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

(Summer/1977)

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

Bullies_in_Love_cover

Buy my book! Thank you and goodnight.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Crazing”

Contemporary poet Ruth Thompson inspires me with her vision of mature womanhood and life in harmony with nature. I reviewed her previous full-length collection, Woman With Crows, on the blog last year.

The mature and courageous poems in her latest chapbook, Crazing (Saddle Road Press, 2015), teach us to discern the difference between natural and unnatural change. She responds with extraordinary grace and playfulness to the scattering of her mental and physical abilities in old age, the “crazing” of the glaze that gives the vessel its character, the cracks in the body’s shell from which the spirit emerges like a baby chick. At the same time, her embrace of the cycles of nature empassions her to resist alterations that are sudden, irreversible, and a dead end for life on this planet. She mourns not for herself but for lost tree species, droughts, and future generations who may “die thirsty, telling stories of our green shade.” Her acceptance of her personal body’s limitations shows us a humbler, more sustainable way to inhabit the body of Mother Earth.

She has kindly permitted me to share two poems from the chapbook below. (Full disclosure: Ruth previously blurbed my new collection, Bullies in Love.)

Mary Speaks

How relieved I was when it was over.
How easily I vanished from the story.

When it was finished, given over to their
busy hands, I slipped away like a fish.

I bundled myself back on the donkey,
unwound the old stars to show the way.

In the dark of the moon I came home.

Now I pour silica over my shoulders.
In both my palms I feel the shift.

Some men thank the god for dying
and the Mother who made him,

but these men will have no Mother.
No matter. The boy is dead.

Far away the rains begin.
First flood, then riversilt: his flesh.

Body sloughs like a stalk of wheat
lays another spiral in the grain.

Here at the bony heart of things,
I dance the red sun up over the hills.

****

Losing the Words

Wantons, they’d give themselves to anyone!

See how they slip in and out of one another’s clothes?

See how–dressed in zinnia-colored feathers, giggling–
they settle to the lip like birds, then flicker away?

Oh, they hide behind the roof of my mouth with flashlights,
cast firefly shadows on my stuttering tongue–

dash onto the stage and off, grinning madly–
above them that terrible sign: Exeunt Omnes.

For one day all of them–
all the thousand thousand names of God–

will fall in love. Conjoin. Merge
into the unkempt darkness behind the stars.

They will be gone forever. Then silence
will enter the echoing chambers of my mind.

It will speak its name at last.
I will say Yes.

Love Wins at the Supreme Court!

Image result for marriage equality graphic

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marriage equality! States may no longer ban same-sex marriages or refuse to recognize such marriages performed in other states.

From LGBTQ Nation:

Gay and lesbian couples already could marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court’s 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.

The outcome is the culmination of two decades of Supreme Court litigation over marriage, and gay rights generally.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court’s previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions…

…The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

From the New York Times:

The decision, the culmination of decades of litigation and activism, came against the backdrop of fast-moving changes in public opinion, with polls indicating that most Americans now approve of same-sex marriage.

Justice Kennedy said gay and lesbian couples had a fundamental right to marry.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Kennedy said of the couples challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Big thanks to GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) for arguing this case before the Supreme Court. (The case named on their website, DeBoer v. Snyder, was consolidated with Obergefell and two others.) Check out the Tumblr blog at Freedom to Marry for inspiring photos and stories of celebration around the country.

When I was born, homosexuality was still labeled a psychiatric disorder. There were no children’s books with two-mom families like mine. Although I went to an arts high school in NYC in the 1980s, I didn’t know any out gay teenagers. I’m happily stunned that this tremendous social change has happened during my lifetime.

I know that the struggle for social justice is not over, for the LGBT community and others. But please, hold off on the cautionary tweets and think pieces, for just one day. Let’s give ourselves a Sabbath of rejoicing.

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My super cool lesbian mom and me, summer 2011. Come party with us in Northampton tonight!

After Charleston: Seek White Repentance, Not Black Forgiveness

Last Wednesday a young white supremacist man murdered nine African-Americans who were taking part in a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Emanuel AME is one of the oldest and largest historically black congregations in the South, and played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Root has published profiles of the victims of this terrorist act, including three pastors of the church. Go read those and pray over them, then let’s talk about a certain kind of follow-on emotional violence that our media perpetrates–against some kinds of victims in particular.

