February Links Roundup: Birds Do It, Trees Do It

As a good queer aesthete, I don’t place much weight on “the natural” as a prescriptive concept, but I still love a quirky story about nonhuman creatures who defy our narrow social categories. This rare gynandromorph cardinal flips the bird at binary ideas of gender, as reported at the blog Towleroad: “Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal Goes Viral, Has a Male Lover”. Since the bi-color bird’s female side is on the left, where the functioning ovary is located, the pair may be able to reproduce. Can’t you just imagine a children’s book about that future baby bird, along the lines of And Tango Makes Three?

Not only that, but the tree where they nest could be trans. At the online magazine Catapult, nature columnist Miranda Schmidt kicks off their new monthly series “Tree Talk” with the piece “How Trees Complicate Our Understanding of Gender”. In folklore and poetry, we’ve associated some species with masculinity (strong and tall) and others with femininity (slender and graceful), but in fact, over 90% of species worldwide “are alternately termed bisexual, or hermaphroditic, or ‘perfect,’ meaning they have both male and female parts on a single flower.” Reflecting on their own multi-gendered identity, Schmidt suggests a writing exercise to reveal hidden potentialities:

Describe your gender identity without using images that are stereotypically associated with masculine or feminine things. Try it. See what you find. When I do this exercise, I always think of the crabapple tree in the yard of the house I grew up in. It was split down the middle, all the way to the ground. Its two halves grew away from each other, almost as if they were two separate trees. We never knew how it had split. The crack down the middle of its trunk was old, possibly as old as the tree itself. Perhaps it was made by the weight of its branches pulling in opposite directions. Perhaps it originated from some outside source: an axe, or lightning. I would look at that tree and I would imagine its roots, those parts I couldn’t see, grown all together, tangled up and merging in a way its above-ground parts couldn’t. Underneath, I thought, the tree would be wholly undivided.

Alongside the project of unearthing the naturalness of queerness–an understandable objective, aimed at creating political safety and healing queer shame–there’s always been its opposite, the defiant un-naturalness that Susan Sontag limns in the 58 Wildean aphorisms comprising her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”. What she finds in camp is a kind of playful generosity of spirit, a humanistic snobbery, if you will:

54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Food 4 Thot podcast co-host Joe Osmundson a/k/a “Joe the Science Ho” explored the dark side of gay aesthetics in his 2013 Gawker article “There’s a Nerd in the Locker Room: Sex, Beauty and Self-Love”. With wit and pathos, Osmundson tracks the changes in his self-image during a month-long membership at David Barton Gym, the hot spot for Chelsea’s rich and beautiful boys.

At DBG I spend a lot of time contemplating superficiality and the NYC gays. Many assume gay men are shallow because we essentially want to be fucking ourselves. Men naturally have higher libidos, right? Attraction is more physical to us? All this seems too simplistic to me. After a few visits to DBG, I started to think that queer people often know we’re different very young. A lot of us grow up absolutely hating the gay bit of ourselves, praying it away, hoping it would die or recede so we can be normal and happy like everyone else. When you spend a large portion of your life loathing some central component of yourself, you might want to find something that you do love. Your body is something you can make better and faster and stronger. Perhaps spaces like DBG exist because there is a road map and a space for remaking your body. I wonder what a space for doing the work to love ourselves for our minds and spirits, for our ugly bits, our complicated and fucked up internal bits, would look like…

…[I]t would be a mistake to talk about gay male beauty and sex without talking about American culture at large. In America we often define men by their ability to consume emotionless sex. Gay culture exists in conversation with American culture and so if men define themselves by their ability to consume women without attachment, why should gay men be held to a different standard?

But here is the ugly truth: we are all here at DBG to get laid, even if most of us aren’t doing it upstairs in the steam room. I do feel more comfortable in my body than before I was working out. Having facile sex would probably make me feel good, and good about myself, in a lot of complicated ways that may be difficult to undo and that might make certain types of intimacy difficult.

Last week I blogged about how Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering philosophy helps me strengthen my intuition as a writer. Kondo has been subjected to a ridiculous amount of negative “hot takes”, which at times slide into racist disrespect for her personal style and cultural traditions. At HuffPost, Margaret Dilloway explains “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up'”. Born to an American father and Japanese mother, Dilloway recognizes her late mother’s Shinto beliefs in many of the practices that Kondo’s critics have belittled:

Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ―a concept know as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.

