New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy VI”

I’m pleased to share the next installment of my prison pen pal Conway’s “City Elegy” poetry series below.

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Becoming Church conference, a project of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC, which will focus on Christian activism for prison reform.

My other purpose in attending is to research models for intentional Christian communities, so that I can create a theology working group for trauma survivors. Church of the Saviour is known for bypassing the standard congregation format in favor of intimate small groups based on 12-Step (AA). Group members commit to mutual spiritual accountability and social justice work. Watch this space for my post-game report. Meanwhile, enjoy the poem.

City Elegy VI
by “Conway”

About two years and counting…
 The city left a window open for me
  a muddy puddle of spiraling sights
  that twist and turn a knife named memory.

This wall presses against my core
  it is a cellblock of scornful spent shells
  hungering to be crushed into a new mold.
The brusharound, or flushed down sound–
of this walk. Every step behind
the moment, looking, mapping.
    On a pathway passing tipsters–
playing a pose (straight incognito).

I pretend to crawl away, from war
untried by the tolling sigh, the taste.
The touch torn, as if I am the thorn.
A beggar swelling to be born.

If I could lift the moon…
  emerge from this strangling forest of metal.
  My goal is not these burial stones under foot,
  lain out before my only path.
On narrow steps, gnashing in silence, I wait.
I kneel before a vanishing door.

Here, in these strange woods
my wounds find refuge. But time
cannot lead me to be seen, over the fence.

Here is the entrance, reason for contrivance
as storm clouds bring a newborn saline.
Another downpour of brilliant jewels.

Shimmering topaz eyes blaze everywhere
 tint the brief shadows in amber.
 batting those lashes like a paramour.
  While the streets still rush and hum. (Conspire.)
   Heavy lyrics that spark like a hotwire.

{Do-do-do walk, march into our fire
No-no don’t talk, cops pay their liar
Hang me from that dirty noose of smog
cut me loose from this frustrating fog}

I ride on, day upon day and night in my mind…
Roads descend behind a false mirror, of others–
not there. I dream of my old shovelhead (Rolling again.)
hidden away like a skeleton.
It has taken twenty plus years to get, from nowhere
to here. Amongst the settling shades of memory.

A good woman waits somewhere else instead;
Some said “for a husband, as if he were’nt dead.”
I palmed her hand on a cold window-visit’s caress.
Ceremony sees us deserving such torment.

I taste a scent of gallows…
  The ink under my skin, folded under my jumpsuit
  burns under scrutiny.
    I stand; Ready to be judged.
    I am what I am, no mask.
    I am not what I was;
      Just ask…

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.

Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my therapist, “Will I ever get to the bottom of this pile of bad feelings, or is this my life?” I was going through another patch of nightmares and becoming frustrated. No new information was coming up; the incidents were way in the past, by now more thoroughly re-processed than Cheez Whiz.

I’d been operating with this image of my psyche as an overstuffed closet. As long as I was awake, I could keep holding the door shut, but every time I fell asleep, some junk would fall out. Eventually, though, wouldn’t I run out of old junk? Then I would have reclaimed my entire closet, to fill only with things from my fabulous new life!

But my therapist was like, “Nah, it doesn’t work that way.”

Some feelings will shift, she said; some memories will lose their charge, others will remain very painful but arise less often. However, PTSD is for many people a lifelong chronic condition. As Buddha said about suffering in general, the biggest thing I can do to ease my burden is to stop resisting it. Stop being surprised and frightened when it flares up again. Stop being angry at myself for not being “done” healing. There is no “done”.

I was thrilled!

It was a relief to stop blaming myself for my scars, and the survivor-introvert-Highly Sensitive Person in me loves predictability. But also, I was overjoyed that now I had a name for the liberal Christian indifference toward survivors, which I’d been awkwardly calling “normalcy privilege”.


On one level, the liberal church does a lot to ensure access for people with disabilities. Our parish, for instance, is one of the few congregations in the area with a sign language interpreter every Sunday. We’re undertaking a heroic capital campaign to add an elevator. The priest adapts the liturgy to say, “Those who are able, please stand”.

But as is usually the case in liberalism, the model is inclusion for the disabled, rather than disability as a standpoint for liberation theology. The latter, more radical posture would mean that the able-bodied/neurotypical people in charge would de-center their own experience, and invite the disabled to share what Christianity looks like in our lives.

