October Links Roundup: Oh Susannah

It’s Socktober!

As part of my ongoing wardrobe reorganization, I was planning to wear a different pair every day, but it’s been shorts-and-sandals weather for the past week and a half. Guess I’ll have to try again in…Toe-vember.

I have decommissioned six bags of ladies’ formal attire this month, some with the tags still on. “Dries van Noten! Tahari! Escada!” I lamented to my husband, for whom these words have less meaning than Pokémon names.

One vintage pleasure that never gets old, for me, is the Richard Tucker Opera Gala that was televised on PBS in 1994. A couple of years after seeing “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (a classic “do I want to marry him or be him” figure for gay trans boys), I had become a full-blown opera nerd. This gala was notable for Samuel Ramey’s mesmerizing performance as the charismatic, sinister Reverend Olin Blitch from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”. Watch it on YouTube. In this retelling of the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders, set in the American South, a young woman is falsely denounced by the Reverend as a sinner when she refuses his advances. Later, I had the great privilege of seeing Ramey perform this role at Lincoln Center with the fantastic Renee Fleming as Susannah. I was reminded of it when I read Floyd’s obituary last month. The great American opera composer died on Sept. 30 at age 95.

In a more modern variation on this theme, feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed analyzes “How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse” in an article for LitHub, excerpted from her new book Complaint! (Duke University Press, 2021). She examines “collegiality”, the loyalty of faculty to one another, as an obstacle and an indicator of what type of person “belongs”. In a choice between loyalty to two faculty members, one of whom accuses the other of abuse or harassment, “collegiality” often weighs in favor of the person who is most similar to you in terms of race, gender, power, or background. This dynamic continually forces younger and more diverse colleagues out of the system.

The institutional fatalism I have been describing…which converts a description (this is what institutions are like) into an instruction (accept this), is also often familial. In other words, you are supposed to accept harassment and bullying because that is what families are like…

When we talk about protecting the institution, we are also talking about protecting some colleagues more than others, or even some colleagues against others. We are talking about how protecting one person can be the same thing as protecting the whole institution. There is a history to who becomes that person. There is a history to who does not become that.

While I’m indulging in 1990s nostalgia, remember when the libertarian/classical liberal wing of the conservative movement was about more than refusing to wear a COVID mask in Wendy’s? That’s when I was a susbcriber to Reason Magazine, which still publishes some good articles about protecting real civil liberties, like this piece about the oppressiveness of the cash bail system. In “Cashed Out”, Leah Libresco Sargeant describes why the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund transitioned from paying poor defendants’ bail to lobbying for the abolition of bail altogether.

Bail funds had looked like a way of outsmarting the system: Courts could keep setting bail, but a bail fund operated as a kind of nullification of the prosecutor’s recommendation and the judge’s decision. The revolving money seemed to many bail fund donors, including me, like a way of turning tragedy into farce. But the BCBF team had come to believe they’d essentially been conscripted into the carceral system they wanted to dismantle…

Bail funds let politicians get the softer outcome they wanted without having to put their names to an attempt to change the law. The BCBF’s solution was to force lawmakers to confront the costs of the current system…

When the overwhelming majority of defendants whose bail is paid by a bail fund—and who thus have none of their own money at stake—show up at trial, it undermines the premise that cash bail was the least-restrictive option available. Those defendants didn’t need to have money on the line in order to come back.

At the Ploughshares blog, Calvin Gimpelevich writes about navigating Jewish and working-class ideas of masculinity during his transition in “Among Men”. Judaism historically placed more value on scholarly achievement than on brawn as the chief virtue of manhood. This can be good news for us mascs who can’t hammer a nail straight. But this archetype also has a fraught history of anti-Semitic polemics linking Jews to queerness and degeneracy. Gimpelevich discusses how such anxieties were internalized by European Jews who wondered whether their people had become too physically weak to fight oppression. Later, male Jewish-American intellectuals like Norman Mailer displaced these insecurities into misogyny and imperialism. Gimpelevich doesn’t take sides in this battle of masculinities, but carefully explores the pros and cons of both. (I had a special fellow-feeling for the author when he disclosed that he has face-blindness and can’t drive. We are a type.)

In this 9-minute video, Rabbi Abby Chava Stein gives an engaging talk about Talmudic support for transgender identities. I recently read her memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman (Seal Press). It’s an inside look at life in one of the strictest, most separatist American Jewish communities. One can’t deny that she knows her theology backwards and forwards!