“Tell the kami-sama what you’re grateful for,” my mother would say to me, referring to God or the supreme kami, “and what you want.”

I had my mother in mind when I watched Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” for the first time. In each episode, Kondo, a professional organizing consultant, instructs her clients to identify the objects in their homes that “spark joy” and devise a plan to honor those objects by cleaning and storing them properly.

She also encourages people to part ways with the objects that fail to spark joy, but not before thanking them for their service. The way Kondo pledges gratitude for the crowded houses she visits, and thanks the clothes and books and lamps that serve so much purpose for the families seeking to declutter their homes, struck me as a powerfully Shinto way of conducting life.

Full disclosure, when my Copco white plastic spatula broke after a dozen years of service, I duct-taped the handle back on and stored it in my kitchen drawer. I mean, that’s one of the longest relationships I’ve had. It’s not going in the recycling bin. Marie understands.

Facing Literary Impermanence With Marie Kondo

Tidying-up guru Marie Kondo is trending this winter since her new show started on Netflix. Thrift shops are reportedly experiencing a surge in donations of books, clothes, and household items that no longer “spark joy” for their owners. Meanwhile, social media debates are raging about Kondo’s out-of-context quote about owning only 30 books, while feminist Twitter agrees that it’s also time to de-accession men who don’t help with the housework. (Episode 1 husband, we’re looking at you.)

They say that if you want to get your house clean, start writing a novel. Well, it’s true. But I must protest that my KonMari fever is no mere procrastination tactic. Editing my life builds the same skills I need for mastering the clutter in my imagination. Am I listening to my intuition about what excites me–regardless of what I think I should own, or write, or do? Can I recognize that my relationship with something has ended, but still honor it? If I dare to prioritize my own joy, what obligations or substitute pleasures must I eliminate, while living in a way that’s sustainable and responsible toward others?

KonMari isn’t minimalism. Book Twitter’s outrage notwithstanding, she’s not prescriptive about what you should own. It’s a compassionate but decisive self-assessment of who you are now and what you want to carry forward into the future.

So, for me, “Tidying Up” came along at the perfect time for major life changes. If I’m no longer a woman, a Christian, or a size 12, what’s left is…still quite a lot of stuff, but a lot less than before.

Last month I mailed seven large boxes of literary journals to a poet who was collecting donations for prisoners in California, and gave two more crates of theology books to the used bookstore down the street in exchange for $20 and a coffee-table book about Lego sculptures for Shane. Letting go of books is unsettling for writers, because we don’t want to contemplate the undeniable fact that someone else is looking at our book, deciding it doesn’t spark joy, and chucking it into a donation box. Book Twitter’s dirty little secret: We don’t care that Marie is purging our shelves, we fear that she’s purging someone else’s shelves of us.

But here’s the thing: There is no co-dependent caretaking contract for books, just as that contract is never enforceable in personal relationships. “Go to other people’s funerals so they’ll come to yours” is a good joke but bad advice. Keeping Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology or the 2005 print run of Iowa Review, out of obligation or pity for the obscure authors therein, does not affect whether anyone reads Two Natures. (And really, that’s not why you should read it.) There’s no heavenly point system, as in “The Good Place” sitcom, where angels tally up my literary acts of compassion to reward me with posthumous fame.

My ongoing KonMari home-edit makes me face my unconscious belief in this co-dependent bargain, and repeatedly recognize its empty promises. This frees me (somewhat) to ignore the inner critic in my writing brain, who incessantly tells me that my novel-in-progress is too niche, intellectual, and sad. Binch, that’s my brand.

I can’t stress enough how gratitude is an essential piece of KonMari. My internal younger selves feel shamed by my rejection of things that were central to their identity, from radical orthodoxy to floral-print dresses. Before I can let those possessions go, I have to thank them, and by extension the psychological parts of me who owned them, and give all of us permission to change. Then I have to understand how the process triggers memories of being raised by a narcissist (and an unworn-clothes-hoarder!) who didn’t allow me to have any preferences different from hers. It would have been unthinkable, in my mother’s household, to refuse something just because I didn’t like it. I either had to endure wearing/eating/doing it, or decide if I cared enough to make a documented federal case that it was Objectively Bad.

