January Links Roundup: Disobedient Woman Facts

This blog usually tackles (or is tackled by) serious subjects, so let’s start the year with a little humor. Over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sandra Newman’s list of “Woman Facts” satirizes gender roles and those clickbait lists of dubious scientific trivia. For instance:

A woman is born with all the exclamation points she will use in her lifetime.

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When cornered by a predator, a woman can swell to three times her normal size, but won’t because it is unladylike.

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The “period” is a myth devised by the 1810 Ladies’ Secret Conclave. Tampons actually serve to prevent the genie from escaping.

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Large numbers of women can be caught by baiting a trap with a crying infant. Though only one woman may fall into the trap, hundreds of others will gather to criticize everything she does with the child.

On that note, I recognized so much of myself in this May 2015 post from British evangelical feminist Hannah Mudge’s blog, “Searching for Sunday: Motherhood, Guilt and Disillusionment”. Our sons are about the same age. I thought I was the only one who suddenly felt overburdened by the demands of church membership once I had a baby:

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I’d left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn’t zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you’re insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn’t mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it.

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I’ve had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert’s brain doesn’t do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I’ve longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I’ve been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I’ve felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I’d stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve still expected something – and when I’ve failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I’ve felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I’m not ‘on board’ and don’t even want to be, apprehensive because I’ve been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman…

…What if you’re reading this and thinking “This is me”? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you’re at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn’t mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

For me personally, since I stopped saying the Daily Office this past November (with some guilt about breaking my 8-year tradition), I don’t feel as burned-out on Bible verses by the time Sunday comes around. Keeping up the connection with my church friends a couple of times a month feels right. I know that I need a new private devotional practice, Christian or otherwise, but I have to start by choosing to do less. My number-one New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in the bathtub watching Netflix.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in response to God’s command, is one of those Bible stories that make me doubt whether Christianity can be made survivor-friendly. Characters in my new novel-in-progress grapple with this text as they try to make sense of family trauma and religious belief. Fred Clark at the progressive Christian blog Slacktivist persuasively argues that “divine command” doesn’t exempt us from moral discernment, in this 2014 post, “Obedience is Always About Epistemology”:

I’m hearing voices. I’m hearing a voice in my head that’s telling me to kill a child.

The possibility that this is the voice of God testing my faith isn’t even going to be among the first thousand possibilities worth considering. The thousand other possibilities are all Very Bad, of course, but that one’s even worse — including and encompassing all the Very Bad possibilities that go before it.

Initially, though, I’d do what anyone would likely do if a voice in my head commanded me to kill and burn a child. I’d ignore it, desperately hoping it would go away, fearful of telling anyone that I’d ever even thought of such a thing lest they think — rightly — that I am a monster.

And if it didn’t go away? Well then I’d have myself committed. I’d remove myself from the presence of chlidren, driving to the nearest inpatient facility to inform the nice people in admissions, as calmly as possible, that I believed I was becoming a danger to myself and others. I’m hearing voices. The voices want me to do Bad Things.

No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.

But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.

And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.

The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. We’ve already covered what hearing such a voice giving such a command would mean and what it would require me to do.

And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.

How about giant flaming letters carved in the sky? No good. Everything we’ve just said about auditory hallucinations is also true for visual ones.

Well, what if other people hear God’s voice as well? What if everyone else hears it?

That’s to be expected, isn’t it? All of this is just confirming the likeliest possibility: I’m a very, very sick man. Paranoid and delusional, and now imagining that everyone else is saying the same horrible thing as the voice in my head.

There simply exists no form this divine revelation could possibly take that would exempt it from the fact that I, as a finite and fallible human, would be required to perceive it. And so it would always be possible that I was perceiving it wrong — that I was misperceiving it.

And one doesn’t want to kill and burn a child based on a misperception.

One doesn’t generally want to kill and burn a child at all — which brings us to the second problem here. It’s not just the form of this divine command that is a problem, it’s also the substance. The repugnant substance of this alleged divine command reinforces all of the formal reasons stated above for doubting it. The substance of the command presents a whole Wesleyan quadrilateral of reasons to conclude that it cannot be divine. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all scream that it cannot be so.