An unexpected side effect of my transition is that I spend almost as much time thinking about breasts as my husband does. Other people’s breasts (more interesting than I thought); my breasts (dysphoric but pleasurable); whether it helps to call breasts something else (chesticles?); whether the problem resides in the body or in others’ reactions to it. In Allie Spikes’ essay “Minimizer” in Gulf Coast (Fall 2021), about her breast-reduction surgery, she delves into the contradictory messages she received about her body as a young Mormon woman: look fertile enough to attract a husband, but not so voluptuous that you lead men into temptation. Big breasts create forced visibility, and visibility is unsafe–or at any rate, burdensome and confusing–in a society that feels entitled to project moral values onto your body.

I’m still thinking about the book talk I attended online for Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness. Harrison has been posting proud pictures of themself on Twitter lately–beard, belly, and breasts. I am encouraged by the way that they embody queerness as its own style, not an imitation of white cis gender norms. In their talk, they cautioned against surgery that came from a place of internalized bias against one’s own body type, arguing that mainstream gender roles were specifically defined in opposition to the Black “other”. It’s an unsettling thought, because I also know how I can deceive myself with theory, arguing myself out of my feelings. But I really think I should read this book.

Evangelism as Microaggression

So it’s a radiant early-autumn day and I’m walking downtown to get some fish tacos, listening to a Food4Thot podcast on my headphones, when I happen to smile at this woman’s little dog and she stops me to say that God nudged her to speak to me. Apparently I haven’t yet mastered the genial indifference to strangers that is the hallmark of cis men, so I unplug my earbuds and politely listen to her rhapsodize about her church where God heals the sick and raises the dead. This may well have been the same woman from this 2018 blog post; autistic face-blindness means you get to be annoyed by the same person twice.

I manage to be happy for her happiness until she starts urging me to search online for testimonies of people’s visions of the hell that awaits unbelievers. I interrupt her, firmly but with a smile, to say that I don’t believe that only Christians go to heaven, or that God torments anyone for eternity. But the visions! She can admit no disagreement. “And I’m transgender and happy about it, so thanks but goodbye,” I retort, starting to walk away. She hasn’t brought up the LGBTQ issue, but this is generally a good way to shatter the façade of love-bullshit. “I’ve known people who’ve been delivered from that, from homosexuality,” she calls after me, and I call over my shoulder, “That’s bigoted,” and plug back into Spotify just in time to hear Denne Michele say, “Trans is beautiful!”

Why did this bother me enough to write about it? I have no anxiety about the eternal destiny of my gay-ass soul…but I once did. And it upsets me that Christian supremacy is so normal that strangers have the chutzpah to use these scare tactics. This lady’s emotional register went from ecstasy to threat in under two minutes. And she might really have been motivated by concern for me, rather than simple arrogance. I was once close friends with an evangelical woman who’d been raised in a missionary denomination. As brutal as the doctrine sounds to outsiders, Calvinist predestination appealed to her because it relieved her of the obsessive anxiety to force everyone she met toward salvation. Leaders fill their flock with fear that they spread to others like a virus.

Microaggressions are little mundane irritations that hurt because they hint at larger oppressive dynamics underneath. They’re behaviors that are still acceptable in “polite society”, that remind you that your inclusion is conditional. They can be so stupid that you feel you should be strong enough to laugh them off, but somehow you’re not, and that adds to the shame.

Hellfire evangelism feels like a microaggression because this person is trying to traumatize me. I’m just walking down the street laughing at pre-recorded dick jokes from August (because, like Denne, I am always late catching up with media) when somebody decides to frighten me into an existential crisis. For the evangelist, a successful interaction would result in me imagining myself in horrible pain, which I can only alleviate by becoming exactly like her. Sounds pretty abusive when you lay it out clearly.

Though I had the privilege to laugh this off, I was also traumatized vicariously on behalf of the many vulnerable queer people who might harm themselves, or be harmed by others, as a result of this theology. Underneath the concern for my eternal bliss is the demand to worship a god who sees everyone outside a certain demographic as subhuman, unworthy of empathy.

As of today, I am not delivered from transsexualism; few heavenly pleasures can compete with the superior pockets in men’s trousers. I am left with a more complicated theological question, however. How should I interpret these reported visions of the hell for unbelievers? What were they really seeing? And how do I exercise discernment in interpreting my own spiritual intuitions, dreams, and guided journeys in Witchcraft class? Our head witch in charge, Christopher Penczak, teaches that we avoid delusions by consistently practicing introspection and psychic self-cleansing (which includes therapy). We learn techniques to become aware of the different levels of our psyche and clear them of harmful thoughts and attachments. I’ve never been in a church that paid such attention to sanity-maintaining tactics or offered a specific framework for developing spiritual discernment.

As for the visions of heaven and hell, Christopher has also said that when we’re in a visioning state, we will perceive ineffable spiritual realities via the images and concepts that work best for our minds, which is different for everyone. Maybe those Christians did see something terrifying in a dimension adjacent to this one. I can credit the genuineness of their experiences without drawing identical doctrinal conclusions.