So I fired her.

Tidying up, I’ve discovered, is always about so much more than possessions. Eminem knows how I feel:

Poems from Paul Fericano’s “Things That Go Trump in the Night”

Good News…or FAKE GOSPELS?! No classic text is safe from the Trump Effect in Paul Fericano’s satirical verse collection Things That Go Trump in the Night (Poems-for-All/YU News Service, 2019). Famous lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry Kissinger, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, and many others are reworked into zingers that reference the Cheeto-in-Chief and his felonious hangers-on. Individually, the poems and squibs are good for a chuckle or a mood-lifter when the news gets you down. Taken as a whole, the numbing repetition of “Trump” starts to feel like a warning: dictators want all culture to be flattened into their own image. Most substantial, and chilling, is the book’s closing poem, which weaves together fragments of actual Trump speeches with invented absurdities, shining a relentless light on the combination of naïveté and paranoia that makes him so dangerous.

Paul has kindly permitted me to reprint an excerpt below. For more work by this prolific author, check out his bio at Poets & Writers and his online journal Poetry Hotel.

THE NRA REMINDS YOU TO DEFEND THE SECOND AMENDMENT

1. Treat every loaded trump as if it were empty.

2. Always point your trump at anyone
you plan to intimidate.

3. Keep your trump cocked and ready
for any crisis you create.

4. Sleep with your trump at all times.

5. Trumps don’t kill. People do.

****

SAINT PAUL STUMPS FOR TRUMP
BEFORE BEING STONED BY THE CORINTHIANS

1 What if he could not speak
in salty tongues of fast food beef,
and diet drinks or pork chops on a stick?
And what of his illegal rapists
for whom there is no dreaming?

2 If he could not praise himself,
be nothing more than a chimney sweep
or the smoking gun at the bottom
of his father’s safe deposit box.

3 Veracity is an empty cell in his brain,
for all he says is true in his name.
He sets his watch to howdy doody time
where dossiers and liars
are watergate under the bridge.

4 For he is never too proud or boastful
to consort with leakers and colluders.
And if he cavorts with concubines
who relieve themselves on hotel beds,
his complicity is the grey wool of old goats.

5 What if he could reinvent his words
and reshape all reality?
What if he could do these things
while his people are encouraged
to gaze elsewhere?
Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!

6 And what if he could wear bows
and push buttons that would decimate nations?
Would he not still be revered?
Would he not still be adored?
The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon
with the dragon, and the vessel with the pestle
has the brew that is true.

7 For it is written in the law of Supposes,
You shall not muzzle the mouth of the sham
that spills forth its corn,
lest you become all that and a bag of chips,
or as a toilet that runs all night.

8 And if he is obstructive, inflated,
paranoid and suspicious,
These faults are surely exalted in your eyes.

9 Verily, I say unto you
that all who consume with him
shall ensure a sizeable profit justly returned.
For I am he, as you are he, as you are me
and we are all together.

10 Yea, though his fingers be like long ties,
You know not what he is up to.

11 And denial shall be his greatest pleasure.
For the hoax perpetrated in bad faith
is more than payment due.

12 Be not disturbed by troubled times.
They are as common as the normal spin
of outrageous rent hikes.
For soon the shore of certainty will vanish
and strange odors will fill your nostrils.

13 When he was a president,
he thought not as a president
and reasoned not as presidents do.
But when he grew a tail
and fumbled and groped many girly bits,
and they let him do it,
he embraced his presidential ways.

14 Now he wears the blackface of his birthright.
And faith in desperation kneels
where once it stood defiant in his name:
Mueller, Mueller
why has thou forsaken him?

15 Later, he shall envision a darker stain
and wear the mask
of batmen, beetroots and bucketheads.

16 He spends no time swinging a club,
spray painting his skin or sleeping in a tree.
FAKE GOSPELS!

17 Yea, verily, yea.
Chaos, confusion and catastrophe
shall mark each tweet with impunity.
But of these three,
the greatest of these is Muhammad Ali.

January Links Roundup: No White Knights

Welcome to 2019! Will this be the year I finish the Endless Sequel? Somewhere between crushing my son at Pokémon and looking at medieval dildos on Twitter, I am determined to GET ‘ER DONE.

