My Poem “The Name-Stone” at Utmost Christian Writers

My poem “The Name-Stone” just received an Honorable Mention in this year’s contest for Christian poets at Utmost Christian Writers. This Canadian website has been very supportive of my work over the years. Read all the winners here. (Some are still in the process of being posted as of today, April 18. Check again in a few days if you don’t see a link to the one you want.)

The poem was inspired by a discussion in my church’s adult education group about a verse from the Book of Revelation: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” One of our members, a retired Anglican priest, said this could refer to the ancient Near Eastern practice of friends making a keepsake at parting. They would write their names on a stone or lump of clay and break it in half, each one retaining a piece that uniquely fit the other.

The Name-Stone

(Revelation 2:17)

I will give you a stone
with a secret under it.

As children in the Galilee
wrote friendship’s names on both ends
of such a shard, and broke it
and went away, each to his own desert.

nothing to give one another
but a ragged edge
that, fit
to its companion, meant love.

Where do the gouged letters lie,
in temple midden or the royal road’s thorns?
What hands crushed the clay?

I will give you a piece
of unmarked earth.

Not the name
your mother pressed onto your lips
to seal the scroll of her sorrows.

Not the name
your father spilled
like an ox-dragged harrow,
a plow with no sower.

They only know the name
that decoy, death,
reared above the spot
where you left this ground.

Granite praises granite,
butchers weep
over the marble lamb,
speak both parts
of the absolving script.

But I will give you a riven rock
to drink from its flood heart,
the rock I broke myself
to fit you.

A Faith That Makes Space for Mourning

Just this morning in church I was thinking about the Middle Ages, how their artwork was full of death, real death with grinning skulls and rotting flesh, and how this is considered the era in Western history when Christian belief was most alive and all-pervasive. How many of us who walked through the door this morning literally believe the words on the banner over our heads: “Christ is Risen”? Do I believe it? And by “literally” I mean “in a way that robs death of its power”. For me that also means “historically true”. For you it may not. But either way, that’s the job that “Christ is Risen” has to do.

I’m reading this absorbing, brilliant, painful novel called Swimming, by Nicola Keegan, which I found through this excerpt in Narrative Magazine. It’s about an Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose competitive drive is fundamentally an escape from her oppressive consciousness of death, triggered by family losses in her childhood and her mother’s subsequent spiral into housebound depression. Replace swimming with academic achievement and you have my life story. As I near the book’s end, I keep wondering why the heroine is proceeding down the very modern track of turning to therapy rather than religion when talent fails her and she has to face her long-buried feelings. Unlike my largely secular childhood, this fictional girl was immersed in Midwestern Catholic-school culture and has great respect and affection for the nuns who mentored her. Yet that framework proves powerless to help her or her family surmount their despair when confronted with mortality. Why?

Maybe it’s because modern Christianity doesn’t depict death enough. The church doesn’t spend enough time on the shadow side, allowing sorrow and pain to have their say, not prematurely silenced by happy endings. (If I ran the world, I’d have a second Lent halfway through Pentecost. Do we really need 29 weeks of ordinary time, people?) Those who are still angry and grieving may feel that the only way to validate their feelings is to reject the faith.

Later today I found some of these sentiments echoed in Robert Gross’s paranormal gay romance story “Dark Lapis“, published in the online journal Wilde Oats. Reiter’s Block readers may recall his poem “Poor Souls” reprinted here last month. The plague that passes through his fictional Renaissance city is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s-1990s, and the younger generation’s tendency to dismiss it as old history even though new infection rates remain high. It also reminded me of post-9/11 New York City and the shallow slogans (“Fight back! Go shopping!”) that were supposed to return a stricken populace to business as usual.

From “Dark Lapis”:

…The city was returning to its weddings and babies, lawsuits and public executions, and the anomalies were generally spoken of with a sigh, a shake of the head, a pious reference to the long-term costs of the pestilence, and an abrupt change of topic. But Magnus was drawn to anomalies. Though he would not admit it to anyone, he distrusted the return of the city to normalcy just as much as he was horrified by the return of spring. He preferred the fog, the darkness, the lapis lazuli ring on his finger. The incised griffin turned inward toward his palm, caressed with a thumb.

The cruel fact was Magnus missed the pestilence. He could scarcely contemplate the immensity of this truth to himself, nor could he communicate it to others. To think of it was like holding a hot poker to your flesh, but there it was-the truth-and it rarely left him. Not that he was anything like the mad monks who raved on the street corners at the height of the pestilence, relishing how the Scourge of God had smitten the sinners. Not that he wished another human soul a moment’s suffering. But he was not yet willing to put it out of his mind as the others seemed to have done, and he walked at night searching for proof that it had not yet lapsed completely into forgetfulness.

