Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

June Links Roundup: Trust Me, I’m a Policeman

The police, a small presence in our family’s everyday lives, occupy a large territory in the imagination of the Young Master, now age 6. Storylines about catching robbers emerge from his daily playtime with Lego Batman and the superhero’s assorted friends and enemies. Internet cartoon series like Chu Chu TV, friendly uniformed animals in “Zootopia” and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, and gifts of police-themed clothing reinforce the message that police are fun and friendly people with cool noisemaking vehicles.

Meanwhile, his parents’ perspective on the police is evolving in the opposite direction, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and radical history books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. We are sometimes at a loss about how to impart a nuanced point of view to such a young child. On the one hand, we want him to feel safe approaching an officer for help, if he’s ever lost or in danger in a public place. On the other hand, we don’t want him to buy into the myth of benevolent state power that went unchallenged even in our progressive urban secondary schools.

I’ve taken the opportunity, on a few occasions, to put the Lego cop in our handmade brick “prison” and tell Shane that officers have to obey the law like everyone else. If they don’t, they stop being cops and become ordinary people who go to jail. (The shockingly low percentage of grand jury indictments, let alone convictions, is a discussion for another day.)

This week in The New Republic, in his article “Rough Justice: How America became over-policed”, political columnist and bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith reviews two books on the history of modern policing and its troubling roots. The first professional police force, in Victorian Britain, grew out of efforts to quell Irish uprisings against the English colonizers. In America, the earliest uniformed officers were hired by Southern cities to prevent slave revolts and enforce laws against black literacy.

The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969; in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.

The literature reviewed in this essay does not call for abolition of the professional police force, but instead argues that we have gone astray by making the police the first or only responder for social problems caused by poverty and poor mental health care. “Most perceived threats to Americans’ safety—urban gun violence, foreign terrorist attacks, immigrant crime waves—result, in fact, from American policies or are created wholly out of our imaginations.”

Perhaps the most feared law enforcement arm at this moment is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency with a more recent and dubious pedigree than your neighborhood patrolman. In a March feature at The Nation, Sean McElwee argues convincingly that “It’s Time to Abolish ICE”.

ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.

ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.

That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.

IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”

Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.

The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer…

…Next to death, being stripped from your home, family, and community is the worst fate that can be inflicted on a human, as many societies practicing banishment have recognized. It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

American law enforcement seems to be getting it wrong on both ends: destroying innocent families, but not taking the threat of misogynist violence seriously, despite the fact that the eventual perpetrators of mass shootings nearly all started with harassment or assault of intimate partners. In her October 2014 Harper’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps”, prominent feminist writer Rebecca Solnit (you may know her as the originator of the term “mansplaining”) details how warnings of societal dangers go unheeded when they come from a woman. Environmentalist Rachel Carson, Freud’s incest survivor patients, Woody Allen’s stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, and Anita Hill were among the many truth-tellers deemed “hysterical” for challenging the status quo.

We are still in an era of battles over who will be granted the right to speak and the right to be believed, and pressure comes from both directions. From the “men’s rights” movement and a lot of popular misinformation comes the baseless notion that there is an epidemic of groundless accusations of sexual assault. The implication that women as a category are unreliable and that false rape charges are the real issue is used to silence individual women and to avoid discussing sexual violence, and to make out men as the principal victims. The framework is reminiscent of that attached to voter fraud, a crime so rare in the United States that it appears to have had no significant impact on election outcomes in a very long time. Nevertheless, claims by conservatives that such fraud is widespread have in recent years been used to disenfranchise the kinds of people — poor, non-white, students — likely to vote against them.

On the subject of sexist double standards, I resonated a lot with Jaya Saxena’s article last month in the literary journal Catapult, “The Rose Quartz Ceiling: When It Comes to Love, Men Are Praised for What Women Are Simply Expected to Give”. Now, I know it’s not fair to blame my perceived gender for all the emotional labor I get hornswoggled into providing, but there’s a reason why it only takes a 10-minute ride for me to hear about my Uber driver’s difficult childhood. (The writer in me may be sending mixed signals: “Tell me more!”)

