November Links Roundup: Testify to Love

Thanks for your patience, readers. The link farm harvest is a bit late this month because I’ve been front-loading my Winning Writers work in anticipation of another school shutdown. The Young Master and I expect to spend the winter making art and lighting fires.

Over a decade ago, when I was deep into Gay-or-Christian angst, the Christian pop band Avalon’s song “Testify to Love” always renewed my desperate hope that God accepted me as I was. Even now, when a lot of Christian media is triggering to me, this song gives me joy. I wondered whether I was just reading my own preoccupations into the opening line, “All the colors of the rainbow…” But this People Magazine article from September shows that my gaydar was correct–as is my instinct to mistrust evangelicals: “Former Avalon Singer Michael Passons Says He Was Kicked Out of Christian Band for Being Gay”.

Michael Passons, a founding member of Avalon who left the Christian band 17 years ago, is opening up about his departure from the group.

The singer-songwriter, 54…said that he was confronted by his former bandmates on June 30, 2003, to leave Avalon.

“Avalon showed up at my house and told me I was no longer in the group,” he said. “And it was all because of who I am.”

The artist also said that he was “required to attend some reparative therapy sessions” prior to his exit, which like conversion therapy, is an attempt is made to try to make someone identify as heterosexual.

Acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell, though not a religious man, has a devotional cast of mind that makes his literary criticism especially insightful. An admirer of St. Augustine, Greenwell often writes about how our desires and needs are a mystery to ourselves. The liberal, rational self envisioned by the literary marketplace has too narrow a time horizon and too judgmental an imagination, he proposes in his Harper’s essay “Making Meaning: Against ‘Relevance’ in Art”. Although the current push for “relevance” provided a necessary corrective to the presumption that only stories in a certain demographic are “universal”, taken to extremes this demand denies the possibility of grace, understood in the humanistic sense as the opportunity to be confronted with the divinity in any person (even middle-class white men!).

[I[t is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

And he also deftly subtweets Marilynne Robinson. Go read the whole essay.

Along with “relevance”, the idea of a “writing career” is an idol that periodically needs to be dethroned. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, themselves no stranger to literary accolades, diagrammed the mutual back-scratching among winners of the most prestigious awards, in their article “On Poets and Prizes” at ASAP Journal. The ostensible goal of awards is to make poetry visible and relevant (that word again) to the general public. In addition, prizes are the only way that most poets ever get paid for their writing. Spahr and Young’s data-crunching showed that although winners’ racial and gender demographics have finally diversified in the past 5-10 years, their background is still quite elite and insular:

The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners… Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Hey, I went to Harvard! Where’s my money?

Philosopher Adam Kotsko decries the pressure to prove the humanities’ worth in terms of market forces, in his article “Not Persuasion, But Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”, part of a forum in Boston Review on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus”.

For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.

I’ve spent the past five years working on a novel, which means I haven’t written anything I can make money from. I miss that sweet short story prize cash. But Origin Story is hard to excerpt. You need context for those blow jobs. At Craft Literary, novelist Maria Cichosz (Cam and Beau) explains why in “For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt”.

The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

Finally, I have to share this fierce and funny Missouri Review poem-of-the-week by Katie Erbs, “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once”. It’s not what you think. Check it out.

October Bonus Links: Small Gods

Extra good stuff from the Internet this month.

Fantasy/horror novelist Seanan McGuire (Middlegame) and illustrator Lee Moyer teamed up this spring to create the Small Gods Series. By turns whimsical, comforting, and pleasantly sinister, these short posts are encyclopedia entries about the minor spirits that might be watching out for us. Worried about offending an unknown deity? Ask for intercession from Fishier Spooner, the cephalopod Small God of Pentacle Torn. Are you cute but full of revolutionary fury? Pumpkin Spice is by your side to decolonize that shit. Deconstructed Victorian gentlemen The Assless Chaps support shaking up gender roles. Or maybe you just need a hug from Elder Bunny, the Small God of Fluffiness.

Cats know they are divine, and sooner or later, their human companions know it too. This amusing piece from Open Culture shows that some things haven’t changed: “In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats”. Journalist Colin Marshall remarks: “Here in Korea, where I live, cat owners aren’t called cat owners: they’re called goyangi jibsa, literally ‘cat butlers.'”

On Medium, activist and filmmaker Chris Landry critiques one liberal idol. In “Trump, COVID, and the Politics of Civility” he writes:

One of the most damaging things in politics over the past fifty years is the liberal fetish for civility, for the self-satisfied knowing that they have taken the “high road” and refused to stoop to the level of the opponent.

“When they go low, we go high.” I despise that saying and the smugness that accompanies it. At root, it is entirely selfish. It’s about politics as an aesthetic experience in which the goal is to feel good, noble, better than the other side — no matter the harm being perpetrated on much more vulnerable people.

In family, work, and friendships, yes, go high. But politics is, unfortunately, not like those things. It is always about power. It is, as they say, war by other means. It determines who lives and who dies. The goal is not to go high. the goal is to fight for justice and for the greatest good for the people…

…Is it corrosive to our society when the divisions are so strong? Absolutely. As FDR said, “I hate war.” We the people didn’t seek it, or choose it, but here we are: at war for the future of the country against very powerful and ruthless forces…

…We’ve been in an ideological war for fifty years. Republicans have been scheming and planning — extremely effectively — to take power even as the demographics increasing disadvantage them. They’ve built power at the state level, used that to gerrymander themselves into power at the federal level, and focused on radically altering the judiciary, blocking Democratic nominees to federal courts while ramming through their own.

The Democratic response? Senator Pat Leahy long continued a tradition — not a law — of allowing senators to put a hold on judicial nominees from their states. This foolishness allowed one lone Republican, for example, to block an Obama nominee for eight years, so that Trump could fill the post. You think McConnell cares about that tradition? It would be funny if it weren’t so harmful to actual human beings.

Image, a respected journal of spirituality and the arts, published this intriguing conversation, “A Devotional Temperament”, between acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You and Cleanness) and theologian James K.A. Smith. Here’s Greenwell on his interest in St. Augustine:

Very early on, I was indoctrinated into the idea that my desire was inherently disordered for reasons that I now entirely reject. But it still seems to me that my desire is disordered, and it still seems to me that desire is the great disorderer. Desire is the most extraordinary plot device, because it gives us something to seek, an aim for our will, and yet it itself is always unwilled. We don’t choose what we desire. That balance of activity and absolute proneness and abjection is endlessly fascinating to me. Even separate from the context of homophobia, I find desire humiliating. I find it humiliating to be overpowered by something I have not chosen and do not will. Augustine feels that, too.

And later in the interview, on the stylistic lessons of Augustine’s Confessions:

To me the great promise and faith that lies behind not just literary art, but all art, is that by devotion to the particular, by attending with all of our faculties as precisely and carefully as we can to the particulars of a life, a place, a time, we can arrive at something that is true of humanness itself.

