VaLENTine Poem: “To Roses You Shall Return”

Happy Valentine’s Day and a blessed Ash Wednesday to my readers. For the first time since 1945, the holidays fall on the same date. I wrote the poem below in 2014, when they were one day apart. This blog template has trouble with indents, so imagine that the second line of each stanza is indented. Or buy a copy of Bullies in Love and read it in proper format!

I’m giving up being female for Lent. Hit me with some pronouns, let’s see which one feels right.

To Roses You Shall Return

When I see petals on the pavement
on the day after Ash Wednesday

May there be a pause in my hearing of tongues
of torn-out girls

When crinkled crimson holds the kiss
of boot heels

May I walk on
no trail of barefoot flight

Let there be no broken lips
or shadow of palms

Pierced in spring
let me infer only the generous florist

Scattering the currency of coupling
on the stony path to his fragrant store

 

Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return
KISS ME

 

When you see ashes on my forehead
on the day before Valentine’s Day

Will your torched ancestors still whisper
of riders in spotless robes

Will the flooded firstborn mouths
give up their bubble songs

When you see my face marked
by the dirt cross I chose

Will you only bend deeper
to the slap of your imitation sacrifice

Will you stuff your crone’s mouth with roots
as ordered by pig-roast priests

Tell me the seven wounds of roses
let our arms become the burnt horizon

Let our foreheads be graves where laughing girls
paint their sisters’ legs with mud

 

Almighty and everlasting God
you hate nothing you have made
BE MINE

February Links Roundup: Coals of Fire on their Heads

The Biblical author of Proverbs 25:21-22 (also quoted by St. Paul in Romans 12:20) makes the curious statement, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” This adds some bite, shall we say, to contemporary mainstream Christian teachings on forgiveness. We’re more familiar with St. Paul’s warning against revenge, immediately preceding this quote. But this striking image suggests that the most potent payback is being forced to see one’s self in the light of God’s truth. Instead of returning evil for evil, we can let our own purity of heart be a mirror against which their hatred bounces and reflects back on them. To put it another way, if my abusers really faced the trauma that motivated their misdeeds, that would hurt worse (and more constructively) than anything bad I could say about them on the Internet.

So says former U.S. Olympic gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first of 150 victims to go public about being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander, a conservative Christian, delivered a powerful and eloquent victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing last month. Read it at CNN.com. Among her memorable quotes: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”

She tells her story in the Christianity Today article, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” Sadly, Denhollander also became a pariah in her own church because she didn’t limit her call-out to secular sex offenders. Nor did she mince words about how bad theology can enable abusers.

Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?

I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them…

…The damage of sexual assault is extreme and it is lifelong. As much as someone forgives their abuser, as much hope as is found in the gospel, we don’t get complete restoration this side of heaven. It does not happen—that’s why the hope of heaven is so glorious. But the suffering here on earth is very real, and it does not go away simply because you forgive and release bitterness. These women are going to live, myself included, with lifelong consequences of the sexual assault, and the vast majority of this never needed to happen.

What does it mean to you that you forgive Larry Nassar?

It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.

A beautiful example of repentance and risky honesty is this January post on Mormon writer Josh Weed’s blog, “Turning a Unicorn Into a Bat: The Post in Which We Announce the End of Our Marriage”. I was not previously aware of this author, and discovered this post via the Twitter feed of Matthew Vines (God and the Gay Christian). Apparently, for several years, Weed and his wife Lolly have been writing about living in a mixed-orientation marriage: she is straight, and he has always known he was gay but tried to follow church teachings. However, they had the discernment and courage to realize that this was not working. As part of this confession, Weed apologizes to the LGBTQ community for upholding a theology that leads many queer Christians to the brink of suicide (himself included), and for being a public example that was used to bully other people into “ex-gay” lifestyles:

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who even had a moment’s pause as they tried to make the breathtakingly difficult decision that I am now making—to love myself fully for exactly what God made me—because of our post. We’re sorry for any degree that our existence, and the publicity of our supposedly successful marriage made you feel “less than” as you made your own terribly difficult choices. And we’re sorry if our story made it easier for people in your life to reject you and your difficult path as being wrong. If this is you, we want you to know: you were right. You did the correct, brave thing. You are ahead of me in the sense that you have progressed through things I have yet to progress through. You listened to your gut and to God and did a brave, brave thing. Now I’m following your example.

