New Reviews for “Made Man” and a “Two Natures” Book Talk Video

Last month I had the pleasure of co-hosting a Zoom book talk with Canadian novelist Jessica Pegis, “Divine Non-Duality and the Queer Body”. We read excerpts from my gay male coming-of-age novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and her new book The God Painter (Stone Table Books, 2021) and explored their common themes of exile, divine love, and spiritual and sexual integration. The God Painter is a work of Catholic-infused speculative fiction in the tradition of Mary Doria Russell and Ray Bradbury. Intersex aliens rescue humanity from our destroyed planet, but are they angels, demons, or something outside our limited categories altogether? Watch the 80-minute video on the Winning Writers YouTube channel:

Poet and critic Michael McKeown Bondhus wrote a wonderful review of my new poetry book, Made Man (Little Red Tree, 2022), for Full Stop Magazine this month. I have this novelty greeting card on my office shelf where one 1950s lady exclaims to another, “Sometimes I wish someone who understands me would tell me what I mean!” Michael has done just that…and saved me the labor of explaining myself to cis people quite so much. The review captures the specificity of gender transition but also its continuity with the dynamism of human life (however much we try to arrest its progress with laws and dogmas). We are not, after all, foreign objects or monsters compared to the rest of you.

As much as people claim to loathe change, it is also understood to be an elemental part of existence. The need to change one’s body, then, can be read as another manifestation of this universal impulse. Therefore, Made Man becomes an examination and celebration of change writ broadly along with all its magickal implications.

…Is Made Man’s goal, at least in part, to simultaneously muddy and clarify gender? Desire seems simple — person A wants person B — yet it is full of contradictions and taboos. Racist uncles are clearcut assholes, yet their worldviews are rooted in a version of reality they have absorbed from outside sources, including Russian bots. Gender, as Reiter and many others suggest, is both a social construction and an intimate part of the self. It can appear to be reducible to labels like trans man and genderqueer, yet those labels carry different meanings from person to person. By highlighting ambiguity and algorithms in some of their poems, Reiter finds another, less direct way to address the messiness of gender and compares it to the messiness of so many other parts of our lives.

Goodreads reviewer Transgender Bookworm rates Made Man 5 stars, saying:

Poet Jendi Reiter has written a beautiful and inventive collection of poems that explore gender and the pain of existing beyond society’s rigid binary in a new and exciting way. Tackling subjects both serious and lighthearted Reiter explores the way our absurdly gendered world informs our understanding of each other and the world at large. I found myself chuckling on one page and then gripping my seat in anger the next.

Enjoy this sample poem. Or don’t. I don’t care.

 

Prettyboy in Pink

This generation of lavender-haired pronouns only knows Molly Ringwald as hot Archie’s small-town mom on “Riverdale”. They play the torso drinking game as russet-top KJ Apa square-jaws his way from high school wrestling showers to prison cagefight to skinny-dip in the lake of girls beside the maple sugar factory. Who knew there was so much wealth in syrup? Like his nipples stretched immobile over muscle, mother Mary/Molly is contractually slated to appear in every episode, offering pants-suit credibility to his scheme to rescue the malt shop from mafiosi.

But we assigned-X’ers will forever stan Molly’s bricolage of girlhood, pretty in pink slicing and stitching the bridesmaid shells of teen tulle into a skin she could survive in. Lovestruck Duckie was too much a sister to her, with his manic pompadour and emotional hands. She required the prep-school prince’s genes for her supreme tailoring experiment. When Archie’s done running through his day’s foolish script, those maple-golden eyes go blank. It’s her body now, her finest dress.

Two Poems from Suzanne Ondrus’s “Passion Seeds”

Suzanne Ondrus is a poet and literary scholar whose work explores cultural exchange and understanding, intimacy, oppression, and history. Her poetry book Passion Seeds, about love and longing long distance between an American woman and a Burkina Faso man, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize from Little Red Tree Publishing. Suzanne has taught writing and literary theory in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Russia, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Italy, and Germany, and was a 2018-2020 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Her new collection, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2022 and will be available for pre-order in May. It is a true story of female resistance to domestic violence involving an 1881 Ohio-German immigrant couple. Read three poems from this book in the feminist journal S/tick.