Lest you think social media is a waste of time, though, I have discovered some spiritual wisdom therein. Jessica Dore, a teacher of “Tarot for mental health”, shares daily card draws with profound insights about working with our shadow parts and difficult feelings. On the Death card, for instance, she muses: “Because death is not deterred by ego attachments, it’s in some ways deeply trustworthy. We can cope w/ loss by meaning-making or finding silver linings, but it will likely still hurt. Death requires that we be OK w/ hurting. & With going where we least want to go.”

It takes a lot to give me a new perspective on trauma. By this point I’ve read, written, and held space for more tales of psychological wounding than perhaps I should. But I learned something new from Dore’s latest blog post: we make ourselves susceptible to predators by seeking someone to rescue us from the hard work of personal growth. Trauma disrupts our intuition; that gut feeling of rightness about a new person or situation could just be re-enactment of familiar wounded patterns. Our unhappy ego, like the Knight of Swords, is always in a hurry for the quick fix, so we ignore the red flags and hidden conditions on love.

It is this aspect of the human psyche that gave birth to the mythic knight in shining armor; a rescue fantasy so embedded in the collective consciousness that none among us are immune to projecting it onto any person, place or thing. It is a part in all of us that is ever lurking, waiting for that fast ride out of what a meaningful and fulfilling life requires: work, comfort, pain, change, repeat...

The ego may rush to say “yes!” to that thing, eager to relinquish the steadfast and true to be relieved at last from the burden of saving one’s own life. It is the part that so badly wants the predator to be a permanent waiver from doing the work, that it is willing to believe just about anything.

Defending the Soul from predators and traps (Seven of Wands) is a dirty job, but those who want a life of meaning must do it. It takes a certain tenacity to commit to the long game instead of doing the quick back alley deal where too much is given for too little.

Fruits torn from a tree before the branch is ready to release them never taste as sweet. Fruits hurried are downright sour. Do not give up on your slow route to success so quickly. If you have been doing the long, honest work, if you have felt the promise of things taking shape (Ace of Pentacles), try to trust it for one more day. And then another, and another.

I’ve been thinking about making The Devil the centerpiece card of my Wheel of the Year spread for 2019. I feel that I’ve been in self-created bondage to my fear of the unknown. The Devil speaks to me of the vitality of the Id, a force of untamed creativity, like Orc in William Blake’s mythology.

Gay spirituality blogger Stephen Bradford Long is a former evangelical whose journey to accept his sexuality brought about a deep crisis and ongoing reformation of his faith. He has also written about the healing power of Tarot and its compatibility with Christianity. In this post from November, “I Have Always Been an Abomination: On Homosexuality, Satan, and the Church,” he speaks frankly about the trauma of being brought up to believe that his basic nature was broken, and why that now leads him to identify with the rebel in the Biblical drama of good and evil:

No matter how kind, generous, or welcoming my Christian friends were, that never erased the horrific consequences of their theology.

In other words, my deep sexual desires and impulses were in themselves profane, blasphemous, and contrary to God. I have always been an abomination, no matter how hard I worked to be otherwise. Is it any wonder, then, that Satan is the more appealing figure to me, now? The father of all abominations and outsiders, the father of those who dare to challenge, question, and rebel?

In popular culture children of Satan are often portrayed as having a deep, self-destroying hatred of holy objects. Crucifixes, churches, bibles and priests all send the infernal into a triggered conniption. That’s true, but not true for the reasons popular mythology put forth.

The damned are eviscerated by religious symbolism because it was under that symbolism that we were raped, abused, tortured into another orientation, scalded by good intentions. Those of us outside the traditional kingdom of God are tortured by the presence of holy icons and talismans not because we are so very evil, but because the religious systems of abuse are. I still love church, Christianity, and the Bible, but too many of the Church’s symbols and practices send me into a tailspin. They just hurt too much.

I therefore claim blasphemy and Satan, not as the icon for all that is evil, but as an unapologetic embrace of being outsider. It’s the acknowledgement that it isn’t I who was wrong, but the Church.