Imagine again that scenario in which a unanimous horde of witnesses confirms that I have, in fact, been given a divine command that I cannot ignore or deny. Just what would these witnesses attesting to this divine revelation say? “God is speaking to you, Fred. God wants you to kill and burn this child. You need to do what God tells you to do.”

Whatever part of me wanted to cling to my own sanity wouldn’t reasonably conclude that this means God wants me to kill a child. A more reasonable conclusion would be to realize, in horror, that I’d stumbled into some terrifying Wicker Man scenario. These “witnesses” must be speaking of some other God. And the voice I was hearing and the fiery letters in the sky would force me to realize that their God was real.

C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea that something like this might be true. So did H.P. Lovecraft. So did whoever wrote Psalm 82. And now Molech or dread Chthulhu or raging Talos or three-crowned Cyric or whichever child-eating deity it was is after me.

So at that point, I’d be praying like I’d never prayed before, asking God — the God I worship, the God of Abraham, the God of the Gospels and the creeds – to deliver me from this evil lesser god who was attempting to claim me for his own. Monotheism would no longer be an option, but I’d still be monolatrous — faithful only to the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God revealed in Jesus, the God described in 1 John as “God is love” and the God mocked by Jonah for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Or perhaps there could be a less radical theological explanation. I don’t believe in a “literal” Satan — mainly because I don’t see such a character literally present in the biblical literature — but this overwhelming experience of voices and witnesses and flaming letters would likely cause me to re-evaluate that conclusion. If the voices and signs and wonders and attestations weren’t all just delusion, then here would be apparent evidence of the reality of some supernatural, evil being very much like the Satan figure we find in Dante and Milton and Stephen Vincent Benét and all the other canonical sources of this doctrine.

This is the most reasonable, defensible and biblical second possibility. If the voices and signs and wonders telling me to kill a child are not a form of delusional madness, then this must be Satan speaking to me.

No, no, no, say the pastors and apologists — it’s not Satan, it’s God. This is, they stress, the whole point of the story — that it’s God — and undeniably God — telling me to kill and burn a child.

I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan.

I’m don’t think that helps.

The bottom line here is that for all of these self-proclaimed defenders of God’s sovereignty, this story is not at all about obedience to God. It’s about obedience to them.

Because obedience, remember, is always about epistemology — about the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.

They like to talk about God’s sovereignty, but the real substance of their claim has to do with their own certainty. Their own ability to access certainty and to proclaim it to and for others. We know what God has commanded, they say. We know. And therefore you must obey [what God has commanded as articulated by] us.

I appreciate this post for highlighting the connection between theology, sanity, and social control. When you persuade people to suspend their common-sense moral intuitions and empathy, this not only makes them vulnerable to authoritarian religious leaders, but also prevents them from recognizing and healing from other abuses of power in their personal lives. Because if you can’t be sure that child sacrifice is wrong, you can’t be sure of anything. To quote King Lear, “That way madness lies.” And he would know.

Poetry by Perry Brass: “The Child”

Perry Brass is the author of several novels and nonfiction books on gay spirituality and sacred eros. As a Christmas gift to his newsletter list, he shared some of his recent poems, one of which he has kindly permitted me to reprint below. The boy in this poem could be the Christ Child or my own high-spirited 3-year-old, both calling me to enter their demanding, miraculous presence.

The Child

What do you do? Your insides are constantly
shifted toward him. He consumes you with
his needs, his perfection,
his amazing complexion and beauty.
And curiosity! A sponge. His eyes
are a sponge and you want him to just
hold you in their gaze for a few minutes
before he runs off. Or a year, or a decade.
But no,
they won’t. They’ll discover the world,
and you will discover it with him.
If you’re lucky. If you don’t die,
or die of disappointment because you’ve
just invested everything in him—you
put it in his childish grasp that casts off
each instance and reinvents
the warm earth

and the cold night. It seeks terror
in fairy tales; and you seek safety
in each morsel of love he returns.