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who received criticism, backlash, or hatred as a result of our story. It wasn’t long after our post that we began to get messages from the LGBTQIA community, letting us know that their loved ones were using our blog post to pressure them to get married to a person of the opposite gender—sometimes even disowning them, saying things like, “if these two can do it, so can you.” Our hearts broke as we learned of the ways our story was used a battering ram by fearful, uninformed parents and loved ones, desperate to get their children to act in the ways they thought were best. One person wrote—and I’ll never get the horror of this out of my head for the rest of my life—saying that he went to see his family for Thanksgiving during his second year of college, where he was an out gay man who openly had a boyfriend. When he got home, his father pulled up our story on the computer and then physically assaulted him, beating him as he had often done during his childhood, saying “if this guy could avoid being a faggot, so could you!”

We’re sorry to anybody who felt a measure of false peace because of our story. There are many people who have good hearts, who were grappling with the issue of homosexuality before we came out, and who were having difficulty reconciling the church they loved with the things they knew about their gay loved ones. Our coming out post gave a false hope: “See? I just knew there had to be a way for gay people to stay true to their faith by denying themselves and live a happy, healthy life!” We’re sorry to perhaps send you back to the state of confusion you were in before you saw our story—but at the same time, that state of confusion is necessary. Something is wrong. It really doesn’t add up. As I have said in thousands of prayers over the last half-decade as I have come to know more and more LGBTQIA individuals and the ways they have been hurt, as well as have realized the impossibility of a God that would set up a “plan” that is totally impossible for a huge segment of His children to participate in, all within a church whose policies and positions assert that that is exactly what God has done: something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong with how things are currently set up. I don’t know yet what is right. But, Father, something is so incredibly wrong.

We’re sorry to any LGBTQIA person who was given false hope by our story, or who used our story as part of the basis for their life-decisions. We honor your decisions, whatever they are, and we’re sorry for any way in which our current trajectory might be unsettling or alarming.

I, Josh, am sorry to the many LGBTQIA people over the years that I subconsciously saw myself as different than. I am no different than you, and any degree to which I held on to the idea that I could be gay without being gay was, I see now, a manifestation of lingering internalized homophobia born of decades of being told this part of me was evil. It was an effort to belong to the “in-group” (heterosexual members of the Mormon Church) that I was actually not a part of.

I also love their solution to the problem of sexual incompatibility. To keep family continuity for their four daughters, they’re buying a multi-family homestead where Josh and Lolly will be able to live near each other with their future partners. Now that’s queer in the best way!

In the same post, Josh mentions listening to Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” to give him strength for this decision–one of my son’s very favorite songs, too. Now I have another reason to feel good about being a fan. Billboard magazine has the story in “Mormonism & LGBT Youth: Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on His Documentary”:

In Believer, a Sundance-bound documentary that he executive-produced, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds confronts the way Mormonism treats LGBTQ youth.

What inspired this doc?

We were going to make a documentary about Fremont Street in Las Vegas, [where] I grew up. But [director] Don Argott wouldn’t let me do it without diving into my life. He was living in my home, documenting me and my family, and that opened up old wounds. My dad’s brother is gay and Mormon — he was shamed in his community. Teaching that being gay is a sin is so damaging; it sparked me to take action.

Over at Little Red Tarot, the latest entry in Siobhan’s “Difficult Cards” series explores the light and shadow sides of the Hierophant, the Major Arcana card that represents religious tradition and institutions. The Hierophant can represent the “10,000 Things”, Taoism’s phrase for the multiplicity of entities and concepts that arose from the generative Nothingness of the Tao. As such, we might associate the card with the tribal divisions and stifling structures of organized religion. But the card can also point us to look beyond those things to the unnameable sacredness they try to translate into human terms. It can warn us that de-institutionalizing faith is no safeguard against universal flaws in human nature–the guru’s will to power, the spiritual person’s pride.

All religion seeks to bridge the gap between the mundane and that which is ‘holy’, spiritual, or transcendent. To talk only about structure, items, dogma, or beliefs is to miss half of this card. To talk about or master (as the Hierophant does) matters of spirit, we attempt, even when it’s futile to do so, to articulate that which precedes the physical world. The ether, the void, Tao, “No-thingness”.

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…”

All and nothing. The Hierophant affixes the two.

Decolonizing With My Polish Jewish Ancestors

In my post “Problems of Lineage and Magic” earlier this month, I began to explore the concept of ancestor work through the “decolonization” framework that’s developing in the politically progessive witchy community. I’ve begun taking this four-week online course from White Awake called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Recovery for Anti-Racist Action”. Organizers Eleanor Hancock and Darcy Ottey describe it as a class for “white-identified people seeking greater emotional resilience in their work against racism and for a sustainable future. Together we will explore how ceremonial practice and a strong ancestral identity help us challenge white supremacy as whole people.”