For instance, where do we situate ourselves in the many gospel stories about Jesus healing mental and physical illnesses? (I’m treating the demon-possession stories as examples of mental illness because those were the manifested symptoms, but I don’t mean to imply the demons weren’t also real.) Liberal sermons about these stories are more likely to assume a non-disabled subject position for their audience. “We” are encouraged to emulate Jesus by healing others, or to overcome “our” prejudices about sharing fellowship with mentally challenged people. I will say that our church has made some progress beyond this narrow paradigm, through sermons about personal and family struggles with addiction, such as this beautiful meditation from lay preacher Vicki Ix at God Is Always More.

When we only talk about disability in the context of healing, that’s problematic in its own right. Of course those who feel afflicted want healing. Of course those who empathize with others’ affliction want to offer them something to hope for. But in reality, some conditions are incurable. While I don’t rule out miraculous divine cures, I feel that most of our energy should be directed toward overcoming obstacles to the disabled person’s functioning as an equal in our church, just as she is.

The pressure to manifest a spiritual happy ending can actually impair recovery. When there is healing, particularly for psychological conditions, it may not even be recognized by the non-afflicted, because they’ve been steeped in the ableist cultural narrative of triumphing over the disability rather than embracing it. For example, survivors who claim they’ve forgiven the abuser and released all angry feelings get more credit for being “healed” than survivors who have gone deep enough into recovery to feel righteous anger and finally love themselves.

Alongside the theology of healing, we need to develop theology that honors the disability as an genuine alternative way of being in the world. This is how some hearing-impaired people feel about Deaf culture. The autism community also includes many who want to celebrate their neurodiversity rather than eliminate it. In my recent post about survivors’ spiritual gifts, I suggested that the church could learn something unique from our trauma history and how we adapted to it.

The foregoing discussion owes much to Kelby Carlson’s essay “Crooked Healing“, which I found when Googling disability theology. Carlson, a music student and evangelical Christian, suggests that disability can be a vocation and a symbol of the universal human vulnerability that calls for God’s grace. Some quotes follow, but please read the whole thing here.

…It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God…


…The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world…


…There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory…

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross [the thorn in the flesh]…


…The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering…

Have a blessed Good Friday, dear readers.

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.

Donal Mahoney: “Easter at the Nursing Home”

Reiter’s Block welcomes back regular reader and contributor Donal Mahoney. The characters in Donal’s poems are drawn from our everyday life, but the issues they confront have cosmic significance. They’re fresh and down-to-earth yet also timeless, as the gospel stories must have sounded to their original audience.

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had work published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at

Easter at the Nursing Home

When bread
is this good
a morsel

will suffice
and when wine
is this good

a sip is enough
for the wraiths
and specters

coming toward
the altar now
on crutches

in wheel chairs

the last Easter
some of them
will know

as they await
a resurrection
of their own.

Two Poems from Amanda Auchter’s “The Wishing Tomb”

Winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Award in Poetry, Amanda Auchter’s exquisite new collection The Wishing Tomb (Perugia Press, 2012) surveys the cultural history of New Orleans over three centuries, in poems that quiver and shake with music and surge with the violence of floods. End-notes provide background on the incidents that inspired each poem.

About those notes: At first I found it distracting to flip back and forth between the storyline unwinding in the lyric poetry and the factual squibs at the end of the book. Should I break the flow and spoil the surprise by checking the notes first, and risk only finding what I already “know” the poem is about? Should I read the poems first, and endure the disorientation of not comprehending their context? I just had to read the book twice! And I’m sure it won’t be my last visit to these steamy, sad, gorgeous pages.

Upon reflection, I understood that the unreconciled duality of form was part of Auchter’s commentary on New Orleans, city of masks, oppressive and beautiful. A number of the poems hinge on the tension between the official story and the suppressed voices within it. Slaves speak here, and criminals, the dead, the polluted landscape.

The poems below, “Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850” and “St. Louis Cathedral, 2005”, are excerpted from The Wishing Tomb, with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, MA. Copyright 2012 by Amanda Auchter.

Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850

A man and a woman arrive together

in chains. His voice surfaces—
I shall try to meet you there—but I cannot

hear what follows. Tea cools in white china.
I think of horses, the way they walk back

and forth, hold up their heads. Horses,
the way a man in a coat turns them about,

opens their mouths, checks their teeth. Scars

on the flanks. A chimney gasps smoke
into the afternoon. The body looted. A child

plays a violin outside the stalls, watches
as women remove their handkerchiefs,

show their hands. A whip

weaves close to the ears. The balcony overlooks
a narrow street, a cart and driver.

The voices drift out, an edge

of an outline. The voices say, I hope
you will try to meet me in heaven.

I shall try to meet you there.


St. Louis Cathedral, 2005

The marble Jesus opens his eyes to the violence
of wind shaking bananas from tender stems,
the crack of two oak trees falling

in St. Anthony’s Garden behind their ornamental gate.
Rivers fill his mouth and in each
he tastes a shipwreck: torn boards, canvas,

drowned bodies. The slap of purple beads
against his bare feet. His arms
spread out as though he could cradle the city

inside him, as though the water that rises
above porches and windowsills,
above attics could abate with his strange light.

While the city darkens, he continues to turn each palm
skyward, an offering of damp stone,
a leaf caught in the crack of his right palm. Water

falls from his eyes and behind him, the wind
tears a hole in the roof of the church.
The rain enters the roof, floods

the Holtkamp pipe organ until everything is silent
of music. His hands are quieted
of their pale prayers—the left forefinger

and thumb broken off by a brick spinning its red stream
into the air. They push away
from his body. He watches

the city float past with its shattered glass, shoes,
telephone wire. How the debris of his
broken fingers swirl away from him, then point back.

Two Poems from Diana Anhalt’s “Lives of Straw”

Poet and political historian Diana Anhalt moved to Mexico with her family in 1950, where her parents joined a community of left-wing expatriates who’d left the U.S. to escape Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist persecutions. She would live there for the next 50 years. The full text of her nonfiction book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico, 1948-1965 (Archer Books) is available online here.

Her new poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Lives of Straw, movingly depicts Mexican cultural traditions and characters from the economic margins. The opening and closing poems are from her perspective, first as a young girl adapting to a foreign country and language, and then her equally disorienting return to America half-a-century later. Within that frame, Anhalt lets her Mexican characters speak for themselves, in colorful, musical, yet often blunt persona poems that show many facets of the struggle for survival. Fortune-tellers, street vendors (including one selling poetry), herbal healers, death-defying construction workers, and con artists must devote all their creative genius to earning their next meal. Diana has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below.

Dancing Alone

A summer’s night in Veracruz. The Rico Perez band plays a bolero
in the plaza principal. Lanterns thread the trees. I thread my way
through the sidelines. Edge past an ice cream vendor, girls in silk
and denim, dog walkers, two bald babies in headbands–to the center.
Couples shake and shuffle to the music. Some women dance alone,

reminding me of women in Pinochet’s Chile who danced the cueca,
partnered with snapshots of their desaparecidos–husbands, mothers,
sons. Here, an elderly woman in a pearl gray dress, struts, twirls
to the music, flexes her hands, nods her head, pauses to tighten
an earring. I suppose that everywhere, after violence, illness, divorce

women congregate on dance floors, raise their arms above their heads,
swing their hips to a merengue, beat out the rhythm of a cha cha cha,
and dance alone. This woman in gray resembles my mother-in-law,
now dead, who never would have. Me? I only pray, should–
dios no lo quiera–heaven forbid–that day come, I would.



a word that inhabits my Spanish-speaking mouth,
lies under my tongue and smells of evergreens,
and rainy Mondays, smoke. From the word querer

to want, desire, wish. It refers to bulls
who seek their place of solace in the ring.
For the waif in every living creature. I think

of the neighbor’s dachshund hunkered under the porch,
the sparrow haunting a fallen tree, the child
afraid to stray too far from his mother’s side.

We took to driving the Cuernavaca highway
and parked in the clearing with that Mexico City view.
As the air turned hazy with cigarette smoke,

we’d drink wine from the bottle, talk and listen to danzones
on the radio. We drove away soon after, took
our memories with us, haven’t returned.

After years away, our key no longer fits
the lock. And our home, grown used to strangers’ feet,
is home no more.