“Jerusalem Cycle” Revisited: This Poet’s Wish for Peace

I wrote the following poem in response to newspaper articles about the Second Intifada (2000-05). From the still-raging conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to the dreadful news of the terrorist bombings in Brussels this week, it seems that the cell phones of the dead never stop ringing, and desperate people never stop killing and dying for their political visions. Though my family heritage gives me a visceral concern for the survival of the Jewish state, I made every effort in this poem to give a balanced voice to the Palestinians suffering from Israel’s human rights abuses. May there be peace and an end to prejudice.

This poem was first published in Clackamas Literary Review (2003).

Jerusalem Cycle: April 2002


The phones of the dead are ringing
as pale men in black vests
gather them into plastic sacks
methodically as bone collectors
for centuries in this holy desert
have hunted the bodies of the past.
The shoes of the dead are bewildered.
They were humble, being shoes,
only wanting to help the dead,
who weren’t dead yet, walk safely from synagogue
to café to bus stop; they never asked
to be flung into flight
and lodged like crows in a tree
beside the peeled bus.
The toys of the dead are grinning like warriors:
no explosion can shake their focus,
bright fur in the gutter, mud over one glossy eye.
The newspapers of the dead are a thousand shot cranes.
The phones of the dead are ringing and ringing
like mad birds in a sack.
One by one their shrilling
will be cut off by the touch of a button
and someone, always the wrong voice, will answer.


I had a clay house and now it is gone.
Tanks laid the land bare and rational.
But who doesn’t harbor a guilty one

in her heart, a dark son
with a stone in his fist, secret Ishmael?
The baby was coming and now it is gone,

his head cresting red and hopeless as the sun
while rubble blocked the passage to the hospital
as if it might harbor a guilty one

sleeping dangerous as Jesus in his tomb.
The donkey walks the same path to the well
and circles back, forgetting that they’re gone —

water, house, memory. Only the gun,
the moment that is its own rationale.
How quickly this clay house is gone.
Send forth the brave, the guilty one.


For you were a stranger in Egypt,
enslaved by heat, alien vowels
like sharp seeds on your tongue.
Asking for only a crack
in this prayer wall
to shade from the sun
your white unwritten skin.
A stranger in Israel,
returned to glean a heritage
like porridge spilled in the dust
by a regretful Esau,
asking too late for the blessing.
So you died at this table
at a seder in Netanya,
another suicide bombing,
your dinner knife embedded in the ceiling
left behind by the practiced men who hosed
next day the floor clean of blood and prophet’s wine.


Everyone has a right to the morning.
Today I will not be a girl.
I will strap on death like a cock and go riding.

Maybe it will be on the foolish bus
that my heart will flame like a can of petrol,
or dismounting at the market, the dusty place

where you burned your black shadow on the wall,
Ayat, sister. You were spent like a bullet,
like a coin, unsentimental.

A coin’s only worth is in what it buys.
The soft enemy mourns the loss of his own
but we celebrate when another martyr dies.

I am wrapped with nails like a prickly pear.
No one spies me moving stiffly as a robot.
Ayat, we played with dolls and combed our hair

and dreamed of something. What did the land
mean to us? Our mothers pouring tea
in the kitchen, nights listening to the sand

whisper outside our bedroom window,
and nothing dangerous in the distance —
a world without anything we know,

without bulldozers, without checkpoints. Children old
like us, dying. Now my foot is on the bus.
I am paying the toll.

Did it hurt very much when you split apart?
Was it worse than childbirth? I need you
to tell me it’ll be all right,

this maidenhood I’m losing, the last touching
I’ll ever know. Oh, Ayat, you died and left me
here among the useless living.