The word “universality” is often used as a weapon against writers who are said to be marginal, who are told—as I was as a graduate student—that their experience is not pertinent to “the universal.” That is always a lie; it’s a false use of the word “universal.” But I do believe in universality, of a kind that doesn’t deface particularity but is arrived at through particularity. That’s how Augustine, though he is separated from me by centuries and language and continents and, more than any of those things, by a system of belief that I absolutely reject—that’s how he shows me to myself.

This faith, that the interior and particular can lead to the interpersonal and universal, is what I think animates much of our literary practice, especially first-person literary practice. I think Augustine invented it.

…I do think concepts can be useful without being true. That’s a belief of art, too. But when you write a poem or a novel, when you paint something, when you create music, all of those things are done in a faith that one can make something finite that has access to the infinite. That to me is the promise of art, and it’s fundamentally an incarnational idea.

Finally, this personal essay on the Ploughshares blog by Anaïs Duplan (Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture), “I Will Always Be That”, has given me some peace of mind about being misgendered by strangers.

Knowing I was injecting myself with testosterone every week made it really hard to hear people use “she” to refer to me, even harder than before I started HRT. I was making an effort to change and no one was acknowledging it.

There was a point, about six months in, where I started to pass on and off. I looked like a twelve-year-old boy, so when I did pass, it was as a child. This was the hardest part of my transition (though sometimes I think I say that about every part of my transition). I would have an interaction in a deli where the cashier called me “miss,” then walk out onto the street and hear someone call me “sir,” then meet up with a friend who would use the pronouns I’d asked people to start using (they/them), then talk to an acquaintance who would mess up my pronouns and use she/her. It was a rollercoaster. I was a rollercoaster. Every time someone gendered me as male or just didn’t use she/her pronouns to refer to me, I felt euphoric. As soon as someone misgendered me, my mood crashed and I felt terrible. This went on for a long time, this sometimes-passing liminal space.

After a while, I realized how ridiculous the whole idea of passing is. It had to be ridiculous if I could be referred to with “he,” “she,” and “they” all in the same day. What exactly were people referring to when they used these pronouns? The way my face looked, the clothes I was wearing, the way I talked, carried myself?..

…As soon as I learned not to let how I was being gendered control how I felt, I could reclaim my sense of self from the pronominal chaos being reflected back to me. I learned to “play in the reflections” and “dance with perspective.” It took about a year of hormone therapy before transition started to feel like healing, but not from a lifetime of “being in the wrong body.” I was healing the part of myself that was identified with my body, identified with a gender, with the person I was on any given day, with my interests, preferences, and dislikes. Identity itself as an idea fell apart and my sense of self started to “come from some of everywhere, somewhere so deep that some of / everywhere come with you,” if I may borrow again from [Fred] Moten. It didn’t matter where I was headed, gender-wise, anymore. I stopped wishing for the day when I would pass all the time. I started living as myself, whoever that was.

Transition seems to have brought Duplan to the perspective that Buddhists call anatta, non-self–the realization that we have no permanent unchanging identity. Perhaps a looser attachment to the “self” of the Western philosophical tradition would help all of us, cis and trans alike, to accept gender fluidity. “What if you do something irrevocable to your body and regret it?” is a common objection that often gets in the way of life-changing medical care for trans youth. One of the nice things about transitioning in my 40s is that I already know I can’t rely on my body to stay the same, whether or not I actively try to change it.

I don’t think I’m ready for this, though:

In a move that could revolutionize gender-reassignment surgery, hospital officials in Boston are considering whether to allow a first-ever penis transplant in a transgender man. Surgeons hope to attach a dead man’s penis to the groin of a patient born as a biological female.

According to the MedPage Today article, a few such transplants have successfully been performed on cis men who lost their genitals to cancer or a war wound. I can’t get past the phrase “dead man’s penis” though. Would that be a…Hand of Glory-hole?

Happy Halloween, everyone.

October Links Roundup: Change the Conversation

Welcome to the beautiful, spooky month of October. Remember, masks aren’t just for Halloween anymore.

(Get your own man face at AxeandCo on Etsy)

Sci-fi novelist Isaac R. Fellman wins the Internet for 2020 with his July newsletter post, “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man”, which explains why she was the only female TV character I’ve ever fully identified with.

Peggy is so utterly dissociated from the flesh of Peggy that she can carry a baby to term while pretending, even to herself, that she is just putting on weight…

This is seeing your body as an imprecise instrument which you must learn to use. It’s seeing your body as a thing out of your control, so that anything else it does, or that you may happen to make it do, has no meaning. It’s just topology.

It’s not just that Peggy is willing to endure all kinds of things — Joan’s cruelty about her body, a pregnancy without medical care, the logistics of a new wardrobe, the bearing and giving up of the child, becoming a temporary ward of the State of New York — in order to avoid more conventional humiliations. It’s also that she endures them, does her usual hard course of work, gets through it stoically, because the alternative is acknowledging the life of the body…

Peggy rather famously spends the whole series trying to figure out how to be a woman. I would argue that her process here — which, like her process of fucking, is all about patterning and identity theft — nonetheless has a very different vibe from her relations to men… [T]he series is littered with the bones of women Peggy has tried to bond with, with all the sincere good will and feminist consciousness in the world. Peggy likes women, is politically aligned with women, makes a career of selling products to women. Peggy’s friends are men.

In this September interview in the New Statesman, gender-theory heavyweight Judith Butler cogently debunks J.K. Rowling’s brand of transphobic “feminism”:

If we look closely at the example that you characterise as “mainstream” we can see that a domain of fantasy is at work, one which reflects more about the feminist who has such a fear than any actually existing situation in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men’s bathrooms, and their modes of self-identification are ways of describing a lived reality, one that cannot be captured or regulated by the fantasies brought to bear upon them. The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry…

We depend on gender as a historical category, and that means we do not yet know all the ways it may come to signify, and we are open to new understandings of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women… Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognised socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.

Did you know that the notable 20th-century writer and critic Dorothy Parker was a civil rights activist? Me neither, till I read this news item from the NAACP:

For over three decades, the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, served as the resting place for Dorothy Parker. Forever etched into the NAACP’s history and legacy, the American poet, writer, critic and satirist was a fierce supporter of civil rights and social justice during a critical era in our nation’s history.

At a time when the country was in the midst of a social movement for civil rights and equal protection, Parker gave to a cause she believed in by bequeathing her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and providing that upon his death, the estate would pass to the NAACP. The NAACP continues to benefit from her gift by licensing the use of her works.

Born in Long Beach, New Jersey, Parker rose to prominence for her literary works published in such magazines as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers and critics. In 1932, Parker found success in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Among her accolades, she received two Academy Award nominations and worked on more than 15 films.

Throughout her life, Parker grew to be a vocal advocate of civil liberties and civil rights. In 1988, under the leadership of then-NAACP President Benjamin Hooks, Parker’s remains were interred at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore and remained there for 32 years.

Preserving the legacy of Dorothy Parker has been an essential part of the NAACP’s history. At the request of her family, which coincided with the NAACP’s planned moved to Washington, Mrs. Parker’s remains were re-interred in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York on Aug. 22, 2020.

