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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I Imagine, Therefore I Am

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I Imagine, Therefore I Am

If you follow my book updates, you may know that I've decided to scrap all of my book materiel (it's gotten too massive to work with) and write a new book with similar themes and content entirely by hand. I do most of my writing by hand anyway, but in the past I've typed up the handwritten material and tried to work off the typed up manuscript.

My hope with this new approach is that I will be forced to focus on the thematic connections between each new section and the previous, since I'll be working off of that material instead of trying to keep the whole work in mind. It seems to be working. I've been writing a little a day for less than a month and I have about 8,000 words (and they're decent words, too).

What follows below is the beginning and the only section I have typed up so far. I don't want to post too much, as I think the book will be better if I write it in privacy where I can be most vulnerable. However, I do want to share (and get readers!) so I do hope to post occasional pieces. If you don't like them, don't tell me. But if you do, please like and share on social media. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll have that mystical reality that publishers call a "platform."

I Imagine, Therefore I Am

The world began with divine dissatisfaction. In the beginning, God raised a skeptical eyebrow, shook his head and turned his back on all he had made. Blast, 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 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. A perpetual sense of homelessness is understood as a condition that needs to be changed, and it's external circumstances that cause 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 always internal, a matter of the heart. The problem is always inside you. 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 God’s disgusted expression. It meant that the rare moments in which I did feel at home in myself--the sense of love and connection--these were meant to be rare. Fragments of glory my eyes could not fully see.

It’s a compelling story in many ways, one that tries to account for our own feelings of dissatisfaction with ourselves and our encounters with the rest of the world. But I think we can do better than God holding back because we are unlovable. And as you may already know, some of the central myths of Judaism and Christianity are better stories than this--or at least they can be, depending on how our bodies ingest and assimilate (or react to) them.

It may be foolish to start my own retelling of my story here, lingering under the eye of a disapproving god. But the wound does not disappear even when the mind knows divine dissatisfaction is a fantasy, a point that takes on new meaning when I remember that fantasy is how we inscribe ourselves in reality.

Here, in the heart of the healing wound, I remember that I was and am looked at with pleasure, with love.

Truth is, we never live on just one story at a time. I imbibed many stories at once, stories that contradicted each other, but nonetheless coexisted. Yes, the night is dark and full of terrors--and I’ve not experienced more than a small fraction of them. But the night is also stark and luminous against the deep blue sky. And what’s more is that the night 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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Job Posting: Mistress of Morale

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Job Posting: Mistress of Morale

Help Wanted: Mistress of Morale

Miserable, catatonic office of business professionals seeks a Mistress of Morale to stave off the rising tide of despair threatening to sweep away its cubicles and the poor souls trapped within. The ideal candidate is an innovative, highly-motivated, borderline telepathic self-starter, able to discern the hopes, dreams, whims, and fears of our office staff with a high level of accuracy, professionalism, and agility. 

This creative, clairvoyant individual will oversee the development and implementation of complex office-wide initiatives to produce effective, large-scale transformation of our office culture and lead us into the bright new age of fun and frolicking.

Qualifications

  • 2-5 yrs. experience writing Mad Libs
  • Bachelor's degree or sufficient documentation that this requirement is irrelevant
  • Valid unicycle license
  • Excellent comedic timing
  • Demonstrable skills in extispicy and reading of Urim and Thummim

Responsibilities

The duties and responsibilities of the Mistress of Morale include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • The creation and circulation of memes at strategic intervals throughout the day
  • The baking and distribution of pastries and intricately crafted coffee beverages and rejuvenating herbal teas
  • Conducting regular, one-on-one check-ins with each staff member, making eye-contact and asking genuine, heartfelt questions about their life and interests
  • The selection, purchase, and distribution of markers and coloring books
  • Planning and overseeing the removal and ceremonial burning of all cubicles, and the implementation of an open-office plan
  • Installing and maintaining plants and artwork throughout the facility, and maybe even a modest brook-like structure channeling through the office, in which employees might rest their weary, festering feet
  • Writing and replenishing a bowl of jokes to be available for office staff upon request, especially during that post-lunch afternoon lag when the devil is about to get a foothold
  • Organizing and implementing monthly morale-boosting events such as poetry readings, book clubs, magic shows, murder mystery dinners, comedy acts, and Game of Thrones cosplay
  • The development and oversight of an employee-owned book-share/lending library

Think you might be this magical, sparkling individual full of wit, vivacity, and rainbow sprinkles? Email resume, cover letter, and minimum of three references to careers@theonion.com.

