The poems below are reprinted by permission from John Amen’s poetry collection Christening the Dancer (Uccelli Press, 2003). John is the editor of The Pedestal Magazine, a notable online journal of poetry, short prose, and book reviews.
Reconciling with Stillness
It is not enough
to follow a map to familiar temples,
bulldozers in my stomach,
my spine bent to its breaking point,
secrets ripped from my groin
like sequoias uprooted in a hurricane.
I am filling holes, but also
crawling into them,
refusing to suck distraction’s oozing nipple,
even when my nerves
vibrate like a cheap doorstopper,
I feel loose dirt piling over me,
thirteen gravediggers burying me alive.
In Praise of Us
We are the winners, you and I,
traveling dirt roads that lead to junkyards,
hurling the thermometer into the crocodile’s mouth.
Always, their voices have been behind and before us,
that we have not walked by the tape measure
or turned our songs to science.
They gave us maps and exiled us,
laughed when we arrived at dry waterholes,
shook their heads as we ran with cheetahs.
But you and I,
we live in the center of the web,
feasting on our heartaches,
turning stone to water, icicles to lava,
using crosses as kindling.
We stand in the fusillade,
refusing to camouflage ourselves.
Every bullet swallowed turns to gold in our bowels.
The orange inside the orange is gold:
in this juice the wealth of labor,
its sunshine the ring-decked gleam of the ladies
whose skin is tough and bronzed like the orange,
whose soft thoughts are hidden from their men.
The palm inside the palm burns like a cigarette,
the addict’s love that cannot breathe.
The ladies wave their resilient hands
with their burning wands, and along Cocoanut Row
the palms thrash in the hurricane.
The ocean inside the ocean is a spaniel
endlessly racing, drooling foam for joy.
Again, again, the senile sea
claps at each baby-blue crash.
The ladies own the view behind glass,
shutter the sun in pastel rooms
where the piano and the wheelchair sleep.
The album inside the album has no name
or too many. All the smiles and their objectives blurred
like a glitter of stars without constellation lines.
Look, these were your friends. Look, trophies,
grandchildren, the news. Whose is the charity
for this season?
The woman inside the woman lifts a match to her lips
that hold no cigarette. The burning stick
one more thing not to see, the flame familiar
as her late husband’s golden apologies.
Down her breast, a dribble of flame like fresh juice.
And still she stares at the expensive sea,
matches it breath for amnesiac breath.
This poem won a third prize in the 2008 Dancing Poetry Contest, and is included in my chapbook Hound of Heaven, forthcoming this fall from Southern Hum Press. (Their website is down again…arrgh.) “Nature morte” is the wonderfully evocative French name for a “still life”.
My short story “Bride of Christ”, an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, was published earlier this year by Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression, and has now been released for reprinting below. Here’s the beginning:
Brides under archways of creamy white flowers. Black and white at the ballroom window, in soft cinematic light, pressing a pensive hand to the rain-streaked glass. Ballerina blondes, black prom queens who wore their ambitions as tastefully as a string of pearls, but also the average girls, those normally afflicted with plump torsos and ethnic noses, now lavished with the same beautician’s care, grateful for their single day of admission to the pantheon. A democracy of brides. And what of their accessories, the grooms? Banished to the back pages, in the cheesy honeymoon-suite ads. Whatever the magazine, the progression was as scripted as the parade of dignitaries at a coronation. First the gowns, then the housewares, then the mothers and girlfriends in their coordinated pastels, and finally the happy couple taking a bubble bath in a giant champagne glass in the Poconos.
It was a ready-to-wear fairy tale Laura Sue Selkirk could share with her students at Greenbriar Academy, the boarding school where she’d worked as a guidance counselor for the last five years. Some instinct in them ran deeper than the cheerleaders’ rhinestone Playboy belts or the bookworms’ genderless flannels. Girls were girls. The genes said babies and wedding cake, and you denied them at your peril. How different from the models in Julian’s magazines, stacked on the other side of her coffee table, which until recently had been the main object of her girls’ fascination. The women her brother photographed for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were hard, untouchable beauties. They drifted from Rome to New Orleans with no ballast. They never smiled, as the brides did, in anticipation of a future where they wouldn’t be the only one in the picture.
