Valentine’s Day “Special of the Day” Poetry by Donal Mahoney

I celebrated Shrove Tuesday, a/k/a Mardi Gras, in traditional Episcopalian fashion yesterday with amazing chocolate chip pancakes at Miss Florence Diner. The waitress in this Valentine’s Day poem from Donal Mahoney would be right at home there. And in case you’re wondering, I still observe Lent, and this year I’m giving up self-doubt about my writing and skepticism about my spiritual practices. Let the magic begin.

Special of the Day

It’s Rocky’s Diner
but it’s Brenda’s counter,
been that way for 10 years.
Brenda has her regulars
who want the Special of the Day.
They know the week is over

when it’s perch on Friday.
Her drifters don’t care about
the Special of the Day.
They want Brenda instead
but she’s made it clear
she’s not available.

Her regular customers tip well.
Long ago, they gave up
trying to see her after work.
After awhile her drifters go
to the diner down the street
to see if the waitress there

is any more hospitable.
Brenda’s regulars don’t know
she has three kids her mother
watched every day until Brenda
took a vacation out of town,
then came back and helped her

mother find a place of her own.
Now Brenda’s back at the diner,
serving her regulars and
discouraging her drifters,
while Marsha, her bride,
watches the kids.

My Debut Novel “Two Natures” Accepted by Saddle Road Press

Friends of Julian, rejoice! Two Natures, my debut novel, will be published this September by Saddle Road Press, an independent literary press in Hawaii. Stay tuned for cover reveal, reading dates, book excerpts, giveaways and more.

Set in New York City in the early 1990s, Two Natures is the coming-of-age story of Julian Selkirk, a fashion photographer who struggles to reconcile his Southern Baptist upbringing with his love for other men. Yearning for new ideals to anchor him after his loss of faith, Julian seeks his identity through love affairs with three very different men: tough but childish Phil Shanahan, a personal trainer who takes a dangerous shortcut to success; enigmatic, cosmopolitan Richard Molineux, the fashion magazine editor who gives him his first big break; and Peter Edelman, an earnest left-wing activist with a secret life. Amid the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and the racial tensions of New York politics, Julian learns to see beyond surface attractions and short-term desires, and to use his art to serve his community.

Please enjoy my interview about the novel at David Alan Binder’s blog, which features conversations with published authors. An excerpt:

Why did you start writing?

To cheat death and make something productive out of my incorrigible daydreaming habit.

What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?

The only way to find the truth is to make my own mistakes.

What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I talk to, and about, some of my fictional characters as though they were real people—to the point where my friends will ask me, quite seriously, “How are you? And how’s Julian?”…

…Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

The spark for my novel came from these characters who appeared in my imagination and would not let me alone. Its theme arose from the ongoing conflict in contemporary Christianity over recognizing the equal dignity and sacredness of same-sex love relationships. I belong to the Episcopal Church, which has been at the forefront of this debate since we ordained an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2004. As of this writing, the American church has been put on probation by the Worldwide Anglican Communion for authorizing same-sex marriage rites. I was raised by two moms, so I know where I stand, but the issue tore apart some of my Christian friendships and prayer circles.

For research into the fashions and politics of the 1990s, the time period of Two Natures, I consulted the Sexual Minorities Archives (formerly in Northampton, now in nearby Holyoke) and the Conde Nast Library in New York City, as well as many books on the art and business of fashion photography. My friend John Ollom of Ollom Movement Art read the manuscript for accuracy concerning the gay male culture of our generation. John does through dance what I hope to do with my writing: help people integrate their “shadow side” by overcoming shame-based divisions between sex and spirit.

February Links Roundup: I Am Whatever I Say I Am

Happy February, readers! It’s a leap year, so we get an “extra” day. For hard-headed moderns, it’s only a bureaucratic quirk of the calendar, a minor annoyance to remember to write February 29 instead of March 1 on our checks. For the magically minded, it could be an opportunity to step out of chronos into kairos, an auspicious day to envision goals and abilities beyond our here-and-now limitations, and maybe do a ritual to support that intention. For me, it’ll probably mean a day’s reprieve from the negative self-talk: “It’s already March and I haven’t [cleaned my office, finished my short story collection, won the Pulitzer Prize]!!”

In reality, we have as much time as we have, no matter how we divide up the calendar. Nowadays I’m constantly balancing how much time to give my own writing versus time to read and support other writers. Sometimes I’m fortunate to come across articles that not only educate and entertain me, but re-equip me to do my own work with more self-acceptance and insight. Let me share a couple of those with you.

Ozy’s blog Thing of Things offers a unique perspective on neurodiversity, sexuality and gender, and utilitarian ethics. With a fine-tuned analytical mind and humble self-aware humor, Ozy picks out the inconsistencies and complex side effects of our ideologies, yet adopts a “live and let live” attitude to everyone’s imperfect efforts to discover what happiness means to them.