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The Legislation of Kisses

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The Legislation of Kisses

“Why are you crying, mama?”

“I’m sad about some things.”

 

Come Saturday,

we’ll march and a kind stranger

will give my boy a muffin,

and another hand him a

pinwheel to spin in the breeze.

 

Come Saturday,

I’ll tell him we are walking

and waving and chanting

to bring children back

to their mommies and daddies.

 

But today,

“Don’t worry,” he says, “a kiss

will make you feel better.”

His tiny peanut butter and jam-

smeared lips pucker and I laugh

into my tears as he plants a kiss

on my mouth.

 

My mind catches up to the love on my lips

and my heart plummets again. This kiss

solves nothing systemic, halts no

injustice, alleviates no suffering, only

soothes one mama for one moment

before the enormity of collective loss

pours once more into her body.

 

Peace! I will stop your worries with a kiss.

Forget your circumlocutions, your

deformed memory. Remember anew

the history of the legislation of kisses,

remember the days, still with us,

when a kiss was an act of resistance.

 

Remember the strange alchemy of law

that transformed a boy into a crime,

and his Xhosa mother who turned

lovemaking into direct action, who said,

“I don’t accept your apartheid law.

I will kiss whomever I choose.”

 

Remember Mildred and Richard Loving.

And Jim Obergefell and John Arthur.

Remember, that these pains are of old,

that these new laws are louder,

harsher strains of a familiar tune:

 

“Kiss only your own kind,

your brown kind or kiss

my ass. Do not cross and kiss

the white women and children

we legalized by raping the

continent and making our own

system of documentation.”

 

So went the after-battle cry,

for the work was not yet done:

“Keep those fools from kissing

or the jig will be up. Establish

boundaries, call them races, and

punish the transgressors. Make all

kisses stolen kisses and incarcerate

the thieves, lest they rise up

and stop our guns with kisses.”

 

Don’t worry, he says, remember.

Tell them: the jig is up,

we’ve called your bluff.

Violent resistance is futile.

Tell them: lay down your arms,

a kiss will make you feel better.

Tell them: tear down this wall,

a kiss will make you feel better.

 

Peace! I will stop your war with a kiss.

Forget your white supremacist myths, your

deformed memory. Remember anew

the history of the legislation of kisses,

remember the days, still with us,

and lift up your mouth in resistance.

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All the Things I Cannot Say That Hurt

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All the Things I Cannot Say That Hurt

All the things I cannot say that hurt

swell and catch in my throat

whenever I am at the playground

trying to talk to the mother

of my son's best friend

that he has met two minutes ago.

 

With parched mouth, I 

manage to make sounds like words

that mean nothing and lead nowhere.

"How old is your son?"

"How long have you lived here?"

"What do you like to do

in the spare time you do not have?"

 

In that arid, aching exchange, I 

remember why I line my life

with books, the friends that

make no bones about what they are,

that do not bother with banal,

unpleasant pleasantries,

that will be your lifelong friends in two minutes

so long as you venture to give them your

sustained attention

           into the ages,

the friends that say all the things that hurt

and watch as they swell, catch in my throat,

and push upward into the smokeless air.

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The Perfect Bra: Overheard On a QuietRide Car

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The Perfect Bra: Overheard On a QuietRide Car

The Perfect Bra: Overheard On a QuietRide Car

On the QuietRide car of a train hustling between Linden and Princeton, New Jersey, two women are overheard.

“How’s that new bra treating you?”

“Oh, well. Y’know. It’s good as far as it goes. I’m so spoiled these days, working from home. No bra is always the best bra. But what do you look for in a bra? What’s your ideal brassiere experience?”

“Hmm, well. I don’t want anything that gives me a uniboob.”

“Ah, right. Separate, but equal.”

“I guess my ideal might best be described as a gentle girdle for my chest. I want my breasts to be slightly elevated on a soft cushion. Encouraged, but not forced. Presenting as robust, yet unassuming.”

“I hear ya, I hear ya. You want a structure that emerges from below to support you and bear you up, rather than something comes over against you to make you conform.”

