Sponsor Me: Fall Fundraisers for Literacy and Domestic Violence Services

Two opportunities are coming up for blog readers to sponsor me for a good cause.

First, I’ll be writing a poem a day in November to raise money for the Center for New Americans. CNA is a community-based, nonprofit adult education center that provides the under-served immigrant, refugee and migrant communities of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley with education and resources to learn English, become involved community members and obtain tools necessary to maintain economic independence and stability.

When I did CNA’s 30 Poems in November fundraiser in 2010 and 2011, it helped me recapture a sense of fun in my poetry and push myself to find fresh subject matter. The poem-a-day challenge generated prizewinning poems such as “After October Snow” and “Depression Is My Happy Place“, and other slightly less substantial works, like “The Ballad of Trader Joe’s Dimidiated Turkey”. The project wraps up with a group reading and celebration at Smith College in early December. Please join us if you’re in the area, and sponsor me at Razoo: Jendi Reiter’s 30 Poems in November

Second, our family-of-choice, a/k/a Freedom Team, will be walking in Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage on Sunday, December 7. This 5K run and 3K walk supports Hampshire County’s domestic violence shelter and advocacy organization. Please sponsor my page or Shane’s page at PledgeReg!

Now, for your delectation, the official poem for November 17, 2010:

The Ballad of Trader Joe’s Dimidiated Turkey

When only half a turkey will do,
When only half a turkey will do,
When there’s an empty place at table and you’ve eaten all you’re able,
Baby, I’m the better half for you.

You been stirring up that pot of beans ‘n rice,
You been stirring up that pot that smells so nice,
Cook that dinner year on year, while he sits ‘n drinks his beer,
Baby, you won’t have to heat me twice.

Grandma’s boyfriend took her on a cruise,
You sit and watch the blizzard on the news,
When your daughter calls collect, ’cause her flight did not connect,
Baby, I got just one wing and it’s for you.

You been rollin’ out that cherry pie,
You been rollin’ out sweet cherry pie,
He’s lost in halftime doze, dripping gravy on his clothes,
C’mon baby, lemme show you some thigh.

That tender meat is fallin’ off the bone,
You can share it with your friends or eat alone.
Serve me hot with sausage stuffin’, and I won’t let on you’re bluffin’
When you smile and say you made it all at home.

Poetry by R.T. Castleberry: “Leaving Alexandria”

R.T. Castleberry’s chapbook Arriving at the Riverside (Finishing Line Press, 2010) sings the ballads of a wandering man, that uniquely American character who is by turns a prophet, a drifter, a lover, and a wounded warrior. As he writes in “An Arrangement of Necessities”: “Tomorrow I travel,/see my headlights on the car ahead, lay my pallet in the dust ruts by the road…Leaving is easy.”

Yet, although he may journey from Memphis to Santa Fe to Canberra with little more than a classic book and a brandy bottle, the speaker of these poems also carries the burden of wartime memories, the unwelcome knowledge of how we destroy ourselves. “A morning sun slices leaf-flooded lanes,/curves choked with sites/of church grounds, schoolyard, first house…I watch high-striking jets dissect the compass rose.” (“The Traveler at a Loss”)

In a time when free verse has become weakened by talky informality, Castleberry restores the muscular rhythms of poetry informed by what T.S. Eliot called “the ghost of meter”. The poems’ strong forward motion is balanced by a meditative attention to the landscape’s sights and sounds.

Castleberry kindly shares this poem from the book, which he says was inspired by the Michael Caine movie “Alfie“.


From a balcony above the Eastern Harbor
I treat the scene as photographs for a file:
horizon’s passive line of curving bay, anchored ship,
bathers splashing in the early surf,
a seaplane’s banking turn from the water.
I take Tom Stoppard’s plays, a Fodor’s guide, a map case
and place them beside the pistol in my pack.
Open on the bed is a letter.
“Tell me what was said,” is the only line.

I have wandered my history, to no good purpose—
every mistake I’ve made crowds me in my sleep.
I recall every grievance, each discourtesy,
rooms I’ve entered to win or wound someone softer.
I’ve loved 3 women
all married, and lonely in the world.
I never meet the children. I sometimes know their friends.
I enjoy their confidence, my detachment,
the skilled and hungry sex, a little drama.