One interesting fact I learned from Ozy is that there are people who identify as “otherkin”: they believe they are part animal, analogous to a genderqueer person believing they are partially male and partially female. In their January 25 post, “On Otherkin and Trans People”, Ozy disputes the argument that otherkin make transgender people seem less credible. I love this post because it basically sums up my philosophy of respecting people to be the authority on their own experience. Ozy’s logic also applies to those who disbelieve trauma survivors because their stories are not perfect in every factual detail, or because their reported experience sounds too grotesque and extreme to be true. (Boldface below is mine.)

As an advocate for the rights of trans people and neurodivergent people, I think the world would be a better place if we all collectively adopted this rule: if someone is being kinda weird, but they are not causing direct, measurable harm to anyone else, leave them alone and move on with your life.

Imagine if instead of harassing trans women on the street, people said, “well, that outfit’s rather odd, but it’s really none of my business.” Imagine if instead of discriminating against trans people in housing or the workplace, people said, “well, I can’t imagine why a man would want to be a woman, but she does good work and pays her rent on time and that’s what matters.” Imagine if no one ever wrote a long screed explaining why you are secretly a girl pretending to be a boy because of your traumatic past, your internalized homophobia, or your deep-seated desire to be Special.

Furthermore, I think we should all adopt the rule: if someone is describing an experience that is really fucking weird, your default assumption should be that they aren’t making it up.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re describing their experiences accurately, or their explanation of why they feel the way they do is worth a pound of dog shit, or that no one ever makes anything up. But start from the assumption that– however distorted– the person is doing their best to describe something that is actually happening in their lives, and that if you’re going to keep interacting with them, you should listen.

I mean, shit, if people responded to gender dysphoria with “I don’t get it, huh, brains are weird” rather than “I don’t get it, you must be faking and I am going to come up with all kinds of elaborate reasons to explain why”, transphobia would basically be solved.

Consider the costs and benefits of these rules. If otherkin is not a real thing and you leave them alone, then you weren’t a dick to someone who’s going to feel really silly in a couple of years. If otherkin is not a real thing and you listen, then you didn’t make them become defensive or feel like they couldn’t question their identity without being attacked, and maybe you helped them come to the realization that it isn’t real. If otherkin is a real thing and you don’t follow my rules, then you took someone going through a tremendously painful experience and made it worse for no reason.

Continuing on the theme of identity and inclusion, progressive theologian and seminary student Daniel José Camacho finds an ethic of radical welcome in the description of the Trinitarian Logos in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In this January 5 article from The Christian Century, “John’s prologue and God’s rejected children”, Camacho finds it significant that “in the midst of rejection, the text also speaks about this rejected one giving power to people to become children of God on a basis that transcends biology and purity.”

The borderless nature of God’s manifestation in Jesus helped Camacho make sense of his hybrid identity as a second-generation Afro-Colombian immigrant, and become an ally to LGBTQ Christians whose families rejected them for so-called Biblical reasons. “While the text was saying that being a child of God was based on faith and not based on blood or procreation, I saw many churches basing faithful Christian identity precisely on biology, on heteronormativity, on the ability to procreate in a ‘heterosexual’ marriage.”

Later on in the essay, Camacho notes parallels between John’s Holy Spirit and the female-personified Sophia (Wisdom) of Jewish tradition, to suggest that the Logos is genderqueer:

Whether John intended it or not, I see the Logos as enacting a gender-bending performance. The man Jesus Christ who is the eternal Logos was/is also thewoman Sophia. This is a good reminder that God transcends the gender binaries and essentialisms that humans have sharply defined. John’s prologue depicts Jesus as transgressing not only what distinguishes the human and the divine, but transgressing gender norms. As such, I think it is right to see Jesus as a transgressive “border-crosser” in multiple ways. For some time now, feminist scholars such as Elizabeth A. Johnson have highlighted the importance of Sophia in Christological gender-dynamics. Is it a stretch to see the Logos as bending gender? I don’t think so. If we consider the rest of the prologue, the rest of John’s Gospel, and the rest of Jesus’ life, this is consistent. Jesus’ family is non-traditional; it is not based on simple “biology.” Jesus’ life is not necessarily emblematic of a “straight” lifestyle…

Logos Christology needs to be unhooked from the Eurocentric rationality of the West which has sexually, racially, and economically classified people so as to produce and reproduce rejection and inequality.

In the Incarnation, the Word experiences the “No’s” that some of us hear. No, you are not truly American enough. No, you are not Latin American enough. No, you are not sexually normal. No, your societies are not developed. No, your culture/civilization is not rational enough.  Entering into humanity’s rejection of itself, the Word then demolishes the harmful ways in which we have internalized purity, nationalistic and gendered essentialisms, and Eurocentric rationality to define what it means to be human. As such, the Logos is the disordering ordering principle who destabilizes the violent means by which we narrowly define humanity and carry out rejections of our own people and peoples around the world. The Wisdom of God is not the progression of rationality from the Greeks to the Romans to the Europeans to the United States. Sophia is the disordering ordering force of life who deconstructs what we deem “natural” in order to make room for a creation that is different and far richer than we imagined.

