The Body I Did Not Touch

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The Body I Did Not Touch

The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress. If this resonates with you or you find it interesting, please do let me know. I’m working hard to craft a memoir that is vulnerable and evocative and it’s helpful to have affirmation along the way. For context, a fairly finished draft of the first chapter is available here.

The Body I Did Not Touch

But before this window into how shape intersects with power, I learned the pain and pleasure of amorphism at the small evangelical university where I majored in Biblical Studies. Before meeting Maggie and the Oxford study-abroad program therapist who helped me unearth my childhood, my first lessons in forms came from my Bible professor, Mr. Andrews, whose body I never touched.

*

The Philadelphia campus in summer is quiet, but restless. Its ghost town aura forges a reticent bond between the few students taking summer classes and the skeleton crew of faculty and staff. The din of the Spring semester dissipated, members of the dwindled populace start to examine each other more closely.

I’m not even sure if I like my classmates and they’re not sure what they think of me. But we’re in class together 4-5 hours a day for 3-6 weeks of the summer semester. These are the faces I live with half the day before being sequestered in the library for the other half.

But I don’t need these surreal summer conditions to look at Mr. Andrews. I don’t need to be stranded in this sliver of time between my parents’ announcement of their pending divorce and the studies I will begin at Oxford at summer’s end. I have been looking at Mr. Andrews for some time, though I will not let myself so much as think this.

I am in love, not with flesh and blood, but with the Bible and the deity that haunts its pages. I have found a place exploring the contours of the divine body, my fingers tracing the nail marks in his palms, my hands caressing the scar on his side.

I can navigate this body with a modicum of confidence now. I am no master, but I have learned the techniques, how to read this body and interpret its curves. It has many secret passages and hidden doorways; I feel my way to each orifice.

I move gingerly in the beginning. My freshman year at Bible college is an orientation to the hallowed halls of learning and how to  wield unfamiliar tools. But by the start of my second year, I am gaining steam and attracting attention. I win first place in a university-wide student essay contest. My professors give me perfect grades, but more importantly, they write affirming comments on my papers.

Here at the university, I am a Platonic ideal. I am eager to learn and awash with impressionable innocence. I am attentive, a good writer, and ready to please.

On top of all this, I am a true and breathless believer, a devoted worshipper. I hunger and thirst for knowledge. I am ready to be drawn past the temple’s outer courts and into its holiest inner room, where the invisible god of the cosmos straddles the million-eyed cherubim as night and day they let out their euphoric screams, “Holy, holy! Holy, oh! God almighty!”

In this conservative Christian world where it is a sin for women’s bodies to be seen, I have at last found a way to get attention: the astounding spectacle of my mind. With my hand, I am tucking unruly bra straps back under my shirt and, with my writing, exposing my brain.

I do not verbalize any of these thoughts this summer, not to anyone else, and most especially not to myself. I cannot give them shape. I know the truth of words and their permanence: Mental transgression is synonymous with transgression of the body. To think about having sex, even to name an attraction, is the same as doing the deed.

And so, as I sit in Mr. Andrews’ summer class--the fourth or fifth Bible course I’ve had with him thus far--I do what I’ve always done since adolescence. I pull these sensations apart and place them in manageable categories.

I put Mr. Andrews in the father figure box where he’ll stay shiny and clean. The logic is simple: in the absence of an accepting biological father, I want a spiritual father. My affection is daughterly, pure and holy.

But this doesn’t work and I know it in the dark waters of my heart where wild sea snakes twist and writhe just below the surface of my consciousness.

I tell myself that I am enamored of the Bible, the deity’s word, and this is why I skip lunch and head straight for the library after class to submerge myself in commentaries and articles on the literary structure of the Book of Jeremiah. And it’s true enough: These texts rivet me. The writings of this dead prophet fill me with the ecstasy of a school boy from the Dead Poets Society.

True, but not all the facts. I bracket out the pull I feel toward those shocking emerald eyes and the sharp, angular face that is one moment still, pensive, and drawn and then abruptly contorted with laughter, puzzlement, scorn, or rebellion. I ignore the way I craft my papers to play with metaphors in all the ways Mr. Andrews has taught me to do. I pretend not to worry about his sporadic eating habits.

And most of all, I push away the thought that I want to keep him forever, that I have very carefully laid plans for the future. I will go off and get a PhD in Biblical Studies, make him proud. Then I will return to my alma mater and make history by being the first woman at this conservative Christian school to teach in the Bible department. I will have an office down the hall from Mr. Andrews and we will spend our days sparring, debating, and learning together in the chastity and sobriety that befits teachers of holy scripture.

*

There are still no women teaching Bible at my old school, ten years later. Mr. Andrews is long gone, sacked at last for a thousand small transgressions that culminated in the ultimate sin: The denial that the Bible is without error. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect he may have also started to let on that he was queer-affirming.

I knew it would happen one day, that the school was too small and ordered for minds like Mr. Andrews that glittered with provocative energy and a taste for tumult and inversion. But I clung to the hope that the school--where I first learned to question my presuppositions and remain open to transformation and fresh vision--would be flexible and generous enough to accommodate Mr. Andrews’ shifting shape.

It was as much a dream for myself as it was for him. I told myself that he was more of a loose canon than I, which was true, but dishonest.

I was certainly more self-controlled than he. I’d been taught the womanly art of self-suppression since birth. But I knew that if Mr. Andrews was ever exorcised from the community, it was only a matter of time before I would be, too. If his unruly body felt like a threat, the increasing fear of mine would only escalate.

I would let myself out quietly by the back door before it all came to a head.

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Unfinished Gods

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Unfinished Gods

I’m not sure that anyone will read this since it’s about four times the length of your average blog post, but I intend the first chapter of my book to be something like this. If you do read it and it piques your interest, can you do me a favor and let me know? Would you want to read what comes next?

Unfinished Gods

My body knows it’s awake, nerves peeling the insides of my stomach.

The sun warms my face as I step off the train and a mild breeze moves to cool it. Above me, the Saturday sky stretches wide with golden-blue air.

The muscles in my neck are tight, wondering if they belong in this mellow suburban morning. My eyes and skin take in the calm and grow bewildered–my senses can’t make sense of it. The apprehension in my core persists, confusing all my meanings.

I see red trees and slumbering brick houses with windows dark and still. A squirrel scurries in the branches. A waking bird chirrups.

Down the road, a neighbor fetches the morning paper: a gentle yawn, thud, click. Heels scuffing against the peeling sage porch and creaking down the steps onto gruff asphalt.

Behind me, the train starts to chug and hiss, and I turn to watch as it pulls farther away from Philadelphia, its bold whistle piercing the air. The town sighs, turns over in its bed, and falls back asleep.

I know something will happen today, but I don’t know what. There will be a vision, but whether the spectacle that meets me is a beauty or a horror, I don’t know. This blank canvas is its own terror.

Brandon is there on the platform to meet me. He bends to give me a hug. He is a good eight inches taller than me, a fact I’ve never grudged him because he’s older, too.

Older brother, taller brother. These patterns of association make sense to the child’s mind, and though I am almost twenty-one, I am still a little girl. Old, big, strong. Young, small, weak.

But these categories are starting to fall apart. Brandon cannot protect me, that this is too big for both of us. Sometimes there are no shields, only healers to tend the wounds.

We walk the few blocks to his apartment, the second floor of a dusty blue Dutch colonial house with low ceilings and uneven, creaking floors. A few of its closets now open on to walls and dead-end staircases, remnants of the days when the house was once whole, before it was divided into apartments for rent.

We ascend the narrow stairs to the second floor, and I wonder who owns this house now. What stories lie dormant in these walls? Does the owner know them?  How many bodies have come and gone in those rooms–writing themselves into the door frames and ceilings and floors–words that lie silent because there is no one to read them?

Brandon turns the front door knob and ushers me down the narrow hall, past the closed bedroom and bathroom doors, and into the small kitchen.

My sister-in-law, Celia, has the kettle on and is setting out mugs for tea. This is Brandon and Celia’s first apartment and first year of marriage. Older, taller, married first. Coupled and in love before I have even been asked on a date.

The others arrive: Mom, Dad, and Dora. The whole family squeezes close around the lacquered wood table.

But where is Matthew? Years later, I will forget that my thirteen-year-old brother is not here with us.

Of course Matthew was there. We were all there together, my mind will lie to itself. We were all there to bear witness to the words read aloud to us that day. Together, we received a revelation from on high.

But, no. Matthew is not here.

When I am reminded of his absence that day, my chest will constrict at the thought of how many years passed before Matthew learned the details of what was revealed in that borrowed blue house in North Wales, Pennsylvania. I will feel heavy trying to imagine what he must have conjured in the gaps. I will think of the apparitions that must have overwhelmed his aching little heart. What gods turned and reeled and tormented him in that empty space?

I will go on to interrogate my memory to elicit the truth. I will wonder whether we had mugs that day and if I smelled the scent of tea. Did my mind supply these details later to make the scene warmer, more palatable? Did we drink tea or did we gather around an empty table?

But memory is not a hard image; it’s unbaked clay. The mind remembers a fraction of what transpires, working over the fragmented images.

We did not eat a meal together, I will tell myself. This, I know.

Everyone seated at the kitchen table, Dad pulls out the typed letter from his front shirt pocket and unfolds it carefully.

As Dad reads, I notice that the kitchen window opens onto a zigzagging, black fire escape. What would happen, I wonder, if I were to lean over, pry the window loose from the sill’s ancient, sticky paint, and climb upward, downward, anywhere?

It isn’t a long letter. The content is concise and methodical. There is a dense, successive rhythm to it, moving from one era in our parents’ marriage to the next with the sparse precision of an ancient regnal chronicle. It is the family annals of over twenty years condensed into two pages.

But this letter isn’t one of the royal annals. It doesn’t have the customary summary statement near the end of the account: the author’s concluding assessment of the monarch’s reign after his death. Today, we are the authors, the judges. We are the all-seeing eyes peering into our family history, assessing our parents’ marriage at its end.

Dad reaches the end of the letter and lifts his eyes to look at us. “I’m sorry,” he concludes, his voice breaking. “I’m so sorry…” He starts to cry.

I stare at his baby blue eyes as if seeing them for the first time. They are clear and vivid, washed bright with tears. The thick cloud hovering about his eyes has dissolved into a flood of crystal drops.

I feel a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought.

Rain will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon, long aisles–you never heard so deep a sound, moss on rock, and years.

I feel a river rising to my startled eyes.

From my eyes the thirsty and unguarded drops burst forth in a storm of tears like winter rain.

The waters spilling down my face. My arms around him, holding him as I have never dared hold him before. The past is swept downstream. The future is pictureless.

The hunger pains of my girlhood gather to a point, cut through me, end me, and disappear.

We are here: face to face. My eyes are opened and I recognize him.

And he vanishes from my eyes.

*

I have not seen my father since he appeared to me that day of the divorce announcement.

Our bodies still inhabit the same social circles at birthdays, weddings, and holidays. We exchange sentences about news or the busy nothings of our lives (but not religion or politics). Gift cards and calendars and mugs pass between us.

One Christmas, Dad gives me a biography of a singer I liked as a teen. The next year, he puts on one of her soundtracks as we cut up vegetables for salad at Christmas dinner.

“Let me know if you get sick of the music,” he says.

