September Links Roundup: Drawn That Way

Nothing I will read on the Internet today could top this hilarious illustrated essay by Bradley Bazzle in the new issue of the online lit mag DIAGRAM. In response to his 2-year-old’s fascination with the human body and “Sesame Street”, a bored dad finds himself drawing “Naked Bert & Ernie” in some peculiar situations:

When I draw a Bert or Ernie, I start with the face. The moment I finish the face, my daughter shouts “body!” Then, the moment I start the body, my daughter shouts “naked!” But sometimes, in my haste to finish the face before she starts shouting “body” and “naked,” I’ll accidentally draw the collar of Ernie’s crewneck sweater or of Bert’s turtleneck, which he wears beneath his v-neck sweater…

…I was drawing Bert for my daughter when I made the mistake of starting his turtleneck. As usual, I recovered quickly. I even jumped down and started drawing his arms, to distract her, but my daughter kept pointing at the line around Bert’s neck. I told her the misplaced line on Bert’s neck was “like a collar.”

“Leash,” my daughter said, nodding earnestly.

“That’s right,” I said, “a leash. Like a dog has.”

My daughter started pointing at the empty space next to Bert’s neck, so I had no choice but to draw a long leash extending from the collar and then, naturally, to end it with a hand.

“Ernie!” my daughter cried, and I colored the hand orange. “Ernie! Ernie!” she persisted, and so I drew the rest of Ernie’s body. In my head a little voice (my wife’s?) told me I should draw him clothed, or, better yet, in his traditional jeans and horizontally striped sweater, and so I did this, over my daughter’s strident objections, but then what I had in front of me was a drawing of Ernie, clothed, walking Bert, half-naked, like a dog.

The essay goes on to ponder the ambiguous age of the humanoid Sesame Street puppets, the backlash against their possible queerness, and the downplaying of romantic love on the show in general. Bazzle is disappointed in this last omission, but I find it refreshing in a media landscape where nearly every kids’ cartoon movie includes a heterosexual love interest.

On the subject of comics strictly for adults, graphic novelist LB Lee has launched a Kickstarter to publish an updated edition of their memoir All in the Family, about coming to accept themselves as a multiple-personality system and grappling with recovered memories of incest. I had the pleasure of meeting Lee at the Queers & Comics conference this May, and enjoyed their graphic novel Alter Boys in Love, a sweet and unique story about relationships among their “headmates”. For a good introduction to their work, check out this profile by Abraham Riesman at Vulture, “The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is Eight Different People”:

In an era when memoirs about gender, sexuality, mental health, and trauma are surging in importance, LB Lee deserves to become a much-better-known name, not in spite of their work’s challenges, but rather because of them — and because of their comics’ untrained and exhilarating beauty. Indeed, by elegantly and brutally exploring the fringes of fluid identity, LB Lee makes one rethink what it means to be human.

Riesman’s article is notable for its respectful, even-handed investigation of the controversial subjects of recovered memories and dissociative identity disorder (DID). He writes:

I spoke to multiple medical professionals with expertise in DID and asked all of them if it would be a problem for me to treat LB’s alters as individual people. I was worried that acknowledging the headmates was somehow encouraging the disorder when I should be trying to convince them that they’re actually a single person. I was told in no uncertain terms that the latter, actually, is the more dangerous approach. In fact, the medical consensus is that it’s almost impossible for people with DID to unify back into a single personality, so there’s no sense in trying.

“I commonly talk to my patients as ‘you all’ and they refer to themselves as ‘we,’” says Dr. Richard Loewenstein, the medical director of the Trauma Disorders Program at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and a professor at the University of Maryland. “Just say you’re mostly interested in understanding and want to be very respectful and make sure you’re not treading into territory that may cause undue distress.” In other words, although being transgender or gender-nonconforming is very different from having DID, the same principle, so radically important and newly acknowledged in mainstream thought, applies: If someone with an uncommon identity wants to be called something, it’s your duty to comply, however awkward it may seem at first.

At BuzzFeed, Kristin Arnett, author of the bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things, shares childhood memories of “Queering Barbie”. The doll’s plastic-perfect middle-class life was aspirational but also shaming for a girl whose own world was messy and full of struggle:

A good way to make yourself feel like you’ve got any kind of control over your life is to play with dolls, because you can make them do whatever you want. Another good thing about owning Barbies if you’re a little queer girl is that you can look at their naked bodies and not feel like anyone will say anything weird to you for it, because if there’s anything we know about Barbies, it’s that they were manufactured for the purpose of taking their clothes off and putting new clothes on…

…The Barbies I own are hard-won. I have to beg for them. Looking back, that feels right — how to get all the women I want who want nothing to do with me. I should get on my knees and grovel. It should cause me physical pain to acquire them. I need to beg —to do service to deserve them…

Did you know: Barbie is a pediatrician, a veterinarian, a stay-at-home mom. She works at McDonald’s. She owns a dream house. She owns a fucking DREAM HOUSE. I will never own a dream house. The house I live in has five rooms and one of them is a bedroom I share with my sister and one of them is a bathroom I share with my entire family. The only way I can read in my house is to wait until no one’s in the bathroom and then go lock myself in and pretend I’m taking a bath so I can have one second of time alone so I can read, because no one in my family reads and no one wants to let me read — they think it’s a fun time to try to yell my name over and over again while I am trying to focus on any of the words.

Is this why I can’t listen when anyone calls me now? Is this why I can’t believe when anyone actually wants me?