So, despite my loud-and-proud estrangement from my biological family, I’m cautiously investigating the shadow side of my rootlessness. Maybe there’s a level of unburdening from ancestral trauma that can’t happen until I go towards the ancestors and find out what they need me to resolve. Maybe, also, I should look at the role of my mother’s ethnic and class anxiety–dare I say, internalized anti-Semitism–in my past distaste for the parochialism of Judaism and my flight towards the seemingly universal cosmopolitan individualism of Christianity. In theory the post-tribal freedom and egalitarianism of the Jesus movement and the Enlightenment still appeal to me; in practice Western Christianity and Western rationality have frequently given cover to a new tribalism of cisgender white men.

All right, then, if we’re celebrating particularity, which lineage or geographical place is the framework for my ancestral recovery? Ethnically, on both sides, I’m an Eastern European Jew. My mother’s family emigrated to America in the early 20th century (good move, guys!!) from Poland, though I believe they came from Lithuania before that.

This is where it gets tricky. Polish indigenous magic and folk traditions come from the land where my ancestors lived, but do they come from my people? Are the Poles and Slavs ethnically distinct from the diaspora Jews? Are the Jews a race? (Certain people in Poland infamously thought we were…) I’m not sure whether the Slavic pagan deities are allies of Polish Jews, or of the goyim who threw us out.

Judaism, meanwhile, defined itself from the beginning as opposing all forms of folk magic or worship of local spirits. Tearing down pagan altars was a full-time job for the Hebrew prophets. I feel a stronger connection to Jewish material culture and traditions–folk tales, family rituals, recipes, Yiddish songs, immigrant narratives–than to anything Polish. This the actual heritage of my biological relatives. To the extent that I have any experience of inter-generational oral tradition, this is it. However, the religion is inherently contrary to the witchy project into which I would pour these memories.

Jews also have, shall we say, a troubled history with ethnicity- or land-based identity! The decolonization mindset tells white folks, who have a bad wannabe-Indian habit, to “stay in our lane” and reconstruct the indigenous folkways of our own ethnicity instead. I respect that as a negative command: don’t make up a stereotypical, commodified version of tribal practices and pollute the cultural stream for actual Native people trying to preserve their heritage. But I’m not sure about the positive command to foreground your own ethnic background as a determinant of your spirituality. As Myke Johnson asks in her paper “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft”, one of the resources for our White Awake class:

I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us?

Look at where a religion of sacred land and ethnicity has brought the Jews today. Atrocities are being committed by the hawkish Israelis who find Biblical mandate for taking back “their” homeland from the Palestinians. (I support a two-state solution.) The decolonization framework of Christian imperialists versus grassroots pagans breaks down when it comes to Jewish political history. We lost our roots in the homeland because we were colonized by pagan Romans and crusading Christians, but to reclaim those roots, we have become oppressive colonizers. Enlightenment individualism suddenly doesn’t look half bad.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see the literature address this question. Meanwhile, I’m off to Google “Jewish folk magic”. Tonight is a Super Blue Blood Full Moon, a good time to ask my ancestors for guidance.

Grandma Nettie and toddler Jendi playing the piano, c.1974. She passed away when I was 6, taking her kugel recipe to the grave. I think her default advice would be “Use more schmaltz!”

Queer Witchcraft as Resistance: Take the Survey

Via the Little Red Tarot e-newsletter, I learned of this interesting academic research project on the intersections of queerness, spirituality, art, and politics:

Australian academic seeking practicing artists who identify as queer/non-binary/LGBTQIA+ and identify as witches for inclusion in thesis: Contemporary Queer Artists and the Resurgence of Witchcraft as Resistance. Participants must be over 18 and willing to fill out a 16 question survey covering both their art and witchcraft practice. All personal information will be kept private. To take part, email Brooke at fecba001@mymail.unisa.edu.au

Brooke Haba, the researcher, gave me permission to post some excerpts from my survey responses. If your identity fits the description, do get in touch and fill out the questionnaire. I found it to be a useful self-examination of my evolving spirituality.

 

How do you feel [your art practice and your witchcraft practice] intersect?

Both require faith that what Western culture calls “imaginary” is important and real. For me, fiction-writing and spirituality both involve the cultivation of an inner listening that receives messages from noncorporeal beings. Asking my novel characters for fashion advice isn’t any more or less absurd than invoking Baba Yaga to heal my reproductive health problems. (Both of which really worked, FYI.)

I use Tarot spreads or card draws to center myself at the beginning of a writing session, and to suggest plot developments or unexpected images for a scene. I’ve done gratitude and prosperity rituals for my book launch.

In what ways would your art differ if you were not a witch?

I might still be afraid that writing gay erotica imperils my mortal soul.