At the online magazine Mask, Johanna Hedva’s manifesto “Sick Woman Theory” is a long-read well worth your time. To a lesser degree than the author, I also struggle with chronic disability from endometriosis, compounded by the shame and silence that society wraps around “female troubles”. Hedva re-frames the conversation around disability and political resistance, arguing that the activism of personal survival is as valuable as anything that happens on the barricades. I like how she uses “woman” as a nonbinary symbol of solidarity with all marginalized bodies.

Sick Woman Theory is an insistence that most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible. Sick Woman Theory redefines existence in a body as something that is primarily and always vulnerable, following from Judith Butler’s work on precarity and resistance. Because the premise insists that a body is defined by its vulnerability, not temporarily affected by it, the implication is that it is continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure, and so we need to re-shape the world around this fact. Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.

To take the term “woman” as the subject-position of this work is a strategic, all-encompassing embrace and dedication to the particular, rather than the universal. Though the identity of “woman” has erased and excluded many (especially women of color and trans and genderfluid people), I choose to use it because it still represents the un-cared for, the secondary, the oppressed, the non-, the un-, the less-than. The problematics of this term will always require critique, and I hope that Sick Woman Theory can help undo those in its own way. But more than anything, I’m inspired to use the word “woman” because I saw this year how it can still be radical to be a woman in the 21st century. I use it to honor a dear friend of mine who came out as genderfluid last year. For her, what mattered the most was to be able to call herself a “woman,” to use the pronouns “she/her.” She didn’t want surgery or hormones; she loved her body and her big dick and didn’t want to change it – she only wanted the word. That the word itself can be an empowerment is the spirit in which Sick Woman Theory is named.

The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence – or the cruelly optimistic promise of such an existence – of the white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates that society, at the expense of everyone else.

The Sick Woman is anyone who does not have this guarantee of care.

The Sick Woman is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.

The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional,” “dangerous” and “in danger,” “badly behaved,” “crazy,” “incurable,” “traumatized,” “disordered,” “diseased,” “chronic,” “uninsurable,” “wretched,” “undesirable” and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable,” and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible.

The Sick Woman is a black trans woman having panic attacks while using a public restroom, in fear of the violence awaiting her.

The Sick Woman is the child of parents whose indigenous histories have been erased, who suffers from the trauma of generations of colonization and violence.

The Sick Woman is a homeless person, especially one with any kind of disease and no access to treatment, and whose only access to mental-health care is a 72-hour hold in the county hospital.

The Sick Woman is a mentally ill black woman whose family called the police for help because she was suffering an episode, and who was murdered in police custody, and whose story was denied by everyone operating under white supremacy. Her name is Tanesha Anderson.

The Sick Woman is a 50-year-old gay man who was raped as a teenager and has remained silent and shamed, believing that men can’t be raped.

The Sick Woman is a disabled person who couldn’t go to the lecture on disability rights because it was held in a venue without accessibility.

The Sick Woman is a white woman with chronic illness rooted in sexual trauma who must take painkillers in order to get out of bed.

The Sick Woman is a straight man with depression who’s been medicated (managed) since early adolescence and now struggles to work the 60 hours per week that his job demands.

The Sick Woman is someone diagnosed with a chronic illness, whose family and friends continually tell them they should exercise more.

The Sick Woman is a queer woman of color whose activism, intellect, rage, and depression are seen by white society as unlikeable attributes of her personality.

The Sick Woman is a black man killed in police custody, and officially said to have severed his own spine. His name is Freddie Gray.

The Sick Woman is a veteran suffering from PTSD on the months-long waiting list to see a doctor at the VA.

The Sick Woman is a single mother, illegally emigrated to the “land of the free,” shuffling between three jobs in order to feed her family, and finding it harder and harder to breathe.

The Sick Woman is the refugee.

The Sick Woman is the abused child.

The Sick Woman is the person with autism whom the world is trying to “cure.”

The Sick Woman is the starving.

The Sick Woman is the dying.

And, crucially: The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself.

Why?

Because to stay alive, capitalism cannot be responsible for our care – its logic of exploitation requires that some of us die.

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way.

Care, in this configuration, is only required sometimes. When sickness is temporary, care is not normal.

Here’s an exercise: go to the mirror, look yourself in the face, and say out loud: “To take care of you is not normal. I can only do it temporarily.”

Saying this to yourself will merely be an echo of what the world repeats all the time…

…The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.