What might Parker have said about Rowling? Perhaps “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Or, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”

At the Forward, a venerable Jewish magazine, Abigail Pogrebin asks the provocative question, “Does God’s gender matter?” A journalist and former producer for “60 Minutes” and “Charlie Rose”, Pogrebin is also the daughter of Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cotton Pogrebin. Here, she talks with Rabbi David Ingber of the progressive congregation Romemu in Manhattan.

The text he sends before our interview, (I ask each teacher to choose one) is a midrash, or rabbinic commentary, from the 6th century, in which a sage known as Rab Kahana analyzes the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God.”

Kahana suggests that when God asserts, “I am the Lord,” it’s to clarify not only that God is one, but God is all. We should not assume the Lord takes one shape or is found in just one place.

Ingber builds on Kahana’s analysis: if the Lord our God has multiple iterations, the Lord is therefore not one gender at all times.

It’s not because of some feminist principle that Ingber seems to suggest this, though he’s known for an egalitarian approach to traditional observance. Instead, Ingber says that asking whether God is male or female is the wrong question. God takes any form you need God to take. And the midrash gives us permission to find — or feel — God in whatever form speaks to us.

Later in the piece, Rabbi Ingber says:

Why would the first thing God tell the people of Israel be, I am the Lord your God? There must be a hidden reason. The rabbis are imagining a God who is really concerned that the people not be confused by the polymorphic nature of God. Will the real God please stand up?

So this text is decidedly trying to say, ‘I appear in multiple places, in different ways, but they’re all me.’ God is saying, ‘You can see me as your aunt or uncle, your father or mother. You can see me as a God who at one time feels like a stern disciplinarian and another time feels as a loving, compassionate comforter. All of these faces are legitimate expressions of who I am.’

Covenant is the weblog of the Living Church Foundation, an independent nonprofit ministry within the Episcopal Church. Hat tip to Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and one-half of the Lent Madness team, for tweeting this Covenant article by lay theologian Elizabeth Anderson: “The Priesthood of All Believers: The Uses and Abuses of a Doctrine”. Anderson critiques a phenomenon that I’ve noticed as well. Despite the Protestant belief that everyone has a ministry, non-clergy are often kept in social service roles, not allowed to influence the church’s theology or offer spiritual direction. “[A]ll of these false binaries — sacred/secular, spiritual/material, contemplation/action, Church /world, clergy/laity — imply a kind of dualism that is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity.”

Tor has a relatable new post at Speaking While the World Sleeps: “Defined by Future Regret: Survivors’ Autonomy”. As child abuse survivors, we question (and are constantly questioned about) how we can know ourselves well enough to transition. I often say that the “always already a boy” narrative doesn’t fit me, because there was never a time when I had access to an uncontested selfhood.

The idea that there is a “before” we could get back to, should get back to, makes no sense when talking about a lot of trauma, especially child sexual abuse. What’s the “before” when that would be when I was a child?

But I think the difficulty here is that it’s not just a “before” people expect us to get back to. They also assume an “underneath.” Underneath the trauma is you, underneath the trauma is what you actually think, want, hope, desire, and dream.

Tor observes that these questioners are far too concerned about us regretting non-heteronormative choices, while the real thing worth mourning is the years of authenticity we lost.

As much as people fixate on survivors who talk about, say, transitioning, and regretting it because it was “just because they were abused” I’m betting it’s far more common that trans survivors are like me, wishing they can been capable, emotionally, and mentally, of going on hormones years ago. But our regret only matters when we make active decisions about our life, when we assert our will over our bodies, not the passive regret that at least makes us fall in line within socially acceptable parameters of existence…

…This means that rather than helping survivors confront, grieve, and move past our regret, we’re instead taught to value it, to see it as something live by, more than any other emotional experience, more than any other aspect of our trauma.

And in doing so, we make it difficult for survivors to grasp at the normalcy of regret.

What I mean is: when you get to the end of your life, you’re always going to have choices you wish you’d taken and choices you wish you hadn’t. That’s what it means to be capable of choices. But survivors are encouraged to see their every regret as an aspersion on their capacity for reason, their decision-making as fully autonomous human beings…

Part of coping with abuse is understanding that there isn’t an “underneath” self who would make perfectly correct choices, who knows with pure clarity exactly who they are, who is so self-assured that they will never guess wrong about their own needs or desires, if only there wasn’t the trauma mucking things up. It’s understanding that messiness is a part of being human. And so is regret.

August Links Roundup: Love and Work

Summer has flown by at Reiter’s Block HQ. The Young Master is in wilderness camp, learning how to start fires (and hopefully put them out). I have finished a draft of the Endless Sequel! Now we are girding our loins for the likelihood of Zoom school, part 2, since the state prioritized reopening restaurants and beaches rather than beating down the virus before winter. Why can’t you all just drink vodka alone in your office, like I do? You don’t need bars to hook up. That’s why God made Grindr.

While I have the time, I’m doing get-out-the-vote activism (check out Swing Left for projects you can do from home) and participating in an anti-racist online book group with my college alumni. Last month we read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, a masterful, bracing 600-page history of racist ideas in America. In the forthcoming September issue of The Atlantic, Kendi offers an ironically optimistic take on Trump’s presidency as a force for bringing white Americans out of denial.

He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.

Similar to the 1850s, when a critical mass of Americans finally recognized the evils of slavery, Kendi thinks we’re at a moment of opportunity to acknowledge and strike down modern manifestations of racism: police violence, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and economic inequality. To keep the momentum alive, however, we have to remember that the rot pre-dates Trump and will not simply be solved by defeating him in November.

At the Disability Visibility Project, Stella Akua Mensah and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkulu wrote in July that “Abolition Must Include Psychiatry”. While I have my doubts about the either-or framing, I agree it’s important to question the assumption that the mental health system is always a humane alternative to jail.

[B]oth prisons and psychiatric institutions: have an overrepresentation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), disregard the rights and safety of TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) folks, use law enforcement transport/response, use solitary confinement and seclusion in cells/“rooms”, forcibly medicate folks (also known as chemical restraints), use physical restraints, offer extremely limited access to sunlight, fresh air, cell phones, news/media, and the outside world. In addition, sexual violence is routine, there is limited power to appeal legal/medical decisions, and the overwhelming majority of inmates are survivors of previous traumatic experiences. This year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presented a report asserting that involuntary psychiatric interventions “may well amount to torture.”

Prison culture is not solvable by ‘funding the mental health system’ more robustly. The mental ‘health’ system is fundamentally carceral, meaning that it is one of the many kindred systems that function to contain and surveil people, take away their locus of control, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom. As it functions in America and in all places touched by colonialism, psychiatry is rooted in torture, white supremacy, and a culture of shame and punishment.

Some articles about writers’ mental health seemed worth sharing this month. Found via the supreme advice blog Captain Awkward, Paul Graham’s essay “How to Do What You Love” challenges the way that kids are traditionally brought up to think about work versus play. The usual belief is: school is boring because grown-up work will be boring, and you do boring work to earn fun time later. Graham observes:

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house…

…If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.

