Music and Poetry by Peter Campbell-Kelly: “Passacaglia”

Violinist Peter Campbell-Kelly of Worcestershire (UK) contacted us at Winning Writers to share this exquisite contemplative video of himself playing Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber‘s Mystery Sonata #16 “Passacaglia” in a 12th-century church in Warwickshire. He writes, “It is a sort of musical prayer, intended somehow for the well-being of all of us in this desperately difficult pandemic.” Peter wrote a poem to accompany the performance, which he has kindly permitted me to reprint here. He also submitted the photos below. Follow the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra channel on YouTube for more music to soothe your spirit.

Passacaglia 

Our songs of sadness touch
The dry-deep scars of earth

And on this peaty path
A lichened branch
Cuts clean through the heart

And people lie dying
And people die weeping

And the waters ripple slow
And the sun lasts down and down

And the curlew throws free
Her liturgy of fiery love

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.

August Links Roundup: Love and Dark

Happy Lammas! This month’s harvest of links is loosely bound together by the theme of category reversal and overturned binaries (no surprise).

Over at Stay Woke Tarot, a blog that brings author Rashunda’s African-American heritage and political concerns to bear on topics in alternative spirituality, the post “Are you afraid of the dark?” challenges the color-prejudice in our conventional metaphors for good and bad. In this corner: enlightenment, “love and light”, angels in white robes. In the other: black magic, shadow side, a dark (hopeless) outlook. Rashunda’s poetic reversal of our typical language reminds me of my favorite lines from “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (LOL problematic fave): “Turn your face away from the garish light of day, turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, and listen to the music of the night.”

Light for me doesn’t mean goodness. Or my true self. When I think of “light,” sometimes I think of the bright light of interrogation.

Someone flicking that bright overhead ceiling light on when you’re dozing off into a gentle sleep.

The searing hot sun in the desert, drying out and cracking the soil. Burning. Glaring. Parched land.

Dehydration.

The sun-bleached bones of a dead animal.

Interruption. You’re doing something “wrong” so let’s shine a light on it. Get it out into the open.

Judgement. A Renaissance-blonde angel clothed in sparkling white, ready to blow his trumpet and send us to Hell.

But “darkness” – for me – represents deep, rich fertile soil.

A womb.

Looking at a beautiful night sky.

A large, inviting void just waiting to accept creativity. Ideas.

My mom.

Having a pure black heart.

In the literary journal TriQuarterly, the personal essay “Both and Yet Neither” by novelist and essayist B. Pietras troubles a different boundary, recounting the struggles of his adolescence as a feminine boy, and his love-hate relationship with the myth of Hermaphroditus. Pietras shares how, even after he embraced his differences through cross-dressing and discovering androgyne role models in classic literature, his desires attached to conventionally macho, straight or straight-acting men. His uniqueness and his shame centered on his voice–a fraught problem for a writer, in particular, since “voice” is another word for the maturing writer’s distinctive style or viewpoint.

During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.

Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.

As part of my journey into maleness, I’ve been trying to pitch my voice lower on the phone when I call strangers: my legislators, customer service, political phonebanking, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s fooling anyone, but it makes me feel more confident. I think twice about every habit of speech–does it sound feminine, and is that synonymous with pleasing, deferential, childlike? Can I dial that back, without sounding unnecessarily brusque or robotic?

Captain Awkward, the world’s greatest advice blog, gives the definitive list of reasons for not sharing that “Trump is crazy” meme, in “Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Over the Internet”. Besides the often-cited problem of perpetuating mental health stigma, this point really stood out for me:

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

While we’re on the subject of survivor-centered redemption and healing, check out the blog Fundamentally Free, which amplifies stories of folks who have left spiritually abusive and repressive Christian traditions. In the post “Violence and the Redemption of the Soul”, Jerry Proctor describes how he found an unlikely post-Christian spiritual path in martial arts, channeling his anger into tests of endurance.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training…

As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become.

Real Social Skills is a very smart blog about boundaries, power dynamics, resisting ableism, and thriving as a neurodivergent person. Their post “Don’t order people to feel safe” pinpoints a subtle kind of manipulation and doublespeak in social justice workshops, a problem that I’d sensed but never been able to articulate.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do…

…We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time.

