New Poetry by Conway: “They Have a Cave”

My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to wait for a hearing on his early release petition, three years after California retroactively repealed the “three strikes” law mandating long sentences for nonviolent crimes. If you have enjoyed his work on this blog, feel free to send me a letter of support that I can forward to his attorney.

Meanwhile, his artwork graces the cover of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s just-published book of political poetry, Imperfect Echoes. Check out her sample poem, “Antigua’s Hope”, at Winning Writers, and read Conway’s new poem, “They Have a Cave”, below the graphic.

They Have a Cave

Have you been in a cave?
Blackened by shadowed bars; strip searched
like a newborn puppy, probed to prove a gender.
Paraded down concrete corridors, jingling in chains
like an untrained beast. Un-named, then re-numbered.

I despise this neverness, this severed distress
from the world of incorporated man.

I have survived too long in this cave,
while they have waved away time (The Administration.)
To claim the one key to freedom’s peace.
To fleece my mind, and control the doors
lashed to the mouth of each cave.

These caves have been built for your poor.
But, no-one they love. Only those
they claim to care about.

You can have my hollow cave.
I have saved nothing from its stark desperation,
from the stripes of separation
that have
stomped out this conversation…

September Links Roundup: The Faults of Forgiveness, Graduating From Church, and Other Radical Ideas

I keep having to come out on this blog. As a gay-affirming Christian, as an abuse survivor, and now as something I don’t have a name for. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t fit. I’m finding God in more traditions, even as I loosen my identification with a single one. Christianity remains important to me as one avenue for connecting with God, but I have to confess that I no longer regard it as authoritative.

Don’t put me in the camp of ex-Christian rationalists, or those who proclaim that “all religions basically say the same thing” (they don’t). I believe in magic. What I no longer believe in is all-or-nothing relationships. I used to think I had to choose between tying myself in knots to accept oppressive doctrines, or being cut off from the face of God that I encounter in Christian art and worship. But I’ve discovered that all traditions contain contradictions, a very human admixture of poison and cure, so that staying within the same “brand name” (so to speak) is no guarantee that all the components will be compatible or equal in quality.

If I have a particular doctrinal sticking point these days, it’s the gospel messages of forgiveness and nonresistance to evil. Setting aside all the corruptions of religious texts and institutions, I can’t honestly call myself a follower of Jesus, because my life doesn’t line up with some of his core teaching. Not just that I find it too hard, but that I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Psychologist Sherrie Campbell’s 2014 Huffington Post piece “The 5 Faults With Forgiveness” succinctly lays out the case against the moral-religious command to forgive abuse and atrocities. (Hat tip to the Feminism and Religion blog for the link.) She distinguishes forgiveness from the healthier goal of accepting reality and having all of our feelings about it: “In acceptance the healing is about you. In forgiveness the healing is about the perpetrator.”

I especially liked her fourth point, debunking the catchphrase that “a lack of forgiveness places you in an emotional prison”. I frequently hear this from liberal spiritual folks who want to square the modern concern for personal well-being with an ancient religion that had different priorities. One benefit of having a non-authoritative relationship to Christianity is that I no longer have to twist words out of their common-sense meaning in order to salvage both the doctrine and my sanity. Campbell writes:

Much information is out there about how if we don’t forgive we will only live in an angry, hateful place, and therefore, we have no power and are, in essence, giving our perpetrators even more power. We are shamed for having the naturally occurring feelings we should have based on our circumstances, because if we have them, accept them and express them we are told we are giving the person, situation or circumstance even more power and we are only hurting ourselves. This causes self-punishment. We feel guilty or weak for feeling our natural emotions. In reality there are things in our lives which happen to us which may always trigger a bit of anger as we think about them, but to be told we are responsible for making someone else powerful with these natural feelings only makes us feel inadequate, and it forces us away from the organic grieving process. This forcing of our feelings away creates what we are trying to avoid: a constant state of anger. In trying to keep our power we end up losing our power.

Progressive evangelical Christian blogger Zach Hoag wrote this risky, heartfelt piece this past summer, about the death of his old identity as a church planter and maybe even a church member in the typical sense. “On Graduating” asks us to acknowledge that a spiritual path may be God’s best plan for us now, yet have a natural finite lifespan–an especially bold realization for someone from a Christian culture that prizes inerrancy and universal truths. I identified with Hoag’s revelation that his shame from an abusive childhood was keeping him from growing and moving on spiritually.

It’s time to accept fully the experiences that have brought me to this point. It’s time to shed fully the season, the identity, the dream that has more to do with who I am supposed to be than who I really am now. It’s time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

Lastly, I want to recommend the online theology journal The Other Journal, Issue #25, whose theme is Trauma. It’s so refreshing to find intellectually rigorous work on trauma theology that’s not behind the paywall of an academic journal. Of special note is “The Spirit’s Witness: An Interview with Shelly Rambo”. Her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining is now on my wishlist. In this piece, the Boston University professor describes being troubled by the way that traditional apologetics forced survivors’ stories into a single narrative arc:

I was aware, however, that there was this triangle of clinical practice, literary theory, and Christian theology, which I found to be a very unique way of thinking about suffering, a distinctive phenomenology of suffering. I brought it back to Christian theology, and I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics. How do we think about suffering, given the Christian plot—the story of creation, fall, and redemption? What happens when the human story and the story of our lived experience doesn’t fit the linear pattern of that Christian plot? What happens when there are certain dominant ways of telling that story which undercut many of our stories? More specifically, I came to believe that it is important to ask why certain ways of thinking about what happened on the cross come to be the one way of thinking. I brought all of the trauma readings, and all of these questions, back to Christian theology, and it led me to my doctoral work on the interdisciplinary study of trauma and to a corresponding theology of Holy Saturday…

…God’s Spirit is never separated from us, but experiences, such as trauma, can render this love—which is the central attribute of the Spirit and which still remains with us—altogether lost. Yet the pneumatology of Holy Saturday says that when all is lost the Spirit surfaces through the textured witness of those who remain. This is where the connection between God’s Spirit and the human spirit is most critical; the witnesses surface this love. Here I am pointing back to my comments about the surface of skin as significant, because I want to emphasize that this work is not just about words or language but, in very concrete terms, about tending to bodies. The theology of Holy Saturday is oriented less to those who experience trauma than to those who accompany others in this journey through the swamp. Finding one’s way in the swamp requires others who can witness it.

What I hope to emphasize about the descent into hell in the Spirit during Holy Saturday is that we have not yet known that Spirit before. And it appears distinctively here, just as the animating breath appears as the breath of life in Genesis. I highlight this distinctive vocabulary for the Spirit, which occurs in the Gospel of John, setting it apart from the Spirit of Pentecost, because it takes a different form. So I mean to demonstrate that it is not just that the Spirit appears in this part of the story but that the witness is a distinctive form of presence. The swamp, as you present it, may be a very real experience of God’s absence, yet the Spirit in hell is discerned not as pure presence but through the witness of the disciples.

And so that Spirit is always present, yet it has to get reanimated. You can go back to Ezekiel and the dry bones. You think these bones are the driest bones ever, that there is no life possible in them, but they just need to be summoned and given life again.

Wag’s Revue Goes Out with a Bang (and Four Poems by Me)

“I feel like someone just gave me some very good news!”

The online literary journal Wag’s Revue launched in 2009 with a manifesto promising to “marry…the editorial rigors of print to the freedoms of the Internet.” Over the next six and a half years, Wag’s published innovative poetry, fiction, essays, and interviews. Each issue also showcased grotesque, funny, and disturbing contemporary artwork, such as Dimitri Tsykalov’s portraits made of meat and Ana Teresa Barboza Gubo’s strangely romantic painting of a lion French-kissing (or perhaps preparing to eat) a woman.

I was honored to learn that a selection of my poems won their 2015 writing contest, now appearing in Issue #20 (alas, their last). Some of my literary heroes who’ve been published in Wag’s include Mallory Ortberg, George Saunders, Saeed Jones, Sarah Schulman, and Alison Bechdel. Browse the archives for hours of radical enlightenment and literary laughs. The editors’ list of faves is a good place to begin. My feature starts here.

The check is in the mail, but I’ve already spent the prize money. On what, you ask? Read on.

What I’d Do With Mine

Breasts are for public feeding,
lose your dirty mind.
So says La Leche League and town law agrees.
Well, I say the penis too is not always for sex.
My penis came in a box.
It was plastic like a president.
I wore it like a secret on national television.

This is not true yet.
So far my penis, like a 1975 Barbie Townhouse on eBay,
only furnishes my dreams.
Somewhere my future penis is riding up and down the elevator
of the cardboard house my mother threw away
because it was unfeminist and too big for the hallway.
It is peeping out the little heart-shaped window.
And it is exactly 11 1/2 inches tall in high heels.

I promise that my penis will fit into our daily existence.
It will not ring the doorbell of your vanilla manpussy.
I wear loose pants anyway.
My penis will not show up at family weddings.
The bride can keep the spotlight on her baby bump,
the little penis growing inside her.

But when my penis arrives, in its shiny pink wrapper,
happier than a tea party in a Christmas catalog,
I might walk down our street scratching an itch I don’t have.
Used to be, I had to go shopping for that.
I might pull it out like knitting during the sermon.
It’ll make me less threatening to the Reverend Mother,
who can sing her welcome solo
uninterrupted by other trebles.
I might use my penis as a mouthpiece
for all my novel characters.
How do children feel? Why do women lie?
It’s like a thumb drive with Wikipedia on it.
Men and women agree,
my penis is a likeable protagonist.

At night I’ll sleep with you, of course,
and my penis, after a useful day
of driving cars and explaining baseball statistics,
will sleep on my desk, in the warm spot the laptop makes,
lazing in the afterglow of news.
While you dream of nipples, and I, of deep-fried shrimp,
my penis may dream of returning to the woods
where the stag leaps beneath a horned moon.

Tarot Spreads for Novel Writers

The Tarot, in the school of thought that I’m currently studying, is a tool for asking questions and receiving insights from one’s own intuition, from a higher consciousness, from the psychological emanations of other people, and/or from spiritual beings. This is also how I write fiction. So naturally, in working with Tarot, I haven’t confined myself to asking questions about my own life. I’m even more interested in Tarot readings for my characters.