Does your queer identity relate to your witchcraft practice?

Only in the sense that both depend on believing my own intuition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Being self-referenced, as the psychologists say. Trusting that my will and my perceptions are the foundation of my reality.

Is witchcraft a form of resistance in the current political climate?

I think it can be, but like any religion or ideology, it isn’t necessarily on the right side (whatever we imagine that to be). Humans are clever monkeys. Any system can get corrupted by our instinct to seek status and domination.

Grassroots witchcraft in America may have the advantage of being decentralized, politically marginal, and lacking large financial investments. Christianity began with radical resistance to empire, but over the centuries, became enmeshed with the political and economic status quo. The tradition accreted as many oppressive concepts as liberating ones. Modern witchcraft currently doesn’t have that baggage to overcome. So it may naturally attract anti-fascist, pro-equality folks. But we should never be complacent that alternative spirituality is any guarantee of authenticity or righteousness. Our biggest temptation could be consumerism—performative witchcraft on Instagram, having all the right swag instead of thinking about what communities our money supports.

Is queer identity a form of resistance in the current political climate?

That’s easier for me to answer YES. Sometimes I tell myself that my gender-questioning obsession is self-indulgent and stupid, like, “Really? You first decide to come out in the Trump administration?” But that’s me, nothing motivates me like the chance to piss someone off!

But seriously, I’m privileged to be as safe as a queer person can be: I pass for female, I’m self-employed, I’m white, and I live in a town where my son can go to Drag Queen Story Hour at the synagogue. If I can’t come out, who can?

Honestly, the only folks around here who are likely to give me grief about trans stuff are some older lesbian-feminist separatists who feel their struggles are erased by the blurring of the gender binary. I really feel this infighting is deadly, not only to us gender-nonconforming folks, but to everyone in the progressive resistance. Divide and conquer, you know. So yes, even against the old-guard Left, calling yourself “queer” is a useful form of resistance because it is an intersectional term—it reminds us to value solidarity in all our diversity, not settle for a world where single-issue groups fight for the crumbs left behind by the One Percent.

What does witchcraft offer that other spiritual perspectives lack? Do you see witchcraft as a spiritual path?

For me, it is certainly a spiritual path. I can’t imagine what else it could be. Without gratitude for the great mysteries of existence, without accountability to the nonhuman web of life, isn’t it just technology—imposing our will on events by manipulating so-called inert matter?

What it offers me is a redirection from dogma to practice and present-time awareness, not unlike the Buddhist and Jewish traditions that are also part of our family background.

I also see witchcraft as a way to integrate my adult self, who thrives on independence, analytical thinking, and political consciousness, and my child self, who is embodied and creative and has always known herself to be surrounded with invisible allies. The modern liberal church is this weird mix of an infantilizing authority structure and a skeptical intellectual culture that dismisses miracles and magic as childish.

Who/what inspires your art practice?

Anyone who is taking a risk to be creative and authentic, in any genre—putting their ego on the line and pushing through fears of abandonment and failure.

 

Problems of Lineage and Magic

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I watched two children’s films, one old and one new, that brought up strong feelings and questions regarding the importance placed on biological lineage in fantasy stories. Around the same time, in the private Facebook group for Andi Grace’s excellent Hawthorn Heart course on boundary-setting, I entered into a tough but fruitful conversation about what it means to “decolonize” our spiritual practices. And now I will attempt to tie those things together.

The old film was the 1979 animated version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a movie that gave me a spiritual awakening when I saw it on TV at age 6. This film set me off on my journey through Christianity, though I was so uneducated in religious matters that I didn’t realize it was a Christian allegory for another 6 years. I’ve long maintained that this is the definitive screen adaptation of the Narnia books, without remembering how primitive the animation was. The backgrounds aren’t even in the same style as the figures! Yet its bare-bones quality has a purity of emotion and scruffy Britishness that gets lost, in my opinion, in the color-saturated live-action Disney movies of the 2000s. Aslan is simply but powerfully drawn, like an Orthodox icon. And the White Witch’s grandiosity and mood swings bear an uncanny resemblance to my bio mother’s mannerisms.

Leaving aside the substitutionary atonement message, which makes no sense to me now, I clearly see how the film satisfied my yearnings for a loving male protector. For many years, I thought I had to buy into the entire Christian authority structure in order to enter that embrace. These days, I feel relatively secure that I can reach out to the God I encountered in Aslan and leave aside the problematic theology, but this winnowing process takes effort that’s sometimes beyond my strength.