Or maybe Christopher Moltisanti is right, and hell is an eternal party in an Irish pub. Sláinte!

September Links Roundup: Learning from Demons

Happy (almost) autumn–the witching season!

Self-described “normie Satanist” blogger Stephen Bradford Long followed a similar trajectory as mine, from anguished gay Christian to student of occultism and Tarot. In a provocative post from July, “The Satanic Practice of Learning from Demons”, he explains why he bothers to engage with authors like Jordan Peterson, notwithstanding the latter’s bigoted views. Long doesn’t expect anyone to traumatize themselves by immersing in hostile literature. However, to the extent that we can do it with equanimity, reading problematic authors can be useful for both humility and intellectual exploration. We can come to realize that harmful people are also sometimes right, and conversely, that great influencers and heroes have flaws. Consider how Christianity has been both a route out of despair and a source of new abuse for many of us.

Willingness to learn from demons is a prerequisite for intellectual integrity*, because there is no earnest learning without the practice of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that our interlocuter, no matter how disagreeable we might find them, means what they say and might have some piece of knowledge that we don’t. It is to entertain the terrifying notion that we might be wrong, and they might be right.

However, this does not negate the fact that ideas have consequences, and the ideas of an author might also be utterly destructive and evil when manifested. Engaging with that darkness is valuable, too. Looking into the blackness of an evil ideology is a practice that fortifies you into a wiser human or terrifies and defeats you. I have experienced both and become better for it.

Above all, my Satanism blasphemes the infantile purity that rejects the pursuit of knowledge. There is no safety in reading, and no security in learning. Learning has frequently broken me – it has cost me my faith, my community, and sometimes my sleep and mental health. But it has also liberated me and made me a stronger, better person. The pursuit of safety and avoiding all toxins at all costs means starving the intellect and living with a stultified and brittle mind.

Around the same time, Black feminist author adrienne maree brown wrote this incisive essay, “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19”. She observes that marginalized activists too often turn on each other, in the name of “accountability”. American culture right now feels collectively suicidal, and we are acting it out on social media because it’s the only place we feel a sense of agency. “our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.” That foundation, of course, is genocide of Black and Native peoples.

we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.

so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.

our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage.

She asks us to stop fighting over who is “innocent” (another supremacist concept) and start looking for solutions that liberate everyone. “i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.”

Gates of Light Tarot is a Jewish mystical Tarot site that I just discovered. The post “The Blinding of Isaac and the Eight of Swords” links a card and a Bible story that both arouse big feelings in me. The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham’s test of faith, in which God (supposedly??) commands him to sacrifice his son. But this midrash/Tarot reading, connecting it to the blindfolded woman on the card, suggests that Isaac developed traumatic blindness because of his father’s betrayal of his trust:

The Eight of Swords is the Sefira of Hod, Humility, in Yetzirah. It’s a coded teaching that our personal and family history, our culture and traditions can bind and blind us from seeing truth. And that rather than identify with these ideas, if we are to be free, we must see these ideas for the limitations they are and let go of them.

In Genesis, Isaac blindly repeats the mistakes of his father, from trying to pass off Rebekah as his sister to save his life and by fomenting discord in his family by actively preferring one son over the other. We all repeat the mistakes of our parents in one way or another. And we all inherit their ideas, preconceptions and prejudices. But if we are ever to experience liberating insight, it must begin with liberating ourselves from the short-sightedness of familial and cultural prejudice and by clearly seeing and healing family trauma.

Last month, Image Journal hosted an exciting conversation between two autistic authors, Katherine May (The Electricity of Every Living Thing) and Daniel Bowman Jr. (On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity). The recording is available to watch on Vimeo. Some insights from their talk that I found particularly relatable: Neurodiversity extends to narrative structure, as well. We don’t have to write the disability memoir that mainstream culture expects, with a hero’s journey and a triumph over obstacles. Multi-genre collage may better reflect how our minds work. Moreover, the stereotype of the unemotional autistic person is harmful and inaccurate. Some of us simply don’t express emotion in expected ways, while others are more intensely emotional and have to withdraw periodically for that very reason. For the latter group, the arts can be a great refuge.

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, reminds us to “Make Bad Art Too” in this playful blog post from 2020, which I found via Northampton poet Naila Moreira’s e-newsletter.

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

It’s my abusive mother’s birthday this month. Am I going to send her a card? No! Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column explains why not:

There is no instruction manual for this kind of sorrow, Estranged Daughter. There is no map. There is only the story you lived through, the story you survived, the story you wrote for yourself, the story you will keep writing. It’s the story of the elegant, heartbreaking, brave way you’ve done the limbo for nearly forty years and the story of the way you will continue to do it, even though it hurts. You didn’t get what most people get and what all of us deserve—a mother who regards you as her richest treasure—and yet here you are at forty. Free. Happy. Comfortable in your skin. Strong. Neither sending a birthday card to your mom or not sending a birthday card to your mom will obliterate that, Daughter.