 

Mixed Feelings About Postpartum Depression Screening

One of our local advocacy groups for parents just posted this NPR story on Facebook: “Depression Screening Recommended for All Pregnant Women, New Mothers”:

Pregnant women and new mothers need more attention when it comes to screening for depression, according to recommendations issued Tuesday by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

That came as part of the panel’s recommendation that all adults should be screened, in a situation where they can be provided treatment or get a referral if they are clinically depressed.

The announcement follows similar recommendations in 2002 and 2009. What’s new this time is the special shout-out for pregnant women and new moms. They need special recognition, the task force says, because of evidence showing that they can be accurately diagnosed and successfully treated, and because untreated depression harms not only the mother, but her child as well….

This is all true but incomplete. I get anxious when screening is recommended without discussion of the stigma surrounding the diagnosis. It reminds me of the controversy over mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women. The Task Force’s proposal should have been accompanied by recommendations to educate health care providers so they won’t view depressed moms as an automatic danger to their kids, or as too irrational to make the informed choice to refuse certain treatments.

I learned the hard way to keep my struggles to myself during our adoption process. Our first application, to adopt internationally, was denied because the South Korean government decided that anyone who had been in psychoanalysis must be crazy. Then we hooked up with an unethical domestic adoption agency that labeled me with a “personality disorder” based on my stress responses to growing up with domestic violence and emotional incest. Our home study was denied when I refused to continue with the agency’s preferred therapy method because it was causing me to dissociate. By the time we had our 3-month post-placement interview (with a different agency), in the middle of a massive PTSD flare-up, I knew enough to smile sweetly and say I was fine when the caseworker handed me the info sheet on support for postpartum depression. Then I got on the phone to my best survivor gal pal (I think I called her from the bathroom floor where I was sobbing and holding a cow-shaped plush rattle) and got a referral to the trauma therapist who turned my life around. You can bet I didn’t come out as a survivor on this blog till our adoption was finalized in court.

And I’m white, straight-ish, and middle class. Moms who contend with racial prejudice or economic dependence on the government have even more to lose if a negative mental health diagnosis goes in their files. Stereotypes about black families lead Social Services to snatch kids for trivial offenses, like the mom who let her child play at the park unsupervised.

New mothers’ depression isn’t just a medical issue, it’s a political one. I hope that future studies recommend training health care providers to overcome sexism and ableism, so they can empower all moms to do our best.

For further reading, check out the website of feminist literary publisher Kore Press for this conversation among five women writers of color about postpartum depression, race, and culture.

Trusting Tootle

2016-01-10 12.36.56

The Young Master, at age 3.75, is wild about robots and trains. Three times a day, he demands that I read him Robots, Robots Everywhere, a Little Golden Book about our transhumanist future. He has also discovered the Little Golden Books Classics set that someone gave us at his baby shower. Not a day goes by without us re-reading at least some pages of Tootle and Scuffy the Tugboat, both written in the 1940s by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely.

It’s curious how some books acquire classic status, re-purchased by generations of parents and well-wishers, perhaps without much thought about the meaning of the story. Gergely’s charming artwork epitomizes mid-20th-century picture book design: the optimistic fascination with industrial machinery, somehow peacefully coexisting with lush pastoral scenes, the made and the built environments equally full of wonder and personal detail. Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain.

However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told. They remind me of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, like “The Fir-Tree” and “The Little Mermaid”, where a young dreamer is violently punished for aspiring to a different life. Scuffy, a toy boat, thinks he was “made for better things” than sailing in a child’s bathtub, so he floats away on the brook, down a large river, and is almost lost at sea before his owner coincidentally rescues him. His adventures, though sometimes scary, look thrilling, so it’s very disappointing to me that the story ends with him saying that the bathtub is where a tugboat belongs. He’s also as insufferable at the end as the beginning, bragging that he knows his place, with exactly the same tone and words that he used to describe his destiny as an explorer. Self-awareness is apparently not as important in this vision of child-rearing. Resist the hegemonic narrative, Scuffy!

Tootle fares even worse. He’s like the anti-Ferdinand the Bull. His story is, for me, an example of what’s wrong with traditional education and discipline practices, as well as a metaphor for how trauma hampers the inner child’s creativity. That’s a lot for one little engine to carry, I know, but bear with me.

Bill, the engineer-teacher at the Lower Trainswitch School, gives the baby locomotives a long list of rules to obey, without explanation, if they want to grow up to be big important trains. Obviously, we readers can understand why “Stopping for a Red Flag Waving” and “Staying on the Rails No Matter What” are safety measures for trains. The point is that the students aren’t given reasons, so they don’t learn how to interpret the rules when they conflict.

Tootle is kind of…special. Not to read these words too anachronistically, but his sound is described as “a gay little tootle” and the engineers call his behavior “queer”! He loves to go fast, but obeying the rules, not so much. He keeps breaking the most important one, by secretly running off the rails to race with a beautiful black horse, frolic in the buttercups, and make echoes in a rain barrel. When the engineers figure it out, they conspire with everyone in the town to hide in Tootle’s favorite meadow and wave red flags whenever he makes a move. Tootle is provoked to tears:

“Whenever I start, I have to stop. Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place? Why don’t I ever see a green flag?”