Writing about the stated moral of the film “Moulin Rouge”–“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”–Saxena observes:

The only people who sing that line in the film are men—lovestruck, idealistic men who are championed for being so emotionally open. But as women, we slowly learn, the greatest thing we are expected to do with our lives is love and be loved in return. No matter what else we might want to do, this is the height to which we’re expected to aspire. Men who love are enlightened beings, heroes of musicals. Women who love are just doing their job, what we were born to do. And so we hit the rose quartz ceiling.

While some interpretations of crystals vary from source to source, the rose quartz is always the stone of unconditional love. Its pale pink translucence is said to pull at the heart and fill you with light and softness; remind you of your love for others, your love for yourself. It also “carries a soft feminine energy,” as opposed to the “masculine,” aggressive energy of other stones.

These ideas are intertwined, that it is the realm of the feminine to love and be loved. The rose quartz is the stone of motherhood, the ultimate archetype of a love that is supposed to be constant and freely given, no matter if it is ever reciprocated or even acknowledged. Whether or not you identify as a woman or a mother or in any way feminine, to associate the binary of love and hate with any other binary assumes that it’s only naturally accessible to some, requires a leap for others. Even the most generous readings of the crystal’s properties, which say we all have both masculine and feminine energies in us, still buy into there being a dichotomy. It is always the feminine side that is expected to sacrifice, to love without condition…

…To be a good mother, the supposed higher calling of any woman, is to love no matter what. The giver of unconditional love has to do the work of love, and it has to be given freely and openly and constantly regardless of what she receives in return.

This is reasonable to expect of parents, both mothers and fathers. But it’s also easy to use the act of “unconditional love” as an excuse to treat the woman giving it like shit. Kind, soft, giving: That’s just how women are. Whether you’re arguing from witchy empowerment or benevolent misogyny, the conclusion is the same. Love is feminine—not just a woman’s job, but her nature. Why expect anything else of her if this is what she was made for?

I asked my partner if there were conditions to their love for me. “Yeah, like, if you murdered my parents, I’d probably stop loving you,” they said. I love them. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine a life for myself in which we do not love each other. But I do know there are actions that would make loving them impossible. Maybe I would still feel something like love for them, but I would stop loving as an action. There are conditions to my love. There are things that would make me abandon it, not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Because the only person I want to have unconditional love for is myself.

Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, for the link. Follow her on Twitter.

As I wrote in my last post, I have a love-hate relationship with the daily meditations from the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course that I’m teaching this summer. This week, not so much love. Trauma recovery is walking a tightrope between blaming the world and blaming the self; between the victim mentality that caused some of my family to turn into real-life Miss Havishams, and the Christian doctrine (espoused in today’s meditation by no less than Kierkegaard and Joni Eareckson Tada) that God tears us down to nothingness in order to rebuild us. I won’t worship a God who acts like a cult leader, breaking and brainwashing us to soften us up for his “love”.

Laura LeMoon’s post last month on the social justice blog The Establishment, “Why Me? Incest, Suffering, and Why God Isn’t My Answer”, addresses the failures of this theodicy.

There is a common thread amongst most major religions that god knows best and god has a plan. To an abuse survivor, this is like being told to accept being out of control when we often feel like having no power got us abused in the first place. Trust and surrender are hard for people who have experienced an egregious breach of trust and that “surrender” means giving up agency or the ability to fight back or say no. And while I’m sure there are many abuse survivors who have been able to surrender, I am not one of them, and it should not be required for us…

…When religions tell us as survivors that “god knows best” or “just let go,” it sounds like reasons abusers give children as to why they must inflict pain and suffering upon them. When god calls for us to blindly trust, how could an adult abuse survivor not think of when their abuser told them “I’m doing this because I love you; I’m doing this because you wanted me to; I’m doing this to help you.” It can’t be an expectation of abuse survivors that they just let go and accept that god knows best, because we might feel like this is something that allowed us to be hurt in the past. For whatever reasons god “allows” incest to happen, we will probably never know while we walk this earth.

Maybe everything that happened to me was just random; like a tornado that skips one house only to eviscerate another. With a number of years of intensive therapy under my belt, I’ve learned that the “why” becomes not nearly as relevant as the “how.” How are you going to move on? How are you going to let go of suffering, of victimhood? How are you going to believe you’re worthy of a healthy, safe, happy life and people in it who treat you accordingly?