My fellow St. Ann’s School alum Wendy Chin-Tanner, a widely published poet, shares her own experience of racism and classism at our elite Brooklyn high school in Gay Mag, a new online publication curated by Roxane Gay. In “An Unsentimental Education”, Chin-Tanner describes how the arts-oriented school’s ideology of individual meritocracy made her blame herself for micro-aggressions and cover up her working-class Chinese heritage. (TW for sexual assault.) “The ethos of Saint Ann’s eschewed the bourgeois and reified the artistic class, obscuring how that class is nonetheless bound to economic and social capital,” she writes. Chin-Tanner is the poetry editor of The Nervous Breakdown and Executive Director and Co-Publisher at A Wave Blue World.

Another St. Ann’s graduate, Rachel Cline, writes in Medium about “The Unexceptional Jeffrey Epstein”:

We have normalized the idea that women can be treated as less-than-fully human in so many ways that it is like weather, or air — a fact, an act of nature or God. The Epstein case demonstrates this. He was as much a friend of Bill Clinton’s as of Donald Trump’s, his friends were A-listers ranks deep, his sweetheart deal in Florida was kept secret from the victims, and Pulitzer Prize nominators were swayed by Alan Dershowitz’s super slimy plea to eliminate Julie K. Brown’s Epstein reporting from prize consideration — all these things required the collusion of regular people, non-sex offenders, non-plutocrats, and women, too. The girls themselves were able to believe that what this jerk asked of them was somehow appropriate, and that it was acceptable to recruit others to the same fate. I am not saying we should go after them, nor do I want to minimize in any way the extent of Epstein’s harm — what I am trying to say is wake up: This is so much more than one man’s wealth or one man’s kink.

Cline’s new novel The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019), about two women finding themselves on opposite sides of a sexual misconduct case against their former high school teacher, is on my to-read list.

Lastly, one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ariana Reines, was interviewed at length about her new collection A Sand Book (Tin House, 2019) by Rebecca Tamás in The White Review. Among other topics, they discuss poetry-writing as an occult force that can shift our consciousness away from planet-destroying political paradigms. Asked whether her work has ever faced dismissive criticism because of her references to astrology and esoteric spiritualities, Reines replied: “The reason I’m involved in poetry is because I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, not because I want to trick some boring asshole into considering me an intellectual.”

July Links Roundup: I Don’t Need to Calm Down

Summertime, and the living is easy…as long as I have two air conditioners in every room. The Young Master is off at YMCA camp, learning to shoot a bow and arrow, so that he can provide food for us during the impending collapse of civilization. At Winning Writers, our North Street Book Prize for self-published books received a record 1,700 entries, which means I’ll be asking Santa for a new pair of eyeballs this Christmas. Progress continues on the Endless Sequel, while An Incomplete List of My Wishes was just named a finalist for LGBTQ Fiction in the Book Excellence Awards. As Gay Pride Month gives way to Gay Wrath Month, here are some hopefully-relevant links for you to ruminate upon.

Before we confiscated his Alexa’s, the Young Master went through a period of asking to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” several times a day. (That was not the reason we took him off the grid.) Anyhow, last month our problematic fave released her peppy LGBTQ-ally video “You Need to Calm Down”, which is great fun for a round of “spot that queer celebrity” but repeats some classist tropes about who the real enemies of progress are. Rachel Charlene Lewis at Bitch Media moderated this roundtable article about genre stereotypes:

[R]ural and Southern people are often positioned as if they are never queer, trans, or people of color, but simply…the “enemy” of progress for marginalized people. I spoke with Gysegem, a queer content creator, and Ani Naser, a queer, nonbinary filmmaker of color based in the South, about Swift’s video and why musicians continue to perpetuate classism in their music videos…

Claire Gysegem: I’ve [long] been indifferent to Taylor Swift, but I had my hopes up [when] I went to watch the video. I love Billy Porter and Jonathan Van Ness and [I] was excited to see them, but I raised my eyebrow at the fact that they were all in airstreams. I thought it was a campground/vacation kind of thing, [but] I felt sick to my stomach the second I saw protestors in the video [who] were marching [in] the trailer.

Ani Naser: I agree that the music video can [be] read as [a] demonizing [of] lower-class Southerners. [After] growing up in Texan suburbs, I can say that the vast majority of homophobic and discriminatory people I’ve encountered are affluent white men followed by affluent white women. It’s not difficult to see how a multimillionaire celebrity like Swift could [end up] assembling a cast of the more commercially successful LGBTQ artists in the media landscape and, [in the process] vilify visibly poor southerners rather than Fortune 1000 CEOs.

CG: I don’t think she [intended to] portray homophobes as poor people. Honestly, I think she was [just] lazy and didn’t think it through. It was easy for her to punch down and “otherize,” but it’s a bit more difficult to “otherize” middle-school bullies, hateful church-goers, and politicians. After all, how are you going to make fun of things like their teeth and lack of proper education?…

CG: I wonder how different the video would’ve been if these queer icons, in all of their elegance and power, had been shown celebrating their love and identity in places like a voting booth, a place of worship, or the Capitol steps. I received a ton of backlash on Twitter from those who said that it’s the people represented in Swift’s video who keep people like Mike Pence and Donald Trump in power, when, in reality, the U.S. Census shows that only one in four people making less than $10,000 vote. People with low incomes have an incredibly difficult time voting, especially in Appalachia. If you live in a state with a voter ID law, if you don’t have access to reliable transportation, if you can’t take off work, if you have a poor education—these are all reasons why we see a lack of voter turnout in lower-income brackets. Many people in Appalachia have a strong distrust of government due to past exploitation of workers and natural resources.

In the four years I’ve been co-judging the North Street Book Prize, I’ve encountered the above stereotype in way too many fiction entries. Writers, think twice before coding your villains as “unattractive” by white middle-class able-bodied standards. Kids’ media abounds with such lazy storytelling based on visual prejudices, another reason we’ve limited the Young Master’s screen time to car trips and sick days.