…The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

Related to that, Lindsay King-Miller (author of Ask a Queer Chick) writes at Electric Literature that “Writing Doesn’t Need to Hurt”. (Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman on Twitter for the link.) Discussing her writer’s block while working on a bereavement memoir, King-Miller tells us not to force ourselves to dwell on trauma; it isn’t the only way to produce authentic and important work. She eventually wrote herself out of a dark place, not by endlessly dissecting her grief, but by generating tons of happy-endings fanfiction for her own enjoyment.

I’m not unique in writing past the point of comfort or safety. The archetype of the suffering artist is centuries old, a cultural memory that long predates my own idiosyncrasies. Writers are encouraged, tacitly and explicitly—no, fuck that passive voice. Writers encourage each other to steer into the pain. We value “raw” and “searing” prose, venerate brutal honesty. We say “write what scares you” but seldom “write what makes you happy.” There is so much advice about “bleeding on the page” and “cutting deeper” and, if you follow those instructions, you can end up a mess of open veins and damaged tissues.

“Writing this book almost killed me,” a writer I admire tweeted recently about her new memoir, and maybe she didn’t mean it as a point of pride, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who read it that way. When I was a slam poet, I watched over and over as people I loved delved into their most painful moments, live and onstage, reliving trauma with their whole bodies for the sake of a compelling performance. In some creative circles, the willingness to push oneself to the edge of a breakdown is considered vital to producing great art.

It’s not a surprise, then, that so many writers seem to hate writing—if “writing” is synonymous with “chewing open old wounds.”

…It is brave to write the thing you need to write, even if it hurts. But that doesn’t mean that the hardest writing is always the bravest. Self-flagellation for its own sake is not noble—and it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.

My guiding spirit, as I plan my next project, is Diane Nguyen from “BoJack Horseman” season 6. Unable to start writing her book of serious essays, which was meant to turn her banal family dysfunction into something productive, Diane overhears a conversation at the mall and spins it into the accidentally successful middle-grade series “Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective”.

At Medium, Kacen Callender, author of the YA transgender novel Felix Ever After, reminds us that writers are people too, even on social media. “The Humanization of Authors” notes the complexities of the power dynamic between authors and readers:

There’s an idea that authors and novelists have power and platforms, but there’s a key narrative being overlooked in the relationship between novelist and reader: authors depend on readers to buy our books for our livelihoods. There’s immediately a power dynamic placed between author and reader where we depend on pleasing the reader, many times to the point of our dehumanization. There’s also the fact that readers, bloggers, and influencers can be white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, or any other identity with privilege, and an author can have identities with no privilege. The idea that an author automatically has more power than a reader needs to be reexamined.

There’s a culture where many readers feel entitled to an author because they pay money in exchange for an author’s work. The culture implies that the reader is entitled not only to the author’s book, but to all of the author’s being. This unhealthy balance leads to situations where authors, for example, are not allowed to set healthy boundaries. Authors are vilified if they respond directly to a reader who has tagged them in a negative review, asking that they do not tag us. Authors are expected to respond to all messages. Authors are considered bad writers for not wanting to take a reader’s feedback or criticism into consideration.

Among the ways that authors are dehumanized by the social media culture of instantaneous, on-demand reactions, says Callender, is being “forced to disclose their gender or sexual identities and/or forced to share their past traumas so that readers will stop demanding to know about their lives as proof that the author is allowed to tell a specific story.”

Playwright and screenwriter Topher Payne has rewritten the cringe-worthy classic The Giving Tree to teach kids about healthy boundaries. Take a look.

When I was a Christian, I worried a lot about what made my creative work “Christian poetry” or “Christian fiction”. (Fun fact, naming your gay butt sex novel after the hypostatic union is a good start.) Does it have to be uplifting? Didactic? Contain a Christ-like character–but if it does, will this promote the misconception that human beings are our own saviors? Is it a Christian book simply because I, a Christian, am writing it? And if the book doesn’t turn out Christian-ish, does that mean I’m not a believer? (Well, in my case, yes.) In retrospect, I think I was concerned about this because I’d just become a full-time writer and I didn’t know if I deserved that privilege.

At the ecumenical online journal Breaking Ground, Tara Isabella Burton’s piece “Toward a Christian Aesthetics: Novel-Writing in an Age of COVID” addresses this very concern. The pandemic has exposed and heightened many inequalities in America. Writers can’t avoid noticing that the leisure to practice our craft depends on the physical labor of less privileged workers.

Now, more than ever, as we make public sense of a world in which the powerless are in bondage to the powerful, and in which we are all in bondage to sin, we are called not merely to account for the ways we exercise our freedom. It is a question for aesthetics as much as for politics—insofar as we can separate them, which as good systematic theologians I motion we cannot and must not do.

The questions of whether we should write and the question of what we should write as Christians are inseparable from one another and from this wider question of the theological character of right and wrong freedom—a question that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests have rendered ever more urgent.

How, in the forming of words on a page, can we exercise good creative freedom, even as we resist in both practice and product the embedded liberal notion that our individual, autonomous liberty to do, to make, to fashion, is the highest good there is?

Burton calls for a humanizing aesthetic that embraces the contingency and interconnectedness of our lives. She contrasts this with the pipe dream of unlimited personal autonomy that capitalism promises. The Christian novel will

embrace the implicit power in the authorial position by adopting not…a cynical gaze, that of the disengaged ironist, nor even the more morally palatable fury of the rightly raging prophet, but a distinctly loving one. I think that that the Christian novel can—indeed must—express anger at the world’s brokenness, and its injustice, even as it casts its attention on, and loves, the tiny details, the anecdotes, the phrases, the moments, that make each of its characters, in being fully human, fully loved by God. To zero in on a character’s foibles, their mistakes, their wickedness, their self-deception—and show us why we should love them anyway—is the greatest task of Christian art…

…And, most importantly of all, the Christian would preserve in every character depicted, however briefly mentioned, the sense that they are made in the imago Dei: that they are fully human, with their own wants, needs, desires, hopes, that each of they could, if only given space to tell it, be the protagonist of their own story as well.

…It is a commitment, too, to creating work where all characters, however minor, are treated with the respect of their full humanity, and where the narrative structure of the work reflects the imperfection and insufficiency of any one authorial or authoritative gaze. It is a commitment, too, to treating the world I write about with love—to seeing the incarnate Christ everywhere, even in the most broken or sinful characters; to seeing their God-given capacity to receive grace.

This actually has been my ideal from the beginning, as well. The problem is that I didn’t find it in the Bible, nor in the reactions of the most devout Christians to my art. Quite the opposite, usually.

At JStor Daily, Ed Simon writes a provocative article “In Defense of Kitsch”. He suggests that criticism of kitsch’s democratized rococo style can be traced to Protestant suspicion or snobbery about Catholic material culture. I don’t know that I buy this as a complete explanation, since American evangelicals pump out enormous amounts of sentimental tchotchkes, but I do love to read an appreciation of my favorite room at the Met, the 18th-century furniture in the Wrightsman Galleries. Mean Mommy used to make fun of my “tacky” taste for gilded furniture and porcelain shepherdesses. Well, I have a glitter-covered orchid vagina painting on my office ceiling and I’m living my best life.

