Poetry by Hank Rodgers: “Thorn Blossoms”

Longtime Winning Writers subscriber and Reiter’s Block reader Hank Rodgers sent me this moving poem whose orderly formal scheme offsets the chaos of a veteran’s PTSD. Written a few years ago, it remains timely as the US continues to wage costly and unnecessary wars around the world. For more of Hank’s work, check out “From the Album” and “Fishing” in the archives of the Winning Writers Critique Corner.

Thorn Blossoms

We Seals, in our wet, black suits,
Were going in, again.
Boots on the ground, these thorns have roots,
Our nurtured, prickly men.

Commandos were his avatars,
In his dark, locked bedroom.
Virtual man now, one of ours;

His mind a barbed-wire loom.

He turned on us, when we’d trained him—
Our enemy had gone.
Some other prize our eyes, again,
We sponsors focused on.

We knew his games, his nettled angst
Had made him strange; and thus
We could not have him in our ranks—
He turned our guns on us.

We had to keep them in the cloud,
To make them talk, or scream;
While you, with shoes off, heads well-bowed,
Found flying, safe, your dream.

We tried to bring our ‘normalcy’,
Our arms, and faith, to him;
Make real our failed reality,
False hopes abounded, then.

Our droning Doctor zoned us in;
We fought, with little fuss.
That’s how we got our bin Laden,
And how, then, he got us.

We count our dead, and all for what
Our hubris has denied;
We’ve earned, and wear, our thorn-crowns; but
Too many bled, and died.

I Take the Necronomicon Literally But Not Seriously

The spooky season of October seems like a good time to post my reflections on NecronomiCon 2019, the H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror fan convention we attended this August in Providence. Offered in odd-numbered years, this con delves into scholarly and popular media in the Lovecraftian tradition, while critiquing the xenophobic views of its progenitor. While the Young Master and Daddy explored Rhode Island’s beaches, I attended panels on such edifying subjects as the history of insane asylums and pop-culture depictions of shrunken heads. However, nothing I saw was quite as grotesque and unsettling as the SpongeBob cartoons that Shane made me binge-watch in our hotel room.

The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir served up some new parodies of deep cuts from the Protestant hymnal, which unfortunately were unfamiliar to most of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast cultists. I for one am glad they recognized the ghoulish potential in “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Presiding over the breakfast, Cody Goodfellow, Anthony Teth, and Scott Jones opened with a rap battle about the relative merits of Dagon, Mother Hydra, and Shub-Niggurath, followed by sermons warning against blind faith and oversimplified ideologies. Like queer “camp”, which paradoxically employs the excesses of self-parody as a vehicle for intense and genuine emotions, modern Cthulhu-ism inhabits a liminal space, refusing to resolve itself into either mere satire or alternative religion.

The sermons made me wonder: What really is the difference between NecronomiCon and the Episcopal Church? (Not the outfits, certainly!) Minus the references to “Great Dragons Nug and Yeb,” I expect my fellow mainline parishioners would nod enthusiastically at the paeans to liberal open-mindedness. The Innsmouth Choir is merely more explicit about the same story we tell in the Bible readings and 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: the end times are coming, we’re all going to die, the earth will be destroyed, and we may go on to a strange new afterlife in transformed bodies if we appease the right wrathful deity.

In this apocalyptic political moment in America, the cultists’ honest acknowledgment of evil and impermanence was oddly reassuring. Refreshingly, Cthulhu-ism has a sense of humor about the absurdity of all human social structures–even the most powerful dictator or Pope is puny in cosmic terms–whereas the liberal church wants you to take its performances seriously even as it concedes that it has no divine authority over you.

I also wondered how many attendees were sincere believers in magic and monstrous gods, and how many were like me, dancing on that line between genuine faith and the defensive retreat into “just kidding!” when we fear that someone will try to exploit our new belief system as a tool of social control. One of the speakers on the Edward Gorey panel observed that the eccentric artist had a reputation as a difficult interview subject because he dodged any questions that tried to pin down the meaning of his enigmatic books. His work gains its power and lasting relevance from tension that is never resolved by a revelation. That could be one way I would define the queer aesthetic–allowing subtext to remain subtext, so that it can’t be stolen from you by reductionist interpreters. Indefinability as resistance to hegemony, perhaps?

October Links Roundup: Be More Gay, Fight More Nazis

October, my favorite month–cold, dark, and spooky. Trans bois everywhere rejoice at the beginning of vest-wearing season.

When times are troubled, Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to look for “what’s not wrong” in the world. So let’s start out with this inspiring historical comic from The Nib, “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.”, by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings. We usually picture gays during the Holocaust only as concentration camp victims. Beck came of age in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. In 1943 he helped found Chug Chaluzi, an underground support network for Jews living in Berlin in defiance of Goebbels’ deportation order. With his twin sister and his life partner, another member of Chug Chaluzi, he worked for the Resistance until captured and tortured by the Gestapo. The three survived the war and lived a long life of activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel and Germany. “I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life…no matter how dire the straits,” Beck wrote.

The structural obstacles to justice in America today seem dire indeed. The more I learn, the more intertwined and entrenched the inequalities appear. Yet I take comfort in the awareness that I’m part of a collective movement, adding my little pebbles to the mountain we can build together. I don’t have to fix this by myself.

At present I’m focusing on voting rights and their connection to the prison-industrial complex. We can have all the progressive candidates we want and it still won’t do any good if large swathes of the Democratic constituency are disenfranchised. This happens through strategies like gerrymandering (drawing odd-shaped legislative districts in order to rig the election for a particular party) and a racially biased criminal justice system. Check out the Emancipation Initiative website to help with our campaign to restore prisoners’ voting rights in Massachusetts.

At Salon, journalist Igor Derysh reports on the late Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, “the master of modern gerrymandering,” whose secret files, opened after his death in August 2018, reveal his strategy to dilute the black vote.