Because rewatching the film made me grieve both my lost home in orthodoxy and my family trauma, I was prompted to think critically about the children’s royal succession as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”. Fairy tales and Christianity both developed their core motifs in an era of hereditary nobility. It’s become standard to carry over these ideas even though they don’t fit our contemporary political values of democracy and free choice in relationships. Chosen ones, from Lucy Pevensie to Harry Potter, become heroic protagonists or magic-wielders through their blood lineage. There’s also a colonialist flavor to the idea that the British children are the natural rulers of Narnia, a land where there’s apparently no one else from their ethnicity (or species?). Can we rethink the inheritance trope in fantasy, please?

The new Disney/Pixar film “Coco” is light-years away from the Narnia film in terms of animated wizardry and beauty. It’s about Miguel, a tween boy in a Mexican village, who dreams of becoming a famous musician, but his family won’t let him play. They are against music because Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue his musical career…or so they think. Miguel journeys to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos to meet his ancestors and find a solution to his family conflict. No spoilers, but in the end, he doesn’t have to choose between his dreams and his family. (Lucky him.)

I cried a lot at this film, and I still cry every time Shane asks me to read the picture books based on it. It’s beautiful, it ends happily, and it’s entirely about people of color celebrating their culture.

I also cried because I wish I had a place in the world like Miguel does. I cried for people whose lineage is disrupted by family estrangement, infertility, closed adoptions, diaspora, and colonization, who are erased from a story like this. What if you haven’t been allowed to know your ancestors? How would you find healing from family conflict, and blessing for your vocation?

The “woke” witch community talks a lot about decolonization, the opposite of cultural appropriation. White and Western spiritual practitioners have historically acted entitled to adopt practices from communities of color–Native American rituals, indigenous concepts like “spirit animal”, Haitian voodoo, African-American folk magic, and so forth. There’s been similar criticism that yoga in America has split off the physical exercises from their Indian religious roots. At the site Decolonizing Yoga, Indian-American writer Susanna Barkataki explains why this is a problem: “Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization? The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.” Decolonization isn’t so much about ethnic ownership of spirituality, as it is about accountability for the fact that white people violently disrupted POCs’ ability to practice their own traditions, and then we turned around and adopted those traditions as exotic and authentic.

So, I’m on board with that, in theory. But I chafed against it emotionally. In my childhood, I wasn’t free to decide what was true and good, or what my identity and life path should be. Everyone in the family had to be loyal to my mother’s version of reality. When I converted from Judaism to Christianity in my 20s, I wanted to switch from a worldview where truth was determined by tribal allegiance, to one where the individual’s encounter with the Holy Spirit was paramount. In the decolonization conversation, it felt like a step backward for my trauma healing, to be told that my bloodline dictated which gods I could worship. I didn’t want to be forced back into relationship with my biological family, living or dead–people who wouldn’t have lifted their leg to piss on me if I was on fire.

I threw this idea out there to the Hawthorn Heart group, knowing it would be controversial. My initial language put some folks on the defensive and they rightly called me out about asking for the “right” to utilize other cultures. I’m glad I was able to hear this and I thanked the nonwhite folks for doing the work of correcting me, because that can be exhausting! Everyone on the thread was very kind and helpful, even when they were angry. They shared some amazing insights and links that dramatically shifted my feelings about ancestor work.

One member noted that white people’s alienation from our specific ethnic lineage (Polish, Celtic, etc.) was also a casualty of colonialism. To succeed in America, we became folded into the ever-shifting construct of “whiteness” and lost our connections to our ancestors; then, lonely for roots, we idealized nonwhite “tribal” cultures and tried to force our way in. They pointed me to this article at White Awake, “The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe”, by white/Native American author Lyla June:

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault.

To start my researches, other Hawthorn Heart members linked me to the Eastern European sacred folk music album Rosna by Laboratorium Pieśni, and Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s Naropa University thesis Journey Into My Polish Indigenous Mind. Our conversation touched on shadow work, another theme of the online course. Someone ventured the insight that decolonization included owning those ancestors who were perpetrators of personal or racial trauma. We don’t have to have a personal relationship with their spirits in our magic, but we can’t dis-identify with their legacy completely. But neither should we give them too much power to cut us off from the good things in our heritage.

For the first time, I feel excited about exploring where I came from. And I also 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. Baba Yaga, ora pro nobis.

(Source)

December Links Roundup: Femme Faces of Spirituality

December is the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a four-week season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, as well as anticipation of the Second Coming and Last Judgment. (You won’t hear any songs about that in the mall–at least not in the liberal Northeast.) In Protestant churches, the lead-up to Christmas is also the only time of year when an important holy woman, the Virgin Mary, is depicted in our religious scenes or named in our songs. Even then, as I discovered while researching my small-group curriculum on sacred music, there are no hymns with Mary as the main character in the “Christmas” section of the Episcopal Church’s 1982 Hymnal.