Read the entire story as a PDF here.
My main preoccupation this year is the interrelated questions of identity and authority. In this pluralistic, rapidly changing culture, we can “be” anyone (or so we are told), and there’s no shortage of putative authority figures telling us how and why to adopt their template.
The average American might respond that she doesn’t need anyone to tell her who she is. She is the master of her fate, the captain of her soul, et cetera. But look deeply enough within the self, as artists and other lunatics do, and one finds a horrifying randomness, a contingency and fragility, in which it is difficult to abide for long.
The self is like a hotel room to which you have been assigned. Open the door and you’ll see a corridor of identical closed doors, with other people inside who could have been you. Why is your bedspread blue and not red? Why does your window face the ocean and not the parking lot? There are three ways to escape the absurdity of your position. First, you can try to leave your room and find a better room. But to do this, you need some outside guidance about what makes a room better and which ones are likely to meet that standard. Second, you can remain in your room and pretend that you chose the furniture yourself. Third, you can trust that the person who gave you this particular room had a good reason, and that it really is the best one for you.
The point of this little allegory is that the self is always partially constituted by others. There is no escaping either one’s personal responsibility for identity-formation or the fact that the available choices are created by forces outside one’s self. Even for the most extreme individualist, knowledge of anything beyond one’s immediate sensations requires one to trust some external authorities. What we call “the self” is an interpretive framework for making sense of one’s own experiences, and as such, it has a collective dimension.
What’s interesting, and to me disturbing, is how we’re ceding more and more of that authority to strangers. Prior to the rise of secular, consumerist mass culture, perhaps more people got their sense of self from their place within a family or a spiritual community. Now, folks who would never dream of obeying Il Papa eagerly post semi-nude pictures of themselves on social networking sites so the world can tell them whether they’re “hot”. Reality television is, at best, the complete democratizing of authority–at worst, a frantic aggregation of empty selves hoping that sheer numbers will add up to an indisputable standard of value (until next season, when all is forgotten).
Into this mix comes the German website Check Your Image, which I read about in the consumer trends newsletter Springwise:
Offline and online, consumers are ever more adept at presenting their public image or, as Tom Peters put it, crafting The Brand Called You. While they can carefully control the clothes they wear, the brands they use, the photos they upload to Flickr and the witty repartees they Twitter, it’s more difficult to judge whether the image they’re trying to project is really what others see.
Friends, family and online pals aren’t objective enough, so who can they turn to for an honest image appraisal? German consumers can now upload a few pictures to checkyourimage.com, and have impartial strangers evaluate their appearance, solving dilemmas like: “My wife says I look boring, I think I look professional and modern.” “My boss says I come across as cool and distant. I think I look reliable and friendly.” “Does my long, red hair look good on me, or would I look better with a short, blond cut?” The website points out that just as brands routinely use focus groups to test a product’s image and appeal, anyone can benefit from an honest appraisal by a crowd of strangers.
checkyourimage.com offers a variety of test options. Every month, it offers one free trial question. Users can upload their photo and have 30 people answer a question. This month, it’s “Do I look naive?”, and next month they can enlist strangers to answer the all-important “Do I look intelligent?” Those willing to pay for the service can choose from a Basic Check (EUR 25 for 50 image testers answering 10 standard questions), an Optimal Check (EUR 49 for 50 testers answering 20 questions that the customer selects from a database), and a Business Check (EUR 490 for 1,000 testers answering questions defined by the customer).
I suppose husbands everywhere will rejoice that they can outsource the question “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” But they’re underestimating the humiliation of knowing that 1,000 Germans think you’re a wide load. It reminds me of this passage from Bernadette Barton’s Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (read my full review here):
Constantly reminded that a woman’s worth in the world is tied to how beautiful and desirable she is, a stripper must also learn to dissociate from the full personal implications of that knowledge. Basking in the glow of a great tip, a dancer may feel like a queen. But she has to be ready at a moment’s notice to don her protective armor against abuse and rejection. Hence, dancers experience both positive reinforcement and rejection daily for the same reason: their sexual bodies. Managing the conflicting combination of compliments and abuse on her physical form requires a tremendous amount of emotional energy.