…Hofeller’s files show that he compiled maps with overlays of the black voting-age population by district, suggesting that racial data was a key part of the gerrymander, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle

Hofeller, a key player in the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, compiled data on the citizen voting-age population in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and other states going back to 2011. In memos, Hofeller argued that drawing maps based on the number of citizens rather than the population would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and help “non-Hispanic whites.”

…The files show that Hofeller also traveled around the country to educate Republicans about redistricting and urged them to push for prison gerrymandering, which allows inmates to be counted as residents of the area where the prison is located, often helping Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some cities are rethinking the use of arrest warrants for minor nonviolent offenses. The Washington Post reports that “One in 7 adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest,” often for misdemeanors such as panhandling or missing a court date. The City Council is considering a resolution to dismiss all warrants and charges associated with poverty and homelessness, which account for over 40% of the total. “A coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution—wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.” These reforms would clear the overcrowded dockets, reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate one burden that falls more heavily on poor and minority residents:

Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.

Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.

A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.

Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.

Also last month, California legislators approved a bill to ban private (for-profit) prisons from operating in the state, The Guardian reported. The move would likely shut down four ICE immigrant detention centers as well.

Going in the wrong direction, as usual, the Catholic Church is still using its behind-the-scenes political power to block clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Maria Kwiatkowski and John Kelly have the full story this week in USA Today: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.”

The article details what I would consider numerous violations of the Establishment Clause and tax-exempt status requirements, including sermons and mass mailings to parishioners, smear campaigns and threatening personal messages to pro-victim legislators. At stake are proposed state laws that would extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue. Victim advocates support such laws because memories of child abuse can take decades to surface, and even for those victims who never forgot, they often do not have the safety and resources to pursue a claim till later in life. Meanwhile, the Church pleads that lawsuits would bankrupt it, while spending millions on lobbying. However, it appears that public opinion is finally turning against these once-revered authority figures:

Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis, and the rate of success has picked up. Of the 29 states that have enacted such laws, 11 did so for the first time this year.

Ten states no longer have any civil statute of limitations and 16 states have revived expired statutes, according to CHILD USA, which tracks such legislation daily.

Perhaps we’d be better off with Mindar, an AI recently installed at a 400-year-old Japanese Buddhist temple. According to Vox.com, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral”:

For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.

“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.

Then there’s SanTO — short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — a 17-inch-tall robot reminiscent of figurines of Catholic saints. If you tell it you’re worried, it’ll respond by saying something like, “From the Gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anthony Boucher’s classic sci-fi story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” has become a reality. Let me know if you see a robass at the Blessing of the Animals service this weekend.

September Links Roundup: Drawn That Way

Nothing I will read on the Internet today could top this hilarious illustrated essay by Bradley Bazzle in the new issue of the online lit mag DIAGRAM. In response to his 2-year-old’s fascination with the human body and “Sesame Street”, a bored dad finds himself drawing “Naked Bert & Ernie” in some peculiar situations:

When I draw a Bert or Ernie, I start with the face. The moment I finish the face, my daughter shouts “body!” Then, the moment I start the body, my daughter shouts “naked!” But sometimes, in my haste to finish the face before she starts shouting “body” and “naked,” I’ll accidentally draw the collar of Ernie’s crewneck sweater or of Bert’s turtleneck, which he wears beneath his v-neck sweater…

…I was drawing Bert for my daughter when I made the mistake of starting his turtleneck. As usual, I recovered quickly. I even jumped down and started drawing his arms, to distract her, but my daughter kept pointing at the line around Bert’s neck. I told her the misplaced line on Bert’s neck was “like a collar.”

“Leash,” my daughter said, nodding earnestly.

“That’s right,” I said, “a leash. Like a dog has.”

My daughter started pointing at the empty space next to Bert’s neck, so I had no choice but to draw a long leash extending from the collar and then, naturally, to end it with a hand.

“Ernie!” my daughter cried, and I colored the hand orange. “Ernie! Ernie!” she persisted, and so I drew the rest of Ernie’s body. In my head a little voice (my wife’s?) told me I should draw him clothed, or, better yet, in his traditional jeans and horizontally striped sweater, and so I did this, over my daughter’s strident objections, but then what I had in front of me was a drawing of Ernie, clothed, walking Bert, half-naked, like a dog.

The essay goes on to ponder the ambiguous age of the humanoid Sesame Street puppets, the backlash against their possible queerness, and the downplaying of romantic love on the show in general. Bazzle is disappointed in this last omission, but I find it refreshing in a media landscape where nearly every kids’ cartoon movie includes a heterosexual love interest.

On the subject of comics strictly for adults, graphic novelist LB Lee has launched a Kickstarter to publish an updated edition of their memoir All in the Family, about coming to accept themselves as a multiple-personality system and grappling with recovered memories of incest. I had the pleasure of meeting Lee at the Queers & Comics conference this May, and enjoyed their graphic novel Alter Boys in Love, a sweet and unique story about relationships among their “headmates”. For a good introduction to their work, check out this profile by Abraham Riesman at Vulture, “The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is Eight Different People”:

In an era when memoirs about gender, sexuality, mental health, and trauma are surging in importance, LB Lee deserves to become a much-better-known name, not in spite of their work’s challenges, but rather because of them — and because of their comics’ untrained and exhilarating beauty. Indeed, by elegantly and brutally exploring the fringes of fluid identity, LB Lee makes one rethink what it means to be human.

Riesman’s article is notable for its respectful, even-handed investigation of the controversial subjects of recovered memories and dissociative identity disorder (DID). He writes:

I spoke to multiple medical professionals with expertise in DID and asked all of them if it would be a problem for me to treat LB’s alters as individual people. I was worried that acknowledging the headmates was somehow encouraging the disorder when I should be trying to convince them that they’re actually a single person. I was told in no uncertain terms that the latter, actually, is the more dangerous approach. In fact, the medical consensus is that it’s almost impossible for people with DID to unify back into a single personality, so there’s no sense in trying.