Suzanne kindly shares these poems from Passion Seeds.

Let’s Go Green

Dante had Beatrice blazing blond before him
guiding him from the ice of hell to heaven’s
summits.

Beatrice burned forever in his heart.
Her hands filled with air
and her smile shouldered the world.
From afar he would watch,
happy for a view of her on Sunday.
In the Duomo, his heart arched over
the bridge his eyes made to her,

silent,
unaware
he prayed.

My black angel, you are afar.
How shall I say you burn for me?
My love for you glows like coal or
you are my black angel of coal glow?
But you are not coal, licorice, chocolate,
tar, oil, rubber, sod, tires, or asphalt.
You are seed in my heart,
the green promise.
I want to be the seed of your heart;
I believe I am the seed of your heart.
Please water me with your tears
and bring your heart to the light
so our seeds can grow and glow green.

****

Bleached History

I.
White through fire circles,
mud houses, lingering handshakes
white through indigo, slit goats’ necks
and the dolo-filled calabash.

II.
A congregation so large,
piled high up to the sky
for only one step to his throne,
to finally come home.

III.
Missionaries pleaded, cajoled
for their congregation to reach that throne!
They even stole boys to enroll
and control,
promising parents future rewards.
Their heads were shaved
and their mother tongues shamed,
with the antelope skull worn at least
once by all.
Cultural carving beyond bones,
branding
Jean,
Marc,
Antoine
over Narelwindé’s
wings
to God,
on top Awa’s whisper
to the river
and Yalle’s hope risen.

IV.
The red soil with its orange puddles
held this pain,
so full from
what the whites called religious school.

They tried to stitch boys against the hum
of their ancestors in the wind,
and with white cloth, bread and wine
wind their minds for Christendom and
the French curriculum.

But whispers of songs
sung in the field,
lingering handshakes,
compounds with family
and thatched roofs commanded feet
home, through thorned brush

stealthy under the moon,
back close to Mother’s womb
from where solid like the baobab
they did first bloom.

 

Author Note: This poem was inspired by Burkinabe shaman Malidome Patrice Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and Spirit. Somé was kidnapped as a young child by missionaries and taken to missionary school; he escaped in his late teens, returning to his village. In the 1950s children were punished if they spoke their native languages at school; French was the language of instruction in Burkina Faso. Dolo is homemade grain alcohol. Calabash is a gourd. Calabash are dried and used as bowls, among other things. Wearing an antelope skull signifies shame, akin to wearing a dunce cap. Narelwindé, Awa and Yalle are Burkinabe first names. Baobab is a tree of utmost significance to West Africa, signifying strength and groundedness.

Two Poems from “The Chessmaster’s Daughter” by Barbara Regenspan

Barbara Regenspan is a poet, scholar, and opinion writer who has taught leadership in social justice-focused education at Colgate University. Her books include Haunting and the Educational Imagination. Now, her debut full-length poetry collection, The Chessmaster’s Daughter, is available from Cayuga Lake Books. This collection combines lyricism and philosophical inquiry, meditating on the tensions between appreciation of the present moment and responsibility for the burdens of history. Regenspan appreciates the complexity of her Jewish immigrant legacy: its silent traumas, restless search for truth, and ancient rituals of renewal. In a familiar trajectory for progressive American Jews, she also turns to Buddhist mindfulness and nature-centric practices to counterbalance the intellectual ferment of her ancestral religion.

Barbara says, “I am a strong supporter of the local Tompkins County Workers’ Center (they are among the original national fighters for a living wage) and I have offered the book as a fundraiser.” Donate $13 or more to this upstate New York labor advocacy group, and they will send you a copy of The Chessmaster’s Daughter.

She kindly shares these poems below.

Little Animal Lessons

The day after Ruth’s fatal fall
a squirrel found its way into an
upstairs waste basket,

apparently unfazed when David
released it to the outside sill.

Then a toad preceded our steps on
the path to the market, committed to
the journey on the dry concrete,

avoiding the lush summer growth to
the right and left,

demanding from us a walking meditation
under its peculiar green leadership.

I’ve known this before:
The smaller living things, not
your usual friends, acting out,
commanding:

“Slow down, heed
the closures,
the new possibilities.”