Back in May, the good news broke that Taiwan had legalized same-sex marriage. Sarah Ngu at South China Morning Post shared some little-known historical background on Asia’s pre-colonial history of tolerance, which was stamped out by European Christians. Among her examples: 17th-century commitment ceremonies between male lovers in Southern China, which were prevalent enough to have their own designated deity; the lesbian equivalent, the Golden Orchid Society in Guangdong, which lasted until the early 1900s; the five-gender system of the Bugis people of Indonesia; and the indigenous Iban people of Borneo, with male-bodied shamans who wore female clothing and took men as their husbands. In many cases, we know about these practices through the scandalized reports of Spanish missionaries.

[A]nthropologists believe the respect accorded to these ritual specialists were an indicator of a wider societal acceptance of gender and sexual diversity in Southeast Asia – an acceptance that began to be eroded through the introduction of world religions (particularly Christianity), modernity, and colonialism. For example, in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Myanmar and throughout the commonwealth, the British enforced a penal code that legislated against sodomy. More than half of the countries that currently legally prohibit sodomy do so based on laws created by the British.

Similarly, after the Chinese were defeated by Western and Japanese imperialists, many Chinese progressives in the early 20th century sought to modernise China, which meant adopting “modern” Western ideas of dress, relationships, science and sexuality. Concubinage was outlawed, prostitution was frowned upon, and women’s feet were unbound. It also meant importing European scientific understandings of homosexuality as an inverted or perverted pathology. These “scientific ideas” were debunked in the 1960s in the West, but lived on in China, frozen in time, and have only recently begun to thaw with the rise of LGBTQ activists in Asia.

Kevin Killian, an influential gay poet, playwright, fiction writer and editor, passed away in June. “My Mixed Marriage”, a 2000 Village Voice feature by his wife, the writer Dodie Bellamy, lovingly describes a literary and erotic partnership that defied easy characterization. “I never thought I’d marry a homosexual, not even when I was a girl in Indiana with a crush on Allen Ginsberg,” she quips. But she discovered that the fluidity of their orientations liberated her from the power dynamics of straight relationships.

Female sexuality has been my primary subject. But in my formative years, it was hard to find models that moved beyond objectification. Gay writing, on the other hand, gave me a sexual vocabulary, as well as techniques for turning the tables and objectifying men…Reading Kevin and other gay authors, I saw how erotic writing could be more than just a description of sexual acts. It could create a new sexual relationship: the writer as top, the reader as bottom.

…Sometimes our lovemaking felt like lesbian sex, sometimes like gay sex, but it never felt like straight sex. For one thing, with Kevin, fucking was an option, not an expectation. For another, the power dynamics were always shifting and circling back on themselves. With straight guys I felt like I was alone in the dark, being acted upon. With Kevin, it felt like we were two people in mutual need and at equal risk.

In this 2018 essay at The Baffler, Amber A’lee Frost, a labor organizer and co-host of the controversial leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, argues that socialism is the answer to America’s fatherhood crisis. Frost disputes the liberal feminist line that the real problem with parenting is male selfishness and immaturity:

Anti-masculinity is a neat little trick of the liberal reactionary; you can get away with open contempt for working-class men and their struggle for something as essential as the time and resources to care for their own children, as long as you smear them as deadbeat dads and shitty husbands. The idea that it’s men, not money, who are most responsible for preventing parents from devoting more time and labor to their homes and children is so astoundingly condescending and divorced from reality that it’s hard to believe anyone would have the confidence to say it out loud. But I suppose if your biggest problems in life have always been romantic or familial and not financial, it can be easy to mistake your resentful fantasies for a political program.

The author’s personal story–raised by her mother and grandmother in a patriarchal rural church, with a bipolar father who drifted in and out of their lives–taught her that:

There are many reasons why the model of paternal child support is a faulty one, especially when applied to poor or sick fathers. There is the punitive and inhumane cycle of inability to pay, imprisonment, loss of employment, and all over again. And of course, as with anything regarding the prison industrial complex, black men are disproportionately represented in this cycle.

And then there is the secret that poor parents only speak of in abashed whispers: that it’s difficult to love a child whom you cannot adequately care for as you reckon continually with the humiliation and fear of your own inability to provide for them. This private shame causes such pain and anxiety and sometimes eventually delirium that when these put-upon parents reach their limit, it appears downright rational to flee. So sometimes they do.

My father was a frustrating, sometimes dangerous person, but I have no anger for him. I’m told he’d often be assailed with the regrets that any self-aware absentee father is bound to experience, and I feel nothing but pity for a sad old man who missed so much.

You still hear from liberals that you shouldn’t have a baby until you have the money to have one in economic security. In reality, though, that day will never arrive for the majority of people born without money, even when they’ve dutifully launched two-parent homes.

Frost quite reasonably concludes that, rather than chase down “hopeless” men for a pittance of child support, society’s resources would be better spent on giving all parents a financial safety net. “I don’t believe that men are so thoroughly heartless they need a financial obligation to remind them to love their children. I think they need the same things women need to be good parents—time and money.”

May Links Roundup: Happiness Comes in a Pill

Spring flowers have bloomed in the Happy Valley, and we just celebrated Pride here in the lesbian capital of America. I do love our bohemian small-town paradise, mostly, but one aspect of granola-mom culture that I could do without is the suspicion toward Western medicine, particularly mental-health drugs like antidepressants and ADHD treatments. I was raised to feel this way too, but since recognizing myself as transgender, I’ve noticed a loosening of my attachment to the given body as more natural or safe than the altered one. I struggle to respond politely to cis people’s oft-repeated caution that “we don’t know the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy.” Well, we do know that denial of transition-related care has severe negative effects on people’s mental health, right now. (I’m not on HRT myself but I know a fair number of folks who have benefited from it.) Simply put, I’m no longer assuming that inaction is safer than experimentation.

