Two Poems from Heather Christle’s “The Difficult Farm”

As April is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d give my blog readers some relief from the theological heavy lifting, and share some excerpts and reviews of the poets I’ve enjoyed lately.

I picked up Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm at the Octopus Books table at AWP 2011 because of the haunted-looking one-eared rabbit peering out from its acid-yellow cover. He’s an apt mascot for these poems, whose randomness can be both sinister and humorous.

…Dear nasty pregnant forest.
You are so hot!
You are environmentally significant.
Men love to hang themselves
from your standard old growth trees.
Don’t look at me.

(“Acorn Duly Crushed”)

The book’s title made me think of “the funny farm”, slang for an asylum, the place where persons deemed “difficult” are shut away, laughed at for the nonsense they speak. But is it nonsense? Christle’s poems are held together by tone rather than logic. They have the cadence and momentum of building an argument, but are composed of non sequiturs. But the individual observations within that stream of consciousness often ring so true that you may find yourself nodding along: Q.E.D.

…I am remembering how yesterday
a falcon landed on the telephone pole
and we stepped out of the car, amazed.
It was the color of somebody’s carpet.
In somebody’s carpet there is a falcon-
shaped hole.

(“It Is Raining in Here”)

I had to ask myself whether I perceived the book’s speaker as female because of the author’s name, or whether “she” did indeed sound like the quirky nerd-girl character from indie romantic comedies, who naturally thinks in words like “paraphrasic” and “over-cathected” but acts hapless and adorable in social situations. Whatever the reason, it made her more likeable than John Ashbery, whose technique is similar but never appealed to me. This book displayed an eagerness for connection through talk, while recognizing that we mostly use language for social glue rather than sincere information exchange. So why not serve up a “radiant salad” of words?

Heather has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below. Visit her blog to find out about her latest books. Some of my other favorites from The Difficult Farm, including “The Avalanche Club” and “The Handsome Man“, are available elsewhere online. Or you could just buy the book, and help the bunny pay for his plastic surgery.


I do not have a farm do you have
a farm? on my farm are horses
cows pigeons chickens a dungeon
they tend to themselves it’s so easy!
I do not feel well do you feel
well? my throat’s on fire I mean
missing something crucial let’s say
the filament say filament! everyone
feels really good especially the horses
riding around like a bunch of stupid
chickens those are some foxy
beasts! I think beauty rises from
the dead do you think beauty rises?
like the great retarded sun? like
here comes beauty with its slow
dumb light and it’s touching stuff
& now I’m scattering feed I ordered
from mother nature’s catalog
which everyone knows has the best
pictures that’s why it’s all cut up
& the seed is falling out the holes &
the chickens are falling out
the holes & everyone gets papercuts!
goodbye chickens have a nice
time exploding in oblivion!

Stroking My Head With My Deception Stick

Someone shut down the local shimmer
but not the police who thought

it was Sunday and so spent hours
arranging their long and pliant hair.

Constable Jacques is the best man I know
but even he won’t converse with the dead.

The dead are so vain and hungry–
they will straddle your mirrors and swallow

your oak trees with their huge elastic lips.
And then you hear the screaming, not to be found

within the dead, but rather in the tiny
black pot which holds the greater part

of our mass and the difficult
farm where all the hens are black

and black are the wheatfields through which
runs a black and silent wind. Thin teachers

explain to our children: if the farm is a burgeoning
snowglobe, then the screaming’s a legend, like glass.

Survivors in Church: Our Spiritual Gifts

In this second post in my occasional series on abuse survivors in the church, I’d like to reflect on some of the spiritual gifts that have emerged through my recovery, and how the church could offer greater scope for them to be exercised.

It’s a delicate matter even to frame the issue this way. Our pain-avoidant culture is too hasty to point out the silver linings while we’re still shivering under the rain clouds. As soon as I try to appreciate my personal growth, I become afraid of giving listeners an opening to minimize the suffering that spurred it. Does the empty tomb erase the cross?

Those dear tokens of his passion/Still his dazzling body bears. The foundation story of our faith cannot be reduced to either shattering violence or undefeated love. The progressive church tends to skip over this gut-wrenching paradox, foregrounding the “functional” Jesus, the competent social justice activist and moral teacher with no visible wounds. But we survivors live between the cross-pieces of love and violence. The first gift we offer the church is the invitation to an honest exploration of that place.

The other gifts I will discuss below are drawn from my experience and the experiences of my friends in recovery. Naturally, not all survivors will interpret their journey in the same way.

Clarification of beliefs:

Because of my healing work, I appreciate how our beliefs can profoundly impact our lives, for good or ill. I have clearer critical thinking about where my beliefs come from, and tools to evaluate whether they are true and nourishing for me and my community.