****

Argue for Life

Try to leave your life without dying.
It’s impossible; you were always
a detective anyway and must find
the crime the suspect did not commit.
You’ll be given away by wind chimes
left on the porch,
whose commitment to a furious
system leaves a trail of resonance.
The pain you need to escape has
its own residue, because the separation of
you from everybody else that you almost
believed in is defied by the difficulty leaving.
Stay here with me in this house on the canal
where the lovers we’ve hardly seen walk
by and look in the window, or touring groups
ignore us to take in the sights—approaching the
gorge trail, the path of depth and turns.

April Is Poetry Month: Two Poems from Mahnaz Badihian’s “Ask the Wind”

Since April is National Poetry Month, it seemed like a good time to run excerpts from some poetry collections I’ve recently enjoyed. Mahnaz Badihian is an Iranian-American poet, translator, and visual artist in San Francisco. She sent me a copy of her new poetry book, Ask the Wind (Vagabond Books), to review for Winning Writers. I was pleased by her original turns of phrase, delight in nature’s signs of renewal, and hopefulness about peace in our tortured world. She has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems below. I love how she takes an expression that usually denotes sadness, “not belonging,” and rethinks it as joyful non-attachment.

NOT BELONGING

Like a bird, she floats in nature
like water, she seeps through the earth
the cells in her body,
do not identify with anyone
she is everyone

She has no motherland
she’s free from friends and enemies
the recycled woman rises to far horizons
with no destinations in mind

She’ll not be wounded, not be sad
she’s free of old memories,
from belonging to one particular land
from heavy gold necklaces
her ancestors left behind

Now she puts her feet on fresh grass
opens her arms and lets the sun plant
flowers on her fingertips

Gives her naked bosom to the hands
of the breeze under the glory of
the apple trees
giving herself to the flowing creeks
letting the fish swim in her veins
for the birth of more new happiness.

****

DNA

It was Monday morning and
I was passing the big statue
In the lobby of Johns Hopkins hospital
searching for Room 202,
the first interview with Mrs. Willis

She had a kind smile on her lips
her hands were wrinkled with red nail polish
Mrs. Willis looked me in the eyes,
how do I pronounce your name, dear?
I said, MAH NAZ,
the exact same way it’s written

Mrs. Willis with her M.S. degree said, I’ll try
MENAZ Manos, Maha-noss
then gently she changed her voice and
said, Can I call you Mary?

Marry? Merry? Morry? Echoed in my head
I felt like evaporating morning dew,
like a branch of a tree under heavy rain,
like fruit just fallen from a tree

I looked Mrs. Willis in the eyes and said,
“But my name is the charm of the moon
the name I was called by my mother
and by the man with black hair
dark mustache and brown eyes.”

Mrs. Willis was looking at me
with wide-open eyes
I said: “Mrs. Willis,
is my name more difficult
than Deoxyribonucleic acid?”

April Links Roundup: And the Real (Estate) Monster Was…

Happy April Fool’s Day to the readers of this increasingly sporadic blog. I pranked my son this morning by telling him that the Nutella company was going out of business. We both love to eat this sugary spread for breakfast (him without benefit of spoon). Never fear, the nut supply is still abundant.

For genuine everyday horror, I’ve just finished reading Robert Marasco’s 1973 haunted house novel, Burnt Offerings, reissued by Valancourt Books. This book is like what would happen if a “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine became sentient and started eating your brain. Our protagonists flee the grime and noise pollution of low-income apartment life in New York (something I know well!) only to be seduced by the luxuries of an upstate mansion that consumes tenants’ life force in order to repair itself. Unlike typical haunted houses, this one is delightful to live in. The horror arises from watching the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves because they want a room with a view.

That this impulse remains strong, especially when New York real estate is involved, is documented by Morgan Boyle’s essay at Fence Digital, “Imaginary Liminality Steps From the Train: How to Dreamwalk the World of Craigslist Apartments”.