if you had led us out of Egypt
and not fed us with manna in the desert,
Dayenu (it would have been enough)

if you had fed us through the desert
and not offered us your law
Dayenu, Dayenu

if you had not led us
out of fear and scattering
out of every fatherland
floods of hair, quarries of teeth
falling like dew into the dead pit

out of the icy gulag, the grey agreement
marching into the future
where looters now loll in furs
the end of the hammer dream

even out of the soft cradle
of the Christian smile,
this most expansive host land
of buttery fields and wind-up monuments
wakes up! to find us departed
from their streets and comic books,
every bearded judge and fish-fingered peddler,
leaving silver holes in their movies

if you had laid on us your law
and not led us into the land of Israel

even when G-d promises, bring a knife

who are these that stand on line for water
whose children are stones rising
like the desert they want one thing
like the sun they will burn it all to bone

who has negotiated with the desert,
or shared a bed with the sun?

if you had given us the land
and not given us peace

and not given us peace

The Dark Door: C.M. Royer’s Spiritual Abuse Survivor Memoir

I owe Caleigh Royer a debt of gratitude because her blog inspired me to start studying Tarot last year. I found her online some years ago through one of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs for ex-fundamentalist Christians, probably No Longer Quivering or Love, Joy, Feminism. When I saw on her Facebook page that she was writing a memoir about her journey to independence, I eagerly pre-ordered the e-book of The Dark Door, and was not disappointed. In fact, though I thought I’d worked through most of those old memories of my oppressive upbringing, Royer’s sincere, vulnerable storytelling went straight to my heart and reminded me of the pain and fear of living with narcissistic parents.

Royer is only in her mid-20s but she is strong and wise beyond her years. The Dark Door recounts her break for independence at age 18 when she dared to fall in love with and marry a young man against her parents’ wishes, and her subsequent de-conversion from Christianity as she processed the ways that religion had been used to keep her under her abusive father’s thumb. Unlike some of the other bloggers in this genre, she did not become a rationalist or atheist, but instead is developing a personal spiritual practice based on psychic intuition, spirit guides, Tarot, and universal values of love and fairness.

What’s striking is how much our stories have in common, despite the different religious backgrounds. Abusive families are depressingly alike, regardless of ideology, and a dysfunctional religious community is just the family system writ large.

Caleigh grew up in a fundamentalist subculture where fathers had spiritual “headship” over their families. A girl could not spend time with, let alone date or marry, a boy unless her father gave permission. As the oldest daughter in a large family, she was pressed into the role of caretaker and disciplinarian for her siblings. It didn’t matter what her own dreams and interests were. Because of their patriarchal belief system, the church elders gave the family no support in dealing with her father’s violence and pornography addiction. Caleigh was required to submit to his will no matter what. When she fell in love with a young man from their church, she was in for the fight of her life–which she won, at the price of severing ties with her biological family. It didn’t seem that her father had any basis for objecting to her engagement to Phil; the man simply craved total control over his child’s life, which was threatened when she found another object for her affections. This reminded me of how it drove my bio mom completely mad when I found the man I would marry, and later when we planned to have a child. Narcissists hate competition.

After she and Phil succeeded in getting married, with his parents’ support, the honeymoon period was overshadowed by her chronic illness (eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia) and depression in the aftermath of trauma. She was insightful and brave enough to realize that she needed therapy to change the bad patterns she’d learned at home. Reading this part, I thought of the brilliant closing moments of the film The Graduate, where Elaine and Ben’s elation at pulling off their romantic escape from her mother turns to shell-shock and withdrawal from one another. Once the adrenaline rush of battle subsides, perhaps they start to doubt whether they can break their parents’ pattern and have a happy marriage, and the programmed guilt of filial disloyalty kicks in. All of this happened to me as a new bride.

I can also relate to the heartbreak of her realization that the religion that had sustained her in the depths of her abuse was no longer the right place for her to continue her healing. She went through guilt, bereavement, fear of the unknown, and fear of disappointing and losing her friends, but never stopped testing the evidence and logic for Bible-based Christianity as she’d always understood it. Ultimately she concluded that for her, the Christian God was too intertwined with the image of her earthly father and the male religious authorities who’d justified his abuse. That isn’t really my issue, but some of her other reasons completely hit home for me. Trauma healing for both of us has meant valuing ourselves and trusting our personal experience, which puts us in conflict with the authority-based, self-sacrificing worldview of historic Christianity.

