Alabama State Poetry Society’s David Kato Prize Celebrates LGBT Rights

The Alabama State Poetry Society’s annual writing contest offers numerous awards for poems in various styles and themes. The ASPS has a long history of supporting emerging and local writers. For the past three years, I’ve sponsored their David Kato Prize, for poems on the human rights of LGBT people. The prize honors a Ugandan activist for sexual minorities who was murdered in a hate crime in 2011. He was the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda; follow and support their important work on their website. The ASPS has kindly permitted me to publish the winning poems here.

FIRST PRIZE

Show Time
by Sylvia Williams Dodgen

An inexplicable moment, how did it happen
so quickly in such an unlikely place
or did it happen at all?
For I had seemed to hold my breath
not to dispel that surreal slot in time:
a sweltering summer midnight,
the corner of forty-second and tenth,
edging Hell’s Kitchen.
Following a bow-tied foursome
in white top hats and tails
into a pharmacy, the magic began.
The foursome asked for novelties.
I veered off and met a tall young man
in platinum wig, Marilyn style,
arrayed in light blue plastic bubbles, neck to thigh,
long legs gartered in silver hose with tiny bows,
ascending from stiletto heels,
taps clinking, as he moved along the shelves,
a larger-than-life Marilyn in moveable bath.
Gliding by, “Love your outfit, darling.”
“Yours too,” I smiled, rounded the aisle and
met an older woman in floor-length, rainbow vest,
hugging a cat in a pink crocheted cap.
Wagging his paw, the woman said, “Say, ‘hi’, Sunny.”
I smiled at Sunny
then moved to stand in line behind white tuxedos
checking out.
The young man in bubbles approached from behind
followed by the rainbow clad woman,
carrying her cat and a bottle of wine, like pots of gold.
Our collage exuded such energy the
air around us hummed.
I grinned and felt my hair roots lift,
my skin shine, as though I were a polished lamp,
with genie inside.
Bubbles whispered down to me,
“Feel the vibe? It’s show time,”
and burst into John Lennon’s lyrics.
Exiting tuxedos turned and sang in unison,
“Imagine all the people, living for today,”
Bubbles raised his arms and began to sway.

****

SECOND PRIZE

History Repeats
by Debra Self

My husband, our two children and I
passed through Indiana
as we traveled back home from vacation.
A cacophony of harsh sounds
emitted from Steve’s stomach
in rhythm to the girls’ bellies
so we pulled over at a Bar-B-Q dive.

As we walked in and sat down,
people began to stare at us
to the point of rudeness.
Then, instead of a waiter,
the manager walked over.

“Are you two gay?” he asked.
“Why, yes, sir, we are,” I replied.
“Then you need to get out.”
We were incredulous.
“Excuse me?” I blubbered.

“Did you not see the sign
on the door when you came in?”
“Apparently not.”

“It says that due to my religious beliefs,
I do not serve faggots. So get the hell out!”

Other people sitting around also began
name calling and yelling for us to leave.
Some even threatened to take away
our daughters. One woman actually tried
to grab them from us.

We gathered the girls, rushed to the car,
and quickly jumped in. The people had followed
us out and as we sped off, picked up rocks
and threw them at the car.

Both girls sat in my lap crying
as Steve carefully drove home.
We happily left the dust of Indiana
behind us.

I hope…

****

THIRD PRIZE

The Man Jesse
by Myra Ward Barra

Regretfully, Jesse was gone when I entered the family,
A young man, I’m told, who painfully dwindled away.

His loved ones often speak of him:
“Jesse, our brother with HIV.”
“Our cousin, Jesse, who had AIDS…”
“Jesse, my gay son who passed away.”

Over the years, I came to know Jesse in my own way,
Through thumbprints of his life, Jesse made himself known.

Once his siblings placed him in a box and took a photograph.
He was a rosy faced doll, a child’s present, gift wrapped.

Through his writing, I met a poet with incandescent light in
the darkness, a lamp of life glowing during bleak hours.

In a glossy, clay figure, I saw a potter transferring his thoughts to his hands,
forming a pudgy man in plaid clothes and a perky hat.

In a home video, Jesse was a ballroom dancer,
Pulling his grandmother to the floor, his free-style hair falling east and west,
His Versace tie swaying to Glenn Miller.

There was Jesse the animal lover, best friend, big brother, avid skier,
New York graphic designer.

Jesse deserves to be recognized apart from his illness.
Jesse was born a baby, lived with purpose, and died a man,
Jesse was not his disease.

Celebrating My Chosen Mother

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(Roberta’s birthday, December 2006.)

I blog often enough about how my childhood with my bio mom resembled Disney’s “Tangled”. Today I want to celebrate someone who makes Mother’s Day a joyful occasion for me, despite the painful memories we share (or perhaps because we can share them): my mom-of-choice, Roberta “Bib” Pato.

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(Roberta and I celebrate her freedom from 34 years with my bio mom, February 2011.)