Occasionally the ceilings are high, the rent is cheap, the deli is two doors down, the kitchen is large and there’s no sink in the bathroom. The listing says the apartment is unique. The apartment is unique. The kitchen is big black and white tile and good to dream about. You think about never washing your hands after using the toilet. You think about never washing your face at night. You think about brushing your teeth over the kitchen sink. The living bodied broker waits expectantly, digitally behind a computer screen. The listing says it is unique. Are you unique enough for this apartment? What’s a bathroom sink? You think about a potential lover standing in the bathroom looking expectantly for a sink that isn’t there. You think about the moment the realization of the lack dawns. You think about the look they give you upon exiting the bathroom with the missing sink and their unclean hands. You think about the unspoken shared knowledge of filth between you. You stop daydreaming in the apartment and click to the next listing. There is not a lot of room for this type of uniqueness in a pandemic world.

The Guardian’s Meg Conley takes a deep dive into the history of kitchen design and social class in this October 2021 article, “Invisible fridges and cooling cubbies: how kitchens have been designed for the rich”. Since the labor of home management historically fell to lower-status groups–women, and particularly Black women in white households–it was important to conceal it because oppression is such a downer when you’re throwing a dinner party. Rather depressing to learn that in 1908, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the classic feminist tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”, proposed liberating white women from household duties by creating a forced labor corps of Black men, women, and children!

Along those lines, the ever-astute Brandon Taylor suggests in his Sweater Weather newsletter that costume dramas like “Bridgerton” or “The Gilded Age” can never adequately represent historical injustices such as racism, because we watch them to enjoy the pretty stuff and the rich people behaving badly, but where do you think that wealth came from?

American period dramas are exercises in self-delusion, always evading the twin horrors of colonization and enslavement. The reason is simple: the history as it happened is too horrifying to turn into a rosy bourgeois narrative. There are no good guys to root for. No way of affirming Protestant sexual and social values in a way that flatters contemporary audiences. That’s why every period drama is ultimately a confection. Because to tell the truth how it really was, how it truly was, would be too much. Implicating.

Don’t miss Taylor’s searing short story “Urgent, Necessary, Vital” at Esquire. A college pottery class becomes a microcosm of sexual and racial politics, as a Black photography student finds that artistic success doesn’t insulate him from being othered, merely gives the problem a different form.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” last month interviewed trans activist and mixed media artist Alok Vaid-Menon about breaking free “from every socially constructed binary that does not allow us to live out our full humanity, our divinity, our infinite creativity and possibility.” Listen or read the transcript here. Alok says:

I see so much of what the trans movement being in the world is a love letter that says, I believe in your capacity for transformation, I believe in your capacity for self-determination. And then in response to that love, we’re told that we are wrong, that we’re disorderly, that we’re foolish, that we’re ridiculous, that we’re delinquents, that we’re predators, that we’re violent. That’s a pain that I continue to face as my words reach more people, is this extreme and coordinated backlash to tarnish me and by extension tarnish the ideas that have been here, they’re ancient ideas, because I think what patriarchy does is it makes us publicists. We find ourselves speaking it, doing it, living it, thinking it with such a fierce allegiance that if someone dare say another way of living is possible, people would rather eradicate and extinguish that alternative than confront that kind of spiritual nudity of asking, who am I outside of what patriarchy wants me to be?

I love their reframing of beauty standards: “Beauty is looking like ourselves.”

Devon Price’s Medium article “The Power of Defiance in the Age of Trans Bans” expresses an understandable exhaustion with the political process. How many times do we have to convince voters and politicians that we deserve to exist?

As a Millennial…I still received the message that being gay was strange and disgusting, and being trans was freakish and deluded. To be both gay and trans was too bizarre to even consider. Anti-gay laws convinced me I was an impossible, dangerous thing. Children and families needed protection from even the idea of me.

Believing all that about myself was absolutely shattering. It ruined my physical and mental health, and for many years destroyed my ability to love others. This is exactly the fate states like Iowa, Texas, and Florida are currently setting trans kids up for. The many political victories gay people have won in recent years have done nothing to prevent this. It was always conditional acceptance, as easily taken away as it was given.

But our autonomy and dignity should not belong to others like this. It should only ever belong to us.