At her blog Love Joy Feminism, evangelical-turned-atheist Libby Anne marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by considering “What Women Lost in the Protestant Reformation”. Libby Anne passed through Catholicism on her journey out of Christianity. Although Catholic doctrine on women and gender is still problematic by modern liberal standards, the historic Church offered more religious role models and life paths for women than did its Protestant competitors:

During the middle ages, numerous female mystics and theologians made an impactin religious faith and practice. Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, is an excellent example, but she is not alone. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, wrote theology. Bridget of Sweden wrote an extremely successful book on her revelations and founded a religious order. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrud the Great, and many others wrote books and outlined visions. Catherine of Genoa changed the Catholic conception of purgatory.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, religious vocations that had offered women the opportunity to study, contemplate, and write disappeared, replaced by the expectation that all women marry and spend their time in childbearing. The Protestant Reformation circumscribed women’s options, leaving them with just one—submission to an individual man who would be their lord and master.

No longer could a woman become an abbess, gaining some authority over others in her sphere. No longer could a woman eschew marriage and choose instead devotion to religion and learning. Certainly, convents were not perfect. In some cases wealthy women were sent away to take religious orders if her parents did not have enough for a dowry, whether that was their choice or not. The availability of options did not mean that choices were not circumscribed. They were. But with the elimination of options, their choices became only more circumscribed…

…The Protestant Reformation changed the very nature of women’s space. It changed the terrain on which women negotiated their role in society. No longer could a woman go to the pope and petition to create her own religious order. No longer could a woman opt to spend her life in contemplation and study rather than domestic labor. No longer could a woman live in a space dominated by other women, rather than in a domestic household in obedience to a father or husband. To be sure, the options women had were never perfect—but they were options…

…There is something else women lost to the Protestant Reformation, too—the Virgin Mary. Under the Reformation, religion became much more masculine. Gone was Mary, the Mother of God, and gone were the female saints, whom women had related to, asked favors of, and drawn strength from for centuries. Compare the stained glass windows and images in a Catholic church with those in an old-style Protestant church and you’ll see what I mean. We talk about representation. Mary wasn’t perfect, but she provided that.

For me, the Virgin Mary, like the Cross, is a potent double-edged symbol. It’s all a matter of emphasis. One can critique the sex-shaming involved in equating virginity with moral purity, and the restriction of women to the domestic sphere. However, this is not a flaw in Mary, as much as a side effect of patriarchal tokenism, which puts too much pressure on a limited number of female role models to be all things to all people. Looking at Mary in a positive light, she can represent women’s creative power, independent from men and heterosexual reproduction. Like Jesus, this teenage unwed mother voluntarity took on social stigma to follow her own perception of God’s call.

I relate fondly to Mary as a fellow human being, a nurturing figure in my spiritual pantheon. A mother goddess, on the other hand, triggers me severely, with its implication of a perpetual power imbalance and infantilization of her devotees. At the social justice blog The Establishment, this 2016 article by Amelia Quint explores “How Wiccan ‘Mother Goddess’ Worship Disempowers Women”. Quint, a former Catholic, shares that her decision to remain childless made her feel excluded from the traditional Wiccan archetype of Maiden-Mother-Crone.

The prominence of the Mother Goddess archetype in Wicca is not to be understated; in fact, she seems at times to be an intentional foil to the Father God of Christianity…Though many maintained that this motherhood could be symbolic, of creative works or businesses or your own life, I still couldn’t understand why the spiritual equivalent of the prime of my life had to be expressed by an experience I’d opted out of…

…The growing popularity of spiritual accoutrements and consciousness on social media invites the question: Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for? Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere. The mystique of alternative spirituality is alluring, but as more women embrace Goddess-centered forms of worship, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that many of these practices emphasize the divinity of masculine and feminine archetypes, keeping traditional gender roles intact.

Quint cites some modern practitioners who are working on making the tradition more inclusive, such as Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, which imagines a fivefold Goddess archetype based on talents and life stages other than procreation. Quint also consults philosopher and spiritual counselor Briana Saussy, who posits that the common thread of maternal divine figures in world religions is that they help themselves and others heal from great loss:

Isis had to knit her beloved Osiris back together. Demeter had to search the Underworld for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped and raped. Mary watched Jesus suffer a violent death.

For Saussy, it isn’t the motherhood that takes center stage; it’s the survival of trauma. Unlike generativity or nurturing, losing something we hold dear is an experience that transcends every social construct. A less literal interpretation might have the “mother” be that which puts us back together again. Saussy agrees: “What these various goddesses really tell us is how to move through those losses and see them for what they are.”