Reading Treasure: Barbie Travels to the 18th Century

“Madame du Barbie” image via Reading Treasure, a Marie Antoinette fan blog (for real!)

July Bonus Links: Next Year, Not in Jerusalem

Oy, so many links this month, it’s like a Hebrew National warehouse!

QFC - Hebrew National Kosher Beef Bagel Dogs, 7.6 oz

Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the leftist magazine Jewish Currents this week made a compelling case for American Jews to rethink their (our?) faith in traditional Zionism. In “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine”, he begins by describing the beliefs I grew up with:

In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God.

The reason is rarely spelled out, mostly because it’s considered obvious: Opposing a Jewish state means risking a second Holocaust. It puts the Jewish people in existential danger…Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.

However, as he lays out comprehensively in the rest of this article, the historical evidence shows that the “Jewish state” has not kept Jews safe nor preserved Jewish ethical values.

With each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. With each new election, irrespective of which parties enter the government, Israel has continued subsidizing Jewish settlement in a territory in which Palestinians lack citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives…

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex parts of the land that Israel has brutally and undemocratically controlled for decades. And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high. After all, it is human beings—all human beings—and not states that are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.

Please read the whole thing, especially if this quote raises your hackles. And then check out the essay anthology Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, from Interlink Publishing.

The anthem of 2020 should be “Everything Is Cancelled” (sung to the Lego Movie tune “Everything Is Awesome”, of course). What other institutions can we topple? How about higher education? Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, ponders what would happen if we took conservatives’ parody hashtag “Cancel Yale” seriously:

Some conservatives think they have found a very clever way to troll the activists who push for renaming things named after slaveholders. Yale University was named after a slaveholder, Elihu Yale. If we believe in renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals, what principled argument is there for not renaming Yale University? The “reductio ad absurdum” is designed to show that activists are extremists and that carrying their principles through to their logical conclusion would result in actions that none of them are presently encouraging people to take. And it’s a silly effort to troll activists, but it raises an actual serious question: What principles do we use to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be renamed? Is renaming a university so costly as to be unthinkable?

Of course, Yale (and my alma mater, its sworn enemy) has brand-name significance to millions of people who have probably never heard of old Elihu. That’s why conservatives think the “cancellation” would be absurd–and why Robinson argues the opposite:

One reason the conservative “Cancel Yale” troll works so well is not because there’s no argument for keeping the name, but because arguing strenuously against the renaming of Yale requires Yale people to admit that they highly value being Yale people and would not want to stop being Yale people. It is demanding that those who have won in the “meritocracy” risk giving up their privileges for the sake of racial justice. (I say “risk” because I think ultimately changing the name on the sign wouldn’t change the institution’s social function much.) I’m sure the alumni of any university would fight hard to keep from having it changed, but going after Yale specifically is a satisfying poke at liberal elites who want justice as long as it comes at no cost to themselves.

One of my husband’s friends, also a Harvard grad, used to joke about how big a donation Harvard would require to change Widener’s name to “Stumpy the Clown Library”.

Now for my favorite part of the show… What does that say? Talk to ...

Meanwhile, in “Blacks in the U.”, a 1996 essay from the archives of the literary journal Ploughshares, acclaimed poet Toi Derricotte did some soul-searching about tokenism, mother-daughter individuation, and the roots of racism:

Sometimes I think that eventually every identity breaks down to some self that has to learn to live between loneliness and connection, stuck in some primal way in a spot one cannot retreat from. I don’t mean that being black can ever be a lost identity in this racist world, or that it should be. I don’t mean anything like those people who say, I don’t see color. But that in some way even our connections to the ones most like us become unsolid, unreal, and, though there is a necessity for trust and commitment, in another way we are nothing more than some kind of spirit-movement walking through the world clothed in a certain story of its life.

Perhaps this revulsion for the other is really a revulsion for my own self, my own fears of being “other,” separate and alone. Perhaps accepting this distance, even from the ones most like me, the ones I love and would like to be closest to, is really the way I will finally see us as we truly are, all of us “other,” frighteningly distant from each other, and yet needing and loving each other.

Finally, peruse the Kafka-esque saga of Nicholas Carter, a black staff writer for the game Cards Against Humanity who was involuntarily committed to a mental ward by his bosses when he objected to using the N-word in the game. He contextualizes his horrific ordeal with the history of weaponizing medical and psychological “expertise” against people of color:

In 2017 I wrote a novel about a black teenager who pretends to be white online and gets drawn into the world of hate-crimes. It explores what’s attractive about American violence and power and in the research of it I was reading a lot of philosophy, sociology, and post-colonial theory. For the first time I read Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and learned how psychiatrists in the Antilles had diagnosed the colonized people there with congenital nervous disorders after violently colonizing and repressing them, and Katz’ Seductions of Crime which illustrates the transcendent morality undergirding our life. I learned how we’re forced to pretend to be happy at work in The Managed Heart by Hochschild, and how everyone in our society takes aggression out on each other in Chancer’s Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. Richard Edwards’ Contested Terrain discussed the ways capitalists use management to control workers, and how those had evolved into a hybrid structure that utilized promotions and rewards to incentivize workers to play along. Only the most docile, loyal supporters of the company are promoted into positions of power. All you have to do is be willing to say yes.

When I heard that the majority of the owner-writers wanted to put the n-word into the game, I felt like my presence might have always been a simple permission structure for them. By occupying that space, I was implicitly endorsing them and allowing them to do what they wanted while pointing to me and saying, “but, look, we have a black guy.”

“Drapetomania” strikes again…

July Links Roundup: The Eccentric Pleasures of the Bed

Hey! It’s a month! Which one? Who cares! Time for some links.

Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit website covers LGBTQ spirituality and art. Last month she profiled 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose writings on same-sex love were published for the first time in 2013. Bentham anticipated several contemporary theological defenses of homosexuality, such as the observation that Jesus said nothing to condemn it. Bentham contrasted Paul’s asceticism to Jesus’ celebration of earthly life. He even speculated that Christ himself had gay sex. As his culture lacked a non-pejorative term, he phrased it thus: “The eccentric pleasures of the bed, whether partaken of by Jesus?” Charming phrasing–as one might expect from a gentleman who had a “sacred teapot” named Dicky.

In one of his public posts at the Shatner Chatner, his subscription newsletter, Daniel Lavery shared an excerpt from his memoir/essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books, 2020) that was particularly meaningful to me when I read the book this winter. Titled “Is Flesh a Problem or an Opportunity in the Eyes of God?“, the piece unpacks the assumptions behind an objection that trans people often hear:

Oddly, the same phrase came up over and over, although I don’t think many of these friends had spoken to one another about it: Something irreversible. As in, I’m afraid these kids are going to do something irreversible. But just what that thing was, and what irreversibility looked like outside of the usual irreversibility of time and momentum, I couldn’t have told you, because they were never quite able to explain it to me. “Something irreversible” is to polite people what “self-mutilation” is to impolite people: a quick way to reorient the conversation around their own discomfort with bodies. In both cases it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have a productive discussion with someone struggling with a reflexive, implicit horror of flesh. Any mention of someone else’s transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body; since this is a prospect they find unbearable, it becomes immediately necessary for them to unload their own desire and disgust onto the nearest suitable target.

