Cyril and Priscilla Defend Traditional Marriage

Parodies of the National Organization for Marriage “There’s a Storm Gathering” advertisement are still proliferating on YouTube. The ad is such a spur to creativity that one could almost hope for NOM to release more of them, were it not for the fact that their scare-mongering tactics could actually convince people to take away our families’ rights.

Meanwhile, always alert for that silver lining behind the storm cloud, my friend Greg and I were inspired to make our own video with our new friends “Cyril” and “Priscilla”:

Here are some more of our favorites from the web:

Mark D. Hart: “Planting Garlic”

Mark D. Hart, a Buddhist meditation teacher and award-winning poet, read the poem below at the Karuna Center in Northampton last year, at a 20th anniversary celebration for the Northampton Insight Meditation Community. It was first published in the October 2008 issue of Midwest Quarterly. He’s kindly permitted me to reprint it on this blog. Read Mark’s Honorable Mention prize poem from the 2007 Winning Writers War Poetry Contest here.

Planting Garlic

I love to imagine the first blind rootings
in gravity’s dark light, the sodden waiting,
the slow ignition of their tiny green rockets

as I bury their pink-skinned cheeks in the
corpse-cold ground, soon freezing to stone.
My neighbor says the mounded beds look like

freshly dug graves. He’s right—I am
an undertaker for the living, consigning innocents
to birth not death, though

not every womb is warm. Let this planting
stand for all inhospitable beginnings,
for what shivers unseen awaiting its chance.

Foot to shovel, back to wind, sky dour with
coming rain, crows squawking, a few creaking pines,
the hoarse whisper of corn stalks blowing,

their dry matter to be thrown on the pile—
I could work up a good sweat of melancholy here
if wonder were not constantly interrupting.

I’m fifty. I take no comfort in the rites of religion.
Let me see the miracle before me,
the one I too am.

Let planting bring me to my knees.

Another Stripe in New England’s Rainbow

Yesterday, Maine joined Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont in establishing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) became the first governor to sign a marriage equality bill. Kudos to Equality Maine and MassEquality volunteers who helped ensure passage of this important civil rights legislation.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s marriage equality bill has passed the House and Senate, and awaits a decision by Gov. John Lynch, who has previously said that he favors civil unions but would restrict “marriage” to heterosexual couples. If you’re a NH voter, contact Gov. Lynch now to let him know that you support full equality. Follow this issue on the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry website and find out how you can help. MassEquality is also organizing a door-to-door canvass in NH this Saturday; sign up here.

And in Washington, D.C., the city council approved legislation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, in a 12-1 vote, with Marion Barry as the dissenter. (With respect to Barry’s claim to “stand on the moral compass of God,” I’ll let his Wikipedia entry speak for itself.) It’s tragic that this is becoming a blacks-versus-gays issue, at least according to the rhetoric of the African-American ministers who vowed to fight the measure. I understand that African-American families have much to lose in a culture of sexual libertinism, but this seems to me like a classic instance of a dominant group (wealthy white heterosexual elites) playing two oppressed groups off against each other so that neither one makes progress. Mass-marketed obscenity, poverty, sexism, a failed drug war, and the legacy of slavery are far more responsible for family instability. But the folks who profit from all of the above would rather we blamed the gays.

This 2007 article from the Contra Costa Times offers some interesting facts about the silencing of black gay Christians:

Fourteen percent of the same-sex couples in the United States are black, and gay and
lesbian black families are more likely to include children than other races, according to a
2005 analysis of Census data by the National Black Justice Coalition and the National Gay
& Lesbian Task Force.

The year before, a Pew Forum survey found 64 percent of black respondents opposed same-sex

Some other good links on the issue:

Northampton Pride 2009

Every day is Pride Day at Reiter’s Block, of course, but this weekend I had the chance to celebrate with nearly 10,000 GLBT folks and straight allies at Northampton Pride. My husband and I marched with friends from our church, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, and then I tabled for MassEquality. If you haven’t already done so, visit their website and send a message to your Massachusetts legislators to support the transgender non-discrimination bill.

Photos below are by my man Adam Cohen. He went home to do some actual work after the parade, so I don’t have pictures of the stage acts from the afternoon, because carrying around the camera would have interfered with my ability to eat ice cream and buy rainbow-themed jewelry. I particularly enjoyed the performances by poet-songwriter Arjuna Greist, who sang about Jerry Falwell being forgiven by the queer angels in heaven, and the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus (the cute young interpreter put a little extra flair into his hand gestures, if I’m not mistaken). Towards the end, our loud and proud emcee Lorelei Erisis reminded us that we were also celebrating on behalf of all the GLBT people in countries where it’s not safe to come out.

Marchers gather in Lampron Park for the start of the parade.

From left: Shawn, Lady Marmalade, David, and Jim.

The usual suspects.

City Councillors Marianne LaBarge and Michael Bardsley. Vote Mike for Mayor!

Jewish Community of Amherst’s Rabbi David Dunn Bauer says, “That’s Rabbi faggot to you.”

More faith groups show the flag.

Jack Hornor, the head of our local MassEquality chapter.

The parade begins.

Dueling signs (College Church is our local evangelical congregation).

A Bridge Street resident shows pride, country-style.

Crowds line the Main Street parade route.

Mike with the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian from Haydenville Congregational Church. HCC had the largest church-group presence (the Daily Hampshire Gazette said 50 people) and the best T-shirts, which said something like “I love my gay neighbor…straight neighbor…Muslim neighbor…addicted neighbor…” etc.

The one and only Lorelei Erisis.

This kid’s picture should be next to “fabulous” in the dictionary.

See you in 2010, everyone!

Book Notes: Nobody’s Mother

Northampton poet laureate Lesléa Newman is the author of more than 50 books of poetry and prose for children and adults, including the poetry collections Still Life with Buddy and Signs of Love. She was one of the first authors to write children’s books for gay and lesbian families, the best known of which is Heather Has Two Mommies.

Her latest poetry collection for adults, Nobody’s Mother (Port Orchard, Wash.: Orchard House Press, 2009), is an autobiography in verse, narrated in a likeable voice that will resonate with a wide audience. Its themes include feminism, aging, the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and nostalgia for Jewish culture along with a critique of its patriarchal and warlike aspects. Along the way, Newman offers such delights as an ode to Manhattan’s now-shuttered Second Avenue Deli, and a playfully erotic exploration of middle-aged love.

Newman is closely attuned to the duality of our core experiences–our love-hate relationships with God, tradition, family, and our own bodies, to name a few. In the first section, “Nobody’s Mother”, she portrays her own mother’s emotional unavailability and resentment of her children, with a sharp eye and a wounded heart. At the same time, the author demonstrates compassion for her mother, seeing her from a feminist perspective as one of many women forced to choose between parenthood and personhood.

Other poems in this section reveal that Newman made the opposite choice. Her pride in her independence mingles with tender sadness for the daughter she will never have. “The Bad Mother” could be about either the narrator or her mother, depending on how it’s read:

…The bad mother never
thought she had
what it takes
to be
a good mother

The bad mother never
let her daughter
out of her womb
to prove
that she was wrong

The book’s second section, “A Real Princess”, sketches the characters of her Jewish family: the beloved dog, the aunts playing mah-jongg (“Company”), the distant father whose one effort at family closeness (“How to Make Matzoh Brei”) is treasured more than the mother’s daily unsung labors. However, amid these cozy scenes, the girl-child is also learning to associate her body with shame and danger. While the aunts gossip and laugh downstairs, the narrator is listening with dread for the sound of her older brother’s knock on her bedroom door:

…”Want company?” he asked
and though I never answered
he came in anyway
and did what older brothers often do

to younger sisters too ugly to date
while their father sleeps
and their mother laughs
and the telephone doesn’t ring

In the third section, “Classy Dame”, Newman engages in feminist midrash, fighting to inscribe her experience in the Jewish texts and traditions that are an inescapable part of her identity. The poem “Minyan” conveys how her grief at her grandmother’s death was compounded by the rule that women do not count towards the quorum of ten mourners required for the Kaddish.

…Dear God,

if a woman sobs
at her grandmother’s grave

and there’s no one there
to hear

has a sound
really been made?

In “What the Angel Really Said”, Newman turns the binding of Isaac into a classic Jewish comedy routine with an edge, using humor to puncture the patriarchal arrogance that sacrifices human beings to abstractions:

…Abraham, I’m warning you
unless you loosen the ties that bind
right this very minute
I’m going to have to declare you
an unfit parent. I’m going to have to
call the authorities who are going to have
to call the Department of Social Services
who are going to have to place the boy
in foster care and then may God
have mercy on his soul.
Already he’s going to spend
the next two hundred years
in therapy kvetching about his father
the meshugeneh who tried to kill him
because he loved some God
he had never seen
more than he loved his own flesh and blood.

Newman here creates an alternate mythology of original sin, suggesting that the root of our present evils is not disobedience to an arbitrary command but rather the opposite, the failure to recognize that human love is the truest expression of what God wants. Though her lesbianism plays a surprisingly small role in this book, this way of reading the Bible seems informed by our contemporary struggles over sex and gender in our religious institutions.

The last section, “Age Before Beauty”, includes often-whimsical homages to role models who have helped Newman love herself as a middle-aged woman. These range from literary icons Grace Paley and Virginia Woolf to a majestic, weathered old tortoise that she once saw crossing the road. It’s a hopeful ending to a collection that bravely explored some dark places.

Below, reprinted with permission, is “The Woodgatherer Speaks”, one of the book’s strongest poems about the intersection of faith and power. I love how it connects scapegoating to the reminder that there’s always so much we don’t know about a person, or a text, or (especially) God. Mob violence is the opposite of the humility that allows a multiplicity of voices.

The Woodgatherer Speaks

Once when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the
sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron
and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should
be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community
shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp
and stoned him to death—as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-15:36)

It was a sunny day
It was a cloudy day

It was early morning
It was late afternoon

I was gathering wood to build a fire
to warm myself

I was gathering wood to build a fire
to cook myself a meal

I was gathering wood to build a fire
that was never lit
yet burns for all time

I still tasted the bitterness of slavery
and did not care about keeping the Sabbath

I cared about keeping the Sabbath so much
I sacrificed my life so others would remember

I was selfish
I was self-less

Some say my name is Tzelofechad
and my five brave daughters
Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirtzah
are my legacy

Others insist I am a nameless man
known only for the worst thing I did
on the worst day of my life

Here is the truth:

I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day
I was warned three times to stop

I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day
no one said a word

I was brought before Moses and Aaron
They put me in custody
Then Moses spoke with God

God said to Moses, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy
God said to Moses Thou shalt not kill
God said to Moses Take this man outside the camp
Have the whole community stone him to death

Moses said to God
Pardon the iniquity of this man
according to Your great kindness
as You have forgiven the people Israel
ever since Egypt

Moses said: nothing

When I heard my fate
I stood still as a stone

I was struck first
by a rock
the size of the apple
Eve shared with Adam

I was struck first
by a small pebble
that was later placed
on my grave

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of a stranger

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of a friend

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of my daughter

The first stone
was thrown
b’ yad Moshe

The stones came hard and fast as rain
The stones came slowly, a lifetime apart

I stood upright
I fell to the ground

I cursed God
whom I did not believe in
I prayed to God
whom I loved with all my heart

As I lie on the earth
bruised and broken
a grasshopper leapt near my face
looked into my eyes
and sang a song so sweet
it broke my heart
and healed it

The grasshopper died beside me
The grasshopper hopped away

My life ended thousands of years ago
I am alive today

I gather wood on the scrolls of your Torah
I dance on the fringes of your tzitzit
I wander through the corners of your mind
as you sit in shul on Shabbat
and contemplate
the meaning of your life
the meaning of mine

A Sampler of Writing Advice from Glimmer Train

Glimmer Train is one of the top literary journals specializing in short fiction, with several lucrative contests throughout the year. Their online newsletter includes links to brief interviews with their published authors. Here, a sampler of some thoughts on writing, from their latest issue:

Rolaine Hochstein, the winner of their February 2009 Very Short Fiction Award, encourages authors to resist the oversimplifications of the marketplace in her essay “Life Class”:

…I would tell you to ignore the advice I read recently in a magazine for writers: A writer should be prepared to tell his story to the editor in three sentences (or was it three words?). If you can’t do that, says the editor, don’t even bother to submit the work. Boy, do I disagree! If you can tell your story in three sentences, why write it?

I write like a painter, going over the story draft after draft, adding color, changing shape, bringing in light and shadows (chiaroscuro, to labor the metaphor). A dab here, a highlight there, a new insight and, of course, constant wipeouts of segments that don’t belong. All these brush strokes, all these layers, all these drafts. All this time. Three sentences? Uh uh.

Maggie Shipstead reminisces with fondness and satiric wit about the cultural contradictions of Orange County, where she spent her childhood, and notes the importance of letting time pass before writing about raw subjects:

Nominally Episcopalian, my high school, like much of Orange County, was overrun by a vocal crowd of Evangelicals. My calculus teacher got up at a senior banquet and told the class of 2001 that he might not witness the apocalypse, but we certainly would. We would see the rivers of blood and the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men and the Whore of Babylon and everything. Girls wore rings symbolic of promises to remain virgins until they married. Students were encouraged to leave Post-It notes to God in the chapel. Intolerance was tolerated. Conspicuous consumption was exalted. No one could be bothered to recycle. As a smug adolescent agnostic, I found these beliefs and practices both laughable and infuriating. So I left.

Orange County followed. Orange County, right around when I went to college, was suddenly everywhere: in the movie Orange County, the TV series The O.C. and Arrested Development, the reality series Laguna Beach, and so on. The flurry of interest still hasn’t entirely died down. Surely the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men must now be upon us because we have witnessed the Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of Orange County, which, coincidentally, takes place in the very same gated community where I grew up. The series is a useful Exhibit A when I’m describing my teens because it showcases the oblivious, self-righteous decadence that kept me in high dudgeon during those years. Just watch one episode, I say. You’ll see. Recently, while passing through my old stomping grounds, I saw the O.C. distilled to its purest form: an enormous black Hummer H2 weaving in and out of traffic on the northbound 405 with the license plate “4BLSSD1.”…

…As far as the craft of writing, all my blathering about my hometown and high school boils down to this: don’t write angry. Sleep on it for a few years or a few decades. If you’re writing about someone or somewhere only to prove how silly and despicable that person or place is, your written world will have the flatness that comes from small-heartedness. A story should not be a means of carrying out a vendetta, but perhaps a story might be a way to lay one to rest.

Finally, the widely published fiction writer and essayist Thomas E. Kennedy insists that “A Writer is Someone Who Writes”:

Of all the rewards you get or do not get as a writer, the single most important reward must be the act of writing itself. Surely every serious writer has experienced this reward when she or he is working at top end—when you are in perfect harmony with the place your words come from, the place where your stories are waiting to be told. I do not want to seem mystical about this, but in my experience that is a sacred place, and entering it is the closest thing I know to a spiritual discipline. No reward—money, fame, publication—is greater than the privilege of gaining entry to that place.

Finally, and closely connected with that, a word about the words. Henry Miller once said that if you don’t listen when the Muse sings, you get excommunicated. The fastest way to a writer’s block is to be super-critical of the words that are offered up from whatever part of our mind, soul or body that the words are offered up from. A writer has an impulse to write something but generally, in my experience, does not know what he or she is going to say until it is said. To berate and reject the words that are being offered up to you even as they are being offered up is to insult that in you which is most important to you as a writer, that place where the spirit becomes word and takes form.

On that topic, a personal observation: I’ve been to the marvelous AWP literary conference three times now (2004, 2008, 2009), and amid all the panels about what to write, how to revise, where to get published, how to get a job, etc., etc., I remember wishing that more people would talk about why we write. Or, perhaps even more important, why we don’t write. What sustains or interferes with our keeping the faith? What is the purpose of writing?

That moment of “perfect harmony” Kennedy talks about is pleasurable, but chasing it is a recipe for despair. I used to get confused by the search for that high, thinking that if I wasn’t feeling it, the writing wasn’t good. Plus, for me, I don’t think it comes from writing per se, but from what I’m writing about. Writing is like dreaming, and some dreams are better for you than others. I abandoned one of my novels-in-progress last year because it couldn’t rise above what Shipstead calls “the flatness that comes from small-heartedness”. Whatever its literary merits (and excerpts from it had won several prizes), it felt like a spiritual dead end.

As for my other novel-in-progress, my characters and I have moved out of the manic-depressive romance phase and into something like a steady marriage, and one benefit of that commitment is that I don’t ask “why write?” as often as I used to. I write because I love them, and I’m learning to love the parts of myself they come from. But I’d still like to hear how other writers resolve doubts about their vocation.