Celebrating My Chosen Mother

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(Roberta’s birthday, December 2006.)

I blog often enough about how my childhood with my bio mom resembled Disney’s “Tangled”. Today I want to celebrate someone who makes Mother’s Day a joyful occasion for me, despite the painful memories we share (or perhaps because we can share them): my mom-of-choice, Roberta “Bib” Pato.

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(Roberta and I celebrate her freedom from 34 years with my bio mom, February 2011.)

Bib moved in with my bio mom and me when I was about 5. I wasn’t allowed to call her my other mother, though she certainly was. We were closeted, albeit not very convincingly, and my bio mom approached motherhood with a “no other gods before me” attitude. So she was my “babysitter” in public, and my “dad” when we affectionately joked around in private.

She taught me how to cook by having me chop vegetables and read aloud recipes from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet. Mmm, chicken with shallots and asparagus! She drove me to school in a succession of clunky American-made station wagons, and then in the little red Toyota that served us faithfully for 14 years till I totaled it as a student driver. She was a beloved teacher in the NYC public elementary schools for 30 years, from Lower East Side ghetto schools where the children came from homeless shelters, to the Upper West Side, where she faced down a system that assigned children of color to the classrooms that were perceived as less desirable.

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(Roberta’s wedding to her now ex-husband, 1968, with her mom Bea at right. She makes a cute femme, but it didn’t stick.)

Since starting her new life in 2011, she’s become the center of social life in her apartment building, co-founding a tenants’ association and making many friends who are film professors, religious scholars, writers, and more. They know they can knock on her door at any time of night for a slice of cake and a binge viewing of lesbian soap operas on YouTube. She’s amassed what is probably the largest collection of lesbian films in Northampton, which is really saying something.

(One of those “gay for you” romances that is so common in the movies, not enough in real life! But I might kiss Lena Headey if she asked me.)

As an active member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), Roberta has attended conferences in Oakland and St. Louis, and (though she is staunchly pro-transgender rights) plans to visit the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival this summer. Not bad for someone whose ex-partner wouldn’t let her leave the house! The “classy old dykes” whom I’ve met through Roberta have given me a new sense of solidarity with other women and a gratitude for feminist heritage. For Pride Weekend this month, Roberta and two of her OLOC friends produced playwright/actress Terry Baum’s “Hick: A Love Story”, a brilliant show about Eleanor Roosevelt’s closeted romance with journalist Lorena Hickok.

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(Northampton Pride 2014. She raised “L” this year too!)

Last but not least, she is the world’s most devoted grandmother to the Young Master:

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(Roberta holds Shane for the first time, April 2012. Look how tiny!)

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(Christmas/Roberta’s birthday, December 2014.)

Some grandmothers are always second-guessing the kid’s mom, but Roberta never criticizes. When I start to worry about the Young Master’s development or behavior, her unconditional love reminds me that Shane is perfect just as he is. Look at that face, right?

Thank you, Roberta, for showing me what a mom should be! We love you!

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.

My Poetry Book “Bullies in Love” Now Available from Little Red Tree Publishing

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My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, with fine art photography by Toni Pepe, has just been published by Little Red Tree Publishing (New London, CT)! Pre-orders available now.

The book launch reading will take place on Saturday, March 7, at 2 PM at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, MA. Come buy a signed copy and see a slideshow of Toni’s beautiful photos.

American Book Award winner Pamela Uschuk says of this collection: “In her remarkable collection of poems, Bullies in Love, Jendi Reiter has created an complex odditorium of characters with unique and often disturbing voices: poems peopled with bullies, the disenfranchised, monsters, prostitutes, criminals, the abused and forgotten, all searching for meaning, for faith and love in a postmodern, often cynical world.”

Enjoy a sample poem below, inspired by the Young Master. (He took this selfie on Grandma’s phone.)

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Two-Three

Son, it is time to begin breaking
your awakeness into wedges of five, twelve, sixty
rotations of pinned hands,
to pace off the sermon, the cartoon, the billable hour.

