This short story is excerpted from Allison Amend’s first collection, Things That Pass for Love. To give credit where credit is due, I discovered her through the blog Andrew’s Book Club, which was a featured link in this month’s Practicing Writer e-newsletter. Here’s the opener:
I am teaching my fifth graders to add fractions when the body falls. Only one of the students looks up. I have placed Kendrick next to the window at a desk by himself, away from the table clusters because the previous Friday, as I walked by his desk, he said, audibly enough so that José, sitting closest to him, snickered: “I smell white pussy.”
Today he is ignoring his paper, purposely avoiding drawing in the bars that measure 1/5 and those that measure 2/5. I see the body fall out of the corner of my eye, and Kendrick stands up and shoves his head so far forward that I hear it hit the glass just after the body thumps to the ground.
“Oh my God,” I say. I go over to the window, and through the soiled glass I can see the body, toes up and eerily straight, in the dirt of the playground. In the background, two planes land and take off from the airport in symmetry.
“What?” Tisha wants to know.
“Nothing,” I say, and I hurriedly close the blinds. “It’s nothing.”
“Just another body,” Kendrick says.
“Kendrick,” I warn him.
There is a bored sigh, and then the class settles back into its worksheets. I stick my head out the door and ask the floater to watch the class.
“Come on.” I put my hand behind Kendrick’s head to steer him downstairs.
“What, what’d I do?”
“Nothing,” I say. “We’re just going to see Ms. Sabarowski.”
“Awwww,” Kendrick says. “Why? I didn’t do nothing.”
Ms. S is the guidance counselor. Her office is next to the overworked principal’s, and she has become the disciplinarian. Inside, Ms. S is standing at the window, watching the paramedics drive over the dirt field to the body, her hands on her broad hips.
“Another one,” Ms. S says without turning around.
“He fell feet first,” Kendrick says. “And no blood.”
Confused, I strafe my gaze from Kendrick to Ms. S and back again. I feel like there is a joke that I’m not getting.
Want to know what happens? How can you not? Read the whole story here.
Poet Alegria Imperial recently shared with me these thoughts inspired by my post about postmodern evangelist Peter Rollins, below. Since I’ve had to turn comments off, I’m reprinting them here. She writes (emphasis mine):
I fully understand what Peter is saying and what you said is his main point “that our priorities are often topsy-turvy”, and that the reason we are in such a bind is we cannot see—”beyond the color of their (other’s) eyes, beyond the contours of their political and religious commitments…”
I would like to take that main point further—that the reason for such “topsy-turviness” is that we cannot see the intrinsic nature of things but especially of man, which goes beyond what nature ordains. And Christ came to show this to us. Christ, who is God, by being born as man already defies two opposing natures as we understand: can God be man and man be God? As God and thus, king of the universe, Christ chose to be born poor, died poor and thus, ostracized because intrinsically, kings are born with power and wealth; he didn’t although his lineage had to be of David, a most powerful king. As man he belonged to a religion but which he changed by turning its essence around: “the Sabbath for man and not man for the Sabbath”, and thus was viewed as a rebel.
Christianity, the religion established on his life and words, ensconces compassion and forgiveness as intrinsic attributes of judgment: the essence of a human being is not who he appears to be but who he could possibly be or the sum total of what is hidden in the eyes and ears of others, or in Christ’s words, “his heart”. He then summed up the Ten Commandments in one the word, “love”. More than two thousand years after he died, we are still grappling with that word, pushing and bashing people and things we cannot understand, such as the intrinsic nature of man versus the intrinsic nature of male and female.
What is love, indeed? Christ who is God became Man out of love. Is there any place for that love in this utterly complex life, this entangled world we have created, a life and a world we have layered with structure after structure so much so that these have caged our heart, our intrinsic nature as human beings, which has languished beyond our reach, our recognition. Take all those dying if not bodily as those caught in raging wars, emotionally and spiritually as those abused by those deranged with power, or those misunderstood thus denied of rights to live like those who find love beyond their intrinsic nature as male and female. In trying to keep order, trying to keep nature intact, there is so much dying around us, so much killing, so much pain inflicted on each other….