Spiritually adrift in a culture that is both impersonal and intrusive, aren’t we in the same position as these strippers: devouring praise from any source, dismissing that same source when it dishes out criticism, and always unsatisfied because we haven’t really reposed our confidence in any authority for good or ill, including (or especially) ourselves?
I just wish I had 490 euros to squander on some questions that would really blow their minds:
Would you like to talk with me about postfoundationalist theology? Can I adopt your unborn child? Am I a man trapped in a woman’s body? If so, who is the woman?
Operators are standing by…
My prison pen pal “Conway” writes in his July 17 letter that he has begun reading Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings:
A very good book. It was a manuscript found in his house in New York after he died. Sort of a diary. Very poignant thoughts….
I wrote two poems inspired so far by his words. I’m sendin’ them along — “Sacrifice” and “Interrogation” — plus a couple more. But I would like to share a quote from this book…
Having breathed a atmosphere filled with the products of his own spiritual combustion, he remembers reading somewhere that, in the neighborhood of a sulfur works, even a sparse vegetation can only survive if it is sheltered from the wind — ‘When did this happen?’ he asks himself — ‘and through how many generations will the effects still be traceable?’
–And then what will all earthly joys be, compared to the promise: ‘Where I am, there ye may be also’ (John 14:3)?
In an early July letter to Conway, I had confided in him about a difficult family situation, and my struggle to believe that my personality was not permanently warped by past choices and relationships. I think that’s what moved him to send me this tender story of the vegetation in need of shelter — as if to say, the need for support and consolation is not a weakness to be ashamed of, but a universal precondition of being alive, like sunlight and oxygen. And even where that precondition wasn’t always present, what God has in store for us will ultimately outshine our past deprivations.
Conway has been mentoring at-risk youth in the EDGE Program, which pairs delinquent teens with older prisoners who can de-glamorize the criminal life and guide them to better choices. He shares this story of one youth who was difficult to reach until they started talking about books:
In our last session (EDGE), I had this 15 year old kid, and he never knew his pops, and his mom was a crankster gangster, and lost him to the State. Then when he was 12, she got custody back, for about a year. Then she overdosed. 🙁
The young man is very withdrawn, and the “Group Home” he’s at, there is some chump who’s been harassing him and the rest of the young men in his charge. So, he’s been “Boning out” with one of his “Home boys” and they got caught smokin’ weed. So, they got in trouble for running off.
Bottom line The kid’s just trying to survive and retain some freedom & sense of self.
I got him to open up & he told me that he liked to read, or used to, until Dude started making his life miserable. I convinced him that reading was more rewarding than smokin’ weed, and asked him, and found out, that he had written a few short-short stories to escape his boredom. (cool)
He was last reading Harry Potter, but hadn’t finished. I convinced him that he could benefit by reading more, and maybe writing some more stories, and he agreed that he enjoyed writing them, even if “they were goofy”
Any rage, I sent him a letter last weekend, and sent him some Raymond Feist books. Three in the “Riftwar Sagas” series, good wizards stuff, and I had one of the c/o sponsors drop the letter & books off, to him….
I hope he’s doin’ better, it just sucks to see the kids, making mistakes, and getting passed around, with no real direction or trustworthy guidance from his adult supervisors.
Conway’s letter has gotten me thinking about resilience. Why do some people seem to have more of it, and what (like sickle-cell anemia) might be the hidden benefits of having less? I feel ashamed to dwell on my own early wounds from childhood bullies and flawed authority figures, when I always had the basics (food, shelter, education, life with parents instead of strangers) that Conway’s friend and so many others are growing up without. And yet these middle-class grievances have marked me so deeply (and, I fear, so visibly) that sometimes I feel like the circus child in Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.
Yes, I know, sensitivity is the price of being an artist, blah blah. I’d feel better making that claim if I could finish my !#$*%&! novel(s) instead of waking up at 5 a.m. with palpitations more often than not, to pray the rosary for two hours as a way to stop obsessing about enemies who haven’t thought of me in thirty years. Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving? If Margaret still “spares a sigh” for those “worlds of wanwood” when she grows up, is she a prophet or a case of arrested development?