So, trust your gut. Don’t think about how your mother will react. Think about what you want to do. You can write to her and say what you want to say without opening the envelope of her reply, if you’d like. You can write to her and not send the card. You can silently narrate birthday greetings to her in your mind and breathe them into the air. You can decide to not think of her at all.

Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.

In Witchcraft class this month, we are working on cutting energetic ties to situations and people who are harmful to us. I’ve done a lot of trauma processing in the last decade since I went no-contact with her. But it’s humbling to realize that on a somatic level, some part of me still believes that one or both of us will die without the psychic umbilical cord connecting us.

Favourite Moro Quote? - Princess Mononoke - Fanpop

Even though the cord looks like this. [Image credit: Studio Ghibli, “Princess Mononoke”]

On that note, I highly recommend Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (Random House, 2018), which I just finished reading. Among other things, it’s a stunning depiction of the push-pull between fighting for your own survival and longing to stay connected to your family. The story of her rural Mormon family’s anti-government paranoia and rejection of modern medicine gives insight into the Covid anti-vaxx movement today. Her website links to other useful resources for survivors.

August Links Roundup: Ship It

Better get this post up before the month is over! Here’s an eclectic list of good reads around the web.

At the Iowa Review, Amanda Peery-Wolf’s “What Can I Ship” is a witty found-poem based on the Union Pacific Online Customer Handbook from 2007. The reader may be alternately numbed and delighted by the sheer volume and random diversity of items that human beings have invented and sold. Strategically placed linebreaks lead one to imagine additional strange mash-ups of existing products:

toasters walking sticks with rubber tips video games mattresses hd

screens jeans green bicycles for boys rubber hands for halloween minidresses

for when she’s starting to come into her own pocket pill containers

horse blankets rabbit biscuits jingly balls for cats eyebrow brushes

keyboard covers car accessories menorahs plastic bags pen caps worry

dolls folding fans molding clay ac units fuel charges apply to all shipments

balled-up tissues tootsie rolls rolling papers live rabbits beach umbrellas…

At the Ploughshares blog, Pepper Stetler‘s essay “The World Will Be Tlön” compares the DSM-5 to the aliens’ rewriting of human history in Jorge Luis Borges’ surreal fable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The human psyche craves order and categorization to such an extent that we confer authority on “expert” psychological diagnoses and overlook their contested political history. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Stetler can’t ignore the labels that will help her family navigate the medical and educational systems to get the resources they need. However, she remains skeptical enough to value aspects of her daughter’s mental life that the DSM would pathologize. “Intellectual disability is still described in terms of deficits and a failure to meet certain standards, rather than language that might suggest that the environment, the conditions of our modern world, might be what is deficient, which would open up the possibility for social change.”

At MEL, a men’s magazine, Chingy Nea opines that “‘The Sopranos’ Belongs to the Gays Now”. Gay popular culture loves references and memes from the Mafia drama because it’s a show about masculinity as high camp. “Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.”

I got halfway through Season 4 when “The Sopranos” originally aired, quitting because I didn’t want to see Adriana get whacked. If we go on lockdown from COVID again this winter, or even if we don’t, I suspect I’ll be bingeing the show from the beginning. I have HBO Max now–I am fancy. No more bootleg videotapes from my parents’ friend who had premium cable.

My new passion as of last year is making collage art. My handmade greeting cards are everything that my writing isn’t–upbeat, popular, and easy to understand! Via Poetry Daily, I discovered the online journal Ctrl+V, which is dedicated to creative writing that incorporates visual collage elements. I particularly liked this flower clock poem from Nora Claire Miller, “To Understand a Tendency Consider Its Conditions”.

This cheerful non-manifesto by poet Maggie Smith, part of an interview in the “Stopping By With…” series from the Poetry Society of America, lightened my anxiety:

What do you see as the role of art in public life at this moment in time?

A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.

So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.

LitHub published the winners of this year’s Insider Prize, a writing contest sponsored by the journal American Short Fiction for incarcerated writers in Texas. Eva Shelton’s story “Bottles of Grief”, about solidarity and loneliness in a bereavement support group, and Keith Sanders’ essay “The Myth of Me”, about being a rebellious teenage atheist, are both worth a read.

Classicist and poet A.E. Stallings shares a bit of forgotten queer history in “Warrior Eros” at The American Scholar. Reviewing James Romm’s The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, she describes the real-life inspiration for the thought experiment in Plato’s Symposium about “an army of lovers and their loves” who would be bonded by affection to fight to the death.

