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According to the Buddha, right speech is a statement that is timely, true, kind, helpful (connected to liberation), and spoken with a mind of good-will. Let us all try to observe this precept.
Lent gives Christians a refreshing opportunity to bring the topic of sin out into the open. In this season, we're reminded that Christ's love takes away our shame and sets us free to be honest. Hopefully this invitation generates not only personal repentance but critical thinking about what we consider sinful, and why.
Contemplating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, I'm struck by the fact that they're all feelings or states of mind, not actions. True, a lot of our day-to-day misbehaviors are the mindless result of bad dispositions that we've allowed to become habitual. If I approach others with a routinely suspicious and fault-finding outlook, people are less likely to respond to me with intimacy and candor, which then perversely confirms my distorted view that everyone is a cold-hearted liar.
On the other hand, we can be deprived of a crucial tool for healing when careless over-generalization misidentifies the emotion as the sin, rather than its unskillful expression or unfair choice of target. Fear or anger may be a perfectly rational response to conditions in a person's life, now or in the past. For some, those conditions were so extreme or long-lasting that the emotional response is neurologically ingrained, not amenable to shutdown by an act of willpower. When the religious community judges and stigmatizes the emotion itself, that person is impeded from coming out of denial and learning the emotion's true cause.
In the conservative church, where faith is the primary command, fear may be targeted as a sign of failure. The liberal church, which prioritizes social harmony and benevolence, may struggle to have a nuanced conversation about anger. As we Episcopalians unpack our legacy of establishment privilege, we should take a fresh look at our checklist of sins from the perspective of the oppressed -- those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness", those whose anger has a just cause and represents a step toward self-determination. In a paradigm where there are only benefactors and sufferers, this perspective goes unheard.
Anger is the torch by whose light we see what has been done to us. Do we douse it because fire can sometimes go out of control?
In her book Sermons for a Lesbian Tent Revival, radical feminist playwright and activist Carolyn Gage includes a provocative (and funny) exposition of "The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Bring More of Them Into Your Life". I don't endorse all of Gage's work -- like many Second Wave rad-fems, she's offensively transgender-phobic -- but when she's on, she's on. Here, "Sister Carolyn of the Sacred Synapse" analyzes the varieties of angry experience, better than any preacher I know:
Okay, but what about Wrath? Sister Carolyn believes in Wrath. She believes a woman's Wrath is sacred. What does the dictionary have to say about Wrath?
1: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement
Divine chastisement. Yes ma'am!
And where does this word come from? It comes from an old English word for "twisted". And that is when you are trying to turn one way and something is forcing you to turn the other...and it is SQUEEZING you, sisters...just wringing the breath out of you. Like trying to know the truth when someone is feeding you lies. Like trying to be free when someone is trying to control you. Like trying to do something radical and counterclockwise with your life, but finding out that all your old conditioning is just going to keep twisting you clockwise.
WRATH. Yeah! Like loving a planet when it's being ruined. Like caring for your sisters and seeing them have to live every day in a war zone. WRATH. Like raising your children and seeing the whole world geared up to violate them...Yes, sisters, bring it! Let's get our Wrath on! (pgs. 142-43)
In this latest poem from my prison pen pal "Conway", he makes a pun on California's "three-strikes" sentencing law, which condemned him to 25 years to life for receiving stolen goods. He is still awaiting a court date on his early release petition pursuant to the law's repeal in 2012.
In this deserted surround no voice echoes as shards of concrete erupt from rusted selves just disregarded shells.
Another door slammed shut forged considering the score blind no more to loose lips the silent frame up of unlimited mysteries' damage.
Back when I couldn't admit some small time defeat, even if it put me back on the street.
I knew the situation... It would not end, even after a meeting of knuckles on skin.
Light lyrics, became heavy lies years, as far away as yesterday ricochets snatched up so easily become the law, the gavel as a systematic machine takes it in, like a pitcher's glove...
For several years, I've had a quirky practice of giving up so-called good things for Lent: going to church, for instance. One year I gave up Lent for Lent. But this year, that seems like a way of avoiding focus in my spiritual self-assessment -- "giving up" something so large and vague that it doesn't generate any concrete changes in my moment-to-moment living.
So I'm giving up biting my nails for Lent.
Hundreds of times a day, my poor tortured cuticles and I will have to find another way to cope with boredom, anxiety, or the need for comfort. I'm not committing to any showy promises that I'll say a prayer each time I avoid snacking on my epidermis. I'll be lucky if I make the time occasionally to inquire into the feelings beneath the bad habit. Who knows, maybe there are no feelings. Overthinking my own motives is another behavior I could gladly give up for Lent.
I'm going with the smallest, most specific change I can think of this year, because I can be honest with myself about what it is and whether I'm doing it. My perspective on the big issues of Christian faith is in such flux that no major action feels satisfying or sincere.
For instance, living with a baseline of constant, object-less fear is something I would like to change. Some would say that God would take this burden away if only I had enough faith -- that I'm choosing to be stuck in the past, to dwell on the times I felt abandoned rather than the times when God's felt presence or human allies supported me. Or the reverse interpretation could be true: as I finally apprehend how awful my past was, I experience God's absence at a whole new depth. What follows from this? Is "God the Father" compatible with coming into my full strength as an adult? Or is trauma healing not a theological problem at all, but primarily a matter of slowly retraining the nervous system? In that case, religious promises of instantaneous deliverance ring hollow.
I'm unlikely to have an answer for these questions in the next two days. The best I can do is resolve to respond to fear with more mindfulness and less compulsive, self-destructive behavior. And it starts at my fingertips.
Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. The French proverb sums up the conventional story arc of healing and closure, encountered repeatedly in inspirational articles and literary novels that take on the difficult subject of abuse. The survivors in these stories are depicted as stuck in pain and anger from the past until they discover their perpetrator's own trauma history and learn to empathize with her.
Victimized and vulnerable, we long for a God's-eye view that reveals our senseless trauma to be only a small piece of a larger, meaningful pattern. How could that person's emotional responses be so unlike mine? Where did her empathy wiring become unplugged? When she saw me as deserving of torment, who was she really seeing?
That's why we seize on the fact, or speculate where no facts are available, that "the abuser was abused herself". Traumatically bonded to the parent, and striving to contextualize positive memories of feeling cared for, the adult survivor imaginatively identifies with the "real" person inside her perpetrator, pictured as a wounded child like herself. This kicks the blame upstairs, to the parent's parent or the creepy guy in the bushes, preserving the fantasy that but for some very bad luck, the abusive parent would have been the loving person that she really wanted to be.