“I commonly talk to my patients as ‘you all’ and they refer to themselves as ‘we,’” says Dr. Richard Loewenstein, the medical director of the Trauma Disorders Program at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and a professor at the University of Maryland. “Just say you’re mostly interested in understanding and want to be very respectful and make sure you’re not treading into territory that may cause undue distress.” In other words, although being transgender or gender-nonconforming is very different from having DID, the same principle, so radically important and newly acknowledged in mainstream thought, applies: If someone with an uncommon identity wants to be called something, it’s your duty to comply, however awkward it may seem at first.

At BuzzFeed, Kristin Arnett, author of the bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things, shares childhood memories of “Queering Barbie”. The doll’s plastic-perfect middle-class life was aspirational but also shaming for a girl whose own world was messy and full of struggle:

A good way to make yourself feel like you’ve got any kind of control over your life is to play with dolls, because you can make them do whatever you want. Another good thing about owning Barbies if you’re a little queer girl is that you can look at their naked bodies and not feel like anyone will say anything weird to you for it, because if there’s anything we know about Barbies, it’s that they were manufactured for the purpose of taking their clothes off and putting new clothes on…

…The Barbies I own are hard-won. I have to beg for them. Looking back, that feels right — how to get all the women I want who want nothing to do with me. I should get on my knees and grovel. It should cause me physical pain to acquire them. I need to beg —to do service to deserve them…

Did you know: Barbie is a pediatrician, a veterinarian, a stay-at-home mom. She works at McDonald’s. She owns a dream house. She owns a fucking DREAM HOUSE. I will never own a dream house. The house I live in has five rooms and one of them is a bedroom I share with my sister and one of them is a bathroom I share with my entire family. The only way I can read in my house is to wait until no one’s in the bathroom and then go lock myself in and pretend I’m taking a bath so I can have one second of time alone so I can read, because no one in my family reads and no one wants to let me read — they think it’s a fun time to try to yell my name over and over again while I am trying to focus on any of the words.

Is this why I can’t listen when anyone calls me now? Is this why I can’t believe when anyone actually wants me?

My fellow St. Ann’s School alum Wendy Chin-Tanner, a widely published poet, shares her own experience of racism and classism at our elite Brooklyn high school in Gay Mag, a new online publication curated by Roxane Gay. In “An Unsentimental Education”, Chin-Tanner describes how the arts-oriented school’s ideology of individual meritocracy made her blame herself for micro-aggressions and cover up her working-class Chinese heritage. (TW for sexual assault.) “The ethos of Saint Ann’s eschewed the bourgeois and reified the artistic class, obscuring how that class is nonetheless bound to economic and social capital,” she writes. Chin-Tanner is the poetry editor of The Nervous Breakdown and Executive Director and Co-Publisher at A Wave Blue World.

Another St. Ann’s graduate, Rachel Cline, writes in Medium about “The Unexceptional Jeffrey Epstein”:

We have normalized the idea that women can be treated as less-than-fully human in so many ways that it is like weather, or air — a fact, an act of nature or God. The Epstein case demonstrates this. He was as much a friend of Bill Clinton’s as of Donald Trump’s, his friends were A-listers ranks deep, his sweetheart deal in Florida was kept secret from the victims, and Pulitzer Prize nominators were swayed by Alan Dershowitz’s super slimy plea to eliminate Julie K. Brown’s Epstein reporting from prize consideration — all these things required the collusion of regular people, non-sex offenders, non-plutocrats, and women, too. The girls themselves were able to believe that what this jerk asked of them was somehow appropriate, and that it was acceptable to recruit others to the same fate. I am not saying we should go after them, nor do I want to minimize in any way the extent of Epstein’s harm — what I am trying to say is wake up: This is so much more than one man’s wealth or one man’s kink.

Cline’s new novel The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019), about two women finding themselves on opposite sides of a sexual misconduct case against their former high school teacher, is on my to-read list.

Lastly, one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ariana Reines, was interviewed at length about her new collection A Sand Book (Tin House, 2019) by Rebecca Tamás in The White Review. Among other topics, they discuss poetry-writing as an occult force that can shift our consciousness away from planet-destroying political paradigms. Asked whether her work has ever faced dismissive criticism because of her references to astrology and esoteric spiritualities, Reines replied: “The reason I’m involved in poetry is because I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, not because I want to trick some boring asshole into considering me an intellectual.”

High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

I recently watched the Netflix documentary “The Family”, based on religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s books about a covert Christian supremacist network that seeds the highest levels of government with right-wing evangelical allies. Hiding in plain sight, these folks are the force behind the National Prayer Breakfast and send congressmen on unofficial junkets to change the hearts (and secure the petrochemicals contracts) of authoritarian leaders from Russia to Libya. The Humanist magazine has a good summary here.

The show opens with a dramatic reconstruction of a younger Sharlet’s stint in an intentional community called Ivanwald, an idyllic suburban mansion near Washington, D.C. where wholesome young men are groomed for future leadership. Like a Christian version of the boarding-school lads in Dead Poets Society, the “brothers” play football, share their innermost feelings, study the texts that are supposed to change their lives, and subject newbies to surprise hazing rituals.

Watching these scenes was a bittersweet reminder of the evening at Harvard Hillel, over 25 years ago, that sealed my desire to try living as an observant Jew. It must have been Succot because we were eating dinner at long picnic tables outdoors under a lantern-lit tent. The Orthodox boys had a camaraderie with one another that was mature, tender, and close-knit, a visible contrast to their jaded, slick, competitive counterparts in the secular world of elite schooling. My three imperatives in my 20s were (1) find a husband, (2) don’t fail physics, and (3) survive one more day of living with my mentally deteriorating mother. (Two outta three ain’t bad, kids.) But the yearning in my heart, as I looked at those young men, wasn’t for a future father of my Jewish babies.