In Athens and Sparta, romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships between men were largely countenanced and conventional: a couple was composed of an erastes (the lover), the older partner, and the eromenos (the beloved), a youth on the cusp of manhood; “lovers and their loves.” The pro-Spartan Athenian historian Xenophon seems to have been atypical in his disapproval of male-male sexual relationships; in ancient Greece it was arguably unwavering heterosexuality that was “queer.”

But if, as Romm points out, in Athens and Sparta “male erôs was ‘complicated,’” in Thebes and Boeotia it was sanctioned by the state. Male couples could take an oath at the grave of Iolaus, Hercules’s own beloved, to live together as syzygentes—yoke mates—a term that elsewhere indicates a lifelong marital bond. It is etymologically related to “conjugal.” (The modern Greek word for “spouse” is still syzygos.) After running a junta of Spartans out of Thebes in 379 BCE, the Thebans turned their attention to defense. What Thebes needed to keep Sparta’s hoplites (heavily armed infantry) at bay was an elite squad of its own; thus was born the Sacred Band of 300, its couples having sworn the “sacred” oath at Iolaus’s tomb.

When will we get a movie about this??

Poetry by Victoria Leigh Bennett: “The Nature of the Offense”

Winning Writers subscriber Victoria Leigh Bennett recently made my acquaintance online to announce her forthcoming collection, Poems from the Northeast (Olympia Publishing). She is a fellow Massachusetts poet, though born in West Virginia. Victoria says, “A poet’s spiritual homeland is oftentimes not exactly the same as his or her homeland by birth. This book is a book of poems composed over a lifetime lived entirely in the northeastern United States and Toronto, Canada.”

Victoria has kindly allowed me to share this new poem of hers, which appealed to me because of its wordplay and gentle but pointed repartee.

The Nature of the Offense

Well, the most you can say for him is that he’s inoffensive,
Fairly inoffensive,
Pretty much noncommittal, and
Well, just inoffensive,
You said.

That’s a hell of a lot to say,
Say I,
And after all,
Think of how everyone in our world
Who’s parleyed and had to negotiate
For a cessation of the offenses
Committed against them
In perpetuity from the past, at least,
It seems,
Would like him,
Find him a valuable asset
As a companion.

Oh, yeah, you say,
He’s pretty wishy-washy,
And everyone complaining these days
About everything ever done to them
Whether on purpose or not,
Maybe just in a moment of inattention
Or thoughtlessness,
Yeah, I can see how they might value him.

Well, say I,
As to the “wishy” part,
I think he wishes a lot for others
To be comfortable and happy
In his presence,
And for the “washy” part,
He’s continually washing
His own soul hands
Against the washing away
Of others’ vital differences,
Which are important to them.
He wouldn’t give offense,
Is the issue.

Maybe not, you say,
Maybe not.
Though some would prefer
An outright enemy
To a halfway committer.

But he’s not falsely committed
To anything,
Say I,
And anyway, people
Really don’t want enemies.

Some people just like to quarrel,
You decide.
Anyway,
You say,
I’ll just bet you’re tired of him
In a year, or a month,
Or a fortnight.
I can still call it a fortnight,
Can’t I,
Without giving offense
To your peace-loving friends?
I have no idea, I say,
No one’s ever told me anything
Different from that yet.

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re tired of him
Before long.
Where’s the passion,
Where’s the thrust of sexual contention?

Where’s the love,
Where’s the melting-togetherness
Of passionate agreement? Say I.

You’ll get tired of him, I’ll just bet.
I’ll take that bet, I say,
All in one breath,
See you and raise you,
As maybe your parents
Should’ve seen you
And raised you better,
To be more inoffensive.

Witch Kitsch

We went to Salem.

This Massachusetts coastal town has made a peculiar tourist industry out of the fact that it executed 19 people (and two dogs) on charges of witchcraft in 1692. Four others died in prison or under interrogation.

All respect to Giles Corey, the crotchety octogenarian who let himself be pressed to death rather than admit the court’s authority to try him.

In one of history’s ironic twists, Salem is now an epicenter of modern witchcraft culture and fashion. You can hardly walk a block downtown without coming across a shop selling pentacle jewelry, mini cauldrons, psychic readings, crystals, candles, and dolls in pointy hats. Not to mention, this tribute to Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in “Bewitched”.

Visiting Salem as an actual, serious, practicing witch was an adventure in cognitive dissonance and complex emotions–not to mention a temptation to spend way too much money on Goth swag, like this Baphomet pillow I bought to make myself feel better about not getting top surgery.