Bib moved in with my bio mom and me when I was about 5. I wasn’t allowed to call her my other mother, though she certainly was. We were closeted, albeit not very convincingly, and my bio mom approached motherhood with a “no other gods before me” attitude. So she was my “babysitter” in public, and my “dad” when we affectionately joked around in private.

She taught me how to cook by having me chop vegetables and read aloud recipes from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet. Mmm, chicken with shallots and asparagus! She drove me to school in a succession of clunky American-made station wagons, and then in the little red Toyota that served us faithfully for 14 years till I totaled it as a student driver. She was a beloved teacher in the NYC public elementary schools for 30 years, from Lower East Side ghetto schools where the children came from homeless shelters, to the Upper West Side, where she faced down a system that assigned children of color to the classrooms that were perceived as less desirable.

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(Roberta’s wedding to her now ex-husband, 1968, with her mom Bea at right. She makes a cute femme, but it didn’t stick.)

Since starting her new life in 2011, she’s become the center of social life in her apartment building, co-founding a tenants’ association and making many friends who are film professors, religious scholars, writers, and more. They know they can knock on her door at any time of night for a slice of cake and a binge viewing of lesbian soap operas on YouTube. She’s amassed what is probably the largest collection of lesbian films in Northampton, which is really saying something.

(One of those “gay for you” romances that is so common in the movies, not enough in real life! But I might kiss Lena Headey if she asked me.)

As an active member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), Roberta has attended conferences in Oakland and St. Louis, and (though she is staunchly pro-transgender rights) plans to visit the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this summer. Not bad for someone whose ex-partner wouldn’t let her leave the house! The “classy old dykes” whom I’ve met through Roberta have given me a new sense of solidarity with other women and a gratitude for feminist heritage. For Pride Weekend this month, Roberta and two of her OLOC friends produced playwright/actress Terry Baum’s “Hick: A Love Story”, a brilliant show about Eleanor Roosevelt’s closeted romance with journalist Lorena Hickok.

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(Northampton Pride 2014. She raised “L” this year too!)

Last but not least, she is the world’s most devoted grandmother to the Young Master:

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(Roberta holds Shane for the first time, April 2012. Look how tiny!)

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(Christmas/Roberta’s birthday, December 2014.)

Some grandmothers are always second-guessing the kid’s mom, but Roberta never criticizes. When I start to worry about the Young Master’s development or behavior, her unconditional love reminds me that Shane is perfect just as he is. Look at that face, right?

Thank you, Roberta, for showing me what a mom should be! We love you!

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.

Juvenile-In-Justice Gives At-Risk Youth a Platform to Tell Their Stories

I met prison librarian and youth advocate Jane Guttman 10 years ago when she invited me to teach a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Court School in San Bernardino, CA. Before then, I’d never had personal contact with prisoners. I unconsciously accepted the myths and fears that popular culture promotes about people who wind up behind bars. But I said a prayer, walked in there, and all those mental barriers dropped away. They were just kids–vulnerable, troubled, painfully sincere about their writing, grateful for books that could give voice to their feelings.

Jane has been working with criminal justice professor Richard Ross on his new website, Juvenile-In-Justice, which collects the stories of at-risk youth in their own words. Poverty, racism, under-resourced schools, and dysfunctional families create a deadly undertow that few can rise above. The system often fails them by throwing them in jail instead of providing support services. They become statistics and stereotypes to justify extending the prison-industrial complex. Juvenile-In-Justice shows us their faces, and their souls. Read these stories and let your heart be opened.

From “Welcome Home, Ronald”:

…At seven PM on Saturday night Ronald called. “I’m free Richard…I’m breathing free air.” Ronald Franklin, age 20, is now free after seven years—all of his teen-age years. Four and a half were spent in TGK while Ronald awaited adjudication. This isn’t a misprint. Yes, there is a sixth amendment and the right to a speedy trial, but in the case of adolescents, this is often compromised…

…I went to visit Ronald at a facility run by G4S, a private corporation that’s contracted by the state of Florida. In spite of being approved by his public defender, his mother and Ronald himself, I was turned away at the gate. Ockachoobee has 55,000 residents and 33,000 are incarcerated—but that’s another story and another time.

Ronald is free today, reconciled and living with a mother who was addicted for decades. Living around some of the roughest communities in the country: Miami Gardens, Liberty City, a Miami far from South Beach where privation and poverty are the norm. He is no stranger to subsistence living. For the past seven years the State of Florida spent $1.95 a day to feed him. Ronald will make it. He is planning on enrolling at Miami Dade Community College. He wants to do something with his life.

From “We Almost Starved to Death”:

This is the second time I’m here. I’ve been here three months now. The first time I was 15 and here for a month. I got tired of the stuff at home so I ran away. I survived by breaking into houses. So I’m here mostly for B&E and burglary. I live with my mom and stepdad. My sisters are both 6. And then I have a younger sister. My mom’s about 40. My dad died of heart attack when I was 4. My mom was doing crack and abandoned me and my sisters. I was staying in a foster home for two or three years. My little sisters and me were abandoned. We almost starved to death…

…They said I had behavioral problems and would break toys, push around my sisters, and go off by myself. I was so angry I would strip the bark off trees. They put me in children’s hospital. I was angry at the situation and my mother. I sometimes don’t want to see her, most times. She would badmouth my grandmother. She’s a tough one. Several times she would leave us all without food. I would get extra food at school for the twins and I got in trouble for that. She would leave my 8-month-old sister unsupervised. Where was DHR? I don’t know.