Over at Brain Pickings, a literary newsletter/blog by Maria Popova that can happily occupy hours of your time, she reviews philosopher Adam Phillips’ essay collection Unforbidden Pleasures, which challenges us to stop the addictive cycle of criticizing ourselves and others. In her 2016 post “Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations”, she lays out his contention that we are in a kind of trauma-bonded relationship with our inner critic (or superego). We’re fused with it, to the extent that we can hardly know ourselves; the judgment comes before the perception. But if we met this carping critic, as a person outside ourselves, we’d actually think his monomania was ridiculous and tragic. “The tyranny of the superego, Phillips argues, lies in its tendency to reduce the complexity of our conscience to a single, limiting interpretation, and to convincingly sell us on that interpretation as an accurate and complete representation of reality.” By cultivating skepticism about any totalizing dogma, we can develop a more spacious, accurate, and compassionate mind.

At The Guardian Online, check out this witty and hard-hitting conversation between two queer feminist icons, bestselling author Roxane Gay and Australian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby. Among other topics, they cover fat stigma and the hard work of holding space for traumatic stories, both their own and those of their fans.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 12th-century mystic, artist, and playwright Hildegard of Bingen, but did you know she painted a map of the universe based on the vulva? Dr. Eleanor Janega at the fascinating blog Going Medieval will tell you all about it. See, you can learn a lot from medieval dildo Twitter.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2018

2018 was an eventful year for me as a creative artist. Behold, my debut short story collection from Sunshot Press/New Millennium Writings:

I successfully avoided finishing my second novel by writing a poetry chapbook instead. American Eclipse, currently making the rounds of contests, was composed during this year’s “30 Poems in November” fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, Northampton’s immigrant services and advocacy organization. You can still donate here. American Eclipse was inspired by the confluence of last year’s solar eclipse, the NecronomiCon conference, and the dystopian forces of climate change and resurgent right-wing hate groups. It also includes amusing and inappropriate poems about gender transition, amusement parks, Pokémon, and New Jersey Turnpike bathrooms. Read a sample poem, “Of Mice and Women”, at Poetry Hotel.

The Young Master started first grade, where he is learning to read, memorize poems, distinguish fiction from nonfiction, and study the great cosmic story from the Big Bang to human evolution. Pokémon battles help him channel his aggression at the tyranny of his parents.

A surprise Xmas present from Mommy: a fleece Pikachu bathrobe!

Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a trip to NYC, the place where it all began.

I attended one day of my 25th college reunion at Harvard, which was quite enough to remind me how this dazzling, heartless place can make the most privileged people feel poor and insecure. But I bought the souvenir baseball cap because I’ve decided to be proud that I survived the experience, instead of dwelling on everything that was going nuclear in my life at that time.

I read a lot more comics and graphic novels this year, by myself and with Shane. Hat tip to Forbes Library for maintaining an excellent collection for children and young adults. Some new releases in this genre that I’m looking forward to reading in 2019 include Jarrett K. Krosoczka’s memoir Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (Graphix/Scholastic) and We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology edited by Tara Avery and Jeanne Thornton (Stacked Deck Press).

Favorite Posts of 2018:

Problems of Lineage and Magic

…[I] feel long-suppressed grief that our family story is so full of gaps, or worse. I’ve been running away from the pain by declaring that these people are nothing to me. But really, is there anything more Jewish than a legacy of lacunae? I am part of a long tradition of diaspora, fragmentation, and self-reinvention.

The Binding of Isaac and the Sacrifice of the False Child

…What if the son that Abraham has to kill is not his real son? What if he’s being asked to kill his agenda for Isaac–the mindset in which Abraham values his child not because of who Isaac is, but because of the role he’s expected to play in securing Abraham’s worldly importance? Narcissistic parenting is the idol that Abraham lays on the altar.

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

…Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Could We Be God’s Alternate Personalities?

…I wonder if the entire way that Western philosophy privileges monism is bound up with our besetting sins of imperialism, exclusionary religion, and totalitarian ideology. All these failures of empathy share the presumption that singularity is saner, purer, and holier than diversity.

“Le Génie du Mal” pin via Kate Sheridan Art

Emo Lucifer wishes you a hot 2019!

Erasure and Swag: My Life in Pins

I could depict the timeline of my passions in swag. Pins, keychains, and pendants that proclaimed my shifting special interests, my fervent niche identities, to a world that usually ignored or mocked but occasionally extended the brief warmth of tribal recognition.