That’s how I feel too. In today’s journal, I wrote, “Suffering doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just an experience.” I still believe in the benefit of looking at religion through a survivor liberation theology lens, but mainly to deconstruct what isn’t healthy, not as a new foundation. What does that imply for the Cross–is Christianity inherently limited by making a trauma story its central image? Refocusing on the human life of Jesus, as liberals do, doesn’t help me, because the problematic values we draw from that story, the moral ideals of passivity and self-erasure, are still (in my view) dictated by the Cross as the supreme interpretive guide, and by our own unprocessed histories of victimization. And yet, I continue to pray.

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)

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2017

My gender is Ron Swanson.

In these last days of 2017, many of us feel our greatest achievement is simply surviving the first year of president-dictator Tan Dumplord. But there were other small but sweet milestones to celebrate here at Reiter’s Block.

The Young Master learned to speak his initial consonants clearly, a mixed blessing because he has picked up my habit of saying “Oh, fuck!” We are practicing the substitute “Oh, fungus!” and giving each other time-outs when we slip up. He passed his first term of circus acrobat class with flying colors. Favorite songs are currently “I Like to Move It” by will.i.am and “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. He is very serious about Lego.

Thanksgiving with the fam.

My short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was a finalist for the inaugural Sunshot Prize from New Millennium Writings and will be published in Fall 2018. Stories in this manuscript have won prizes from New Letters, The Iowa Review, Bayou Magazine, and Passages North, among others. Stay tuned for cover reveal and reading dates.

The Mirena IUD, installed in January, has given me my life back. For the first time in 30+ years, I’m not disabled for a week every month from endometriosis. These and other perimenopausal changes (hello, extra 20 pounds) have prompted me to reflect on aging, the many meanings of fertility, and a deeper commitment to inhabiting my body as-is, with acceptance and strength. I started lifting weights again with a trainer, after a 5-year parenting hiatus. I have a whole new attitude toward it since I’ve embraced my masculine side. I used to be afraid of bulking up, but now I welcome it.

Buy Two Natures.

Let’s get into the highlights reel, shall we?

Best Poetry:

The energetic, challenging poems in Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2017) put blackness and anti-blackness in conversation with the Western canon. For instance, the opening poem cycle reworks the Labors of Hercules through the legend of 19th-century African-American pimp Stagger Lee (the subject of numerous murder ballads by artists as varied as Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, and The Clash). A later cycle replaces Jesus with Br’er Rabbit in the Stations of the Cross.As great satires do, these mash-ups make us ask serious questions: Who gets to go down in history as a hero instead of a thug? Would an oppressed people be better off worshipping a trickster escape artist, rather than a martyr?

I’m currently reading Ariana Reines’ Mercury (Fence Books, 2011), in which she continues her splendid dive into the poetics of abjection. An ironic, melancholy sequence about watching a violent action movie with her friends at the multiplex is juxtaposed with a vision of the Sun God’s holy cattle. She manages the near-impossible feat of noticing the pornographic banality of modern consciousness without posing as superior to it, and this humility gives her work a tender and sacred quality: “under any vile sheen a soul or truth can move”. Reines offers astrology readings through her site Lazy Eye Haver; I’m looking forward to my first one in January.

Best Fiction:

KJ Charles‘ Victorian-era paranormal gay romances are witty, sexy, and literary. I can’t describe exactly why the men in her books feel like real men, not the overgrown boys in a lot of romance novels. They’re worldly-wise and bear responsibilities beyond their years, and have a very British gentlemanly restraint about open displays of emotion, which makes their moments of intimacy more meaningful. The mystery plots are a delightful homage to M.R. James and other masters of the antiquarian ghost story. This year I read the Charm of Magpies series and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I’m glad she’s a prolific writer because I didn’t want these books to end.

Angie Gallion’s Intoxic series is a trilogy (with a fourth book in the works) about Alison Hayes, a trailer-park teen from small-town Illinois who copes with an alcoholic mother, unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and the mixed blessings of a successful modeling career in California. This moving coming-of-age story is incredibly accurate about the complex emotional terrain of family trauma and recovery.