There is a seasonal pleasure in waking with a lover—
the sleepy tangle of bedclothes and bodies,
a bath and brunch, a kiss to set another date.
There are other, private times I prefer
the challenge of a married woman’s mind.
A wife who’s known
the comforts and discomforts of a child,
long years, lingering moods beside her husband.
I lean to listen
for wise advice on healthcare and clothes,
business manners, the public polish.
I know the taste of her,
the rise of her mouth to mine.

As we walk the Montazah Palace Gardens
she tells me some snoop,
some over-eager officer has seen us at an inconvenient hour.
“My husband’s home. He’ll want to see you.
He’ll be cool. Calmer still, as you talk. Don’t trust it.
I don’t imagine that will happen. Can you handle him
when I leave for Lisbon later in the week?”

The serial life has stripped me. It poisons as it protects.
I bear no malice, as I can bear no bitterness.
A steamer leaves for Tunis in an hour.
When I land, I’ll make a choice for Marseilles or Montreal.
On my desk the jumble of a Cairo newspaper reads:
“Attempted Murder/Officer’s Suicide.”
The photo spread shows a body beside a car,
another wounded behind the wheel.
I have no faith in explanations, in truth told to pain.
Strangers before, we are strangers from now on.

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again”

This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review decisions from three federal appeals courts that had overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. By letting these decisions stand, the high court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in these states, and put it on track to be legalized in the other states under the jurisdiction of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal. Marriage bans in Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming will probably be invalidated by the Circuit Court rulings. This story from the Pew Research Center lays out the implications.

This news was on our longtime contributor Donal Mahoney’s mind when he shared the following poem with me.

Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again

Many years later when I meet her again
on my way out of the Russian Tea Room
I notice how beautiful she is dining with him,
a man more attentive than I was back then.

But I see chaos dancing in her eyes
and I wonder if she has told him.
I doubt she has since she needed
ten years to tell me.

I accept the offer to join them for dessert,
and when she goes to the powder room,
I have a nice chat with her newest suitor.
He’s as decent as the others have been.

On her return, he leaves to use his cell phone
and that’s when, struggling for words, I say
“If you meet the right one, you can get married
in many states and more are likely to come.”

Christian Blog Roundup: Incarnational Boundaries, Rethinking Outreach, and More

I read Christian blogs and Twitter feeds nearly every day, and periodically email myself the standout articles that give me ideas to write about. Time pressures being what they are, a lot of these ideas hang about in my inbox for months, never quite finding the right occasion for a full post. So here is a links roundup, loosely connected around themes of Christian psychology and the balance between self-care and service.

Maybe We Should Stop ‘Doing Outreach’“: The Rev. Cathie Camaino, an Episcopal priest who blogs as Father Cathie (read her wonderful explanation here), proposes that churches should stop thinking of “service” as organized programs for helping outsiders, and face our fears of sharing our own needs with our fellow members.

“Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry…Engaging with our faith such that it stirs up our compassion, generosity, and courage to be vulnerable is certainly the work of the church. How this happens may not be. It seems that in our congregational life, at least as much energy is put towards the organization and scheduling of ‘outreach’ programs, the recruitment of volunteers, and the promotion of service, than is actually spent doing the work to which we have been called. Maybe the church is not the place to create the programs (which are often duplicated, in much better ways, by other organizations) but the place to ground ourselves in our Christian faith such that we feel the call to serve.”

Incarnational Boundaries“: Progressive evangelical writer Zach J. Hoag contends that our churches would be emotionally healthier if we took Christ’s embodiment more seriously. We become lost in theories and systems, and don’t pay attention to the ways that abusers exploit our simplistic moralism.

“I see Jesus affirming the embodied human experience of that which is emotionally healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. In fact, I see Jesus practicing healthy boundaries in his work with people that reveals the often manipulative, abusive, and harmful ways that people treat each other (which often causes so much emotional and psychological pain and damage). And this Way of Jesus confronts our ideological, neo-gnostic ways as evangelicals.

See, we are very good at creating unsafe environments where harmful and abusive behaviors are explained away using flat theological categories like sin, pride, faith, prayer, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership, headship, submission, etc. Thus,we don’t respond to these behaviors appropriately nor protect those victimized or potentially affected by them. And, these behaviors are often coming from leaders who are protected as those endorsed by God. Further, we often force the value of ‘community’ onto relationships in the church in such a way that puts people in unsafe or even violating situations.