However, this strategy impedes awareness that the abuser and the victim are not the same person, repeating the confusion of the original trauma. As Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera described in The Scapegoat Complex, an unhealthy parent will split off the rejected parts of her psyche and convince her child that those bad feelings and actions are really his. The incest survivor feels the shame that actually belongs to the perpetrator, and unfortunately, society (including mental health professionals) easily falls prey to the same error.
When I think of the part of me that is merged with my mother, the paranormal bond she always insisted we had, the images that come to mind are hidden damage and family curse. I hear Johnny Cash singing "I See a Darkness" (Many times we've shared our thoughts/But did you ever, ever notice/The kind of thoughts I got?) and "The Beast in Me" (who In the twinkling of an eye/Might have to be restrained).
The incest survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps wrote a characteristically hard-hitting post in December 2013, about how "abusers as victims" makes survivors afraid of ourselves and stigmatized in society:
It’s a nice, simple explanation that makes people feel better about abuse. Clearly abuse is just self-contained. I’m also sure that it makes non-survivors feel better about themselves – certainly they would never abuse because they’re not like those tragic people.
What this does is assume that there is something in being a survivor that could turn us into abusers. That there is something inherently in us now that we have to fight against to not be abusive and those poor abusive dears who just weren’t strong enough gave into the darkness inside of them. It turns us survivors into ticking time bombs not to be trusted because at any minute there’s the chance that we could “turn.”...
...It flattens the lives of survivors because it reduces us to an “abuse narrative” rather than seeing us as people with unique stories and experiences. It says that everything we do is in relation to the abuse, and that our abusers actions are only in relation to their abuse. We have no lives, no experiences, no other events or circumstances that contribute to our lives. We are not human beings with choices, all our decisions instead revolve around are reactions to the abuse. It turns abusers into unthinking animals who are only able to respond on a base, emotional level, with no conscious thought at all. It assumes that abusers just “don’t know better.” It plays into my mother’s belief of the “whoops, accidentally sexually abused you!”
I think the simplicity of this reasoning allows for us to believe that abuse is self-contained, is separate from the “normal” people. It’s a line of behavior passed down from parent to child, and I feel like it allows non-survivors to believe that they are untainted by its stain – they hold no responsibility for it and they are safe from it.
For me, nobody has more credibility on this issue than Alice Miller. In my favorite book of hers, Banished Knowledge, she expounds on her core belief that abusive parents are indeed re-enacting some childhood trauma. Yet she is unique in her firm insistence that this fact creates no obligation for the survivor to feel any particular way -- no compulsory forgiveness, no necessary sympathy, no minimizing or moral equivalence. We've spent more than enough time caretaking such parents. We had to empathize with them at our expense in order to survive. It's our own inner child's story that is awaiting a long-overdue hearing.
Just once I'd like to read a novel where a survivor decides to disengage from his family story. Instead of imaginatively bonding with his abuser through their common wounds, he accepts that their bond was never genuine or mutual, and learns to grieve this loss while reclaiming his future.
Last week I joined the ranks of fabulous faux redheads, thanks to Robin LaFleur at Hair Etc. in Northampton.
I've always been entranced by red hair. From second grade through freshman year in high school, I had a ridiculous crush on a boy several grades ahead of me, about whom I knew hardly anything, except that he had a lion-esque mane of coppery curls. Before that, when I was four, I wanted to marry my grandmother's marmalade cat (who turned out to be female).
So I figured, a little peroxide wouldn't hurt my brain function in any noticeable way.
(Google Images approximation of Sidney the cat. I should only look so good. Source here.)
The two-hour process began with application of the "head condom", a very tight rubber cap to protect my underlying natural color while highlights were applied to selected strands of hair. Said strands were picked up off my scalp, with a device resembling an awl, to make them protrude through holes in the cap, like so:
Can you hear my eyebrows squeaking?
Next, Robin painted peroxide on the top strands to lift off the dark color, then encased them in a baggie to bake under the dryer.
The production budget for "Ride of the Valkyries" was low this year.
Reading "The Goldfinch" at the salon like the aesthete I am.
Just when I was realizing why I don't perform femininity more often, Robin turned off the Shake-n-Bake. This is what I look like as a blonde:
Dr. Frankenstein, we have a problem with the electricity.
My head was repainted with the red dye and left to soak for 25 minutes en plein air, followed by a refreshing shampoo. I went home to terrify my family with my new fashion personality.
We all remember those moments when a work of art opened our eyes and ears. Those "I didn't know you could do that!" moments fill us with an uncontainable, restless excitement to respond in some way with a creative outpouring of our own, only we don't yet have the words to express what we've encountered.
I felt that way when I first heard The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on my mother's record player in the late 1970s. It was wicked, enigmatic, mesmerizing -- a taste of adulthood's forbidden knowledge. Since I still don't understand the lyrics, it holds much of the same magic for me today.
My mother was a snob about popular music, for the most part. The Beatles were the only rock 'n' roll group she would tolerate among her LPs of Tchaikovsky and Broadway musicals. This made me a social outcast in middle school until I acquired my own portable radio in 1983, on which I listened secretly to Prince singing "Raspberry Beret". Perhaps that's why it took me until last year to figure out that "Octopus's Garden" was a metaphor for the female anatomy.
This week, fans commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' American TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show. That makes me feel old, but this song makes me feel like a rebellious teenager all over again.
Welcome to the first post in a multi-part series about trauma survivors in the church. Topics will include common triggers in the church environment and their effects on survivors' participation; how the church's beliefs, particularly its picture of human nature, can either be healing or re-traumatizing; pastoral care for survivors; the challenges of authentic life in community; and the spiritual gifts of people with a trauma-informed perspective.
The Christian literature on this subject is remarkably sparse, if you're looking for books that are informed by feminist values and modern psychology. The theological memoir Proverbs of Ashes by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock stands nearly alone in the landscape. I learned a lot from this book, but I personally did not share the authors' need to reject the Atonement altogether. The concept of redemptive sacrifice can be terribly misapplied, but in my opinion, the Crucifixion doesn't have to be interpreted as only a spiritualization of child abuse, unless you believe that Jesus was not divine but just another human martyr. I do still recommend the book as a starting point. Sarah Over the Moon has been blogging its high points in this series.
The male gender presentation of Jesus is also not my personal trigger, and I don't like to organize spiritual traits along a gender-binary axis (e.g. male=individualist, female=relational), so I'm not talking about "feminizing" the church's image of God in Christ to make it more comfortable for survivors of male-on-female abuse. There are a lot of feminist spirituality books on that theme already, some more recognizably Christian than others.