More so than craft-based writing prompts, a randomly (?) drawn card has a Zen quality of surprise and mystery that confounds my intellect and jolts me out of the well-worn groove of my plans for the story. In addition, combining my writing exercise with a spiritual practice reminds me to stay open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. After a year of final revisions on the Endless Novel, which were challenging but predictable, I am entering the wide-open space of the Endless Sequel, where everything is up for grabs except the main character dynamics. Tarot helps me enjoy that freedom of unknowing, while making some concrete progress in filling in the space.

Not every card produces a fruitful or understandable clue. The confusing cards nonetheless serve a purpose. They encourage me to explore plot twists that I hadn’t considered, though I may ultimately reject them as dead ends. (This is an advantage of Tarot over my Christian Writer phase: no guilt or fear about disagreeing with, or misunderstanding, the Message From Above.) The hard work of interpretation flexes my creative muscles. Sometimes, weeks later, in the light of other readings, I’ll finally understand why that card was in that position.

For instance, in my first Tarot reading about the Endless Sequel, I asked “Who is the narrator?” and was flummoxed by the answer, the 8 of Wands reversed. Traditional meanings include blockage, confusion, too many choices. In the standard Rider-Waite deck, it’s one of the few cards with no human figures on it at all!

I knew that my main character had a dis-integrated personality because of trauma and that a major plot thread would involve him reconnecting and healing those parts. But a narrator with fragmented consciousness generates a confusing, overwhelming experience for reader and writer alike. I never could get through those kinds of experimental novels in school, and I didn’t want to write one.

Perhaps the card represented my own failure to make a decision, offloading too much responsibility onto the cards or the character? I was afraid I didn’t have the skill to coax this secretive, self-deprecating character to talk about his feelings in a way that sounded authentic to us both. It would also be a challenge to differentiate his voice from the narrator of the Endless Novel (his boyfriend), whose campy, chatty style was almost too easy for me to slip into. Below these intellectual concerns was a non-literary one, the primal fear that I would lose myself in his “parts”. The first few years of the Endless Novel were written deep in PTSD territory, so my gut memory associated first drafts with losing my pony in the Swamps of Sadness.

Meanwhile, to refresh my writing skills while I haggled with myself over plot, I started working on a completely unrelated short story, and remembered why I loved that form. I can deal with unknowing for 30 pages, better than 400. It’s publishable now, not 10 years from now. I can see all the way around the structure: it’s a statue, not the Parthenon.

“Oh!” I said in the middle of the night. “The Endless Sequel is a novel in stories.”

Thanks to this working hypothesis, all the questions that had stopped me from writing lost their importance: Where should I begin in the story? Who is the narrator? If there’s only one narrator, how can I depict things that happen to each of the main characters when the other is not present? Just start anywhere! It’s possible that one of the stories will take on such momentum that it becomes a single book-length narrative, with material from the others as flashbacks or interludes between chapters. Or it could become a multi-vocal, multi-genre work. Whatever happens, I won’t be wasting my time by experimenting with different points of view. And I don’t think this solution would have hit me with such clarity, if part of my mind hadn’t continued to work on the enigma of the 8 of Wands reversed.

Want to try this for yourself? Here are links to some useful layouts I found by Googling “Tarot spreads for novel plotting”. Barbara Moore’s Tarot Spreads shows you how to adapt or design your own spreads. For meanings, I rely on Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom and Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Reversals.

The Tarot Parlor: Basic Plot Development Tarot Spread

Happy Fish Tarot: Tarot Spreads for Writing

Write to Done: The Tarot as a Tool for Writing Your Novel

(From my new favorite deck, So Below Deck: Book of Shadows, Vol. 2. The contemporary settings make it helpful for plotting a realist novel. Multi-ethnic characters and a few who could be interpreted as lesbian. Interpretations of traditionally sad or violent cards, like the 10 of Swords, are more upbeat than in Rider-Waite. In general I find that modern decks prettify the no-nonsense medieval toughness of the RWS images, so it’s good to keep the old standby around for balance.)

Two Poems from Mary A. Koncel’s “Closer to Day”

The prose poem is the perfect form for surreal vignettes that combine the tell-it-slant quality of poetry with the relaxed unfolding of a prose line. As in fables, the first sentences establish mysterious happenings as the new normal. There is no time for technical explanations of this strange world that waits inside our own. Mary A. Koncel’s assured voice convinces us that we live in a place where farmers burst into flames, lusty women smell men’s ripeness in the air, and horses wait prayerfully for their owners to fall back in love.

Koncel’s debut chapbook of prose poems, Closer to Day, was published in 1999 by Quale Press, one of the numerous small presses that enrich our Western Massachusetts culture. The editors have kindly given me permission to share the work below. For more of her work, check out her 2003 full-length collection from Tupelo Press, You Can Tell the Horse Anything.

The Neighborhood Man

A dog is rolling in the grass. A man walks by and thinks the dog is drowning. But the man’s not sure because he’s just a neighbor. The dog is very convincing, turning over and over, its long legs kicking up clumps of grass. The man strips off his suit, drops to his knees, and rolls in after the dog. He hopes the dog can hold on just a while longer.

The man is having problems. He’s getting very tired, barely able to keep his head above the grass. It’s very late. He hopes this will be over soon. But the dog is getting smaller, the grass much deeper.


Bless This Night

It’s almost like heaven out here. Ten miles of angel-pin turns, glittering blacktop, then a pair of straight yellow lines leading right to sweet soul of opossum, twin spirits of skunks.