Racism is abuse. Like domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, racist attacks are perpetrated by individuals but supported by our shared culture. Sometimes we actively spread these beliefs, other times we simply fail to notice them and miss opportunities to challenge them. Dehumanizing beliefs about a less-powerful group seem so normal that we refuse to see their role in justifying violence. That would implicate too many of us in acts that our media depicts as extreme individual aberrations.

I’m not saying that most white people want to murder blacks. But do we unconsciously view black lives as less valuable? Do we interpret the same behavior as “menacing” or “troubled” depending on the subject’s race, a filter that makes black men the primary targets of police brutality and incarceration? Do we define “racism” so narrowly that it never applies to our thoughts and actions?

In the days following the Charleston massacre, my husband and I happened to be listening to the audio book of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. We were on disks 5-6 of 12 (it’s heavy stuff!) learning about how the Confederacy’s myth of Black incompetence and corruption, popularized in Gone With the Wind, became the dominant cultural narrative about the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. Though we knew better than to take GWTW as unbiased history, my husband and I were still shocked by how much falsehood we’d casually absorbed from our textbooks and popular culture. That includes falsehood by omission: we didn’t learn about the immediate and brutally effective campaign of terror to suppress the black vote, stifle literacy, and force non-whites out of skilled professions. What else do we “know for sure that just ain’t so”?

The story we tell about a violent crime determines whether we collectively confront the sources of that violence, or look away. Whether we listen to members of the victimized group, or continue to silence and discredit them. Whether we dismiss Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s racist jokes and apartheid flags as harmless delusions, until he fatally puts them into practice.

The “forgiveness” story, so beloved by our melodramatic and context-free media, is a silencing story.

It seems that every time there is a massacre of innocents, reporters are up in the faces of the mourners, asking “Do you forgive?” before the bodies are cold. Editorials repeat Sunday School platitudes and proclaim that only through forgiveness can the bereaved find healing. It happened during the Amish school shooting in 2006, the Newtown school shooting in 2012, and again this past weekend in Charleston. Earlier this summer, when it was revealed that Christian fundamentalist reality-TV star Josh Duggar had molested his sisters, his celebrity parents cited the girls’ alleged forgiveness of their elder brother as evidence that we should let bygones be bygones. The pressure to perform the role of the “good victim” bears down with extra weight upon members of less-powerful groups who reasonably fear they will not be valued or believed: e.g. sexual assault survivors, children, or African-Americans in a racist society.

Notably, it did not happen after 9/11, to the best of my recollection. The peace activists who sympathized with the desperation of the suicide bombers had their patriotism questioned, or at best seemed insensitive to bring this up while so many of us were still in shock and grieving. This was no time for sentimental empathy for the killers, this was an attack on America!

Was not the Charleston hate crime an attack on America? A strike against a historic landmark, targeting civilians, spiting the values we claim to hold most dear–freedom of worship, racial equality, life and liberty?

The forgiveness story centers the perpetrator. It makes the victim’s worth conditional on his or her response to the crime. It reduces these crimes to a private issue that can be settled between individuals, more like a civil tort than an offense against society. It gives the rest of us permission to minimize the damage, and to neglect our responsibility for the culture that incubated abusers and killers.

What if, instead, reporters in the days following Charleston had pulled over random white people on the street and asked, “Do you repent of white racism in America?”

Well, I do.

I can’t apologize on behalf of Dylann Roof. I didn’t pull that trigger, and I would never in my wildest dreams want to do such a thing. But I repent in the sense of “turn again”: I accept the responsibility to turn back and take a second look at the beliefs I’ve absorbed, turn away from racially biased stories, and turn toward learning from and signal-boosting black voices.

To that end, here are four excellent commentaries on the oppressive demand for black forgiveness in the context of racism.

Trudy, who writes the black womanist blog Gradient Lair, made this powerful Storify of her June 20 tweets on Black Forgiveness Without White Contrition. Follow her on Twitter @thetrudz, and if you love how she kicks your ass with the truth, please support her writing with a donation or subscription (see the right-hand sidebar of the blog for options). An excerpt:

Analyzing POWER here. Families of victims of State violence are indirectly demanded to apologize if Whites hate protestors’ actions.