I can see that he is trying to work with the patches of distant memory. What did his daughter like when last he checked? What can he recall from the days before his powers of observation waned and he drew deeper into his work?

I accept it with a sense of defeat. What harm can these offerings do me now, these tokens of memory loss?

My memory of that momentary appearing looks more bizarre to me as the years pass. I think I believed that the end of my parents’ marriage would be the beginning of a new era. I thought it meant we could all stop pretending that our house was whole. The cracking foundations revealed, we could tear the edifice down and rebuild it.

But time passes. Some things change, but many remain the same. Carry on, then. As you were.

I try to peer at the vision of that day without feeling the shame that crowds it now, trying to remember the lightness of my body, the generosity filling my lungs, the catharsis soaked with rich pain.

Some days, I can conjure the lightness of it. I am a sighted god then, seeing and seen.

But seen by who?

The days carry on without acknowledgement of the history between me and my father. He does not remember the long absences interspersed with sporadic anger and excoriation. Or, if he does remember, he shows now evidence of it.

But this has been his way for as long as I can remember. Let’s not go there. Don’t make a fuss. No need to bring that up, it will only make a ruckus.

I think ruckus is my only salvation now. The silent things, the invisible gods bearing us up, need to be named. Why do we return day after day to the altars of gods we do not know?

Most days, I cannot remember the sense of reality coursing through my veins that moment of my father’s appearing. I feel like the medium of Endor gazing in terror at the figure she’s called up from the dead. Is it the prophet? Or is it a god? Who is the old man wrapped in a robe?

Did you really believe that things would change? the voices spit. Naive little girl. This is the way things are. Don’t meddle with the actual.

I have that recurring sense of grime that’s visited me since adolescence. In a flash, I’m back in all those places when I tried to talk to my father about how I perceived his demeanor. I thought maybe if I could just lay it all out in cold, rational terms, he’d see. But it always ended to the same way: me crying, feeling skeevy. And Dad calmly explaining why I had no idea what I was talking about.

In my dreams, this tension is resolved. I’ll be walking in a public place–a flea market, a store, a street corner–headed nowhere in particular, just away. Dad is following me. I walk faster. But he’ll catch up to me, I’ll turn around, and we’ll have to talk.

And when I turn, his face is not what I expect. He isn’t angry. He isn’t critical. He isn’t gaslighting me. He wants to understand. “What’s wrong?” he asks gently. We talk. I explain. And he gets it.

And then I’ll wake up hating myself for how obvious and readable my dreams are. I may as well have a flashing neon green sign on my forehead: WOUNDED.

I know this nauseating shame I feel isn’t my fault. The sour grapes eaten by the fathers churn the stomachs of their children and send them retching into the ages.

Why do I keep revisiting that day to keep that excruciating vision alive? I want to push it out of my mind, to pretend my wounds were not stripped naked, my traumatized heart raw and radiant.

And yet, I return to it. I know I was there. Or was I?

Was I seen? Who sighted me? And who or what did I see that day?

That splinter of memory digs into my skin and reminds me that gods are never finished. Gods are fluid animals and therein lies the wild pain of hope.

If gods can bleed when pricked, their blood can clot, scab, and form new tissue beneath. When one god refuses to show itself in dreams or Urim or prophets, another will rise up to meet me–a sudden radiance breaking across our sighted faces.

*

What gods arose to meet me in the wake of my father’s turned face? Too many to name, though I am trying with my rudimentary tools to sculpt the faces of a few.

I know the language of deity will sound strange to many ears. It often feels foreign to me even though it’s my native tongue.

I grew up in religious communities where human and divine faces coalesced. We had no language to talk about god except in human metaphors and earthly images, much to our chagrin. But the converse was also true: We did not know how to talk about ourselves without divine framing.

On paper, our theology called for strict separation between the “way of god” and the “way of man.” But divine-human apartheid turned out to be difficult in practice. God as separate, other, and supreme came at the expense of our humanity.

Our holy scriptures told us that we had been made in the image of the invisible god. But what did god look like? Without this tangible visage, how could we know who we were?

And so we committed a cardinal sin: We imagined god. Into the emptiness of the divine face, we poured ourselves. It was a matter of survival, of self-preservation. The earth was destined to perish in the fires of judgment, and along with it our mortal bodies. But if we could write our features into the immutable heavens, upload ourselves to the cloud, something human would remain once the earth had been swallowed by divinity.

In this world, paternal delight and dissatisfaction were indistinguishable from those of the divine. My story might have been a cut and dried case of good old fashioned patriarchy if it hadn’t been for this. Not that patriarchy is ever simple, but religious patriarchy has a unique twist.

No matter what human authority you have truck with, there’s always a higher divine authority–a trump card, if you will. If you can somehow get ahold of that trump card–make a case that the human authority is going against the divine–you can undercut that son of a bitch. Even if he doesn’t believe you, you’ve started to carve your own image of the world, of the divine. When god is everything, you just might be able to tell the human authorities to go to hell.

The flip side of this is that–until you find that trump card, and sometimes even after you do–your world is still defined by your proximity to and pleasuring of a divine authority figure with an infinitely malleable face.

Divine-paternal dissatisfaction and disappearing was the genesis of my world.

In the beginning, god raised a skeptical eyebrow, shook his head and turned his back on all he had made. Blasted, bumbling humans. Couldn’t get anything right, could they?

I was born, like any sentient being with a modicum of self-awareness, with the intense desire to meet faces that looked on me with deep, abiding satisfaction.

Is that a big ask, you think? I don’t. Because I believe in this world. First and foremost, I believe.

There. I thought my exit from formal religion meant I was done with dogmas and creeds, but there it is: Credo ergo sum. I believe, therefore I am, which is (to be more precise) to say: I imagine, therefore I am. I dream, and in the dreaming, I live and move.

The story of a god turned, deity hiding from me because of a condition with which I was born–this myth is no longer working for me. It’s damned us all to eternal wandering–we humans roaming a world that isn’t our home, and our deity skulking forever outside of it.

The story of the wandering Jew has its own historic complications, but at least a material end is in view. In most versions of that tale, a perpetual sense of homelessness is cast as a condition that needs to be changed, and external circumstances are to blame for each diaspora.

This is a story you can work with. You can envision a better future and work to change external circumstances. You can participate in the transformation of the world.

But I grew up as a wandering evangelical Christian, and here the condition is internal, a matter of the heart. The problem is always inside you, but you can do nothing to fix it because you are matter, and the material world is evil. You cannot effect your own salvation from spiritual homelessness.

This story’s supreme dissatisfaction with materiality divested me of agency and the ability to dream. I, along with the rest of the human race, could do nothing to change the deity’s disgusted expression. It meant that the rare moments in which I did feel at home in myself–the sense of love, connection, wholeness–this was a perpetual condition brought about by sin. These were fragments of glory my eyes could not fully see until I was removed from this earth.

I drank in the myth of the eternal wanderer. It was the answer to the riddle of my bones: Do I belong here? Why, no. No, darling. No body belongs in this world. Haven’t you heard that sin is like yeast, spreading to the whole of our flesh? No, we can’t cut the cancer out. The execution of our flesh is our only hope.

You’re dying already, don’t you see? Better to die under the father’s knife and make satisfaction. Hush, now, hush. It’s alright, darling. Your brother’s made a deal with daddy. You won’t have to go like this. Daddy will take his favorite boy instead, he’ll die for the whole family. Then we’ll all be pure, ready for glory. We’ll shed this vile skin and head on home.

In the beginning, god created the heavens and scorned the earth.

It may be foolish to start the retelling of my story here, lingering under the eye of a disapproving god. But my wound has not disappeared even though I tell myself divine dissatisfaction is a fantasy. Fantasy is how we inscribe ourselves in the actual: all my dreams are real.

I must dream again, re-member the world that meets my senses. I remember and am remembered, therefore I am. When I fade from memory and memory fades from me, I slip from the realm of myth and into the warm earth to rest among the flowers. I am scattered and recollected.

Here, in the heart of the open wound, the temple of my mind, I remember that I was and am looked at with pleasure, with love. I remember that I am the mother of all the living, that from the delight of my eye the world rises to meet me, and that I am made by its gaze.

I remember that no image of the past is absolute or definitive. The invisible god must be forged anew. I smelt this ore into ingots and beat the silver flat. I carve a visage of tamarisk wood and smoothe silver over its jaw, mouth, cheekbones, forehead. Into its sockets, I set stones of lapis blue. Its eyes dazzle and dance.

Tomorrow, I will smash this god and return to my smithy.

And yet even now I know that my childhood was full of many gods that gave rise to many stories. I imbibed many worlds at once, stories that contradicted each other, but nonetheless coexisted.

The darkness holds in itself infinite possibilities, worlds uncreated.

I believe in these worlds, which is to say I dream of them. My eye is caught by their splendors, all the colors and sensations that I cannot yet see.

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The Animal: A Poetry Experiment

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The Animal: A Poetry Experiment

To those of you who have grown up in (or experienced) evangelical purity culture, I have a poem for you—and a favor to ask. First, I’d like you to read this draft of the poem. Then, I plan to break all the poet rules by cluing you into a little of what I was trying to get at. If the poem resonates with you, I’d like to know why, and if it’s related to what I was actually trying to depict. Thanks, friends!

*

The Animal

The animals pressed up against my skin.

I measured feather, fur, and scale,

arranging their flesh as it met my senses.

I stroked their spines and sides,

wrote on each of them a name, 

tracing their movements and habitats.

*

There go the beasts that creep along the ground,

and the fish that dart and spin through the waters.

And there: The silvered dragon that bursts from the sea,

and the winged bodies that pump and glide across the sky.

*

I felt the brush of an animal I could not name,

its warm breath rising and falling across my shoulder.

I turned my head, but saw no feather, fur, or scale.

*

God? I tasted the name. 

God. I gulped it down,

and my bones became like water.

*

I lifted a hand toward my neck

to search its face, but touched

no cheekbone, mouth, teeth or fang.

*

I felt its eyes on me and the air

between us thinned and fled,

leaving thick flesh, bone within bone;

the dirt, dry and weary, kissed my pores

and became clay.

*

My lungs lurched for wind

as my hip tore from its socket

and my throat became a desert.

*

The tongue of the animal I cannot name

stuck to my jaws, and its mouth sucked

the dust.

*

What was I trying to do? On Facebook and on my blog, I’ve talked about how the "Jesus is my boyfriend" or "god is my spouse" marketing in evangelical purity culture encouraged a sort of disembodied sexuality, especially among girls. It cultivated a divine eroticism by framing god as a spouse/lover, prizing a kind of verbal or textual intimacy with the divine over and against sexual relationships with flesh-and-blood humans.

As I wrote earlier, if an invisible, all-present deity is your spouse and you communicate primarily through writing or speech, your sexuality is mediated largely in non-bodily ways. As evangelical teens, we knew porn was verboten because it was visual and human (looking at porn meant you'd basically cheated on your future spouse). But there wasn't really limitations on the eroticism of the text as long as god was the object of your affection.

The flip side of this is that bodily, human attraction becomes the antithesis of your divine relationship. A human partner is acceptable for procreative and sanctifying purposes, but kind of a rival to god. You can't love them too much or be too attracted--or really anything that could make god jealous.

In this poem, I was trying to tease out some of the emotional implications (sensations?) of a disembodied divine eroticism, without necessarily making a clear judgement call on how/where sexuality intersects with religion or the divine (or whether it should). If this poem hints at something you feel (or have felt) within or in the aftermath of purity culture, I would be interested to know.