Driving home, I think about Saint Francis, imagine him wandering through the woods, a flock of swallows buzzing his left eardrum, a raccoon or two draped over his shoulders like a favorite cardigan. A tall, awkward man, he had hands with white palms and strong straight fingers.

Out here, under these brooding stars and stark moon, animals are just as abundant. Cut loose from fur and body, they languish along the road: rabbits begin to hurry but stop in mid-air, a fox sniffs its blood, surprised by its cold, exquisite beauty, while tree frogs swallow deep, vaguely tasting the last sounds in their throats.

“Keep still,” Saint Francis would warn if he walked among these animals. “Keep still.” One hand pressed against his lips, the other held in blessing, he would stop at each one that raised its head and wanted more.

I could stop. I could stop, drop to my knees, and hold out my hands like Saint Francis, tell these animals that they have been good, good and wild. It’s time to surrender their hearts to me, their long and mournful howls, their hunger. Bless this night, bless this road and all that makes it heaven.


Guidelines for Writer Care: Teen Writer Maggie Marsden-Sparrow Explains It All

An artist friend sent me this hilarious and spot-on list of things you need to understand about writers, by her friend’s 14-year-old daughter, Maggie Marsden-Sparrow. She is an aspiring author who shares her work in online forums for youth. Maggie and her mother have kindly given me permission to reprint it here. She’s certainly got my number. So please don’t ask me why I spent all my poetry prize money on comic books and fake body parts. I’m just researching the Endless Sequel.

Guidelines for Writer Care

For yours and your writer’s continued health and happiness, here’s a few guidelines for writer care. I don’t claim to be an expert, just a writer in my own right. I don’t imagine all of this will be the same for all writers either, this is just what I know to be true for me.
-Do not under any circumstances ask when their book will be done. Ever.
-Please don’t call the police or fear for your life if you catch a glimpse of their browsing history. I can promise you they aren’t planning a murder or becoming a prostitute, just doing some research.
-If your writer zones out during a conversation, PLEASE assume they are not bored with you, simply got an idea.
-On a similar note, if your writer looks/seems a bit off, they’re probably just in the middle of a story in their head. Approach with humour and/or food.
-If your writer has become depressed by their own writing, fear not, it will not linger. Simply comfort in any and all ways needed.
-If your writer is rambling about something story related, unless there’s an emergency or your self-care is in jeopardy, DO NOT INTERRUPT THEM. Don’t pop yourself in the middle and start talking about your own stuff, don’t tell them to “Hold that thought” while you go do the laundry. Nothing is worse than being suddenly shut down in a moment of excitement, and even if you do come back to talk to them, there’s a good chance they won’t have the initial readiness to talk about it anymore.
-In the event that your writer has been writing for more than 3 or 4 hours straight, pop by to check up on them. Don’t interrupt if they’re in the zone, but if they acknowledge your presence it’s safe to gently suggest they eat/drink/take care of any other needs. Self care can be hard when you’re inspired, and though they might resist, they’ll thank you for it later.
Probably one of the most important rules is to NEVER judge a writer by their:
-Research. As previously mentioned, just because they looked up different kinds of recreational drugs, doesn’t mean they plan on partaking in any.
-Characters. Characters are meant to be diverse, so if the main character thinks murder is “fun” or a supporting character is homophobic, that will basically never mean the writer shares the same thoughts or morals.
-Story board. Even if there’s people in chains or a picture of surgical knives, do NOT purse your lips or say “Why do you have pictures of this stuff” to a writer, because they will get anxious and probably never show you their story board again.
-Story. Even if your writer is the happiest, most delicate flower, they may end up writing horror or brutal fight scenes. Writing isn’t 100% meant to reflect the writers soul, it’s meant as a form of storytelling. And even if they write a scene full of colourful swear words, they’ll still be whoever they were before.

August Links Roundup: Content Warnings and Disability Activism

Understanding PTSD as a variety of neurodiversity has helped me feel less isolated and medicalized by the “survivor” label. I’m grateful to discover the work of disability activists and theorists who are radically re-imagining a world without rigid norms for how everyone should think and feel.

My recent drift away from organized religion owes at least as much to religion’s assumption of neurotypicality as to any doctrinal mismatches. Because of the great diversity of mind-body types and life experiences, the “universal” religious value-system that brings one person into balance tips another person further off. For instance, a depressed, dissociated person may sink deeper into that condition by following the Buddhist/New Age prescription to dis-identify with your desires and feelings, while the same advice may be a healthy corrective for someone who’s driven by out-of-control cravings. That’s not a problem if you know who you are and what you need. But every religion tends to shore up its authority by assuming that the type of person who is most helped by its prescriptions is the only real or preferable type that exists.

Except for pathologies that harm others, I think we should try to avoid value-judgments about the optimal human personality. In my book, that’s the classical Christian sin of pride that suppresses our empathy and puts us in place of God: “You should be made in my image.” We unconsciously assume that everyone is or should be like ourselves, and so we resist their requested accommodations with the criticism that they are trying to get extra privileges (rather than calling attention to the privileges we already have).