“There was no place for a story that ends badly in Christianity,” Royer observes, recounting how her church small groups couldn’t handle her abuse narrative. It posed too much of a challenge to their sentimental ideal of family. After she de-converted, she felt relief that “I no longer felt any obligation to apologize for being angry. I could be angry at my parents and their abuse without being reminded to forgive ‘as God has forgiven you.’ I was free to take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions and I had no fear of offending an unseen God.”

A little further on in this account, she says that “To trust my gut was the least Christian thing I could do. I was told it was trusting myself instead of God.” One can certainly see how predators could deploy this doctrine to suppress their victims’ warning signals. In my progressive church culture, I haven’t found such a stark opposition between revealed and empirical knowledge, but to my mind we emphasize external political or charitable activities at the expense of teaching people to cultivate their spiritual discernment. Mystical intuition is not denigrated so much as neglected, and somewhat limited by what can be plausibly squared with the Bible. I’m with Caleigh when she says, “Reaching into Tarot has healed the distrust I had in myself.”

Royer is a young self-taught author whose style is simple and direct. The memoir had some recurring grammatical errors and typos, which one more round of copy-editing would have cured. But if this story resonates with you at all, you won’t mind the rough patches. Get yourself a copy today.

“Two Natures” Cover Reveal!


Many thanks to Don Mitchell at Saddle Road Press for creating this gorgeous photo montage and patiently working with me through a dozen revisions.

From the publisher’s website: “This big, genre-bending, spiritual coming-of-age novel focuses on Julian Selkirk, a young gay fashion photographer in New York City in the early 1990s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Vivid social realism, enriched by unforgettable characters, eroticism, and wit, make this a satisfying read of the highest sort.”

Want an advance reading copy? Email me or contact the publisher. Print and Kindle editions available.

March Links Roundup: Sex God

This week I had another lesson with my Tarot teacher, who has also been trained as a Christian spiritual director. We were talking about the ways my community ties have shifted, and sometimes broken, because my writing is up-front about sensitive topics like abuse, queer sexuality, and faith. I’ve been disappointed that even some openly gay writers feel obliged to keep their “brand image” respectable and G-rated. My teacher asked me, “Why do you write about sex?”

Believe me, no one could be more surprised than I am about the changes in my work and worldview. I often joke that my husband and I were the only two non-Orthodox people in Manhattan who saved ourselves for marriage. That was the right choice for us: we needed a sacred boundary around our love to defend it from callous hookup culture and smothering family dynamics. But as I grew up and had genuine friendships with other adults who’d made different choices, I began to doubt the universal rightness of my conservative sexual ethic. People with a more extroverted temperament and different family history might be happier taking risks that I’d avoided. I have the kind of overly porous empath personality that needs to be cautious about intimacy (sexual or otherwise) with new people, but the downside is that I miss out on the carefree enjoyment of trusting my fellow humans.

I sensed that the fearful and judgmental notes in my sexual ethic were becoming too dominant, so I set out to write fiction about someone completely different from me: Julian, a handsome man with great social skills, who could pursue ecstasy and intimacy without fear of rape culture, pregnancy, or being laughed at because of his wobbly thighs. I took seriously C.S. Lewis’s observation that the sins of sensual excess may be more innocent than the cold pride of the ascetic. The former person is at least seeking the good things of God, love and beauty, albeit in a lower form, while the latter shuts himself off from the life force entirely. I discovered that Julian’s resilient courage to love and love again was a better definition of holiness than “thou shalt not taste, thou shalt not touch”.

Writing about sex as a path to Spirit put me in touch with the life force in my body in a new way. I gradually realized how disconnected I had been from my sensual power. As I’ve written here before, affirming the truth of my embodied experience in arguments with anti-gay Christians primed me to notice that I’d been gaslighted about my experience of abuse, too.

Moreover, in researching Julian’s novel, I met spiritually mature and committed gay male couples who were in open relationships, a common reality that is still a bridge too far for the liberal church’s vision of gay Christian marriage. A new friend of mine, who is a genderqueer Christian, noted wryly that the Trinitarian God is in a plural intimate relationship with Godself that invites everyone in the world to join–talk about polyamory! (See my 2009 post, “I’m in an Open Relationship with Jesus”.)