The city had marshaled its efforts behind recovery; religion had become reasonable, gentle, and omnipresent. Services were watercolor washes of music and flowers, and the ministers wore white as if they were officiating at weddings. The goal, their flock had been admonished, had been to persevere and in time forget the bad memories and continue with only the good. As if, Magnus thought, the horror were the flesh, the final memory the skeleton, and time were decomposition. He found this offensive. How could he ever forget the worst that had happened? The boils. The vomiting. Fever and ravings. The remedies as violent as the pestilence, which never worked for long if at all. Later he found it loathsome. What good was memory that was so skittish and indulgent, so afraid of pain that it locked the door and boarded it over?

Those days had been a light so unspeakably brilliant you could neither open your eyes to it nor close your eyes tightly enough to keep it out. Even with your eyes shut you were blinded by it. It was so intense that only in retrospect could you take in its excruciating vibrancy. The change, the loss, the revelation; the multiple obliterations of them, of everything. The vividness of one minute corner of existence until it threatened to set you and the whole universe ablaze or tear you open like a knife ripping through canvas. And now nothing had that. Not even the spring blossoms could match it.

Wednesday Random Song: Macklemore, “Same Love”

Rapper Macklemore is best known for his comical music video “Thrift Shop”, which went viral this year. But it turns out his awesomeness goes way beyond an ode to my favorite pastime. His song “Same Love” provides the soundtrack for this heartwarming 7-minute movie in support of gay marriage.

And he wears your granddad’s clothes.

(Hat tip to blogger Dannika Nash. Read her post about why young Christians are leaving the church to stand on the side of love.)

“Crime Against Nature”: A Lesbian Mother’s Poetic Manifesto

Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Crime Against Nature is everything a poetry collection should be. Politically urgent but never one-dimensional, in language that’s always clear but never pedestrian, 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.

The speaker grieves, rages, yet bravely refuses to take the blame for the impossible choice forced upon her. “This is not the voice of the guilty mother,” she writes. Connecting her loss to other forms of oppression and violence against women, she dares to dream of a world that “will not divide self from self, self from life.”

Crime Against Nature was originally published in 1989 by Firebrand Press and won the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize, a second-book award from the Academy of American Poets. A Midsummer Night’s Press, in conjunction with the lesbian literary journal Sinister Wisdom, reissued it this year in an expanded edition with historical notes and an author essay. It is the first book in their “Sapphic Classics” series reprinting iconic lesbian poetry that is now out of print. Subscribers to this excellent journal will receive future Sapphic Classics (one a year) as the equivalent of one magazine issue. Crime Against Nature does double duty as Issue #88.

Sinister Wisdom editor Julie R. Enszer has kindly given me permission to reprint a sample poem below. I chose this one because I could relate to the speaker’s dilemma between speaking and not speaking about trauma. In the end it is better to speak, even when it hurts. It sets free others’ “tongues of ice”, as well as your own. Thank you, Minnie Bruce Pratt.

Justice, Come Down

A huge sound waits, bound in the ice,
in the icicle roots, in the buds of snow
on fir branches, in the falling silence
of snow, glittering in the sun, brilliant
as a swarm of gnats, nothing but hovering
wings at midday. With the sun comes noise.
Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter,
splinter, speak. If I could write the words.

Simple, like turning a page, to say Write
what happened,
but this means a return
to the cold place where I am being punished.
Alone to the stony circle where I am frozen,
the empty space, children, mother, father gone,
lover gone away. There grief still sits
and waits, grim, numb, keeping company with
anger. I can smell my anger like sulfur-
struck matches. I wanted what had happened
to be a wall to burn, a window to smash.
At my fist the pieces would sparkle and fall.
All would be changed. I would not be alone.

Instead I have told my story over and over
at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life
clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass.

Ashamed, people turned their faces away
from the woman ranting, asking: Justice,
stretch out your hand. Come down, glittering,
from where you have hidden yourself away.


Counties Hoard Prison Rehab Funding, Few Inmates Helped

Two years ago the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding, which had reached the point of unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment”. The state then released numerous low-level offenders and granted funding to county officials to run rehab programs for the probationers. The only problem, according to this article in the Sacramento News & Review, is that the counties actually hoard the state dollars instead of directing it toward non-state-sponsored rehab programs with a proven track record. Probationers wind up in a revolving door of re-arrests for petty offenses, because the high recidivism rate helps the county argue that it needs more state funding for probation officers and jails. From the article:

Tim Gene Sanders is about to get busted for possessing a saltshaker.

It’s February 2011, and Sanders is on his way home from a community center in Citrus Heights. He hangs a left on Auburn Boulevard when a patrol cruiser pulls him up short for making an unsafe lane change. The hangdog ex-con with the rebel-cool hair knows the drill. He’s on probation, so the cops get to toss his vehicle. Inside, they find a saltshaker and an empty sandwich bag. Sanders was snacking on hard-boiled eggs, but Citrus Heights’ finest assume the white granules at the bottom of the shaker are meth.