Would it be too hard to preach and teach with more awareness of neurodiversity? Would sermons sound too much like automated phone menus? “If you are self-centered and isolated, come work at our soup kitchen. If you are co-dependent and avoid your problems by doing good works, skip church next week and take your kids to the park. Press one…”

The links I’m highlighting this month are more hopeful that institutions can effectively acknowledge trauma and other kinds of neurodiversity. The hand-wringing over the logistics of accommodation is frequently a proxy for the real insecurity we feel when our personal sense of normalcy is challenged. It’s not pretty to realize that we have been too proud of our competence in an environment that was designed for people like us. Or the resistance may be simply that we worked so hard to stay on the acceptable side of the line–not too fat, old, needy, hysterical, stupid, poor–and now we’re being told that those metrics shouldn’t matter.

The blogger Feminist Aspie’s open letter, “Dear Anyone Who’s Ever Had Their Disability Accommodations Ridiculed…”, responds to Internet mockery of a decision by the National Union of Students (UK) Women’s Conference to request sign-language applause instead of clapping at their events. Sudden loud noises can make these events challenging for people who have sensory processing issues from autism, anxiety, and other conditions. I’m not autistic, but I do have a lot of sensory sensitivities, either from trauma or just how I’m wired. (It pisses me off that I’ll never know which, like there was some normal person I was cheated out of being–internalized ableism again.) The demeaning comments she critiques are ones that I’ve heard and internalized with great shame. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing. I also recommend her post The Illusion of “Neutral”.

“How do you expect to survive in the real world?”, they might tell you. “You just need to work on your difficulties!” What they don’t know (or wilfully ignore) is that you already are doing that work, more than they could ever knowSociety or the “real world” (which, let’s not forget, is a human construct so shouldn’t be accepted as a given) is inaccessible and harmful in a multitude of ways. It is designed to exclude people like us, and even though it often goes un-noticed, you are working your socks off to live and to thrive in it anyway – and again, abled people don’t have to deal with that stuff at all. Most of them genuinely don’t realise this privilege, so it doesn’t occur to them that maybe they could move some of the way towards you. With apologies to Muse, they like to give an inch whilst you give them infinity. It is absolutely not selfish to more evenly distribute some of that load.

To disabled women: I’ve been saddened to see a lot of this ableism and bullying coming from abled feminists, who think that improving accessibility at the NUS Women’s Conference “trivialises feminism” or “makes women look weak”. I’m really sorry about them. I can’t believe this even needs saying, but you are not letting your gender down just by existing. You didn’t create a society which sees women as lesser – men did that. I think feminists really need to work on this ableist (and sexist!) idea that women have to be completely invulnerable, with no concept of emotions or physical or mental health or self-care, just to “earn” the respect that men automatically receive. You’re not trivialising feminism; in fact, by acting like you don’t exist and by holding women to an invincible-machine standard, it’s feminism that’s trivialising you. For what it’s worth, given that you’re facing patriarchy and ableism, and maybe some other oppressions as well, yet you’re still here trying to make a change, I think that if anything, you’re making women look amazing.

Going back to all genders now, I’m also really shocked by how many disabled people are willing to join in, say “but I have *relevant disability* and I don’t need this, they’re being ridiculous” and throw other disabled people under the bus; though maybe I shouldn’t have been, because a few years ago I probably would have been one of those people. Internalised ableism is something I’m still working on. Anyway: your access needs do not make other disabled people “look bad” – that’s based on the assumption that accommodations are a bad thing in the first place, and that assumption comes from abled people, not you. In addition, you are not the reason abled people don’t take disabled people seriously; abled people are the reason that abled people don’t take disabled people seriously. Your disability and related adjustments are not silly, cutesy or made-up just because they don’t match somebody else’s.

Everyday Feminism gives a quick, decisive take-down of arguments against trigger warnings, also called content notes, in writing and education. Basically, writers are like Spider-Man: with great freedom comes great responsibility.

If you don’t care about the impact that your work has on the community that you are serving –whether it’s with your articles or your films or a lesson you give in your classroom – what exactly is the point of what you’re doing?

As a writer, I’m concerned if there are people who can’t access my content and learn from it because each time that they try to, they are harmed by what I’ve put out into the world. As a writer, I’m concerned if my impact is way different than my intention.

I recognize that I won’t make every single person happy with my writing. There will always be individuals who are a bit disgruntled. But I also recognize that when a community calls on me to make my content better, I should tune in and see if there’s a way that I can do it.

Entire communities have called on us to include content warnings because it’s a significant enough concern to unite around. Instead of ignoring that, I feel that I and other content creators have a responsibility to tune in.

We should think critically about who our work is serving. And if our work is not accessible to everyone, and if there is a community that is negatively impacted by what we’re doing, we should think about ways that we can make our work better so that anyone and everyone can participate.

There’s a big difference between being displeased with your work and actually being harmed by it. And if there’s an easy way to prevent that harm, and to include more people in our work, I think it’s worth doing.

Otherwise, who are we serving? And more specifically, who are we excluding?

Ultimately, the big takeaway that many folks have when you refuse to include content warnings is that the trauma that they have experienced isn’t important to you.

Whether it was a veteran who just barely made it out of combat alive, a black man who was the victim of a vicious hate crime, or a woman who was violently sexually assaulted, what you’re saying to them is that what they’ve been through and what they need to survive is completely and utterly unimportant to you.