Sex, like every other interpersonal activity, needs healthy boundaries, compassion, and self-awareness. But we often set those boundaries unconsciously and rigidly, based on bad theology that may be distorting many other areas of our lives as well. I write about sex to start a better conversation about these issues. And because it’s fun, of course.

This leads me into the link that inspired this post. (You were wondering when we were going to get there, already?) KC Slack, a Unitarian Universalist ministry student, shares this lively and provocative essay on Harlot Media: “I Love God and I Love Fucking”. She talks about why she sees no contradiction between her faith and her queer, womanist, polyamorous sexuality. As I said, it probably wouldn’t be the best way for me to live, but these passages were a perfect answer to my Tarot director’s question:

In almost the exact opposite way that many take on a practice of meditation to free themselves from their physical body to find something beyond, I like to sink in to my experience. To find what’s transcendent in the particulars of here and now, of my body and of physical sensations…

…My theology is focused on the particular, on the experience of being in the world, on the margins. In theology we talk about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: a methodological approach to theological reflection that understands all theological work to have four sources: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Most of the time this quadrilateral is understood to be in order of importance–I strive to flip that. Experience of the world, of God, and of God in the world is the primary source for my theology and my faith.

I experience the world from my particular, then I reason and read others’ experiences and contextualize, then I consider tradition and scripture in light of what my body and my life know.

God is important to me and I believe that if I wish to know God, I need to really know myself and know other people in a variety of contexts. Connection is important; even the most casual sex is a type of connection. That window of knowing other people is special, not just in the moments of discussion afterwards, but in each moment.

People feel, smell, taste, act, look different from one another; sex can be a way to experience people in a level of detail we otherwise aren’t privy to. I’m interested in sex as a particular way of knowing; in fucking as both pleasurable experience and a way of deepening my connection to the world. Each partner is a new perspective, a new approach to connection that lets me know more about connection as a concept.

Turning to a less fun but equally taboo topic, I appreciated this article on the literary denigration of writing about trauma. On Brevity Magazine’s blog, award-winning essayist Kelly Sundberg asks rhetorically, “Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?” The answer seems to depend on whether the gatekeepers of “literary” prestige are willing to step outside their privilege or self-protective denial, and believe women’s stories of gendered violence. Sundberg also gives good advice about transforming a difficult personal story into something universal or educational for the reader.

When I sit down to write literary writing about my trauma, I am a writer first, and a trauma survivor second, but I am not ever not a trauma survivor, and as such, I am often interested in examining the roots and effects of my own trauma. Sometimes, I am interested in examining these effects in ways that might be considered therapeutic—that dastardly term that literary nonfiction writers hate. As a result, I have created a separate writing space—my blog—where the writing is not about my craft, but rather, about my story. The blog is where I talk about my journey of recovery, and the blog frees up my emotional space and intellect, so that I can approach my literary writing with more remove and thoughtfulness. Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic. When I teach creative nonfiction workshops, I tell my students that the therapy needs to come before the writing.

Describing feedback she received when shopping her memoir of surviving domestic abuse, Sundberg laments the pressure to give such tales a “redemptive ending”–a cliché move that may make them more palatable to the average book-buyer but ironically threatens their literary status. She objects to the backlash that accuses trauma memoir writers of attention-seeking. (As I’ve found with my writing about sex, people love to project bad motives onto an author who raises a topic they’d like to ignore.) Sundberg replies:

…I am not grateful for my wounds…I am also not redeemed by them. My wounds are simply a part of my existence. Still, because I am interested in an examination of the self, my wounds have, naturally, become a subject of my writing.

…The story is important, but it must also be written with craft, and with nuance. I have no desire to always write about trauma, nor have I always written about trauma, but I am fatigued by the notion that narratives of trauma are rewarded simply on the merits of the struggle that one has endured. I had a traumatic experience, and perhaps that did gain me entrance into a club—a club of women’s pain—but that traumatic experience did not make me a literary writer. My hard work and my craft are what have, hopefully, made me into a literary writer.

Look for her memoir, Goodbye Sweet Girl, from HarperCollins in 2017.