“Yes! The perfect bra will maximize my strengths and not quibble about my deficiencies. It will highlight my bosom’s unique qualities and contributions, both at home and in the workplace.”

“You want lingerie that doesn’t feel diminished by your prodigious chest, but sees your expansiveness as a boon to its own inimitable existence.”

“Now you’re talking. I want respect without fear. I want collaboration between physique and fabrication. I want the weight of my bosom to be evenly distributed so that no part of me aches. I want my boobs to be so frickin’ decentralized that their glory will never be so densely concentrated in one place ever again!”

“Preach! Preach!”

“Let my excess of being be free and unashamed! May a universal priesthood of brassieres mediate perpetually between my boobage and the cosmos!”

“YAAASSSS!!!”

The women fall silent. The car is quiet, save for the rhythmic rocking of the train.

“So...how much longer will you get to work from home?”

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What's Happening in Israel/Palestine? Resources to Guide Understanding and Action

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What's Happening in Israel/Palestine? Resources to Guide Understanding and Action

What's Happening in Israel/Palestine?

As I scroll through my Facebook news feed, I find myself distressed not only by the situation in Israel/Palestine, but by how few people seem to be having informed, restorative discussion about it on social media. The is nothing new and no surprise. We live in a polarized climate, and social media is not conducive to discussion unless carefully curated. These conversations are hard enough in person, let alone the impersonal posture of social media.

I am also struck (though again not surprised) at how little people in the U.S. know about the history of the conflict. Many are unsure as to how to process the news of the killings of Palestinians in Gaza because they lack the background to see these in context, and aren't sure what to make of the different spins they hear from various news sites. Because conversations about Israel/Palestine are so often polarized as it is, it can be hard to figure out how to move forward to holistic understanding and restorative action.

I can say from my own learning experience that although the situation is complex and multifaceted, it is not utterly beyond understanding. It’s easy to be cowed by lack of knowledge (I often am), but that’s even more reason to dive into resources that can help us understand the conflict and the influence the U.S. has on Israel/Palestine and how we as part of the U.S. can use our voices to advocate for peace and justice.

To that end, here are summaries and links to some of the resources that I’ve found helpful. I am grateful to have been exposed to some fantastic people and resources who can lend incisive, holistic perspectives on what has happened and is happening on the ground. You do not need to be reliant solely on the piecemeal information from daily news sources for your education.

What I've Learned

I hope to write more later, but before I introduce you to these resources, I want to highlight a few very important elements of the history that were missing in my own understanding of Israel/Palestine for the first 27 years of my life.

The first is that Palestinians are indigenous to the land. It seems ludicrous to me now that I did not know this, but the impression I got growing up was that the Holy Land belonged to Jews and was inhabited primarily (if not exclusively) by Jews. But Palestinians are not outsiders coming in. Israel/Palestine is their home even if it not exclusively their home.

The second element is related to this inaccurate vision of the land as primarily full of Jewish Israelis. The conflict is often framed as though we are dealing with two sides or two stories: Israeli versus Palestinian (and "Israeli" and "Jew" are often conflated). But the land's inhabitants are far more diverse and blended than this vision allows in terms of religion, ethnicity, and nationality. And the stories, experiences, and perspectives are manifold. There's more than two sides to every story.

Along similar lines, it's important to remember that even when we think in the broader categories of "Israeli" and "Palestinian," we can't conflate the actions of one government or political faction as representative of every constituent, and it is not a betrayal of one's national, religious, or ethnic identity to challenge the actions of governments, leaders, or political parties.

As you will discover in a more nuanced way if you read Bashir and Dalia's story in The Lemon Tree (recommended below), the leaders who orchestrated what is known to Palestinians as the Nakba ("Catastrophe") in order to establish the State of Israel created an impossible problem when they framed the land as exclusively a homeland for Jews. From then on, Palestinian claims to the land as home (though legitimate) would be seen by many as a threat to a homeland for Jews. 

In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, many Jews outside of Israel longed for a homeland where they could come to seek relief and rebuild. But when the authors of the Nakba forced Palestinians from their homes and gave them to Jewish immigrants, they cultivated the sense of home for these immigrants not along side of but at the expense of the indigenous people of Palestine. By binding Jewish desires of a homeland with Palestinian oppression, it became necessary to maintain Palestinian oppression and cast Palestinian liberation and flourishing as the antithesis of Jewish well-being and flourishing.

The expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians was carefully planned, but many of the Jews immigrating to the land that had been cleared for them were acting on the "myth of the empty land." For example, as you'll read in Dalia's story in The Lemon Tree, some Bulgarian Jews recall prewar Zionist newspapers that framed it as the "land without people for a people without land" (The Lemon Tree, pg. 72). The descendants of those Jews who relocated to Arab homes in Palestine were born there and knew no other home. It created the question of how they were to negotiate their relationship to the home of their birth when that very home had first been home to others who were now displaced.

But you'll read more about that in The Lemon Tree.

The Global Immersion Project

Global Immersion is a good resource for everyday peacemakers to return to for workshops, eCourses, and webinars in peacemaking. Yesterday, they hosted a webinar called Destabilized: What Rising Tensions in the Middle East Mean for Peace, featuring Israeli expert Sari Bashi (Human Rights Watch), Palestinian American expert Greg Khalil (The Telos Group) and Palestinian Christian Sami Awad (Holy Land Trust). This hour-long recording is a good place to start. You can access this and all their webinars by signing up here.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

The Lemon Tree is as emotionally engaging as it is informative. Journalist Sandy Tolan crafted this book as a narrative based on extensive interviews and research and has taken care to present the various people in this book as accurately as possible. NPR’s summary is apt:

In 1967, nearly 20 years after his family was forced to flee, Palestinian Bashir al-Khairi returned to his boyhood home and began a lifelong friendship with a woman living there. Her name was Dalia Eshkenazi. She was Israeli. Reporter Sandy Tolan first told the poignant story in a 1998 radio documentary heard on NPR's Fresh Air. His new book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East, connects the tale of one house and two families to the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tolan weaves together dramatically different perceptions of the conflict and its context and explains how the lemon tree grew to become a powerful symbol of home.

I cried through most of this book and think it's one of the most human I've ever read. I will send copies of it to the first three people interested in reading it and having a book discussion via Skype or Zoom (or starting/leading a book discussion in their local community).

Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Chosen? is a good book for those who want clarity about the relationship of “Israel” in the Bible to the State of Israel today. It’s a short, but pithy book by Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, who guides readers through the different ways the term “Israel” is used in the Bible and reflects on its significance for contemporary Israel/Palestine.

Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes

This book by Mitri Raheb was the first book I read by a Palestinian author, and it radically transformed the way I understood both the Bible and the Holy Land. Like Brueggemann’s book, it is short, but very substantive.

Churches for Middle East Peace

Churches for Middle East Peace has a plethora of resources available on their website, and I’ve found their bulletins to be a helpful way of getting access to current news. They also host an annual Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C. Follow CMEP on Facebook and Twitter, where the daily link to informative articles.

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My Body Given

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My Body Given

An excerpt from my always-in-process book.

I readied my body for viewing that morning, selecting my raiment and cosmetics with the care and shrewdness of Esther preparing for her night with King Ahasuerus. I was one of two undergraduates chosen to address the alumni. I surveyed my wardrobe with thoughts of the few hundred eyes that would soon be fixed on my elect, but inescapably female, form as I delivered my speech.

Testimony, rather. ‘Speech’ was kosher on paper, but it pushed the envelope. This wasn’t a church, so the same restrictions to women in theory did not apply here. But you couldn’t be too careful. ‘Speech’ had a ring of authority to it. Leaders gave speeches. Politicians, prominent men.

One of the old school Bible professors still gave male students permission to leave class whenever a female classmate was presenting. “If your conscience so dictates.”

I knew I was entering a brave new world where a woman could speak to a whole chapel auditorium full of both women and men.

But as usual, the new world was saddled with the old. An apocalyptic launch into a new age might energize the young people, and perhaps be what the world needed. But institutes of higher learning didn’t survive on the donations of recent graduates.

Not that it was about the money–at least, no one thought of it that way. It was about the preservation of sound theology, the exercise of divine wisdom in an evil and perverse generation. But money is just a place-marker, a symbol that shows where we’ve chosen to concentrate power. Currency has no value without a community to believe in its value. Its value lies in communal belief–a tacit agreement–in its value. Money is a symbol that shows us where power is located, and marks where it travels (or doesn’t travel).