Aiming for equal parts entertainment and scares, Salem’s witch-tourist museums go in for waxwork tableaux and sensationalist re-enactments of what they call the “witchcraft hysteria”. The presentations include some helpful historical context about the plagues and warfare that stressed the Puritan settlement to the point of irrational scapegoating. Then as now, people were desperate to blame someone for the disconnect between their suffering and the divine blessings they were promised. But of course it would be too controversial to draw those connections for the paying customers, so the popular image of the Puritans remains exotic and remote from the world of their descendants. The official story on the placards is that “of course” witchcraft isn’t real–even as the alternative spirituality business is booming, right outside the door.

Should I, then, mourn Salem’s executed witches as my spiritual ancestors? It’s hard to say, because there’s no good evidence that they considered themselves witches (tortured confessions don’t count). Even if some of them did practice folk magic in secret–practices like hexing or fertility charms having always coexisted alongside official Christianity–the 17th-century witches’ values and cosmology were likely more similar to the Puritans’ than to my Temple of Witchcraft class’s Buddhist-inflected, queer-friendly worldview. Magic is a technology that doesn’t necessarily create common ground among its practitioners. The concentrated collective prayers of right-wing Christians could be seen as a hex designed to wipe out queer people. I began practicing magic in earnest during the Trump years because I perceived a spiritual warfare component to the GOP’s attacks on human rights and Mother Nature. (In my opinion, it’s not really Jesus they are worshiping, but I digress.)

The gender politics of the “hysteria” also left me with unanswered questions. It’s actually remarkable that pre-teen girls’ accusations against prominent men, such as minister George Burroughs, were taken seriously by the church and court system. A number of witches were convicted on the “spectral evidence” of girls’ nightmares and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands. To me this sounded like abuse flashbacks, which can take the form of body memories. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Burroughs was the real perpetrator; don’t haunt me, George.) In dismissing the entire trials as delusional, we may play into the patriarchal script that anything that can’t be confirmed by outside observers is not credible.

The irreverence of the waxwork history tours troubled me at first, but then I recognized it as a form of “whistling past the graveyard”. At Halloween, we dress up as what we fear, to make our mortal vulnerability manageable through play. We put our heads in the stocks as a joke, to dispel the unease of imagining our own neighbors turning on us.

Salem was also the birthplace of the great fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose work you can read for free at AmericanLiterature.com. I wrote my college thesis on original sin in his stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”, two Gothic fantasies about prideful scientists whose drive for “perfection” destroys the women they love most (to the extent that a narcissist can love!). A descendant of witch-trials judge John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from that history. I understand him better after visiting the Witch City. Throughout his work, he struggles with inherited sin. On the one hand, he wants to hope that descendants can break a cursed pattern, even if the cost to themselves is high. On the other hand, he’s enough of a Puritan to remind progress-intoxicated Americans that human nature is permanently flawed. We trade religion for science, we scoff at the past, but the same impulses that drove the witch trials remain in our hearts.

I don’t think Hawthorne would be a fan of the “Scarlet Letter” coffee mugs in the House of Seven Gables Gift Shop, but this fan art by Wendy Snow-Lang shows why Melville thought Nat was such a snack:

Transition goals, am I right?

More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.

July Links Roundup: Free at Last

Readers of this blog may remember my pen pal “Conway”, the poet and artist who was serving 25-to-life under California’s three-strikes sentencing law for stealing a motorcycle. This Independence Day finally has real meaning for him, because he is FREE! He is thriving in a re-entry program in Los Angeles, reuniting with his devoted daughters and learning how to use the Internet. He dreams of opening up his own auto repair shop and tattoo parlor. Read more of his poetry here and here, or browse the Prison Letters category on this blog.

Several factors converged to make this miracle happen (if you can really call it a miracle for a man to spend 29 years of his life in jail for petty theft). The new Los Angeles County D.A. is no longer opposing early-release petitions under Prop 36, the 2008 referendum that retroactively repealed the harsh sentencing law. Stanford Law School’s pro bono clinic continues to help my friend navigate the legal system that profits from keeping people under perpetual surveillance, even when they’ve served their time–and then some. And I applied the full force of four months of witchcraft training to send him protective energy and courage.

Though Conway’s exodus is cause for tremendous rejoicing, millions more Americans are still trapped in prisons and jails that violate their human rights to medical care, adequate food and shelter, voting access, and speedy trial, among other indignities. In June, Harper’s Bazaar, in partnership with the PEN Prison Writing Program, published this worthwhile feature: “5 Formerly or Currently Incarcerated Writers on What Freedom Means to Them”. The personal essays include criminal justice reform leader Vivian D. Nixon on reclaiming the freedom to use African-American Vernacular English, and Elizabeth Hawes on music and literature as a lifeline behind bars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native American and Canadian Indigenous children suffered another type of unjust incarceration in euphemistically named “residential schools”. Governments run by white people stole the children from their families, with the goal of eradicating Native languages and cultures. This genocidal project has been in the news lately with the discoveries of mass graves on the sites of some schools. Many more doubtless remain to be unearthed, as conditions at the schools were brutal. This online curriculum from Facing History describes the shameful role of Christian missionaries and educators in running these institutions.