Riffing on J. Halberstam’s book title The Queer Art of Failure, columnist Laurie Penny at The Baffler teases out the implications of my favorite comfort TV in her post “The Queer Art of Failing Better”. Last year, Netflix rebooted the early-2000’s makeover show “Queer Eye”. The Fab Five’s interventions are not just for straight guys anymore; one of my favorite episodes was devoted to a black church mama and her shy gay son. But there are plenty of interventions for their original constituency: stalled-out straight dudes who need to be taught how to groom themselves instead of waiting for their wives and mothers to do it. It’s this burden-shifting of female emotional labor that Penny sees as the show’s real subject:

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid…

…What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s…

…The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

Actual queers in today’s America, on the other hand, often have more serious problems than learning to use a laundry hamper. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, along with right-wing efforts to roll back civil rights at the state and federal levels, we have to deal with left-wing “contrarian” thinkpieces disputing our identities. Trans writers and well-informed allies (including the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ activist organization) roundly condemned Jesse Singal’s Atlantic Monthly cover story on desistance and the supposed pressure on trans kids to make irrevocable medical decisions. Now, journalist Noah Berlatsky has compiled a list of links debunking the biases and inaccuracies in this prominent feature story. See, for instance, Alex Barasch’s response piece at Slate, asking why we continue to privilege cis parents’ anxiety over life-saving care for the majority of trans youth who don’t freely choose to revert to their birth-assigned gender:

[O]nly a specific subset of detransitioners—namely cisgender women and girls who misinterpreted mental health issues or more general gender nonconformity as signs that they might be trans, only to realize later that this was not the case—are of interest to Singal and the media writ large. Those who are intimidated back into the closet, those who are battling intense stigma both internally and institutionally, those who begin the process only to find that their insurance won’t cover their transition—none of these people are given a voice. I know more than one trans man who might have been counted among Singal’s tomboys who were saved from themselves if profiled in their mid-teens—never mind that they were repressed, miserable, and would in fact go on to transition. But such is the double standard of the piece. A fourteen-year-old who outgrows her dysphoria is celebrated, her self-knowledge taken as definitive; a fourteen-year-old who seeks to transition is still in flux and must be given time to change their mind.

Finally, to end on an upbeat (?) note, for fans of this blog’s Murder Ballad Mondays. At CrimeReads, an affiliate of Literary Hub, detective novelist Mark Billingham explores “Why the Best Country Music Is Crime Fiction”: “At its best, country music…seems to me to do what the very best mystery fiction can, and arguably should do. It can tell dark, dark stories, and wrap them up in an entertaining package, turning an often twisted narrative into an earworm. It can reveal unpleasant truths while it keeps your foot tapping.”

 

Murder Ballad Monday: Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.

Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.

This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.

What Country Is This?

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, I woke up to the news that a racist, sexist demagogue would be the next president of the United States. My world quaked and settled off-kilter. It reminded me of the day after 9/11, when realities I’d taken for granted literally crumbled, and I no longer felt I could predict what it meant to live in America. This time, though, the threat comes from within. I am frightened to realize that a large percentage of my fellow citizens are either prejudiced against minorities and women, or indifferent to our survival.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, this Episco-pagan has never felt more Jewish. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in a non-religious but culturally Jewish family, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about the Holocaust and the pogroms. We watched “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as history, not just entertainment. My mother got me a passport when I was born “in case we have to emigrate to Israel” and always reminded me that our host country could become hostile overnight. Now, going to Israel is not a win, either in terms of safety or social justice (I don’t have the right to displace the Palestinians!), but the mindset endures. I’ve read too many books about assimilated, well-off European Jews who refused to believe that their neighbors would turn on them. This racial memory needles me when I read Christian thinkpieces (usually by straight white men) about how we need to rise above our political differences and come to the communion table with our enemies.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, when I opened the door to my 4-year-old son’s room, he greeted me with his thousand-watt smile. “I’m a butterfly!” he exclaimed, jumping on the bed and waving his arms to demonstrate the yoga pose he learned at his Montessori school. I want to live in an America where my son will always be safe to be a butterfly. His best friends are the children of single moms, lesbian couples, and a Muslim-American family. His birthfather is a Central American immigrant. He’s never had to worry about the people he loves, or even notice that they’re different from the “norm” that many voters yesterday were determined to enforce. I struggled with whether to leave him in this state of innocence, or to inoculate him with a little of the rational paranoia that is my birthright. Jewish again, I went with the latter.

“Mommy and Daddy and Grandma are sad today because we don’t like who is going to be in charge of our country.”

“Why?” asked the Young Master, echoing the morning-after cry of Democrats everywhere.

“Some people are very angry because they don’t have enough money for food or going to the doctor. And it’s okay to feel that way. But sometimes when people are angry, they blame the wrong person, just like when you’re upset and you throw a toy even though the toy didn’t do anything wrong. But don’t worry, we will always keep you safe.”

The Young Master, absorbing perhaps 10% of this, drummed his feet against the bathtub and growled to show me what “angry” looks like. We had breakfast and walked to school. I looked at the graveyard across the street, where I had planned to be buried after living the rest of my life in this house, and tried to practice non-attachment.

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

I’m still here.

A Song for All Saints’ Day

stgertrude

I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

Cat-Lamp
And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.

Cat-Summer-1973

They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

Cat-July-1975
You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.

Cat-April-1982

(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.

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Holiday Videos: “Joel the Lump of Coal” and More

It’s beginning to look a lot like…whatever winter holiday you celebrate! Here are some videos to get you in the mood.