Best Nonfiction:

Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) is a meticulously researched history book that reads like a thriller, with vivid characters and political intrigue. British journalist Hari unearths the junk science and racist panic behind the criminalization of addictive substances, exposes the brutality of American prisons, and profiles communities from Vancouver to Portugal where legalization is working. His takeaway findings: Drugs don’t cause addiction, trauma and isolation do. Prescribing maintenance doses to addicts in safe medical settings not only cuts crime dramatically, it even reduces addiction over the long term.

Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper, 2017) deserves all the critical acclaim it received this year.In this starkly honest and courageous memoir, the bestselling fiction writer and feminist commentator shares her complex and ongoing story of childhood trauma, eating disorders, and navigating prejudice against fat bodies. After being gang-raped at age 12, Gay self-medicated her emotional pain with food and became obese as armor against the world. She offers no easy answers or tales of miracle diets, but rather something more valuable: a role model for learning to cherish and nourish yourself in a genuine way despite society’s cruelty toward “unruly” bodies.

Favorite Posts:

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

Aspie Explorations

Because environments that most people find comfortable can put me into temperature meltdown, I often have to choose between bowing out of a group event for a reason that people think is stupid or untrue, or attending and making others uncomfortable with my access needs. Either way I risk being told that I don’t care enough about people, when in fact I am doing invisible extra work just to “relax” with them. The emotional labor that Aspie women and female-ish people do to stay connected is not really appreciated because of sexism.

High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

While the wedding cake example [in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus

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.

Baba Yaga sends you best witches for 2018.

 

 

The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
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Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/2/2014

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Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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“Taking Down the Pear Tree” Wins New Letters Prize for Fiction

It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!

In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.

 

          Taking Down the Pear Tree

 

You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.

Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.

Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.

****

It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.

After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.

You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.

All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.

****

There is a room that is blue and green.

There is a room whose door is always closed.

****

You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.

****

It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.

You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.

You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.

You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.

****

 

July Links Roundup: Mommy T-Rex

In the years leading up to Shane’s adoption, I used to say, “I want to be a parent, not a mother.” I had hoped that non-reproductive parenting would free me from predetermined expectations about the balance of caregiving labor and the self-negating emotional enmeshment that I didn’t want to replicate from my own childhood. I wasn’t reckoning on the internalized sexism of social workers, but thankfully that period is over, and my husband and I can try to raise our son to appreciate all gender roles without feeling bound by any.

I resonated with this post from last year by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan (Shakesville), “Childfree 101: The ‘Women Are Designed to Love’ Narrative”, where she challenges the common argument that childfree women (but never men!) are denying themselves some supreme opportunity to give love. Even in a perfectly egalitarian socioeconomic system, emotional labor is a finite resource, and being female shouldn’t mean that people are entitled to infinite amounts from us:

In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.

When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.

Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.

And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.

I think a lot about gender because I’m raising a boy in a sexist world. Now that Shane is verbal enough to engage me in imaginative play, I’m fascinated and pleased by his non-attachment to the categories that adults so anxiously defend. “I’m Mommy T-Rex, you’re Baby T-Rex,” he’ll tell me, and then he’ll switch us. Eddie the Teddy might be another bear’s daddy one day, his mommy the next. Shane’s self-chosen interests are what society typically calls masculine: robots, dinosaurs, building blocks, big trucks, loud machines, and rolling in the dirt. At the same time, he loves to try on my costume jewelry and make his own in art class, and his stuffed toys are more likely to kiss each other than to fight.

In hopes of delaying his fall from genderfluid innocence, last year we removed the YouTube and PBS Kids apps from his iPad. (Yes, he has his own, and it’s better than mine. Don’t judge, read the link below.) On his own, he picks sweet, sometimes educational games that cut across stereotypical lines: DinoTrux and the Big Button Box of fart sounds and ambulance sirens, but also pony hair salon, dollhouse, and baby animal care. We highly recommend Toca Boca, Fox & Sheep, and Sago Mini. Toca Boca proclaims on their home page: “Gender Neutral: No pink or blue aisles. Digital toys for all kids.” My PlayHome is a series of apps where you put a multiracial cast of characters through everyday activities in a school, a suburban home, and a quaint shopping district, though Shane was disappointed that he couldn’t put the girls’ clothes on the boys and vice versa. In Toca Life, on the other hand, hairstyles and clothes can be swapped freely by male, female, and gender-ambiguous characters.