I was in love with a kind of homosocial bonding that seems to flourish in high-demand communities–some alchemy that makes loud insensitive boys into reflective young men, a pressure that forces affection out of them like weeds pushing through a cement sidewalk. I devoured books like Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (doesn’t that title just make you tingle?), a semi-autobiographical novel about the military academy The Citadel. Later, in my 30s, married and recently moved to this very female-centric Western Massachusetts town, I went along with a teenage friend to her charismatic evangelical church. It was remarkable to see white working-class men weeping, trembling, and embracing as a matter of course–a space of respite from the bluster and gruffness that such men perform with each other in the outside world.

The appeal of places like Ivanwald can’t be reduced to covert homosexuality, however tempting it is for liberals to take that cheap shot. In his essay collection Undergoing God (Continuum, 2006), gay Catholic theologian James Alison suggests that sexual desire may be a subset of men’s stigmatized need for emotional intimacy, rather than the reverse. (Alison is a follower of social scientist Rene Girard, referenced below; the blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement explains Girardian theology in layperson’s terms.)

Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here.’ Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here.’

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games. (pg.160)

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis contrasts eros, romantic love/lust, with philia, friendship. Whereas lovers look at one another, friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction at something they both value. In the classical and medieval worlds, philia was considered a higher-level love because freely chosen and not tied to bodily needs such as reproduction. (Sounds kind of queer, no?)

It stands to reason, then, that philia based on shared spirituality would be especially deep and meaningful. The stronger the pressure to face in the same direction, as in high-demand religions like Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, the more that bond is reinforced. The men’s passion for one another–again, not necessarily sexual–is given cover by their passion for God. Because these religions are punitively heteronormative and patriarchal, these men can have it both ways, being vulnerable and devoted to one another in “feminine” ways without losing status.

I wonder if this is a particularly masculine flavor of friendship, to be more object-oriented than personally intimate. In the past decade I’ve had several intense female friendships where our conversations revolved around psychological growth and relationship processing. We had common interests, such as literature, but that wasn’t our strongest bond. It was partway to eros, without any sexual desire, but with that love’s characteristic shadow side of jealousy and engulfment. One element of my masculine transition is the attempt to shift towards a male style of philia, which I’m currently pursuing by attending every available queer nerd convention.

The shadow side of worship-oriented male philia is, of course, the Christian supremacy that is all around us in America. Non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians in Israel might tell a similar story about the deadly consequences of believing that your in-group is chosen by God. In another essay in the same book, Alison contrasts non-idolatrous worship with authoritarian group bonding exercises, epitomized by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rally. Boldface emphasis mine, and some paragraph breaks added for ease of online reading.

One of the things in Nuremberg-style worship is what I referred to in my initial description as ‘Bruderschaft’. This is the sense in which, as they gradually become worked up in their enthusiasm, so those involved in the crowd begin to discover a special sort of love for those who are there along with the, a deep camaraderie, a sense of being one with, and delighted to be with, these others who, but a few hours previously, were entirely unknown to them, and, in a few hours’ time, will be just as unknown once again.

Part of worship is a sense that love enables you to leave behind the tedious banalities of the particular, the petty irritations, the timidities, the quirks, and instead find yourself together, and in communion, with these people whom an outside viewer would describe as strangers, but you, at the time, would swear that you were united by a special and mystical bond. And that ecstasy, that ek-stasis, can be quite overpowering, and indeed quite addictive.

Now I want to say that, from the perspective of True Worship, this is all completely ersatz. True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular. This is part of the sense that we don’t need to hide from each other if we are all being forgiven together by the forgiving victim [Jesus], and that un-hiding, that discovery, happens very slowly.

Worship requires the suppression of the particular because it requires all those involved to share in a lie which will lead to a new form of unity creating a new sacrifice by casting someone out. All those involved in the unity are automatically, by the mere fact of being involved, abstracting from their particular stories and sharing in a lie, a cause that is beyond them. The love, the friendship, the real brotherhood which comes with and through True Worship, is a certain sort of being able gradually to bask in particular beauties discovered without any cause beyond themselves. (pgs.46-47)

Preach! I read this book a decade ago during my spiritual crisis about writing a gay novel. Re-reading these passages I bookmarked, I now understand how the ecstasy of friendship with my Christian women’s group could have felt so real, and how it was inevitable that my emerging gay transmasculine self would subsequently be cast out. The main virtue of Julian, my novel protagonist, is his anti-ideological bent. This slutty but sensitive fashion photographer is an expert on “bask[ing] in particular beauties…without any cause beyond themselves.” I believed then, and even more now, that the Holy Spirit sent him to me.

August Links Roundup: What Are Christians Smoking?

Folks, I’m tired. The baggage of Christendom is too much for me to carry. Every once in a while, though, a novelty item falls into my lap from the overhead compartment of the Internet, and the momentary smile gives me the strength to go on.

Your levity of the day is ChristianCannabis.com. Launched by the founders of XXXChurch, a ministry to rescue and convert sex workers, Christian Cannabis aims to open Christians’ minds to the healing and enlightening properties of responsible weed use. Hat tip to Slacktivist for the link.

What if believers were to entertain the idea that legality is not the equivalent of licentiousness, but neither must we demonize and condemn every single thing that we don’t quite understand? What if the Christian community were to begin to understand how something like cannabis could be used in beneficial ways that supports their lives? Their health?

What if – rather than trading our feelings for platitudes and “should-bes” – we were to begin to better understand them?

What if cannabis proved to enhance mental clarity, diminish anxiety, and lend itself toward physical healing and integrative wellness?

What if cannabis proved to dissolve the self constantly getting in the way, enabling one to better prioritize others and the qualities and relationships that make for a full and vibrant life?

Your boi is completely in favor of de-stigmatizing and de-criminalizing cannabis, which has proven medicinal uses and is less addictive than many legal prescription substances (and less profitable to drug companies…coincidence?). But I’m still waiting to see if these white hipster evangelicals will put their political clout behind freeing the people of color who’ve been imprisoned by the drug war, or if they’re only interested in selling Christian-branded products to the mega-church demographic.