All abuse involves some element of brainwashing. It severs the story-spinning brain from the distress signals given off by the body and the emotions. It deliberately instills confusion about whom to trust and who is to blame for the feelings of shame and disgust. This after-effect of trauma can be one of the most difficult to undo, because by definition, it is embedded below the conscious level.

The healing method I’ve found most helpful, Inner Bonding, directs me to look inward for the “false beliefs” that I’m still running in the background, and then to identify the life-giving truth with help from my Higher Power. For instance, a very common and influential false belief is, “I am unlovable unless I do X,” where X could be pleasing an authority figure, achieving something to prove one’s worth, or making sacrifices to serve others. The truth is that we are all beloved children of God, just as we are, and while there may still be good reasons to do X, earning our right to exist is not one of them.

Retraining people’s beliefs in a Godly and life-giving direction is theoretically the church’s distinctive mission. Isn’t that the plus-factor that differentiates “church” from a social club, charity, or activist group?

You would think so, but the liberal church is in a decades-long flight from sophisticated, evaluative conversations about belief. For years I defended the conservative position that “Christianity is the only true religion,” simply because it grated on my nerves (and scared me more than I realized) when liberals tossed off the platitude, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a good person.” I knew from hard experience that beliefs have everything to do with discerning what is good and being able to act on that awareness. So I got a strong signal there that no one wanted to hear about my journey out of the psychological fog. I was looking for a community of sanity in which to detox from my crazy-making home. That just wasn’t the church’s priority.

Or perhaps liberals are saying that whatever else Christianity has to offer, its religious beliefs (e.g. a personal God, the atonement, Jesus’s miracles, the cross and resurrection) have no effect on helping you choose a life of compassion versus domination, or reality versus delusion. In that case, you folks are wasting my time.

I’m frustrated that I’ve had to do my belief-repair completely outside Christian channels, figuring out on my own how to bring in the Jesus piece. And I suspect that others in the church are anxious and adrift, picking up signals of discouragement from the progressive thought-leaders that their deepest questions have no answers, or that they would rupture the social harmony if they started demanding some.

This discouragement is unnecessary. The answers aren’t really so mysterious. They only seem so because of our proliferation of thoughts, those elaborate defenses stemming from unwillingness to feel our feelings and follow the Spirit into unknown territory. Jesus said, “Everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:8)

I’d like to give the church the gift of my testimony that this promise keeps proving itself in my experience.

Dependence on grace:

In the previous section, I mentioned the false belief that we have to earn our right to exist. It looks to me like most people in modern Western society struggle with this, because of individualism, capitalism, social mobility, and all the usual suspects. On top of that, members of marginalized groups also have to overcome internalized negative stereotypes about their identity (e.g. racism, homophobia).

For survivors of childhood abuse, the delusion of perpetual probation goes deep, because the very people who brought us into the world didn’t treat us as having inherent worth. In my house, we couldn’t say no to things that felt bad (unwelcome touch, exposure of private matters, rewriting of family history, isolation from friends), just because they felt bad. We had to give our abuser reasons why our proposed boundary was “right”. Safety depended on winning endless arguments, which isn’t really safety at all. We also learned that receiving love and kindness was conditional on not angering the person in charge — as though we actually had control over that.

The blessing is, once I understood that self-justification was an unwinnable set-up from my dysfunctional past, I had no choice but to depend completely on God’s unconditional love. Now I have a basis to achieve goals and serve others without the hindrance of anxiety about protecting my ego. (An ideal realized imperfectly thus far, of course!) Perhaps people who’ve always been able to please the relevant scorekeepers take longer to realize their need to quit the game.

I’d like to give the church the gift of encouragement that grace is really there for us and makes us feel wonderful when we rely on it.

Awareness of power dynamics:

Product liability law includes the concept of “predictable misuse”. In cases of alleged negligent design, it’s not enough for the manufacturer to show that the product should be safe when used as directed. The company also has to make it safe for other situations that can be reasonably anticipated. For instance, the intended use of a chair is for sitting, but it’s foreseeable that consumers will also stand on chairs to reach high shelves, so it might be a design defect if the chair seat collapses when stood upon.

Survivors are your theological product testers. We know better than to assume that everyone who hears a teaching will apply it with good intentions. We’re naturally hypervigilant to imagine scenarios where the teaching could be manipulated to oppress someone, or could unintentionally reinforce a listener’s self-harming false beliefs. Don’t dismiss us as paranoid. We can help make your church’s worldview nuanced and sturdy enough to withstand spiritual abusers.