Why is it not spitting time? Why is the song over?
You pound like CPR on your teddy’s voice chip
till he squeaks again, That’s right,
a circle is round and has no corners.
Of the alphabet, you took to O first,
pointing it out on toothbrushes and tattoos.

Son, it is time to position P and Q
and fork and knife and light and dark washing
in the baskets where we say they belong.
Why is milk white? Why do shoes match?
You want to choose and cry at both choices.
Not that hat. Not that tomato.
Not that story.

Why is the bird lying on the ground? Why isn’t it tomorrow?
I read you the page about Pig Robinson’s aunts:
They lived prosperous uneventful lives, and their end was bacon.
Goodnight loom, goodnight soon.
You whisper to sleep
counting the wallpaper stars
with the only number-words you know:
two-three, two, three.

Pink Link Roundup: The Struggle to Affirm the Feminine

As I wait this week for “Santa” to deliver another load of toys for my little man, I’m pondering the devaluation of femininity that stubbornly persists in the two realms where I spend much of my time: parenting and gay male fiction.

Over his short lifetime, the Young Master has already been gifted with a set of golf clubs, two baseball bats, two footballs, three soccer balls, and a set of footie PJs absurdly captioned “Tough Guy”. Only Mommy defied convention and bought him a Barbie, whose favorite activities seem to be dancing and farting. Meanwhile, the toy catalogs crowding my mailbox proclaim, “Gifts for your little princess and action hero!” Inside, I might see photos of both boys and girls playing with sports equipment, science kits, and wheeled vehicles, but the mini kitchens and vacuum cleaners are pink-trimmed and only advertised with girls in the pictures.

Some progressive parenting organizations talk about this problem, but their strategies focus more on including girls in “boy” activities than removing the stigma of girliness. The Center for Commercial-Free Childhood, for instance, does good work keeping advertising out of educational environments, but their “worst toys of the year” list almost always includes my old friend Barbie, because she supposedly makes girls ashamed of their bodies. No, patriarchy does that; pretty women (real or imaginary) are just being who they have a right to be.

I recently rediscovered this 2013 post from Christian feminist and fiction writer A.M. Leibowitz’s Unchained Faith blog, “The Meaning of Pinkhood“:

The Big Questions that always come up are: Why can’t they market toy stoves and tea sets in neutral colors?  Why can’t doll clothes come in blue as well as pink?  Why can’t I find a boy doll?  Why can’t Barbies utter oddly specific action phrases when you push a button on their backs?  Why must all Legos be placed in the boys’ section?

Meanwhile, I’m asking an entirely different set of questions.

Why can’t boys own a full set of My Little Pony figurines?  Why doesn’t Batman say, “Give me a hug!” when you press a button?  Why isn’t it okay for a boy to be featured on the toy stove box, even if it is pink?

We’ve gotten very comfortable asking why the girls’ aisle is hosed in pink and frills while the boys get action and adventure.  We intentionally choose to shop for our daughters among the Legos and Monster Trucks and superheroes.  We’re okay with urging our daughters to try out sports and climb trees and wear any damn thing they want to…

…It seems to me that the reason for this is that we like the erasure of cultural femininity more than we like the erasure of cultural masculinity.

Cultural femininity is seen as weak and bad.  How many of us have gone from feeling stifled by the lack of options to feeling guilty that we still want some (or most) of those feminine things?  How many men feel like they are less, somehow, because they have traits usually associated with women?

It took me a long time to accept that I like the color pink and that I like stories with a little romance.  I sort of felt like I couldn’t even enjoy a Disney princess movie without having to examine its problematic elements first.  This erasure of anything culturally feminine means that in order to survive, I must become more like a man.  But if I become more like a man, not only do I destroy that which is considered feminine in myself, I also end up being told that I actually want to be a man!  Or I’m a bitch or a ball-buster or some other negative term for a woman who isn’t “woman” enough.  Yet if I give up and go home, then my femininity makes me invisible again.  We often don’t have the option of being both culturally feminine and strong…

Go read the whole post. It’s a keeper.