And if you aren’t the slightest bit concerned about that message, there’s some deeper reflection that needs to happen.

Because while no one is asking you to fix their struggles for them or hold their hand, what they are asking is that you care enough to write a single sentence on that article or in that syllabus, just enough to give them the chance to opt out or put some self-care in place if they need to.

Their request isn’t ridiculous.

What’s ridiculous is that people are still debating about this, as if your convenience trumps their trauma.

Lastly, in Disabilities Studies Quarterly, Ph.D student Angela M. Carter takes a more academic but no less radical approach to the same topic, in “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy”. The footnotes and bibliography have great leads for further reading. Whether trigger warnings are the best solution or not, we must develop an understanding of trauma as a disability that deserves accommodations to make education accessible. Trauma is a social justice issue.

…First, I aim to situate the psychosomatic and affective shifts of trauma in relation to other kinds of neurodiversity such as Autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, epilepsy, Down’s syndrome or other mental health issues (Sibley). While I am focusing here on triggers within context of trauma, many neurodivergent people experience triggers in ways that often similarly impacts their embodied subjectivities. I am using the experience of a trigger then to call for solidarity between individuals typically understood as mentally disabled and communities who have experienced racial and post-colonial traumas. In doing so, I am purposely expanding the category of neurodivergence to include people who may never receive a medical diagnosis, or clinical recognition as such. This is an overtly political move toward an intersectional approach to trauma and disability. In fact, recent advances in neuropsychology have legitimized what critical race theorists, women of color feminisms, and post-colonial feminisms have long been arguing. Not only does trauma change the neurology of the traumatized individual, evidence suggests, “PTSD can be genetically transmitted to secondary and subsequent generations” (Sotero 99). We are fundamentally changed by trauma; and these changes bear legacies. By approaching trauma as an affective structure that may, or may not, be recognizable as a kind of neurodivergence, I seek to broaden our understanding of disability — not to further marginalize the marginalized, but rather to draw attention to the intersecting forces of white supremacy and ableism.

Second, I reference the above descriptions not to define trauma or delineate the specifics of being triggered, but rather to say what trauma and being triggered are not. As becomes clear in the descriptions above, experiences of re-traumatization or being triggered are not the same as being challenged outside of one’s comfort zone, being reminded of a bad feeling, or having to sit with disturbing truths. I am attempting here to distinguish between trauma and injury. While the latter can indeed lead to the former, they are not one in the same. An injury can be healed; redress can be given. To be triggered is to mentally and physically re-experience a past trauma in such an embodied manner that one’s affective response literally takes over the ability to be present in one’s bodymind. When this occurs, the triggered individuals often feel a complete loss of control and disassociation from the bodymind. This is not a state of injury, but rather a state of disability. Because others understand this lost of control and the other related affects as emotionally disproportionate, the traumatized individual is no longer seen as reliable, or as having the ability to “make sense.” Margaret Price argues in Mad at School that individuals with mental disabilities are “rhetorically disabled” in instances where they are stripped of their “rhetoricity” or “the ability to be received as a valid human subject” (26). This is precisely what happens in instances of re-traumatization. Alongside other people with mental disabilities, when those of us who live with the affects of trauma became triggered, “we speak from positions that are assumed subhuman, even nonhuman, and therefore, when we speak, our words go unheeded” (Price 26). In these moments we may struggle to make sense of our bodyminds, but what is most disheartening is that we do this in a world that has so often already dismissed us.

The depths of this misunderstanding, and dismissal, are no more apparent than in the August 2014 report entitled “On Trigger Warnings,” by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In this report the AAUP argues unwaveringly against the use of trigger warnings. What is most thought provoking about this report are not its various assertions — most of which had already been debated online for months beforehand — but rather the level of unfamiliarity with the psychosomatic effects of trauma. The AAUP’s misunderstandings of the concepts of “trauma” and “triggers” are far reaching. Throughout their report, the AAUP repeatedly equates trauma with being offended, made to feel uncomfortable, or responding negatively with a claim of injury. As noted above, being triggered or re-experiencing trauma entails a fully embodied shift in affect wherein any number of psychosomatic responses may occur without one’s cognitive control. This is not the same thing as, for example, the discomfort that comes with confronting one’s white privilege, or the feeling of personal injury that may come when someone challenges your belief system. With this fundamental misunderstanding grounding their response, it is no wonder the AAUP argues against trigger warnings.

Similarly, in their original petition, Oberlin students suggested trigger warnings when “issues of privilege and oppression” arise in the classroom (AAUP). Such suggestions also conflate potential discomfort, or personal injury, with the disabling affects of trauma and being triggered. However, an opportunity arises when students make these conflations. As educators, rather than dismissing trigger warnings outright, we could engage students about how systems of oppression work and explain the difference between pedagogically productive discomfort and trigger-induced re-traumatization. As educators, we could use this conversation as an opportunity to discuss the use of trigger warnings before the Internet. Historically, trigger warnings, Andrea Smith reminds us, began as “a part of a complex of practices” within the anti-violence movement working to recognize “that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do” and that “the labor of healing has to be shared by all” (Smith). Indeed, this conversation could have been one about the intersections of ability with race, class, gender, sexuality and citizenship. Instead, the mainstream rendering of this “debate” has accomplished very little outside of perpetuating the conflation of trauma with that of discomfort and the ableist logics of oppression that tell the marginalized to “get over it.”