By contrast, many picture books, especially the classic ones that he receives as gifts, are retrograde in their gender roles. Books about trains, trucks, robots, and other “boy” subjects, which happen to be Shane’s main interests right now, have few if any female characters. I’ve resorted to switching the pronouns in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site so that some trucks can be “she” or “they”. My headcanon on the modern Little Golden Book I’m a Monster Truck! is that the narrator is a butch lesbian who is dancing with her femme girlfriend. As other parenting bloggers have complained, the Lego mini-figures that come with the City (garbage trucks, ambulances, etc.) and Dino World sets are predominantly male. So the argument for meatspace versus virtual playthings is more complicated than you’d think.

Over at Medium, social media expert Alexandra Samuel makes the case “Why Kids’ Screen Time Is a Feminist Issue” in this blog post from May. One of her commenters also makes a good point that the attack on screen time is ableist: autistic and other easily overstimulated kids need an activity that’s a respite from intense face-to-face interaction. I’ve observed that Shane does seem to benefit from the cool-down time with his apps after a very active day at his Montessori school, which is a technology-free zone. Samuel writes:

When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan. When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.

It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace — or at least nobly suffer through — all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.

The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat…

Just look at the prevailing attitude towards another innovation that gave mothers more autonomy: baby formula. We know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, but that doesn’t begin to explain the horrified looks you attract when bottle-feeding in public. (The glares I got for bottle feeding my baby were good preparation for the glares I now get when I hand over my iPad.) As Cindy Sterns writes, “by deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a ‘poor mother’ who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby’s welfare. By contrast, the ‘good mother’ is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child’s needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress.”

When we shame women for adopting labor or sanity-saving innovations, we don’t limit ourselves to guilting them over the damage they’re doing to their kids: we also guilt them for what they’re doing to the earth itself. If disposable diapers emerged as one of the great symbols of environmental waste, that’s in keeping with the idea that women should be prepared to sacrifice themselves not only to the demands of motherhood, but of the greater good. The focus on “what you can do at home to save the earth,”Stacy Alaimo notes, “shifts the focus from patriarchal capitalism to the home and places the blame and responsibility, not on corporate polluters, scandalous lack of government controls, or waste-oriented capitalism but ultimately on homemakers, who had better use cloth diapers and keep those pots fully covered.”

Even before the advent of the contemporary environmental movement, saving women time took a backseat to saving men time, or to saving the earth. “Investment in labor-saving equipment for the farm took priority, partly because men made these decisions on their own,” writes Joy Parr, in her fascinating study of the differences between Canadian and American adoption of washing machines.

What’s really going on is an age-old problem: we don’t like innovations that make mothers’ lives easier.

This diaper-using, non-breastfeeding adoptive mother says, Amen.

In case you missed it, this May 31 New Yorker profile of the late Arnold Lobel made me feel even better about one of Shane’s favorite books. In “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love”, Colin Stokes discusses the enduring appeal of these gentle stories about the bond between two friends. Their situations are certainly not sexual or even romantic, since the youngest readers don’t usually care about such things, but instead center on the small crises and relationship glitches that make real drama for the pre-K set: wanting to play when your friend wants to be alone, or worrying that you look funny in your bathing suit. We don’t need sentimental conversations or tacked-on moral endings to know that Frog and Toad will stay together through it all.

[Lobel’s daughter] Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me.It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me…

…Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”

April Links Roundup: Noli Me Tangere

Happy Easter! No, I’m not late. Episcopalians celebrate the liturgical season of Easter for 50 days. That’s a lot of Cadbury Creme Eggs.

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No one out-femmes me.

The post-resurrection wounds of Jesus have long been precious to me as a symbol of new life after trauma–a kind of healing that doesn’t mean forgetting. One of the most beautiful examples is this Easter meditation, “The Scars”, from the post-evangelical feminist blog Tell Me Why the World is Weird. What an original and poignant interpretation of Christ’s words to Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not.”