What actually got me thinking about this absurdity of forcing “love” into a mold that cannot transcend physicality was a post on Dec. 7 in the Today in Literature column about the suicide of Hart Crane during a cruise. He couldn’t reconcile his feelings for the stewards of the ship and the presence of his fiancee—they were getting married. I imagined the same thing as I did while watching another same sex couple at the inner harbor in Baltimore how it must have shredded their souls to pieces and submitting to melancholia simply gave in as in this poem that wrote itself (published in LYNX):
by Alegria Imperial
in the haze,
crow circling bare trees
tints bay, i dive skimming
duck pairs braid
shadows on my back—
i slurp refuse
gulls overhead fight
over what’s left,
the same scraps
i tossed in my daze
a moment earlier
before i plunged
In the wake of Prop 8, a new group in California known as Camp Courage has begun training marriage-equality activists in community organizing skills. Visit their website for videos and photos from their kickoff event in Los Angeles earlier this week, and consider making a donation. I enjoyed this video of veteran activist Cleve Jones’ keynote speech:
Jones spoke out against the temptation to blame black and Latino voters for marriage equality’s defeat in California. On the contrary, he said, the GLBT community’s diversity is its strength. There are GLBT people in every ethnic group, which creates a unique opportunity to build bridges and set an example of racial reconciliation.
In other gay news, if you can get to Sacramento on Feb. 17, sign up on Equality California’s website to register for the 2009 Marriage Lobby Day, when GLBT Californians and straight allies will gather at the state Capitol to share their stories about why everyone deserves the freedom to marry.
Feb. 12 is also National Freedom to Marry Day. Visit the Join the Impact website to find an event near you.
Live in Massachusetts? Lucky you. I’m proud of our state, the first to provide full marriage equality. But there’s more to be done: call your legislator to ask him or her to support “An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes”, a pending bill that would add gender identity and expression to the state nondiscrimination law.
The literary journal Image, a journal of the arts and religion, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with an issue featuring various writers and artists addressing what it means to be fully human. I was moved by this essay by poet Robert Cording, “Love Calls Us to One World at a Time“, whose title is a riff on one of my favorite Richard Wilbur poems. Both poem and essay celebrate the inextricable union of finite and infinite, spirit and matter–a creative tension that the religious mind is so often tempted to resolve in favor of rejecting this world, not realizing that this disconnects us from direct experience of God and the people He has given us to love. Cording writes:
A few days before his death on May 6, 1862, Henry David Thoreau was asked by Parker Pillsbury, a former minister become abolitionist, that question so many would like to have answered. Noting that Thoreau was “near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury asked Thoreau how the “opposite shore” appeared to him. Thoreau, according to the biographer Richard D. Richardson, “summed up his life” with his answer: “One world at a time.” Thoreau’s reply, polite but firm, was in accord with the way he deliberately chose to live his life. Just months before his death, he was still collecting material for projects on the succession of forest trees and seed dispersal, newly taken with nature’s economy of abundance and its genius of vitality. Years earlier, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau had come to a similar understanding: we need, he said, “not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth…. We need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” Thoreau, who is too often mistakenly placed under the convenient label of pantheist, was not choosing to be “earth-born” over and against being “heaven-born.” He believed, rather, that both births depended on each other. To be “heaven-born” did not lie in redirecting attention from the natural to the supernatural, but in seeing more deeply into the sources of the natural. Those sources, like creation itself, were always a mystery.
In his famous poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Richard Wilbur enacts the way love calls us to extend ourselves toward a world which will always remain irreducible in its otherness and yet open to our understanding and recognition. In Wilbur’s poem, the soul cannot exist free of the body’s restrictions. Each day it must learn to keep a “difficult balance” in a world which asks us, as Wendell Berry has said, “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is.” As Thoreau’s life had taught him, if we try to leave behind the earth, if we choose religion simply to quiet our fears and prop up our hopes rather than connect us with the sources of life, we ignore the call of love and heed only the usual summons of the self and its needs….
…Great art, according to Iris Murdoch, delights us “because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.” In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she uses Plato’s system of thought to give, ironically, a place to art and the artist that Plato did not envision in The Republic. Murdoch argues that the moral life in Plato is a “slow shift of attachments wherein looking (concentrating, attending, attentive discipline) is a source of divine (purified) energy…. The movement is not, by an occasional leap, into an external (empty) space of freedom, but patiently and continuously a change of one’s whole being in all its contingent detail, through a world of appearance toward a world of reality.” We know, of course, that the simple exposure to and even the study of great art may or may not lead to transformation, to care for the other. Art requires our consent, and in Murdoch’s view, our “morally disciplined attention” in order to enact the change from “a world of appearance toward a world of reality.” What we may learn from art is its closeness to morals, since for Murdoch the essence of both art and morals is love. And love, as Murdoch defines it in her essay “The Sublime and the Good,” “is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”; it is the “discovery of reality.”