Now those families might actually disagree with the protestors, right. But examine the DEMANDED performance of compliance with Whiteness.

In same way, *a few* fam members of *some* of 9’s families may forgive as their process, but examine indirect DEMAND for performance of it.

Hypervisibility on Blackness = consistent direct or indirect (again, structural power dynamics) demand for PERFORMANCE for White comfort.

Direct or indirect demand for performance of forgiveness to assuage guilt of ppl w/ more power is STANDARD abuse culture & American as hell.

& ppl with power have ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY to those harmed and their comfort centered above the harmed’s safety. Standard abuse culture.

Anger can be useful. Anger is a stage of grief. Well, for humans. Black ppl clearly excluded from human expression…

…Notice how media narrative shifts to “good Blacks forgive; bad Blacks don’t” versus WHY IS WHITE TERRORISM A FACTOR SINCE 1492?

Essayist and literature professor Kiese Laymon writes in the UK newspaper The Guardian:

…Grandma and her church taught me that loving white folks in spite of their investment in our terror was our only chance of not becoming them morally…

I told her that loving white supremacists in the face of white supremacy is a hallmark of American evil, and a really a fundamental part of the black American experience in this country.

It’s what we’re supposed to do, I said.

Many of us have made a life of hoping to get chosen for jobs, chosen for awards, chosen for acceptance from people, structures and corporations bred on white supremacy. We’re hoping to get chosen by people who can not see us. Knowing that they hate and terrorize us doesn’t stop us from wanting to get chosen. That’s the crazy thing. Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.

I told my Grandma that we should have chosen ourselves. I tell her that we should have let us in. We should have held each other, and fallen in healthy love with each other, instead of watching shame make parts of us disappear.

What do we make of the shameful work of being chosen? Our family eats that shame, quite literally. Other families drink the shame. All the work that we put into forgiving white supremacy, white power and white people, and then hoping to be chosen by those people, should have gone into talking about – and collectively reckoning with – our familial experiences with sexual violence, food, and trauma.

Shame strangles, I told Grandma; truth sets free. But what does any truth set free look like? I know that I don’t know.

What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them.

In Ebony, theologian Candace Benbow preaches a survivor-centric gospel in her article Christian Responses to Charleston are Killing Black Women:

Of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel, six were women. We now know that the pastor’s wife and one of their daughters hid in his study as Roof went on his rampage. A mother played dead in her son’s blood, while another elderly woman’s life was spared. At least ten sisters were present in Mother Emanuel on that terrible night. Sisters have been turning to the church for centuries to cope with White supremacy and Black pain. It is no shock that so many Black women were there Wednesday because we are the church. Yet, despite comprising the bulk of Black church membership, the theology of our churches has yet to respond to our pain and address our needs. In just three days, we began to celebrate the forgiveness extended by the families. Pastors offered this as an example of authentic faith; this, according to them, is what Jesus would want from his disciples. But what does that mean for young women unable to forgive their rapists, molesters, abusers and attackers? What can we give them for healing instead of trite clichés and biblical interpretation that places responsibility on them? Whenever faced with difficulty, we are always reminded that we are strong Black women. Because sisters before us survived worse, we should be able to survive our current crisis. Survival is important but we glory too much in it.

How are Black women supposed to understand that violation is wrong when they hear pastors celebrate how God is able to use it for His glory and their development?

Weak theology seeks to protect a God who is not vulnerable. God can handle our questions, anger and disbelief. God is concerned about our emotional health and we do that concern a disservice when we preach otherwise. Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his time whenever the articulations of their faith further marginalized oppressed people. We must do the same and hold our leaders accountable for the ways they prevent Black women from healing, causing even greater despair. If Black women are strong, perhaps that strength is in acknowledging our weaknesses. It could be that we are strong because we recognize when we need help and accept it when others are trying to share our load.