(Image source: @_youhadonejob1)

Hmm, the links are salty this month, eh? Well, I watched “The Keepers” on Netflix and I am not in a forgiving mood. This documentary series investigates the 1969 murder of a young schoolteacher nun in Baltimore and its likely connection to a cover-up of a massive pedophile ring at a Catholic high school. Though sometimes slow-paced and repetitive, the series inspired me with its depiction of older women creating community, doggedly investigating leads dropped by probably-corrupt police, and healing from recovered memories. Unlike the film “Spotlight”, it doesn’t end with a definitive triumphant reveal, but such frustration is true to the experience of most survivors seeking justice from the Church.

In the New York Times Sunday opinion pages this weekend, Rachel L. Swarns, a black Catholic journalist, shared her unexpected discoveries about “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings”.

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, has long celebrated the vision and generosity of its founders: a determined band of Catholic nuns who championed free education for the poor in the early 1800s.

The sisters, who established an elite academy in Washington, D.C., also ran “a Saturday school, free to any young girl who wished to learn — including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal,” according to an official history posted for several years on the school’s website.

But when a newly hired school archivist and historian started digging in the convent’s records a few years ago, she found no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children to read or write. Instead, she found records that documented a darker side of the order’s history.

The Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children, the records show. And they sold dozens of those people to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school and the construction of a new chapel…

Some former slave-owning religious orders are publicly acknowledging their past and making reparations, such as the Louisiana-based Religious of the Sacred Heart school’s new scholarship fund for African-American students. But in general, Catholic schools’ official histories still gloss over the extent to which they were built on slave labor.

Cindy Wang Brandt, founder of the Facebook community Raising Children Unfundamentalist and author of the progressive Christian parenting book Parenting Forward, wrote a heartfelt blog post last month explaining “Why I’m not a bridge builder within evangelicalism”. As she sees it, in a tradition that has not thoroughly examined its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy, any attempts to change the system from within will require too many compromises:

As I watch from beyond evangelicalism the way Beth Moore has been bravely fighting for inclusion of women’s voices and agency within the Southern Baptist denomination, and witnessing the backlash, I can’t help but be reminded of how low the bar is for evangelicals. That to simply exist as a woman with a voice is heresy…

…A hundred years later [since American women won the right to vote], women still cannot have a voice in their own spirituality, submitting an integral part of their being to the government of men within the largest denomination of evangelicalism.

I don’t know what the final outcome will be of Beth Moore’s current battle within her own denomination. I believe she will, and has already, disrupted the status quo, and possibly some progress will occur in which women gain greater agency.

But what I also know is that she will only be able to maintain her voice within the system if she stays in line with other matters of orthodoxy, i.e. remaining committed to sexual purity including condemnation of the “homosexual lifestyle.” This was the pattern for other Christian feminist movements within evangelicalism such as CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality); whose success in moving the needle on egalitarianism has meant they toe the line on reproductive rights and the inclusion of sexual minorities. (As reported by Deborah Jian Lee in her book, Rescuing Jesus, pp. 125)

In other admittedly harsh words, evangelicals only give a limited degree of freedom to one subset of human beings if they can surely throw other human beings under the bus.

This week at Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit blog, a site that celebrates LGBTQ spirituality in art, I learned about the British gay slang dialect Polari and a New York artist who is using it to queer the lectionary:

[Erich] Erving’s projects include his ongoing “Bona Breviary of the Fabulosa Innocents” and an Evensong worship service in Polari, the secret language of British gay subcultures. Using images of deceased male porn stars as a starting point, the alchemy of his artistry transforms them into etchings of saints with the same name. In his breviary, they are accompanied by prayers and scriptures translated into Polari, a language that is too queer to be acceptable.

Polari often switches male names and pronouns to female. For example, in Polari Jesus tells his followers:

“Be ye therefore absolutely fantabulosa, even as your Auntie which is in heaven is absolutely fantabulosa.”

The same scripture in the King James Bible is, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The Evensong text is taken from a Polari translation of the entire King James Bible by the Manchester chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “a protest and street performance charity that uses drag and re-purposed religious imagery to promote tolerance of LGBTQ communities.” (Sisters from the Boston chapter often show up at our local Pride Parade!) Listen to excerpts on the QSpirit website.

“And the sparkle shineth in munge; and the munge comprehended it not.” (John 1:5) Praise Josie Crystal!

The Poet Spiel: “birdchild” and “witness”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a/ the visual artist Tom Taylor, has had a long career of creating work that celebrates nature and sexuality while mocking militarism, conformity, and commercialism. His poetry often delves into sensitive topics like child abuse and homophobia. His most recent book is the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). In his author bio, he writes, “Amidst his 8th decade on earth, coping with losses associated with vascular dementia, art is the friend which has withstood the petty and the foolish, the graceful, the garish and the grand of a diverse career in the arts.”

Spiel says “birdchild”, below, is his favorite poem in his vast body of work. Out of the other strong poems he recently shared with me, I chose “witness”, which speaks of the wounds of mother-son abuse–a phenomenon too long denied or ignored even by early feminist writers who broached the taboo subject of incest.

birdchild

this child before you cannot
say a single word; he seems
as silent as a fallen bird.
his sad eyes follow you.
he is here but shows no sense
of knowing he has a right
to declare his presence—
as in making a sound—any sound.

you recall those few kind men
in your own childhood who,
when they called you by name,
touched your shoulders
or patted you on your head.
oh how you hugged their trousered legs
in gratitude, their warmth, the decency
of their hearts lifted you. even now
though most of them have passed
you hear their voices;
you still feel the touch of their hands.

those men were not poison
but you find yourself
living in a culture
where you are forbidden
to comfort such a child,
a child you do not know,
who does not know you—
as if your touch would be poison.

you find the films you watch
more than once are those where
a father re-unites with his son,
at last unashamed to embrace him,
or where a tearful child is comforted
by the seasoned hands of his grandfather.
you are especially moved by scenes of war
where a grief-stricken soldier softens
and sobs onto another’s shoulders.
and too, those films where two men
follow their hearts in caring,
touching, holding, supporting each other
for a lifetime—against the odds.

so you tempt the odds,
this time with the child
who is like a fallen bird.
you touch his hand, feel him
squeeze your thumb.
you say hello.

he draws your thumb down to his shoe;
he says can you untie me.
and when you hear him speak
you hear your own voice.
and as you stoop
to untie his knotted shoe
it is you who becomes the bird.
it is you who becomes whole again.