Like me, Daniel didn’t see obvious clues to his transition in his childhood. His story didn’t fit into the “I always knew” narrative that mainstream discourse pressures us to tell, to persuade skeptics that our transition is more than misguided trend-following or acting-out of some other psychological problem. But his evangelical upbringing gave him another framework, the conversion or resurrection story, within which an unexpected transformation can be holy. Citing 1 Corinthians 15:

The answer, then, for Paul, is the body-that-is exists always in anticipation of and conversation with the body-that-will-be, that all flesh is not the same flesh but that bodies please God, that death is always followed by growth, that there are many different types of glory, that dishonor may be followed by redemption, that all things spiritual originate in the goodness of the flesh, that our bodies might come to reflect both where we have been and where we are going.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You was published under his previous name, Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Daniel cut ties with his family and took his wife’s last name earlier this year, when he was unable to persuade his father, megachurch pastor John Ortberg Jr., to remove a youth ministry volunteer who’d confessed to sexual attraction to children. When the church continued to cover up the situation, Daniel and his wife Grace Lavery made the difficult decision to name the volunteer publicly as his brother, John Ortberg III, in hopes that the latter would get professional help. Bob Smietana’s July 6 article at Religion News has a good summary of the saga. Grace’s Twitter timeline has a comprehensive thread documenting the church’s stonewalling and misinformation campaign. Kate Harding’s essay “Why Am I So Furious About This?” connects the scandal to our national climate of gaslighting and shoot-the-messenger. I greatly admire the Laverys’ commitment to protecting children; many people don’t have the guts to face their loved ones’ abusive tendencies and set loving boundaries.

In the socialist magazine Current Affairs, Brianna Rennix examines “The Peculiarity of Gender”, a topic that attracts a fair share of trolls across the political spectrum. Those on the Right may lean on concepts of biological essentialism or natural law, while from the Left, one may hear that gender is a socially constructed illusion. It’s not as simple as either one. The superficially liberal position calls into question why anyone “needs” to transition, at all. Are we just mistaking a social problem (restrictive gender roles) for a medical one? Rennix’s critique:

Now, one counterargument I could make is that some trans people experience deep psychological anguish because they are inhabiting a body and an identity that doesn’t feel like their own, and that this anguish, whatever its source, is the impetus for transition, and it’s the reason why continuing to publicly identify as the gender they were assigned at birth is not an option. This is the whole idea behind “gender dysphoria,” the official DSM classification…

…But I don’t think that emphasizing dysphoria is necessarily (always) the best way to respond to the question of why transitioning still matters even if gender is a construct. Characterizing being trans as a medical condition is politically useful in some respects: even though it makes it easier for people like Ben Shapiro to claim that being trans is a form of mental illness, it gives a comfortably “scientific” reason for why someone’s gender expression should be socially tolerated and why they should have access to whatever surgical and hormonal interventions they might need or want. But not all people who identify as trans experience dysphoria, or at least, don’t experience it in the same way. People relate to their bodies and identities in a multitude of ways that the standard narratives around dysphoria may tend to flatten. Making the distressing experience of “dysphoria” the threshold necessity for transition doesn’t always make things easier for all trans people, as they try to gauge whether their desire to alter their pronouns or their appearance or their bodies is “really” gender dysphoria, or whether they are miserable enough to be “really” dysphoric. Additionally, a number of trans people have written about the experience of transitioning as something that has, whether in the long or short term, increased their sense of mental distress or wrong-bodiedness, rather than lessening it. This is psychologically understandable, as pursuing something very important to you in the face of great obstacles is an emotional experience that everyone is bound to process differently, but it doesn’t fit into the narrative that transition is a “cure” for dysphoria and thus gives grist to the mills of badly-intentioned people who want to say that transitioning is inherently a form of self-harm…

…For me, the only reasonable way to think about gender identity is as a desire: a desire which may feel like an unavoidable imperative to some people, and maybe a conscious choice or settled preference for others; but ultimately, what matters is what gender you want to be. The existence of gender as a concept is important to our physical, sexual, and social lives—we do, after all, live in a society—and because of this, we all have to orient our sense of self around it to some extent, whether we like it or not. If you want to transition, it shouldn’t matter whether you have the right kind of backstory or personal history, or the correct diagnosis, or whether you have a perfectly worked-out theory of gender that neatly aligns with and endorses your wishes. On the left, I think, we should have the general principle that people should be able to do whatever they desire, as long as it doesn’t involve immiserating and disempowering others for personal gain.

It’s a long article but worth reading closely if this is a topic that you ruminate about. I always find it refreshing when a writer acknowledges the complex feelings we may have about our genders before, during, and after (is there ever really an “after”?) transition. At present, I have big boobs, chest hair, a five o’clock shadow, and Lea DeLaria’s hairdo, and I find myself fretting, “How many more shots in the butt can I take before I turn into Hale Appleman?”

For turning body horror into body ha-ha, I recommend The Family Sarnath, Jason Reuter’s satire comics that re-caption Bil Keane’s drawings for the saccharine comic strip “The Family Circus” with H.P. Lovecraft quotes and storylines. Their Facebook page explains: “Our mission at Family Sarnath is two-fold: Make Family Circus funny and raise awareness to the growing threat of the Old Ones.” (Hat tip to poet Michael McKeown Bondhus for the link.)

Finally, for another good laugh, enjoy this three-minute YouTube video skewering gender reveal parties: “Gender according to the Cis, based on their cakes”.

Stay tuned for another post with more unrelated links!

Wear protection!

May Links Roundup: Hypersane or Hyperactive

May the Fourth be with you! As month #3 of my captivity begins, I am falling back on my lifelong strategy of outrunning my emotions through frenetic activity. I haven’t yet succumbed to the sourdough bread baking trend on social media (I don’t like sourdough enough to work for it) but I have made very good banana chocolate chip muffins and several indifferent watercolor paintings, while plugging away at the Endless Sequel. Meanwhile, the Young Master spends his days happily digging holes in the backyard. Who’s homeschooling whom?

The Harvard Divinity School alumni magazine offered some trauma-management ideas from different faith traditions in their article “Walking the Pandemic”. For that overwhelmed feeling, Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens recommends the meditation practice “Tilopa’s Six Nails”:

Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine. Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control. Don’t try to make anything happen.
Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.

Jesuit priest Francis X. Clooney, a Hinduism scholar, finds parallels to the stories of Easter and Passover:

In the Christian story, the narrative of death and resurrection can be rephrased as wisdom or advice for people who don’t want to commit to being Christian or don’t want to come to church or any of that. It’s the understanding that we are finite beings and that even when there’s no pandemic we live only a certain number of years and then we’re gone. However painful it may be to strip away the stories and the progress and the ‘busy-ness’ and say, ‘I see myself in April 2020 under these constraints and concerns,’ there is an abiding peace in the rediscovery of the moment in which we’re living. It’s the realization that we are more than this. This is not the end of our story.