The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, but the love of concentrated power in a single person, gender, or people of the same skin color that–that is divine.

No, best keep calling it a ‘testimony.’ Benign and personal, experiential, womanly. No good Christian would begrudge a woman talking about her feelings. But God help us if she strays into other topics.

“Deliver us, O Lord we pray, from the Woman’s tongue, forked and fervent as the serpent’s. Let her say nothing universal, except it be on Womanly Things, and on these matters of the fair sex, may the White Woman speak for all.”

‘Sermon’ was out of the question, however much it reeked of religiosity. That moniker wouldn’t fly with the alumni no matter how much I quoted holy writ or waxed eloquent about theology. Sermons were the stuff of divine revelation, sanctuaries, and holy spaces. God, it seemed, was comfortable with women speaking up almost anywhere except in his house, where it could be mistaken for his own authoritative voice.

“Not under my roof. For Pete’s sake, woman. Take that outside!”

I looked down at my chest and marveled at how these two mounds of white flesh determined so much of my destiny.

I put on a tartan skirt of dark blue and evergreen–knee-length, approved–and a black V-neck sweater that was neither baggy nor form-fitting.

“V-necks draw attention to the face.”

No Hegai to advise me today, only the memory of one of my mother’s few fashion tips. The V-neck comment had served me well over the years. Round necklines had a way of making my already very ample bosom seem ampler still. I liked my breasts pretty well in V-necks, but in round necklines I felt top heavy, as if a slight push to the back of my shoulders would send me reeling to the floor, my chest caught in gravity’s merciless grip.

Not that my mother ever fussed about my looks. Mom was a free-spirited California girl that loved to feel the warmth of the sun on her body. I seemed to have inherited the dour, prudish spirit of a vicar from a 19th century English novel.

Passion and Purity. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. When God Writes Your Love Story. I’d devoured all these evangelical dating tractates and knew the importance of covering up. Mom hadn’t grown up with this popular purity culture literature from the 90s and saw no scandal in bare arms or dimpled knees.

But my bosom was perpetually and unforgettably there. And whenever I put on a round neckline, I remembered the grim fate of young Linette, one of my mother’s friends from Middle School.

“Linette was very well-endowed,” Mom told me. “And some of the kids used to tease her, poor thing. ‘Can you see your feet, Linette?’ they’d ask. And Linette would look down innocently and answer honestly, ‘No.’”

The specter of eleven-year-old Linette trapped in the bosom of an attractive co-ed hovered in the back of my mind whenever I surveyed my closet. She was my holy ghost, my comforter in a world where women’s bodies were always too much. I knew, even in adolescence, that I was too big for the world. Linette became one of my shields. If I was too much, at least I wasn’t at Too Much as Linette.

I stepped back and eyed my dark ensemble in the mirror, skirt accented by black stockings and black pumps. I felt very chic. If Netflix’s House of Cards had existed then, no doubt the image of Claire Underwood would have hovered in my subconscious despite the protests of my conscious self, hoping I mirrored Claire’s calculated sensuality and powerful command of her own body. My inner English vicar wasn’t long for this world.

The Provost introduced me to the expectant crowd of university alumni sitting in the chapel auditorium, and I walked across the stage to the lectern, the hem of my tartan plaid swishing gently against my modest knees. I shook the Provost’s hand the way my mother taught me: firm grip, look him straight in the eyes.

I welcomed the glare of the stage lights and the sound of applause that gave me a moment to spread out my typed testimony, take a deep breath, and rest my trembling fingers at the base of the lectern.

When the room was quiet, I looked out into the primordial darkness, smiled at the obscured sea of faces, and with another deep breath, launched into my address.

Call it a testimony, a yarn, an old wives’ tale. I don’t care. Whatever helps your theology-addled brain sleep at night. That, there–that was my voice.

My voice through a strainer, yes. A hoarse whisper that would take many years to become a strong, clear voice. But let a woman open her mouth and the game is up. She will find herself. It may take years and years. There will be doubt and despair and long periods of silence. But she will rise. She will rise and prophesy to the piles of dry bones all around her, as her grandmothers have done before her. She will whisper, “Live!” To the mothers, the daughters, the sisters, the aunts: “Live. Speak. Prophesy. See visions. Dream dreams.” And they will rise into an army, a force armed with nothing but the sound of their voices singing and the heft of their unashamed bodies moving.