Great art is the enemy of fantasy; fantasy always leads to the creation of idols. Our weakness as human beings is our tendency to make idols of whatever is at hand, whatever makes the world easier, more understandable, and meets our most immediate needs. Poets have always argued that the imagination is the opposite of fantasy. Imagination is an exercise in overcoming one’s self, of extending oneself towards what is different from ourselves. And, in their loving respect for a reality other than oneself, imagination and art call us to attend, with devotion and care, to a world which will always remain a mystery, but a mystery in which love calls us to the things of this world where we may become most fully human.
I just heard this song on our local station WRSI (93.9, “The River”) and hey, I just can’t get enough Obama happiness, OK? So here it is:
Poet Lois P. Jones, whose “Milonga for a Blind Man” I reprinted here earlier this month, was inspired by my “Mu!” post to send me this Rilke poem. In the spirit of hermeneutic indeterminacy that we pride ourselves on here at Reiter’s Block, I’m sharing both of the translations that she found. The first, which I like better, is courtesy of The Old Bill blog (I’ve queried him for its source), and the second is from the Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (Riverhead Books, New York).
from The Book of Pilgrimage
All will come into its strength again;
the seas will rage, the field will be undivided,
the trees will tower and the walls will be small,
and in the valleys, nomads and farmers as strong and varied
as the land itself.
No churches to encircle God as though
he were a fugitive, and then bewail him
as if he were a captured, wounded creature.
Houses will welcome all who knock,
a sense of boundless sacrifice will prevail
in all actions, and in you and me.
No more waiting for the Beyond, no longing for it,
no belittling, even of death,
we shall long for what belongs to us,
learn the earth,
serve its ends,
and feel its hands about us like a friend’s.
from The Book of Pilgrimage
All will come into its strength;
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong
and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearing for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us,
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
Northampton Poet Laureate Leslea Newman organized an Inauguration Day poetry reading this past Tuesday, which you can read about on the MassLive website. My friend Ellen LaFleche has given me permission to reprint her poem from the event, in which she revisits an episode in America’s civil rights history that deserves greater public awareness.
Truth in the Booth
Eight Thousand Women Disrupt the Festivities by Demanding the Right to Suffrage
The women who wanted to vote
picketed Woodrow’s big
white house. Woodrow and his Senators
said no, and no again,
though every day on horseback
Woodrow politely tipped his hat
at that gaggle of girls who wanted to vote.
The women marched. Year after year
thick skirts scraping the dirt,
corsets pressing their ribs like murdering fingers.
Until a world war loomed.
Woodrow had a dead arch-duke on his hands.
Soldiers choking on mustard gas.
He lost patience with the women
who wanted to vote.
Woodrow sent them to prison.
The women were manacled at the ankles,
hands bound behind their backs like a procession of witches.
You know the story:
rats, the damp, the dungeon blackness.
Each woman alone in her cell.
Putrid food, water scummy with typhus.
One of the women began to knock. Alice Paul.
The knocking spread, cell wall to cell wall,
fists scraping against brick,
women raising their voices with their fists.
The women went on strike.
For weeks they starved.
Their hips sank. Their tongues rumbled with hunger
in their skulls.
Then, the forced feeding. The tube down the throat.
The warden poured in nutrients until the women choked.
They gagged like the mustard-gassed soldiers.
Still they knocked,
hands fisted, bloody knuckles
insisting on justice.
The women knocked. They starved.
They knocked. They knocked and they knocked
and they knocked.
Still, Woodrow and his Senators said no to the vote.
Women who wanted to vote
started a fire in a cremation urn,
a kind of perpetual White House flame.
When Woodrow gave a speech,
the women burned his words to ash.
The women starved. They knocked. They burned
Woodrow’s words. They knocked and they knocked
and they knocked.
Until seven years after Inauguration,
Woodrow and his Senators
said yes to suffrage.
Election Day, 2008.
I speak my truth in the booth.
One woman, one vote for Obama.
This vote is for the women who hungered,
for the women who burned Woodrow’s words,
for the women who suffered for suffrage.