At Dame Magazine, Erin Biba takes a sympathetic look at the misguided anti-vaccination movement in her April feature, “Why are so many women rejecting medical science?” (Hat tip to the feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

There are, obviously, many reasons for the growth of miracle cures and predatory medical treatments and their popularity among women. But one of the main causes is a failure of evidence-based medicine to properly study, understand, and treat women—or even to show them basic empathy. The lack of proper health care and even a basic understanding of women’s bodies has left women desperate for any possible treatment. Because why trust medical science when it ignores you and fails to treat your health seriously?

Among her examples are studies showing that doctors spend fewer minutes listening to female patients; women’s pain is minimized (especially black women), leading to under-prescription of painkillers as compared to men; and clinical tests that until recently only included males.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress finally passed a law requiring all NIH-funded trials to include women. It may seem shocking that drug trials with government funding only started including women in the 90s, but what’s even worse is that it wasn’t until 2016 that NIH-funded research was required to use male AND female mice in their studies and to use male AND female tissue cells in their research.

What that means is, until recently, the way that drugs work in female bodies has been largely unknown—and that drugs to treat female-specific disorders have not been developed.

While we’re on the subject of better living through chemistry: Mike Morrell is a progressive Christian writer and speaker whose blog fearlessly explores the fringes of mystical experience and ecumenical collaboration. In this post, he reprints an excerpt from Jack Call’s book Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living. Call speculates on what the “unforgivable sin” might be, reaching a conclusion that reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story on this topic, “Ethan Brand”:

We are all sinners and we are all forgiven for our sins. By the way, let me just say that I hate the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I hate it because it implies that Christians are superior to non-Christians in that they are forgiven and non-Christians aren’t, and this is not a bit less self-righteous than simply saying, “Christians are perfect. Non-Christians aren’t.” Non-Christians are forgiven too.

Jesus said that there is only one sin that is unforgivable: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And what is that? Well, it certainly isn’t just not being a Christian. If it were, we would all be damned; because, even if a person is baptized in infancy and a Christian from that point on, she or he wouldn’t have been a Christian before that; so, if not being a Christian was an unforgivable sin, all of us have committed it, and it would be the one sin that baptism can’t wash away.

Given, then, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not equal failure to be a Christian, what is it? The context in which Jesus proclaimed this to be the one and only unforgivable sin was one in which some scribes and Pharisees had accused him of driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt: 12:24-32, Mark 3:22-30)…

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is being so morally blind and confused as to be unable to see plain and evident goodness as goodness and instead to think that there must be something evil about it. It is unforgivable only because the intended recipient of the forgiveness would be unable to accept it, would think there is something evil about forgiving and being forgiven. If you are worried that you have committed this unforgivable sin, then you haven’t, because your worry shows that you care about and can recognize goodness.

What this tells us about what we should do to reach the ultimate goal is that we should be open and ready to see goodness in the place where we find ourselves. If we can’t do that, it won’t help to be in the kingdom of heaven. No matter how bad you think you are, God forgives you and blesses you, but he can’t accept and appreciate the forgiveness and blessings for you. Only you can do that for yourself.

I was watching the overhead TV at the Green Bay, WI airport (the cutest little airport ever), out of touch with the news cycle as always when I travel, when I saw video of the catastrophic Notre-Dame cathedral fire. I had to watch the repeating loop for several minutes and still didn’t quite believe it. At the time, it sounded as if the whole structure was doomed, though it appears that much has been salvaged and money is being raised for rebuilding. Predictably, there was some disagreement on social media regarding (1) whether the Catholic Church as a whole should be burned to the ground, metaphorically speaking, and (2) the unfairness of wealthy people and countries rushing to save a building when they’ve done nothing of the sort for the suffering poor. At the socialist journal Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why this is a false dichotomy in “Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame”:

It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality…

…This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

Speaking of false choices, literature and critical theory professor Grace Lavery’s e-newsletter The Stage Mirror (the best $5/month you will spend on the Internet, trust me) hosted an insightful conversation with queer/trans writers Daniel Ortberg, Molly Priddy, and Charlie Zieke about the perceived competition between butch lesbianism and transmasculinity. There’s a narrative going around in some cis lesbian circles that nowadays, young tomboys are pressured to transition to male, instead of embracing their nonconforming womanhood. The feminist counterculture narrative against “Big Pharma” informs trans-exclusive radical feminism here too. Grace frames the issue thus:

So, our topic is the narrative that sometimes gets called “butch flight,” but it’s an old and slightly tiresome phrase and we might all decide we want to use something better. The narrative, which is as old as ftm transition, is something like: we are losing our butches to testosterone and maleness. Every part of this is fascinating to me, as a fear, or as a piece of reasoning. The “we,” the “losing,” the “our,” and the notion that transition is less queer, and more definitive, than lesbian identity or butch identity. I’m interested in why people feel this way, and what political desires and interests the feeling enables or licenses.

At one point in the conversation, Ortberg, a trans man, remarks: “it’s hard when there’s a whole sense of community that’s invested in your own gender/body/lesbianness as a sort of public resource!” In my experience, this sense of entitlement to an assigned-female person’s loyalty and political labor, at the expense of that individual’s self-development, is both narcissistic and sexist. Our real enemy is toxic gender roles, not maleness.

Closing out with some femme love: the New York Times profiled doll fashion designer Carol Spencer, “The Chic Octogenarian Behind Barbie’s Best Looks”, who’s written a new memoir, Dressing Barbie, about her career at Mattel from 1963-99. Countering criticism that Barbie fosters unrealistic body image woes, Spencer “defends Barbie as a healthy alternative to video games; an engine of imagination for girls and boys, who can project onto a Barbie doll whoever they may wish to become.” My son and I agree!