We are the sign, the witness, the testimony.

The sound of my own voice speaking with authority felt at once foreign and familiar, as if arriving at home in a part of myself I did not yet know. My body shook with fright and joy. Deep calls to deep and it answers back.

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.

My voice, my offspring, the word my body had nourished these many days and brought forth into the waking world. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Flesh made word, self disseminated.

Or was it?

The dreadful, Pinocchio question grips me whenever I look at my ‘testimony’ or writings from those college days. The language–I no longer know it. It feels foreign, but with just enough familiarity to fill me with grief, whether for the woman who was or the woman who is, I’m not sure. If this, now, is the ‘real me,’ who was that woman speaking that day? Was I only wood yet to turn flesh? And what happens when years hence these words I write today no longer seem real? Will I call the woman that writes this a Galatea?

What pains me most is the God-language sprinkled everywhere, maybe because it used to mean something back when I had a story to pour into those divine letters. Back when I understood the currency of divinity.

Now? G-O-D. What is it? These fragments that fall from the heavens and into my mouth: what are they? The alphabet pulled apart, phonemes abstracted, sound and fury signifying nothing. God with the Big G, Him of the Big H, capitalizing, distancing language the hurls deity into far off places.

I don’t know what people mean anymore when they talk about ‘God.’ I understand (I think) the language of awe, wonder, gratitude, even holiness in some of the ancient senses–maybe because holiness can be about spatial designation without spatial hierarchy.

Holy space, like money, marks the location of concentration. It indicates where you have set your attention in a given moment. You didn’t recognize it because it was holy, it was holy because you recognized it and it recognized you. It’s this recognition, the relational transaction, the mutual awakening–holiness is forged between you. There is nothing innately holy about holy space and that’s what makes it so damn holy.

‘God’ no longer makes sense to me, but sense does. Wordless sounds. The chirruping of birds, the rushing of many waters, the song of the cicada or the silence after lightning before it says its names. Colors. Yellow pulls across the hills and thrums.  

What if G-O-D had never been a great white man’s hand pulling strings this way and that? What if ‘God’ had been a slight pressure, the weight of everything pulled into a span and placed gentle on your forearm, a quiet interruption? Would ‘God’ still make sense?

God as puppet-maker, puppeteer, author of The One Story, but author of only good and somehow working it all out, but only for some. Loving, but only if you believed and prayed the prayers with feeling and thought the Bible was inerrant.

God doesn’t make sense. Sense makes God. Life creates the universe, not the other way around.

I ask if that was ‘my voice’–as though I have my own voice now, a distinct self that speaks. Not like that earlier performance, the dances of that puppet. I ask after my voice as if I am alone in the universe, as if our life together is not in fact what creates the universe–as if there are fixed interiors and exteriors, as if I am a larynx severed from the cortex.

I ask as if I had been given to the universe from outside it. As if I am a stranger in a strange land. As if my organic body does not join with other organisms to give rise to the universe. As if my flesh appeared without many meanings pouring out of it, our collective bodies crafting the universe in ways I did not choose.

I used to say–indeed, I said it in my testimony–that God is an artist and has made us artists that must craft according to His Will. But then, oh, so many troubles with His Will. What was His Will? Who knew it, His Will? Was God to take the jaws of life and extricate my essential core from all the meanings that my community, Western society, white supremacy, everyone had poured into me? And if he did that, would he not first have to pull me out of words, out of my body, out of the retelling of stories?

No, the rescue cannot be from Bad Stories into Good Stories. It must be rescue from The One Story into many stories: into the small, the new, the generative.

People wonder if God is white. What colorblind Artist is this that can only paint the same picture with same hue-less figures and perspective–to be copied by little artists year after weary year? Who is this Author printing words on the world and commanding the copyists to write down the words exactly as they are, to disseminate fixity into the universe?

Inscribe the status quo on your body, cut it into your skin. Copy the unchanging stories from time eternal, for there is nothing new beneath the sun.

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Modest Knees: When Your Body Prophesies

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Modest Knees: When Your Body Prophesies

This is an excerpt from the section of my book that I'm working on at present.

I prepared my body for viewing the morning of my speech.

I wore a tartan skirt of dark blue and evergreen, I remember–knee-length, appropriate–and a black V-neck sweater that was not too loose and not too tight.