To help bring justice to Native Americans today, consider donating to Lakota People’s Law Project. Their initiatives include fighting for voting rights, creating community centers for Native youth, and protecting the land and water from pipeline pollution.

Truly the best essay I’ve read in a long time is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from the 2002 anthology Touching Feeling. Eve understands what’s wrong with The Discourse. Does debunking everything make you feel better? Does it help you understand what to do about the brokenness of the world? Especially in 2021, is the trash fire even news? Suspicion is not always the most progressive hermeneutic. Nor is exposure automatically effective at producing change, because people may still be apathetic, wedded to fake news, or too hopeless to act on what they’ve learned. Sedgwick suggests that one can see systemic oppression clearly, yet still be committed to a reparative approach that aims at maximizing love and pleasure, rather than the paranoid priority of avoiding all bad surprises.

45 Shining Harvey Milk Quotes - SayingImages.com

The Poet Spiel: “On Swallowing”

As Father’s Day is this weekend, here’s a poignant poem by longtime reader and contributor The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, about role reversal and a kind of closure for a difficult father-son relationship. Spiel’s recent books include the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words.

On Swallowing

To think on such a day that I might make a joke about the Jello,
about it being what I liked about my stays in such sterile facilities.
How they bring you Jello on a tray.
But my father’s mind was traveling elsewhere;
was wondering if I’d walk him down a hall that was not there
to someone only he could see—
he was leaving us but barely knew which place he was,
nor did I.

So, I tempted him with milk, I said:
You remember how we’ve always loved our milk, you and I,
here, take this straw, can you hold this in your mouth
between your lips. I know you’ve always loved your milk, Amos.
Try a sip of milk, I’ll help you with it.
Try it from this straw.

But he had no suck and it dribbled down his chin;
his throat forgot to swallow and his eyes wandered down a hall
that only he could see, wishing that I’d walk with him
to where he thought that it was time to go.
Let’s go, he’d said:
this man who’d told me just the day before
he’d had enough of life
and now it was his time to go.
Let’s go, he said,
but I was baffled by the plural of let us.

I simply did not know to whom he spoke nor whom
it was that he might see to walk with down that hall
that only he could see,
and yet he’d earlier called me by my name,
just as the day before when much to my surprise
he had given me the gift that surely every son must wish:
he had told me that he’d come to see me as a man,
that he honored me—
this man who could no longer swallow,

whose trembling disease would also rob his heart of the impulse
of when to beat,
and it would happen in this place
and on this day with milk upon his gown and green jello on his tray,
while I stepped outside his room to breathe
and consider what I’d seen
in a decade where his body lost its tune and he could not hold it still.
His mind on track but could not send its signals
from a soup spoon to his mouth;
humiliation at the spills upon his lap,
coordination lacking at his knees.

Can I help you, I would ask.
Then anger in his eyes that he might need,
that he would need at all.
This determined man who taught me as a child
how to swallow milk shakes from a straw.

No, I can do it, he would say, I can make my knees go,
as I stood aside and suffered with him as he fell off of his bike.
As he taped his bleeding wounds,
as he lamented he’d no longer have the pleasure of a spin
down to the Platte River to watch the waters that he loved,
where he loved to rest in peace
off on his own away from Fern and her restlessness of mind.
That he no longer drove a nail without a finger getting smashed,
his hands so out of sorts that he could not turn a screw.
That he would never ride another horse, nor tend the birthing of a calf.
That in a restaurant, the children stared because he shook so bad.
That even though he wished that he could live to care for Fern,
he’d reached the point where he was through;
he’d had enough of what he could no longer swallow,
and I understood,
I truly understood
as I wandered round those halls.

So much of life I had complained of all the horrors of life
I could not swallow.
He’d insisted that I look upon the brighter side.
But now, he said he too had had enough of what he could not swallow.

Then, I heard the code blue call.

I knew it was for him
but by the time I got back to his room,
his doctor had blocked the door; the door was shut.
His doctor’s face was telling me
my father’s life had ceased.
I pressed my head against the door
as his doctor spoke, He’s gone.

I banged my head against the door
and loudly uttered fuck,
the word my father most despised
but might expect me to have said;
I shouted FUCK
but never doubted that he walked on down that hall I could not see
with a companion at his side;
and of my shout, he’d found a way to swallow it.

And on the day before this day,
he’d honored me as man.

June Links Roundup: Floored

When my parents sold the Lower East Side apartment we’d had since 1974, I was sad that I’d never again see our familiar kitchen linoleum. We had painted the whole room bright orange and egg-yolk yellow to match it. (Like I said, it was 1974.)