I must admit that I am a long way from forgiveness. I’m not ready to forgive Roof and others who have hurt me. And I believe that’s okay. I believe God understands my unwillingness to forgive is tied to the unbearable pain I feel and would never hold that against me. I believe God journeys with me, even in seasons of unforgiveness, and understands that it’s hard sometimes. I believe God is acquainted with my grief and, above all things, wants me whole and well. We must cultivate a faith that allows Black women to be honest and vulnerable. We must give them the tools to understand that God never called them to be Jesus but to be faithful and human.

Mallory Ortberg is one of my favorite contemporary satirists. She is wrong that Avalon’s “Testify to Love” is not the best Contemporary Christian Music song of 1999, but other than that, I trust her to rightly divide the word of truth. In a more serious post for her website The Toast, she interviewed Carvell Wallace, founder of the urban youth initiative Vibosity, on The White Myth of Black Forgiveness. An excerpt:

Carvell: I think a lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT.

Mallory: Oh man, let’s start with that. Break down a little, if you will, what you think forgiveness means in the context of Black American Christianity, with the usual caveat that you do not speak for all black Americans, but are familiar with the broad context?

Carvell: Yes. Thanks for that, and also why do we still have to explain that I don’t speak for 40 gajllion people. But. Anyway. There’s a difference between the private act of forgiveness and the public act of forgiveness.

Mallory: Which I think maybe a lot of white people do not understand! Again, there are many kinds of white people and white Christians, but in the broad Christian context I grew up in, saying “I forgive you” was generally understood to be a complete act. You forgave someone when you were DONE wrestling through what they had done to you. And it meant that you were, if not over it completely, at a certain amount of peace, and that things were, generally speaking, “okay.”

Carvell: Right. Well, when your entire history in this country has been about literally dying to be considered human, you have to develop a Christianity that enables you to fight while also “forgiving them” who hurt you. We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.

Mallory: So it has more to do with self-protection than it does with absolution, it sounds like.

Carvell: Absolutely. It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone.

Mallory: I think a lot of us miss that entirely.

Carvell: It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT.

Keep fighting the good fight, readers.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Lisken Van Pelt Dus’s “Everywhere at Once”

Lisken Van Pelt Dus is a poet, teacher, and martial artist, raised in England, the US, and Mexico, and now living in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in such journals as Conduit, The South Carolina Review, Qarrtsiluni, and Upstreet, and has earned awards and honors from The Comstock Review, The Atlanta Review, and Cider Press Review. Her chapbook, Everywhere at Once, was published by Pudding House Press in 2009, and her first full-length book, What We’re Made Of, is due out from WordTech Communications’ Cherry Grove imprint in May 2016.

I had the pleasure of reading with Lisken at a local poetry event several years ago (we think it was Upstreet Magazine in Pittsfield, but we’re not sure!) where I purchased the above-mentioned chapbook. Recurring images of birds and mountaintops give this collection its uplifting, spacious, graceful character. Like a rushing wind or forest stream, human life is constantly in motion, swept along and altered by the passage of time. “It’s only/January but already birds are practicing song.” The poet’s mission, and her gift to us, is to pull over her bike in the field, or pause at the summit, so that we notice our place on the cosmic wheel and experience a moment of gratitude.

The chapbook is unfortunately out of print, but some of its poems will be included in her forthcoming book, including the two below, which she has kindly allowed me to republish here.

Becoming Double

A number of us had gathered
in the curious way the world has
of gathering people, a random
rightness hovering, and then

what we all hoped for
though we could not name it,
sunshine in the dry altitude,
and conversation, and silence
resonant with a depth that made us
listen as if to reach the bottom of it.

At night the moon
scoured the hills and terraces.
Day warmed slowly. We followed
goat tracks up until we reached
a spring, its drinking trough filthy
with horseshit and roiled mud.
We stopped to watch a kestrel dive,
traded stares and greetings
with leathery goat-drivers on horseback,
scaled rocks like steps
to the top of the dusty hill-side.

One hill rose higher still.
The sign said Propiedad Privada but
the barbed wire was mostly trampled
horizontal. This was open land.
We walked into the sky.

This much is accurate.
What happened next
cannot be described so simply.
I too would have thought it impossible:
we reached the top but kept walking,
higher, as if we could fly by striding.
The hill that had seemed so tall
dropped away from us, flap
of wind-whipped ribbons
on huge crosses falling inaudible,
goat-bells paling. I saw
the wind itself rise to lift us.
In the distance the town grew smaller.