I’ll end with some poems from Conway’s letter:
Over the Earth
under that mud
where the earth rescinds
then turns to blood
when back from earth
For what I am, for what we trust
the difference claims
disturbs the unjust
like the past
shall we be dust
So, don’t become
the destruction timed
living in dread, of Laws’ so blind
too many bad deeds
too good, but a few
counting the past
what could they do
and what of you?
I live in a box
covered by locks
stumbling over the past
All these sands’
alone to kill
if I saved but one
a beach would spill
As July’ sky
Blaze Hot & High
Bright sunlight blended
where the concrete ended
Imprisoned souls on fire..
Not one cloud
dared to shadow this crowd
Stretched out, laid bare.
Naked heat, waves in the air
embraced by torsos’ of stone,
an endless chain to atone…
Around our house, when one of us is getting revved up to speak truth to power, we like to channel the spirit of the Crocodile Hunter as portrayed on South Park: “This croc has enough power in its jaws to rip my head right off….So, what I’m gonna do is sneak up on it and jam my thumb in its butthole….This should really piss it off!”
So I was especially honored when Steve Emery tagged me as a “Kick Ass Blogger”, a meme started by MammaDawg, whose list of ass-kickers now exceeds 200. Go check out Steve’s blog for beautiful artwork and meditations on creativity and spirituality. His watercolor “Hounds” will be on the cover of my forthcoming chapbook from Southern Hum Press.
Here are the criteria for the Kick Ass Blogger award, along with my five choices:
Do you know any bloggers that kick ass?
Maybe they’ve got incredible, original content. Or they’re overflowing with creativity. Is it someone that helps you become a better blogger? Or a bloggy friend you know you can count on? Or maybe it’s someone who simply inspires you to be a better person… or someone else who sends you to the floor, laughing your ass off.
Whatever the reason may be, I’m sure you know at least a couple of bloggers that kick ass. Well… why not tell ‘em so?
The rules to this are as follows:
1) Choose five other bloggers that you feel are “Kick Ass Bloggers”
2) Let them know that they have received an award.
3) Link back to both the person who awarded you and also to http://www.mammadawg.com
4) Visit the Kick Ass Blogger Club HQ to sign Mr. Linky and leave a comment.
And the nominees are…
Callan: Heartbreaking and inspiring, this transgender woman blogs about her journey toward self-affirmation and the ever-imperfect balance between sacrificial caregiving and self-nurturing. Our lives are different yet our souls are similar. Callan shows that transgender is not a weird or extreme “lifestyle,” but only an unusually visible example of the quest for a self that transcends society’s stereotypical roles. A lot of us don’t have the courage to confront the ostracism that goes along with that quest, so we react badly to those who show us that conformity is not the only choice: hence trans-phobia. Callan says, “Broken mirrors,/denying reality,/don’t change the world.//They only break hearts/which continue to beat/even when made invisible.”
Of Course, I Could Be Wrong: “MadPriest” is a cheeky Anglican priest in Newcastle-on-Tyne who lives to satirize intolerance in our beloved church. Check out his frequent photo-caption contests; you’ll never look at ++Rowan Williams the same way again. MadPriest has a loyal following of equally insane bloggers who send him rather good dirty jokes, for which he disavows all responsibility. I especially liked this one (I am SO the American woman).
Eve Tushnet: Separated at birth! Another 30-ish Jewish-to-Christian convert who loves all things dark, campy, and incarnational. Eve identifies as a lesbian who is celibate in obedience to Catholic doctrine. While I don’t agree with her conclusion that this is right or possible for every Christian, she expresses her point of view with remarkable fairness, nuance and humility. Plus her blog is just plain fun. Where else will you find discussions of ethical philosophy alongside comic-book reviews, quotes from New Wave songs, and recipes? Eve’s blogroll was my first gateway to the online Christian community. Now we know who is responsible for my lack of productivity since 2001.
Hugo Schwyzer: Hugo may be famous enough not to need my blog-love, and if he’s not, he should be. Christian feminist, gender-studies professor, environmentalist, chinchilla-rescuer, giver and receiver of second chances, Hugo inspires me to believe in redemption and challenges me to discipline my imagination when it strays toward idolatry and greed.