Faith-centered trauma healing is the mission of Rebecca Davis’ website Here’s the Joy, a Christian blog that supports survivors of abuse in churches and critiques abuse-enabling theology. For instance, she advises believers to “suffer intelligently”, that is, to beware of martyrdom theology that romanticizes submission to mistreatment:

There is still suffering in the loss of a relationship and recovery from a betrayal, suffering that will remind us to turn our eyes to Jesus Christ for our hope and healing. But this is not the willful suffering of putting oneself under cruelty on purpose, thinking that it will somehow refine you.

There is only one Refiner. It is Jesus Christ. There is only one way to be refined. It is by faith in Him.

Sometimes suffering is completely unavoidable. Sometimes suffering is a path we must go through in order to attain a vital goal. But instead of assuming that all suffering is desirable, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern. Is this suffering completely unavoidable? Is this suffering to be endured for a vital goal?

Or is this a suffering that we can and should escape?

Davis writes that she began to focus her blog on these issues after seeing her church’s failure to help a friend in a domestic abuse situation. I see the femme face of divinity, nurturing and fiercely protective, at work in projects like these.

 

 

November Links Roundup: Body Positive

Twitter served up this adorable story today about two male lions in Kenya who were observed in an affectionate mating scene. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist captioning the pics “Gay pride” and “Can you feel the love tonight”. If I didn’t already have a lion tattoo, I would consider inking one of these images. The article notes:

While male lions engaging in sexual activity is a rare occurrence, it is far from unknown.

In fact, studies published in the 20th century indicated that about eight per cent of ‘mountings’ observed by scientists had been male lions with other males.

Male lions have been observed courting other lions, including showing affection and caressing, as well as mounting. Lionesses are also known to couple up, however this has mainly been observed in captivity.

Lions are by no means the only animal species where homosexual relations exits. Biologists have recorded same-sex sexual activity in more than 450 species including flamingos, bison, beetles and warthogs.

A 2010 study of Alaskan Albatrosses found that a third of the pairs actually consisted of two females.

Possible reasons for homosexuality in animals include teaming up to protect young and occupying the attention of surplus males. Non-reproductive bonding behavior can still advance an animal’s genetic interests by improving the survival of its social group. Now I want someone to write a children’s picture book about gay lion uncles.

Author and singer-songwriter Vivek Shraya recently released a video of the title song from her new album, “Part-Time Woman”. The video features Shraya and nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon singing about femininity as something that you know inside, not something you must perform to prove your identity to other people. It’s a powerful message delivered in a tender, intimate style.

Holy Foreskin, Batman! Issue 17.5 of DIAGRAM, a well-regarded online journal of experimental and hybrid literature, published this provocative prose-poem by Caroline Crew. (Content note: “Reliquary” is illustrated with a disturbingly graphic medieval painting of baby Jesus’ circumcision. He is definitely giving the mohel the side-eye.) Crew plays with concepts of authenticity, incorruptibility, and holiness. She questions the value that the Church ascribes to changelessness, even as the Church itself has changed its doctrines over the centuries.

f you must imagine the Holy Foreskin still survives, look upward. Prefiguring the Church’s lockdown on this most intimate of relics, 17th century theologian Leo Allatius declared all Holy Prepuces fakes—the true foreskin of Christ had quit this mortal coil, and transcended to space. The rings of Saturn, that was the true location of what remains of Christ’s cock. A body so stopped in time it’s frozen in lightyears. Starlit forever.

A relic of the past. When referring to a person, perhaps whose views are archaic or abhorrent as a “relic,” we attempt to place that person in a history that refuses any connect to the present. We want to stop time, isolate its horrors.

But history is a body, not an object. It moves, and rots and corrupts, and moves on.

Recent relics, according to the headlines: manufacturing, soap operas, marital rape, herbal medicine, mail delivery, national identity, moral relativism, a home cooked meal, slavery, ethernet cables, ambassadors, religion. It is easier to believe in relics than it is to believe in a body. Bodies change. Bodies corrupt.

Let me rot, so I may change.

 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

Give Me That Old One Religion: Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

How times have changed at Reiter’s Block. Only a few years ago I would have been reporting on the Wheaton Theology Conference. Now my idea of a spiritual retreat is NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention for writers, artists, scholars, and fans who shamble in the footsteps of that 20th-century master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This will be the first of several posts on the convention and revisiting Lovecraft’s work.

HPL penned classics of cosmic horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, as well as being an influential editor, collaborator, and mentor to many other writers in the genre. His literary heirs include prominent horror writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell.