In my view, patriarchy is just the most common manifestation of a more fundamental sin, our impulse to turn difference into domination and stigma. I love the Christ of the Gospels because he identified this root of evil and attacked it head-on with the greater power of egalitarian, non-dominating love.
So, to sum up, "Survivors in Church" will not be about revising our Christology. It's about the reasons why survivors of relational trauma may find it difficult to be present in church while we're healing, and what can be done about it.
Episode I: Between Covenant and Choice
I've been thinking a lot lately about my baptismal vows.
Nothing feels as good to me, right now, as knowing I have a choice about who gets to be intimate with me. I don't mean sex -- that's a different vow! I mean, who gets to be in my life; who has a claim on my energy, devotion, sacrifice; who knows my secrets and deserves candor about my feelings; who can expect me to stay present with them, even when it's uncomfortable for me to face their needs, our difference of opinion, or their perception of my shortcomings.
My relational trauma was heavy on engulfment, surveillance, and brainwashing. To end the abuse, I had to rupture the most foundational and socially sanctified unchosen relationship, the mother-child bond. Having broken this taboo, I can't take any other obligatory relationships between adults completely seriously. "You can't guilt-trip me, I threw my own mother under the bus!" (Actually I jumped off the bus she was driving over a cliff, metaphorically speaking, but bad-daughter guilt isn't rational.)
Recently I heard a beautiful sermon envisioning church as a community where all kinds of people, without stigma or hierarchy, could minister to each other's needs and learn from each other's unique perspectives -- rich and poor, old and young, all genders and orientations and ethnicities, recovering addicts, the mentally ill, and so forth. That's the Kingdom of God that I believe in.
So why was I triggered as well as inspired?
Because I don't get to be the gatekeeper of this community. I am bound in a common life with people I haven't vetted for emotional safety.
I talk a lot about wanting the church to be a viable "family of choice" for people who are estranged from their families of origin -- as many LGBT folks are, for example. I like the "of choice" part, but I'm getting stuck on the "family" part.
Like marriage, the covenant of baptism could be described as a free choice to restrict my choices. I became a Christian as an adult, with absolutely no social or familial pressure to do so. That undertaking is not to be broken lightly. Like divorcing a spouse, separating from the body of Christ requires a better reason than "just to prove I can".
Trust and autonomy issues are so common for survivors of relational trauma. For some it manifests as high turnover in romantic attachments, for others as difficulty sticking with a career or schooling. Sometimes I even feel trapped by my own commitment to myself to finish my novel, and my obligations to my imaginary characters! It's not a stretch to surmise that the nones include many survivors who are scared to explore their faith in a communal setting, whatever their beliefs.
How can the church meet us where we are, and help us over the threshold?
ACTION ITEMS FOR THE CHURCH:
Be more respectful toward the unchurched. Stop scolding the unaffiliated for their supposed self-centeredness and unwillingness to work hard at relationships. Stop assuming their spirituality is shallow because it doesn't take place within your four walls. Frankly, that reminds me of a boyfriend who called me frigid because I wouldn't sleep with him.
Offer nourishment before demanding commitment. The church, as the embodiment of Christ, should be the first to pledge her love to the potential believer, rather than the other way around. The Bible teaches that God took the initiative with us. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Open communion -- welcoming the baptized and unbaptized to the Eucharist on equal terms -- is for me a profound symbol of this initiative. Several times in the gospels, people first accept nourishment from Jesus and then recognize him and follow him. "They knew him in the breaking of the bread." They don't have to sign a loyalty oath before they get fed.
Provide open, ongoing guidance about skillful communication. People need training in a method like NVC to discuss sensitive personal matters in a non-reactive way. At a minimum, all small-group leaders should be required to take such a class. Otherwise it's like group therapy without a therapist. The more diverse the church, the greater the need for explicit guidance, because not everyone shares the same social cues.
Diversity outreach should start small and go slowly. Pick one issue at a time (e.g. mental health) and set up a working group with a few people who feel strong enough to educate each other out of their prejudices. Don't lay the whole burden on the woman who mentions her sexual assault in a small group and some guy asks "What were you wearing?" because the church didn't do Rape Myths 101 training.
In the church as a whole, the leadership should articulate clear minimum expectations for interpersonal behavior, so that no one feels pressured into being a caretaker for others' trauma. As schools are already doing, offer bystander training to encourage communal intervention against bullying.
I'm pleased to share the latest installment in the "City Elegy" series of prose-poems by my prison pen pal "Conway". I was particularly struck by the metaphors he uses to describe the Los Angeles streetscape. That's first-class noir.
As I interpret the line about the "confidential lunatic's serenade", he's alluding to the confidential "evidence" that the state is allowed to use against his petition for early release, which he is not permitted to review. Due process has a different meaning when you're on the other side of the barbed wire, apparently. For more information, read this 2012 exposé of the prison gang validation system at Mother Jones.
City Elegy V
Stone-cold-dumb, stumbling through this carnival of unforgiveness.
As another dawn rose madly above my city's turning cog. You know, that overflowing coffee mug of smog, steaming along the Angeles crest. Traffic lights still pierce the night, painfully pulsing like a stab wound; Bleeding colors across cracked back sidewalks. Plus the white lines, stitches down the separated black hem of asphalt lanes.
Here though, chain links and crossed fingers wish for an open door, or a crusty-assed crack in the floor, of this rusted-out cage of bars being played like a harp. Old bits of things, themes echoing gray-stoned ballads, ground up talk. Now used up chalk, stalking the thirst of first burst freedoms.
Yesterday, they played a confidential lunatic's serenade.
But, I recognized his unclaimed tune, by the scatter-brained beat. In the heat of officially spun, as it raced away, down storm drains and ditches. Just to dump the remains of life into an ocean of prisoners.
I knew that sound already. It staggers between two huge exhaust fans, and the steel sectioned dayroom doors. Those doors clank open or closed when the cops swagger in. To drag our chained up skin, outside, then back in -- for discipline or another bus trip to no-where...
Charlie Bondhus's masterful, heart-wrenching new poetry collection, All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), could not have been written in any previous generation. In the closeted centuries following the Greco-Roman era, the poetry of gay male love and the poetry of war have only been permitted to overlap in sublimated and metaphorical ways. Bondhus merges them candidly, but the story this book tells is more elegiac than celebratory.
The alternating narrators of Heat, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and his homefront lover, seem free from their forerunners' self-conscious anguish about sexual orientation. They can admit openly how sex between men is like martial arts grappling, how killing can be orgasmic and the camaraderie of soldiers more intimate than lovers. They can savor the flowers in their backyard garden without weighting down those fragile stems with the entire burden of their erotic communication, and without fearing that attention to beauty makes them unmanly.