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The Gaze: Enthrallment in the Wake of Purity Culture

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The Gaze: Enthrallment in the Wake of Purity Culture

I used to have a chronic fear of being boring. This fear was, in part, tied to my own frequent boredom. I was easily excited, but interest was hard to sustain. I would start books and not finish them. I would write initial drafts of poems or stories, but never revise them. I got restless and worried.

I was (and am) a romantic: full of dreams and visions and possibilities. And these ideals intersect and collide with present bodies, with others seeing visions and dreaming dreams.

There is a danger to dreaming: If you don’t let the dreams change as they mix with present bodies, your ideals can drown you. They must remain fluid and open to possibilities. Even in sleep, our dreams are contingent and open-ended: We wake, only to dream anew night after night.

And I wanted fixity, permanence, stability.

But I felt like I was inwardly unstable. In my lack of sustained attention was a latent fear: If I stopped moving, if I stopped to look too hard, what would I find? Would I still be enthralled by the faces that met me, not least of all my own?

The gaze becomes reality, but it is not static. To continue to be enthralled by anyone or anything, I would have to change along with it. To be enthralled with myself, I would have to let my ideals of myself change with my fluctuating body.

The fear of my own boredom was rooted in yet another fear. If I could lose interest, it meant others could lose interest in me. I could not sustain their gaze. Only they could do that, but it felt like an indictment on me. I could only ever look and observe the world’s details and hope that it noticed me, too.

This fear was exacerbated by a deep wound. Powerful adult figures in my formative years failed to notice me, and when they turned their eyes, it was to look with criticism and disapproval. No matter what I did, I had no power to make them look at me with deep, abiding delight.

In the shadow of evangelical purity culture, my fear of rejection bled over into interaction with the divine and affected who and what I felt permitted to be enthralled by. The only right answer in this scenario was god. Be delighted with god. Be delight with him as he is with you.

But god was both a jealous being and a loose cannon. In the substitutionary theology I was given, the deity could not abide to look at me because of my sin nature. So instead, he looked at his favorite son, Jesus, shrugged, and said, “I guess she can come to heaven if she’s with you.”

Love is in the details. The deity couldn’t love my (or any human’s) details, so he looked at us through his Jesus lenses.

And then there was the issue of my own affections: who or what I could love. In the context of evangelical purity culture, delight in god meant dissolution of interest in other things. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” meant turn your eyes away from most everything else.

And I embraced this mind-set with both vigor and frustration. I loved this world. But the deity had decreed that it was dying and that I should not love the things that pass away. Divine jealousy functioned as a protective mechanism for me: I was quick to stifle any crushes or attractions to flesh and blood humans, labeling them “unholy” or “not in accordance with god’s will.”

It was better to kill the dream before god did it for me. I felt guilty about attractions, any potentials, because I knew that the visions of a romantic did not cohere with the will of the deity, who wanted me all to himself (but was still not satisfied with me, a sinner).

And throughout all this raged the voices from the verbal abuse I experienced in my formative years: You will never be enough. You will grow dull, you will lose your shine, and your mind will become nothing. No pleasure will be taken in you--you who cannot even stop to take pleasure.

These harsh words still haunt me now and again, and I find they grow louder in proportion to my hope in people. I still want to kill my dreams before the deity does, to snuff things out before someone disappoints me, or before I disappoint me.

But I’ve grown better at being present, loving the shapes and textures of the now. I interpret the cacophony of denigrating voices as a sign that I am still that beautiful, strong, fragile being of old: a little girl in a vast garden, longing for open eyes and immanent presences.

And she has learned to open her eyes. She gets lost in the wonder of things. The laughs and gestures of a stranger. The turbid river rising, winding through the mountains beside the small town. Groups of people organizing themselves around a meal. People talking with their movements and expressions, speaking without words.

I gaze with hope, anticipation, and gratitude. Do they see me? Some do, some don’t. Do those that notice me love me? Yes, in varying degrees. As much as the scope of their gazes allow. Do I love them? Yes.

This is a perilous way to live, to pull the imaginings of potentials face to face with the present. Here, having no power except that of my own gaze – isn’t this where I started? Isn’t this the trembling, heart-sore romantic of my girlhood?

Yes. And I look at that girl with deep, abiding pleasure, and whisper to her: Good. Very good.

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Elixirs of Memory

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Elixirs of Memory

The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress.

North Wales, Pennsylvania. Spring, 2008.

The sun warms my face as I step off the train and a mild breeze moves to cool it. Above me, the Saturday sky stretches wide with golden-blue air.

I see red trees and slumbering brick houses with windows dark and still. A squirrel scurries in the branches. A waking bird chirrups.

Down the road, a neighbor fetches the morning paper: a gentle yawn, thud, click. Heels scuffing against the peeling sage porch and creaking down the steps onto gruff asphalt.

Behind me, the train starts to chug and hiss, and I turn to watch as it pulls farther out of the city, its bold whistle piercing the air. The town sighs, turns over in its bed, and falls back asleep.

My body knows it’s awake, nerves peeling the insides of my stomach. The muscles in my neck are tight, wondering if they belong in this mellow suburban morning. My eyes and skin take in the calm and grow bewildered--my senses can’t make sense of it. The apprehension in my core persists, confusing all my meanings.

I know something will happen today, but I don’t know what. There will be a vision, but whether the spectacle that meets me is a beauty or a horror, I don’t know. This blank canvas is its own terror.

James is there on the platform to meet me. He bends to give me a hug. He is a good eight inches taller than me, a fact I’ve never grudged him because he’s older, too.

Older brother, taller brother. These patterns of association make sense to the child’s mind, and though I am almost twenty-one, I am still a little girl. Old, big, strong. Young, small, weak.

But these categories are starting to fall apart. I know what James cannot protect me, that this is too big for both of us. Sometimes there are no shields, only healers to tend the wounds.

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Talking Skulls: The Making and Unmaking of Race (Part 2)

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Talking Skulls: The Making and Unmaking of Race (Part 2)

The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress. The first part of this excerpt can be found here.

If Europe could not be heir to these civilizations by blood, it would be heir by divine will. Europe had conquered the globe, sent colonists hither and yon to seize and capture. The blessing of the firstborn is not automatic, but conferred through the declaration of the father.

The Father God of all creation had conferred on his beloved Son, Jesus the Christ, the entire earth. Behold, my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.

The Christian nations of Europe knew the earth belonged to Christ, to Jesus the Messiah, god’s anointed king. And in his name, they took possession of the earth.

They’d forgotten that Jesus the Palestinian Jew had often lived at odds with imperial Rome. He’d been executed by Rome as a political prisoner. The charge? “This man claimed to be the son of god.” In the language of Jesus’ day, this meant heir to the deity’s kingdom, the ruler of the land.

Ah, yes! A king! We knew it. Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of All, and give governance of the earth to all who pay homage to Christ the King. Those that do not: invade, capture, vanquish. Reduce to perpetual slavery.

But what would the French and British generals of the eighteenth century have made of Jesus if they’d been there in first century Palestine the day that Jesus went up on the mountain to set the record straight about divine blessings?

Up the mountainside the Jewish rabbi walked and then sat down to teach his students and the nearby crowds.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he began, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”

They call this crazy motherfucker a king? This asinine anointed one spewing ancient poetry like a drunken fool?

The meek will inherit the land.

Fuck that. The land belongs to the strong, the warriors, the conquerors. Hail Caesar! Fuck the meek.

The meek will inherit the land.

Shut your mouth, fool!

The Rosetta Stone was just one (major) discovery in the development of archaeology as a discipline. In 1835, fewer than forty years after the Rosetta Stone, a British East India Company army officer named Henry Rawlinson visited the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia (modern-day Iran). An ancient Persian king known as Darius the Great had carved stories about his reign and predecessors into a the rock on a cliff at Mount Behistun, writing the same text in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Assyrian, and Elamite.

Rawlinson wasn’t the first European to puzzle over cuneiform script. Since the fifteenth century, a handful of European travelers had been intrigued by cuneiform inscriptions of Persepolis in Persia, and the cuneiform carved into the bricks of Ur and the ruins of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. But no one had been able to figure out how to read this script.

The Behistun Inscriptions, like the Rosetta Stone, made it possible to figure out the vocabulary and grammar of the previously unknown ancient languages.

While Rawlinson worked on deciphering Old Persian in the Behistun Inscriptions, a French scholar named Eugene Burnouf was also trying to crack Old Persian. Burnouf had found a clue in the copies of the Persepolis Inscriptions that had been brought to Europe, and he was able to identity and publish an alphabet of thirty letters of Old Persian.

These were not the only players--many more scholars had a hand in deciphering cuneiform script. But you get the gist: Europeans were figuring out how to read the long-lost literature of Egypt and the Middle East. And they’d started to dig and find more and more of these cuneiform texts.

Libraries of cuneiform texts were often well-preserved even in ruins. Unlike writing on papyrus reed, cuneiform texts were durable because they were made of baked clay. To create a tablet of cuneiform, scholars would take soft clay and use a wedge-shaped stylus to make marks in the clay. When the writing was done, the clay was dried in the sun or baked hard. If a city was sacked and burned the fire didn’t destroy the tablets, which had already been kiln-dried.

*

As I stared back at the skull in the basement of the Penn Museum, I thought about Gudea’s city, now an archaeological excavation in Iraq. The archaeological finds of the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, had been spun by Europe and the U.S. as universal origin stories.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories known to humankind, it’s true. But why was it marketed as the world’s myth before acknowledging that it first belonged to the people of Iraq?

When it came to Britain’s own backyard, no one quibbled: Stonehenge was of worldwide significance, but it was first a cultural artifact of Britain. But when it came to the Middle East, archaeology and geopolitics were intertwined. Britain and France had been digging up and doling out parts of the Middle East when it came to land and political governance. Why not divvy up the ancient stories and material culture, too?

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I Believe People Are Good. But I Don't Trust Them Anymore.

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I Believe People Are Good. But I Don't Trust Them Anymore.

I sit here sobbing through the credits of Blackkklansman. The film ends with images from the 2017 protests against the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

In a matter of seconds, I am pulled from the racism and racial terror inflicted by the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s right to the present day. The film awes me with its beautiful depictions of black power and horrifies me with the images of white supremacy.

Last week, people responded to Facebook's "how hard has aging hit you?" challenge by commenting on how they've changed since joining Facebook. In the past few years, I know my sadness has started to show around my eyes. Eyes do that, as they age. I notice it whenever I see photos of people when they were younger. It's not the wrinkles or the gray hair I see--it's the eyes losing their innocence.

The world feels heavier to me than it did eight years ago, but this also means I can better feel its substance. The world is heavy in my palm. I would not trade these new eyes, these new hands, for anything.

As an adolescent and into my college years, I used to wonder about my purpose and vocation. I felt confused about many things. Raised in the ahistorical environs of white evangelicalism, I was largely untethered to history and a sense of place. Where did I fit in in the scheme of things? I did not know. I was constantly in an existential crisis or on the verge of one.

Most of these questions have dissolved as I've learned more about the history of the United States. Learning about the violent foundations of the U.S. and the horrific legacy of white supremacy has undone my listless quandaries about personal purpose.