Betwixt and Between: Christopher, an Episcopalian layman and Benedictine oblate-novice, bears cogent witness to the blessedness of same-sex partnerships as a form of Christian brotherhood, and intelligently dissects the failures of both “liberals” and “conservatives” in the Anglican Church who use GLBT people as a pawn in their culture wars. From a recent post on Christians’ uses and misuses of sacrificial language:
“Self-emptying” tends to be understood by many as absence of a self, and though literally kenosis might mean self-emptying, self-gifting or self-giving-for-others might be a more accurate theological understanding. This “absence of self” may be perfectly appropriate spiritually for those who are encouraged in our culture and church to have a large ego, but can be deadly to those who are encouraged to only be a mirrored mesh of relations around them.
I know when I hear self-empyting language used, I become suspicious because of the history of how that term is often used, and often as a bludgeon. As Sr. Laura Swan, OSB points out in her book, Engaging Benedict, “self emptying” language is often used by Christians in dominant positions and by the culture more generally to tell especially women, but I would dare say African-Americans, gays, and others in “minority” positions not to have a self or to have a self rooted only in serving the greater. As early Desert Ammas make clear, however, as does the witness of generations of Benedictine women, on the contrary, in a dominant situation, having a self is often the first and necessary possibility of offering oneself for others.
This October, interfaith GLBT activist group Soulforce will launch its third annual Equality Ride, sending 18 young adults to tour universities in the southern U.S. with a message of inclusion and critical awareness of how our religious ideologies can perpetuate oppression. From the Equality Ride website:
Every day, thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people suffer harassment, violence, and blatant discrimination at the hands of those who do not understand them. This oppression usually hides in plain sight, masquerading as rigid doctrine or timeless tradition. Consequently, it often goes unchallenged and unchanged. Guided by principles of nonviolence, we at Soulforce Q approach controversial issues with a readiness to meet people where they are. It is our belief that open and honest discussion begets understanding and healing, and that philosophy is at the heart of our work.
The Equality Ride is a traveling forum that gives young adults the chance to deconstruct injustice and the rhetoric that sustains it. The idea is this. We get on a bus and journey to various institutions of higher learning. Through informal conversation and educational programming we explore concepts of diversity, weighing the effects of both inclusive and exclusive ideologies. More practically, we share and gain insights about how our beliefs influence policy and culture, thereby impacting society. Our goal is to carefully and collectively examine the intersection wherein faith meets gender and human sexuality. Such discourse plays an essential role in creating a safe learning and living environment for everyone.
Soulforce pays up front for the Equality Riders’ training, transportation, food, lodging, and educational materials. Supporters’ donations are always needed to cover these expenses. Visit this page to read personal testimonies by the 2008 Riders who are seeking sponsors. Some examples:
Danielle Cooper, age 18, writes:
While attending Howard University, the Harvard of historically black colleges and universities, I grew unhappy with the campus and the way I was being taught. Originally, I had fallen in love with the rich history of the school and the countless people of color who walked the campus unafraid of being different, people who graduated and went on to make history. But, I eventually left the university after only spending one semester there. The euphoric feeling of being a part of something great disappeared as I began to better understand the social rules that guided the campus.
It was extremely difficult to be on a campus where some facets of diversity were considered wrong, a campus where many people believed heterosexuality was an affirmation of blackness. Although there are no discriminatory policies, it was commonly understood that LGBTQ people could be treated differently, looked over and forced into rigid stereotypes. What hurt most was the general willingness to speak about influential black figures like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Bayard Ruston, and Angela Davis without acknowledging their queer identities.
My experiences at Howard taught me how important conversations were to education and growth. For some people on that campus, I was the first openly gay person they had ever met. And through our friendship, they were able to see me as a person, not an abstract idea. So, after I heard about the Equality Ride, I jumped at the chance of a nationwide dialogue about religion, gender, sexuality, and race. The Equality Ride is an invaluable opportunity to learn and teach from experience, both of which are needed so that we can move towards understanding and equality for all people.
And Caitlin MacIntyre, age 19, writes:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve sat in church pews every Sunday, singing hymns and listening to the word of God. My father played the church organ and my mom taught Vacation Bible School. We were the perfect Christian family. That is until my father came out of the closet. After many painful denunciations of my father from the pulpit, I began to turn away from the faith I loved. That is until I met Pastor Mike. He led me back to Christ and showed me the part of Christianity that we all too often forget: love your neighbor as yourself. Because of his guidance and love I am proud to be a Jesus follower, with a renewed sense of faith and passion. Pastor Mike is also a gay man.