To live by this kind of hope is not just saying, fancifully, ‘I hope things get better.’ It’s a deep understanding that, whatever the difficulty of the moment, if we face it and don’t run, we will pass through. To echo the Passover feast, we shall leave the slavery of Egypt and cross the Red Sea.

If traditional religion is not your thing, visit Speaking While the World Sleeps, the blog of a queer ex-Christian sexual abuse survivor. In this March post, “Getting Through When It’s (Not) the End of the World”, blogger Tor shares what they learned about managing apocalypse anxiety, back when they were evangelical.

If you can, if at all possible, try and figure out what future you would want out of this moment. Since it will pass, since you will reach a point where you will feel better than you do right now, sometimes the worst moments are knowing that you believed it was the end when it wasn’t. You operated like there was no more future, and then the future happened. Conceive that your future self exists: where do they want to be after this moment in time?…

…You are moving through time, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I put this one last because maybe it’s obvious for other people, but this one is something I’ve clung to my whole life. When I was being bullied in school, it was often on the walk home from the school bus, and I would tell myself: every step that I take I am moving through time and space and then I will be home and this will be over for the day. Take a breath: another second passed. That second will accumulate into more seconds and those seconds are creating a history that you are living through and then it will be done. It will be done, and you will have survived.

The other day, I recalled the title character’s advice from the Netflix comedy series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, about how she survived 15 years of captivity by a cult leader: “Do you think you can handle this for 10 more seconds? I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you have to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.”

While we’re itching to return to normal, it’s worth reflecting on the ways that “normal” wasn’t optimal. What do we want to take this opportunity to change? This article at Pocket by psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton explores the concept of “hypersanity”, suggested by the writings of psychiatrists R.D. Laing and Carl Jung. Both thinkers believed that deeper truths might be found on the other side of “madness”, i.e. the breakdown of mental processes and beliefs we took for granted. Burton summarizes:

It is not just that the ‘sane’ are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they’ve grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.

Need a radical shift in perspective? Enjoy the Sexual Minorities Archives podcast (with transcripts for those of us who don’t like podcasts) and the Gay Art History reference site for a different angle on familiar cultural icons and events. (Download the section on Achilles for some cross-dressing bisexual adventure.) I also recommend the Advocate’s article “19 LGBTQ Hindu Gods” with the caveat to be wary of cultural appropriation. If you feel drawn to working with one of these figures, but you’re not from the ethnic or religious tradition where they originated, first read a book like Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess to understand your responsibility to that community.

Not Business as Usual: Our Forced Lent in a Non-Liturgical World

The symbolism is too on-the-nose to be good fiction: America in the time of COVID-19 is observing Lent whether we want to or not. We are anchorites (if we’re being responsible, that is), sequestered for contemplation and mourning.

This can be especially hard because we don’t have a cultural template for nonresistance. Everything is supposed to be a battle. Obituaries say that someone “lost their fight against cancer,” as if we’re all obligated to treat the human condition of sickness and death as an adversary. The United States is rhetorically at war against drugs and terrorism, all the while exporting both of those misfortunes to countries that our leaders don’t care about. After a hate crime like the Orlando gay nightclub murders, the queer community shows our undefeated spirit by marching, celebrating, and coming out.

When I was living in NYC during 9/11, I remember it was scarcely a week before the banners went up along Seventh Avenue: “Fight back New York, go shopping!” Every tourist kiosk was hawking American flag pins and Death-to-Osama shirts within days of the attack. With the exception of a few anti-war protesters, as a culture we somehow decided instantly that the best response to a paradigm-shattering event was denial or aggression.

But the virus doesn’t care about our indomitable spirit. We aren’t proving anything, except our ignorance of biology, by tweeting defiant pictures of ourselves in a crowded bar. Stay the fuck home.

I’ve noticed a change in my attitude toward time and routine this week. The first couple of days I was panicking: holy shit I’m alone with my feelings and my 8-year-old. I don’t have regular TV and all my appointments are cancelled, how am I going to remember which day of the week it is? Then his wonderful hardworking teachers who should be paid a million dollars sent home a huge packet of homeschool curriculum ideas, and I realized, it’s too soon to return to the “normalcy” I thought I wanted. (Obligatory privilege check: I’m insanely lucky to have a work-from-home job already, and a yard to run the Young Master around in.) Let’s savor having nowhere to rush to. Let’s allow our brains to work only at half capacity because anxiety attacks are screwing up our executive functioning. Let’s tune in to springtime and the awakening earth. We’ll need that refreshment and spiritual strength when the news is scary, i.e. every fucking day.

Make a shit ton of art.

March Links Roundup: Uptown Rat

Uptown rat…You know I can’t afford to buy her trash…

The quintessential New Yorker, the subway rat, turns out to have distinctive neighborhood populations just like the Big Apple’s human residents. According to The Atlantic, “New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats”. In 2017, a genetics grad student at Fordham sequenced the critters’ DNA, with the goal of controlling the vermin problem by understanding their migration patterns.

Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It’s not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don’t mix much.

When the researchers drilled down even deeper, they found that different neighborhoods have their own distinct rats. “If you gave us a rat, we could tell whether it came from the West Village or the East Village,” says Combs. “They’re actually unique little rat neighborhoods.” And the boundaries of rat neighborhoods can fit surprisingly well with human ones.

(True New York rats understand Times Square is just for tourists.)

Rats get a bad name, but humans right now are casting doubt on the superiority of our species. Last month in #MeToo news, the Christian humanitarian organization L’Arche disclosed that their revered founder, the late Jean Vanier, had sexually exploited a number of women under his spiritual direction. Founded in France in 1964, L’Arche is a network of intentional communities where non-disabled people live in fellowship with those who have intellectual disabilities. Catholic theologian and popular author Henri Nouwen had a spiritual awakening there and was pastor of a L’Arche community in Ontario for the last 10 years of his life. The Catholic magazine America reports:

Mr. Vanier is accused of sexual misconduct with six adult, non-disabled women who sought spiritual direction from the late activist, author and philosopher. According to a press release from L’Arche USA, the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

According to the release, the inquiry “has found the allegations to be credible.”

…The L’Arche founder’s behavior seemed to repeat the pattern of abuse initiated by his mentor, according to the investigation. Father Philippe had been Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” who inspired him to begin his ministry with disabled people. The pair met in 1950, when Mr. Vanier, then in his 20s, joined L’Eau Vive, a community for theology students in France founded by Father Philippe. Two years later, Father Philippe was called to Rome and removed from ministry, ostensibly for unspecified health reasons.

Some scholars suggest that Father Philippe was removed from ministry then because “for his unorthodoxy and exaggerated Marian mysticism, which was based on an experience he had in prayer in 1937.” That theology appears to have been used in Father Philippe’s promotion of sexual practices in his spiritual counseling.

According to L’Arche: “At least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe’s spiritual direction in 1951/1952.”

Mr. Vanier had maintained for years that he did not know why Father Philippe had been removed from ministry in 1952…But the new investigation reveal[ed] that was not true.