When we interpret Jesus’s words through his Way, however, we see a different picture. Instead of mandated ‘reconciliation’, we see that there can be no grace, and thus no real reconciliation, without the truth. And, though we always pursue and remain passionate about reconciliation, the reality is that the truth just might bring division, not reconnection. (Forgiveness is another matter, as it requires only one party engaging in a process of releasing bitterness toward the offender.) Matthew 18:15-20 describes a process of truth-telling that may result in the offender not hearing – and thereby being deemed unsafe.

If we mandate things simply by looking at the words of Jesus or the Apostles and drawing out ideological categories, then we may very well continue to produce communities of obligation racked with unhealthy dynamics rather than safe, healthy churches. And if the gospel is bringing us to greater wholeness, showing us what it means to be truly human in the Messiah, then an incarnational church will preach and practice the healthy boundaries that Jesus himself embodied.

Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting“: When psychology professor and theologian Richard Beck shared the stage with a trauma expert at a Fuller Theological Seminary lecture series, they explored how the Christian ideal of self-emptying (kenosis) must have a different interpretation for the abused and oppressed, i.e. people whose selves have already been crushed or never allowed to form. Beck proposes:

“…what is being emptied is the hero system–the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The ’emptying’ of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system…

The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this.  That is experienced as a ‘descent’ of sorts.

But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you ‘deserve’ to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.

It’s a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it’s still the hero system. It’s just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.

So an emptying has to occur. The hero system–that internalized filth and shit–has to be poured out. Vomited out.

Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons–destructive psychological/spiritual darkness–are being cast out, emptied out.

White Men, Submission, and the Kingdom of God“: And on a related note, Christian author and blogger Dan J. Brennan expands on a comment by Christian feminist writer Julie Clawson about how the language of “dying to self” can reinforce patriarchy:

“Which man or woman, dealing with self-contempt, dealing with chronic self-contempt, wants a steady diet within their church pulpit and church social media, ‘You must die to self, you must submit your voice to others because we’re all guilty of self-exaltation’?  I myself, deeply wrestled with chronic self-contempt for years and sermonic appeals to trust God, etc. did not help. For years I did not wrestle with Niebuhrian pride. I wrestled with self-contempt, wrestling with shame wondering how God could love me.

Because of my history, I cringe when I see white male leaders so tightly knit death to self with submission in their ecclesiology and spirituality without a healthy understanding that in the 21st century Niebuhrian pride is not all there is to self-understanding. Niebuhrian pride is not a universal experience for all people. It’s probably not even at the heart of most postmoderns. It’s certainly not at the heart of many women and minorities. White male leaders like this can keep good Christian (and nonChristian) therapists with an unending list of clients wrestling with self-contempt.

They can also promote systemic sin as Julie noted.

It’s challenging and heartbreaking when you see good white men with good hearts come to grips with their genuine Niebuhrian pride and then they want to universalize it for everyone else in their sermons, tweets, and social media.

Read Brennan’s follow-up post here.

The Priesthood of All Survivors

I’m having doubts about my place in the church.

As I overcome trauma-induced beliefs that made me fear direct communication with God, I have less need for a giant mediating structure to serve as a lightning rod. As I gain confidence in my own perceptions, and in the availability of forgiveness for my faults, I have less need for sermons saying how everyone “should” feel and act.

I still long for a community centered on Christ. I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer.

However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Such a community doesn’t form spontaneously in every group of people that calls itself a parish. It either has to be steered in that direction by an insightful pastor who is willing to yield power to the laypeople, or assembled outside church walls by the individuals who need it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the local parish, precisely because of its randomness, teaches the spiritual discipline of learning to share fellowship with people for whom you feel no natural affinity. This is an important practice, but I think he was wrong that a person’s hand-picked circle of spiritual friends is more likely to be a group of yes-men than the traditional church. Intentional communities can be diverse if they make a commitment to be so. (See, for example, the Freedom Circles at the Becoming Church program that I visited this spring.) Plus, there is a difference between the fruitful discomfort of listening to people outside your own race, social class, etc., and the pain of being a survivor in a church that doesn’t prioritize relational safety.