Follow Juvenile-In-Justice on Facebook for the latest posts plus news stories about prison reform. Now through May 17, you can also support Jane on Kickstarter to fund the creation and distribution of her book KIDS in Jail.

May Day: Political Links Roundup

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” sums up the state of social justice in America this week. Attorney Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) eloquently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. Meanwhile, African-Americans and allies took to the streets of Baltimore to protest the never-ending death toll of black men killed by police brutality.

The Baltimore protest was sparked by the April 12 death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed 25-year-old who panicked and ran after police made eye contact with him, and who died from a spinal injury sustained during his arrest (and possibly from police withholding his medication). It continues a nationwide groundswell of outrage that started with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in NYC last year. See the story at Colorlines, a black-owned news site. For reasons I’ll get to in a minute, I don’t trust the mainstream media on this one.

As many supporters of the protests have pointed out, there’s been more outrage over property damage than lost lives. When white college students trash their town because…uh, something about football? or St. Patrick’s Day? whatever, dude…the media portrays it as a big carnival. But black citizens standing against injustice are labeled “thugs”.

At the Poetry Foundation website, Jericho Brown rips into this racist double standard in “How Not to Interview Black People About Police Brutality”. Brown’s numerous poetry honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry. Watch the 4-minute CNN clip of Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Baltimore activist Deray McKesson (linked in his essay) and then read Brown’s tremendous takedown.

If you want to see nonviolence that’s anything but passive, it’s McKesson not blowing his stack in reaction to Blitzer’s persistent race-baiting questions. A superhuman effort that should never have been required. Contrast that to the white interviewer’s self-serving invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. to tone-police the protests. It reminded me of the way that Jesus’s message of nonviolence is twisted by abusers to keep their victims passive, as described here by Christian feminist blogger Sarah Moon.

From Brown’s essay:

Let’s be honest about white people’s attraction to Dr. King in the 1960s and your attraction to him today. If King’s mode of protest was the only protest occuring during his time, white people would not be such huge champions of him. He helped to create for you in your early adult years and for me before I was born a possibility for living in this nation without it being burned down. I think you know as well as I do that plenty of King’s contemporaries had ideas other than non-violence.

Your love of King is not a real love of him. Instead it is a fear of violence (and dare I say, of retribution). You NEVER mention his name on your show until you see the threat of violence. But as soon as someone in an understandable rage sets something on fire, you have the nerve to say “Dr. King” like he’s the token he never meant to become. Aligning yourself with King in this way in 2015 makes you an apologist for police brutality against black people, an apologist for police to murder black people and get away with it, and an apologist for a system that continues to structurally support these injustices.

Your point of view, your smug tone in this interview with Deray McKesson and other interviews suggests that Dr. King’s example of getting harassed, beaten, and arrested SHOULD be anyone’s ONLY option. Don’t you think people put in dire circumstances should at least have more options than what was available to them 50 years ago?

Before we reach the age of 20 in classrooms around this country, we learn how violently the Americas were colonized, and we learn how violently our founding fathers revolted against the Crown. When are you going to bring up the fact that the violence of rebels that founded this nation is taught as justice? When will you be honest about the fact that we are free to owe violence a great debt when that violence is perpetrated by white people?…

…Please stop saying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name if you’re not going to be honest about his existence on this planet. You throw his name around like he was some sort of saint who never wanted to whip a white cop bloody. Certainly, you have to know that this would have been impossible. Restraint is the exception for any human being who lives at risk.

The non-violent arm of the civil rights movement that white people love so much consisted of highly trained men and women capable of taking a beating. While I am glad those men and women did the work they did on this planet, I am always hurt to know that’s the work they had to do. Wolf, I want you to have the sense to be hurt, too.

And now for some good news. GLAD’s website summarizes the high points of oral argument before the Court on Tuesday. At issue in Obergefell v. Hodges was whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The full transcript is also a worthwhile read, and not too technical for non-lawyers. Justice Ginsburg astutely observed that the definition of marriage has already changed from legalized male dominance to equal partnership, so there’s no longer a reason to restrict the partners’ identities by gender. Even conservative Justice Roberts chimed in with the suggestion that this was “a straightforward question of sexual discrimination”. This framing would avoid the need to create a new protected class based on sexual orientation in Equal Protection law, a move that the Court’s conservative bloc wouldn’t buy.

My favorite zinger came from Justice Sotomayor during the respondent’s oral argument. John Bursch, an assistant attorney general from Michigan, made the case on behalf of state marriage bans. He argued that if our culture starts defining “marriage” based on adults’ feelings for each other, rather than their duty to their biological children, straight couples won’t feel that it’s important to get married and support their kids. To which the Justice replied, “Why would a feeling, which doesn’t make any logical sense, control our decision-making?”