Survivors make great deconstructionists. We’re sensitive to the subject position of the person speaking. We notice the kind of power imbalances that upset Jesus in Matthew 23, when he denounced the Pharisees for laying burdens on others that they didn’t bear themselves. Because we’ve been outsiders for so long, we can teach our fellow Christians not to mistake one privileged perspective for a universal norm. For instance, we can correct their naivete about institutions like the family, which the mainstream church narrative only describes in terms of safety and benevolence. Though it’s painful to shatter these illusions, only then can the church become a real refuge for domestic violence victims.

I’d like to give my church the gifts of worst-case-scenario foresight and political consciousness, so that our teachings and leadership structure are truly liberating for the most vulnerable among us.

Urgency of spiritual practice:

Survivors who pray, pray like our hair’s on fire. We don’t have the energy for religious busywork. To be worthwhile, church has to offer us strategies to get through each day. It has to supply the spiritual food of consolation, acceptance, and liberation to people who have long been famished.

Our honesty about our needs can push the church toward a healthier balance between local and remote service projects. Helping seems simpler when the beneficiaries are thousands of miles away. Creating change in our own backyard can be controversial, and we might receive uncomfortable feedback about the mixed effects of our interventions. It’s not “sexy” for a church to take care of its own members; it triggers American middle-class guilt about our privileges. But survivors just don’t care anymore about these ego defenses. It’s our turn to seek healing. If the church tells us to wait in line behind everyone else in the world, we’ll go elsewhere. Do you really want a church where the people who most desperately need Jesus become burned-out first?

I’d like to give my church the gifts of passion for God and acceptance of vulnerability.

New Poem by Conway: “Indignance of Time”

My prison pen pal “Conway” has made good use of his time to write poetry while he waits for a hearing on his early release petition. Here, he shares a brief intense lyric that he wrote inside a card with his original artwork, inspired by Salvador Dali’s melting clock faces in the painting “Persistence of Memory”. I was struck by the apocalyptic closing image of missiles lined up and waiting. “The day of perpetual consumption” is a uniquely modern American twist on the Last Judgment — the fire that never ceases to consume us, who never cease to consume the world.

Indignance of Time

Dancing on an escalator
   any Blackjack can move
as verse quakes off the sound
   rattling around
This town this shaft going nowhere.

Some shop keep roars.
   From shag deep floors
     But no one keys the door.
   Once done, no’one can come
back out of this inner sanctum
   this Holy glass of need.

We crave to tour the billboard lit night.

   Abundant commerce
      misled souvenir missiles of clay;

Lined up to wake the day
   of perpetual consumption…

A Tale of Two Devotionals

Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.

The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP’s cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD’s is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day’s reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as “I will do something kind for a stranger today” or “I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer”. ERD’s daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.

Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It’s good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.

ERD’s happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches’ flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It’s not that these projects are wrong — although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we’re partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.

When I hear “Feed my sheep,” I don’t just think of the bottom layer of Maslow’s need pyramid — literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can’t offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn’t value my gifts, as it doesn’t support my vocation to feed others in these ways.

FFP’s is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can’t blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.

Take, for instance, the resolution “I will forgive someone who has hurt me”. The only people I’m still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren’t capable of it, and I wouldn’t be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?

Beyond that, it’s not
conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity
means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment,
and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity.
That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe they’re talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn’t take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn’t get in the way. But although that’s hard work worth doing, I don’t think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said “Forgive those who persecute you”, not “Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes.”

This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus’s teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it “really means” what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don’t believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.

I became a Christian because the religion’s understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don’t have to leave because it no longer does.

Good Christians Don’t Feel…

Lent gives Christians a refreshing opportunity to bring the topic of sin out into the open. In this season, we’re reminded that Christ’s love takes away our shame and sets us free to be honest. Hopefully this invitation generates not only personal repentance but critical thinking about what we consider sinful, and why.

Contemplating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, I’m struck by the fact that they’re all feelings or states of mind, not actions. True, a lot of our day-to-day misbehaviors are the mindless result of bad dispositions that we’ve allowed to become habitual. If I approach others with a routinely suspicious and fault-finding outlook, people are less likely to respond to me with intimacy and candor, which then perversely confirms my distorted view that everyone is a cold-hearted liar.

On the other hand, we can be deprived of a crucial tool for healing when careless over-generalization misidentifies the emotion as the sin, rather than its unskillful expression or unfair choice of target. Fear or anger may be a perfectly rational response to conditions in a person’s life, now or in the past. For some, those conditions were so extreme or long-lasting that the emotional response is neurologically ingrained, not amenable to shutdown by an act of willpower. When the religious community judges and stigmatizes the emotion itself, that person is impeded from coming out of denial and learning the emotion’s true cause.