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Witches, Gods, and Ducks

The Young Master (soon to turn 7) and I have become regulars at Forbes Library’s kids’ department on Saturday mornings, listening to the ukelele band rehearse in the community room while we work our way through their extensive comics and graphic novels collection. Big-name superhero comics are the junk food of literature, stimulating but nutritionally questionable, though they’re good for his reading practice. To me, it all looks like a bunch of over-muscled white guys punching each other.

The purple melodrama of “Batman” suits my camp aesthetic, but at read-aloud time, I try to point out the mental-health ableism and inaccuracy of Arkham Asylum as a revolving door of grotesque villains. Batman and the Joker seem like two sides of self-hating homosexuality–the flamboyant predator and the Übermensch of the police state. I can’t help seeing Gotham through the lens of the other book I’m currently reading, French journalist Frédéric Martel’s new exposé In the Closet of the Vatican, which details how the Catholic Church’s most powerful and homophobic cardinals were in bed with fascist dictatorships during the day and with undocumented rent boys during the night.

But fear not, more wholesome fare is in our rotation. We’re delighted with Molly Knox Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy, a coming-of-age story about a youth whose magical skills transgress the gender roles of his community. All the girls in Aster’s extended family are supposed to become witches, and the boys, animal shapeshifters who defend them from evil spirits. However, Aster’s passion is for witchery. With the help of Charlie, a non-magical girl from the neighboring suburb, he uses his forbidden talent to fight a monster in a way that only he can. Charlie, who has two (off-page) dads, is uniquely sympathetic to Aster’s dilemma because she’s a female athlete struggling for equal opportunities at her school. Both children are people of color, and Aster’s extended family includes a variety of ethnicities. The artwork, in cozy earth tones, is clear and expressive, and not too scary for younger readers. I promised Shane I’d pick up the sequel, The Hidden Witch, at Flame Con this summer. Book three, The Midwinter Witch, will come out in November.

We discovered George O’Connor’s Greek myth cartoons in the anthology Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. (The Fairy Tale Comics and Nursery Rhyme Comics anthologies in this series are fun too.) O’Connor’s Olympians graphic novel series is a playful, stylish retelling of the tales that my generation first read in the classic D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. (Adam and I each still have our original copy of that bright orange hardcover.) Each Olympians book is about a different god or goddess. We began with O’Connor’s Hermes: Tales of the Trickster because the messenger god and his chaotically playful son Pan suit Shane’s personality 100%. This book is both a great adventure comic and a painless introduction to classic literature. For those wishing to dig deeper, there are humorous endnotes, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

When I was a kid, I had two anthologies that I re-read countless times: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and The Smithsonian Collection of Comic-Book Comics. (Good thing I still own them because they seem to be out of print.) I pored over the noir adventures of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the proto-feminist antics of Little Lulu, and the folksy satire of Pogo. Now, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (Abrams ComicArts, 2009), brings that experience to a new generation with 300+ pages of toons from the 1940s-50s. It looks like the editors worked hard to weed out stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster in modern times. Check it out for such wacky gems as “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism” and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to Tralla La, a remote civilization without money, where he hopes for relief from the pressures of being a gazillionaire. Of course, human (or duck) nature is not so easy to escape…

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

June Links Roundup: Trust Me, I’m a Policeman

The police, a small presence in our family’s everyday lives, occupy a large territory in the imagination of the Young Master, now age 6. Storylines about catching robbers emerge from his daily playtime with Lego Batman and the superhero’s assorted friends and enemies. Internet cartoon series like Chu Chu TV, friendly uniformed animals in “Zootopia” and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, and gifts of police-themed clothing reinforce the message that police are fun and friendly people with cool noisemaking vehicles.

Meanwhile, his parents’ perspective on the police is evolving in the opposite direction, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and radical history books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. We are sometimes at a loss about how to impart a nuanced point of view to such a young child. On the one hand, we want him to feel safe approaching an officer for help, if he’s ever lost or in danger in a public place. On the other hand, we don’t want him to buy into the myth of benevolent state power that went unchallenged even in our progressive urban secondary schools.

I’ve taken the opportunity, on a few occasions, to put the Lego cop in our handmade brick “prison” and tell Shane that officers have to obey the law like everyone else. If they don’t, they stop being cops and become ordinary people who go to jail. (The shockingly low percentage of grand jury indictments, let alone convictions, is a discussion for another day.)

This week in The New Republic, in his article “Rough Justice: How America became over-policed”, political columnist and bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith reviews two books on the history of modern policing and its troubling roots. The first professional police force, in Victorian Britain, grew out of efforts to quell Irish uprisings against the English colonizers. In America, the earliest uniformed officers were hired by Southern cities to prevent slave revolts and enforce laws against black literacy.

The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969; in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.

The literature reviewed in this essay does not call for abolition of the professional police force, but instead argues that we have gone astray by making the police the first or only responder for social problems caused by poverty and poor mental health care. “Most perceived threats to Americans’ safety—urban gun violence, foreign terrorist attacks, immigrant crime waves—result, in fact, from American policies or are created wholly out of our imaginations.”

Perhaps the most feared law enforcement arm at this moment is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency with a more recent and dubious pedigree than your neighborhood patrolman. In a March feature at The Nation, Sean McElwee argues convincingly that “It’s Time to Abolish ICE”.

ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.

ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.

That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.

IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”

Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.

The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer…

…Next to death, being stripped from your home, family, and community is the worst fate that can be inflicted on a human, as many societies practicing banishment have recognized. It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

American law enforcement seems to be getting it wrong on both ends: destroying innocent families, but not taking the threat of misogynist violence seriously, despite the fact that the eventual perpetrators of mass shootings nearly all started with harassment or assault of intimate partners. In her October 2014 Harper’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps”, prominent feminist writer Rebecca Solnit (you may know her as the originator of the term “mansplaining”) details how warnings of societal dangers go unheeded when they come from a woman. Environmentalist Rachel Carson, Freud’s incest survivor patients, Woody Allen’s stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, and Anita Hill were among the many truth-tellers deemed “hysterical” for challenging the status quo.