And just recently I asked myself, as I picked out more queer nerd tank tops on Redbubble: What have I been driving at, in my lifelong quest for visibility–or more often, my battle against a crushing feeling of erasure? What deeper wounds are reopened when, for example, someone refuses to make waves in a conservative environment by using my nonbinary pronouns–or when I make the same pragmatic choice myself? Why, as an adolescent, did I feel compelled to add to my social awkwardness by literally wearing my heart on my sleeve?

I had a thing for tragically murderous dudes.

When I was 13, for example, I read British mystery novelist Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, in which her series detective re-examines the historical evidence for King Richard III’s alleged murder of his young nephews who stood in his path to the throne. The conclusion: He wuz framed, yer Honor. No topic is too obscure to inspire a fan club somewhere in the world, so (impressively in the pre-Internet 1980s) I connected with the Richard III Society in England and bought this lovely pin (figure left) that I wore every day in 9th grade, to the ridicule of my classmates. Yes, my main political activity during the era of AIDS and apartheid divestment was lobbying to reopen a 500-year-old cold case.

In college, I saw the musical “The Phantom of the Opera” and, like many a lonely young woman-adjacent person who liked black capes, fell in love with the title character. This pin (figure right) was my lucky amulet through the ill-advised adventure of law school. Perhaps all that Erik needed was a good real estate lawyer to help him claim title to his underground lair via adverse possession.

At right: St. Dymphna, patron saint of mental illness.

My late 20s-early 30s was my peak Christian phase, so I bought keychains like this one saying “YIELD your heart to Jesus” and wore a little diamond cross pendant on the commuter train in hopes that cute guys would strike up a conversation with me about the Trinity. (Reader, they did not. But if you begin an M/M romance that way, I will buy it.)

I don’t have any relevant swag from my “trauma theory explains everything” period, 2008-2015. You mean there’s no market for “emotional incest survivor” keychains? What a surprise!

This just screams “Etsy shop”, no?

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft around the time that I was becoming disillusioned with Christianity’s abuse apologism. The Elder Gods “religion” is great for mystically-minded cynics because it is simultaneously a genuine apophatic theology and a light-hearted parody of church ritual. We can get our Monty Python kicks from dressing up in tentacled headgear, but we’re also bracing ourselves to confront the cold reality of a non-human-centered cosmos–a bittersweet passage out of father-idealizing religion, into spiritual adulthood.

Central pendant and pin courtesy of NecronomiCon Providence 2017.

Which brings us into the wonderful world of queer signifying apparel. In case the boy-band haircut, Eddie Bauer fleece vest, and dozen slightly different blue pin-striped button-down shirts don’t give me away, I have begun collecting pronoun pins, necklaces, and tank tops with Pokemon characters in the colors of the trans flag.

So what does all this mean? Apart from the observation, so routine and widespread as to be cliché (but like many clichés, also true), that Americans are groomed to create brand identities for ourselves through consumption?

A thread that runs throughout my life is the need to struggle against misinterpretation. But it is interwoven with the contradictory thread of ceaselessly seeking an identity that resists definition. Show me what’s the opposite of who I am, and I will try to include it. And then I’ll complain that I’m still being mistaken for another, easier-to-understand category–as though it wasn’t my own choice to become something that has no name.

Dr. Freud, up there, would say this is about my engulfment trauma from being raised by a narcissist. Wherever I am, I have to carry some pocket talisman of resistance, an assertion (even if only secretly to myself) that a piece of me remains outside the agenda of the people around me. A crucifix at a radical feminist conference, a Cthulhu necklace in church.

When I was That Kind of Christian, I wore swag to evangelize. I wasn’t concerned with saving people from Hell; I agreed with C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle that all good and loving deeds were counted as worship of the true God, whatever you called your religion. I was desperate to rescue people from shame, perfectionism, and codependence in this life. Because a certain rather idiosyncratic brand of Christianity had done that for me, at that point in time, I hoped it would do the same for everyone. In my non-Christian family and my secular big-city workplaces, and in progressive churches where we glossed over theology instead of wrestling with its historical difficulties, I felt a similar burden of erasure as a conservative Christian in America that I now feel as a genuine sexual minority. Which is why I asked the question that led to this post: is this my psychological pattern, regardless of content?