But despite this unprecedented openness, an unbridgeable rift separates the lovers, and that is the tragedy at the heart of this book. Combat changes the veteran in ways that his partner cannot comprehend first-hand. His feelings are hardened like scar tissue. He can't fit in, can't understand the relevance of the civilian routines that he left behind. He eventually goes back to the war, not because he believes in it, but because it's the only place he feels at home.
The past few years have brought high-profile victories for gay and lesbian inclusion in mainstream (some would say conservative) institutions like marriage, the church, and the military. After the celebrations fade, there's an opportunity to look critically at the social structures into which one has been assimilated. Heat suggests that participation in systems of oppression doesn't end with the waving of the rainbow flag.
Charlie has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems from his collection, which won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.
Sharing a Bed
I remember the first evening in bed,
making love with the lights on.
Outside the window, a hanging basket
of red impatiens
and a ruby-throated hummingbird.
In late spring's greenish light
my head was a bowed peony,
a grand urn
of tissuey ranunculus.
Summer found us sharing a home
with mismatched furniture,
plagues of ragweed and clover
choking the thin, dark spaces
between our together-time.
Like angel's trumpet, I craved
the cool white suddenness
the moon brings,
and when it came
silent as a cloud
our limbs were not the marble of roses,
or the patrician regularity of zinnias,
but the cheap, unsung beauty
of daisies, wild pinks.
Hornets nested in our heads.
Butterflies settled on our eyelids.
Morning's first finches began to sing.
My arms were full of nettles and lamb's ear.
In November we gather
straight branches into bundles,
and carry them
we stopped tending
last spring, to the shed
door which always sticks
in cold weather.
I want to ask you
how long since the seasons
became the same,
nor perennials penetrating
our ribs, to the place where organs
slump like frozen vegetables?
When the snow starts,
you will cross
the backyard, and tugging
and grunting, pull open
the shed, where what
we've gathered is stacked neatly
as bones. Wordless
(we have no use for lips),
you will track dirt and ice
across the carpetless floors
and drop the flaking
wood on the fire,
filling the house
with the easier
kind of warmth.
First, pink rushes
to fingertips. Next,
skin cracks as heat
refills the heart
like hot water
into a cold glass. And then
like a body
from a thawing lake,
and bumping heavily
against the sheet ice:
or what remains of love,
brushing the underside
of the wrist,
Trust Your Imaginary Friends, and Don't Scare the Horses
As a fiction writer and a person of faith, I can be stymied by worries over what is "real" versus "in my head". Where is the line that separates fictional archetypes and imaginative projections from a genuine encounter with an unseen deity, and what distinguishes both of those experiences from the voices heard by the mentally ill?
I've never forgotten a Buddhist workshop I took a decade ago, which gave me a refreshing perspective on the question. The Western philosophical model, especially in its post-Enlightenment form, draws a sharp distinction between subjective and objective, self and world, which is foreign to Eastern thought. In Buddhism, the instructor said, the interpersonal realm of consensus reality and the interior landscape of the individual are both equally real, in the sense that they are part of our experience, and both equally illusory, because these transient specific manifestations are not the ultimate form of pure Being.
So what is sanity? Western rationalist psychology tries to diminish your involvement with the voices in your mind, and to refocus your attention toward external interactions. By contrast, a spiritual or artistic ideal of mental health might emphasize mindfulness about which realm you are in, and equanimity or non-attachment so that you don't get lost in one dimension and lose touch with the others.
Sometimes it seems to me that religion, like writing a novel, is an attempt to introduce other people to your imaginary friends. If enough of them also develop a relationship with Jesus (or Captain Kirk), your inner world becomes the consensus reality, and you've just shifted the reference point of sanity in your direction. Conversely, what we call mental illness may be a real inner experience that the patient can't get others to believe, or can't express in consensus language because she confuses literal facts with metaphors. (For more on this point, see Gail Hornstein's groundbreaking book Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness.)
And then something happens that really does feel like a message from the Beyond. While undertaking the Great Book Purge of my office this week, I discovered one of my notebooks from 2000-2001. (My inner child must have bought this one, since the cover art is a wistful dragon on a bed of petunias, gazing at the moon.) In it I found my notes from the Buddhist workshop I mentioned above, as well as the teacher's name and the workshop theme, which I'd been unable to recall: "The Spiritual Problem of Giving Yourself Away" by Polly Young-Eisendrath, April 29, 2001, at Tibet House.
Here are some excerpts from those notes. It appears that this was a workshop for women about boundaries and self-realization versus selflessness in our spiritual practice. Any errors in reproducing the original presentation are my own.
...Many religious teachings focus on letting go of the individual self, particularly in meditation. But women who read that often feel, mistakenly, that they should stop working on self-development. But what's meant by letting go is that you give up a certain attitude towards the self -- not that you give up functioning as a self.
The religious language of letting go presumes that you already have a secure personal sovereignty over yourself -- that you have been acting on your free will and are conscious of your intentions. Self-determination is part of a spiritual life, not something you want to give up...Self-determination means that you know you can live with the consequences of what you do...
...Buddhism involves ethical practice, wisdom practice, and meditation practice. You need all three. After a certain point, you can't do it alone. If you go too deeply into meditation practice, you may have powerful mental experiences that you can't understand or cope with by yourself.
Impermanence, change, limitation, interdependence, and compassion are the conditions of reality. Also mystery -- the uniqueness of every moment, every being, inspires awe. Learning to cope with these conditions is the goal of all religions.
A meditative state dissolves the sense of consensual reality (the agreed-on world of ordinary perceptions), which can be dangerous. You may get lost in the other mental realm of images and forces, the archetypes [Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian], etc. Shamans can go into that realm and draw power from it. The goal is to push beyond that to experience the transcendent source. You don't want to be attached to that realm, because then you get distracted or go nuts.
People kill each other over religion because they identify with some image in that realm, and then say "my entity kicks your entity's ass". They're not experiencing the oneness of things, but are stuck on the images or manifestations without having clarity in observing them...
The realm of the archetypes is real, though it isn't the ultimate reality. That's because Buddhism doesn't make the distinction between self and object. The angel is in your head and is real. You just have to know which realm a thing belongs to! Your goal, in this life, is not to stay in the transcendent source, but to be more mindful in every realm, including the ordinary one where we spend most of our time...