What about the sacraments? My mystical, physical union with Jesus in the Eucharist is my strongest reason for choosing church attendance over quiet reflection with Morning Prayer on my iPhone. When I see my fellow parishioners approach the altar rail, our relationship becomes solemnized, revealing a dimension of interconnection beyond ordinary acquaintance. I sense the possibility of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something I can access in solitude.

Surely the official church still has a monopoly on this power…or does it?

Feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote the following in her book Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

The residue of clericalism gives even liberal Protestants the impression that the administration of the sacraments is a function that most especially must be exercised by persons set aside in specialized ministry. But, in fact, representation of the community in rites of baptism, forgiveness, or Eucharist depends very little on specialized skills of learning. It is significant that the New Testament contains many words for special charisms and skills, but that they are not identified with special offices responsible for the sacraments of baptism or Eucharist…

…[As] people become empowered to make their contribution to shaping the worship life of the community… leadership does not disappear but assumes its true functionality when it is liberated from clerical monopoly over ministry, word, and sacrament. Leadership is called forth from within the community rather than imposed on it in a way that deprives the community of its own self-articulation. (pgs. 209-10)

This radically Protestant idea had never occurred to me. I set it aside as a memorable curiosity for several years, until now, when I realize I need a healthier reason to stay than “Where else can I go?”

Codependence taints the American church’s strategies for retaining members. A quote popped up in my Twitter feed from a progressive evangelical blogger. On the Internet, I’ve seen it variously attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Chuck Swindell, and Chuck Colson. “The church is a lot like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside.

As a relationship move, this is like telling your wife, “Go ahead and try to leave. You couldn’t make it on your own.” It’s a counsel of despair, casting would-be reformers within the church as whiny children who won’t accept that life isn’t perfect. Actual children, to survive, have to convince themselves that the “stink” of their dysfunctional families is better on balance than the “storm” of an outside world where they’re not yet capable of living independently. But we’re adults now. “The world” is us. A church held together by fear and shame can never help its members recognize toxic interpersonal patterns in their own lives.

When I first became a Christian, I was a young woman fighting for the right to marry and leave my abusive home. I resonated with the church’s self-presentation as a tiny raft of stability adrift in an ocean of danger. When Christianity told me that human beings were helpless and sinful, I was relieved, because that was how I felt all the time. It was validating to be able to admit my imperfections to a supportive community, not like my home where any flaw would be pounced upon. Like my mother, the traditional church faced the fact that the world is full of bullies, sexual predators, and plagues of locusts–which is true, up to a point. The church promised safety without isolation, a huge step up from my life before.

So my disillusionment with church makes me feel very guilty and sad. I feel like I’m abandoning the institution that helped me reach escape velocity from my biological family. But this, too, is part of growing up. In Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt’s essay “Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound“, he speaks of initiation as the fourth and final stage that good parent figures must complete, to release their protégés into adulthood with a blessing.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Jack-in-the-Box“, where a paranoid mother creates an elaborate ruse to convince her son that their house is, in fact, the entire world. When a crisis forces him to venture outside, he at first thinks that he must be dead:

Everything before him was new. Odors filled his nostrils, colors, odd shapes, incredible sizes filled his eyes.

If I run beyond the trees I’ll die, he thought, for that’s what Mother said. You’ll die, you’ll die.

But what’s dying? Another room? A blue room, a green room, far larger than all the rooms that ever were! But where’s the key? There, far ahead, a great half-open iron door, a wrought-iron gate. Beyond a room as large as the sky, all colored green with trees and grass! Oh, Mother, Teacher…

The story ends with a policeman bemusedly describing the strange kid who just ran past him.

“…He was laughing and crying, crying and laughing, both. He was jumping up and down and touching things. Things like lampposts, the telephone poles, fire hydrants, dogs, people. Things like sidewalks, fences, gates, cars, plateglass windows, barber poles. Hell, he even grabbed hold and looked at me, and looked at the sky, you should have seen the tears, and all the time he kept yelling and yelling something funny.”

“What did he yell?” asked the pedestrian.

“He kept yelling, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!'” The policeman scratched his chin slowly. “One of them new kid games, I guess.”