There was so much to do! Forty more days on earth- he would need to talk with all of his followers. And he suspected the first one would be Mary Magdalene.

And there she was. The first to visit the tomb. She stood with her head down, crying. With one hand she held the bag of spices she had prepared for his body.

He walked closer to her and said “hello.”

She didn’t look up. “Please sir. They’ve taken my Lord away… sir could you tell me… tell me where they’ve put him and I’ll go get him.”

“Mary.”

“Rabboni!” she cried, and ran at him with outstretched arms.

OH NO NO NO, he thought. Oh geez no touching. He froze. He couldn’t think. He tried to make words, to say something that would stop her. No touching. “Do not hold on to me!” he blurted out, and Mary backed away. Oh, thank goodness. Okay, try to play it off cool, say something profound. He looked at her and took a deep breath. “… for I have not yet returned to my father. Go to my disciples and tell them.”

She wiped tears from her eyes. “Yes, Lord,” she said.

“I have to go. You go tell them, okay?”

Before I figured out where the story was headed, this Jesus reminded me of someone with autism or sensory processing disorder, who might be distressed by all the hugging that Christians are supposed to do in church. I believe the Incarnation gives us permission to imagine the Jesus we need, a divine being who fully participates in human experience–not some supposedly universal experience, but the distinct reality of each person, including neurodiversity.

Do you know why it took me 8 years to write the Endless Novel? Not just because I was simultaneously leaving my abusive parent, changing my belief system, adopting a child, and writing poetry books. Without Julian (the novel’s hero), I couldn’t have done any of those things. In fact, I was stuck because I was afraid God was angry at me for how much I loved Julian. Every time I hit a rough patch in the writing, I thought God was withdrawing the mandate of heaven from me, like King Saul. Libby Anne, an atheist raised in a fundamentalist homeschooled family, explains why in this post at her blog Love, Joy, Feminism: “Do You Love God More than You Love Your Children?”

[T]his is actually fairly standard evangelical teaching. The idea is that we all have things in our life that we risk loving or valuing more than we love and value God, and that that’s a problem. Our pastors, youth group leaders, parents, and Bible study material used the story of Isaac to teach us that we needed to be willing to sacrifice—or give up—whatever we valued more than God.

The reference, of course, is a Bible story in which God commanded Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice, and Abraham obeyed God but was stopped by an Angel at the last moment…

…No parent should have to worry that their love for their children might get in the way of their love for God. No spouse should have to worry that, no child, no friend. Love should not be a thing to be afraid of, and we should not have to fear valuing others.

As a parent, I love seeing my children work together and value each other. I love seeing them show love for each other. When they fight, it makes me sad, because I love them both and I want them to love each other too. Why would I, as a parent, be jealous of my children’s love for each other? Why would I worry that their love for each other would in some way compromise their love for me? If I told them that they had to love me more than they loved each other, or that they had to be willing to sacrifice their feelings for each other if those feelings got in the way of their feelings for me, I would be abusive and manipulative to the extreme.

And yet, that is what I was taught God does.

Imagine a boyfriend telling his girlfriend that she has to love him more than her parents, or her friends. Imagine him jealously watching her actions for any signs that she might value those others more than she values him. Imagine him shaming her if she spends what he considers too much time with her friends. We would term this abuse without qualm or reservation. Love for family or friends does not have to have any negative impact on love for a partner, and in a healthy relationship love is given and accepted freely, not under terms of guilt and coercion.

Please “Like” Julian on Facebook and follow his fashion picks on Pinterest. It’s not a sin!

At the Little Red Tarot blog, my favorite source for queer and alternative Tarot interpretations, co-editor Andi Grace interviews Tarot reader and zine writer Maranda Elizabeth about trauma, disability justice, “madness”, and poverty as themes of her spiritual practice.

Because trauma, madness, chronic illness, and disability are core pieces of who I am, it would be completely impossible for my Tarot practice not to be influenced by them. When I draw cards, I don’t get to escape my traumas or illnesses; I don’t get to set my diagnoses aside each time I shuffle a deck. Nor would I wish to! Trauma recovery dares me to learn new methods of being, and so does Tarot.