In the conservative church, where faith is the primary command, fear may be targeted as a sign of failure. The liberal church, which prioritizes social harmony and benevolence, may struggle to have a nuanced conversation about anger. As we Episcopalians unpack our legacy of establishment privilege, we should take a fresh look at our checklist of sins from the perspective of the oppressed — those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness”, those whose anger has a just cause and represents a step toward self-determination. In a paradigm where there are only benefactors and sufferers, this perspective goes unheard.

Anger is the torch by whose light we see what has been done to us. Do we douse it because fire can sometimes go out of control?

In her book Sermons for a Lesbian Tent Revival, radical feminist playwright and activist Carolyn Gage includes a provocative (and funny) exposition of “The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Bring More of Them Into Your Life”. I don’t endorse all of Gage’s work — like many Second Wave rad-fems, she’s offensively transgender-phobic — but when she’s on, she’s on. Here, “Sister Carolyn of the Sacred Synapse” analyzes the varieties of angry experience, better than any preacher I know:

Okay, but what about Wrath? Sister Carolyn believes in Wrath. She believes a woman’s Wrath is sacred. What does the dictionary have to say about Wrath?

1: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement

Divine chastisement. Yes ma’am!

And where does this word come from? It comes from an old English word for “twisted”. And that is when you are trying to turn one way and something is forcing you to turn the other…and it is SQUEEZING you, sisters…just wringing the breath out of you. Like trying to know the truth when someone is feeding you lies. Like trying to be free when someone is trying to control you. Like trying to do something radical and counterclockwise with your life, but finding out that all your old conditioning is just going to keep twisting you clockwise.

WRATH. Yeah! Like loving a planet when it’s being ruined. Like caring for your sisters and seeing them have to live every day in a war zone. WRATH. Like raising your children and seeing the whole world geared up to violate them…Yes, sisters, bring it! Let’s get our Wrath on! (pgs. 142-43)

New Poem by Conway: “Throwing Strikes”

In this latest poem from my prison pen pal “Conway“, he makes a pun on California’s “three-strikes” sentencing law, which condemned him to 25 years to life for receiving stolen goods. He is still awaiting a court date on his early release petition pursuant to the law’s repeal in 2012.

Throwing Strikes

In this deserted surround
  no voice echoes
   as shards of concrete
    erupt from rusted selves
     just disregarded shells.

Another door slammed shut
  forged considering the score
   blind no more to loose lips
    the silent frame up
     of unlimited mysteries’ damage.

Back when I couldn’t admit
  some small time defeat, even if
   it put me back on the street.

I knew the situation…
  It would not end, even after
   a meeting of knuckles on skin.

Light lyrics, became heavy lies
  years, as far away as yesterday
   ricochets snatched up so easily
    become the law, the gavel
  as a systematic machine
   takes it in, like a pitcher’s glove…

Lent at My Fingertips

For several years, I’ve had a quirky practice of giving up so-called good things for Lent: going to church, for instance. One year I gave up Lent for Lent. But this year, that seems like a way of avoiding focus in my spiritual self-assessment — “giving up” something so large and vague that it doesn’t generate any concrete changes in my moment-to-moment living.

So I’m giving up biting my nails for Lent.

Hundreds of times a day, my poor tortured cuticles and I will have to find another way to cope with boredom, anxiety, or the need for comfort. I’m not committing to any showy promises that I’ll say a prayer each time I avoid snacking on my epidermis. I’ll be lucky if I make the time occasionally to inquire into the feelings beneath the bad habit. Who knows, maybe there are no feelings. Overthinking my own motives is another behavior I could gladly give up for Lent.

I’m going with the smallest, most specific change I can think of this year, because I can be honest with myself about what it is and whether I’m doing it. My perspective on the big issues of Christian faith is in such flux that no major action feels satisfying or sincere.

For instance, living with a baseline of constant, object-less fear is something I would like to change. Some would say that God would take this burden away if only I had enough faith — that I’m choosing to be stuck in the past, to dwell on the times I felt abandoned rather than the times when God’s felt presence or human allies supported me. Or the reverse interpretation could be true: as I finally apprehend how awful my past was, I experience God’s absence at a whole new depth. What follows from this? Is “God the Father” compatible with coming into my full strength as an adult? Or is trauma healing not a theological problem at all, but primarily a matter of slowly retraining the nervous system? In that case, religious promises of instantaneous deliverance ring hollow.

I’m unlikely to have an answer for these questions in the next two days. The best I can do is resolve to respond to fear with more mindfulness and less compulsive, self-destructive behavior. And it starts at my fingertips.