This leads into my other gripe, the misogyny problem in fiction about gay male love. As Gail Dines says in her feminist critique of porn, under patriarchy women are categorized as either “fuckable” or “invisible”. Since, by definition, M/M is about men preferring men to women, the female characters are not “fuckable” in any way that matters to the hypothetical reader. (Because there are no bisexuals out there, right?) I’ve read some novels in this genre with no female characters at all, and some where the women are grotesque caricatures–pathetic fag-hags, smothering moms, ballbusting exes. Neither of these scenarios reflect the real world, where men of all orientations are embedded in a community of female friends, colleagues, and relatives. Ken Murphy’s Sharing Heart is a pleasant exception.

By contrast, Tim Bairstow, whose first novel The Shadow of Your Wings was a gorgeous bittersweet tale of gay Christian self-acceptance, cruelly betrayed his female readers with What Do You Want for Christmas?, where he misses no opportunity to mock the loathsome plus-size body of the hero’s clueless girlfriend. Their sex scene is fat-shaming horror reminiscent of Beowulf in the clutches of Grendel’s Dam.

I think some gay male writers are projecting their shame onto their female characters. They are passing on the legacy of whoever bullied them for being a “sissy”. If you’ve ever watched the old Showtime series “Queer As Folk“, did you notice how the unlikeable gay male characters were portrayed as effeminate weenies, while the protagonists were hyper-masculine studs? Sexism and homophobia are variations on the same awful theme. Women’s love for M/M fiction has the potential to build alliances against oppression, which makes it all the more hurtful when the gender wars resurface there.

Googling “M/M misogyny”, I came across this insightful post by Damon Suede, a gay man who writes romance: “Worse than a girl, better than a woman“.

…Not to say that gay romance is inherently misogynistic, but rather that it seems that much of gay romance writing expresses a deep mistrust and offers harsh criticism of traditional female roles. The girls that heroes are “worse than” seem more like the stereotype of girlhood, and the women that these “better” male/male couplings supplant are the traditional ideas and roles with which women are saddled.

Fans of the genre often remark on their impatience with female characterization in traditional romance fiction… joking that “two hot men are better than one.” But the role of female characters in gay romance remains a bit of a briar patch. Often female characters are not only subordinate in gay romance fiction, they are downright marginalized, lobotomized, or demonized because they serve in roles.

On one hand, it makes sense that in focusing on men who love each other and have sex with each other, that ways of introducing drama and conflict would often rely on the familiar soap-opera tropes of divorce, infidelity, family rejection, single parenting. Many of these situations involve women by default.

It stands to reason: if you want to introduce an infant character, who is the mother? If your hero is divorcing someone, who was she? If his parents appear, who did the childbearing? The core relationship in gay romance fiction is between those two (or more) fellas. By necessity, women in these stories tend to slide into the ruts of sympathetic friend or castrating bitch. Over and over in gay romance we see shrieking harpies angry at their betrayal by “the degenerate faggot(s)” in their life and kooky, supportive gal-pals who want to watch television while they snuggle sexlessly on the couch with their hot-but-unavailable BFF.

Totally logical, if the female character is nice she supports that manlovin’ and cannot and would not intrude with her own sexuality. If she’s not nice, intrusion is the order of the day, complete with near-rapes and/or tantrums and/or recrimination because the evil female always wants to wreck the protagonist and anyone else caught in the self-righteous heterosexist crossfire.

It’s hardly surprising. The sexual charge in gay romance is by definition situated between the male protagonists, so the women at their margins run the risk of disrupting the dynamic at the genre’s core. What’s the simplest solution for an unsteady author?: female characters must be defused, desexed, or dismissed… either as unattractive castrators or as loving-but-nonthreatening bystanders.

Damon, you’ve persuaded me to buy one of your novels on my Kindle. Then I’m going to write an alternate ending to Bairstow’s What Do You Want… where poor “Sally” has a telekinetic meltdown à la Carrie and drowns all the wankers in her vaginal blood.

Merry Christmas, bitches!

Unconventional Mother’s Day Blogaround

The girly pink explosion of sweetness that is Mother’s Day will soon be upon me again. Do I have a problem with that?

I love this little guy, and I love pink.

But when I think about being a mother, the images that come to mind are not sugary, soft, and girly. I channel the power of a mother tiger protecting her cub. I am a warrior, proud of my battle scars. I feel some kinship with the Hindu goddess Kali, who is one of the incarnations of Mother Durga, creator and destroyer of all things. In Sanskrit, “Durga” means fortress. As a mother, I hold psychic boundaries around my home to make a sacred space where my child can grow safely.

I want to celebrate motherhood in a way that doesn’t erase the difficulties of embracing femininity under patriarchy. I want space to grieve the brokenness of my memories of my own mother. In time, Shane may have complicated feelings about Mother’s Day, too, because it encompasses his birthmother’s loss as well as my gain.

If, for whatever reason, you’d like to add some emotional nuance to your observance (or boycotting) of this holiday, the readings below may be of interest.

At the excellent blog Women in Theology, Janice Rees reviews a documentary about a teenage daughter and her mother’s gender transition to male:

The film’s questions around trans identity helps us to push the motherhood category, or rather, to see it in its normative form. That is, for bodies with wombs that have borne children, an alleged and drastic ontological shift is enacted, and a new normative way of being embodied is established.[3] No longer women (which continues to be the norm for wombed childless bodies), these bodies, from all accounts, take on a new status as ‘mother’. To be a mother is to be caught up in this new quasi-subjectivity. I write this as a parent, one who almost always hesitates on this capital M word, this form that overwhelms me with its situated concreteness. Now, having endured the kind of discrimination and expectations placed on mothers, I find it hard to see a future in motherhood, or any sense in its usefulness as a term…

…Ultimately, this fixed category of mother becomes a foundational lens in which we not only read the quasi-subject (who is mother) but through which other, childless subjects, may emerge in more fluid identities. That [the daughter] Billie’s story becomes the primary lens in 52 Tuesdays is hardly surprising…yet James continues to subvert his status of mother – not due to the supposedly obvious implications of transgender transition, but because of his trans-formation back into a person who wants to be someone. And if having a womb and or being a parent has a future – at least for those of us who feel marginalised and oppressed by the normative categories of gender, and this peculiar ‘mother’ status – then there is something profoundly liberating in James’ subversion…

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Dr. Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, writes on the Psychology Today blog about the painful double standard that this holiday can bring up:

Mother’s Day is approaching and this time of year discussions about mothers explode, but of course the roaring voices describing maternal narcissism are hushed to the background. We hear the praise and celebrations about good mothering, but simultaneously the complete stillness and silence about inadequate mothering…

…If adult children of narcissistic parents discuss their upbringing, they are usually met with disdain. “Good girls or boys don’t hate their mothers!” “There must be something wrong with you, if you are not connected with your mother.” “It must be your fault.” So, this population of people goes into hiding. They go back to what they were taught and practice superficial pretending which does not help their own recovery process. They are told once again to “put a smile on that pretty little face and pretend that everything is just fine with this family.”

But here’s the misnomer. If a narcissistic parent raised a daughter or son, it means that the parent was not capable of empathy and unconditional love. So, that child did not receive the bonding, attachment and maternal closeness from that parent. The issue lies in the disorder of the parent. It does not mean that the daughter or son is not capable of loving or that they don’t love that parent. In fact, these adult children have spent their entire lifetimes trying to get attention, love, approval, and nurturing from the narcissistic parent to no avail. What I have seen in my research and work is that adult children who come from narcissistic families dearly love their parents and the issue is that the parent is not capable of loving them back. Therein lies the need for acceptance and grief for the adult child and this is the first step in their recovery process. But, because the adult child is reacting to the lack of maternal love, they are seen as the one who does not love the parent. This misnomer is not readily understood…

…So let me ask you this: Because you see the disorder in the parent and you are reacting to it and working your own recovery, do you think that means you don’t love your parent? Or are you simply standing in your truth, accepting your reality, and working on your own mental health?…

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Finally, let’s remember that before Mother’s Day became a showcase for perfect performance of gender roles, it was a rallying point for women’s activism, as Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass explains in this HuffPo article, “The Radical History of Mother’s Day“:

..In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations — like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association — picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.

For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women’s lives. In the late 19th century, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, “A Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling women to pacifism and political resistance…

Years later, Anna Jarvis intended the new holiday to honor all mothers beginning with her own — Anna Reeves Jarvis, who had died in 1905. Although now largely forgotten, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a social activist and community organizer who shared the political views of other progressive women like Julia Ward Howe.

In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized poor women in Virginia into “Mothers’ Work Day Clubs” to raise the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children. She also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of the North and the South.

My awesome mom-of-choice, Roberta, marching with OLOC at Northampton Gay Pride 2014.

Hail Thee, Festival Day!

Happy Easter, dear readers! Today we celebrate the miracle of God’s love triumphing over sin and death. Two years ago, on Holy Saturday, my own little miracle came into the world:

Shane had a wonderful time at the Easter service today at St. John’s. The handbell choir was his favorite!

I bit my nails less frequently for Lent. Because I knew you all were watching.

My Poem “Lord of the Storm” at Utmost Christian Writers

The poetry website Utmost Christian Writers, edited by Nathan Harms, has offered me a regular home for my spiritual writing for over a decade. This year I was honored to win First Honorable Mention in their annual poetry contest. My entry, “Lord of the Storm“, was inspired by memories of a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when Shane was about six weeks old. Nathan has kindly permitted me to reprint it below. The contest deadline is usually February 28, with prizes up to $1,000. Read the winners here (more runners-up will be posted on the site during the next week).

Lord of the Storm

Here is the ocean I promised you
salting your forehead with my fingertips.

Inconsolable joy.
Motherless, I mother.

Brown foam sucks the sand from under my toes,
digging a hollow shaped like my standing.

Six-weeks boy, swaddled blue as Cape waters,
your cries scouring my heart.

Down the driftwood stairs, down to the eroded coast,
carrying you, the first trust in my arms.

You came from a longer sea,
a more constant sun.

Neither of us belong to time,
un-homed from the country of sleep.

I’d thought waking for you would be no harder
than my old midnight pattern of terrors.

Three a.m. in the mildewed sunroom,
no one breathing but us and the dark waters.

All the silences wore off at once.
My ghosts became baby birds pleading not to starve.

Today’s ocean has hush enough
to spread spangled to the pearly horizon.

Each glinting wavelet a day of my history,
washing my hands as I lose it.

Your shrimp-pink fingers curl at my neck.
You open stone-blue eyes to summer’s glare.

You have no name for yourself or mother
or drowning or birth, so I will tell you:

That solid shape rocking on the distant current
could be a boat where a friend lies sleeping

as bravely as we will sleep tonight,
a man who knows where he comes from and where he is going.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2013

It’s time once again for our annual roundup of the books, blog posts, and discoveries that made the most impact on me this year. Thanks for your loyal readership. Feel free to share your own favorite reads and revelations from 2013 in the comments. Books need not have been published in the current year.

Most Self-Esteem You Can Buy for $25:

Right now, it’s only a Halloween wig, but it’s inspiring me to fulfill a lifelong dream. Go ginger in 2014!

Strangest Discovery at a Church Tag Sale:

My astute husband spotted this planter at the Christmas fair at First Churches in Northampton, which was Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’s church during the First Great Awakening. Edwards was kicked out of the pulpit eventually because he made too much fuss about teen boys reading dirty books. One can only imagine how he’d feel about this porcelain beauty, who has succulents growing out of her pelvis and right breast. My friends who remember pre-feminist kitsch have informed me that she was originally an ashtray: the matches go in the boob-hole and the cigarettes go, uh, down there. Which is even more disturbing.

Runner-up for Previous Award:

My church is nothing if not broad-minded. Thanks, St. John’s Christmas Fair. I’m looking forward to learning all about the Holy Foreskin.

Best Poetry Books:

So many this year, I can’t pick just one.

Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012)
With furious beauty and Promethean boldness, Diaz rewrites our cultural myths to speak her truth as a Mojave woman, a lover, an activist, and a sister bereaved by addiction.

Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature (2013)
This groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life. First published in 1989, it was reissued this year by A Midsummer Night’s Press in collaboration with the journal Sinister Wisdom.
Read my full review and excerpt here.

Jamaal May, Hum (2013)
This electric debut collection explores what it means to be an African-American man in Detroit, finding beauty in the ruins of the machine age. Read my full review and excerpt here.

Best Novel:

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree (2013)
Set in Western Massachusetts in the 18th century, during the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening, this luminous novel re-creates the domestic life and spiritual development of the theologian Jonathan Edwards. Stinson allows the complexity of the Puritan worldview to speak for itself, setting Edwards’s mystical delight in nature and his deep compassion alongside his severe views of God’s judgment and his defense of slave-owning.

Best Nonfiction Book/Best Parenting Book:

Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries (1991)
With bracing clarity, this maverick psychoanalyst explains how all kinds of cruelty, from child abuse to genocide, has its roots in traumatic and oppressive child-rearing practices. The child had to identify with the perpetrator’s perspective in order to survive, but is then at risk for revisiting this pain on the next generation. Healing comes when you finally stand on the side of the child you once were, validating her innocent needs and feelings, instead of continuing to internalize the judgments your parents projected onto you. Warning: this book may expose many of your religious beliefs as denial mechanisms…but that’s a subject for another post.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and “Selfishness”
I’ve come to believe that mothers trigger perceptions of “selfishness” in so many people, regardless of which choices the mother is making, because people are unconsciously angry about their own unmet childhood needs. Someone who had distant and unfeeling parents may view working mothers harshly, while someone who had smothering and needy parents may have a similar disdain for stay-at-home mothers.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal
I don’t know how you’d put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common–with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe–about God, power, knowledge, sexuality–that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?

Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church
Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?

Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church
What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can’t accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God’s will for ourselves.

And finally, the most important award of them all…

World’s Best Toddler:



Happy New Year from Shane!

Poetry for Veterans’ Day

This morning I was reading the daily poem to Shane from our Alhambra Poetry Calendar for Young Readers, a superlative anthology of classic and modern poems that are written on an adult level but safe to share with younger folks. I often follow the reading with a little interpretation, pointing out interesting things about how the poem works, or reflecting critically on its message. Maybe it’s silly to get into this with a 19-month-old, but I feel it’s never too early to introduce the idea that he can think for himself about what Mommy and Daddy read to him. He can appreciate a book without agreeing with everything in it, or with us.

Because it’s Veterans’ Day, today we read the well-known poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Army in World War I. The text and history of the poem can be found on the Arlington National Cemetery’s website.

I remarked on McCrae’s conclusion that continuing the battle was the proper way to make the fallen soldiers’ sacrifice worthwhile: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep…” Other war poets, I observed, have drawn the opposite conclusion, that these tragic deaths ought to motivate us to seek peace.

My favorite war poem of all time has to be Wilfred Owen’s “Greater Love“, also from World War I. Owen was a passionate critic of the war’s carnage, yet this poem (unlike, for instance, his “Dulce et Decorum Est“) resists reduction to a pro- or anti-war interpretation. He is simply moved by the holy suffering of the dying soldiers, which is undiminished by questions about whether it was necessary or effective.

For more great poetry on this theme, visit the War Poetry Contest archives (2002-2011) at WinningWriters.com.

Greater Love

by Wilfred Owen

Red lips are not so red
   
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
   When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
   
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care:

Till the fierce love they bear

   
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,—

   
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,—

Your dear voice is not dear,

Gentle, and evening clear,

As theirs whom none now hear,

   
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot

   Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;

And though your hand be pale,

Paler are all which trail

Your cross through flame and hail:

   
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.