February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.

January Bonus Links: Butt Trumpets

First things first, “Butt Trumpet” is the name of a delightfully bonkers parody punk rock band that my best friend and I found in the $3 bin at Turn It Up! Records in 2009. Enjoy this video of him as Cyril the Rat Puppet playing air guitar to Butt Trumpet’s “Flannel in Seattle”.

The website OpenCulture delves deeper with their December 2020 article “Why Butt Trumpets & Other Bizarre Images Appeared in Medieval Manuscripts”. Obviously, for the same reason teenage boys draw penises on their desks during Latin class. But there’s more to the organ-playing rabbits and snail-fighting knights than bored doodles. Some scholars think the disrespectful images expressed monks’ disagreement with the texts they were copying. At any rate, they certainly livened things up.

Lesbian-feminist playwright Carolyn Gage finds her own brand of symbolic resonance in the animal kingdom. Recently diagnosed with autism for the first time in her 60s, Gage encourages us to appreciate multiple kinds of intelligence in her post “On Octopuses and Autism”:

Our theories of intelligence have historically been derived from our studies of vertebrates, especially mammals, and especially primates. All these vertebrate forms of “intelligent life”  have been very social creatures that travel in pods, packs, herds, or tribes. Not surprisingly, our theories about intelligence have been shaped by this fact.  These theories have assumed that intelligence evolved in certain species in response to social needs for communication, for bonding, for collective action, for establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, and so on.

But… then there is the octopus, a form of intelligent life that is notoriously anti-social. The octopus does not bond with other octopuses, does not live or travel with them, and  does not observe any kind of social hierarchy. It is a real loner. According to our theories of intelligence, it should actually be quite stupid… dumb as a snail, in fact. But the octopus has 500,000 neurons and the snail has only 20,000.  The octopus is right up there with the pig, the dog, and the dolphin. Clearly there is a problem with our theories about the evolution of intelligence. Being social has no bearing on the development of intelligence.

And here we are.  Autism is “characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication.” We are wired for resistance to social pressure. We are said to lack empathy, to have difficulty reading social cues, are oblivious to social hierarchies. We don’t travel in packs. Are we missing out on evolutionary forces that generate intelligence?  Or are we developing intelligence along a completely different axis, like the octopus?

Scientists believe the octopus evolved complex intelligence for protection because it lacks the shell that other molluscs have. Gage muses:

[L]osing that shell…makes one vulnerable, but it also drives the evolution of a different kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is rooted in highly complex and subtle interactions with one’s physical environment. If the octopus lacks the social intelligence that comes from belonging to a pack, it has evolved an exquisitely fine-tuned relationship to the natural world around it.

If an autistic person is lacking in social intelligence, have we evolved compensatory sensitivity to our surroundings? Without the kind of protective armor that non-autistic people develop in their social interactions, have we developed a different form of perceptual/conceptual mobility, a nimbleness of spirit? Could it be that our “special interests” are part of this protective disguise? Without the rigid shape associated with a social role, are we not able to slip ourselves into the secret nooks and crannies of a rich inner life that appear irrelevant or inconsequential to those who have never had to develop alternative resources?

Feminist writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who came out this year as nonbinary, writes about a similar protective strategy in their Substack newsletter post “The Great Mutation”. Originally they thought they’d refrained from writing about pregnancy and parenthood in order to shield their family life from Internet trolls. In retrospect, it was part of a pattern of dissociating from their female-gendered body.

Before I transitioned, I felt that my writing was my “real” self and my physical body was just its life support system. My real self could not be pregnant, even if my physical body was, because pregnancy was something that happened to other people. To women.

This reminded me of my post here waaaaay back in March 2007, “Am I a Woman?” Perplexed why I felt feminism somehow wasn’t “about” me, despite agreeing with most of its aims, I wrote:

I don’t primarily think of myself as a woman. Sure, my biological gender is female, and I like collecting dolls and wearing pretty dresses. I talk about my feelings all the time, and I take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. But I could do all that equally well as a codependent drag queen.

When I think about what makes me me, I identify much more with my mind than with my body. I resist efforts to draft me into a collective interest group based on unchosen characteristics.