This vote for Barack
is for the women who starved themselves,
for the women who knocked and knocked and knocked.
My icebox lover, let us sit at opposite ends
of the blanket, pass a single egg back and forth,
the salt, the pepper, the tiny bites.
Let’s admire the suspended sunset of blueberries
in the jelly, decide not to open the jar.
The ants are making words on the checkerboard
of red cotton, like foreign newsprint shrilling its mysteries —
words of thunder, words of weather.
The future is obvious; let’s not puzzle
too long under its clouds.
Sharing this postcard sandwich, cucumbers and butter,
a hint suffices us for the whole.
The lemon slices smile sagely in the glass
and the bees waver between us, buzzing like knives,
ready to wound for their sugar.
We could fold our napkins, we could leave hungry,
not wait till the rain skins us in our clothes,
pushes us down in the soil like plants.
Lover, don’t grab for that last plate.
To be struck
I’ve had enough lightning.
This poem won a Commended award in the 2008 Cyclamens & Swords Poetry Contest. Read the winners here.
At the start of our morning writing group, some friends and I were using a deck of Zen koan cards for writing prompts. I was pleasantly bewildered (a good Zen response) when the card I drew said, simply, “Mu!” Was this a message from the great feminist cow-goddess? The booklet explained that “mu” is a response meaning “not yes, not no” or “un-ask the question”. (See the Wikipedia entry.)
Lately I’ve been taking refuge in contemplating the non-conceptual, ineffable nature of God–prompted by dismay at how religious concepts so often harden into barriers between ourselves and others. As beings with finite minds, of course, we cannot avoid the specificity, and thus the deceptions, of conceptual thinking. Even to speak about “mu” is to risk turning it into another concept, an object among objects. If our worldview is a circle that contains some things and excludes others, “mu” is not so much an excluded thing as it is the general awareness that there is always something we’re not seeing.
Peter Rollins, coordinator of the experimental Christian collective Ikon, blogs frequently about this sort of negative theology, with a valuable emphasis on its radical ethical-political consequences. In a recent post, “Beyond the colour of each other’s eyes”, he writes:
The apostle Paul once famously remarked that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. He does not say that there are both Jews and Greeks, both slaves and free, both men and woman. Rather this new identity with Christ involves the laying down of such political, biological and cultural identities. This is not an expression of ‘both/and’ but rather ‘neither/nor’. Today this idea can seem almost offensive to our ears. In many churches we find flags proudly hanging in acknowledgment of our nationality and we seek to express our political and religious ideas as a vital and irreducible part of who we are. But what if the church is called to provide a space where, just for a moment, we encounter one another as neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free? And what if Paul didn’t just mean these three categories, as if all the others remained intact? What if he was implying that there is neither black nor white in Christ, neither rich nor poor, neither powerful nor powerless? What if we could go even further and say that the space Paul wrote of was one in which there would be neither republican nor democrat, liberal nor conservative, orthodox nor heretic?…Search YouTube for Peter’s thought-provoking short videos, such as this parable from his forthcoming book The Orthodox Heretic. I can’t wholly agree with his opposition between action and contemplation, since we do need Christian philosophy to help define “right action”, and to give us a secure foundation for resisting worldly beliefs that induce pride or despair. An incarnational theology, for instance, is (in my opinion) more conducive to social equality than a gnostic-dualistic one. But I think his main point is that our priorities are often topsy-turvy. We value the external signs of Christian belief as if they were good in themselves, when their only value lies in whether they produce Christ-like behavior.
…While we cannot step out of historical time and enter the eschaton, while we cannot enact this radical negation today (for we cannot really forget our gender, our job, our sexual preferences, our political opinions, our nationality etc), some emerging collectives have developed a space in which we are able to symbolically enact this step. A place where we engage in a theatrical performance of Paul’s vision. It is the creation of what we may call ‘suspended space’….
…[T]here is a call for all who have gathered to engage in the symbolic enacting of God’s kenotic moment, the moment when God emptied God-self in the person of Christ Jesus. This Kenosis is described beautifully in Philippians when we read, ‘our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing’….
By forming a suspended space in which we theatrically divest ourselves of our various identities, we allow for the possibility of encountering others beyond the categories that usually define them. We encounter the other beyond the colour of their eyes, beyond the contours of their political and religious commitments…