Life is much simpler to me now. I know the world is a wildly beautiful place. But many have been denied the simple, foundational joy of being able to live without fear of violence or annihilation. I need no other purpose than to feel at home on the earth (as much as it’s in my power to do so) and to help right the wrongs that have made the earth a hostile environment for many (as much as it's in my power to do so).

My life is simple (though not easy): recognize my power and use it in generative ways.

Blackkklansman is hardly my first introduction to issues of race, racism, and white supremacy. I've been reading about these for about four years now. But seeing the images from Charlottesville remind me that it's my people that elected Trump: white evangelicals.

I grew up in that space. And I can tell you that most of them are good people. Generous, kind people even.

But there's the rub: I don't trust good people anymore because good people can perpetuate injustice and have no idea. Or, even if they have an inkling or experience cognitive dissonance, they can live so long in the insularity of whiteness that there's no communal consciousness of how injustice operates or how they perpetuate it. That was/is my story. I won’t shy away from acknowledging it. I am in recovery from whiteness and expect to be in recovery my whole life.

I grew up with the notion that humans were wicked at the roots. Any apparent "good" we might do was only because of the "grace of God" and not because we had actual good in us.

Over time, I saw how toxic this belief is. I discovered that people are good. I started to understand that I was good.

And then I discovered that it (almost) doesn't matter how good you are personally if the systems you're inhabiting are bad. And it doesn't matter how well-intentioned you are--your ignorance can do enormous harm. I spent twenty-seven years of my life not even thinking about my white skin, not realizing the power of my body, or that many of my personal advantages in life had come at the expense of people of color.

While I was preoccupied with my existential crises, black teenagers were just trying to survive into adulthood. 

I don't give a damn about personal goodness anymore. We need to cultivate environments and systems where people do the good expected of them because it is difficult to do harm. I'm a good person, but I don't trust that I'll be able to live a just life without the support of a common historical memory or communal expectations about what is just.

My existential questions are gone. My question now is strategy: what do we do?

As a bookish person, my solution to everything is to just throw a book at it. That's what I've been doing. Reading--absorbing stories by people of color and letting them change my thinking. Weeping, too--letting the enormity of injustice sink into my psyche. Writing--reflecting on my encounter with these stories and trying to translate this into education.

The epigraph to Blackkklansman (the book) includes a quote by Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

My eyes are sadder. I have much to learn. But I'm not confused. I am starting to know my power.

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Talking Skulls: The Making and Unmaking of Race (Part 1)

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Talking Skulls: The Making and Unmaking of Race (Part 1)

The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress.

The orbits of the skull seemed to stare up at me from the low pedestal behind the glass display case. How the sockets of the dead judge the eyes of the living.

I shifted from foot to foot. When it was my time to die, I hoped my bones would be buried deep in the rich earth, not paraded naked in a public display.

Have you learned nothing? the skull asked. If you would prophesy over my bones, quit your probing, measuring, naming. You look at matter through microscopes, but do not see its significance. You use scales and weights, but do not understand the meanings of your measures. You name what you do not know.

I hadn’t come to see a human skull. I was at the Penn Museum in search of another head: the upper half of a diorite statue of Gudea of Lagaš, a Neo-Sumerian ruler of the third millennium BCE. The statue’s decapitated body was in a museum in Baghdad, Iraq, a stone’s throw away from the city of Girsu, the region Gudea had governed (modern-day Telloh).

The severed head was here in Philadelphia. I’d seen a whole Gudea statue a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Twenty-seven Gudea statues had been unearthed, most from excavations at Telloh, some whole, some in pieces.

What would Gudea think of his images being scattered across the world, so far from the temples of Girsu where he’d installed them?

Britain and France were the primary instigators of archaeological excavations in the Middle East, so maybe it isn’t surprising that most of Gudea’s stone bodies have ended up in France, England, and the U.S. At least eleven are in Paris at the Louvre, the British Museum in London has two, and a few lie in major U.S. cities: Harvard, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia.

This is Gudea’s body broken and spread across the globe. I say ‘body’ because I think Gudea considered these images as an extension of his flesh and blood. They were crafted to be his presence before the gods of the temples of Girsu, to speak his messages to the gods.

Over four thousand years ago, Gudea had stone brought from the mountains of Magan. Artisans fashioned these images of Gudea and inscribed the story of their creation into the body of each statue, the words indivisible from the flesh.

Gudea, the inscriptions say, devoted himself to rebuilding the temples of Lagaš. He built a house for the god Ningirsu, and another for the goddess Nanše, the Sirara House, her mountain rising out of the waters. He built the House of Girsu for Ningišzida, and many other houses for the great gods of Lagaš.

Gudea placed his image in every temple and dedicated each to the temple’s patron deity. He commanded each statue to be his voice to the god: “Image, to my lord, the god Ningirsu, speak!”

The ruler of Lagaš was not alone in how he understood images as organic extensions of presence. Temples in Mesopotamia housed votive statues, carved images of men and women in prayer, placed in the houses of the gods so that the image could pray on the worshiper’s behalf.

The gods themselves had bodies that lived in the temples, bodies of wood overlaid with precious metals and stones: red gold, bright lapis lazuli.

On a favorable day, these images underwent the rituals of the mouth-washing (mīs pî) and mouth-opening (pit pî). Until these rites were performed on the image, it could not take up its throne as a god in the temple. The god’s mouth had to be purified through washing with holy water and then opened by the application of ghee or honey to its lips so that the god could eat, smell, taste, drink.

The animated image of the god was placed in the temple to be the god’s presence.

*

I’d been reading about these rituals and images for years, enthralled by the portrait of reality they seemed to portray.

Evangelical religion portrayed the earth as a place of shadows, a frail copy of the glory to come. Everything was a pale image of the beyond, never a real thing itself. There were Images and then there were Real Things, separate and unequal. The world was full of images, but bereft of reality.

But Gudea lived in a world where image was reality. The signs did not point beyond, but within, across, upward, downward, all around. Gudea’s world was immanent. If there was a beyond, it was also within; there was no exterior that wasn’t interior at the same time. The signs did not point to a deity outside this tangible world, but to another aspect of the cosmos.

I was grateful to Gudea for opening my eyes to new ways of thinking, but was becoming more and more aware of the cost of this knowledge. It felt backwards that the colonizing powers steeped in a Western religious heritage that propagated mind-body dualism should now ‘discover’ the beautiful complexity and sophistication of these ancient rituals of the senses.

And I knew Gudea hadn’t had a say in any of this. Archaeology as a discipline had developed as a nationalistic endeavor of European powers. Grave-robbing, looting, and theft of ancient Near Eastern antiquities had been part of it from the beginning.

An interest in antiquity is not unique to Europe or the eighteenth century, but as Europe rose to dominance, there were a few important discoveries of artifacts from antiquity that greased the wheels of British and French nationalism and charted a course for ancient Near Eastern archaeology as a European imperial enterprise.

Before the unearthing of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian hieroglyphs were a mystery. No one knew how to read them. They were viewed by Europeans as divine secrets lost to time. The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking this mystery.

The stone is inscribed with three versions of a decree from Memphis, Egypt, an edict from the Ptolemaic dynasty written in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic script, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

When the stone was found in 1799, scholars were able to start decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics. All scholars of the day knew Greek, and since the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone corresponded to the hieroglyphics, they were able to start deciphering the language.

It wasn’t, however, an Egyptian that found the Rosetta Stone, but a Frenchman during the Napoleonic military campaign in Egypt. When the British defeated the French at the capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stone was transported to London as British property.

Since then, the stone has been a source of nationalistic rivalry among the British and French. Which nation had unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egypt? Whose scholars had contributed most to deciphering this divine language?

Above all, it was question of imperial dominance in relation to the great kingdoms of the world. In popular nationalist mythology, the Roman Empire was the successor of the Greeks that had succeeded ancient Egypt. Egypt was the oldest and most revered civilization. If Napoleon could claim the treasures of this civilization for the French, then France was the apex of civilization, the last heir and climax of a long line of Great Civilizations.

This, the British knew, which is why it was more than a feather in their cap when the stone was captured and taken to London.

Land, culture, heritage: there for the taking. But the plunderers must have their stories straight. They must prove their legitimacy as heirs of the land. If there is no claim by blood, then the claim must be spiritual--a claim of divine right, election or adoption.

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Desiring God: The Eroticism of Purity Culture

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Desiring God: The Eroticism of Purity Culture

The following is an excerpt of my book in progress. The section preceding this can be found here.

I hear my own grating voice in the accusations of the priest.

You greedy, money-grubbing humans. Malcontent miscreants. What delights did the fruit offer you that you did not already possess? Be content with the status quo. Do not desire what you were not ordained to touch. Shame. Shame. Shame.

I don’t know quite how to extricate myself from this myth, nor am I sure that I want to. Divine rejection is an earth-trembling drama that borders the erotic, and often strays into its territory. The recitation of the story can evoke an orgasmic catharsis of pain enmeshed with pleasure.

I am not trying to be crass, but to be honest about how the language of god gets tangled up with desire, belonging, and sexuality.

My eyes wander through the rooms of my adolescent psyche and look at the Christian teen girl magazines and books I read back then. Brio Magazine and Christian courtship books made one thing very clear: God was my first love, my true husband.

But satisfaction, bodily belonging, was a dream deferred. In a masochistic sort of irony, God was the giver of all gifts, but no gift would satisfy like the gift of himself.

God the Ultimate Provider/Bread-Winner/Husband might one day provide a human husband, but this good and godly man would disappoint me if I relied on him to sate my deepest longings. Sexual desire, intimacy, longing--these were not bad exactly, just paltry compared compared to infinite divine joy.

I see this divine-human performance as kind of iconoclastic pornography. It thrives in evangelical purity culture by fetishizing the idea of absence and imagelessness. Purity culture likes its god formless and void.

The absence is fraught with both pain and pleasure. The return of God is anticipated with both joy and fear.

Pulled in the currents of purity culture, it wasn’t just the divine body that we pushed away with dread, but our own. The fear of being caught up in desire produced a loathing of our own bodies for wanting to touch what we’d been told we shouldn’t want.

But we did long.

So we learned that porneia was best as graphe, writing. We developed a supra-visual way of talking about desire that flung God in between everything because we didn’t have the guts to say ‘I.’

I desire.

There it is, beloved. I say it now, and weep for the shame of it, for the scandal I never wanted to be.

I thirst. I hunger. I long to feel naked and unashamed.

A woman’s body is vile. It is the sin for which there is no pardon. I cannot wash away the stain of my flesh. And so I hide in the abstraction of a disemboweled god because I can’t bear my flesh.

No more. I want all to be laid bare. I want this woman’s body--this white, cisgender woman’s body--to know itself. I want to reckon with it unafraid, to read the symbols poured into it and the symbols pouring out of it. I want this body to know its power and where its weight moves in the global map of bodies.

I am a comprised of many parts like the Scorpion People, the Lamassu, the Cherubim. I want to know each facet of my liminal body.

Forever in the dark about my sin--that was the story of my childhood. Humans were bad apples and I was no exception. But the cause of the rot or what I could do about it, I never knew. No solutions, just general shame mixed with bits of hope that one day this world and this desperate body would pass away.

But now, now I refuse to grope around in the dark. Let the body be known. Let the disparate stories written in my skin be told. Let the names be read aloud in the assembly. I want no more to do with abstract sins and invisible offenses.