****

witness

in innocence
as you crayoned
on the floor
she emerged
from her dark closet
to reveal
what she knew were forbidden—
her petals of flesh

she planted a wanton glance
with nowhere else to settle
but upon you
her first born son
then your bewildered face
between her space
for her you were
a lily in her valley

your eyes aghast
replete with games repeated
over time
in a shame
you could not name
in crayon-speak
and your crayon days
were early done

now after all these years
you wonder
which hurts
the most

perhaps those vital tidbits
you can’t recall to reassemble
nor recant
or is it the reverberating odor
of the absolute volumes
you cannot forget

Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience

Two theology bloggers I follow have been exploring what’s next after one has deconstructed the conservative evangelical faith of one’s upbringing–and have arrived at quite different answers.

I began reading Stephen Bradford Long’s posts a few years ago, when he was just beginning to deprogram himself from the anti-gay beliefs that had severely traumatized him. In the beginning, he focused on developing and defending an affirming Christian sexual ethic. Later on, he branched out into explaining how Tarot was compatible with Christianity–a timely subject for me, since at that time I was also trying to maintain my old faith despite relying more and more on non-Christian spiritual practices. Somewhere along the way, he realized that he no longer believed in the Biblical God or the supernatural aspects of traditional religion. In a provocative move, Long came out this year as a follower of the Satanic Temple.

Now, before you start sprinkling your laptop with holy water, the Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan) is a secular humanist organization that adopts the symbol of the Christian Devil to challenge Establishment Clause violations and invoke a Romantic tradition of rebellion against religious repression. They’re the folks who protested a Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas Capitol by installing a statue of Baphomet, a witty move to highlight the state’s unconstitutional favoritism toward one religion. According to NPR, the Temple “argues that public spaces should be free from religious messaging or be opened up to representations of all faiths, including Satanist icons.”

In his post “Why Satan?” Long explains:

Satanism is originally a literary tradition rooted in the romantic poets, namely Hugo, Shelley, Blake, and Byron. These four poets were not themselves religious Satanists, but they were the first to recast the biblical myth of Satan in a positive, metaphorical light. In the throes of enlightenment, romanticism, and revolution, they saw the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as the far more sympathetic and heroic figure. As Ruben Van Luijk notes in his book Children of Lucifer, “For radical sympathizers with the Revolution like Godwin and Shelley, Satan was no longer an evil insurgent against righteousness and cosmic order, but the mirror image and mythological embodiment of the revolutionary standing up against arbitrary and despotic power.” (pg. 77)

Similar to how the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the slur “queer”, Long embraces the demonic imagery that was once employed to fill him with self-loathing:

I’m gay, and it’s hard to describe what receiving this cultural story about homosexuality did to my psyche as I was growing up. I was told that homosexuality is the greatest and vilest perversion of the natural world, that I was demon possessed for loving men. I went through exorcisms. One Christian woman slapped my hand out of the air when I made a “disgusting” feminine gesture, which compromised my godly manhood. I was told that gay sex would open a portal to uninhibited and darkness within me. I was an abomination, just like Lucifer…

Owning Lucifer as my figurehead is now a defiant act of empowerment: it is an ownership of my minority status, a proclamation that the myth of my demonization was misguided, and claiming solidarity with the demonized everywhere. Claiming Satan as the heroic good is a deeply validating act when I myself have been deemed a monster because of cultural myth. I embrace my own goodness by recasting my father Lucifer as good, too.

In the Tarot, the Devil (depicted as Baphomet in the classic Rider-Waite deck) does not represent an external force of evil to be loathed and defeated. Rather, it symbolizes our repressed shadow side that we must integrate in order to be free from self-imposed bondage.

Spiritual integration is good for the abs, too. (Lucifer pin by Kate Sheridan)

Finally, Long chose a symbol from Christian iconography because he remains within the stream of the Christian tradition, though not as an orthodox believer. In his post “Giving Up on Calling Myself Christian”, he writes:

While I have utmost respect of people who can affirm the creeds, I now personally experience the truth claims of Christianity as intellectually insulting, and little more than untenable superstition…And yet I find the symbol, story, liturgy, and tradition of Christianity significant enough for me personally to not walk out of the church. Because of this, I think I personally qualify as at least *some* sort of Christian.

…I’m tired of fighting the faithful over my participation in their religion — a religion which is my tradition, heritage, and central guiding story. I’m tired of trying to stake my claim in Christianity, even though I still speak the liturgies, attend the rites, dream the symbols, and revere Christ.

But whatever. Too many of the faithful insist that I’m not in their club, and I’m tired of fighting them. To make the bickering stop, I’m shedding the term Christian, and adopting “Post-Christian” as a more accurate description: I can no longer affirm the central creeds of Christianity, but I am in a place accessible only by way of Christianity. I don’t think I will ever leave the church fully, but I will partake not as a Christian, but a Post-Christian. That seems like a compromise which makes everyone’s life (especially mine) easier.

This formulation gave me a way to categorize my complex religious identity. I’m a Christian the same way I’m a New Yorker. Manhattan, like Christendom, is a place that fundamentally shaped who I am, but I couldn’t live there anymore. There are things I miss about it that I can’t find anywhere else. When a certain song plays, or a characteristic smell reaches me (incense, burnt soft pretzels, the subway grating after rain), I feel satisfied and whole–for a maximum of 48 hours in the city, or 45 minutes in church, before something predictably makes me overwhelmed and stressed.