Justice Sotomayor and Abby the Fairy wish you a happy Northampton Pride tomorrow!

Haitian Artists Create the Ghetto Tarot

In a previous Tarot-related post, I expressed concern about the white European flavor of standard Tarot decks. The Ghetto Tarot is a beautiful and inventive project that showcases Haitian art and culture. Documentary photographer Alice Smeets re-created the classic poses from the Rider-Waite Tarot with a group of Haitian artists known as Atiz Rezistans. Read this interview with her in the photography webzine 500px ISO, and buy a copy of the deck (32 euros=approx. $37). The article includes a video of the local artists talking about what the project meant to them. They’ve reclaimed the word “ghetto” to mean a community where everyone looks out for one another. Hat tip to Caleigh Royer, the blogger who inspired me to look into Tarot, for posting this on Facebook.

From the interview:

The spirit of the Ghetto Tarot project is the inspiration to turn negative into positive while playing. The group of artists “Atiz Rezistans” use trash to create art with their own visions that are a reflection of the beauty they see hidden within the waste. They are claiming the word “Ghetto,” thus freeing themselves of its depreciating undertone and turning it into something beautiful.

Their act of appropriating a word loaded with unfavorable sentiments by altering its meaning in a playful way is in itself an act of inspiration. This undertaking of the Haitians made me realize that it lies only within us to assign value or judgment towards a tangible or intangible thing, which creates a positive or negative emotion.

If we realize that it’s a choice whether we look at destruction and see despair or to regard it as the start of something new, we can change the meaning of every word, action and sentiment. The consciousness of this choice is something I learned from the Haitian artists and we are sharing it together with the world through the Ghetto Tarot….

…As a photographer, my main motivation has always been to bring change using my camera as a tool. As a witness of injustice in this world, I have always wanted to share my emotions and experiences through my pictures and was hoping for people to act as a result to stop the unfairness.

I photographed people in seemingly hopeless situations, people stuck in a circle of poverty, destruction and pain. And I accomplished my wish to touch the viewers feelings and observed that the emotions that my documentary photos brought up were emotions of pity, sadness, and depression. Finally, I realized that the negative feelings that my images projected onto the audience as well as onto the subjects created a sensation of disempowerment instead of an inspiration towards the act of change. With this realization came an understanding unveiling the continuous exposure of my own state of mind in every picture frame and the awareness that the change I desired for this world could only thrive within myself.

As a consequence, I put the camera down for a while and turned my attention towards my inner self. It seemed like a long and difficult path in which I tried out many different methods, including reading tarot cards until I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel: The revelation that I don’t need to be the observer of my and the world’s problems and destiny, I am a creator.

Workers and Lovers Unite: Bracha Nechama Bomze’s “Love Justice”

Bracha Nechama Bomze’s beautiful debut book, Love Justice (3Ring Press, 2015), is a book-length love poem, a family memoir, and an epic of social change. The title’s multiple meanings are the seeds from which each of the book’s themes branches out and blossoms.

As an imperative, “Love justice” recalls the Hebrew prophet Micah’s summation of God’s will: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. This idea is reflected in the history of Bomze’s and her partner Carol’s Jewish immigrant families. Their ancestors bravely escaped Eastern European tyranny and contended with poverty and prejudice in America. The Jewish tradition of labor activism is one of Bomze’s chief points of connection with her heritage. In one of the most powerful passages in the book (read it here), she describes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a notorious industrial accident where 146 young women workers died because the bosses had locked them in to prevent theft. Carol’s grandmother was almost one of them, but had been denied the job because of her reputation for union organizing. Bomze asks, “What if, somehow, Triangle bosses had chosen Sheindl?/Then never could I have chosen–you.” All victims of injustice are the poet’s spiritual ancestors, laying a charge on her to treasure life and to work towards tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

This leads into the second meaning of “Love-justice”, namely the right to love as we choose. Woven throughout the narrative are sensual, joyful love poems to her life partner. If one of the book’s story arcs is a journey of loss–the deaths of their parents, the historical shadows of the Holocaust and September 11–the other arc culminates in Bracha and Carol’s marriage in Provincetown in 2008. It’s hard to choose just one section to quote, but I especially relished the imagery here:

1983:
In the hot July of your persistent seduction
after our race across Boiberik Lake, which I win,
in your moist purple swimsuit you entice me to a macramé hammock
split in a way that flips me toward you.
To avoid falling through the tear in the weave
I reach my twenty-six-year-old thigh through the opening, my tanned foot swings us
gently swings us
toward one another
My nostrils press into sweet perspiration, silken nape hairs enticing as cherry blossoms,
enticing as peach rose petals, mimosa, freshly-juiced guava.
I imbibe flowing drafts from your satiny-wet neck: I do not drown.
Day after night after month after year I drink from the glossy garden
blooming at the top of your spine.
You humor me, joke that I’m obsessed, you have no idea why, until when
one day, we hike a rainforest trail–bromeliads, wild orchids, fronds shaking with monkeys.