The extent to which both sides of the debate operate with a limited perception of trauma is telling, though not unsurprising, given the extent to which we live in an ableist and trauma-centered culture. Following Anne Rothe, I argue that it is precisely because we live in a culture oversaturated with “mass media employments of the pain of others” that our understanding of trauma is so diluted (5). The narrative structures of these traumatic experiences are quite familiar, especially to disabled people, as they rearticulate the quintessential American anecdote of “pulling yourself up by you bootstraps” (Rothe 8). Just as other “supercrip” stories focus on disabled people “overcoming” their disabilities, popular trauma discourse reinforces “the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind” by focusing on overcoming traumatization (Clare 2). People who have experienced trauma are culturally expected to turn their pain into a narrative of inspiration for others. These trauma-and-recovery narratives position the individual as one who “eventually overcomes victimization and undergoes a metamorphosis from the pariah figure of weak and helpless victim into a heroic survivor,” with little to no contextualization of the historical and socio-political forces that underpin their experience (Rothe 2). As with other disabilities, dominant understandings of trauma are framed by an individual or medical model of disability. Like other neurodivergent people, those who have experienced trauma are considered “deviant, pathological and defective” until they have undergone the “proper” treatments needed to adhere as closely as possible to the norms of able-bodymindedness (Kafer 5).

I, in no way, wish to dismiss the intense physical and emotional pain that comes with traumatic experiences. Nor do I want to downplay the very real need to address this pain in order to make life more livable. However, I am aiming here to follow Margaret Price in thinking through trauma outside of the medical model of disability, in order to emphasis the normalizing and oppressive forces at play when we discuss trauma and trigger warnings in the classroom…

Go read the whole thing. I can relate to the frustration of being pressured to turn my history into “a narrative of inspiration for others”. As Christians, we are told that the Cosmic Story is a redemption story, with the resurrected Jesus as the ultimate trauma survivor turned inspirational figure. And yet he still had his wounds… I feel that the ethics of Jesus include resistance to the conformist, normalizing impulses in prideful humanity, so I continue to search for other ways to mesh my story with his, without being erased in it.

The Non-Personhood of Children in the Bible

The Daily Office, the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy and Bible readings for morning and evening prayer, provides some uncomfortable juxtapositions with current events. Shortly after watching the first TV debate among the Republican presidential candidates, I was presented with this reading from 2 Samuel 12:1-14.

King David has just arranged for his loyal soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan now tells him a fable about a rich man who had many flocks of his own, but seized a poor man’s only pet lamb to eat. That’s outrageous, says the king; that’s you, the prophet shoots back.

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

(Boldface emphasis mine.)

So…not only was Bathsheba taken from her husband by King David (whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t safely refuse), now she’s going to suffer the death of her child…at God’s command? And the innocent child, why does he get punished for the king’s adultery and murder?

The GOP candidates last week rushed to outdo one another in pledging to protect unborn children. They cupped their hands in tender gestures and invoked their Christian faith to support banning abortion, even when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the mother’s life.

But what does the Bible actually say about children’s rights? At least in the Old Testament, children’s lives are not sacred. Their subjectivity and autonomy have no inherent importance. Like women, they are possessions that keep score of the male characters’ virtue or success. Besides this passage, notable examples are Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, God’s plague on the Egyptians’ first-born sons, and the divinely commanded genocide of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Jesus ups the value of children in his invitation to them in Matthew 19, and his statement that one must become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the God who warned Joseph to hide the Holy Family in Egypt did not intervene to protect any of the other infant boys slaughtered by Herod in Jesus’s stead.

My conclusions from this are two-fold, and both are kind of disheartening. First, that the Bible can be proof-texted or idealized to justify many positions that are quite a stretch from the original story, which seems to diminish its usefulness as a source of clear moral boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the sacredness of all infant life is a great evolution beyond the values of the ancient world, though I am pro-choice as a matter of legal policy. I just don’t see how you get “every sperm is sacred” from the Old and New Testaments.

Second, for me personally, it’s feeling like too much of a struggle to mesh my survivor-centric liberation theology with the Biblical writers’ very different assumptions about parents’ ownership of children and how this also maps onto God the Father’s creation and destruction of His children. I respect Christians who can find enough liberating material to stay within the Biblical framework and bracket the bad parts. Sometimes, I envy you. I am trying to shift my faith orientation in the most non-hegemonic way possible. It’s not my intention to take away from others the comfort that I no longer find in this tradition. But it is too jarring for me right now to have my healing and activism constantly interrupted by micro-aggressions from religious authorities who remind me that women’s and children’s lives have always been devalued.

Two Poems from Arthur Powers’s “Edgewater”

Award-winning poet and fiction writer Arthur Powers’s work is informed by his Catholic faith and his concern for the dignity of the common man and woman. His profound short fiction collection, A Hero for the People (Press 53, 2013), drew on his activist work on behalf of subsistence farmers and workers in rural Brazil. I was pleased to blurb his poetry chapbook, Edgewater, just out from Finishing Line Press. This collection of vernacular sonnets takes us into the American heartland past and present, finding the sacramental quality in modest gestures such as a pioneer’s gift of roses for his work-worn wife, or a puddle in an urban snowbank that reminds an immigrant of the idyllic lakes of his lost homeland. Arthur has kindly shared two poems from Edgewater below.