Just as the tears were ready to slide out of his boiler, Tootle happened to look back over his coal car. On the tracks stood Bill, and in his hand was a big green flag. “Oh!” said Tootle.

He puffed up to Bill and stopped.

“This is the place for me,” said Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”

Indoctrination complete.

I admit, when I’m wrestling the Young Master into his four layers of outdoor clothing for a 5-minute trip to school, and he hops away with his pants around his ankles because he saw a squirrel through the glass door, I sympathize with the impulse to train a child to stay on the rails. But good parenting requires more complex discernment than following a single rule without give-and-take or context. Focus and curiosity are both valuable traits that are sometimes at odds. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, as radical 100 years ago as it is today, was based on trusting the child to educate himself in a structured environment. The traditional method depicted in Tootle assumes that children’s undirected impulses are either irrelevant or rebellious.

The line in Tootle that makes tears slide out of my boiler is “Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place?” They have frightened and shamed him into turning against his own joy. As an abuse survivor, I know what that’s like. I know the disgust I feel at my own writing when some negative comment (“you can’t be a Christian and write about gay sex!”) sends me into a shame spiral. I know the burning embarrassment that I might have loved my characters too much, talked about that love too much, exposed myself as a weird and boring 12-year-old fangirl. Like Tootle’s teachers, my mother controlled me by training me to see danger where there was none. The red flags in my meadow are very old habits of staying safe by hiding what really mattered to me. Once they were essential defenses, now they’re just triggers that keep me from expressing my creative powers.

How do I handle re-reading these stories to Shane? I tell him, “Mommy doesn’t like the message of this story, so Mommy is going to make up her own ending. When you’re old enough to read, you can read the real thing and decide whether you agree with it.” And I wait for Mallory Ortberg to take them down in her Children’s Stories Made Horrific satire column. (Her version of The Runaway Bunny tells you all you need to know about my childhood.)

So run with the horses, kids. But look both ways before you cross the tracks.

Mommy says, “And then Tootle ran off to San Francisco where he could be himself! The end.”

Blow It Out Your Sinatra: Poems from Paul Fericano’s “The Hollywood Catechism”

The cover of Paul Fericano’s poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, 2015) shows a smoldering black-and-white movie still of Burt Lancaster as con-artist preacher Elmer Gantry, with his bedroom eyes and well-thumped Bible. This characteristically American blend of flim-flam, movie idols, and popular Christianity sets the tone of this entertaining and original book.

Many of these poems would be considered light verse, like the opening number, “The Actor’s Creed”:

…I believe in the Holy Spielberg,
the holy casting couch,
the communion of press agents,
the forgiveness of Sally Field,
the resurrection of my career,
and life everlasting without Tom Hanks.
Amen.

The real joke is how easily these wisecracks fall into the rhythm of familiar prayers that we repeat without much thought. We might as well be praying to Spielberg–he’s got more money than God, as they say. Like the characters in our childhood Bible stories, celebrities occupy a realm between reality and fantasy. Even when we lose faith in them, they retain some of their glamour, their power to make us nostalgic for the simple joys of worship.

This poignancy gives heft to the book’s most memorable poems, such as the tour de force “Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.”, a take-off on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in honor of B-movie horror actor Larry Talbot, “the Wolf Man”. Fericano writes compassionately of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, the loneliness of addiction and lost popularity. Substituting “Universal Studios” for “Moloch” in Ginsberg’s version, the meaning is still the same:

Universal the slaughterhouse of essence! Universal the
flesh-grinding boneless junkyard and studio of
terror! Universal whose films are USDA graded!
Universal the meat cleaver of inspection! Universal
the concrete productions!

Universal whose checkbook is bottom line! Universal whose
life is zombie profit! Universal whose thoughts
are small implosions! Universal whose head is a cannabis
fire pit! Universal whose heart is a ticking bomb!

The nyuk-nyuk’s don’t stop with his author bio: “Since 1971 his poetry and prose have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in various underground and above-ground literary and media outlets… Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets (Second Coming Press, 1977), a collection of his work partly funded by the state of California, achieved notoriety in 1978, when one of its poems, ‘The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party’, was read on the floor of the California State Senate as a reason to abolish the California Arts Council.”

On a more serious note, Paul is also the director of Instruments of Peace/SafeNet, a nonprofit reconciliation group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Visit his blog, A Room with a Pew, to learn about his latest efforts to help victims obtain restitution from the Catholic Church.

Enjoy the poems below, which he has kindly given me permission to reprint.

 

The Three Stooges Meet Charles Bukowski In Heaven

The day is like any other day in Paradise
where angels hang out on street corners in between gigs

smoking filtered cigarettes drinking ginger ale
and swapping stories about the Son of Man.