Other gems in this notebook include a career self-assessment questionnaire from 2000, when I quit the legal profession:
"If I had six months to live, I would: Get baptized. Eat fattening food whenever I wanted it. Finish my damn novel already. Write nasty letters to any influential person I'm currently pissed at. Write a short inspirational book about why I came to Jesus."
"Write a description of myself: My personal style is intellectually rigorous but emotionally nurturing...Outside work, my interests are poetry, spirituality, dolls, cooking, fashion, and a lot of other girly shit."
And who can argue with this bit of wisdom from my 2002 New York State driver's ed class: "When can you use a horn? Not when passing a horse -- you might scare it."
I got my license (in Massachusetts) on the fifth try. The horse was not to blame.
This year, I resolved to lose 200 pounds. Of books.
We are surgically attached to our iPhones in this house, so much so that Shane's first instance of imaginative play was holding a block up to his ear and pretending to talk to it. However, I haven't been able to warm up to reading e-books. Reading screen-by-screen feels like driving at night, with no way to see what's outside the small range of my headlights. I like to be able to orient myself, at a glance, about what came before and how far along I am. If a book isn't lying on my bedside table, kitchen table, bathroom shelf, dining room table, or desk, I forget that I'm reading it. As a result, my ever-growing collection is shelved in archaeological strata rather than any thematic order.
Last summer, I undertook the Great Closet Purge. Out went the uncomfortable lawyer shoes and matronly satin blouses, the miniskirts from my single year of stress-induced slenderness, and the flowery print dresses that had served my mother's fantasy of molding a 1980s teenager into a Victorian ingenue. Something had shifted inside me, letting me understand that I could release these past selves while still honoring them.
The Great Book Purge has a similar intention. Besides de-cluttering my space, I'm seizing this opportunity to face and accept the changes in my worldview over the past two decades.
It's making me very uncomfortable.
How did my idea of a good book go from Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education to Richard Labonte's Best of Best Gay Erotica 2? Why do I no longer have the patience to read sentences like, "This is a form of postmodern liberationist hermeneutics in which the non-relativist convictions of a liberation ethic stand in uneasy tension with the assumption that hermeneutics has no critical-objective element"?
When I was first drawn to Christianity as a teenager, the elegant complexity and logical coherence of Christian theology comprised a big part of the appeal. Right now, I happen to be in a stage of development where those same features feel like intellectual defenses against the direct apprehension of God in my heart and my body. I believe that head and heart will come into greater equilibrium down the line, so I'm not tossing all my academic books. The other night I opened to a random page in Paul Hessert's Christ and the End of Meaning, a book I've owned for two decades and never read, and wrestled with a passage about the gap between "God" as a religious concept and THE LORD as an actually experienced Presence. That's what I'm talking about -- or not talking about!
Rather than the accessibility of the writing style, the weightiest factor in my book purge is whether the author is conscious of the limitations and privileges of his subject position, as Hessert appears to be. Because I'm bringing the personal and empathetic aspects of religion into the foreground as never before, I have to feel a relationship of trust toward an author, and that requires a certain measure of political self-awareness and psychological transparency on his part. (I'm deliberately using the male pronoun.)
Thus, I have trouble getting past a passage like this one, although the rest of the book seems reasonably progressive and egalitarian for a Baptist professor. The author is posing a hypothetical to illustrate how a pastor might apply the Biblical rule against divorce when a parishioner is being beaten by her husband:
"I must (among other things) make at least some tentative moral judgment about what levels and kinds of spousal violence warrant divorcing a violent spouse...I can analogize from my presumptive rule against divorce only if I can establish for myself the kinds of cases of spousal violence under which the rule against divorce ought to be observed."
I'll make it easy for you, Chuck: NONE OF THEM.
To me, this quote reveals an unexamined sense of entitlement to pass judgment on a survivor's determination of her own safety, in the name of "Biblical rules". Christianity has a big problem with this, both because of its history of patriarchal leadership and because the Cross is a tricky symbol that can be misunderstood to encourage non-redemptive suffering. I believe a person has an absolute right to escape abuse, and we grossly misconceive religious morality when we treat it as a source of competing interests to "balance" against her survival.
Because of my greater understanding of trauma and the false beliefs it induces, most of my heavily Calvinist-evangelical books are also destined for a new home. That sense of pervasive badness and helplessness, in myself and humanity generally, now seems like an artifact of my unsafe upbringing. The further I get from that self-concept, the more I feel clear, energized, compassionate, creative, and loved by God. But I honor that worldview as a transitional resting place on the way to where I am now. Liberals, if you know a Calvinist, be nice to her. Someone probably messed with her pretty badly. Don't brush her off with the feel-good foolishness that "sin is just an illusion". That's why Who Told You That You Were Naked? is also on the discard pile (despite its enticing title), with my margin notes from the 1990s saying "No, abuse is real!"
And while we're on the subject of wishful thinking, my newfound determination to dispel all psychological illusions is making me generally suspicious of theology, and even of faith itself. Both liberal and conservative religious books seem united in pushing people's attention away from themselves and out toward some more-worthy "other", either a morally superior deity or the unfortunate neighbor in need of our charity. From an Alice Miller perspective, this looks like a concerted effort to avoid feeling our own trauma and caring for the neglected child inside. Mainstream theology tells us: "We are bad but God is good...we are helpless but God is in control...we are selfish but others deserve the sacrifice of our lives." What is that except a collective elaboration of the protective denial that forced us to idealize our abusive parents?
Truth be told, my magical-thinking machine hasn't worked right since 2009, when I underwent a painful break with my evangelical friends over "the Gay Issue" at the same time as a longed-for adoption match fell through. Bitterly, I saw in retrospect how I'd ignored the warning signs in both situations, taking at face value the selective facts that supported my longing for love and connection.
And now that I do have a child at last, I'm even less sure what to make of God's role in all this. Like the Psalmist, I want to thank and praise God for fulfilling God's promises--but while I was wandering in the wilderness, it wasn't apparent that anything had been promised to me. I wasn't Sarai, Hannah, Elizabeth or Mary. I received no prophecy, no guarantees. When friends would say, "I believe God will send you the child who's meant to be yours," I wanted to scream, How do you know anything about it? The folks in my life who had slung God-talk most confidently were also the ones whose God was cruel and arbitrary toward non-heteronormative love. Why shouldn't I fear that my infertility, like a same-sex attraction, made me one of God's cast-offs? My subsequent good fortune feels equally random, unless I can find the error in this whole way of thinking about God's sovereignty and human suffering.