It’s strangely fitting that his beloved Rhode Island hometown (his tombstone reads “I Am Providence”) bears the name of a religious belief whose loss tormented him. Divine Providence, the idea that world events are meaningfully directed by a God who placed humanity at the pinnacle of creation, is precisely what has been swept away in Lovecraft’s cosmos. His characters are driven mad by discovering that powerful uncanny forces, superior and indifferent to humans, are lurking below the fragile surface of this illusion we call civilization. Ignorance truly is bliss, but unachievable, as there is nothing so tragically human as the quest for hidden knowledge.

HPL was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a flagrant and neurotic racist. Genealogical and antiquarian research, an obsession of many of his interchangeable narrators, is likely to reveal corrupt ancestry (fish-frog people, humanoid apes, or body-switching wizards) that inexorably pulls the hapless descendant into degeneracy. His work is fascinating not least because it holds up a mirror to 20th-century anxieties about Darwinism, the brutality of the First World War, and the mixing of cultures in an immigrant society.

On a psychological level, forbidden family knowledge is a topic that resonates with many readers. When HPL was very young, his father died from syphilis in an insane asylum, and his mother was also institutionalized there at the end of her life, which must have contributed to his love-hate relationship with intergenerational history and breeding (in all senses of the word).

I personally read incest themes into his work as well. Sexuality is only depicted as corrupting and unnatural, involving the breaking of unspeakable taboos; the ocean, from which his most memorable horrors arise, is an archetype of the engulfing maternal feminine; and in tales like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep”, evil ancestors forcibly occupy the minds and bodies of their descendants. Incest leaves you with the very Lovecraftian terror that you will become the thing you most abhor. Whether or not HPL was literally a survivor, the symbols are there for us to see ourselves in his characters.

I think HPL was the first horror writer I read, when I was about 12; before that, I’d been such a nervous child that I closed my eyes in the Mystery section of bookstores so as not to see the word “Death”. Turning suddenly and eagerly towards what I feared, I went on to consume every horror anthology I could find in my high school and college libraries. This interest continued until about 10 years ago, when I fell into the deepest part of my PTSD brain and could get nightmares from an episode of “The Simpsons”. Yay, recovery! Three years ago, coinciding with my survivor-conscious farewell to Christianity as I’d understood it, I heard Cthulhu calling…and found something deeply healing in the Mythos.

Cthulhu resembles the evangelicals’ God in many ways, except without the bullshit that he loves you. Cthulhu doesn’t gaslight anyone. Echoing Calvinism’s absolute divine sovereignty, Cthulhu is honestly indifferent, inscrutable, able to destroy the world, and beyond all human ideas of Good and Evil. According to the footnotes for this story in Leslie Klinger’s indispensable The New Annotated Lovecraft (Annotated Books, 2014), HPL was thinking of Nietzsche, another great critic of Christian hypocrisy. Whether you get eaten or not is just random, like double predestination. Cthulhu demands or at least seems to appreciate human sacrifice, but doesn’t say it’s for our own good, unlike the Christian Father God’s sacrifice of his Son. Despite the frequent assertions that the events of these stories have shaken the narrator’s sanity, the Antarctic winds from the Mountains of Madness have the bracing quality of truth dispelling the fog of denial.

Even so, I felt a whisper of anxiety at our blasphemy as I entered Providence’s First Baptist Church in America for the opening ceremonies of NecronomiCon that Thursday afternoon. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638, it’s the oldest Baptist church in the country. Apparently HPL’s leadership in architectural preservation efforts put him back in their good graces despite his apostasy–we were told he was kicked out of Sunday School after three weeks for asking too many questions!

Just days after the racist rally in Charlottesville, I was also worried what sort of person the conference would attract, and whether it was insensitive even to be celebrating such a problematic author right now. Never fear, the clientele was solidly queer/Goth/nerd, with not a tiki torch or Confederate flag decal in sight (though some white dude, hopefully not an attendee, shouted slurs at my family from a car window outside the mall the next evening).

Barnaby Evans, executive director of the Providence arts organization WaterFire, emceed the opening ceremonies, setting a politically progressive and inclusive tone that continued throughout the weekend. It was clear that we were here to carry on and critically develop the Lovecraftian legacy of awe in the face of cosmic mysteries, rather than being apologists for his blind spots. Opera arias and organ music by the dazzling Gigi Mitchell Velasco filled me with a sense of the sublime, giving me hope that I could let go of doctrines but keep what I loved about church: a community gathered in a beautiful historic place to meditate on the wonder (and sometimes terror) of mortal existence.

Until our next installment–

In Cthulhu we are trusting,
Though his rites are quite disgusting;
From his crypt he’ll soon be busting,
And that’s good enough for me!

Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)