Ahh, little soft-boiled trans egg…

Doyle’s childhood coping strategies for family trauma and unrecognized dysphoria were a lot like mine (minus the eating disorder). I wrote an entire notebook of laws for my dolls, and enforced them with trial by a jury of mice in Victorian dresses, followed by beheadings or imprisonment in the shoe closet. As for Doyle:

I don’t remember my eating disorder, because I wasn’t there. What I remember about seventh grade are X-Men comics, which I got into rapturously and obsessively, and the vast, elaborate fantasy worlds I built in their image. I invented whole teams of superheroes, with headquarters and code names and plot arcs and recurring villains, and if the embarrassment would not kill me, I could still tell you each and every one of their names. Down on earth, I was engaged in a frantic struggle with my body, but in my mind, I had reached safe harbor, creating a place to breathe during my Cronenberg years.

Clearly, the split — the false life of the body, the true life of the mind — was already in place. But it had always been there. I learned to read at age three, and by the time I was in kindergarten, teachers had to beg and coax and sometimes just rip the books out of my hands to get me to interact with any of my classmates. Even then, at the beginning of my social existence, I was building pocket dimensions, finding doors into a better place.

Vintage Real Fur Costumed Mice Russ and West Germany image 0

“Guilty!”

Finally, enjoy this photo essay in Out Magazine about Anthony Patrick Manieri’s queer male body-positivity series Arrested Movement. The joyful black-and-white nude portraits feature a multiracial cast of cis and trans masculine folks, with several plus-size and disabled models.

 

October Links Roundup: Change the Conversation

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

(Get your own man face at AxeandCo on Etsy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the piece, Rabbi Ingber says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poet Spiel: “Teaching Little Ones”

The phrase “gut instinct” is more than a metaphor. Scientists have found a sort of second brain in our GI tract, which they call the enteric nervous system. During stressful times, it’s common to develop digestive issues. In the piece below, the Poet Spiel muses with his usual humor and bluntness about what makes 2020 so hard to swallow.

Spiel’s books include the illustrated autobiography Revealing Self in Pictures and Words and the poetry collection Barely Breathing. His spoken word album breathing back words is available on Spotify. Visit his website for more information.

 

TEACHING LITTLE ONES

As a farm kid, I swallowed
axle grease, copper rivets and dingleberries,
road tar, spiders, coal dust, and lead paint,
chicken beaks, mouse bones and my sister’s snot,
and chips from Uncle Charley’s permanent asbestos siding.

Mostly I swallowed crap
similar to what my dad swallowed
in the early 1900s
before the age of five.

I’ve swallowed a lot
but I cannot swallow the brazen narcissism,
the hypocrisy and bullying of a nation’s government
that serves its righteousness to me in a bloated bladder
that’s about to spew its selfishness all over this earth
while the shameless leader of the pack
teaches our little ones that cheating and lying
are the only way to win.

I will stand when you stand,
but I will grip my grieving gut
with my right fist
while you place yours against your heart.

September Links Roundup: The Rules Never Applied

Hey, it’s time for another round of “Jendi discovers the obvious!” I have a hard time recognizing hypocrisy. Until, and even after, reality slaps me in the face, I assume that everyone is trying to live up to their publicly stated ideals. To be fair, that’s the premise behind most liberal political satire, too. We like to think we’re doing something important when we laugh at the gap between Trump’s evangelical values-talk and his violent and adulterous behavior. But as Noah Berlatsky wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, “Fascists Know How to Turn Mockery Into Power”. Their absurdity or incompetence isn’t a lapse in effectiveness, it’s a deliberate middle-finger to the very idea that truth matters in politics.

Similarly, it’s finally dawned on me that the MAGA crowd’s support for unchecked police power isn’t actually inconsistent with their hyper-individualism about gun ownership, mask-wearing, and paying taxes. It only seems contradictory if you believe the surface claim that all Americans live under the same rule of law. But the rules were never meant to apply to them. Beneath the surface, there are two Americas. Authoritarian policing is for black people; freedom of choice is for white people.

This dual consciousness drives the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country”, based on Matt Ruff’s excellent novel of the same name. “In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that ‘normal” never existed,’ feminist critic Sady Doyle writes in her Medium article “Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror”. In cosmic horror, we are de-centered in the universe. Our comforting, orderly beliefs in human institutions and culture are shown to be irrelevant to the strange and heartless way that the world really works. For white people, this can be how it feels to wake up to structural racism. For black Americans, well, what else is new?