Hessert's distinction between "God"-as-concept and THE LORD suggests a way out of dead-end theodicies. We can't think our way through the problem of pain, but we can recognize the struggle as the holy ground where we encounter God. He writes:
"LORD," then, is not synonymous with "God" in the language of order or "Supreme Being" (or some other concept) of Western philosophy. We are likely to misinterpret "The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed" (Ps. 103:6) as "There is a Supreme Being who controls history providentially so that social justice is divinely assured, whatever people may do." This is patently not the case...
[W]e can avoid begging the question as to whether or not there is a "Supreme Being" and to what extent this Being controls history. We can say simply that the working of social justice, vindicating the oppressed, is one of those contexts in which "the LORD" is to be named. We may not always see vindication and justice where we should like to. But where they are evident, the awe attending the mystery bordering our experience is called forth.
That's the kind of faith that attracts me now: A practiced readiness to notice the in-breaking of God's presence, but without any required conceptual filters or compulsory emotions (optimism, self-abasement) that interfere with clear perception of what is actually happening in my world.
Bauckham & Hart's Hope Against Hope (which I also haven't read yet) is on the keeper pile because of this passage:
Not all hopelessness is bad for us, let alone dehumanizing. Hopelessness can be a perfectly healthy condition and, correspondingly, hope can be pathological...Hope has its legitimate limits, and it is vital that we identify them correctly lest we mistakenly invest ourselves in a dead end, an option with no future...
[H]ope is no mere heroic subjective disposition of the individual, an attitude which, regardless of what faces it, soldiers on, refusing to accept defeat long after the battle has been lost, convinced that through its striving and contrivance things may yet be turned around. Real hope is far less focused on its own capabilities. It is not concerned with some supposed right or capacity to choose and to create for itself the reality which it desires. Real hope is essentially rooted in the qualities and capacities of otherness, of that which lies beyond itself in other people, in the 'real world'. It is, in [Jesuit writer William] Lynch's words, 'an interior sense that there is help on the outside of us'...In [George] Steiner's sense it is a wager on transcendence, on something which lies beyond us, as yet unseen but, we believe, real enough.
"When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins."
 Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Eerdmans, 2002), p.164.
 Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Element, 1993), pp.68-75.
 Cosgrove, p.71.
 John Jacob Raub, Who Told You That You Were Naked? (Crossroad, 1992).
 Hessert, pp.73-74.
 Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Eerdmans, 1999), p.62.
I recently finished Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a superb historical mystery by Wesley Stace about British composers and music critics in the World War I era. The main characters are aficionados of folk ballads, traveling the countryside in the manner of the Brothers Grimm to record the "pure" versions of these oral traditions before the advance of modern technological culture sweeps them away. I've enjoyed combing YouTube and Spotify for recordings of some of the songs referenced in the novel.
One quirky and somewhat seasonal example is "The Bitter Withy", which imagines young Jesus as rather a discipline problem for his longsuffering mother. You can read a plot summary, historical notes, and several versions of the lyrics at the Mainly Norfolk folk music site, a source that I expect to be mining for future posts. I like this performance by Lisa Knapp.
One nice thing about the Christmas season is the visibility of the divine feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, in contrast to the entirely male or abstract representations of the sacred during the rest of the liturgical year. Perhaps this partly explains why even non-Christians feel moved and comforted by the imagery of this season.
Feminists have mixed feelings about Mary nowadays, the criticism being that a woman shouldn't have to be asexual to be holy. But the Holy Mother was not always portrayed in such a bloodless fashion. Medieval and folk art include luscious representations of her breastfeeding the baby Jesus, a sweet reminder that ours is an incarnational faith. The artwork below is one of 20 such images collected at the blog St. Peter's List. Read additional reflections on this topic at Jesus in Love.
If my astute readers know of any Christmas carols or hymns that reference the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, please share them in the comments.
Longtime Reiter's Block reader Donal Mahoney returns with this simple but profound poem about the kind of person we often overlook in our consumerist Christmas frenzy. It made me think of Pope Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, who is re-emphasizing the church's commitment to economic justice.
Pedro swings a mop all night
on the 30th floor of Castle Towers
just off Michigan Avenue
not far from the foaming Lake.
The floor is his, all his,
to swab and wax till dawn.
The sun comes up and Pedro's
on the subway snoring,
roaring home to a plate
of huevos rancheros,
six eggs swimming
in a lake of salsa verde,
hot tortillas stacked
Pedro writes a poem
the wife who waits
in Nuevo Leon.
He mails the poem
that night, going back
to his bucket and mop.
of three small sons,
in the making.
On Christmas Eve
the boys wait up
in Nuevo Leon
and peek out the window.
Papa's coming home
Pedro arrives at midnight
on a neighbor's donkey,
a giant sombrero.
He has a red serape
over his shoulder,
and he's juggling
sacks of gifts.
When the donkey stops,
the boys dash out and clap
and dance in circles.
in the doorway
and sings Feliz Navidad.
It's time once again for our annual roundup of the books, blog posts, and discoveries that made the most impact on me this year. Thanks for your loyal readership. Feel free to share your own favorite reads and revelations from 2013 in the comments. Books need not have been published in the current year.
Most Self-Esteem You Can Buy for $25:
Right now, it's only a Halloween wig, but it's inspiring me to fulfill a lifelong dream. Go ginger in 2014!
Strangest Discovery at a Church Tag Sale:
My astute husband spotted this planter at the Christmas fair at First Churches in Northampton, which was Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards's church during the First Great Awakening. Edwards was kicked out of the pulpit eventually because he made too much fuss about teen boys reading dirty books. One can only imagine how he'd feel about this porcelain beauty, who has succulents growing out of her pelvis and right breast. My friends who remember pre-feminist kitsch have informed me that she was originally an ashtray: the matches go in the boob-hole and the cigarettes go, uh, down there. Which is even more disturbing.
Runner-up for Previous Award:
My church is nothing if not broad-minded. Thanks, St. John's Christmas Fair. I'm looking forward to learning all about the Holy Foreskin.
Best Poetry Books:
So many this year, I can't pick just one.
Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec(2012)
With furious beauty and Promethean boldness, Diaz rewrites our cultural myths to speak her truth as a Mojave woman, a lover, an activist, and a sister bereaved by addiction.
Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature (2013)
This groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life. First published in 1989, it was reissued this year by A Midsummer Night's Press in collaboration with the journal Sinister Wisdom.
Read my full review and excerpt here.
Jamaal May, Hum (2013)
This electric debut collection explores what it means to be an African-American man in Detroit, finding beauty in the ruins of the machine age. Read my full review and excerpt here.
Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree (2013)
Set in Western Massachusetts in the 18th century, during the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening, this luminous novel re-creates the domestic life and spiritual development of the theologian Jonathan Edwards. Stinson allows the complexity of the Puritan worldview to speak for itself, setting Edwards's mystical delight in nature and his deep compassion alongside his severe views of God's judgment and his defense of slave-owning.
Best Nonfiction Book/Best Parenting Book:
Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries (1991)
With bracing clarity, this maverick psychoanalyst explains how all kinds of cruelty, from child abuse to genocide, has its roots in traumatic and oppressive child-rearing practices. The child had to identify with the perpetrator's perspective in order to survive, but is then at risk for revisiting this pain on the next generation. Healing comes when you finally stand on the side of the child you once were, validating her innocent needs and feelings, instead of continuing to internalize the judgments your parents projected onto you. Warning: this book may expose many of your religious beliefs as denial mechanisms...but that's a subject for another post.
Favorite Posts on the Block:
The Gorgon's Head: Mothers and "Selfishness" I've come to believe that mothers trigger perceptions of "selfishness" in so many people, regardless of which choices the mother is making, because people are unconsciously angry about their own unmet childhood needs. Someone who had distant and unfeeling parents may view working mothers harshly, while someone who had smothering and needy parents may have a similar disdain for stay-at-home mothers.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It's Personal
I don't know how you'd put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common--with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe--about God, power, knowledge, sexuality--that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?
Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church
Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?
Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church
What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can't accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God's will for ourselves.
And finally, the most important award of them all...
Winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, Jamaal May's electric debut collection Humembodies the vitality and struggle of becoming a man. The word "elegy" is not entirely right for such energetic, muscular poems, but there is mourning here for May's native Detroit and the men of his family who were scarred by addiction, war, and racism. The speaker of these poems fights back with beauty, noticing the shine of the handcuffs while enduring police harassment, or the inspiring message on the plastic bag that holds his relative's ashes "in a Chinese takeout box". In the age of e-readers, AJB's elegant book design makes a case for the pleasures of print. Poems titled after various phobias are interspersed through the book on black paper with white type, creating moments of visual "hush" amid the "hum" of text.
Jamaal has kindly given me permission to reprint the following two poems, which first appeared in Poetry Magazine and Blackbird, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @JamaalMay.
Hum for the Bolt
It could of course be silk. Fifty yards or so
of the next closest thing to water to the touch,
or it could just as easily be a shaft of wood
crumpling a man struck between spaulder and helm.
But now, with the rain making a noisy erasure
of this town, it is the flash that arrives
and leaves at nearly the same moment. It’s what I want
to be in this moment, in this doorway,
because much as I’d love to be the silk-shimmer
against the curve of anyone’s arm,
as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man
switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall
and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.
Man Matching Description
Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet,
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs.
Because I can imagine handcuffs,
pummeled by stones until shimmering,
the flashlight that sears my eyes
is too perfect to look away.
Because a flashlight has more power
on a southern roadside than my name and blood
combined and there is no power in the very human
frequency range of my voice and my name is dead
in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license
I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
say, Swan! I am only a swan.
Poetry by Lauren Schmidt: "The Waiting Room of Past Lives"
In Lauren Schmidt's earthy, revelatory poetry collection Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing (Main Street Rag, 2013), bodies eat, sweat, climax, and die. Some of them are stuffed. All are handled with reverence. Comical or embarrassing moments open up suddenly into a vision of fellowship that levels social distinctions.
Schmidt shows why humor, humility, and humane have a common root. Many of her poem titles sound like premises for a stand-up comedy sketch: "Why I Am Not a Taxidermist"; "My Grandfather's Balls"; "Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus". Each time, however, the poem takes a surprising turn, reversing the typical use of disgust to create distance and superiority, and instead breaking down the pretensions that alienate us.
No one likes it here. You can tell
by our bodies: this one chews
his cuticles; that one pretends
to read. A woman fingers the drag
in her stockings. A man watches
from across the room, blowing steam
from his third cup of sludge.
He’s used up all the stirrers.
The girl behind the blurred glass
snaps her gum, watches the clock
for five. On the wall, CNN
bleats something about this
or that. The war here or there.
There seems to be only one channel,
but nobody bothers to check. We wait
in the glow of the red numbers. Now
Serving, the sign says. We pinch our slips
as if waiting for lunchmeat.
It gets harder and harder to do this.
They put a note in my file. It explains
the crutches, the bandage on my brow.
I was eighty then, collapsed in the hedges
racking my brain for the line that came
before the dish ran away with the spoon.
When you’re eighty you don’t always
remember. The last time I was eighty,
I left notes on my front door
should a visitor happen by: Be right back,
in the bathroom, scrawled by my shaky hand,
letters like the eyelashes I pulled out
with my fingers and arranged
in my notebook during Physics
in the life before that. I loved
to watch them scatter in one full
breath, didn’t care much that girls
stared at my nest of hair or laughed
at my penchant for saying silly things.
I chose my words carefully,
spelled them with my lashes.
By senior year, I had no brows
left either: two bleached seams
arched above my eyes, an eternity
of expressing horrified surprise.
My mother made them draw brows
so I wouldn’t look strange
in the casket. The irony, too much
for the man I shared it with here,
in the waiting room, a man
whose laughter made his jaw click,
like the snap of my infant neck
in the life I had that didn’t last very long.
My memory went only as far
as the garden of my mother’s
hair when she hovered above my crib
to kiss me. In the life where I learned
what it meant to be a father,
I put my nose to the rose of my son’s
lips, waited for breath, contented
just to watch his infant chest rise
and fall. I recall the feel of my own
stuttered breast as I lay in my mess
of wings in the middle of the street.
After the windshield, I remembered
the boy, the rock, the way he lifted
it above his head. Its shadow trembled
above me, dilating as it broke over me
like a dark corsage before the lights
went out and I was back in line again.
The rock was something like mercy,
but do we really have the words
for the magician’s hat of how
our lives are made and taken? We’re rabbits
blinking in stiff confusion, some big hand
fisted around the ears, feet, kicking, pendulous,
and marking time. Sometimes we’re a flurry
of doves in a round of applause. I have been
the rabbit, would be the rabbit again
because there simply is no lover
more eager to be in the world.
I have been the boy with his pellet gun, too,
a piece of wheat in my teeth and nothing to do
but wonder what a tuft of hair looks like
when it erupts with blood, wonder the sound
flesh makes when it’s pulled from fur
which isn’t anything like the sound
of denim ripping as you might think.
On CNN there is a man on his knees.
Dirty shirt, holes in his jeans.
Another man grips his hair, dark tufts
sprout between his fingers. In the other fist,
the flash of a murky blade. The man’s eyes
are lurched wide from his pulled hairline.