“V-necks draw attention to the face.”

It was one of my mother’s few fashion tips, and it served me well over the years. Round necklines had a way of making my already very ample bosom seem ampler still. I felt top heavy and frumpy whenever I wore them.

But today in my dark ensemble, skirt accented by black stockings and black pumps, I felt very chic. If Netflix’s House of Cards had existed then, no doubt the image of Claire Underwood would have hovered in my subconscious despite the protests of my conscious self, hoping I mirrored Claire’s calculated sensuality and powerful command of her own body.

The Provost introduced me to the expectant crowd of university alumni sitting in the chapel auditorium, and I walked across the stage to the lectern, the hem of my tartan plaid swishing gently against my modest knees.

I welcomed the glare of the stage lights and the sound of applause that gave me a moment to spread out my typed speech, take a deep breath, and place my trembling fingers calmly at the base of the lectern.

When the room was quiet, I looked out into the darkness, smiled at the obscured sea of faces waiting for a divine word, and with another deep breath, launched into my speech.

As I heard my own voicing speaking with authority, I felt a surge that both thrilled and calmed me. My heart was racing, but it steadied as I moved through the delivery.

I was at the peak of a small world, and it enlivened, enthralled me. To call it a sense of power is honest, but imprecise–it was more than that. There is a kind of recognition, a joy, when you believe something and proclaim it: deep calls to deep and it answers back. Through writing, I had taken a tiny fragment of the world’s chaos and shaped it into intelligible thought.

“As human beings created in the image of our Creator,” I said, “we are sub-creators, little ‘artists,’ so to speak, whose choices sculpt the world in which we live. Our calling is to submit ourselves to God, the Divine Artist, as He shapes the world in accordance with His will.”

My speech was freighted down with nascent god-language, boulders that obscured so much of what I was trying to say. But it didn’t matter. I was saying more than what came out of my mouth: I myself was the message.

I was the radiance of this Christian university’s vision, the exact imprint of the image it wanted to present to the alumni. I was the modern conservative ideal: traditional with just a hint of the progressive, a creative rule-follower. I was majoring in Biblical Studies–not to become a pastor’s wife or to go into women’s ministry, but to excel in the academy (for the glory of God).

My body in that space was as political as it was personal. That’s the strange thing about being a body. Your body is doing things you don’t understand. It’s saying thing, meaning things. Looking back, I see the signs. My skin, my gender, my dress–all had social meanings I didn’t understand (and maybe hadn’t even asked for). I muddled my way through the world, not knowing the significance of my body.

The university wanted to parade me before its alumni as the way of the future, and I was glad to oblige. I fit the role. Playing it wasn’t a burden and it wasn’t dishonest.

But if the university expected that I or any of its model graduates would fit this image into perpetuity, it was setting itself (and us) for failure. You can’t have your cake and eat it to. You can’t teach your students to be artists and expect suppliants. You can’t liberate them and expect them to keep dancing to your tune. The university committed a grave error. It gave me teachers that were less concerned with God’s will, and more about my liberation.

I like to think that there was something prophetic, transgressive, about my woman’s body in that conservative evangelical space. I both belonged there and didn’t.

I was studying Bible, but there were no women faculty in the School of Biblical Studies. The closest a woman had come to teaching the Bible at that school was a now-aged woman named Mavis Buchanan who had taught Biblical Greek back in the day, and for years ran the administrative operations of the university. A few of the Bible faculty had left when she started teaching Greek. And yet Mavis was against women teaching the Bible. I guess Greek didn’t count in her mind. She would never have called herself a feminist.

Was Mavis a progressive fighting for women’s rights or a role-keeping traditionalist?

I don’t like the answer because it isn’t clean or simple. She was both, and it doesn’t make sense. Her body was serving the status quo and disrupting the given order to make way for new structures.

Our bodies say more than we comprehend. Our skin carries more meaning than know, for better and for worse. And we prophesy in many portions and in many ways.

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Mrs. Cotter's Jellybeans: My First Theology Teachers

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Mrs. Cotter's Jellybeans: My First Theology Teachers

I am am continually re-writing my book. The following is a new excerpt I hope to include.