Everyone has an eye fixed on Jesus.
He’s on his knees in an alley shooting dice

with the Three Stooges
and the poor bastards are losing their shirts.

The Savior of the World is on fire.
In flowing red robe he rattles the bones in his hand

brings them to his ear shakes them like the Second Coming
and blows on them once for luck.

He arcs his fist before release and shouts:
Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

then tosses them with the same force his father summoned
to create the Milky Way.

When he flashes that wide resurrection smile
the one he showed the Romans right before they nailed him,

he scoops up his winnings with a wink and a nod
and everyone knows the Lamb of God is on a roll.

The Stooges are victims of divine intervention.
They make the sign of the cross and Jesus smiles.

I like you guys, he says, slapping their faces affectionately.
And just like that three morons become saints.

Leaning against a wall drinking beer from a bottle
always cold never empty is Charles Bukowski.

He shifts his weight like a man itching to start something
eyeing the action as if he’s writing his last poem.

Jesus stands now and introduces them.
The Stooges pull back unsure of what to expect from a guy

who once threw up on Norman Mailer and just last week
tried to look up the Virgin Mary’s dress.

Bukowski hesitates, too. He remembers almost losing an eye
in a pie fight and watches their fingers closely now

the air so choked with mistrust even the Holy Ghost is scared.
That’s when Jesus stands on his head.

It’s a minor miracle, not like changing a Beatles’ song
into a jingle for running shoes, but it breaks the tension at last.

Sighs of relief rise up like hosannas and everyone laughs,
especially the Son of God who isn’t wearing underpants.

****
Sinatra, Sinatra

Sexual reference:
A protruding sinatra
is often laughed at by serious women.

Medical procedure:
A malignant sinatra
must be cut out by a skilled surgeon.

Violent persuasion:
A sawed-off sinatra
is a dangerous weapon at close range.

Congressional question:
Do you deny the charge of ever being
involved in organized sinatra?

Prepared statement:
Kiss my sinatra.
Blow it out your sinatra.

Financial question:
Will supply-side sinatra halt inflation?

Empty expression:
The sinatra stops here.
The sinatra is quicker than the eye.

Strategic question:
Do you think it’s possible to win
a limited nuclear sinatra?

Stupid assertion:
Eat sinatra.
Hail Mary full of sinatra.

Serious reflection:
Sinatra this, sinatra that.
Sinatra do, sinatra don’t.
Sinatra come, sinatra go.
There’s no sinatra like show sinatra.

Historical question:
Is the poet who wrote this poem still alive?

Biblical fact:
Man does not live by sinatra alone.

January Links Roundup: Disobedient Woman Facts

This blog usually tackles (or is tackled by) serious subjects, so let’s start the year with a little humor. Over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sandra Newman’s list of “Woman Facts” satirizes gender roles and those clickbait lists of dubious scientific trivia. For instance:

A woman is born with all the exclamation points she will use in her lifetime.

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When cornered by a predator, a woman can swell to three times her normal size, but won’t because it is unladylike.

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The “period” is a myth devised by the 1810 Ladies’ Secret Conclave. Tampons actually serve to prevent the genie from escaping.

*

Large numbers of women can be caught by baiting a trap with a crying infant. Though only one woman may fall into the trap, hundreds of others will gather to criticize everything she does with the child.

On that note, I recognized so much of myself in this May 2015 post from British evangelical feminist Hannah Mudge’s blog, “Searching for Sunday: Motherhood, Guilt and Disillusionment”. Our sons are about the same age. I thought I was the only one who suddenly felt overburdened by the demands of church membership once I had a baby:

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I’d left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn’t zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you’re insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn’t mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it.

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I’ve had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert’s brain doesn’t do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I’ve longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I’ve been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I’ve felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I’d stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve still expected something – and when I’ve failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I’ve felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I’m not ‘on board’ and don’t even want to be, apprehensive because I’ve been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman…

…What if you’re reading this and thinking “This is me”? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you’re at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn’t mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

For me personally, since I stopped saying the Daily Office this past November (with some guilt about breaking my 8-year tradition), I don’t feel as burned-out on Bible verses by the time Sunday comes around. Keeping up the connection with my church friends a couple of times a month feels right. I know that I need a new private devotional practice, Christian or otherwise, but I have to start by choosing to do less. My number-one New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in the bathtub watching Netflix.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in response to God’s command, is one of those Bible stories that make me doubt whether Christianity can be made survivor-friendly. Characters in my new novel-in-progress grapple with this text as they try to make sense of family trauma and religious belief. Fred Clark at the progressive Christian blog Slacktivist persuasively argues that “divine command” doesn’t exempt us from moral discernment, in this 2014 post, “Obedience is Always About Epistemology”:

I’m hearing voices. I’m hearing a voice in my head that’s telling me to kill a child.