Nauvoo To Bishop Hill


From Nauvoo up to Knoxville, winding
the Mississippi’s green hills hot in
summer, the locusts singing alive
the Illinois sun, we moved slowly,
following curving gray roads that led

through myths of our imagination.
At Knoxville, where the old college stands,
a gray stone soldier guarding
a century, we stopped a moment
in the shade, then on to Galesburg,

the brick heat and sun bright factories,
the railroad switches, the neat white box
of Carl Sandburg’s home, the quick, cheap
restaurant that serves pancakes in his
memory. And so to Bishop Hill.

The green square caught in antique trees
and cubic buildings like children’s blocks
placed neatly around it, strong clean Swedes
working together to carve a dream
out of the midlands of America:

the heat, the locusts, the sharp white sun,
the silence of the dream emptied out
onto the prairie: nothing, nothing
is left, O Illinois, but locusts
singing alive tight summer sun.


Sunday Afternoon/Missouri

I met a girl from Hannibal. She said:

“The house where I grew up was built by slaves,
of brick and tall wood, and it seemed the seasons
were woven into the wood. In October,
when we stood in the high ceiling’d rooms
and looked out over the fields, black after
harvest, the leaves on the trees gleamed red.
Then, when the season turned and in the dead
of winter the corn stubs stood like graves
in rows, the wind would blow the leaves away.

The house stood white and naked when it snowed.
They tore it down to build a road.”

We walked along the riverfront. She said:

“Here, in town, there used to be a park
where we’d go to watch the river, slow
and brown, and the stark fields
of Illinois across the river. They
built a grain elevator that blocked
the view.”
Yes, that too, I said.
And a car door slamming shut on a
quiet Sunday.
And Mark Twain dead.

Birthday Thoughts: Turn and Face the Strange

Today’s my 43rd birthday. Among the pleasures of being middle-aged are a positive body image that’s independent of others’ opinions, confidence in my own authority, and making peace with change. This last requires overcoming fear-based defenses from my chaotic childhood, and also questioning the presumptions of the religion where I took refuge from that chaos.

Scripture-based faith is inherently conservative because its highest authority is an static text, which cannot help but be in tension with the dynamism of social and personal change. Denominations differ in how they handle this tension, from Biblical inerrancy to “God is still speaking”. Yet even the latter statement is almost too defensive for me now. Why wouldn’t God be speaking? Why must we labor under a suspicion that change is random or self-serving until proven otherwise?

That suspicion still silences me at times. I look back at some of my passionate beliefs and interests from a few years ago, which bear little resemblance to what concerns me now, and at times make me cringe in hindsight. And I wonder, how can I ever speak again with confidence, knowing I could be just as far off the mark, no matter how clear it seems to me now? Well, one belief that continues to prove itself in my life is the grace of God, which doesn’t require us to be right in order to be loved. And perhaps rightness is a moving target, and a belief can be the best tool for the job at a certain moment and nonetheless become obsolete, with no shame in that. In that case I only regret being so enamored of my cleverness that I sometimes shared my opinions unkindly.

To keep myself humble and amuse the reader, here’s a little timeline of my worldview. Note that I was 13 in 1985. Be charitable.

My role models are:
1985: Ayn Rand, the Elephant Man
1992: Camille Paglia, the Phantom of the Opera
2006: Barbie, Cardinal Ratzinger
2013: Alice Miller, Tim Gunn
2015: Peggy Olson, Cthulhu

This book is everything:
1985: T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
2000: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
2009: Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
2015: Rachel Pollack, 78 Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot

I write:
1985: Depressing intellectual sestinas
2000: Libertarian law journal articles
2006: Conservative Christian anti-porn blog posts
2008: Insane feminist experimental poetry
2009: Gay Christian endless novel
2012: Poetry about diapers and insomnia
2013: Radical abuse survivor blog posts
2015: Gay male erotica

I identify spiritually as:
1985: Objectivist who believes in God and fairies
1995: Pro-life kosher Nietzschean Jew (it was a confusing time in my life, okay?)
2001: Gay-affirming conservative Episcopalian
2010: Bitter
2015: Tarot-reading Christian who believes in sacred Eros

Universal truth is:
1985: Whatever can be discerned by the free individual’s objective reasoning
2000: Most perfectly expressed in Jesus and Christian theology
2008: A catchphrase indicating that the speaker might be a self-centered patriarchal dickhead
2015: Each person should be respected as the authority on hir own experience

The world would be a better place if everyone:
1985: Took responsibility for their choices and followed their truth with integrity and courage
1996: Stopped fucking around
2000: Accepted the unconditional grace of God and cast off their shame
2009: Recognized abuse for what it was, stopped doing it, and stopped victim-blaming
2015: All of the above except the fucking, I like fucking now

The proper place for sex is:
1985: Somewhere I don’t have to see it
2000: In a marriage between two loving, committed virgins of any gender
2010: In my novel
2015: Can I watch?

If I could send one message to the world, it would be:
1985: Shut the fuck up
2000: Accept Jesus as your savior
2007: God loves gays
2010: Give me a baby
2015: #stfu


Buy my book! Thank you and goodnight.