A hummingbird, in shimmering iridescence,
insistently follows you down the leaf-strewn path
dipping its thirsty proboscis again and again and again, wanting the nectar of your nape.
The vibrations of its eager buzz tickle your skin
until, confused, frustrated, the opalescent jewel speeds away to a flower it can sip.

Bliss after bliss after bliss

The third significant meaning of “Love-justice” relates to a topic close to my heart, adoption. Bomze relates a heartbreaking story about her young birthmother, forced to relinquish her child because of social stigma in the 1950s, and the “closed adoption” system that prevented mother and child from discovering any identifying information about each other. In her 40s, the poet finds out her birthmother’s identity and story, but is never able to speak to her directly because the other woman can’t bear to open up those old wounds. On top of that, her adoptive mother couldn’t give her the love or the answers that she desperately needed. (In the excerpt below, Zadie is Yiddish for grandfather, and yahrtzheit is the anniversary of the person’s death.)

I remember, terrified, in the way,
waiting for death but not knowing it,
struggling to comprehend Daddy’s kind but much edited explanation
of Grandma Leah Blima’s agony
incomplete, mystifying, yet whoppingly clear.
I’m just a little girl
a perplexed, questioning, mortified adoptee
from the shaming 1950’s system of locked secrets–
My mother,
caregiver and only child to hospital years, hospice months
My mother,
a woman of scant patience
and wild temper,
never forgave herself her infertility,
hurled her grief and rage at me,
“substitute” child for the “natural one, never born.”
Female, like herself,
not the male first-born she told me she’d have preferred,
to the girl child she never could quite scrub clean–
even in a way-too-hot bath
even if she had to use her nails…

Decades later, a stooped woman, still an admired holiday chef
she blurts out, weeping to me in her Rosh Hashanah kitchen,
between wooden-spoon stirs of chicken soup with garlic and dill,
she shrieks and shakes, determined to rip open another secret:
Someone in the family…somene
violated her body when she was a girl…
“It was…it was…No, no, never mind!”

I stopped lighting candles on her Zadie’s yahrtzheit.

Through all these personal and political traumas, the poet continues to praise the natural world that feeds her soul, and the life partnership that comes as a fairy-tale happy ending to a lonely childhood. This book inspired and delighted me, and I hope it will do the same for many other readers.

The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test

Continuing my transformation into a Western Massachusetts woo-woo hippie, this past Saturday I had my first professional Tarot card reading with Carolyn Cushing at Art of Change Tarot. That evening, my husband and I attended the last 20 minutes of Amherst’s Extravaganja festival (you really haven’t lived till you’ve seen a mom shopping for bongs with her baby in a stroller) and then we saw a fiery new documentary about young feminists fighting the campus date rape epidemic.

Hard to believe that 10 years ago, my idea of a good time was the Vision New England conference.

I remember a strange moment (well, there were a lot of strange moments) at that conference, which was a pretty typical evangelical gathering with praise bands, bestselling inspirational speakers, and a bookfair of Jesus kitsch. Keynote speaker John Eldredge was using a clip from the film “The Last of the Mohicans” to illustrate his theory that all men want to be heroes and all women want to be rescued. Wait a moment, I thought to myself. Don’t evangelicals hate godless liberal sex-crazed Hollywood? Why is it suddenly a source of eternal truth–or even factual truth? Isn’t there a chance that our desires reflect media indoctrination, rather than that the media is objectively recording our true natures?

This recursive paradox confronts me on every spiritual path I explore. The religious impulse is a yearning to connect with some all-encompassing source of life and wisdom that is greater than our individual perceptions. But what I seek,  and where I choose to seek it, are determined by my personal psyche at this moment. So am I just finding myself, not anything “outside” me? Is the Hierophant just a Rorschach test?

Traditional religion mistrusts the self. The heart is deceitful above all things, the Bible warns. Accountability to a community, a deity, or a sacred text is required to keep us from falling into self-indulgent delusion. As I’ve said before, growing up with a “spiritual but not religious” narcissist made this line of reasoning plausible to me in my youth. However, because I came to religion as an adult, with no peer pressure to pick any particular tradition, I couldn’t make myself forget that the choice had been mine, not handed down from on high. Believe in the inerrant Bible? Okay, but fallible you made the initial decision that the Bible was more reliable than the Koran or the fortune cookie at lunch. I also discovered, over the years, that skilled narcissists can manipulate any religious accountability structure in their favor. The doctrine of self-mistrust is a perfect way to hide your own biases behind a convenient Bible verse, while gaslighting victims whose only authority comes from their personal experience.

“I’m not looking for a guru,” I told Carolyn at our initial meeting. “I want to use Tarot to get in touch with my own intuition.”

Or so I thought…

The cards we drew from the beautiful contemporary Gaian Tarot deck continue to reveal nuances of meaning as I reflect on them this week. We asked a two-part question about my movement through Christianity into Tarot. What am I retaining and losing from my old faith; how should I approach this new path and who is my support?