The shadow of the blade breaks over
a shaking face. This one stops chewing
his cuticles. That one stops pretending
to read. The woman leaves her stockings
alone and the man stops watching her.
All eyes gaze at the TV screen. We don’t see
the rest, but everybody knows what happens
next. With any luck, the man on his knees
will wake up praying near a bed
in a room he somehow knows is his.
Image Journal's Gregory Wolfe on Change and Eternity in Art
The literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, prompting some insightful reflections by founding editor Gregory Wolfe on the magazine's Good Letters blog. Image publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and contemporary artwork that engage with the great Western religious traditions in fresh and authentic ways. I appreciate how Wolfe harmonizes the aspects of art and religion that in my life have sometimes been at odds: the creative journey into the unknown, versus the safeguarding of revealed truths. He writes:
Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging.
In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience. Yes, of course, that’s how the world is. I knew that. But I’d forgotten. I will return to the true way, the way I’d strayed from. I won’t forget again.
Artistic styles change when they fail to reveal something new.
A rounded arch speaks of eternity, solidity, and stability. A pointed arch speaks of aspiration, a hunger for light, and matter’s permeation by spirit.
Both arches speak the truth. The newness isn’t necessarily an improvement. The newness is, in part, in the contrast itself, the revelation that there is always more to see. Reality is fractal that way.
In the early church, Jesus was depicted as the Good Shepherd. Then he became the Pantocrator, emperor of the cosmos. Then he was shown on the cross and became the Suffering Servant. In a postmodern context he may perhaps be present by way of his absence; felt rather than seen. Who knows? There are a thousand options.
When religious faith isn’t made new, it becomes ideology, detached from reality. It either becomes toxic or it simply ceases to be credible.
From the outset of my novel-in-progress about a gay man's spiritual journey, I have wrestled with the question of my right to represent this character in his own voice. (It doesn't help that some gay male writers, not exempt from the deformations of patriarchy, occasionally snipe about "middle-aged housewives" who intrude on their literary turf.) How to explain, without reenforcing straight privilege to interpret queer experience, that on some level I feel that my protagonist is me, and that I write not so much as an ally but as an autobiographer of an alternate life? Writers of persona poems and historical fiction face the same challenge of entering another's perspective with empathy rather than self-centered appropriation.
Karla Kelsey's latest review at The Constant Critic expresses well the philosophical nuances of literary empathy, which she says is made possible by the multiplicity of the self. Our conscious experience already exceeds the first-person "I". Discussing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's new collection, Hello, the Roses, Kelsey writes:
Inhabiting another’s first-person perspective in the same way that he, she, or it, does, not only seems psychologically impossible, but also would efface the very thing that ensures the existence of all that is not-me in the world. As Husserl among others points out, had I the same access to the consciousness of another as I have to my own, that other would cease being another and instead become part of myself.
Thus the bind: one cannot inhabit anyone else’s first-person experience, and it is precisely this limit that makes another other to me. At the same time, we don’t want to say that we have completely no access to another’s first-person perspective. We want to say that what we feel in affective, empathetic moments is not merely a solipsistic self-projection.
While studies on the problem of mind hash these problems out via the discipline of philosophy, worries over the lyric I reflect the way these problems circulate in the language of poetry. As we know, the lyric I is the poster-child for the expression of first-person experience. And while we might grow tired of the limits of this perspective—of the hemming and hawing of these I’s, aching through their embodiments, bemoaning the fleeting nature of relational connection—we balk at lyric expression that “feels into” the first person experience of another. The ethical risks of such attempts at empathy include the effacement of fundamental difference with fantasy—and passing fantasy off as some sort of emotional truth.
But this need not lock us into a Cartesian box, for “Je est un autre” (Rimbaud). Or, if you prefer philosophy, “The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake” (Merleau-Ponty). We can open the box from a trap door built into its bottom: there are many ways that we experience ourselves as other to our first-person experience of the world, for we exceed our pronouns. And this first-person experience of excess, of self-as-other is kin to an experience of the otherness of that which is not the self. The otherness of other humans, animals, nature, and objects.
Perhaps we first recognize otherness because it is a fundamental relationship that we have to ourselves. Simply touch your right hand with your left and you are both touching and touched. Catch your image in a mirror unexpectedly and who is that, for a moment, you wonder. Leafing back through old poems—through a poem you wrote yesterday—you have the distinct feeling that you did not write what is on the page. As such, one way to think about empathy is along the self’s subject/object edge, considering the fact of the self as simultaneously occupying a subject and object position and exploring the object-self’s relationship with other objects.
Back in August I posted the previous installment of my prison pen pal "Conway's" series of prose-poems celebrating urban car culture, whose freedom contrasts with the living death of incarceration. He returns with this political lyric that I'm fortunate to share with you. Read it aloud and you'll hear the cell doors clang.
City Elegy IV
Do the streetlights still bleed, through the leaves of me? Where my memory remains, in my family tree's falling shadow.
A tree grows not here, on the middle of this tier, stone cold center of my universe. In the Heart of America this sanctified cell only records the heartbeat of the meat wrapped in its possession.
A continuous tape-loop snakes its way through the years -- of going nowhere. Except when the transport bus appears, wrapped in freedom's faffling flag of Hypocrisy.
Pilgrims transfer daily to more oversourced humidors, stone-n-steel honeycombs of human bondage, buzzing away. As sodium-lamps illuminate this treasure, like a billboard display. Like a halo glowing bright off any highway, wrapped up tight in a crown of barbed wire thorns, or thistled horns.
Some say that the Lord's blessing is amongst us. I only see shackles and chains wrapping our pains in the shroud of injustice. Redemption contrived, commercialized for profit.
Does God Bless the Commerce of Incarcerated America? This Holy shrine of abundance, a multitude of souls of candidates standing on street corners seeking futures, but finding no path. Beware! Don't get snagged in this trap of the one way bus trip right to here. Here, far away from contact, in the Hall of a million steel doors slammed shut. Locked away tight from another cool September night, no relief in sight.
Here, where even the strongest arms and minds tire, struggling against this brazen green money machine.
Here, amidst the husks of what Justice has abandoned.
Here, where the clamor withers to silence without contact.
Dulled by neglect, the aftertaste deepens the hunger.
Harsh sentencing schemes darken the overtones of truth.
In this tidal wave of injustice that seems to have no end, even at oblivion.
Again-n-again this massive chain drags another generation down and in. To get slammed down, for being so bold as to remove the unnecessary gold, that decorates the watch dangling from the Liberty master's pockets...