taken captive by Rapunzel. Rapunzel strikes a deal with the charming thief to act as her guide to travel to the place where the floating lights come from that she has seen every year on her birthday. Rapunzel is about to have the most exciting and magnificent journey of her life."
A conventional kids' film would have the villain accomplish her ends through showy displays of force and magic. Mother Gothel uses a more insidious method: professional-grade emotional abuse and brainwashing. Watch and learn, my friends:
In just two minutes, the song "Mother Knows Best" conducts a whirlwind tour of the techniques that an abusive parent, partner, or cult leader employs to isolate and confuse her victim. Notice how Mother Gothel interlaces apparent compliments (you're precious to me, you're too innocent and fragile for this dangerous world) with self-esteem destroyers (you're clumsy, you're naive, you're not pretty enough to make it out there). Her lavish caresses are punctuated with subliminal flashes of menace--so quick, it's almost possible for Rapunzel to block them out.
Dizzied by this personality-switching, Rapunzel feels uneasy and ashamed. Something doesn't seem right, but it's too scary to realize that her only caregiver doesn't really care for her. Only later, when she finds an alternate source of support in Flynn, is she ready to recover her memories of her real identity and parents. (Yes, a kids' film about repressed memories! How radical is that?)
Besides this song, I particularly love the scene where Rapunzel first escapes from the tower, aided by Flynn. Her mood swings are so true to the joy and self-doubt that an abuse survivor goes through when she begins to emerge from brainwashing. "I'm free! I'm free! I'm a terrible person. I'm free!"
Libby Anne, who blogs at Love Joy Feminism, has written eloquently about how Tangled resembles her upbringing in a Christian patriarchy cult. This film is validating for anyone who's been in an abusive relationship, secular or religious. It's also a great teaching tool to help your children recognize and avoid mind control.