We are still in an era of battles over who will be granted the right to speak and the right to be believed, and pressure comes from both directions. From the “men’s rights” movement and a lot of popular misinformation comes the baseless notion that there is an epidemic of groundless accusations of sexual assault. The implication that women as a category are unreliable and that false rape charges are the real issue is used to silence individual women and to avoid discussing sexual violence, and to make out men as the principal victims. The framework is reminiscent of that attached to voter fraud, a crime so rare in the United States that it appears to have had no significant impact on election outcomes in a very long time. Nevertheless, claims by conservatives that such fraud is widespread have in recent years been used to disenfranchise the kinds of people — poor, non-white, students — likely to vote against them.

On the subject of sexist double standards, I resonated a lot with Jaya Saxena’s article last month in the literary journal Catapult, “The Rose Quartz Ceiling: When It Comes to Love, Men Are Praised for What Women Are Simply Expected to Give”. Now, I know it’s not fair to blame my perceived gender for all the emotional labor I get hornswoggled into providing, but there’s a reason why it only takes a 10-minute ride for me to hear about my Uber driver’s difficult childhood. (The writer in me may be sending mixed signals: “Tell me more!”)

Writing about the stated moral of the film “Moulin Rouge”–“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”–Saxena observes:

The only people who sing that line in the film are men—lovestruck, idealistic men who are championed for being so emotionally open. But as women, we slowly learn, the greatest thing we are expected to do with our lives is love and be loved in return. No matter what else we might want to do, this is the height to which we’re expected to aspire. Men who love are enlightened beings, heroes of musicals. Women who love are just doing their job, what we were born to do. And so we hit the rose quartz ceiling.

While some interpretations of crystals vary from source to source, the rose quartz is always the stone of unconditional love. Its pale pink translucence is said to pull at the heart and fill you with light and softness; remind you of your love for others, your love for yourself. It also “carries a soft feminine energy,” as opposed to the “masculine,” aggressive energy of other stones.

These ideas are intertwined, that it is the realm of the feminine to love and be loved. The rose quartz is the stone of motherhood, the ultimate archetype of a love that is supposed to be constant and freely given, no matter if it is ever reciprocated or even acknowledged. Whether or not you identify as a woman or a mother or in any way feminine, to associate the binary of love and hate with any other binary assumes that it’s only naturally accessible to some, requires a leap for others. Even the most generous readings of the crystal’s properties, which say we all have both masculine and feminine energies in us, still buy into there being a dichotomy. It is always the feminine side that is expected to sacrifice, to love without condition…

…To be a good mother, the supposed higher calling of any woman, is to love no matter what. The giver of unconditional love has to do the work of love, and it has to be given freely and openly and constantly regardless of what she receives in return.

This is reasonable to expect of parents, both mothers and fathers. But it’s also easy to use the act of “unconditional love” as an excuse to treat the woman giving it like shit. Kind, soft, giving: That’s just how women are. Whether you’re arguing from witchy empowerment or benevolent misogyny, the conclusion is the same. Love is feminine—not just a woman’s job, but her nature. Why expect anything else of her if this is what she was made for?

I asked my partner if there were conditions to their love for me. “Yeah, like, if you murdered my parents, I’d probably stop loving you,” they said. I love them. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine a life for myself in which we do not love each other. But I do know there are actions that would make loving them impossible. Maybe I would still feel something like love for them, but I would stop loving as an action. There are conditions to my love. There are things that would make me abandon it, not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Because the only person I want to have unconditional love for is myself.

Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, for the link. Follow her on Twitter.

As I wrote in my last post, I have a love-hate relationship with the daily meditations from the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course that I’m teaching this summer. This week, not so much love. Trauma recovery is walking a tightrope between blaming the world and blaming the self; between the victim mentality that caused some of my family to turn into real-life Miss Havishams, and the Christian doctrine (espoused in today’s meditation by no less than Kierkegaard and Joni Eareckson Tada) that God tears us down to nothingness in order to rebuild us. I won’t worship a God who acts like a cult leader, breaking and brainwashing us to soften us up for his “love”.

Laura LeMoon’s post last month on the social justice blog The Establishment, “Why Me? Incest, Suffering, and Why God Isn’t My Answer”, addresses the failures of this theodicy.

There is a common thread amongst most major religions that god knows best and god has a plan. To an abuse survivor, this is like being told to accept being out of control when we often feel like having no power got us abused in the first place. Trust and surrender are hard for people who have experienced an egregious breach of trust and that “surrender” means giving up agency or the ability to fight back or say no. And while I’m sure there are many abuse survivors who have been able to surrender, I am not one of them, and it should not be required for us…

…When religions tell us as survivors that “god knows best” or “just let go,” it sounds like reasons abusers give children as to why they must inflict pain and suffering upon them. When god calls for us to blindly trust, how could an adult abuse survivor not think of when their abuser told them “I’m doing this because I love you; I’m doing this because you wanted me to; I’m doing this to help you.” It can’t be an expectation of abuse survivors that they just let go and accept that god knows best, because we might feel like this is something that allowed us to be hurt in the past. For whatever reasons god “allows” incest to happen, we will probably never know while we walk this earth.

Maybe everything that happened to me was just random; like a tornado that skips one house only to eviscerate another. With a number of years of intensive therapy under my belt, I’ve learned that the “why” becomes not nearly as relevant as the “how.” How are you going to move on? How are you going to let go of suffering, of victimhood? How are you going to believe you’re worthy of a healthy, safe, happy life and people in it who treat you accordingly?

That’s how I feel too. In today’s journal, I wrote, “Suffering doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just an experience.” I still believe in the benefit of looking at religion through a survivor liberation theology lens, but mainly to deconstruct what isn’t healthy, not as a new foundation. What does that imply for the Cross–is Christianity inherently limited by making a trauma story its central image? Refocusing on the human life of Jesus, as liberals do, doesn’t help me, because the problematic values we draw from that story, the moral ideals of passivity and self-erasure, are still (in my view) dictated by the Cross as the supreme interpretive guide, and by our own unprocessed histories of victimization. And yet, I continue to pray.

Problems of Lineage and Magic

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I watched two children’s films, one old and one new, that brought up strong feelings and questions regarding the importance placed on biological lineage in fantasy stories. Around the same time, in the private Facebook group for Andi Grace’s excellent Hawthorn Heart course on boundary-setting, I entered into a tough but fruitful conversation about what it means to “decolonize” our spiritual practices. And now I will attempt to tie those things together.

The old film was the 1979 animated version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a movie that gave me a spiritual awakening when I saw it on TV at age 6. This film set me off on my journey through Christianity, though I was so uneducated in religious matters that I didn’t realize it was a Christian allegory for another 6 years. I’ve long maintained that this is the definitive screen adaptation of the Narnia books, without remembering how primitive the animation was. The backgrounds aren’t even in the same style as the figures! Yet its bare-bones quality has a purity of emotion and scruffy Britishness that gets lost, in my opinion, in the color-saturated live-action Disney movies of the 2000s. Aslan is simply but powerfully drawn, like an Orthodox icon. And the White Witch’s grandiosity and mood swings bear an uncanny resemblance to my bio mother’s mannerisms.

Leaving aside the substitutionary atonement message, which makes no sense to me now, I clearly see how the film satisfied my yearnings for a loving male protector. For many years, I thought I had to buy into the entire Christian authority structure in order to enter that embrace. These days, I feel relatively secure that I can reach out to the God I encountered in Aslan and leave aside the problematic theology, but this winnowing process takes effort that’s sometimes beyond my strength.

Because rewatching the film made me grieve both my lost home in orthodoxy and my family trauma, I was prompted to think critically about the children’s royal succession as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”. Fairy tales and Christianity both developed their core motifs in an era of hereditary nobility. It’s become standard to carry over these ideas even though they don’t fit our contemporary political values of democracy and free choice in relationships. Chosen ones, from Lucy Pevensie to Harry Potter, become heroic protagonists or magic-wielders through their blood lineage. There’s also a colonialist flavor to the idea that the British children are the natural rulers of Narnia, a land where there’s apparently no one else from their ethnicity (or species?). Can we rethink the inheritance trope in fantasy, please?

The new Disney/Pixar film “Coco” is light-years away from the Narnia film in terms of animated wizardry and beauty. It’s about Miguel, a tween boy in a Mexican village, who dreams of becoming a famous musician, but his family won’t let him play. They are against music because Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue his musical career…or so they think. Miguel journeys to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos to meet his ancestors and find a solution to his family conflict. No spoilers, but in the end, he doesn’t have to choose between his dreams and his family. (Lucky him.)

I cried a lot at this film, and I still cry every time Shane asks me to read the picture books based on it. It’s beautiful, it ends happily, and it’s entirely about people of color celebrating their culture.

I also cried because I wish I had a place in the world like Miguel does. I cried for people whose lineage is disrupted by family estrangement, infertility, closed adoptions, diaspora, and colonization, who are erased from a story like this. What if you haven’t been allowed to know your ancestors? How would you find healing from family conflict, and blessing for your vocation?

The “woke” witch community talks a lot about decolonization, the opposite of cultural appropriation. White and Western spiritual practitioners have historically acted entitled to adopt practices from communities of color–Native American rituals, indigenous concepts like “spirit animal”, Haitian voodoo, African-American folk magic, and so forth. There’s been similar criticism that yoga in America has split off the physical exercises from their Indian religious roots. At the site Decolonizing Yoga, Indian-American writer Susanna Barkataki explains why this is a problem: “Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization? The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.” Decolonization isn’t so much about ethnic ownership of spirituality, as it is about accountability for the fact that white people violently disrupted POCs’ ability to practice their own traditions, and then we turned around and adopted those traditions as exotic and authentic.

So, I’m on board with that, in theory. But I chafed against it emotionally. In my childhood, I wasn’t free to decide what was true and good, or what my identity and life path should be. Everyone in the family had to be loyal to my mother’s version of reality. When I converted from Judaism to Christianity in my 20s, I wanted to switch from a worldview where truth was determined by tribal allegiance, to one where the individual’s encounter with the Holy Spirit was paramount. In the decolonization conversation, it felt like a step backward for my trauma healing, to be told that my bloodline dictated which gods I could worship. I didn’t want to be forced back into relationship with my biological family, living or dead–people who wouldn’t have lifted their leg to piss on me if I was on fire.

I threw this idea out there to the Hawthorn Heart group, knowing it would be controversial. My initial language put some folks on the defensive and they rightly called me out about asking for the “right” to utilize other cultures. I’m glad I was able to hear this and I thanked the nonwhite folks for doing the work of correcting me, because that can be exhausting! Everyone on the thread was very kind and helpful, even when they were angry. They shared some amazing insights and links that dramatically shifted my feelings about ancestor work.

One member noted that white people’s alienation from our specific ethnic lineage (Polish, Celtic, etc.) was also a casualty of colonialism. To succeed in America, we became folded into the ever-shifting construct of “whiteness” and lost our connections to our ancestors; then, lonely for roots, we idealized nonwhite “tribal” cultures and tried to force our way in. They pointed me to this article at White Awake, “The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe”, by white/Native American author Lyla June:

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault.

To start my researches, other Hawthorn Heart members linked me to the Eastern European sacred folk music album Rosna by Laboratorium Pieśni, and Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s Naropa University thesis Journey Into My Polish Indigenous Mind. Our conversation touched on shadow work, another theme of the online course. Someone ventured the insight that decolonization included owning those ancestors who were perpetrators of personal or racial trauma. We don’t have to have a personal relationship with their spirits in our magic, but we can’t dis-identify with their legacy completely. But neither should we give them too much power to cut us off from the good things in our heritage.

For the first time, I feel excited about exploring where I came from. And I also feel long-suppressed grief that our family story is so full of gaps, or worse. I’ve been running away from the pain by declaring that these people are nothing to me. But really, is there anything more Jewish than a legacy of lacunae? I am part of a long tradition of diaspora, fragmentation, and self-reinvention. Baba Yaga, ora pro nobis.

(Source)

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2017

My gender is Ron Swanson.

In these last days of 2017, many of us feel our greatest achievement is simply surviving the first year of president-dictator Tan Dumplord. But there were other small but sweet milestones to celebrate here at Reiter’s Block.

The Young Master learned to speak his initial consonants clearly, a mixed blessing because he has picked up my habit of saying “Oh, fuck!” We are practicing the substitute “Oh, fungus!” and giving each other time-outs when we slip up. He passed his first term of circus acrobat class with flying colors. Favorite songs are currently “I Like to Move It” by will.i.am and “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. He is very serious about Lego.

Thanksgiving with the fam.

My short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was a finalist for the inaugural Sunshot Prize from New Millennium Writings and will be published in Fall 2018. Stories in this manuscript have won prizes from New Letters, The Iowa Review, Bayou Magazine, and Passages North, among others. Stay tuned for cover reveal and reading dates.

The Mirena IUD, installed in January, has given me my life back. For the first time in 30+ years, I’m not disabled for a week every month from endometriosis. These and other perimenopausal changes (hello, extra 20 pounds) have prompted me to reflect on aging, the many meanings of fertility, and a deeper commitment to inhabiting my body as-is, with acceptance and strength. I started lifting weights again with a trainer, after a 5-year parenting hiatus. I have a whole new attitude toward it since I’ve embraced my masculine side. I used to be afraid of bulking up, but now I welcome it.

Buy Two Natures.

Let’s get into the highlights reel, shall we?

Best Poetry:

The energetic, challenging poems in Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2017) put blackness and anti-blackness in conversation with the Western canon. For instance, the opening poem cycle reworks the Labors of Hercules through the legend of 19th-century African-American pimp Stagger Lee (the subject of numerous murder ballads by artists as varied as Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, and The Clash). A later cycle replaces Jesus with Br’er Rabbit in the Stations of the Cross.As great satires do, these mash-ups make us ask serious questions: Who gets to go down in history as a hero instead of a thug? Would an oppressed people be better off worshipping a trickster escape artist, rather than a martyr?

I’m currently reading Ariana Reines’ Mercury (Fence Books, 2011), in which she continues her splendid dive into the poetics of abjection. An ironic, melancholy sequence about watching a violent action movie with her friends at the multiplex is juxtaposed with a vision of the Sun God’s holy cattle. She manages the near-impossible feat of noticing the pornographic banality of modern consciousness without posing as superior to it, and this humility gives her work a tender and sacred quality: “under any vile sheen a soul or truth can move”. Reines offers astrology readings through her site Lazy Eye Haver; I’m looking forward to my first one in January.

Best Fiction:

KJ Charles‘ Victorian-era paranormal gay romances are witty, sexy, and literary. I can’t describe exactly why the men in her books feel like real men, not the overgrown boys in a lot of romance novels. They’re worldly-wise and bear responsibilities beyond their years, and have a very British gentlemanly restraint about open displays of emotion, which makes their moments of intimacy more meaningful. The mystery plots are a delightful homage to M.R. James and other masters of the antiquarian ghost story. This year I read the Charm of Magpies series and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I’m glad she’s a prolific writer because I didn’t want these books to end.

Angie Gallion’s Intoxic series is a trilogy (with a fourth book in the works) about Alison Hayes, a trailer-park teen from small-town Illinois who copes with an alcoholic mother, unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and the mixed blessings of a successful modeling career in California. This moving coming-of-age story is incredibly accurate about the complex emotional terrain of family trauma and recovery.

Best Nonfiction:

Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) is a meticulously researched history book that reads like a thriller, with vivid characters and political intrigue. British journalist Hari unearths the junk science and racist panic behind the criminalization of addictive substances, exposes the brutality of American prisons, and profiles communities from Vancouver to Portugal where legalization is working. His takeaway findings: Drugs don’t cause addiction, trauma and isolation do. Prescribing maintenance doses to addicts in safe medical settings not only cuts crime dramatically, it even reduces addiction over the long term.

Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper, 2017) deserves all the critical acclaim it received this year.In this starkly honest and courageous memoir, the bestselling fiction writer and feminist commentator shares her complex and ongoing story of childhood trauma, eating disorders, and navigating prejudice against fat bodies. After being gang-raped at age 12, Gay self-medicated her emotional pain with food and became obese as armor against the world. She offers no easy answers or tales of miracle diets, but rather something more valuable: a role model for learning to cherish and nourish yourself in a genuine way despite society’s cruelty toward “unruly” bodies.

Favorite Posts:

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

Aspie Explorations

Because environments that most people find comfortable can put me into temperature meltdown, I often have to choose between bowing out of a group event for a reason that people think is stupid or untrue, or attending and making others uncomfortable with my access needs. Either way I risk being told that I don’t care enough about people, when in fact I am doing invisible extra work just to “relax” with them. The emotional labor that Aspie women and female-ish people do to stay connected is not really appreciated because of sexism.

High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

While the wedding cake example [in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist.

Baba Yaga sends you best witches for 2018.

 

 

The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
Digital Photo File Name: DT16.tif
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/2/2014

Holy Family of Choice! (source)

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Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

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.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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