Happy Easter and Passover, readers! I’d wish you a happy spring, too, but it’s been snowing all morning here in Paradise City. Ah, New England…
There are many links this month, and they have no theme. Let’s get started.
I have awesome friends who are all completely unfazed by my journey to not-female-ness. My best guy friend forwarded me links to excellent TED Talks by drag king performer Diane Torr (“Man for a Day, Woman for a Day”) and Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams (“I’ve lived as a man and a woman, here’s what I’ve learned”). Williams was a conservative Christian pastor before her transition, and now heads the psychotherapy and pastoral counseling organization RLT Pathways.
On her blog last month, Williams shared some wise advice about spiritually mature Biblical interpretation and “Knowing What You Know”. Children start with an “external locus of control”: they rely on their parents or primary caregivers to teach them what is true and morally right. Healthy adulthood means developing an internal locus of control. However, unhealthy families train people to keep on relying on secondhand guidance into adulthood. And churches have colluded with that program by taking over the role of the controlling parent, instead of encouraging believers to develop personal discernment. This happens, for instance, when anti-LGTBQ Christians disregard the promptings of their empathy and personal experience.
I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture. The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe. When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.
For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.
It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.
Over at Ruminate, a faith-oriented literary journal, fiction writer Mindy Misener discusses another challenge in developing an internal locus of control, regarding the issue of why we write. In “I Don’t Like Writing About Writing, But This Is Overdue”, Misener describes her slide from personal to career-oriented motivations, a choice she likens to Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and Mammon: “I entered an MFA program wanting to write and left the program wanting to get published.”
I developed the same problem when I shifted from poetry to novels. I wrote poetry mostly for myself, to discharge and analyze my deepest feelings. Winning prizes was fun, but it didn’t affect what I wrote about or my motivation to keep writing. But fiction, a more popular genre, involves other people, on the page and in the market; someone might actually read it. Two years of marketing my debut book further eroded my ability to write without hearing the voices of imaginary critics. Like Misener, I have to re-commit to “writing out of a desire to touch the ineffable.”
That’s a goal that I see realized in “Art Can Handle Us”, an essay by New Zealand poet and dance teacher Rata Gordon, published in January in the journal Corpus: Conversations About Medicine and Life. Her writing students, dealing with mental illness and trauma, bring the burden of feeling unworthy into their creative process. The miracle of art is that it is spacious enough to handle everything that frightens us about ourselves. The open-ended nature of poetry-making is an invitation to meditate, to be present with and curious about something that could otherwise trigger us into disconnection or reactivity.
Every time we say yes to our experience, either through writing it down, sploshing it with paint, crafting it into a play, or squishing it with playdough, we send a very important message to ourselves: ‘I matter. My experience is real’. This is a powerful antidote to the conditioned belief that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow lacking. This is particularly significant for people who belong to marginalised groups in society, but it matters to anyone who has ever doubted their self-worth.
In my experience, finding a way to express what is arising as honestly and precisely as possible is where the best art comes from. By ‘best art’ I don’t mean art that is the most well-liked or appreciated by others (although that may sometimes be true); I mean that it is the most internally satisfying to create.
As Gordon mentions, society’s prejudices feed a writer’s internalized self-judgment. It’s not just a personal self-esteem problem to get over. In the Spring 2018 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review Online, Lili Loofbourow, staff critic for The Week, chronicles how our aesthetic standards are unconsciously dictated by “The Male Glance”. (Hat tip to poet Marsha Truman Cooper for sending me the link.)
The slope from taxonomy to dismissal is deceptively gentle and ends with a shrug. The danger of the male glance is that it is reasonable. It’s not always or necessarily incorrect. But it is dangerous because it looks and thinks it reads. The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of “female strength.” It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.
The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. The glance is social and ethical the way advice columns are social and ethical, a communal pulse declaring—briefly, definitively, and with minimal information—which narrative textures constitute turgid substance, which diastolic fluff. This is the male glance’s sub rosa work, and it feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending—to omnisciently not-attend, to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it. Here again, we’re closer to the amateur astronomer than to the explorer. Rather than investigate or discover, we point and classify.
Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say…
…Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself.
For Mallory Ortberg, the brilliant satirist and cultural commentator behind the (now sadly defunct) online journal The Toast, questioning gender roles in literature led to a real-life gender transition. This characteristically witty interview at The Rumpus coincides with the release of Ortberg’s new book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, an expansion of Ortberg’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series at The Toast.
Ortberg: Fairy tales are labeled by the nature of the protagonist. There will be entire subsets of fairy tales that are about the seventh son, or the third daughter, or whatever. There’s so many ways in which not just your gender but your relationship to your family, like whether you’re a daughter, whether you’re a son, whether you’re the oldest, whether you’re the third, whether you’re the seventh, some other significant number, shapes you. It shapes your role in a story, and it’s almost a job. The ways in which being a father in a fairy tale sets you up for one of several paths that you can be in, or being a stepmother, or being a mother, or being an older, envious sister.
Gender feels like a job that you can sort of apply for, and you could just as easily not get that job. It didn’t interest me to write about a world where gender was better, so much as —what if it was not tethered to the same things that we tether it to, what would be ways in which it would still be a trap and a fiction and a prison? Which is not to say that that is the only thing that gender is, but in the terms of things you can explore in a short story, that’s some serious grist for the mill. I was just trying to think of an imaginative way somebody else might be trapped by gender, in a world where they were not trapped in the same way that we are?
Finally, Little Red Tarot founder Beth Maiden has helped me rethink one of the most problematic cards in my deck with her post last month, “Reclaiming the Empress”. Beth’s issues with this Major Arcana character are the same as mine:
In many ways, I’ve rejected this archetype, associating it in the traditional way with ideas of maternity, fertility, motherhood. I’ve been quick to un-align myself with what often feels like a very strong gender stereotype, one which says women and femme folks should be soft, nurturing, fertile, mothering, receptive, and giving – all Empress qualities. But there are so many other aspects to this card, and so many other ways of framing the qualities I’ve listed, taking the Empress way beyond the ‘archetypal feminine’ or ‘Mother’ that I find problematic. It is more than possible to reclaim and embrace the Empress archetype in a feminist and queer context.
In my online tarot course A Card a Day, I talk a lot about the messages of self-care and nourishment the Empress brings us. Messages about the importance of listening to our bodies’ needs, of tuning in to our surroundings and consciously (and unconsciously) enriching our connection with our environments, our relationship with the spaces we inhabit.
And because it’s about relationships, the Empress is about receiving as much as it is about giving. Receiving from the earth, receiving from our communities, from the folks we love. Letting ourselves be cared for and nurtured, and showing up to offer this to others too, in turn. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a cycle, to this giving and receiving, they are two parts of a whole. Receptivity doesn’t have to be a weak quality – it takes strength and vulnerability to allow ourselves to be supported and cared for.
In this illustrated post, Beth recommends some old and new decks whose artwork and guidebooks offer creative alternatives to gender-stereotyped images of the Empress. If you’re in the UK, support her online shop!