Thanks to Twitter last month, I discovered that this classic brickwork pattern was called Armstrong Flooring #5352, and that it was the best-selling design of the 20th century!

armstrong flooring 5252 yellow orange

The website Retro Renovation will give you the scoop on its creator, Hazel Dell Brown (1892-1982), whose influential interior design ads for Armstrong showed homemakers how to enliven spaces with bold color schemes. I imagine she would have been proud of our sunny-hued kitchen.

Something else from the 70s, which hasn’t aged as well: The men of folk-singing group Peter, Paul & Mary seemed the epitome of sensitive non-toxic masculinity, so I was shocked to read that Peter Yarrow had been convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl. #PuffToo? Apparently Yarrow was pardoned by then-President Jimmy Carter on his last day in office. Newsweek reported this past February that a lawsuit pursuant to the Child Victims Act was recently filed against Yarrow based on a 1969 incident:

Documents claim that Yarrow, now 82, met the victim a number of times before the incident took place in a Manhattan hotel room. He then “took an interest in her,” acting what in what the minor thought was “paternal way,” per to the filing. The lawsuit claims that the then-teenager ran away from her St. Paul, Minnesota home and met Yarrow at a Lower East Side hotel, where he allegedly raped her.

I suppose that leaves Billy Porter as one of my last remaining cis-male role models. The “Pose” star and gender-bending fashion icon came out as HIV+ last month, in an effort to end the stigma around the disease. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In the 14 years since [his 2007 diagnosis], the Emmy-winning star of “Pose” has told next to no one, fearing marginalization and retaliation in an industry that hasn’t always been kind to him. Instead, the 51-year-old, who has cultivated a fervent fan base in recent years on the basis of his talent and authenticity, says he’s been using Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character on the FX series, as his proxy. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he reveals, acknowledging that nobody involved with the show had any idea he was drawing from his own life.

In this interview on the Tamron Hall Show, Porter said something I found very relatable about the levels of trauma healing. Talking about his background as a child sexual abuse survivor, he observed that he had created a great life for himself but couldn’t inhabit it in an emotionally present way. The catharsis and honesty of playing Pray Tell, plus the meditative pause of COVID lockdown, made him take his recovery to another level.

Looking for more masculine inspiration? Read “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West” at Atlas Obscura.

Despite a seeming absence from the historical record, people who did not conform to traditional gender norms were a part of daily life in the Old West, according to Peter Boag, a historian at Washington State University and the author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. While researching a book about the gay history of Portland, Boag stumbled upon hundreds and hundreds of stories concerning people who dressed against their assigned gender…

It wasn’t that this time and place was more open or accepting of trans people, but that it was more diffuse and unruly, which may have enabled more people to live according to their true identities, Boag says. “My theory is that people who were transgender in the East could read these stories that gave a kind of validation to their lives,” he says. “They saw the West as a place where they could live and get jobs and carry on a life that they couldn’t have in the more congested East.” Consider Joseph Lobdell, born and assigned female in Albany, New York. When he surfaced in Meeker County, Minnesota, he became known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats.”

Is modern life just too hard to understand? A “Sopranos” satire account called @MoltisantiThots tweets malaprop-filled takes on current events from the perspective of dimwitted Mafioso Christopher. In his writing newsletter Counter Craft, Lincoln Michel explains how bungled dialogue can be great for revealing character. Don’t miss Michel’s cosmic horror story “Dark Air” at Granta, cited as an example in the article.

Finally, the socialist magazine Current Affairs departed from its usual intelligent doom-forecasting to wax poetic on the divine qualities of felines, in Nick Slater’s “Let Us Praise and Honor Cats”. In a passage reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”, Slater writes:

While observing the daily life of a cat can give clues as to the unique ways she may be revered, it also has a more important function of clarifying why the cat should be revered. In other words, observation reveals the sacred vibes embodied by the cat. These are five in number, and they are:

  1. Cultivating a deep connection to one’s place—a cat is constantly strengthening his bonds to his home
  2. Balancing one’s needs with the needs of others—a cat will compromise, but only to a point
  3. Making wise discernments—a cat recalls the situations when she can safely relax, and when she must be vigilant
  4. Drinking in the world—a cat seeks to imbibe every aspect of his surroundings
  5. Giving and accepting love without craving—a cat shows love to others when she is moved to do so (and only then), and receives the love of others when it feels good to do so (and only then)

Slater’s advice on mindful cat-observation has deepened my connection to my time-share cat, Polly (our downstairs tenants’ mouser, whom I spoil rotten when they’re away). She will sit on my lap for exactly as long as I’m holding a bag of treats. I adore her.

But does she approve of the linoleum, I wonder?