Though I chose the Devil as my Tarot Wheel of the Year card for 2019, I don’t feel the same bond with that figure as Long does. It has too many associations with the ritual abuse that some of my friends suffered. Moreover, I want to put my traumatic relationship with the Bible behind me, instead of remaining bound to it in an antagonistic way. For me, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu served the same purpose, an anti-God that doesn’t require literal belief in order to be effective at clearing away the gaslighting of an abusive Father’s “love”.

Cthulhu-chu, I choose you!

Meanwhile, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is writing a series on “post-progressive Christianity”. Beck is a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and a member of the Churches of Christ who also appreciates high-church devotional practices like the rosary. I recommend his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Wipf & Stock, 2011), an exploration of the ethical problems with the purity paradigm in religion, with the reservation that his criticism of “boundaries” is not sufficiently informed by feminism or trauma theory.

Beck’s latest blog series points out some missing ingredients in the liberal Christian churches where many post-evangelicals wind up. Essentially, he argues that these environments don’t offer much that adds to the secular progressive worldview of their members. Liberal theology and preaching mainly emphasizes how our pre-existing political or intellectual commitments are compatible with (parts of) the Bible. We’re less likely to hear a faith-based challenge to the values and methods we brought in from outside the church. The absence of such a challenge can stunt our spiritual growth and make our religion irrelevant. Beck observes:

[M]any progressive Christians are biblically fragile. Almost every page of the Bible triggers a faith crisis, every Bible study getting stuck on what is “problematic.” The Word of God isn’t enjoyed as a location of delight and joy. The Bible isn’t a daily source of life, comfort, and sustenance…

Put bluntly, progressives don’t read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us…

From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.

Now, I absolutely agree with this. It was true of the Reform Jewish congregations I attended back in the 1990s before my baptism, and all the liberal-mainline churches I’ve been in. Back when I was an orthodox Christian, I often cited Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, where he says that the Resurrection is not something to be explained according to our existing ideas of how the world works. Rather, a Christian is someone who takes the Resurrection as starting point, and reorients their understanding of the world accordingly.

The difference between Beck and me is that the Bible is not the authority I want to be under–or to be more precise, not the sparring partner I consider most worthy and fruitful. I want to be taught and challenged, as much as Beck does. But the worldview of Scripture at worst is opposed to, and at best doesn’t prioritize, my core values of consent, sexual and neurological diversity, children’s rights, and the authority of personal experience. I don’t feel it’s ethically or psychologically healthy for me to put those up for debate any longer.

I commend Beck for stating the problem in such clear terms that may be disturbing to his progressive readers. And I wonder how his assessment of left-wing Christianity would change if he looked beyond majority-white denominations and theologians. James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and Renita J. Weems’ Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, both of which we studied in my church small group, engage boldly with Christian theology and Scripture from black liberation and womanist perspectives, treating the tradition with respect and expertise while being unafraid to depart from it where justice dictates.

July Links Roundup: I Don’t Need to Calm Down

Summertime, and the living is easy…as long as I have two air conditioners in every room. The Young Master is off at YMCA camp, learning to shoot a bow and arrow, so that he can provide food for us during the impending collapse of civilization. At Winning Writers, our North Street Book Prize for self-published books received a record 1,700 entries, which means I’ll be asking Santa for a new pair of eyeballs this Christmas. Progress continues on the Endless Sequel, while An Incomplete List of My Wishes was just named a finalist for LGBTQ Fiction in the Book Excellence Awards. As Gay Pride Month gives way to Gay Wrath Month, here are some hopefully-relevant links for you to ruminate upon.

Before we confiscated his Alexa’s, the Young Master went through a period of asking to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” several times a day. (That was not the reason we took him off the grid.) Anyhow, last month our problematic fave released her peppy LGBTQ-ally video “You Need to Calm Down”, which is great fun for a round of “spot that queer celebrity” but repeats some classist tropes about who the real enemies of progress are. Rachel Charlene Lewis at Bitch Media moderated this roundtable article about genre stereotypes:

[R]ural and Southern people are often positioned as if they are never queer, trans, or people of color, but simply…the “enemy” of progress for marginalized people. I spoke with Gysegem, a queer content creator, and Ani Naser, a queer, nonbinary filmmaker of color based in the South, about Swift’s video and why musicians continue to perpetuate classism in their music videos…

Claire Gysegem: I’ve [long] been indifferent to Taylor Swift, but I had my hopes up [when] I went to watch the video. I love Billy Porter and Jonathan Van Ness and [I] was excited to see them, but I raised my eyebrow at the fact that they were all in airstreams. I thought it was a campground/vacation kind of thing, [but] I felt sick to my stomach the second I saw protestors in the video [who] were marching [in] the trailer.

Ani Naser: I agree that the music video can [be] read as [a] demonizing [of] lower-class Southerners. [After] growing up in Texan suburbs, I can say that the vast majority of homophobic and discriminatory people I’ve encountered are affluent white men followed by affluent white women. It’s not difficult to see how a multimillionaire celebrity like Swift could [end up] assembling a cast of the more commercially successful LGBTQ artists in the media landscape and, [in the process] vilify visibly poor southerners rather than Fortune 1000 CEOs.

CG: I don’t think she [intended to] portray homophobes as poor people. Honestly, I think she was [just] lazy and didn’t think it through. It was easy for her to punch down and “otherize,” but it’s a bit more difficult to “otherize” middle-school bullies, hateful church-goers, and politicians. After all, how are you going to make fun of things like their teeth and lack of proper education?…

CG: I wonder how different the video would’ve been if these queer icons, in all of their elegance and power, had been shown celebrating their love and identity in places like a voting booth, a place of worship, or the Capitol steps. I received a ton of backlash on Twitter from those who said that it’s the people represented in Swift’s video who keep people like Mike Pence and Donald Trump in power, when, in reality, the U.S. Census shows that only one in four people making less than $10,000 vote. People with low incomes have an incredibly difficult time voting, especially in Appalachia. If you live in a state with a voter ID law, if you don’t have access to reliable transportation, if you can’t take off work, if you have a poor education—these are all reasons why we see a lack of voter turnout in lower-income brackets. Many people in Appalachia have a strong distrust of government due to past exploitation of workers and natural resources.