I think about how one effect of trauma can be to damage one’s imagination and creativity – the fight-flight-freeze responses can become so ingrained – not to mention the realities of coping with pain and poverty – that it’s hard to imagine being able to live a more fulfilling, magical, and dreamy life. And while trauma is real, and oppression is real, and poverty is real, Tarot is one way to (re-)develop the imagination and creativity that may have been injured due to traumatic upbringings and experiences.

Madness, illness, creativity, and spirituality are continually invalidated parts of my life, and yet they are the most crucial – they are my entire being. While I’m often quiet about my spiritual practices (I’m a solitary, and I think about, “to know / to will / to dare / to keep silent” a whole lot), I also feel the need to connect magic and trauma, and to talk about healing as a non-linear, unending process – I will always be healing, not healed, recovering, not recovered. Sometimes I get sick of talking about trauma, but it continues to permeate everything, so I have little choice.

Tarot helps me cope. It helps me access internal resources, acts as a healing tool and writing prompt, and shows me where I have agency in my life. Tarot works against existential despair and hopelessness, and connects me to something else. It helps me find magic in the mundane. Tarot helps me resist meaninglessness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. Also, I feel like it gives me permission to be a weirdo, to be kind of a fuck-up, and to find meaning that way.

Read an extended discussion of these subjects on Maranda’s blog and put some money in her tip jar.

Reading “The Lorax” in Lent

To my relief, this month the Young Master has moved on from conformist 1940s Little Golden Books to another genre of indoctrination more congenial to his Gen-X progressive parents. I’m talking about Dr. Seuss. Shane’s current favorite is The Lorax, a still-timely 1971 environmentalist cautionary tale about a greedy manufacturer, the Once-ler, who destroys a pastoral paradise. (I hope our boy remembers this when he finds out that we spent his college fund on litigation to save our neighborhood’s wetlands…)

dr-seuss-lorax-thneeds_510On about the tenth re-read, Shane asked me why the Once-ler is only ever shown as a pair of green hands. This is actually pretty unusual for Dr. Seuss, who never seemed to run out of ideas for depicting unique creatures. Shane thought maybe the Once-ler had no head, but some of the other pictures show his eyes peeking out through the slats of his abandoned workshop. So I brainstormed other possibilities. A 4-year-old’s “Why?” will lead you somewhere deep if you let it!

I said maybe the Once-ler did not feel connected to anything around him. He just made things without listening to his head or his heart, or paying attention to his environment. He didn’t take responsibility for what his hands were doing. He let himself become part of the machine of consuming, producing, and selling.

But I sensed that the alienation of the worker under capitalism was still too abstract a concept for the Young Master. So I tried again. “Maybe he doesn’t show the Once-ler’s face because the Once-ler could be all of us. We all have to be careful not to do what he does, not to be greedy and chop down too many trees and make the animals sick.”

As I spoke, I heard the echoes of a troubling concept we’d discussed in our church small group. We’ve started a video series by an evangelical pastor on the last words of Christ from the cross. That first week, we talked about “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Explaining the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the pastor said that “We are the ‘them'”. Past, present, and future are all one to God. Each of us, because of our sinful nature, crucified Christ and is forgiven by him from the cross.

That formulation no longer sits well with me, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think guilt feelings are the most skillful motivator for turning our lives around. Hopefully we feel bad enough about our actual sins without adding a cosmic crime on top of them–and if we don’t, there’s a good chance that the extra load of guilt for Christ’s death will only harden our ego-defenses. The second reason is that I’m looking to move away from theologies that romanticize scapegoating, because on some level they validate an abuser’s belief that splitting off her shadow side onto a victim is effective. During the time when I most fervently defended this atonement theory, I couldn’t have conceived that the universe could operate any other way; I was just grateful for Christ to take the hit on my behalf, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984 begging the torturer to hurt his girlfriend instead of him. I don’t believe in a totalitarian cosmos anymore, because I have a different kind of family now.

Nonetheless, these two myths, the gospel and Seuss, converge in reminding us of our universal temptation to sin and our interdependent responsibility for the kind of world we make. When we see a tree cut down, or an innocent man hung on one, none of us can stand apart and say “That’s not my problem.”