The genius of “Lovecraft Country” is that its black protagonists have no naiveté to lose. The traditional horror-show monsters are less scary than the small-town white sheriff, and can sometimes be redirected to save our heroes from their human persecutors. Referencing Lovecraft’s flagrant racism, Doyle concludes, “The idea that life comes down to either ignorance or despair did, after all, originate with a fairly malicious guy, one who probably could not come to consciousness without realizing that he’d hurt people, and who had reasons to prefer denial. Crumbling beneath the horrible revelation denies us the other possibility, the one Lovecraft himself seemed to fear most: Being transformed.”

Along those lines, in this 2016 piece from Nightmare Magazine, an online journal of horror fiction and criticism, Chesya Burke contends that “Horror Is…Not What You Think or Probably Wish It Is”. She questions how the boundaries of her genre have been drawn to exclude the black perspective: why is The Handmaid’s Tale considered horror, but not Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

What does it say to upcoming writers of color who don’t write about the middle class white family fighting against malevolent forces? What of the black writer that writes of welcoming those forces into their lives, as it is less horrific than living under white oppression?

…It is too often in the genre that horror is seen as an invasion of some outside force that must be exorcised in order to restore balance. When you see this, and only this as horror, you leave out those whose worlds are already defined by outside forces (e.g. the white gaze), and often use an invasion of another force as a welcomed reprieve from systemic oppression. When you have historically seen the black, the dark, the other as scary, you create an entire genre around fearing them and their cultures. Does Voodoo, loas or perhaps entire countries (Haiti) and continents (Africa) come to mind? When you define horror by white men, you not only exclude others, but you vilify them.

In another story about coming out of denial, novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen shares an excerpt from his new book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America in his Atlantic article “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots”. This longform piece describes how the professional class (lawyers, professors, journalists, bankers, etc.) helped wealth inequality grow out of control, starting in the 1980s. A cultural divide between upper- and lower-class white Americans was exploited by the super-rich to gut labor rights.

Most liberals, like most Americans, preferred not to regard capitalists as categorically rapacious and amoral, or to imagine the U.S. political economy as a never-ending struggle in which everyone must ultimately choose between two sides. That seemed crude. They didn’t vote for Reagan, but most didn’t hate him, certainly not at first, because in their way they shared his dreamy faith in the 1940s Frank Capra movie vision of America. And to some degree, most liberals succumbed, like most Americans, to a new form of economic nostalgia that was being revived and popularized—the notion that market forces are practically natural forces with which we dare not tinker or tamper too much. Finally, affluent liberals didn’t want to think badly of all their nice friends and neighbors and classmates who happened to work at banks or in real-estate development or in the vicinity of C-suites.

Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies.

At Catapult, Jess Zimmerman writes about adjusting a little too well to the Great Shutdown: “It Doesn’t Hurt, It Hurts All the Time”. She discusses how she came to understand her equanimity as traumatized numbness to the emotional load of our collective crisis. When she was finally cleared to go outside, she developed agoraphobia.

Like episodic analgesia, where the brain holds pain at bay, it was a protective nothingness, a shutdown. We are all so afraid. We are all so angry. We are all so lonely for our former lives, and mourning the collapse of the future. We are genuinely in danger, from the virus. We are genuinely being endangered, actively, by a government that sees us as disposable or worse. It’s too much: a black hole, all gravity and no light. At the same time, we are relentlessly, inescapably aware of how much worse it could be, how much worse it is, for someone, for many people. How do you let yourself feel that bolus of emotions at all? How, especially, do you feel it knowing that this is what “lucky” looks like?

…What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: not as worthy injuries and unworthy ones, but as a wide class of wounds made in different ways, whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms? It is worse to die, to be grievously ill, to lose someone you love, to lose your job and fear for your survival, to not lose your job and be forced to risk your survival every day. But it is also terrible to fear the future, to be betrayed by your leaders, to see ignorance weaponized, to have your life treated as a bargaining chip by the powerful. It is terrible to hang suspended over the pit and try not to look down. The teeth of this year grind all of us. Maybe, in seeing each other’s wounds, we can let ourselves feel our own.

In the new issue of Poets & Writers, Filipinx poet and college writing professor Rachelle Cruz proposes alternatives to the traditional writing critique workshop, which can be emotionally damaging and hostile to minority perspectives.

I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.

Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach…

We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.

Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.

If you’d like to try out some of the alternate workshop forms that Cruz and her students have developed, email editor@pw.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”.

Two Poems from Phyllis Klein’s “The Full Moon Herald”

In the most frequently quoted lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” What is found in Phyllis Klein’s new poetry collection The Full Moon Herald (Grayson Books, 2020) is an unflinching and compassionate witness to the news of the day and the historical traumas that birthed it.

Cleverly organized in sections titled like the features of a newspaper–International News, Health, Crime, Arts & Entertainment, and so forth–the collection responds to timely topics such as wildfires and droughts, the refugee crisis, sexual violence, and even the coronavirus. Several poems reference the Holocaust, a visceral part of Klein’s ancestral legacy as a Jew, and how the memory of this event both compels her to write about other genocides and sometimes threatens her with despair. Human interest stories provide fleeting moments of hope, such as in “Paul Barton Plays Piano for Elephants”, yet even there, Klein refuses to look away from details that complicate the sentimental picture: “Even if they/knew where the piano once got its keys, what would/they do?”

On August 22 at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM Eastern time, Klein will be participating in a Zoom poetry reading with J. David Cummings and Christine Holland Cummings titled “Staying With the Trouble: Poems of trauma, grief and hope in an age of disaster”. RSVP to phyllis@phyllisklein.com for the link. Visit her website to learn more about her work as a writer and trauma therapist.

She kindly shares two poems from the book below. Jeni Haynes, referenced in the second poem, is an Australian child abuse survivor who developed 2,500 personality alters. Hers is believed to be the first case in Australia, and possibly the world, where a victim has testified in their alternate personalities and secured a conviction, according to this BBC Australia article.

The Human Tragedy

Dandelions… kept alive by the finest gardeners
in the world who knew how to work against nature.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Difficult Beauty”

You can only avoid it for so long. Like reading a story set in
pre-war France knowing something terrible will happen to
the lovely Jewish characters. Why do you read it? When you

started it was a happy story. Good fortune draws you in.
Love starts off loudly, calling with the ecstasy of a requiem,
only you don’t want to realize the beauty leads to the grief

until it happens. More and more of this these days. More of the people
gathering, the bombs gushing off, the dead and the survivors.
No need to explain what fear feels like. It’s in you, it’s sitting beside

you. It’s in the backs of the gardeners as they bend over
the plain yellow flowers weeding out everything else that wants to grow.

****

She Was Alone

for Jeni Haynes

She was alone like an iceberg, but not too frozen
for her father to hurt. He assaulted her at age four almost
breaking her. Her body, a crime scene. Her mind, a disjunction.

Every day of her childhood. We know about it now because
she went to court. She was alone like a volcano on a fault
line, sitting there facing him, barbarian in a chair. Enjoying

her affliction. A gargoyle. He’s going to prison now. She did
the impossible. Didn’t erupt or sink him with an icy gash to his side.
Didn’t smack him in the face. Found a detective who believed her.

A detective who can cry. She made an army, a republic of her, to stay real
while her criminal father tortured her. There are Muscles and Erik
in charge, but it’s a democracy, a nation of her. Alters, fragments, back

room boiler boys and girls and notgirls. Voting on every single
important issue. Symphony testified first. Still four years
old. Remembering everything in detail. She was alone like

a seed planted in a vast empty desert. Until the others,
so many she would never be alone again, surrounded
by their palm fronds, cassia bushes, cactus guards, soothing aloe veras.

Her body a crime scene, what he did to her, how she paid with her organs
in ruins, no babies ever for her. He is going to prison for a long
time, her father. And everyone will know what he did.

How he violated her territory. He told her she was ugly, every
day he tried to ruin her. Tried but couldn’t. He was a giant next to her
meager body. Bathroom tormenter. How she fought him, her beautiful

enduring, backboned, spirit. What he would never see on her cold
wounded skin. Excellent, breathtaking, outstanding beauty, had to go
under cover, beneath her waterline to the vast hidden underside.

Residence of power. She opened the door for other split
people to have their days in court. We bow to her, association of Jeni,
society, territory, unionized, incorporated, ablaze.

Two Poems from Joshua Corwin’s “Becoming Vulnerable”

Winning Writers subscriber Joshua Corwin’s debut poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable (Baxter Daniels Ink Press/International Word Bank, 2020), was inspired by his experiences with autism, addiction, sobriety and spirituality. He is a neurodiverse, Pushcart-nominated poet who teaches poetry to neurodiverse individuals and autistic addicts at The Miracle Project, an autism nonprofit. Josh hosts the poetry podcast “Assiduous Dust“, where he interviews award-winning authors and creates on-the-spot collaborative poems with them. Visit his website to learn more. He kindly shares two poems from his new book below.

12:01 AM

I can hear the shine in your eyes
on the other end of the telephone.

When I speak like this,
I feel authentic
and not heavy.

I don’t have to tattoo meaning in the air
to know what you mean.

I remember when you first told me…
apropos of nothing…
about the different levels of charitable donation.

I was sitting right across from you—over there.
(You in that armchair, me in this one: our eyes.)

You said there’s the donor who gives large sums
and puts a placard on the wall, signifying
who it’s from;

and then there’s the other one who gives…
but remains anonymous.

Your words hanging like a phantom,
I didn’t have to be who I thought I was;

you were once me,
once where I was…

In that moment, I knew.

 

[This poem first appeared in Al-Khemia Poetica, September 3, 2019, and was nominated for a  2019 Pushcart Prize.]

****

GRATITUDE AFTER BREAKFAST

I USED       to think that meditation was a hoax,
that enlightenment was for those interred in the ground.

I USED       to think it was impossible to cease thinking.
I secretly believed I knew everything.

I USED       to deem gratitude an unnecessary word.
I hated to stretch my cheekbones into a smile.

I was convinced everyone was a phony.
I USED       to think I was the shit.

I USED       to think I was a piece of shit.
I would be paralyzed by fear for hours.

I would argue with mirrors, threatening to pound my fists.
I USED       to curse the reflection I feared.

I USED       to stay up all night, dancing in sorrow
without consent, my entire body convulsing.

I watched the sun rising sadness and despaired like a mourner.
Outside rising, inside dying.

I USED       to not know if I was lying or telling the truth.
I spent hours wrestling with my god—myself.

 

I wake up in the morning, and I say the sh’ma.
Then I make my bed; wash my hands.

I wake up in the morning, and I walk to the room next door.
Then I sit in a chair; listen for an hour.

I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I feel light as a feather.
Then I make breakfast; smile as I wash my bowl.

I wake up in the morning, and I smile at the man in the mirror.
Then I take a shower; hug my soul.

I wake up in the morning, and I thank God.
I know I’m not Him.

May Links Roundup: Hypersane or Hyperactive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Poems by Spiel: “the procedure” and “mixed intentions”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has been sharing his outsider perspective on politics, sexuality, and disability for nearly 70 years in his raw poetry and passionate, psychedelic visual art. Read my review of his retrospective collection Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). As a child, he suffered from headaches and seizures that were treated with invasive medical procedures, such as the neuroencephalogram described in the first poem (TW for medical trauma).

the procedure

give me
catastrophe
give me
wailing
give me
bobbleheads
with hair on fire
and toothpicks
poked
into their eyes

i want
to make a scene
and paste it
to a table with
screaming wheels
i can drive back
to my youth

on the day
they shoved
that needle up
the base
of my spine
to extract
any trace
of comfort
from my brain

****

mixed intentions

from so far away, he’s left behind
(but not without concern)
in hands of others who may find the mystery of why he suffers so.
it may be something like a tumor on his brain;
it might be tangible.
and wouldn’t it be nice to find something seeable, just something one could grasp,
even if it’s something terrifying,
like a tumor on the brain of this child who’s shown such promise to become
the special child in the family of this farmer.

so the child is tendered
by the hands of nurse lola
who has hands of black, like hands
that never have touched him before.
lola comforts him.
she daily soothes his body with her lotions
and her humor and he wonders at her blackness —
how it is that she can be
so tender, be so comforting,
as all the doctors study him.

doctors do their tests and fill their clip boards with notes;
then, they confer while lola tenders him —
his headaches never hurting
while her black hands touch him,
while his mother and his father are so far away
(but not without concern)
and having left him in the hands of others
who, they pray, might find the mystery
of all his suffering.
but, in fact, they come to learn there is no tumor there
and further steps must be explored.