Catch me up in the stories of our days, the histories of race, gender, class, religion, and politics. I will not lament my body, only the stories inscribed on my blood that have enslaved other bodies and denied them the right to be bodies unashamed. I want no more of the sordid, colorblind privilege of a general, unspecific “sin nature.”

There is nothing natural about racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. These stories are made. These global traumas are of human manufacture. I refuse to believe that fear of the body--and the terror of particular bodies cultivated by the myths of white supremacy--are the final or most powerful stories.

And to say I refuse is to say I desire. I imagine. I dream of a world where the global body is not afraid to know itself, in all its composite parts. I long for a body that will not waste away with amnesia for fear of confronting the invisible myths that sustain it.

Expose my stories, undo me. Let the world be written anew.

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The Mystery of the Empty Shrine

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The Mystery of the Empty Shrine

The following is an excerpt from my book in progress.

I felt as if the secrets of divine mystery were being revealed to me as I read and studied The Wrath of Telipinu, the glory of heaven stored in humble earthen vessels. Here was language I understood. This was why I felt so long estranged: my God was hiding.

It wasn’t my God’s fault--I knew that. It could never be his fault. He wasn’t an ill-tempered fool like Telipinu. The offense, the sin, was mine. I had broken faith with him, for we all had. That was the message of evangelical Christianity: that each human had been born enslaved to sin because of the treachery of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit from the one God’s garden.

The pieces of my life’s, even the world’s, jigsaw seemed to be coming together. Telipinu had abandoned his temple, his own cult image, and the land that he tended and governed. My God had done the same in spatial reverse. He hadn’t abandoned his garden-temple or his land, but driven his human images out of it. My only hope, the world’s only hope, was a return to that divine garden, the land of my birth, the cosmic center.

I was and always would be a wanderer on the earth, a refugee in my house of bodily origin. Until the Last Day, when Jesus the son of the one God returned to revive the dying earth, I would never be at home.

I held this story to my breast and let it shape my interiors. I even wrote a creative retelling of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, trying to revive the mythic resonances of the originals that were so often lost on churched readers.

The Prologue to The Wandering God went something like this.

*

On a mountain range spread with conifers, a modest shrine of cedar and calcareous limestone sits on a rocky platform about a mile east of the river’s edge.

The shrine’s three walls are built of quarried stone blocks, but the roof is formed of cedar, and panels of cedar line the interior so that no stone can be seen. The front of the shrine has no wall, only three stone stairs leading to a two-columned portico that looks onto the god’s cella where an offering table sits before the god’s empty altar bench.

The lone priest who tends this forest shrine lives in a small limestone house a short distance from the god’s.

Each morning, the priest takes a reed basket and walks to the bank of the river to pick from the few wild fruit trees that grow there, sprouted (some say) from seeds carried by winds from the garden of the god. When the priest returns, he enters the god’s cella and arranges the fruit before the vacant altar bench on the low offering table of stone. He sees to the lamp that burns perpetually, and offers the daily rite of incense.

Then he returns to the river or roams the forest, waiting for the pilgrims who visit his shrine. Days he waits. Sometimes weeks or months. But always, they come–wanderers in search of the garden of the god.

No mortal eye has seen it for thousands of years, the priest tells the pilgrims, except in dreams and visions. Since the day the god drove humans out of his garden, no one has found its gates, though many have gone in search of it. Dear pilgrims, beware. If you journey beyond this shrine into the thick of the holy cedars, you will not find what you seek. Should you find the Place of the Four Waters and the garden walls, you will not be able to enter, for the god has shut it away from mortals that we may not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever with dull eyes and gaunt cheeks.

Sit, says the priest, spreading out what fruit remains in the basket and pouring wine into vessels. Eat. Drink. Let the god’s incense soothe your mind that you may remember what no eye has seen. Come, I will tell you the story of the god’s garden, and unveil the mystery of his empty shrine.

In the days before the rains, when water used to well up from springs to water the face of the ground, there was no human to cultivate the earth. So one day, the god knelt in the damp earth and worked it into the form of a man. When he was finished, the god put his lips to the clay man’s mouth and breathed into him, and the man became skin and blood and breath.

The god planted a garden in the east, and there he put the human to cultivate and care for it. The god made trees spring up from the ground. He filled the garden with trees of lemons, oranges, figs, apricots, and date palms to delight the tongue, and to please the eye he grew oaks, pines, and cedars. (The wood of this house is cut of an ancient cedar felled from that sacred grove.)

In holy language, when a god plants a garden, we say he has built a house or temple, for it is his divine residence on earth, the tip of his throne room extending into the earth. (As the ancients have said: heaven is his throne, earth is his footstool.)

But we also say it is the house of the human, for the god gave its fruits and its tending over to the man he made from dust. The god and the human share one house, one rule, one destiny.

Wayfarers, on your journey here to the ends of the earth you have passed many shrines great and small to many gods of little and much renown. You have seen their cult images of wood and stone sitting on their altar benches, how their faces of hammered gold and lapis lazuli dazzle the eye.

Here at the edge of the world, you find no image in the shrine of the god whose garden you seek. You see nothing but a humble offering table and a lamp and an altar of incense. You come to a house of flame and smoke, not of form or face, for the god’s visage cannot be seen in cedar or diorite, but in the face of humankind.

On the day that the god sculpted the man of clay, he formed a woman also. He made a deep sleep fall on the man, and while he was sleeping, the god pushed his fingers into the man's side as if it were still clay and pulled out a rib, which he worked into a woman.

He made the humans his images, his body on earth to cultivate the land and care for every living thing. You see no image in this shrine, for you are the god’s image, his body in exile, his estranged offspring. We are his images cast out of the garden, strangers to the earth from which he fashioned us.

You see an offering table of fruit: it is the god’s fruit we cannot eat because our ancestors spurned the banquet he spread for them and sought the fruit he had forbidden them to taste.

When the god planted the garden and made trees sprout from the ground, he put two trees in the middle of the garden. The first tree was a tree of life, said to grant immortality to those who ate of it. The second was a tree of knowledge, said to bring illumination.

The fruit of this tree would alter the eyes of its eaters and give them the power to know good and evil. To those who were strong enough to wield its powers, it would give them skill to see all that transpires beneath the sun and reject the ways that lead to death and choose the paths of life.

But those who were ignorant and unskilled in the tree’s power, it would make discontent with the delights of the garden and the hallowed ground so that they would become transfixed by all that is foul: bloodshed, greed, exploitation, oppression, suspicion of all that is beautiful and pleasant to the senses.

The man and woman knew nothing of this tree’s powers, only what the god had said: that they should eat of every tree except this tree of knowledge, for death would surely follow if they tasted of it.

The god offered the humans every tree but one, and for a time they were pleased with this bounty.

But one day, a loquacious serpent crept up to their table and told the humans a different story about the god and the grove of trees that filled his garden.

The snake said that the god of the garden feared the humans would usurp his authority, for the fruit from the knowledge tree had the power to make them like gods if they ate of it. The garden could be theirs alone, the serpent said. They need not rely on the hospitality of this god so stingy as to deny them this succulent fruit. They could seize the garden as their own possession and rule the house as gods instead of mortals.

Mark the bitterness of the serpent’s shrewdness, friends. What delights did it offer that the humans did not already possess? Were they not sculpted as the image of divinity? Were they not animated by divine breath? Did they not have charge of all that lives and moves on the earth? What did they desire that the god had not given them? What did they have yet to possess save the immortality that would be theirs if they would only eat the food the god had set before them?

The god could feel the sweet tang of the fruit’s juices in his mouth the moment his images sank their teeth into it. He called out to them in the garden, but they hid from his face and ran into the thick of the grove.

The god feared that his images would find the tree of life, eat its fruit, and live forever with turned faces and greedy eyes. Before the humans could reach up and pluck from the tree of life, the god drove them out of his garden into the wild of uncultivated lands.

There they wandered the untamed earth and tried to build their own kingdom. They wanted no share in the god’s bounty and set their faces toward their own house. The god and his images became two divided and unequal kingdoms. Two houses, two rules, two destinies.

But when the god’s images passed through the garden gate, the god felt a sharp pain down his middle, and he gasped for breath. He could end this now, he thought. He had only to say the word to the winged guardian stationed at the gate and its flaming sword would cut down the images in their tracks. The divine breath that animated their bodies would abandon them and they would again become dust.

But the god said nothing as his heirs fled further from the entrance to the garden, only winced fiercely and turned his face away.

The priest falls silent. His eyes search the dirt as day turns to dusk, and the pilgrims look toward the lamp that burns beside the altar bench. The sweet prick of cedar and citrus lingers in the air.   

The priest takes a deep breath and resumes his tale.

At the place where the waters divide into four rivers stands a wall of rounded, baked brick surrounding the garden of the god. The bricks are painted sapphire, turquoise, and emerald. Rows of gold-plated bricks gild its parapets and delineate the edges of the arched gates of hammered bronze. The gates, closed and secured with bars, once opened into the eastern part of the garden where the gazelle grazed on herbs and shrubs, and the raven nested in the branches of the olive tree.

Thorns and thistles entangle it now, for its gardeners have fled. The jackals and hyenas haunt its ruins, and the Anzu bird screeches at the wild goats that gather by the nettles of the boxthorn.

Outside the gate that no one has entered for thousands of years hovers a guardian with four heads: human, eagle, ox, and lion. Its feet are the hooves of a calf, but its human hands grasp the hilt of a flaming sword. The sound of its four wings beating the air fills the garden night and day, drowning out the cry of the Anzu and the howl of jackals.

The sword of the four-faced cherub burns throughout the ages, barring the way to the tree of immortality. Since the day the god drove the humans out of his garden, no one has dared approach its walls.

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The Wrath of Telipinu

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The Wrath of Telipinu

The following is a retelling of the Hittite myth known today as The Wrath of Telipinu. This rendition draws heavily from Gary Beckman’s translation in The Context of Scripture (Vol. 1), often quoting verbatim with minor stylistic modifications.


The Wrath of Telipinu

The god Telipinu disappeared from the land in a rage. What pissed off the son of the Storm-god, nobody knew, but he left in such a temper that he shoved his shoes on the wrong feet and vanished into the wilderness.

A petrifying mist seized the land in the god’s absence. The world shuddered and fell silent. The hustle and bustle halted and all became still, as if suspended in mid-air.

The arid frost permeated the windows and spread through the houses. On each hearth, the red-hot coals grew black and the smoking logs were stifled.

On their altars in the town shrines, the gods were stifled. In the fold, the sheep were stifled. In the corral, the cows were stifled. The mother sheep refused to feed her lamb. The cow would not suckle her calf.

When Telipinu went off into the moor, he fell asleep. The halenzu plant spread over him and his pulse stilled.

It was as if Telipinu carried the life of the world in his waking body, for when he disappeared into the meadow and the moor, he took with him the flourishing of the grain and the fertility of the herds.

Barley and wheat stopped growing. Cows, sheep, and humans could no longer conceive, and pregnant mothers could not give birth.

The mountains dried up. The trees dried up, so that no buds emerged. The pastures dried up. The springs dried up. Famine smote the land. Humans and gods perished from hunger.

The Sun-god prepared a feast and invited the Thousand Gods. They ate, but were not sated. They drank, but were not satisfied.

The Storm-god grew worried about his son, Telipinu. He knew of Telipinu’s rages and havoc he could wreak on the land simply through the movement of his tempestuous body.