The church has beaten and bruised him but he continues to walk in faith. He has spoken up with great personal cost and I cannot be silent. I want to ride for him. I want to ride for my father who played the organ in church since I was a little girl, but has been rejected by the church for finding authenticity and love with a wonderful man. I am riding for all of those people who have had church doors slammed in their faces because of whom they love or who they are. My gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters have endured suffering and rejection at the hands of the church, and I feel honored to sacrifice my own time and comfort if it changes even one heart or comforts one battered soul. I hope one day we can all love (or at least try to love) as Jesus did.
This year’s group of riders includes several straight allies, such as Abigail Reikow, age 23, who observes that because of her activist work, “I have even begun to conceptualize my own sexuality and gender identity in new ways. I now understand that much like the LGBTQ community, my freedom to express either is policed by a society that continuously places my body in a box.”
Abigail’s statement underscores that the struggle for an open and affirming theology is not merely a “gay issue”. It’s about resisting the temptation to pride ourselves on worldly privileges, such as being straight in a heteronormative society, when we should find our righteousness in Christ alone. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, a number of progressive Biblical scholars have made the case that the anti-sodomy passages in the Old Testament refer to pagan temple prostitution. How ironic that our contemporary Christian witness may be compromised by idolatrous worship of heterosexual sex. Soulforce hopes to reverse that trend. Give generously, folks.
The Lambeth Conference, the worldwide Anglican Communion’s decennial conference of bishops, has ended with 5 million pounds spent and no resolution on the sexuality issue that is supposedly dividing the church. I say “supposedly” because we Christians seem to have lost a common vocabulary to discuss our more fundamental theological differences — issues such as, What is the Anglican Biblical hermeneutic, and should there be one or many? Should our denomination move toward an Anglo-Catholic centralization of authority, or continue its trajectory toward a Congregationalist model? It’s possible that the Anglican compromise, which held together a diverse church by politely avoiding discussion of these issues whenever possible, is a relic of a more reticent age and can no longer withstand the harsh partisanship of modern identity politics.
As both sides become more committed to a pick-and-choose attitude toward the authority of bishops — with liberals saying they will flout the Archbishop of Canterbury’s requested moratorium on same-sex weddings and ordinations, and conservatives vowing to continue to claim oversight of sympathetic parishes outside their geographical jurisdiction — it’s time to ask whether Anglicanism as a whole is dead. What seems clear is that in a world where millions lack food and shelter, Jesus would not want the church to spend vast sums on empty bureaucratic conclaves. The UK’s Daily Telegraph puts it best:
Lambeth Conference branded ‘exercise in futility’
The Lambeth Conference was denounced as an “expensive exercise in futility” as it ended with both sides in the battle over homosexuality refusing to compromise.
By Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs Correspondent
In his final address, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged the 670 Anglican bishops to put an end to their divisive actions that have driven the Anglican Communion to the brink of schism.
In a tacit admission that the problems may never be solved, Dr Rowan Williams pleaded with the American church to halt its liberal agenda of electing gay clergy and blessing same-sex unions, and told conservatives to stop “poaching” bishops from other provinces.
But both sides insisted they would not abide by the ceasefire.
The Rev Susan Russell, the head of the pro-gay Integrity USA group, said: “It’s not going to change anything on the ground in California.
“We bless same-sex unions and will continue to do so.”
The head of the Anglican province that covers much of South America, The Most Rev Gregory Venables, also pledged to carry on taking conservative North American parishes into his church.
Traditionalist church leaders from the developing world also complained once more that they felt patronised and ignored by those in the West during the conference.
As Lambeth ended with the Communion no nearer to solving its problems, one bishop branded the 20-day meeting, which cost £5 million to stage and which is facing a £2 million shortfall, as a waste of time and money….