Followers of the clergy abuse beat may notice similarities to the late Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, a similarly revered figure in progressive Christian circles, who is believed to have harassed or abused some 100 women in the guise of intimate spiritual counseling, as summarized in this 2015 article in The Mennonite.

For a broader analysis, The Revealer magazine’s March 2020 special issue examines “Religion & Sex Abuse in and Beyond the Catholic Church”. I found the article “The Guru-Disciple Relationship and the Complications of Consent” especially thought-provoking: can there even be “nonconsensual sex” in the context of a relationship where the disciple has voluntarily sworn complete submission to the guru? When does victim advocacy become an imposition of our own values on someone else’s religion? Personally, this is the point where I feel we’re making an idol out of tolerance and pluralism. But radical feminists might say the same thing about kink. The piece left me wondering if there are any formal checks on a guru’s power in this system, like a safeword in BDSM. I don’t think it’s cultural imperialism to advocate for accountability structures within the guru-disciple relationship, just as we (theoretically!) have rules against abuses in the military, despite the expectation of obedience to your commanding officer.

Queer Christian activist Kevin Garcia brings the clarity with his new blog post “We Consented to Our Own Abuse”, about how non-affirming churches gaslight LGBTQ people into believing that suffering and exclusion are “loving”.

I called myself disgusting. I called myself sinful and gross. I thought these things about myself. And it made me cry that I tried so hard but couldn’t change.

But I was told, if I would just hold on, hold on and wait for God’s best for me to show up, then I could stay a part of this beloved community.

In my community, uniformity of thought was so important. Uniformity of feeling was also fairly important. We had to all show this outward sign of God’s work in our lives. JOY! PEACE! KINDNESS! That was the fruit of the spirit. But if your joy didn’t look like their joy, if your peace didn’t look like their peace, then they would apply their own form of “kindness” in order to get you there. They’d wanna “love on you.”

I was made to believe that if I didn’t belong, I would never feel happy because I’d be outside of God’s presence. On top of that, I was also told that I’d go to hell if I chose to live outside what they said was God’s will.

And anytime I got “loved on,” to be honest most of the time it hurt.

Love shouldn’t hurt.

But I didn’t know that. I was taught that I had to make a sacrifice for the kingdom of God. I was told that what I had to offer was not acceptable to God, who I was, the way I loved and the way I connected with others was sinful. What was weird is that I wanted this thing I was told was sinful. “A king gets to make demands that seem unjust to us, but He’s the king. We don’t get to question that sovereignty.”

Read the whole thing and prepare to cry. Kevin is so right: “it is worth everything to be free. It is worth everything to rediscover your infinite connection to Love.”

Sorry to beat a dead rat–er, horse–but stories like this February item from Raw Story cement my conviction that evangelical Christianity has lost all moral credibility: “White evangelicals are set to undermine Native American adoption protections”. In 2016, a Cherokee/Navaho toddler was placed for adoption with a white evangelical couple in Texas, but the federal Indian Child Welfare Act first requires authorities to search for a Native adoptive family from the child’s background (though not necessarily related to him). Only if no such placement can be found, is the child eligible for adoption outside the tribe. The white couple is challenging this law:

By this point, the tribes have relented and allowed the adoption to go through. But the Brackeens are now pushing for the invalidation of the ICWA altogether — a law that was meant in part to rectify the long and brutal history of the U.S. government separating Native families. A district court has agreed the ICWA is unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit partially reversed the decision. The Fifth Circuit is now rehearing the case en banc, and it may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Another Supreme Court case to watch this term is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which could potentially create a huge “religious exemption” to anti-discrimination laws. Vox reports:

Fulton asks whether religious organizations that contract with Philadelphia to help place foster children in homes have a First Amendment right to discriminate against same-sex couples…The plaintiffs in Fulton include Catholic Social Services (CSS), an organization that used to contract with the city to help find foster placements for children but that effectively lost that contract after it refused to comply with the ban on discrimination. CSS claims it has a First Amendment right to continue to do business with the city even if it refuses to comply with the city’s anti-discrimination rules.

…A decision for the plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, could have implications that stretch well beyond foster care. The Fulton case involves an especially sympathetic plaintiff: a Catholic organization that helps vulnerable children find homes. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of that plaintiff, it could potentially establish that a wide range of government contractors, from social service providers to military contractors, may discriminate if the company’s owners claim a religious justification for that discrimination.

As the article explains, the plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn their 1990 precedent Employment Division v. Smith, which held that the “free exercise of religion” provision of the Bill of Rights isn’t a broad license to opt out of any laws that incidentally burden but don’t target religious practices. The difference seems to be political rather than legal–Smith was a Native American fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ritual.

In secular rat news, the website Follow the Money reports that “between 1989 and 1998, Dutch multinationals paid over one million guilders (close to half a million euros) to prominent climate sceptic Frits Böttcher (1915-2008), with the explicit goal of sowing doubts about climate change and humanity’s role in it. Böttcher used the money to set up an international network of climate sceptics…The doubt created led, among other things, to a lack of political support for regulatory measures with regard to CO2 reduction during the 1990s.”

Image result for gay rat images

Take over the planet, boys. The humans are done.

 

Poetry by Garret Keizer: “Yosodhara”

This week we wrapped up a 6-month online course on masculine archetypes at the Temple of Witchcraft. Jumping off from our source text, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King Warrior Magician Lover (a somewhat dated but still intriguing “men’s movement” book from the 1990s), instructor JT Mouradian prompted us to match these archetypes to the deities, spiritual guides, or role models in our worship traditions. Compared to the Greek and European pagan gods, or the compassionate but remote and all-powerful Adonai of the Hebrew Bible, can we say that Jesus is unique in foregrounding the Lover energy–a path centered on healing, personal intimacy, engagement with the world of the senses, and prioritizing human relationships over abstract principles? Perhaps, said our teacher, this missing ingredient explains Christianity’s extraordinary rise to popularity in the ancient world.

A poet, political essayist, and retired Episcopal priest, Garret Keizer explores this question in his sonnet “Yosodhara”, published last fall at Rat’s Ass Review. (Scroll down the page to read all the poets in this issue in alphabetical order by last name.) He’s kindly permitted me to reprint it below. I’m married to a Buddhist, and have learned to appreciate many things about that tradition, particularly the ideal of non-attachment to views and concepts, which literalist Christians would do well to emulate. Yet I’m ultimately in the camp of poet Richard Wilbur when he says “Love calls us to the things of this world”.

YOSODHARA

The Buddha’s path attracts me, always will,
the rational compassion of his Noble Truths,
the higher heroism of the kind and still—
by the Bo Tree let us build three booths.
But God so loved the world and so have I
and found it worth the pain, and found it good,
and therefore find that I identify
most with the lover nailed to the world’s hard wood.
It’s not that I see merit in love’s hurt,
or none in non-attachment’s claimless claim;
it’s rather that, as roots take hold of dirt,
whenever love grips me, I do the same.
Won’t Yosodhara, Buddha’s wife, agree,
though weeping, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”