“My son Telipinu is not here,” Storm-god said at last, when the gods had finished their meager meal. “He became angry and took away for himself everything good.”

The great gods and the lesser gods began to search for Telipinu. Their host, the Sun-god, dispatched an eagle to scout out the high mountains, deep valleys, and blue sea.

But the eagle returned from his journey with nothing to show for it. “I didn’t find the honored god Telipinu,” he reported to the Sun-god.

The Storm-god despaired of his son. “What will we do?” he asked the Mother-goddess. “We will perish from hunger!”

The Mother-goddess looked the Storm-god straight in the eyes. “What will we do?” she echoed. “Do something, Storm-god! You go search for Telipinu.”

The Storm-god shouldered his mallet and wedge and set off in search of Telipinu. He came to his city and started hacking at its gates, but to no avail. The gates did budge and in his hands was a busted hammer. The storm-god dropped the smashed tools with a groan, wrapped himself in his robe and sat down in defeat.

He looked over at the Mother-goddess. In her outstretched palm was a tiny bee flexing its wings. She pulled the creature close to her face. “You go,” she whispered to it. “You go search for Telipinu.”

The Storm-god rolled his eyes. “The great gods and the lesser gods searched for him over and over, but they didn’t find him. And you think this bee can find him? This small bee with a miniscule wingspan?”

The Mother-goddess ignored him. “Go!” she whispered, and the bee flew off in search of Telipinu.

The bee headed away from the city, across the fields, and into the meadow where Telipinu slept tangled in the halenzu plant. The matted brush was no trouble for the bee; it flew easily through its small gaps.

The bee stung Telipinu on his hands and feet. The god jolted awake. His hands and feet felt like they were on fire. He shouted and cursed and flailed his arms wildly to beat back the brush, stumbling across the meadow on his swollen feet.

But back in the town, the ritual practitioner was ready. She had gathered the grains, fruits, and oils needed to placate the god’s anger, expiate the evil from his body, and entice him back to the land. With the help of Kamrusepa, goddess of magic, Telipinu’s wrath would be turned aside.

She ground up malt and beer and held a bowl of the mixture up to the nose of Telipinu’s cult statue. “Let the pleasant smell summon you, Telipinu,” she said. “Now you are choked with rage. May you be reconciled with gods and humans!”

The ritualist set before Telipinu sweet water, nuts, oil, honey, ghee, wine, and figs.

“Let your heart be pacified, O Telipinu. Let your heart be sated with oil. As figs are sweet, let your heart become sweet. As the grape holds wine in its heart, may you hold goodness in your heart. As malt and beer-bread are joined in essence, may you O Telipinu be joined to the words of humans. As honey is sweet and ghee is mild, let your heart heart become sweet and mild.”

The ritualist prepared the god’s path and resting place. She cut stalks of lemongrass and boughs of sahi and happuriya and arranged them into a bed for Telipinu. She set her face in the direction whence she knew the god would come and sprinkled his path with fine oil.

Telipinu returned in a fury. He thundered and flashed and hurled a bolt of lightning toward the dark earth below.

But the magic goddess Kamrusepa saw Telipinu coming and took an eagle’s wing, an instrument of magic. On earth, the ritualist reached for an eagle’s wing, her motions mirroring the movements of Kamrusepa in heaven.

Kamrusepa above and her human double below carried off Telipinu and set to work ending his wrath before he reached the land. She burned incense of purification around Telipinu’s body on all sides, drawing the evil from it.

“I have taken his displeasure. I have taken his wrath. I have taken his irritation. I have taken his anger. Telipinu is wrathful.  His heart and his image were stifled like kindling. As I have burned this kindling, let the displeasure, wrath, and anger of Telipinu likewise burn away.”

The rituals continued until Telipinu’s rage was turned aside from each part of the city.

“Let Telipinu’s body release the anger and displeasure Let the house release them. Let the central courtyard release them. Let the windows release them. Let the door-pivot release them. Let the city gate release them. Let the gate structure release them. Let the royal road release them. They will not go to the fertile field, or garden, or grove.”

Telipinu returned home and turned his thoughts to nourishing his land. The mist released the windows and the house. The altars were reconciled with the gods. The logs in the hearths burst again into orange flame. The sheep and cows awoke. The mother sheep nursed their lambs and the cows suckled their calves.

And as of old, the storm god Telipinu concerned himself with the life, health, and future of the royal house. For the king, he destined long years and progeny, and a future of great renown.


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The Disappearing God

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The Disappearing God

When the moon’s gone down and alone I lie, I know that it’s me. I’m waiting for my own imminent return even as I push the day further ahead.

The human animal is a strange beast, ascribing divinity and animality to itself all at once. Do we think ourselves so inscrutable that we put off knowing ourselves until the Last Day, the great and terrible day when we will stare into the mirror with unveiled faces? Are we so fearsome to behold that we push ourselves into the sky and vault up the heavens lest the thick cloud roll back and all be revealed?

The wandering god isn’t a scowling deity running off into the wilderness to hide its life-giving presence from the land. I am the storm god disappearing beyond the mountains, stifling myself, robbing the land of its fertility. I am the vanishing god, addicted to my own wandering.

I am the face forever turning. I do not believe in its splendor, that in the locking of eyes, of lips, of hands, there is a reckoning that folds the world of shifting shadows into its shimmering body. I am the name I cannot speak for fear that it will resound in my ear as clang and clatter.

Rend the heavens and come down. Shake the mountains with your presence. How long will you keep silent?

The twin myths of the vanishing god and the wandering god have lived long with me. I have nourished them with my fears and passions, and knit them into my being. The loss of these stories (or even their retooling) is a loss of identity.

What would it mean to believe that I belonged in this world? That it could be, that it is, my home?

The vanishing and the wandering are two parts of the same story. The god disappears and goes into hiding, wandering the universe in search of faces that can bear its brightness. In the absence of such faces, the divine hides itself behind the curtain of the temple’s holiest room or in the thick of a dark cloud hovering atop the mountain.

It is a game of shock and shadows, of untamable bursts of glittering vision and concentrated presence followed by long periods of darkened eyes and the sense of estrangement.

I learned the myth of the disappearing self long before I reached Oxford, but it was in Oxford that I read ancient Mesopotamian myths about vanishing gods. The sensations of longing from my childhood began to find names and shapes. I came to these stories starving for vibrant human language. I had only the language of God to voice the genesis and cataclysm of my world, and that world saw the human and the divine as irrevocably severed, a body sliced from its head.

These Mesopotamian myths held an uncanny compromise. Some of the language felt familiar because it was unrelentingly religious like the Bible stories I’d cut my teeth on. They offered a world enthused, replete with deity. Gods and goddesses roamed its hills and sat in its shrines.

But I saw them as human in origin, revealing the unfathomable pools of human imagination. And I knew that these texts were artifacts made by human hands, which negated their divinity. These gods were not like my one true God. They were imagined. My God was real. And my God would have no truck with unreality, this sensory world of food and drink.

There’s more than one way to disappear, I suppose. When reality is constantly deferred and you’re required to embed yourself in that distant Real, you can’t help but sink into some kind of ether. You’ve reach a stalemate between world of your immediate senses, that’s purported to be ethereal, and world beyond the pale that feels nebulous to your bodily senses.

The Real becomes the land of your birth to which you are never allowed access, the country to which you swear allegiance and pay your tithes, but whose king denies you entry and representation. The realm beyond its borders turns into a place of shifting shadows and you become one of its many specters.

The Mesopotamian disappearing god story I first encountered comes from the Hittites, a people of the Bronze Age who founded an empire centered the city of Hattusa in north-central Anatolia.

In this world, humans and deities each had roles to perform in the cosmos. Disasters like famine, war, and pestilence were seen as evidence that the god or goddess responsible for their sector had become angry and abandoned its post. The loss of fertility among humans and animals or the failure of the crops to flourish for lack of rain could only mean one thing: one of the storm gods had quit its job…

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The Leaves of the Trees

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The Leaves of the Trees

I haven’t stayed in the same place for more than three years since I turned eighteen, but I lived those eighteen years in the same house with all its familiar details.

I remember it as the house of the 80s tannish-pink bathroom with an angular sink that seemed normal to me until I saw the round sinks of my friends’ bathrooms. House of the enclosed back porch of white walls and many windows and a glass sliding door to the long, green backyard.

The backyard of the maple with a single swing, the kids’ club house built by my uncle, the stone grill we never used, and Mom’s garden with the raspberry patch and compost heap.

The kitchen of kermit green linoleum tiles, mustard fridge and oven, and dark brown cabinets--all gradually transformed under my mother’s watch. A black and white chessboard floor appeared. (My brother Benj made paper chess pieces and attempted a game, but the board was just a few squares too short.) Mom painted all the cabinets white and bought dusty blue knobs for them. A black fridge was purchased when the mustard one shuddered and heaved its last breath.

Uncle Frank helped Mom put up wallpaper that was white with delicate patterns of colorful fruit on it. I don’t remember the pre-fruited walls. Were they plain white paint? Other wallpaper?

Dining room of old brown carpet until Mom pulled it up and sanded the wood beneath. The living room carpet was pulled up, too. Mom replaced it with that dusty blue, a few shades darker than the kitchen knobs.

Living room of the three windows that looked out on the dogwoods in the front yard, of the great mirror above the mantelpiece, of the fireplace below with its brass, black, and glass doors.

Room of the carpeted stairs leading up to the three bedrooms, the Room Over the Garage where Dad kept his books, and the door to the unfinished attic that held the Pretend Box full of costumes.

The house is long sold and occupied. But I wind up in my hometown every few years for some gathering or another.

When you live long in a place, it lodges in your skin. Even if you don’t trust it and it doesn’t trust you, there’s an awkward sense of familiarity. A long series of one-night stands that somehow turn into a long, reticent relationship between perpetual strangers.

I cross the border from Pennsylvania into New Jersey and it feels familiar. There’s something Jersey about Jersey. The way the houses are set together or how the roads make no blessed sense. The strange hybrid in its suburbs of houses and apartments built among trees and green, like it wanted to keep living up to its name of The Garden State, but wasn’t sure how. Like it needed places for people to live, so it decided to just build those houses, pave those highways dammit and hope that some of the garden would break through the concrete.

The misty earth-scent after the rain, the way the light hits the trees after a storm and pulls its leaves into bolder color. The sun filtering through the windows on to the warm carpet, silent flecks of dust floating lazily in its long, perceptive beam.

New Jersey summers are humid and dragging, but full of ripe fruits. The autumns are full of spice and green leaves crinkling into wild orange and crimson.

The air knows me, or knew me once. Not old lovers, quite. Old somethings. It thinks it knows me, and in a way it does. I was in it long before I had a say as to whether or not it should be in me. And it loved me in its own ways, as much as it could.

Still. I feel bereft in that place. The golden leaves of the many trees I cannot name watch over my comings and goings, waiting for my imminent return.

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My Mother's Garden

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My Mother's Garden

The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress.

The house of my girlhood, the temple of my first sensations, was made of red brick and white clapboard. We lived in a small suburban town in North Jersey that bordered the wealthy neighborhood of Montclair.

My parents bought the house the year before I was born. My mother set to work cultivating a modest garden in the backyard. She knew by the rectangle of stones that there had once been a garden on that plot, but it was wild and overgrown. The raspberry patch was choked by weeds, and dandelions matted the soil where vegetables used to grow. Mom pulled the weeds, turned the soil, and planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.