If so, I am optimistic that the pattern is shifting. At NecronomiCon and Flame Con (the LGBTQ comics convention), I wore my rainbow octopus gear to signal membership in the tribe, to ask for welcome, not to undermine it. And it really worked. I felt energized, relaxed, and appreciated as the current version of my true self–however long a shelf-life it may have.

This nonbinary Russian Blue is one of many cute color-coded animals available from @GayBreakfast on Storenvy. 

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Inner Rings and Structureless Cliques

New York City and Harvard: competitive, glamorous, heartbreaking environments that together formed the landscape of my youth. In college, I used to brag ironically, “I’m miserable in the most prestigious place in the world!” Then as now, I took some satisfaction from the fact that I’d never have to wonder “what if”. I had been to the mountaintop, and although life still held a lot of suffering, at least I wouldn’t be tormented by regrets for some road not taken to the Big City.

Legendary places like these, with their gambler’s promise of insider success, continue to exert a magnetic pull on me, stirring hope and self-recrimination (what if I tried harder? what if I changed my whole personality?) despite knowing full well that their path to the top is neither possible nor enjoyable for me. I’m not a greyhound, and the racetrack’s metal bunny wouldn’t taste good if I caught it. But I can’t stop the twinge of wishing for it.

At such times I think back to one of my favorite C.S. Lewis essays, “The Inner Ring”, a lecture he gave at the University of London in 1944. Lewis points out the universality of the discontent and self-blame I felt in college–the intuition that someone, somewhere, has discovered the secret of belonging in this community where you remain an outsider. However, this intuition is illusory. You will never actually arrive at the center of society because it doesn’t exist: it is a “place” wholly defined by your fear of missing out. “The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.” Moreover, in the process of trying to get there, you will inevitably make moral compromises to please higher-ups, and turn into someone you never planned to be. “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

However, there is one secret society worth belonging to, Lewis says–the modest company of people who care about their work for its own sake, and do it well. The size of the group is self-limited by the number of people who share these values, but it’s not intentionally exclusive. Only there will you find the real sense of belonging that is friendship.

Oddly enough, though their ideologies and backgrounds are in most ways quite opposite, this was also the central message I found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead when I first read it at age 13. With no hope of popularity, I was free to go gonzo on my art. This may be one reason I am not tormented by anxieties about success or audience reach, as a poet–whereas I am very much haunted by them, as a fiction writer. My poetry-writing self was born a lot earlier, in the solitude of pre-adolescence, while my fiction-writing self dates from my 30s, when I had relationships that could be lost.

Lewis’s piece pairs nicely with feminist theorist Jo Freeman’s 1970 lecture/article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Reacting against the aforementioned ills of hierarchy and elitism, progressive and feminist communities have favored nominally egalitarian “structurelessness” without defined channels of authority. (I can attest to the popularity of this approach, with all the flaws that Freeman describes, in my K-12 education in the 1970s-80s.)

But, says Freeman, no group can truly remain unstructured. Organizing principles and power centers inevitably emerge. The problem is that when structure is entirely covert, there is no way to hold it accountable. Power acrues to those who already have more social capital than other members–for instance, the ones who are more popular, better connected to other members, more charismatic, or advantaged by class and education.

Moreover, a group that wishes to have a political impact cannot remain at the level of a “structureless” clique. (Freeman was specifically discussing how to turn women’s consciousness-raising groups into effective feminist activism.) Either the local group disintegrates, or it becomes subsumed into the agenda of the few national-level organizations that do have the structure to collaborate on a task.

As long as the women’s liberation movement stays dedicated to a form of organization which stresses small, inactive discussion groups among friends, the worst problems of Unstructuredness will not be felt. But this style of organization has its limits; it is politically inefficacious, exclusive, and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks. Those who do not fit into what already exists because of class, race, occupation, education, parental or marital status, personality, etc., will inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate. Those who do fit in will develop vested interests in maintaining things as they are.

The informal groups’ vested interests will be sustained by the informal structures which exist, and the movement will have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.

Freeman’s piece concludes with guiding principles for a democratically structured group. These include clearly delegated and distributed authority, rotation of tasks, equal access to resources, and widespread sharing of information. Her recommendations are still relevant to activists today.

Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts