Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Waiting for the Umpire”

More than 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, Christians still debate the relative importance of good works versus faith in Jesus for salvation. Each team has its favorite proof-texts. Catholics may cite the Epistle of James for the proposition that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26) while Protestants lean on St. Paul’s words in Romans 3:28 (“a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law”).

Never mind that the two authors were probably addressing different issues: St. Paul the question of whether Jewish Christians had an advantage over Gentile ones, and St. James the problem of hypocrisy among professed Christ-followers who didn’t show care toward their neighbors. Humans being humans, any religious rule can be turned to self-serving ends, as illustrated by this satiric Lenten contribution by Donal Mahoney, who describes himself as “a believing but misbehaving Roman Catholic”.

Waiting for the Umpire
by Donal Mahoney

Ralph never planned on dying
but when he did, he was swept away
like a child’s kite blown astray.

When he arrived at his destination,
he heard angels singing, harps playing
and Louis Armstrong on the trumpet

so he figured this must be heaven.
A nice old man at the gate, however,
waved him away without directions.

This confused Ralph until he found
an open window in the basement,
climbed in and found an elevator

that took him to the top floor.
There a smiling angel with big wings
walked him up a thousand concrete stairs

and showed him to an empty seat.
Ralph was in the bleachers now
with millions of others, simply waiting.

None of them had a cushion to sit on.
But down in the padded box seats
Ralph saw rabbis, priests and ministers

sitting in the front row, simply waiting.
His barber, Al, was sitting with them.
For 30 years Al had been asking Ralph

while trimming his few remaining tufts of hair
if he had finally been saved or was he still lost.
Ralph would always tell Al he believed in God

but that every year he cheated on his taxes.
Sin is sin, Ralph would quietly point out.
Faith is all you need, Al would shout.

Seeing his barber now in the front row,
Ralph figured that maybe Al had stopped
cheating on his dying wife.

Otherwise, Ralph figured, Al would be sitting
in the cheap seats, waiting with everyone else
in the amphitheater for the Umpire to appear.

Poetry by Thelma T. Reyna: “Early Morning”

In this season of Lent, we are told to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This reminder of mortality is not meant to make us dwell in gloom, but to practice discerning how to spend our time on what matters most.

Thelma T. Reyna’s poem below illustrates this truth. It is reprinted by permission from her forthcoming chapbook, Hearts in Common, available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press through April 5. From the publisher’s press release: “Hearts in Common focuses on the commonalities that bind us all together. Poems about the dreams, labors, and heartbreaks of immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, and other parts of the world; about nurses in Haiti treating the dying; about Egyptians in rebellion against their oppressors, join with insightful, poignant poems about the people in our everyday lives: husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children, friends–all of us having ‘hearts in common’.”

Early Morning
by Thelma T. Reyna

She wasn’t supposed to die across the
sunbeams, flowered night-
gown twisted around crumpled knees, eyes
widely unaware and questioning.

She wasn’t supposed to die while
her coffeepot called, and toast rose
with a gentle click as she
cajoled and roused sleeping children.

She wasn’t supposed to die while
she sang to the terrier licking her ankles,
and her husband ambled to her for their
morning kiss, white coffee mug ready
for his brew.

She wasn’t supposed to die like this,
arms around his neck, lips pressed to his ear,
warm breath gearing up for morning talk,
her head tilting back to tell him something

But she died a lightning death, her
big heart failing, her body falling in an
instant to
the sunlit floor, her mouth circled in pain,
her hands
clutching her breast as her children
   walked in.

No guarantees. There are no guarantees in life,
been told and retold. Grab love, fight loss, find
joy, hang on, believe, and tell yourself again
  and again
and again that this day, each day, is irretrievable.

Two Poems from Donna Johnson’s “Selvage”

Award-winning poet Donna Johnson was an assistant editor at our Winning Writers online publishing business from 2009-2011. I’m glad that the demands of updating our contest database didn’t keep her from completing her remarkable first poetry collection, Selvage, now out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. I had the privilege of reading it in manuscript and providing the following blurb:

Selvage, a precise yet uncommon word, refers to the self-finished edge that keeps fabric from fraying. Like that cloth, the girl-turned-woman we follow through these electrifying poems must weave strong edges for herself to keep from being pulled apart by others’ desires. She flirts dangerously with alternative selves–the prostituted woman, the fierce nun–to understand her body’s potential as it chafes against the proprieties of Southern white girlhood. Selvage sounds like salvage, too, the hardscrabble work of children seeking nourishment and mementos from the wreck of their past. Every poem digs up treasures of insight, words pungent as the air outside the tannery, ineradicable artifacts like the bullet in a slave woman’s unearthed spine–not always comfortable to contemplate, but satisfying as only the truth can be.

Donna has kindly given permission to reprint two sample poems, below.

(for Della)

Your mother had notions. Wouldn’t buy Ivory soap–
not because she saw the irony, that whiteness
equals purity, not because it reminded her
of all the carved tusks looted from Abidjan ruins
curled around the wrists of Belle Meade denizens–
she thought it smelled common. Cornrows
and Kente cloth were out of the question.

She clung to her book of proper, as if
it could keep one from harm: the hands of boys
inching down your pants, police slowing,
tinted windows rolling down, all because you crossed
the highway that divided the two halves of town.

She taught you to look ahead (like you don’t see nothin)
balancing flute case across handlebars,
approaching the house of the first clarinet,
with its lawn boy positioned at the gate,
coat and exaggerated grin, freshly painted red.


Eve Gets a Makeover

I don’t like to say anybody’s hopeless. But, that yellow Dotted Swiss you just bought–you know, the one with the full dirndl skirt and gathered waist–makes you look wider than you are tall. Enough material in it to patch the Hindenburg. Don’t fret, though hon. You got your charms. Jes gotta make use of em before they’re gone: a little contour cheek powder, a shade darker than your natural, some highlights. What you waitin for? Plenty women gettin all their stuff done. Who’s gonna throw stones? Your kids are clean, their hair is combed. Your make cakes from scratch; once a week you bring that broccoli casserole to the nursin home. I know what they told you. Jesus first, others second, yourself last spells J-O-Y. But joy ain’t beauty. And I don’t see you displayin much of the former, anyhow, worryin about your husband workin late, maybe findin someone younger. Anyway, the King James did get one thing right: all flesh is grass. That’s why you best be ruthless with it. I can help you there. I know flesh. And I know ruthless.

Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Abuse in 2 Minutes (With Music!)

Forget Ariel, Belle, and Tiana. For me, the supreme Disney princess is Rapunzel from Tangled (2010). Underneath the lush colors and catchy songs, this retelling of the fairy tale is a profoundly serious and truthful depiction of a young woman’s escape from a cult-like family system.

From the IMDB summary: “After receiving the healing powers from a magical flower, the baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from the palace in the middle of the night by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel knows that the flower’s magical powers are now growing within the golden hair of Rapunzel, and to stay young, she must lock Rapunzel in her hidden tower. Rapunzel is now a teenager and her hair has grown to a length of 70-feet. The beautiful Rapunzel has been in the tower her entire life, and she is curious of the outside world. One day, the bandit Flynn Ryder scales the tower and is taken captive by Rapunzel. Rapunzel strikes a deal with the charming thief to act as her guide to travel to the place where the floating lights come from that she has seen every year on her birthday. Rapunzel is about to have the most exciting and magnificent journey of her life.”

A conventional kids’ film would have the villain accomplish her ends through showy displays of force and magic. Mother Gothel uses a more insidious method: professional-grade emotional abuse and brainwashing. Watch and learn, my friends:

In just two minutes, the song “Mother Knows Best” conducts a whirlwind tour of the techniques that an abusive parent, partner, or cult leader employs to isolate and confuse her victim. Notice how Mother Gothel interlaces apparent compliments (you’re precious to me, you’re too innocent and fragile for this dangerous world) with self-esteem destroyers (you’re clumsy, you’re naive, you’re not pretty enough to make it out there). Her lavish caresses are punctuated with subliminal flashes of menace–so quick, it’s almost possible for Rapunzel to block them out.

Dizzied by this personality-switching, Rapunzel feels uneasy and ashamed. Something doesn’t seem right, but it’s too scary to realize that her only caregiver doesn’t really care for her. Only later, when she finds an alternate source of support in Flynn, is she ready to recover her memories of her real identity and parents. (Yes, a kids’ film about repressed memories! How radical is that?)

Besides this song, I particularly love the scene where Rapunzel first escapes from the tower, aided by Flynn. Her mood swings are so true to the joy and self-doubt that an abuse survivor goes through when she begins to emerge from brainwashing. “I’m free! I’m free! I’m a terrible person. I’m free!”

Libby Anne, who blogs at Love Joy Feminism, has written eloquently about how Tangled resembles her upbringing in a Christian patriarchy cult. This film is validating for anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship, secular or religious. It’s also a great teaching tool to help your children recognize and avoid mind control.

Our Secret Epidemic

Quick quiz: What life-altering condition impacts more Americans annually than AIDS, cancer, homophobia, the mortgage crisis, and gun violence, combined?

The answer is child sexual abuse, according to this must-read article by Mia Fontaine in The Atlantic, “America Has an Incest Problem“. If that wasn’t your guess, that’s no surprise. Politicians rarely mention it and the media mostly covers cases where the perpetrator is not a family member, because true investigation would implicate a significant percentage of the population. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

…One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family. These statistics are well known among industry professionals, who are often quick to add, “and this is a notoriously underreported crime.”…

…Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out. The very fabric of society would be torn. Everyone would be affected, personally and professionally, as family members, friends, colleagues, and public officials suddenly found themselves on trial, removed from their homes, in jail, on probation, or unable to live and work in proximity to children; society would be fundamentally changed, certainly halted for a time, on federal, state, local, and family levels. Consciously and unconsciously, collectively and individually, accepting and dealing with the full depth and scope of incest is not something society is prepared to do.

In fact society has already unraveled; the general public just hasn’t realized it yet. Ninety-five percent of teen prostitutes and at least one-third of female prisoners were abused as kids. Sexually abused youth are twice as likely to be arrested for a violent offense as adults, are at twice the risk for lifelong mental health issues, and are twice as likely to attempt or commit teen suicide. The list goes on. Incest is the single biggest commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. They grow up—and 18 isn’t a restart button.

How can the United States possibly realize its full potential when close to a third of the population has experienced psychic and/or physical trauma during the years they’re developing neurologically and emotionally—forming their very identity, beliefs, and social patterns? Incest is a national nightmare, yet it doesn’t have people outraged, horrified, and mobilized as they were following Katrina, Columbine, or 9/11…

For Massachusetts residents seeking healing from sexual violence, I recommend the Survivor Theatre Project, a free workshop combining performance art, therapy, and activism. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) website includes a list of other support groups in each state.