By the time the charges are dropped, the damage is done. Sanders spends 19 days in county jail and loses his car to a prohibitive impound fee. His house goes next.

“That’s the system,” Sanders says. “That’s how the system works.”

He would know. He got out of Sacramento County Main Jail only days ago for taking Tylenol with codeine No. 3. The pain meds—prescribed by a doctor after Sanders got out of the clink and hoofed it 10 miles on arthritic hips to his car—made it appear there was heroin in his system. Before that, Sanders went to jail for seeing the doctor instead of his parole officer.

Read the full story here.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal

The first day of April, the day after Easter. A breezy spring day, clouds speeding across the shining blue sky. Outside our town courthouse, a new flag has joined the Stars & Stripes atop the flagpole on the lawn. On a red ground, six paper-doll cut-out children, all blue except for one red body.

It’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Awareness months and colored ribbons have their drawbacks. They can feel hokey and self-congratulatory, or smack of tokenism for issues that deserve year-round attention. But they can also provide a conversational opening to broach an uncomfortable topic. As my Lenten discipline recedes into the rearview mirror, I can attest that a month of anything is a manageable spiritual practice, while a lifelong resolution can seem overwhelming and self-defeating.

I had all those reactions, positive and negative, as I gazed up at the red and blue flag snapping in the wind. One child was different from the others. It didn’t help me to think about that. I guessed it was a reference to the “1 in 6” statistic, meant to send the message that child abuse is more prevalent than we’d like to believe. The logo was probably a gesture toward normalizing survivors, but my gut reaction was the opposite. It looked like a representation of how abuse victims feel–singled out, conspicuously tainted, separate from the human community. The logo reified this division. Red and blue. Us and them.

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?

I didn’t realize I was a child abuse survivor until a few years ago, because the violations weren’t physical (as far as I can remember). My biological mother was physically abusive and controlling to her partner, which took center stage in how I thought about my childhood. I had to encounter abuse in other contexts, as an adult, before I recognized the pattern in my past.

First, vicariously, as an advocate for gay rights, I started to notice how the religious arguments against homosexuality would forcibly rewrite a gay person’s interpretation of his own bodily sensations and affections, trying to brainwash him into feeling pleasure as pain, integrity as brokenness. This is similar to how a sexual abuser teaches a child to dissociate, to disbelieve what her body tells her. As Martha Beck contends in Leaving the Saints, her memoir of incest in the Mormon Church, a religion creates split personalities when it commands adherents to accept demonstrably false facts. Such training primes people to be both abusers and victims.

I was raised by two moms, but the homophobic theology didn’t just offend me as an ally. It felt like it struck deeper. It was like a sword poised to sever me from my awareness of God. And I couldn’t explain why.

When I spoke up about this, I hit an emotional brick wall with some Christian friends. Our study groups were no longer a safe place for honesty, for me at least. Some conversations detoured around me as if I hadn’t spoken. At other times, my boundaries around discussing certain personal matters were ignored, because my feelings were merely human preferences that couldn’t stand in the way of my friend’s obligation to save my soul. We were adults sitting in a room having tea; why was I speechless with terror at my sudden invisibility, why tearfully desperate to wring compassion from a heart gone cold?

Searching for a better way to re-imagine my faith, I obsessively read feminist and pro-LGBT Christian websites. One of these led me to the “escape from Christian patriarchy” blogs such as No Longer Quivering and Love, Joy, Feminism. Though my upbringing included neither Christianity nor a patriarch, I was astounded to find how closely my experience mirrored that of girls raised in a fundamentalist breeder cult, right down to the “prairie muffin” dresses.

The penny dropped when these blogs did a series on emotional incest. I never knew that was a thing. I used to say, “Well, my mother was really really enmeshed and co-dependent with me…and OCD…and she hated it when I got married…and she had a breakdown when I tried to have a baby…and…and…” Now, I was like, “So that’s why I have so much in common with my BFF who just recovered her incest memories!”

The point is, I wouldn’t have been ready to face this truth about my past if I hadn’t been prepared with analogies to other forms of oppression, such as homophobia and spiritual abuse. These common factors gave me a sense of solidarity, overcoming some of the isolation and stigma I relived when I saw the courthouse flag today. I had a political outlet for my anger instead of expending it all in the secret confines of a therapist’s office. This solidarity continues to help me overcome the memories of being stunted, shut away, wasted, consumed.

Should I be telling you this, my readers? Should I embarrass the person who gave me life, whose own life is lonely and empty now because of a thousand choices to turn away from health? All I can say is, I could blog about “child abuse” in the abstract, I could link to a dozen resources run by “out” survivors whom I admire immensely, but I would still be dishonest if I kept silence in a way that implied, I’m one of the blue children on the flag, not that red one. No, I was just a child. This is my story.