When I was old enough to use a trowel and watering can, I asked Mom if I could plant some seeds, and she gave me a plot of land in her garden, about three square feet. I planted lettuce seeds, but most often forgot to water them, producing a yellow, sickly yield.

But my mother toiled with that patch of earth until it brought forth food. Her crops were abundant, and she let me gather hers, handing me a metal bowl and pair of scissors to cut tomatoes from the vine to put in a salad for Sunday dinner.

As soon as my little sister, Deborah, had enough dexterity to walk and hold a cup, I took her by the hand to the raspberry patch–tamed and tidied by our mother’s faithful tending–and we picked berries, dusting off the ants and plopping the berries into a blue plastic cup.

The garden was one of the first signs that subverted the dominant teaching that permeated our evangelical Christian world.

Humans were grievously wicked and the world was destined to be burned up by the fires of God’s judgment. Our time on earth was  a period of grace where God withheld judgment to give people time to repent. At best, the earth was an interim space with occasional innocent pleasures to help us endure until our final destination (heaven). At worst, it was a hotbed of sin, filled with temptations that threatened to turn our eyes from spiritual matters, to fix our gaze on the material world that was passing away.

The garden threatened all this. I find consolation in the thought and touch of gardens now. The scent of mom’s red-ripe tomatoes, the image of long, crisp green beans dangling from their vines, the carrot tops ready for picking, even my own pallid lettuce plants–the nearness of these wonders undercut the notion that heaven was not a place on earth.

I liked it here on earth and wanted to stay. If God was going to destroy the earth with fire, he could burn me along with it.

Quiet, gardens are. At least, they seem so at first, and this is why I love them. You come to the garden to sit and still yourself, to take in the purple larkspur and the bluebell. And as your body stills, the garden reveals itself as a hub of activity, a multitude of concurrent worlds that you were too loud and busy and large to perceive.

Our garden and backyard was modest, but it was enough to disrupt the status quo. The seeds planted in girlhood took root and grew deeper and stronger year by year.

I used to find pill bugs and watch them curl up into hard, gray balls. I found dozens of brown, translucent cicada shells clinging to the trunk of our red oak, their backs split mysteriously down the middle. For years, I thought this was the entirety of the cicada body, and I marveled at the wonder of a bug that lived as pure exoskeleton and kept so remarkably still.

The mysteries of our home included The Hill, a wooded area just beyond the backyard gate that sloped downward until it reached the Coleman’s backyard at the bottom. My sister, Deborah, and I spent hours hauling broken tree branches into piles to build forts.

One year, our neighbors dumped a few Christmas trees that became flat from the heavy snow, and in the springtime when they dried, they made perfect walls for our fort.

When the fort was done, we gathered food. The only edible items on The Hill were honeysuckle and clumps of wild scallions that grew like weeds. We took a basket and traversed The Hill in search of the long, green tufts we knew were too thick to be grass. Once pulled, the scallions had to be beaten free of dirt, so we swung each bundle at the nearest tree trunk, squinting to keep the dirt out of our eyes. Then we went home to our fort to make bread and scallion-venison stew.

There was no grain to be had, but I took two stones and made a rough mortar and pestle, grinding imaginary wheat and baking invisible bread in our fort’s brick oven. The inner part of the honeysuckle was sweet and succulent, so Deborah gathered these in baskets and stored them in our forest pantry. In summer, we gathered raspberries from the garden and added them to our food stores. Picking edible raspberries was more satisfying than gathering from the toxic evergreens out front, but with rumors of a harsh winter coming, we were not discriminating.

I also hunted game to add to our stockpile. My meager weaponry was so dull it could hardly slaughter a cucumber, but I took a small Swiss Army knife, carved the edge of a stick into a makeshift spear, and pretended to hunt bears and deer and spear fish from the invisible river that ran down The Hill. After a successful bear hunt, I would drag the carcass to the fort and together Deborah and I would turn it into pemmican.

All this color stood in contrast to the bleakness of heaven, the eternal home I knew I was supposed to desire with all my heart. But heaven was a world that “no eye had seen, no ear had heard, and no human heart could imagine.” So we tried very hard not to imagine it, a teeth-gritting exercise that grated against our generative impulses and produced a portrait more wilted than my lettuce plants.

Clouds, harps galore, oodles of white robes and white people. Regal gates to a city planted on puffs of clouds. If only we’d thought to pattern heaven off of one of the seven wonders of the world. But earth and heaven comparisons were off-limits. Heaven ended up pale in all senses. Heaven employed a very poor design team.

The garden was the first sign that the earth mattered, but there were many others. Mom kept a craft cabinet full of art supplies. Clay for sculpting, colored pencils, paints, brushes, markers, stencils.

I loved the color of the cooking clay and made little figurines modeled after Veggie Tales characters. Veggie Tales was considered an acceptable mythology because it was labelled ‘Christian’ and ‘wholesome.’ Ever the entrepreneur, I set up a roadside stand to sell my figurines.

Mom gave us sewing lessons and took us to a group at the library to learn to knit and crochet.

I took baking classes from a mother in our local homeschool group. We visited the Eli Crane house, a local historical site, where I learned about 18th century cooking.

Our heavenly-minded community had all manner of excuses as to why these earthly arts were acceptable. We had to eat and it glorified God to take care of our bodies because St Paul said our bodies were a temple of the Holy Spirit. Sewing and knitting were eminently practical (or at least they had been half a century ago). Culinary arts and sewing were an integral part of preparation for girls who hoped to become good and godly wives on day.

But these excuses, which we all believed with gusto, were thin veils that barely hid our terrible secret: we enjoyed food and clothes and knit caps and quilted blankets. But we didn’t want anyone to know (least of all ourselves), so we kept modest and productive and didn’t let ourselves get too giddy over a warm, crusty apple pie with caramelized sugar.

But in time the jig was up. We liked things. We liked experiences. We wanted a world where food, play, sexual desire, familial belonging, nature, our neighborhoods, our schools, our cultures, mattered. We so loved the world that we wanted to be part of it, to know that our actions had consequences in the here and now. We wanted to know that this world wasn’t the depressing foreplay to what was bound to be a shameful and disappointing marriage when at last it reached full consummation in the hereafter.

We wanted to know that our history, even the things we did not choose, mattered.

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Prologue: Sighted Faces

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Prologue: Sighted Faces

The Lake District, England. Autumn, 2008. I stand on a slender, sloping peak of Mt Helvellyn, cold winds swirling about me this way and that, tugging my long, brown hair into the fray. The rocks beneath my feet are old, formed in the caldera of a volcano in the Ordovician period, and then carved by glaciers in the last ice age.

As I hike onward with other students from the Oxford study-abroad program, I can see a still, blue lake gathered in the valley, untouched by the air that beats about us at Helvellyn’s highest point.

Many such pools lie cradled in the low places between these mountains, hidden on some days by down-tumbling clouds, and other days shining like darkened mirrors of the sky above, black and lovely against the shocking green of the hills. These are the hills walked by poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, their pores soaking in the deep magic that swells up from the waters and weaves through the air.

I take in the gleaming lakes and basalt crags and breathe in the chilly mist, and I become as the scribes, priests, and pilgrims of old. Gods live on this mountain, I’m sure of it. The air is aghast with them, their forms hidden in the ever-churning clouds that sweep across the peaks and roil the seas of mountain grass.

Search out stones and gather them into one place. Build an altar on this high, holy hill. Bring your offerings and burn them on the stones. Let the smoke fill your senses. Remember, O human, that you are dust, radiant clay! To dust you will return, O gods of ash and smoke.

My body beats with the old longing, stabbed with sorrow and wild elation. I know this vision is passing away, that I am seeing terrestrial brilliance in all its contingent beauty. I know I am happier now than I’ve ever been.

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing.

I know I will never be this happy again, not in this way. The meeting is brief and transitory. Here I am–wakened, bereft, undone. Where to go from here? Here I go from where? Upward, downward, forward, backward, round and round. Climbing, flying, falling–again and again and again.

I know I can’t keep this moment intact. Permanent capture breaks all the rules, and rules all the breakings. I carry the vision with me like stolen water, cold and sweet to my tongue, life to my constricted throat. It rushes through my body, assimilates, and continues its course.

Here I am, calm filling up the awestruck caverns inside me. I will never be so achingly happy again, and yet I will.

I am at peace with the descent, with the movement to the valleys. I know that gods are everywhere, crying out from the lowland rocks.

In my mind’s eye, I am always here on this mountain and always at the beginnings of writing. The mountain changes as my animal senses perceive the passage of time, but I am fixed here in this perpetual movement.

The mountain and written language are the tug o’ war between presence and absence, fixity and movement, tradition and transformation. The mountain is the place of the temple, a great stone house elevated to scrape the skies and touch the gods. Writing is movement, travel, the body walking away from itself, the gods and their stories sailing the world over.

The landscape of my life changes day by day. It becomes harder to write my story because it is constantly changing, and writing gives the illusion of permanence. I am perpetually rewriting and rewritten, moving further away from myself even as I go deeper in.

Write quickly, dear scribes. Copy my story and send it across the sea before it changes once more and I am fixed forever in a spectacle of constant transformation, my contingency caught up in the clouds for all to see, body raw and radiant.

*

Ten years after Mt Helvellyn, I live in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The mountains surrounding the valley here are not the lush, well-watered peaks of Helvellyn, but they have their own arid beauty.

I want to stay forever near the mountain. On the mountain, I am not the names given to me by my fathers. I dissolve into the elements and come together anew. I am nothing and everything. I eat the fruit of knowledge and the leaves of healing.

The mountain reminds me of England and the year I spent at Oxford over a decade ago. I don’t know how to write about Oxford or about the radiant faces I found there, the living images that lay hidden in the labyrinthine halls of this temple. The year at Oxford hangs in my imagination as brilliant stillpoint, the place where I was transfigured by the expectant gaze of people who believed. Believed in humans. Believed in me.

I remember feeling seen and safe. I remember it as the year my mind opened. It was the year I learned about the development of writing in ancient Sumer, about the myths of Mesopotamian gods, and how these gods became inscribed into the earth.

That year is an icon, gold and glittering. It isn’t a place or a time I can return to. Memories don’t bring us back. There is no back, only now, which is is another way of saying here. Memories bring us here, rooting us into the present dream, dreaming us into our present roots. Ever on the mountain, ever at the foot of the tree, eating its fruit and drinking the waters of the stream that rushes by the bank.

I hold this icon before my eyes because it reminds me of the reality before me now, remembering that my life unfolds from this center like a fractal: recursive, infinitely self-similar, ever new. The icon is a gathering point of awareness, the place of my intensified vision.

I’m told that this mental ritual is used as a therapy technique to deal with trauma. You imagine a place where you feel safe, alive. You’re frightened stiff, an animal paralyzed by trauma inflicted on its animal senses. You need the feeling of safety to heal and wake your senses once more.

And so you remember, conjuring the world where you felt the freedom to rest as the sighted self you are.

The sighted self, like sighted gods, is a rare and beautiful spectacle to behold. But I suspect that its scarcity, like reality, is illusory, and in this there is hope. The preoccupation with the self as unsighted and abandoned is made, which means it can also be unmade.

I learned the myth of the disappearing self long before I reached Oxford, but it was in Oxford that I read ancient Mesopotamian myths about vanishing gods.