In the four years I’ve been co-judging the North Street Book Prize, I’ve encountered the above stereotype in way too many fiction entries. Writers, think twice before coding your villains as “unattractive” by white middle-class able-bodied standards. Kids’ media abounds with such lazy storytelling based on visual prejudices, another reason we’ve limited the Young Master’s screen time to car trips and sick days.

Back in May, the good news broke that Taiwan had legalized same-sex marriage. Sarah Ngu at South China Morning Post shared some little-known historical background on Asia’s pre-colonial history of tolerance, which was stamped out by European Christians. Among her examples: 17th-century commitment ceremonies between male lovers in Southern China, which were prevalent enough to have their own designated deity; the lesbian equivalent, the Golden Orchid Society in Guangdong, which lasted until the early 1900s; the five-gender system of the Bugis people of Indonesia; and the indigenous Iban people of Borneo, with male-bodied shamans who wore female clothing and took men as their husbands. In many cases, we know about these practices through the scandalized reports of Spanish missionaries.

[A]nthropologists believe the respect accorded to these ritual specialists were an indicator of a wider societal acceptance of gender and sexual diversity in Southeast Asia – an acceptance that began to be eroded through the introduction of world religions (particularly Christianity), modernity, and colonialism. For example, in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Myanmar and throughout the commonwealth, the British enforced a penal code that legislated against sodomy. More than half of the countries that currently legally prohibit sodomy do so based on laws created by the British.

Similarly, after the Chinese were defeated by Western and Japanese imperialists, many Chinese progressives in the early 20th century sought to modernise China, which meant adopting “modern” Western ideas of dress, relationships, science and sexuality. Concubinage was outlawed, prostitution was frowned upon, and women’s feet were unbound. It also meant importing European scientific understandings of homosexuality as an inverted or perverted pathology. These “scientific ideas” were debunked in the 1960s in the West, but lived on in China, frozen in time, and have only recently begun to thaw with the rise of LGBTQ activists in Asia.

Kevin Killian, an influential gay poet, playwright, fiction writer and editor, passed away in June. “My Mixed Marriage”, a 2000 Village Voice feature by his wife, the writer Dodie Bellamy, lovingly describes a literary and erotic partnership that defied easy characterization. “I never thought I’d marry a homosexual, not even when I was a girl in Indiana with a crush on Allen Ginsberg,” she quips. But she discovered that the fluidity of their orientations liberated her from the power dynamics of straight relationships.

Female sexuality has been my primary subject. But in my formative years, it was hard to find models that moved beyond objectification. Gay writing, on the other hand, gave me a sexual vocabulary, as well as techniques for turning the tables and objectifying men…Reading Kevin and other gay authors, I saw how erotic writing could be more than just a description of sexual acts. It could create a new sexual relationship: the writer as top, the reader as bottom.

…Sometimes our lovemaking felt like lesbian sex, sometimes like gay sex, but it never felt like straight sex. For one thing, with Kevin, fucking was an option, not an expectation. For another, the power dynamics were always shifting and circling back on themselves. With straight guys I felt like I was alone in the dark, being acted upon. With Kevin, it felt like we were two people in mutual need and at equal risk.

In this 2018 essay at The Baffler, Amber A’lee Frost, a labor organizer and co-host of the controversial leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, argues that socialism is the answer to America’s fatherhood crisis. Frost disputes the liberal feminist line that the real problem with parenting is male selfishness and immaturity:

Anti-masculinity is a neat little trick of the liberal reactionary; you can get away with open contempt for working-class men and their struggle for something as essential as the time and resources to care for their own children, as long as you smear them as deadbeat dads and shitty husbands. The idea that it’s men, not money, who are most responsible for preventing parents from devoting more time and labor to their homes and children is so astoundingly condescending and divorced from reality that it’s hard to believe anyone would have the confidence to say it out loud. But I suppose if your biggest problems in life have always been romantic or familial and not financial, it can be easy to mistake your resentful fantasies for a political program.

The author’s personal story–raised by her mother and grandmother in a patriarchal rural church, with a bipolar father who drifted in and out of their lives–taught her that:

There are many reasons why the model of paternal child support is a faulty one, especially when applied to poor or sick fathers. There is the punitive and inhumane cycle of inability to pay, imprisonment, loss of employment, and all over again. And of course, as with anything regarding the prison industrial complex, black men are disproportionately represented in this cycle.

And then there is the secret that poor parents only speak of in abashed whispers: that it’s difficult to love a child whom you cannot adequately care for as you reckon continually with the humiliation and fear of your own inability to provide for them. This private shame causes such pain and anxiety and sometimes eventually delirium that when these put-upon parents reach their limit, it appears downright rational to flee. So sometimes they do.

My father was a frustrating, sometimes dangerous person, but I have no anger for him. I’m told he’d often be assailed with the regrets that any self-aware absentee father is bound to experience, and I feel nothing but pity for a sad old man who missed so much.

You still hear from liberals that you shouldn’t have a baby until you have the money to have one in economic security. In reality, though, that day will never arrive for the majority of people born without money, even when they’ve dutifully launched two-parent homes.

Frost quite reasonably concludes that, rather than chase down “hopeless” men for a pittance of child support, society’s resources would be better spent on giving all parents a financial safety net. “I don’t believe that men are so thoroughly heartless they need a financial obligation to remind them to love their children. I think they need the same things women need to be good parents—time and money.”

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.