To this day I don’t know
how we returned or even if
we came back to the same land
we had left. Dust still clings
to my boots and hawks
still call sharply at the sight of prey.
The sun rises each morning
and the moon cycles.
A number of us depart
and reunite. Two are me.

****

Flight of Starlings

From the bay window in our living room
it looks like dozens of starlings
have just flown into your workshop below me,

dive-bombers launched from the trees
to the snow-free ground under our eaves.
I imagine them in there, winging

among the tools, perched on the table saw
or pecking at jars of screws and wall plugs.
One loses a feather. When you come home

you’ll find a filigree of spindly footprints
in the sawdust, and the black iridescence
of the bird’s absence. It is something

utterly other, this feather, this bird.
It’s from another place, a place we
can’t get to–it can’t happen

any more than we can go back
to a time before loss. But somewhere
a bird is balancing effortlessly on a branch

or in the air, without that feather.

Chapbook Spotlight: Poetry from Catherine Sasanov’s “Tara”

In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, “Tara” was Scarlett O’Hara’s family plantation, a symbol of the supposedly idyllic (for white people) Southern way of life before the Civil War. The poet Catherine Sasanov references this pro-slavery myth ironically, tragically, in the title of her chapbook Tara (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), not as a vanished Eden but as confession of white America’s original sin.

This exquisite, penitent chapbook unearths lives overlooked by official histories. Upon discovering that her Missouri forebears had owned slaves, the poet undertook the task of reconstructing the latter’s stories from the scraps of information in local records. The incompleteness of the narrative stands as an indictment of white America’s lack of care for black lives. Suburban development appears as the latest form of erasure of the graves on which civilization is built.

Most of the poems in Tara are also included in Sasanov’s subsequent full-length collection Had Slaves, which won the Sentence Book Award from Firewheel Editions and was published by Firewheel in 2010. Thanks to both publishers and the author for permission to reprint the poem below.

On Reading the Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writers Project

(for Elizabeth Herndon Sharp, 1839-1945)

Missouri, 1937. The year white folks armed
with pens, with paper,
come to excavate memory’s shallow grave. Get paid to sift the slavery from it.

Before the old mouths die out around their stories. So they can lay their words out to dry.
So fresh, the spit still shines on them. Light cuts and bruises insisting how
Black thought exits through the teeth–

Eye dialect, written by men, by women, who never read the Braille
whipped into an ex-slave’s back. Look at the way each word is strained
through the minstrel show in their heads: Honey,

mama’s gwan way off, ain’t never goin to see her baby agin.

They ask about belief in ghosts, get scared when surface
wanders towards them white: black girls perfect as a glass of milk
whole towns choose to hold upright, so the one drop theory won’t spill out.

In spite of dust storms, failed banks, plagues of locusts,
did the called-to-ask give thanks to Jesus for a present as perfect as this Great Depression
to make our past look good? In Missouri,

1937, they invite themselves onto 92 porches, eke child slaves out
of 80-year-old women, 90-year-old men. Pens poised for the moments
dripping with nostalgia. Pages buckling beneath the weight:

Ole Mistress, slopping children’s meals in a pig trough.

Old Master, dragging a sick man from his cabin,
throwing him living in his grave:
We’ll come back in about an hour, he should be dead by then.

(What children see while running errands.
What children wrest from beneath their eyelids
so they can drop to their knees and eat.)

Bloody footprints across the floorboards.

A toddler crawling into her mother’s coffin, Look at my pretty dress.

How close can I lean in and listen
70 years away from voices
bound into a book? Where my family’s slaves died out

outside its pages. Where no one came to slide a sheet of paper
underneath their words. In Missouri, 1937,
my father’s tucked into its southwest corner,

lives on a campus called the forty acres. He learns to think
he’s years, not blocks, away
from the last slave linked

to his family. She’ll wait till 1945,
while no one tries
to take down her story.

I’ve touched the edges of her unmarked grave,
beat my hands against its dirt and howled.
But why should she get up, answer now

this trace of slaveholder
in my blood: distinct though distant,
watered down. What runs this pack of words across

the thin ice of the page.