the steps will be drastic because
his doctors must remove the fluid
from around his brain
to visualize it better.
this will be painful for the child.

now, he must be moved to a private room
with new nurses at his side.
he is so sad to bid
his lola, tender lola, a goodbye.
he will cry in secret for her hands of black
with pearly lotions and her humor soothing down his suffering.

the procedure is a hideous one.
from somewhere at the base of this child’s spine,
they drain his brain of natural fluids
but with the outcome yielding not much at all —
yet, more pain than any pain
this child has known —
his brain now hanging, unprotected,
by its natural pillow of the liquid
that nature gave to balance it —
an unnatural state of being.

this is a crime against the nature of his body, now causing a level of pain
beyond the combine of all the pain he has ever known.
and what’s more, this crime has yielded next
to nothing in the search to learn the reason
for the suffering in the innocence of this special child of promise.

now, his father on his long distance visits from the farm,
must bear down upon his head,
his nurses pressing firmly at his feet each moment as he tries to cry,
because each movement of his body
causes movement of his brain
that no longer has a pillow of the fluid they have robbed.
so, when he sees someone has sent him a bouquet of pretty flowers and his tears
come out in gushes,
his entire body has to be restrained to prevent his brain
from banging in his head — unshielded there by nature.

and from far away, the place where he was born,
comes the preacher of the church his family attends,
and the preacher waits his turn
out in the hallway while nurses change his sheets and dose his medicines
to help him bear his grief.

and just then,
while the preacher waits,
so also comes from far away,
the mother of his dearest friend,
and she also is a dear friend of this child,
this woman who is not a preacher
but in practice of the christian science church.
the preacher and this woman sit out in the hall,
waiting to take their turn in speaking to the child,
his pain so great, he hardly knows his name —
let alone a reason to receive
these patient guests.
but come they have, and the preacher
is first to read his scriptures,
say his prayings,
dismiss attention to the nurses
holding down his head and feet,
shove a silly get-well card into his hands
with names of every person at the church
the day the card was signed;
and then be on his way.

the child is edgy. he feels confused
and wants to be alone.
wants things back the way they were
and hiding in his barn, back home, alone,
with no one knowing,
no one paying any mind at all,
just leaving him alone — in hiding.

but then, he tries to shift,
to change the way his body lies
and suddenly, a scream comes from his gut;
his brain bangs back against his skull.
he’s dumbfounded as his nurses grab his feet,
then press his head against his bed to steady him.
he’s come to think this trauma will not end —
that what the doctors robbed from him
will never be replaced
and he will spend his life in agony.

his best friend’s mother now steps in to visit him,
to speak of how one’s ills are understood
by means of spirit teaching, by believing.
but the only thing of meaning to the child
is that he’s always wished
that she was his mom,
that he could replace his own mother
with her and that he’s wished her son
could be his boyfriend
(though he’s too young to think this way and knows that this is wrong).

it is her son who is the only child
he’s had a bond so strong that it could make him wish to live and not to hide.

even now, within this torture,
he can think of how he wishes for the comfort of her son to come,
to hold him at his side.
she tells him that her son and others
at his school have gathered coins
so that when he comes back home,
he’ll have a record player all his own
so, when he burrows in his attic room,
he can play his favorite music at his will.
and this will be a gift, because
he has so many friends and they are praying,
just as she has come these many miles
to deliver her teachings and her gift of spirit.

some six months it takes for nature to replace
the cushion round his brain.
and through this time,
and even though the child is back
within his realm; he’s so careful as he walks.
he must take each step to sense the liquid round his brain
as it, by nature, fills the space the doctors vacated
and the crazy torture they have put him through,
yet finding nothing to report —
nothing
anyone
can touch
nor see.

but he’s left with thoughts of lola.
thoughts of friends he never knew he had,
who’d gathered money for a gift
that he can touch and see and hear.
now, he can choose what he hears.
but he holds harried thoughts within his brain,
that he will just remain a “something”
that cannot be repaired
and he will always hide away in the darkness of the corner of his barnplace,
where there are no windows, no one prying in.
where he slams the barn doors shut;
where the freak is hidden in a jar
that no one sees.

he tries, again, to think of lola,
tender lola,
her black hands,
same as the blackness
inside his barn.