The cards in the first series, about Christianity, had muted tones and shady woodland settings. One showed spawning salmon and fish bones (resurrected Christ?), the others were solitary pensive women. All the cards in the second series, about Tarot, made my heart leap up. They were some of the most colorful cards in the deck. The women in them were sensual, confidently standing in sunlight, and rejoicing in their connection to other people and animals. The card for “Who is my support?” was The Seeker, a/k/a The Fool: a young girl who, we agreed, represented my inner child.

Among other things, the spread suggests that although I’m following a more individualistic spiritual path, I’m heading toward more connection to others. I came to Christianity from a place of fear and isolation. It protected me from psychological dangers that were real in my personal life, but which the religion also encouraged me to project onto the world as a whole. Now I’m pursuing the life force rather than running away from death.

Right after I left Carolyn’s studio, however, my inner critic was ascendant. What did I learn that I didn’t already know? I feel stifled by my current worldview and want a fresh one. I feel joy calling to me from a new direction but a lot of shame about being ungrateful and unfaithful to my old communities. This is not exactly news, but I think some part of me did want a guru to make the decision for me. I was secretly hoping for the cards to make those painful feelings go away.

I think there is accountability in Tarot. The cards don’t tell me what to do, but my reaction to them tells me where my heart is. And my life, especially my creative work, reveals the consequences of following or not following my heart.

But I’m still not buying a bong.

April Is the Cruelest Month: Mommie Dearest Links Roundup

Is it just a coincidence that April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Poetry Month?

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(Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism.)

In that spirit, I’d like to share some excellent articles I’ve discovered this month about family trauma and recovery, and a poem from my new collection, My Miserable Life…oops, I meant Bullies in Love. Special #NaPoMo promo: Order your copy of Bullies, email me the receipt (jendi@winningwriters.com), and I’ll mail you a free copy of my award-winning chapbook Swallow. Even if you live in Tasmania.

Swan and Cygnet

I’m a dry tit, a blackened heartsteak.
Since memory
began a pink baby tumor has been cradled
on my ribs, curtaining
my girlhood’s one-act ballet.
Where is it now, inseparable sucking warmth,
sleepless fury, what selfish operation
uprighted me? Pounds of wet fat gone,
the thin belle shivers
in the too-wide spotlight, the crowds of love
never enough to heat the distance.
Don’t blame her for dancing
with such momentum she topples off the stage
like a drill bit spun askew in a splintered board.
I’m that dragged ankle, that pin in the bone remaining
after the symphony has laid down its burden
and the cheap statues
trundled into the closet,
the Act One virgin with no hands to save money
because the plaster baby is supposed to fit there.
Like all frivolous things, it’s a cruel vocation
always to be missing you, mother-
less child, as the feet miss bleeding,
as the red shoes miss being danced to tatters
in the ruthless illusion of flight.

 

My mother was a charismatic, creative person who always acted like normal rules didn’t apply to our family. Including the rules of sanity, I eventually noticed. So it’s both validating and slightly deflating for me to go down the checklists in these articles about emotional abuse and mother-daughter role reversal: “Yeah, we had that… and that.. .and that too… wow, I didn’t know there was a name for that…” She wasn’t even original in her narcissism!

But this late revelation highlights a deficiency in our cultural picture of “abuse”. The movies-of-the-week and PSAs usually feature a man hitting a woman. We have trouble recognizing that women can be equally harmful perpetrators, and that their violations are often disguised as affection that’s hard to refuse. Look at the Internet reaction to Madonna’s forcing a kiss on young rapper Drake at the Coachella music festival last week. Because of the mockery surrounding the whole concept of female-on-male sexual assault (see also: Shia LaBeouf), he’s had to pretend that he didn’t mind it, when his body language tells the opposite story.

And now, the links:

*At the website Womb of Light: The Power of the Awakened Feminine, life coach Bethany Webster discusses the complex interplay of patriarchy and mother-daughter emotional incest in her 2014 essay, “When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters”. This piece was extraordinarily close to my own experience.

The road between a little girl and her mother is supposed to be a one-way street with support flowing consistently from the mother to the daughter. It goes without saying that little girls are totally dependent on their mothers for physical, mental and emotional support. However, one of the many faces of the mother wound is the common dynamic in which the mother inappropriately depends on the daughter to provide her with mental and emotional support. This role-reversal is incredibly damaging to the daughter, having long-range effects on the her self-esteem, confidence and sense of self-worth.

Alice Miller describes this dynamic in “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” The mother, upon having a child may unconsciously feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally and begins to use the child to fill her needs that were not met in her own childhood. In this way, the child begins to carry the projection of her mother’s mother.  This puts the daughter in an impossible situation to be responsible for her mother’s well-being and happiness…

…Patriarchy has deprived women to such a degree that when they become mothers, they often turn to the love of their young daughters starving and  ravenous for validation, approval and recognition. A hunger that a daughter could never possibly satisfy. Yet generation after generation of innocent daughters have been offering themselves up, willingly sacrificing themselves on the altar of their mother’s suffering and starvation, with the hope that one day they will finally “be good enough” for her. There is a childlike hope that by “feeding the mother,” the mother will eventually be able to feed the daughter. That meal never comes. You get the “meal” your soul has been longing for by engaging in the process of healing the mother wound and owning your life and your worth…

Why it’s hard to face how your mother was a perpetrator: 

  • As little girls we were culturally conditioned to be caretakers and to not advocate for our own needs
  • Children are hard-wired biologically for unwavering loyalty to mother no matter what she does. Mother love is critical for survival.
  • Having the same gender identification as your mother; the implication that she is on your team
  • Seeing your mother as a victim of her own unresolved trauma and a culture of patriarchy
  • The religious and cultural taboos of “Honor thy father and mother” and the “holy mother” that instill guilt and silence children about their feelings.