The possibility that this is the voice of God testing my faith isn’t even going to be among the first thousand possibilities worth considering. The thousand other possibilities are all Very Bad, of course, but that one’s even worse — including and encompassing all the Very Bad possibilities that go before it.

Initially, though, I’d do what anyone would likely do if a voice in my head commanded me to kill and burn a child. I’d ignore it, desperately hoping it would go away, fearful of telling anyone that I’d ever even thought of such a thing lest they think — rightly — that I am a monster.

And if it didn’t go away? Well then I’d have myself committed. I’d remove myself from the presence of chlidren, driving to the nearest inpatient facility to inform the nice people in admissions, as calmly as possible, that I believed I was becoming a danger to myself and others. I’m hearing voices. The voices want me to do Bad Things.

No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.

But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.

And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.

The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. We’ve already covered what hearing such a voice giving such a command would mean and what it would require me to do.

And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.

How about giant flaming letters carved in the sky? No good. Everything we’ve just said about auditory hallucinations is also true for visual ones.

Well, what if other people hear God’s voice as well? What if everyone else hears it?

That’s to be expected, isn’t it? All of this is just confirming the likeliest possibility: I’m a very, very sick man. Paranoid and delusional, and now imagining that everyone else is saying the same horrible thing as the voice in my head.

There simply exists no form this divine revelation could possibly take that would exempt it from the fact that I, as a finite and fallible human, would be required to perceive it. And so it would always be possible that I was perceiving it wrong — that I was misperceiving it.

And one doesn’t want to kill and burn a child based on a misperception.

One doesn’t generally want to kill and burn a child at all — which brings us to the second problem here. It’s not just the form of this divine command that is a problem, it’s also the substance. The repugnant substance of this alleged divine command reinforces all of the formal reasons stated above for doubting it. The substance of the command presents a whole Wesleyan quadrilateral of reasons to conclude that it cannot be divine. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all scream that it cannot be so.

Imagine again that scenario in which a unanimous horde of witnesses confirms that I have, in fact, been given a divine command that I cannot ignore or deny. Just what would these witnesses attesting to this divine revelation say? “God is speaking to you, Fred. God wants you to kill and burn this child. You need to do what God tells you to do.”

Whatever part of me wanted to cling to my own sanity wouldn’t reasonably conclude that this means God wants me to kill a child. A more reasonable conclusion would be to realize, in horror, that I’d stumbled into some terrifying Wicker Man scenario. These “witnesses” must be speaking of some other God. And the voice I was hearing and the fiery letters in the sky would force me to realize that their God was real.

C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea that something like this might be true. So did H.P. Lovecraft. So did whoever wrote Psalm 82. And now Molech or dread Chthulhu or raging Talos or three-crowned Cyric or whichever child-eating deity it was is after me.

So at that point, I’d be praying like I’d never prayed before, asking God — the God I worship, the God of Abraham, the God of the Gospels and the creeds – to deliver me from this evil lesser god who was attempting to claim me for his own. Monotheism would no longer be an option, but I’d still be monolatrous — faithful only to the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God revealed in Jesus, the God described in 1 John as “God is love” and the God mocked by Jonah for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Or perhaps there could be a less radical theological explanation. I don’t believe in a “literal” Satan — mainly because I don’t see such a character literally present in the biblical literature — but this overwhelming experience of voices and witnesses and flaming letters would likely cause me to re-evaluate that conclusion. If the voices and signs and wonders and attestations weren’t all just delusion, then here would be apparent evidence of the reality of some supernatural, evil being very much like the Satan figure we find in Dante and Milton and Stephen Vincent Benét and all the other canonical sources of this doctrine.

This is the most reasonable, defensible and biblical second possibility. If the voices and signs and wonders telling me to kill a child are not a form of delusional madness, then this must be Satan speaking to me.

No, no, no, say the pastors and apologists — it’s not Satan, it’s God. This is, they stress, the whole point of the story — that it’s God — and undeniably God — telling me to kill and burn a child.

I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan.

I’m don’t think that helps.

The bottom line here is that for all of these self-proclaimed defenders of God’s sovereignty, this story is not at all about obedience to God. It’s about obedience to them.

Because obedience, remember, is always about epistemology — about the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.

They like to talk about God’s sovereignty, but the real substance of their claim has to do with their own certainty. Their own ability to access certainty and to proclaim it to and for others. We know what God has commanded, they say. We know. And therefore you must obey [what God has commanded as articulated by] us.

I appreciate this post for highlighting the connection between theology, sanity, and social control. When you persuade people to suspend their common-sense moral intuitions and empathy, this not only makes them vulnerable to authoritarian religious leaders, but also prevents them from recognizing and healing from other abuses of power in their personal lives. Because if you can’t be sure that child sacrifice is wrong, you can’t be sure of anything. To quote King Lear, “That way madness lies.” And he would know.