Read the whole article here. But I’ll give the last word to the invaluable cultural critic Garret Keizer, who wrote in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine:
Some will find the idea of American conservatives using foreign bishops to support the interests of a white male hegemony in the Episcopal Church altogether preposterous, though it is perhaps no more preposterous—or less effective—than using the votes and tax dollars of working-class Americans to further the interests of the corporations that take away their jobs. It’s the old drill of building a network, capitalizing on the most divisive issues, and locating the funds.
What would be preposterous, I think, is to see the strategic maneuvers of conservatives as motivated by anything less than the absolute sincerity of their beliefs. That a bishop would risk his church pension or that a congregation would risk losing its buildings and assets in order to retain some vague sense of “patriarchal power” seems like too little bang for the buck. For me, it is the methods more than the motives that invite scrutiny, and the similarity of these methods to those of corporate culture that has the most to say to readers outside the church. What is “provincial realignment,” at bottom, if not the ecclesiastical version of a corporate merger? What is “alternative oversight,” if not church talk for a hostile takeover? For that matter, how far is “hostile takeover” from the sort of church talk that makes frequent reference to the mission statement, the growth chart, and evangelism’s “market share”? Martyn Minns, Peter Akinola’s irregularly consecrated missionary bishop to the breakaway churches of the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, told me that he had learned more during his years at Mobil Oil Corporation than he’d ever learned in seminary. I suspect that is a much less exceptional statement than either Bishop Minns or the rest of us would care to admit.
I was more surprised, when I asked Minns what writers in the Anglican tradition had most influenced him, to have him cite Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christianity and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Friedman’s status as an Anglican aside, this is a ways from Richard Hooker. This is sola scriptura with a weird appendix, Matthew, Mark, and Mega-trends—and it is this aspect of the “global crisis” in Anglicanism and of the cant attending it that one would expect to be of greatest concern to any person marching under the flag of orthodoxy: this reverential awe for the “global forces” that we ourselves animate, the idols that speak with our voice. The global dynamics of Anglican realignment work in a manner not unlike the global dynamics of outsourcing and extraordinary rendition: the Galilean carpenter (or the Kabuli cabdriver) has his part to play and his cross to bear, but it’s the little Caesars calling the shots.
It would be misleading to imply that every knowledgeable member of the Anglican Communion interprets the newsworthy events of its recent past in terms of a crisis. For church scholar Ian Douglas, the situation in the Anglican Communion and beyond represents “a new Pentecost,” one in which marginalized countries and marginalized groups of people are both rising and converging, with plenty of friction in the process, but with an ultimate outcome in which “the Ian Douglases of the world: straight, white, male, clerical, overly educated, financially secure, English-speaking, well-pensioned, professionally established,” will move to the margins while people previously marginalized will come to the center. “So my salvation is caught up in the full voicing of those who have historically been marginalized. What we’re seeing in a lot of these church antics is an attempt at a reimposition of an old order.” Douglas is among those who see the rise of religious fundamentalism not as a reaction to modernity but as modernity’s “last vestiges,” the remains of a binary worldview of us and them, black and white, orthodox and heretic.
This all sounds compelling to me, though, as I tell Douglas, I remain an unreconstructed binary thinker, my view of the world being pretty much divided between people who have a pot to piss in and people who don’t. My tendency—perhaps my temptation—is to see the church crisis, at least in America, as I see most other political disputes between bourgeois conservatives and bourgeois liberals: as cosmetically differentiated versions of the same earnest quest for moral rectitude in the face of one’s collusion in an economic system of gross inequality. It goes without saying that by touting this stark binary, I, too, am seeking to establish my rectitude. Still the question remains: How does a Christian population implicated in militarism, usury, sweatshop labor, and environmental rape find a way to sleep at night? Apparently, by making a very big deal out of not sleeping with Gene Robinson. Or, on the flip side, by making approval of Gene Robinson the litmus test of progressive integrity, a stance that I have good reason to believe would impress no one so little as Gene Robinson himself. Says he:
“I don’t believe there is any topic addressed more often and more deeply in Scripture than our treatment of the poor, the distribution of wealth, of resources, and the danger of wealth to our souls. One third of all the parables and one sixth of all the words Jesus is recorded to have uttered have to do with this topic, and yet we don’t hear the biblical literalists making arguments about that.” If this is sodomy, sign me up.