I am not here to write inspiring calls to political action. I’m not interested in begging people to call their representatives or get to the polls. I don’t want to waste anyone’s energy or hope like that anymore. I no longer believe there is any liberation to be found within a legal system that has already tried, many times, to legislate entire groups of people out of existence. I think our power as trans people will not be attained through conventional political channels, but by standing together in proud disobedience of the laws that attempt to control our identities and bodies. I think our committed cis allies must be ready to disobey unjust laws too.

If your professional life is touched by these anti-trans laws, I believe you have a moral obligation to break them. If you’re a teacher, doctor, therapist, or school psychologist in Texas, you must be willing to protect transgender kids and their families. If it proves necessary, refuse to report trans kids’ existence to the government. Disrupt and thwart your colleagues’ attempts to report trans families, too. Lose documents. Slow down processes. Lie. Find any methods you can to grind this dehumanizing machine to a halt.

If you’re a healthcare provider in Iowa, find surreptitious ways to deliver care to your trans patients. Help trans families find the resources they need, and build networks with your colleagues in other states, to keep trans kids treated and safe. If you’re a school teacher in Florida, protect your gay and trans students from harassment, and quietly provide information that will help them understand themselves. If you are a parent or educator anywhere in the country, be on alert for transphobic, homophobic policies and undercut them at every possible turn. Every unjust rule is an opportunity to break it. You have so more power than you realize — and far more options than our political system would like you to see.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2021

How it started:

Jennifer Melfi - Wikipedia

How it’s going:

Silvio Dante Picture

Another year around the Block. I definitely don’t take that for granted. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life is short and unpredictable, entirely another thing to feel that urgency as one wakes up every day in a country under threat from fascism and disease. What am I waiting for?

High Spirits: I tried marijuana edibles for the first time in November. It was pleasant to feel my brain slow down for about 5 hours. No time to do it again till February, I imagine. I really need to readjust my work-life balance.

Salem’s Lot: Studying witchcraft this year has brought me great satisfaction, mind-body integration, and optimism. ICYMI, I blogged about it earlier this month. My first year of training will wrap up in March 2022. Time to start selecting my magickal name, which may coincide with applying for a new passport and driver’s license with a male gender marker. (My desire for gender affirmation conflicts with my basic laziness regarding paperwork and my Ron-Swanson-esque opinion that my gender is none of the government’s business anyway.)

Personal Soundtrack: Remember that week in January when everyone was singing sea shanties on TikTok? I got hooked on The Longest Johns, and particularly their song “Bones in the Ocean”, a poignant ode to survivor guilt that seemed extra meaningful as America’s COVID death toll reached 800,000. The Young Master independently discovered this song at summer camp and now we listen to shanties together on Spotify. His fourth-grade music teacher also introduced him to 2Cellos, an energetic pair of HOT guys who play pop tunes in a classical style. And I still can’t get enough of that German Karneval music.

Bookbag: Some of the extremely homosexual books I enjoyed this year were Aden Polydoros’ Jewish paranormal mystery The City Beautiful, Brandon Taylor’s literary short fiction collection Filthy Animals, and the poetry collections Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams and The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. I’d been meaning to read Glen David Gold’s historical novel about vaudeville magicians, Carter Beats the Devil, for almost 20 years, and it was all I hoped for and more. Julie Murphy’s queer YA romance Pumpkin gave me the courage to sign up for a transgender runway show next month. Pictures forthcoming!

The Writing Life: I finished a major revision of my novel Origin Story with guidance from the peerless editor/sensitivity reader Denne Michele Norris, co-host of Food 4 Thot Podcast and the new editor-in-chief of Electric Lit.

Once again, I took part in the 30 Poems in November fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, while binge-watching “The Sopranos” on HBO’s streaming service. The conjunction of those two pastimes generated The Waste-Management Land, a poetry chapbook manuscript in need of a good home.

My third full-length poetry collection, Made Man, comes out in February from Little Red Tree and is now available to pre-order. Cover art and interior illustrations by Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel. This book explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters. Enjoy the opening poem, first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal.

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

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.

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.

March Links Roundup: Unseen on Mulberry Street

It’s March! Spring is coming and links are a-blooming.