New Poetry by Conway: “Lost in Translation”

Happy 2016! We’re hopeful that this will be the year of liberation for my prison pen pal “Conway” (Richard C. Jackson). He’s been waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2012, when California repealed the three-strikes sentencing law for nonviolent offenders. His case has just been picked up by Stanford Law School’s Justice Advocacy Project. If you’ve enjoyed his writing on this blog and would like to send a letter in support of his case, please contact Michael Romano.

Lost in Translation

In this shadowed space,
each word’s a button, a worried rosary bead.

Green flares announce one possible survivor.
How I found my soul interested.
I fell with the moon
I wait with white face.
I couldn’t know the danger,
though, coming home a stranger.

Yesterday has been left in ruin.
Someone piled prisoners, abandoned
their value like legless dolls.

Nothing stopped the way I left it.
In the shower mirror, crows’ feet
reflect an age complete, bubbling
down the drain, through the years
waving goodbye to the night in my eye.
This silver hair shows, like paint
from a previous life (chipped to primer).

If something came by for me to swallow
as do mirrors, another world appears.

Two moons, one in the window
over my shoulder, an unfamiliar egg
floating in space, in solitude
which has truth, which meaning?

This sphere of thought, birthed
by reflections, brought about
an inner directed connection.
New possibilities to do something,
discover a pattern, an opportunity to re-engage.

On this new stage stands
a mature embryo.

I am an offering, a need
begging to be cracked
spilled onto the fired skillet.
But still lost in translation…

Poetry by Perry Brass: “The Child”

Perry Brass is the author of several novels and nonfiction books on gay spirituality and sacred eros. As a Christmas gift to his newsletter list, he shared some of his recent poems, one of which he has kindly permitted me to reprint below. The boy in this poem could be the Christ Child or my own high-spirited 3-year-old, both calling me to enter their demanding, miraculous presence.

The Child

What do you do? Your insides are constantly
shifted toward him. He consumes you with
his needs, his perfection,
his amazing complexion and beauty.
And curiosity! A sponge. His eyes
are a sponge and you want him to just
hold you in their gaze for a few minutes
before he runs off. Or a year, or a decade.
But no,
they won’t. They’ll discover the world,
and you will discover it with him.
If you’re lucky. If you don’t die,
or die of disappointment because you’ve
just invested everything in him—you
put it in his childish grasp that casts off
each instance and reinvents
the warm earth

and the cold night. It seeks terror
in fairy tales; and you seek safety
in each morsel of love he returns.

A Christmas Message from Becoming Church

Becoming Church, an offshoot of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., is an intentional Christian community devoted to racial and economic justice. Their major project at the moment is Reunion, a ministry that re-integrates formerly incarcerated people into civilian life, as well as doing activism for prison reform. I blogged about my inspiring visit to their weekend conference last year.

Their latest newsletter included some timely and challenging reflections by Rev. Becca Stelle, the Director of Becoming Church, which I am excerpting below. Please consider donating to this unique and worthwhile ministry.

I recently saw a sticker on the back of a car: “Give Jesus a Chance.” My first reaction was that the slogan projected too simplistic a faith, but in giving the off-handed language itself a chance, it began to resonate with possibility.

Our world is caught in terror and division, hostility and fear—between neighbors, between nations. Black against white; Muslim against Christian; Republican against Democrat; always, oddly, us against ourselves.  As our global degradation pushes us to consider new paradigms—some more palatable than others—we could do worse than to consider what Jesus offers.  Do we ever hear compassion or mercy as a legitimate political, economic or development strategy? Can you imagine? To give Jesus a chance would mean giving God’s love-strategy an honest political chance in a world bent on hatred; forgiveness a chance in a world steeped in vindication; reconciliation a chance in a world committed to war; hope a chance in a world consumed by despair. The proposition seems all the more laughable as circumstances appear increasingly extreme.

This is not the only way in which we are called to give Jesus a chance. The phrase has a double entendre.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies with the sick, hungry, homeless and the prisoner.  “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Clothe me, feed me, visit me in prison.  Give me a chance!”

Men and women coming home from incarceration face crippling obstacles to successful re-integration into the community.  A fortunate few have a roof overhead through Jubilee Housing’s Re-entry program.  Others secure employment through Jubilee Jobs.  As important as those services are, the sustained need for belonging and purpose remains.  All of them—all of us—need a spiritual community where our deepest inner impasse can be transformed by Love to its fullest potential.  For us, to give Jesus a chance is to know Charles and to be known by him; to keep him in prayer; to arrange a job interview for Charles; to help him with car repairs to get to that job; to wait out his anxiety; to talk him out of self-defeat; to pay the court fees imposed which he could not possibly manage on his minimum-wage, part-time income; and to watch Charles grow in confidence that he is important to our community; that he can give back; that he is a blessing. Even then, it’s not so much that we are giving Jesus a chance, but somehow Jesus is giving us a chance—to move from our societal plague of separation to become the whole, healing people God created us to be.