Read the whole article here, and then go out and buy Keizer’s books The Enigma of Anger and Help: The Original Human Dilemma. Buy a few copies, actually, because you’ll love them so much that you’ll want to share them with a friend.
T.S. Eliot famously wrote that the progress of the artist should be a perpetual extinction of personality. While I prefer to substitute a Whitmanesque “expansion” for Eliot’s ascetic mandate, he was right that the literary imagination can parallel the spiritual disciplines of Christianity or Buddhism, which seek to break down the illusion of a separate and permanent self in order to awaken our empathetic connection to others.
After decades as a poet, I took to writing fiction two years ago because the first-person lyric viewpoint had grown too confining. I was also aware of a growing disbelief in my “ownership” of traits I had once prided myself upon. How many of my wise decisions were motivated by love of the good, and how many were attributable to fear, or conversely, to advantages I possessed that others lacked? So I turned my characters loose, letting them play out the grand mistakes I hadn’t made yet, and having a little vicarious fun along the way.
But “I know how you feel” can be the most important ethical statement we can make, or the most presumptuous. It’s risky to appropriate the experience of someone from a different race, gender, social background, or family history, especially when that group is more disadvantaged than the writer’s own. Are we truly seeking to understand the other, or stroking our own ego by identifying with the victim? I’ve come to believe that all writing is writing in the voice of another, even when we are supposedly being autobiographical. But that’s not always a politically correct position.
Thus, I was heartened by Erika Dreifus’ article “Ten Ways to Tick Me Off in a Writing Workshop” in her latest Practicing Writer e-newsletter. (The Practicing Writer is a great resource for announcements of upcoming contests, fellowships, and magazine submission opportunities.) Number 7 was, “Tell me that since you are a mother, you know how my mother characters should be portrayed a lot better than I do.” Erika expands on this pet peeve on her blog:
You’ve probably heard this maxim: “Write what you know.” Beginning fiction writers hear it, too. It’s a tricky concept. For too many people, “knowing” is synonymous with —and limited to—personal experience. When they turn to their sources of “knowledge,” they reflect back not necessarily to what they might “know,” but rather to what they have lived. That’s fine—for them.
What’s not fine is condemning other fiction writers to this same circumscribed material, and reflexively discrediting another’s work depending on what they “know” (or think they know) about an author’s own life.
Or, as Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have noted in Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion:
When carried to its extreme, “write what you know” means that the writer who does not have divorced parents cannot write about a divorce, and the writer from a broken home cannot describe a happy family. “Write what you know” might discourage you from following the natural leaps of your imagination to new but fertile places; worse still, it might discourage you from developing empathetic bonds with individuals and emotions that have been previously foreign, an acquired skill that has value far beyond the pursuit of creative writing.
…[M]y fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience. In their belief in the all-deciding power of lived motherhood—and their championing of a somewhat remarkable uniformity of that experience—they failed to appreciate that it is something I, too, “know.”
For an essay workshop, this might make sense. As a reader, I, for one, certainly expect that essays and memoirs depict actual lived experience. According to my own code of writerly ethics, it would be fraudulent to write an essay or memoiristic piece that in which I am giving birth or raising a child of my own without having gone through such an experience.
But for fiction? For poetry? Is it not enough to have grown up on family stories of mothers separated from their children all too soon, through death or disease, to write about attachment? Must my name appear on a child’s birth certificate to address the questions a four-year-old asks as we stroll down the sidewalk, or to marvel over a toddler’s bright blue eyes?
So here’s my plea to all those “mama writers” (and for that matter, to all the “mama-centric” publications) out there. You know who you are.
Please give those of us who have not birthed and/or are not raising children a little credit. Please allow for the possibility that we, too, may have human qualities and capacities for empathy, imagination, and observation that, when all is said and done, matter much more to the practice of writing than does one’s reproductive history.
To me, it makes the most sense to think of one’s personal demographics (race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.) as a resource, rather than a restriction. It’s something to remain aware of, within myself, as a factor in the creative process, shaping my motivations and perhaps skewing my viewpoint. It should be of less interest to outsiders judging the poem or story as a stand-alone product. Of course, in a face-to-face critiquing workshop, person and product can easily become blurred, which is why I have my doubts about the merits of that format. I think the literary imagination needs the equivalent of the anonymous ballot.