Why is self-sabotage a manifestation of the mother wound?

  • As a parentified daughter, the mother-bond (love, comfort and safety) was forged in an environment of self-suppression. (Being small = being loved)
  • Thus, there’s a subconscious link between mother-love and self-attenuation.
  • While your conscious mind may want success, happiness, love and confidence–the subconscious mind remembers the dangers of early childhood in which being big, spontaneous or authentic caused painful rejection from the mother.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: rejection by mother = death.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: self-sabotage (being small)  = safety (survival).

That’s why it can feel so hard to love ourselves, because letting go of shame, self-sabotage and guilt feels like letting go of mother. 

*The Invisible Scar is a website devoted to raising awareness about emotional abuse of children. This article, “Not Only Shouting: Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse”, explains why certain behaviors are so damaging, and why it’s hard for us to name them as such. Again, I am a texbook case. Silent treatment, triangulation, pathological lying, sabotaging… Look, I completed my Bingo card, what’s the prize? Recovery!

…The abusive parent will withhold attention and affection until the child caves in and apologizes for whatever the abuser perceived as a slight or insult. Through a series of silent treatments, the abused child will learn to be silent, to be docile, to never speak against the parent—because if the child does, he will not be loved or spoken to or even acknowledged as a human being…

…“Bunny Boiling is a reference to an iconic scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction” in which the main character Alex, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, kills the family’s pet rabbit and boils it on the stove. Bunny Boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively towards symbolic, important or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control or intimidate.” (Out of the FOG website) Whatever the child treasures, an abusive parent will take away or destroy…

…An emotional child abuser will sabotage a child’s calm and peace. For example, if a child looks forward to a television program, at the last minute, the emotional child abuser may deliberately set forth a ridiculously long chore list to be done before the child can watch the show. (Think of the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” who set up Cinderella to fail by giving her too long a list of items to do before the ball.) Or the father will deliberately schedule a family meeting at the same time that a child had planned ahead of time to attend a friend’s birthday party. Like all forms of emotional child abuse, sabotaging ruins a child’s sense of security…

That was a real downer, so here’s a picture of two cute bunnies, in what we hope is an emotionally healthy relationship. Thanks for reading this far, kids.

easter_bunnies

(Photo credit: Twiniversity.)

Recovery, Not Return: A Conversation About Faith and Suffering

Ysabel de la Rosa edits the online journal Getting Along with Grief, a home for poetry, memoir, other prose, and artwork about life after loss. In an email conversation between us during Holy Week, we got onto the topic of Christian interpretations of suffering. We were both struggling with the ways that our spiritual traditions can sometimes reinforce abuse rather than challenging it.

Having followed my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog, Ysabel mentioned that she’d been part of a congregation where the lesbian pastor severely betrayed people’s trust. The surrounding community then exploited the scandal to argue against LGBT acceptance–shaming victims of spiritual abuse, in order to advance “Biblical truth”. Meanwhile, I felt my faith hanging by a thread after hearing a sermon to the effect that “Jesus ended the cycle of violence by absorbing violence”, a sentiment often repeated by progressive Christian writers during the Lenten season. Anyone with a basic education in domestic violence knows that absorbing abuse fuels the cycle of violence; believing otherwise (often with the church’s encouragement) keeps victims trapped in trying to be good enough and forgiving enough to magically change the perpetrator. And isn’t that one of the popular theories of Christ’s Atonement–that his perfect victimhood moves our hearts to repentance?

I’m through with taking victimhood as a role model. And I also refuse to identify with perpetrators who need someone else’s blood to make their own wounds visible. If that’s being a Christian… SmashMouth said it best: When you’re done…you’re really done.

I asked Ysabel: “A lot of traditional Christian doctrine seems to reinforce psychological distortions that prevent trauma healing–all that self-negation and glorification of suffering. I keep searching for more positive ways to understand Jesus. Do you have any favorite books or websites along these lines?”

She’s given me permission to quote an edited version of our conversation below.