This Hanukah song and dance medley is joyful and stylishly performed. I was almost certain I recognized the location as midtown Manhattan, but the YouTube credits say Daley Plaza in Chicago. No wonder I always felt at home in the Windy City.

Contemporary glam-rock band The Killers, better known for singing about obsessive love and murder, made this goofy yet ultimately profound video, “Joel the Lump of Coal“. This might be my favorite Christmas song of the year. I dislike the child-shaming moralism of the Santa myth, which has taken over a holiday that’s supposed to be about God’s forgiving and transforming love. The ending of this song made me think of Jesus’s words, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Celtic folk band Nowell Sing We Clear performs their signature song “Chariots” in this video, a rousing welcome for the Prince of Peace. Lyrics by John Kirkpatrick below.

O Shepherd O shepherd come leave off your piping
Come listen come learn come hear what I say
For now is the time that has long been forespoken
For now is the time there’ll be new tunes to play
For soon there comes one who brings a new music
Of sweetness and clarity none can compare
So open your heart for the heavenly harmony
Here on this hill will be filling the air

REFRAIN:
With chariots of cherubim chanting
And seraphim singing hosanna
And a choir of archangels a-caroling come
Hallelujah Hallelu
All the angels a-trumpeting glory
In praise of the Prince of Peace

See on yon stable the starlight is shimmering
And glimmering and glistening and glowing with glee
In Bethlehem blest this baby of bliss will be
Born here before you as bold as can be
And you’ll be the first to hear the new symphony
Songs full of gladness and glory and light
So learn your tunes well and play your pipes proudly
For the Prince of Paradise plays here tonight

Bring your sheep bleating to this happy meeting
To hear how the lamb with the lion shall lie
It’s mooing and braying you’ll hear the song saying
The humble and lowly will be the most high
Let the horn of the herdsman be heard up in heaven
For the gates are flung open for all who come near
And the simplest of souls shall sing to infinity
Lift up and listen and you shall hear

The warmonger’s charger will thunder for freedom
The gun-maker’s furnace will dwindle and die
And muskets and sabers and swords shall be sundered
Surrendered to the sound that is sweeping the sky
And the shoes of the mighty shall dance to new measures
And the jackboots of generals shall jangle no more
As sister and brother and father and mother
Agree with each other the end to all war

As a candle can conquer the demons of darkness
As a flame can keep frost from the deepest of cold
So a song can give hope in the depths of all danger
And a line of pure melody soar in your soul
So sing your songs well and sing your songs sweetly
And swear that your singing it never shall cease
So the clatter of battle and drums of disaster
Be drowned in the sound of the pipes of peace

Murder Ballad Monday: Beatlemania Edition

We all remember those moments when a work of art opened our eyes and ears. Those “I didn’t know you could do that!” moments fill us with an uncontainable, restless excitement to respond in some way with a creative outpouring of our own, only we don’t yet have the words to express what we’ve encountered.

I felt that way when I first heard The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on my mother’s record player in the late 1970s. It was wicked, enigmatic, mesmerizing — a taste of adulthood’s forbidden knowledge. Since I still don’t understand the lyrics, it holds much of the same magic for me today.

My mother was a snob about popular music, for the most part. The Beatles were the only rock ‘n’ roll group she would tolerate among her LPs of Tchaikovsky and Broadway musicals. This made me a social outcast in middle school until I acquired my own portable radio in 1983, on which I listened secretly to Prince singing “Raspberry Beret”. Perhaps that’s why it took me until last year to figure out that “Octopus’s Garden” was a metaphor for the female anatomy.

This week, fans commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ American TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show. That makes me feel old, but this song makes me feel like a rebellious teenager all over again.



Murder Ballad Monday: Baby Jesus Edition


I recently finished Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a superb historical mystery by Wesley Stace about British composers and music critics in the World War I era. The main characters are aficionados of folk ballads, traveling the countryside in the manner of the Brothers Grimm to record the “pure” versions of these oral traditions before the advance of modern technological culture sweeps them away. I’ve enjoyed combing YouTube and Spotify for recordings of some of the songs referenced in the novel.

One quirky and somewhat seasonal example is “The Bitter Withy”, which imagines young Jesus as rather a discipline problem for his longsuffering mother. You can read a plot summary, historical notes, and several versions of the lyrics at the Mainly Norfolk folk music site, a source that I expect to be mining for future posts. I like this performance by Lisa Knapp.



Wednesday Random Song: Macklemore, “Same Love”

Rapper Macklemore is best known for his comical music video “Thrift Shop”, which went viral this year. But it turns out his awesomeness goes way beyond an ode to my favorite pastime. His song “Same Love” provides the soundtrack for this heartwarming 7-minute movie in support of gay marriage.

And he wears your granddad’s clothes.

(Hat tip to blogger Dannika Nash. Read her post about why young Christians are leaving the church to stand on the side of love.)