It was reported this morning that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that manages the author’s intellectual property, would cease reprinting six of his picture books because of racist illustrations. The best-known of these titles were On Beyond Zebra, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. The AP news article explains:

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

I’m not sure what to think about this decision. A fair number of the classic picture books I’ve read to the Young Master contain incidental images that are offensive. For instance, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (1977) show natural history museum mannequins in Native American garb, and I’m sure many other books show white kids dressing up in feathered headdresses, because that was considered a normal costume. When I read these books aloud (many, many times), I would revise the text to say “Danny saw artifacts stolen from Native peoples” or some such, but that likely went over my son’s head. So I understand the impulse to withhold these types of images altogether from children who are too young to consider them critically.

On the other hand, I wonder whether editing the past also perpetuates racism, by giving children the false impression that literature has always been morally pure–or ever can be. Surely today’s books have other flaws that we haven’t yet recognized. Are we setting kids up to be defensive about their future problematic faves, instead of teaching them from an early age to tolerate moral ambiguity? Every now and then, a well-meaning school bans Huckleberry Finn because it contains the N-word, but it seems more productive to study how an anti-slavery work by a white author can still contain racist stereotypes.

A more clear-cut example of bad educational decisions comes to us from Utah, where trans author Kyle Lukoff’s picture book Call Me Max led to the banning of an entire curriculum that didn’t even include his book. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A Murray [School District] teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.

The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of “Call Me Max” from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity…

…Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.

It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.

For the record, Shane and I enjoyed this picture book very much! Lukoff presented Max and the Talent Show and When Aidan Became a Brother at an online story hour at the BGSQD Bookstore last month and I cried all the way through. Contrary to what the guys on my trans masc Facebook group report, I’m just as weepy as I’ve always been. Must be my Cancer Sun.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up knowing that trans men existed. But it’s never too late to come out. Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head, who premiered in 1952, is going gender-neutral. Bloomberg.com has the mashed-potato scoop:

Starting in the fall, Hasbro will sell Potato Head family kits. They’ll come with two non-gendered “adult” potatoes, one “baby” potato and 42 accessories, according to a spokeswoman. That will let kids decide the parents’ gender, rather than being told they are “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

I haven’t been this vain since I was 10 years old. I found a dozen old photo albums in the basement last year and I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty cute my whole life but I looked very uncomfortable being alive.” Whereas now I will use any excuse to post a picture of myself in suspenders. A.E. Osworth explains why, in this September 2020 article at Catapult: “Taking Thirst Traps to Preserve Myself–and My Transition–in the Middle of the Pandemic”.

In the absence of my meatspace body living in the minds of my people, am I preserving this slice of time to be accessed later? Am I imbuing my early-testosterone body with immortality, marking its existence? Since when did I want my body at all, let alone to make it last for human eternity?

“It feels like a protest against this idea that it’s polite to not find yourself attractive,” my friend A. Andrews says to me over Zoom when I ask them about thirst trapping. A is a writer and a comic artist. They think about the arrival of bodies in digital space quite a lot, usually because they are drawing bodies into existence. A falls into category two—less thirst trapping, more existential crises. But they talk to me about it anyway.

“It’s considered rude or self-involved to think you’re hot,” A says. “This idea that we have to kind of think of ourselves as objectively neutral or below is weird. Thirst traps are a protest against this notion that we should all feel kind of medium about ourselves.”

I consider my adherence to a politeness written upon the hearts of girl-children, the over-emphasis of humble-as-virtue. It is an insurance that anyone with any relationship to girlhood, regardless of gender or outcome, will feel squeamish taking up a reasonable amount of space. Will disparage their own body until they feel less than they are: stunning. Everyone is stunning and I really believe that; everyone, of course, except for me.

Fuck that. I would rather be the Halloween crowd, unshackle myself from the normals. Love myself just a little bit more.

Feast your eyes on this non-gendered “adult” potato.

Poems for All, Big and Small

My online friend Paul Fericano, author of the wonderfully irreverent poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press), has just surprised me with a gift that combines two of my special interests: poetry and miniatures. It’s a subscription to Poems-For-All, a California publisher that creates two-inch-square illustrated books with a single poem inside. My first packet includes 18 delightful tiny volumes by authors such as Alice Notley, Kim Shuck, and Jack Hirschman, plus some self-styled “pointlessly small bookmarks”.

As you can see, these books are popular at Winning Writers HQ.