Ysabel:

“These will not address childhood trauma directly, but Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity may be just right for you at this point. It was a turning point book for me for many reasons. I highly recommend John Dominic Crossan’s books that cover Roman and Christian history. He does an excellent job of putting Jesus’s life and message in context, and that context was one of occupation. If you are going to fight having your people occupied by another, that entails some necessary suffering…and there, to me, is a key. Some suffering is necessary, and one of the things I find comforting about Christianity is that it acknowledges that all suffer, but I believe the glorification of that suffering came about as a tool of a human and power-seeking institution, that was served well by making people feel sanctified about their suffering and encouraging them to stay in a suffering state or place. Other suffering is not necessary…and that’s one point where we tend to get hung up and start to look on our suffering as an accomplishment or as something that entitles us to privileges…

“I see the church as the tomb—and only the tomb–where the resurrection takes place. We have to have a tomb. :-) Don’t let the dark walls of the tomb (doctrine) rob you of the resurrection of the spirit.

“As for childhood trauma, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. I was not abused, but my life has been deeply affected–and painfully so–by people who were.

“At some point, there needs to occur a deep letting go into the light. I don’t completely understand it, but I have seen that when adults cannot do that, they stay stuck, stuck, stuck in the trauma. And, whether conscious or not, they traumatize others. One thing I have thought about is Mary at the foot of the cross. Does her suffering not equal any other?

“Christianity does not promise me ease or lack of suffering. However, it clearly tells me that a life with suffering is NOT a sign of failure nor is an easy life a sign of success. I find acknowledgment of my suffering in the crucifixion and a strange kind of healing in the resurrection story. It does not matter to me one whit if Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead. My own father, a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology, believed that the primary aim of the resurrection was to reveal eternal life to others, to make a statement that suffering is not the final answer. Did Jesus appear physically, spiritually? It doesn’t matter. That message about eternal life and suffering not being the final answer remains true.

The resurrection also tells me that to ‘recover’ is not to ‘return’. There is often some loss in healing. I had heart surgery in 2013. I have ‘recovered’, but I won’t ‘return’ to where I was several years ago. I said I did not suffer abuse in childhood, but I certainly have in my adulthood. I have recovered, largely, from that, but I will never return to the state of innocence or even joy that  I lived in before the abuse. So, that return/recover distinction has helped me see that healing does not mean erasing, it does not mean we get to recover something we never had, but we do get to recover what and who we are now, and that is no small thing. ‘Shake the dust off your sandals and move on.'”

I wrote back: About “recover versus return”, I like to meditate on the idea that the risen Christ still had wounds. (I always picture that Isenheim Altarpiece image where his body is glowing with light and the wounds look like rubies.) The Cross and Resurrection are such paradoxical symbols, because it is a fine line between de-stigmatizing inevitable suffering versus glorifying self-destruction. My heart continues to be drawn to the mystery despite the headaches it gives me. I remember a video of Crossan saying that Jesus didn’t die FOR our sins but BECAUSE of our sins. It’s not the suffering that’s redemptive, but the love, which only entails suffering as a by-product of his encounter with a flawed world.

Ysabel:

“You are right. SUFFERING IS NOT REDEMPTIVE!! It is necessary, though. It comes with the life package. What it can do is teach…but it is another power which is wholly redemptive. The good news is that suffering can lead us to that power. The whole business of Christ dying for our sins is a notion come quite late to Christianity.”

 

So I guess I’m not done with Jesus. I am, though, for the time being, exhausted with Christianity.

I believe I can connect with a Jesus who speaks truth and healing into my particular experience. But participating in this collective thing called Christianity, I’m struggling uphill against a headwind of codependent myths, triggering images, and the simple ignorance of good people who don’t prioritize abuse prevention or trauma recovery in their theology. On the flip side, I understand that congregations include people in all stages of psychological growth. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear about these issues 10 years ago! Should I graciously get off the bus instead of trying to turn it around?

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Easter Thoughts: God’s Joy and Ours

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Happy Easter!

As I mentioned earlier on the blog, I gave up doubting my intuition for Lent. That’s a practice I certainly hope to continue through Easter season and beyond. I often “give up” things that have a religious stamp of approval but are actually blocking me from hearing and trusting God.

Lent was unusually hard for me this year, not because of what I gave up, but because I no longer needed a prescribed season of gloom as social cover for my dark moods. To the contrary, I was just beginning to understand joy and self-acceptance as my birthright when seven weeks of self-abasing Bible verses slapped me upside the head.

The doctrine of redemptive suffering, so prominent in this season, has also generated increasing cognitive dissonance with my trauma recovery framework. I’m edging closer to John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of our sins–in other words, that suffering in itself is not holy or divinely commanded, but rather a side effect of perfect love tangling with an imperfect world.

That’s why I liked this Holy Week essay in Fare Forward, a moderately conservative online journal of Christianity and culture. In “Transactional Salvation”, Leah Libresco says we typically misunderstand Lenten disciplines as if the pain was the point. But God demands no payback or proof of our devotion.

It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.

It is often better, whether during Lent or as a Friday discipline, to choose to offer God something that doesn’t seem arbitrary or arduous-for-the-sake-of-being-arduous, but something that is good for us, that we trust God will receive well because He delights in our good.

More than any other relationship, God’s interests are united with ours. The “sacrifice” God wants is for us to do what is truly good for ourselves.

This Easter, what obstacles will we give up, to make way for clarity, courage, and compassion?