He who loses his life will find it…


New Poems by Conway: “City Elegy VII & VIII”

My prison pen pal “Conway”, who is serving 25-to-life for a nonviolent offense under California’s now-repealed three-strikes law, continues to work on his “City Elegies” series while awaiting a hearing on his early release petition. Like a man on a desert island, he has been knocked down to the bare minimum of possessions following transfer to another holding facility. His survival library includes the collected works of Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, which has become his personal bible. These poems find him reflecting on the passage of time and lessons learned in captivity.

City Elegy VII

As I stand here, ready to be judged…
All of me has been searched and prodded, so often–
that no place on this body remains a secret.

Dreaming of a fair future…
In the dark vault of the skull; (beyond prying eyes.)
It is difficult to picture a future without locks, or
a true mattress under my spine.
Yet, even an abused child, no matter how bullied or beaten–
in life, still clings to the dream of justice.
The hours sneak past, without favor, or concern.
With an unreserved acceptance for life, my faith
is a state of mind.

Twisted up in barbed wire, obeying the corridors’ mood…
Where guntowers encircle the perimeter, like hands tangled
in thorns, lifted to the sky in prayer.
Cages lined up, like pews before the pulpit.
If I bow, will it still feel as if my head
has been pushed down, forced?

Where amber lights glare at each other across the yard,
searching cold hard dayrooms.
Topaz eyes with no face, or mouth.
Nowhere to scowl but down,
frown at the graffiti of lost souls left behind.
Who dares to mark their name on walls they have passed?

Where concrete halls wrap around us all…
listening for a door to open, a door way beyond
every other door.
It is not louder, or colored differently.
But, it makes a different sound; a spiritual melody–
you’d recognize, like the transparent depth of wide open skies.
If you don’t anticipate any other muted hush,
your future requires you to hear this sound.
This door is quicker than a six second quarter mile,
heavier than a mortician’s smile. It gathers momentum,
echoing down the tiers, then blindly disappears.
Blindly disappears; like a fragrant smell in your ears.

Silent as a shadow leaning against a a wall…
I huddle in a corner, where the door can be
slammed in your face, enough times–
to convince the most stubborn of people.
I was late to understand.
There may never have even been a door, or
to kick your own exit through the wall.
But, if you’ve made it through.
It is best that you swear, you were never
even there.

Still, I ride on;
Day upon day, and night in my mind…

City Elegy VIII

Once again, day has passed away as days always do: murdered, by the slowdragging schedule,
which has been sentenced to my own wreckless past…

The sky has become a ghost. Numbered day after day…
Shackled up, and then put back away, for another lesson in patient discretion.
Years came and went, disappeared with slow eyed surprise.
Rumor, whittled away from the nonsense, laid things at my door.
I restrained the urge to check some chins on a few established figureheads,
content yet careful in their mediocre claims.
Myth, and my own creation, built this unknown obligation.

Born sometime along this line, where odd-old places flutter back and forth…
Wasting time tugging on fate’s vast web, and once again shivering in nearly-naked privateness.
Opposed to this familiar stonewall. Monotonous square-footed center, of times
shouted Quack!

Cheered by the sudden slap of dusk: Because it is what most others dread. (The shadow.)
The Shadow plays fair. None is innocent among the convicted. The raw moments of solitude,
are time’s savage instinct. Time stops for neither instinct, nor episode,
as another calendar drifts past.

As this swirling harvest inhales its latest issue, of rusted ventilation dust…
A new dawn, or illusion of such. Struck suddenly kicking the teeth out of another skyless night.
What passes for air, being captured from somewhere, amongst the fumes of circulation,
(inside this whirling frazzle of souls)
wrenched a stench so foul, that I’ve not been able to shake it loose
from my nose hairs to this very day.

In the pursuit to escape this meaningless existence, without the feeling of shame…
I stay prepared for unexpected company. (you might say)
Bringing along a false hope. So they, can take it, all-back-away.
Until this preparation exposes its last heavy locked door on my horizon.
If I pass through, I will have but one debt left on this
primitive soul. A redemption only God can know.

My time, my prayers, spin the rhythm, while a lost forgotten song
with its on and on, hums along in my head…
I must pay attention to the sound, document what’s goin’ down,
as I swiftly walk away from the possession of this prison.
Into an everywhere and anywhere, that can be salvaged from
a future of, whatever might possibly be.

What a righteous purpose I must learn, to earn…

(The song is called Albatross.)