I learned of the days when gods appeared to humankind as bodies of carved wood overlaid with gold and silver. I gazed into a world where gods stared at us with eyes of lapis lazuli and spoke to us with lips opened by the smearing of honey and the swearing of divine oaths.

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Voices of Abuse

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Voices of Abuse

I blushed, ashamed for expecting a different sort of ending.

Shame at our own deepest desires. That’s the trick our abusers play on us. It’s the same type of game whether the abuse stems from sexism, racism, classism or homophobia. Our desires conflict with the status quo. We want, we hope for, a different ending to the story in which we find ourselves. And we’re shamed for hoping, told that it’s nonsense compared to The Actual.

But The Actual, like the concept of race, is a weapon dreamed up by our abusers to reinforce the position of power their story affords. The voices of abuse whisper to us: Things have always been this way. They will always be this way. Your hope for an alternative course is less real than the reality before you. Fool! This is the way things are. This is the way things should be. Don’t toy with the imagination, these flights of fancy. Don’t waste your time. Childish dreamer.

Dreamer. Emblazon it on my forehead. Write this word to my hands. Carve it on the door frames of my house. Let the my shame be known in the public square.

The voice of the abuser is old, but don’t let that trick you into thinking it’s got a seal of authority. It speaks its own names, and its names are Hunger and Fear.

Look, here comes this dreamer. Come now, let's kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams.

Yes and amen: we’ll see. We’ll see what comes of the dreamer’s dreams.

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The Mirror in the Girl (or Do Gods Leave Paper Trails?)

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The Mirror in the Girl (or Do Gods Leave Paper Trails?)

My childhood home had a foyer with a coat rack that had a long mirror built into it. I remember, as a little girl of six or seven, I made a habit of slipping into the foyer and closing the door behind me to look at my reflection.

The girl in the mirror astounded me. She had long brown hair, wavy and thick, held back from her face with a white headband. She wore a white turtleneck underneath a forest green corduroy jumper with big matching buttons sewn by her mother, quite possibly as an homage to Corduroy bear.

The girl had large hazel eyes and peach skin that flushed at the cheeks. Dimples creased at three spots around her mouth, which was big, red, and pretty. (Grown up women at church sometimes asked her if she was wearing lipstick, and the answer was always no.)

This person staring back at me from the foyer mirror was utterly unbelievable.

“She’s me,” I thought. “I’m me.”

The mystery of consciousness alighted on me (in me? from me?) and I could scarcely believe it. How was it possible? Could I really be real?

The wonder stays with me and, to an extent, the disbelief. That I exist as part of the universe--not above or below it, but correlated with it--this is nothing short of a miracle. That I am aware of this miracle and imagine it too beautiful to trust--this is part of the spell.

I want to stay suspended here between disbelief and wonder because it’s here on this plot that seeds are planted and watered. A Jewish rabbi once observed that a grain of wheat remains just one grain until it falls into the ground and dies. Only in death will the grain bear fruit, become many. It dies to become something new, to break out as a stalk of wheat that produces many grains that in turn sustain and produce life by dying.

This is a difficult word, but the longer I look at what I call the ‘self,’ the more true it appears to be. Everything exists as a state of possibility, which is a contradiction in terms. How can anything exist as a potential or inhabit an unshifting ‘state’ of what may be?

The girl in the mirror--the externalizing of my internal dream of my ‘self’--is only a point of departure, the seat from which I dream up the world even as the world dreams up me. No ‘world and me’ exists. The ‘I’ dies and becomes everything, the many, even as everything moves together to produce more solitary seeds.

Looking at my self is self-perception in more than one sense. All that I perceive is in my brain. It is the brain that sees and feels and gives rise to the world that I experience. My brain is me. But it is no less everything else. My consciousness creates the world, but the world also creates me, even as there is no world apart from me or me apart from the world. (And maybe in this way, I can be said to survive even when my brain has died: I am consciousness dispersed.)

We are bringing to life what was only a potential until we observed it. Seeing is not just believing, but making. Belief, sight, imagination. These are names we use as roads to get to the same thing. To believe is to see, and sight is imagination, and imagination is creation, bringing forth what was potential until we took note of it. The taking of notes is the filling of the eye, which is the shaping of our shared home.

I am an image and an image-maker. I am the sign, the sign-maker, and the one (the many) signified. I don’t point beyond myself to an external other. The world is full of signs that point back and forth, up and down, in and out, all around. We flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river.

The girl in the mirror is me and not-me.

The mind can cognize one thing and in it see many things. We are many things. We are never just ourselves, our locality. We are real images of other real images. We are real when we are imaged, cognized, looked at.

This is the beginning of god. Deity becomes reality through her images. We are a god talking to herself, pulling herself from a potential to a thing thought, an image shaped. And she is our language, the image fashioned by our stories, talking ourselves into reality. We exist in her and she in us.

Are the gods teasing us, you think? It’s as if they know, or at least suspect, that they don’t exist until we talk about them. Until we carve our images and paint our pictures and hear their voices in our language, they’re less than a thought. It’s as if they know their own contingency.

Do deities care or do they laugh at it? Do they worry about fading into nothing when they cease to be cognized, are no longer remembered?

I’ve yet to meet a god that wasn’t as obsessed with memorials as humans are. But I’ve not known many gods. Maybe they’re not all like this. But, then, would the ones that don’t leave a paper trail even be remembered long enough for us to know?

You ask what I mean when I write about gods. If I knew this, I wouldn’t need to write about them. But since humans acquired language, they’ve used the language of the divine to talk about the most intimate human things. We translate the sensations we do not understand into sacred words and carve them into our skin.

What are we talking about when we talk about ‘god’?

At the very least, we speak our own ineffable name. We proclaim the mystery of faith, the deep, abiding prophecies of the human imagination.

At most? There is no most. There is no beyond that is not within, and the mind is a bottomless ocean. Out of the excess of the mind, the mouth speaks and builds its caverns of memory, its temples, shrines, and palaces.

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You Can't Steal Fire From Female Gods

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You Can't Steal Fire From Female Gods

The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress.

I understand the appeal, even the need, to think about god(s) in terms of externals, as entities outside of the universe coming in to save the day. And that sort of being isn’t an impossibility--it seems a bit presumption to think we can say what isn’t possible. From our vantage point, the universe is without end, and if it is, who knows what lies before or beyond its hinterlands.

But, then, I am back to talking about space and time again, which are not (it now seems) the unalterable bedrocks science once believed them to be. We are moving toward things for which we do not yet have a language.

I find the idea of external deities or an all-powerful god more ominous than comforting. I prefer my gods up close and personal. Whatever may be ‘out there,’ I can only experience it from ‘within here.’ And if it did live outside me, it couldn’t experience me unless I were inside it or it was inside me, and on and on we’d go trying to figure out who, what, where, why, how.

I’m tempted to bring up the classic conundrum of divine omnipotence: If a deity had absolute power to effect sweeping positive transformation of the world, why wouldn’t he have gone about the business already? The fact that he hasn’t, the argument goes, is that the deity either isn’t omnipotent or isn’t good (or just plain isn’t).

I say “he” because no one imagines god as a woman in this scenario. Female deities can be all loving, but not all-powerful, and this speaks volumes about the tragic failure of the patriarchal religious imagination.

This question and its god are masculine. One all-powerful god is as alpha-male as it gets. Women share power, that’s what we do, how we survive. We don’t need strength concentrated in one person or location. We need the vibrant equality of shared labor and reciprocal imagination. We’re not stingy. You can’t steal fire from female gods because they give it away.

The divine omnipotence conundrum wearies me more than its unsatisfying conclusions. It feels like a patriarchal trick. Or maybe a cop out for humans designed to keep us, especially women, caught up in a loop of lack. It’s like the question wants us to twiddle our thumbs waiting for a god that wouldn’t be much good for us if he decided to show up.

Do we want a divine daddy that’s got it all under control? The disappointment implicit in the question is maddening. Well, of course you’d want that, deary, if you could have it, but there isn’t. Big-G God is dead, boohoo, so you’ll just have to slog it out on your own.

The history of women reveals this as a bald-faced lie. Women come together. We don’t have to slog it out on our own. That’s the deception of patriarchy: that the absent father or husband is the end of women, that we’ll be eternally lost without them.

The curtain pulled back, we smile and laugh at their audacity. Nope. Just nope. So much nope. The universe is generous. In your absence, another presence rushes in. Someone steps in, steps up. We are not alone. In the empty space of your turned face, we’ve got no less than everything. Dear boy, we shake our heads, aren’t you tired? Aren’t you weary of needing to be the center of everything when everything should be the center?

That’s the trick of the imageless god co-opted by patriarchy. It makes us think we’ve got to remain paralyzed by divine absence. It pictures, spins us, as the daughter forever unloved or the wife estranged. We can do nothing until He gets back and either He isn’t coming back (atheistic patriarchy) or we’ve got to sit tight and wait (monotheistic patriarchy).

Patriarchy is both defeatist and a misassessment of the world’s problems and what we can do about them. Patriarchy says that history is bound to repeat itself, that there will always be wars and rumors of wars, and that we cannot stave off our violence. That’s the vision of toxic masculinity, a prophecy of lack and consumption.

The feminine says: Enough! We’ve been here before and we know what to do. We organize, we make a plan, we stretch a handful of loaves to feed a thousand. The earth’s problems are man-made and we can fix them.

We’ve had our ears to the ground for centuries. We know the stories that make and break our world, the stories that destroy us and the tales that grow us. We’ve learned about our species and the earth we inhabit. We know the history of colonialism and racism, and we know their pressure points. We’ve studied the way humans have shaped the earth’s geography and climate. From below, we’ve traced the lineaments of politics, religion, science, and philosophy.

We’ve swallowed the myths of our time and the times before us, and goddammit we are done with the hoarding and scrimping and rationing. We are done with the priests who wall up the garden and charge admission to enter and eat of its fruits. Done with the kings that conflate peace with the status quo and sacrifice their daughters on the altar of amnesia.

Enough! We deny your sallow god with his blind eyes turning, and exchange him for the brilliant warmth of a thousand expectant faces.

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Grief and Love Don't Belong to Us: The Sense of Other Animals

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Grief and Love Don't Belong to Us: The Sense of Other Animals

I read a story today about a mother orca who has been carrying her dead calf for four days, unwilling to leave her newborn baby behind. The calf died shortly after birth, and the grieving mother carries it around the Salish Sea.

"Grief and love don't belong to us, we share it with other animals." Anthropologist Barbara King writes about how animals grieve and shows that humans are no the only animals to experience love and grief.

The anthropocentrism of many forms of theism--I think that's part of what troubles me about the religion I grew up in. As humans, it makes sense that we will begin our stories with humans at the center. But we can't stay here.

If religion teaches us anything, it's that human animals can build patternful meaning based on our interactions with our surroundings. We can imagine the experience of others even as we experience the universe from our particular human center. We have imagined the words and forms of so many gods. We are capable of reaching out beyond the stories we build based on our initial sense perceptions.

The same imagination we use to take us outside of our immediate center toward gods can push us into everything. People have been writing stories about non-human animals that talk and grieve and remember and make meaning long before we had anthropologists to study the behavior of animals and tell us that grief isn't just a human trait.

We write these stories because we can imagine that the world is different than we presently conceive of it. And then, often, we find that it is (or that it can be).

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