Mrs. Cotter's JellyBeans

My first taste of Judaism was not the fruit and floral sweetness of MacIntosh slices dipped in honey at Rosh Hashanah or the nostril-searing bite of horseradish we ate at Passover. It was tangy-sweet lime, lemon, cherry, and sour-apple jellybeans: smooth on the tongue and then chewy and rough like cane sugar.

Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans were the best thing about Beth Israel, the Messianic Jewish congregation we attended Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

Mrs. Cotter’s name reminded me of cottage cheese, and I fancied her hair looked a bit like cottage cheese, too. Her snowy white curls were cropped short and set close to the head. She sometimes wore a dark brown fur hat, and I imagined that if you were to turn her head upside down, it would look like a bowl of cottage cheese curds.

Mrs. Cotter had a little round tin in her purse where she kept those magic beans that haunted the minds of every child in the small congregation for the duration of the Shabbat service. No one understood the truth of the words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul better than the children of Beth Israel.

“I press on toward the goal to win the prize,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

“He who endures to the end will be saved,” Jesus said to his disciples as they sat on the Mount of Olives discussing the End of the Age.

The children of Beth Israel pressed on toward the prize that we knew would appear in the end. We held on through the four or five messianic worship choruses like Come Back, People, the greeting time, and the prayer. We squirmed through the scripture reading and the sermon, the cold metal folding chairs making our butt bones ache.

At last! The last guitar chorus was here. The prize was in sight.

As the last strains of He Is My Defense died away, the pastor stood for the Aaronic benediction, arms raised up and palms bent downward toward the people. He sang the Hebrew words as a chant, his mournful tenor filling the quiet room with the strange presence of collective attention:

Y’va-reh-ch’cha Adonai v’yeesh-m’reh-cha.

Ya-air Adonai pa-nahv ay-leh-cha vee-chu-neh-ka.

Yee-sa Adonai pa-nahv ay-leh-cha v’ya-same l’cha shalom.

I felt as if the chant was gathering us somehow. I wondered why we couldn’t just skip everything else in the service and keep the Hebrew blessings and chants. Why did the parts that pricked my ears seem so few and far between?

The pastor concluded by speaking the English translation of the benediction. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”

The memory of Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans engulfed me at every service–that and the hope of warm, buttered Manhattan bagels afterwards. These thoughts would tolerate interruption only from the Aaronic benediction, the Shema, the blessing over the lights, and the blessings over the bread and cup.

When Miss Cynthia struck the match for the candles and it burst into flame, it was as if the whole world fell silent, eyes caught up in the dancing of the light.

Before lighting the pair of candlesticks on the table that stood stage left before the congregation, Miss Cynthia covered her head with a shawl that was robin’s egg blue with strands of white and silver thread woven into intricate patterns across it. She wore her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair in a tight knot at the crown of her head. I could see the outline of the bun beneath her shawl, the high peak from which the blue cloth cascaded down around her face like clear sapphire waterfalls.

Miss Cynthia lit one candle and then dipped the fresh wick of the other into its flame until it caught fire. She held her palms out over the candles and drew them inward three times in a circular motion, as if ushering the world into the flicker and heat of the beams.

She covered her eyes and recited the prayer in Hebrew. “Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”

Her voice was low and sonorous and had a soft, husky quality to it. I loved the sound of her voice pronouncing the Hebrew words with their long vowels and glottal consonants. The English translation I could give or take. But there was music in the Hebrew words that fell on my ears without intelligible meaning apart from the sensations of the sounds themselves rising from the depths of a human body into beautiful, arbitrary aural shapes.

But the plain English always followed, plunging my heart with its jellybean-shaped hole into despair. Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”

It was the same when it came to the blessing over the bread and the blessing over the cup.

The ushers moved from aisle to aisle passing down silver plates bearing pieces of matzah, unleavened bread, broken into bite-sized pieces. I wanted to savor my piece, but always ended up chewing and swallowing it quickly, afraid that the congregation would hear my crunching and turn to stare at me.

When everyone had a bit of matzah, the pastor read from 1 Corinthians 11. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

A solemn pause followed as everyone in the congregation nodded in silent remembering.

Then at last the Hebrew blessing and the miniature feast! “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz,” the pastor prayed. “Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

I popped the matzah in my mouth and crunched along with the rest of the congregation.

Then the ushers were at it again, passing out trays of little plastic cups filled with sips of grape juice. I wondered why they passed out the bread and juice separately. Hadn’t this usher just stopped at my aisle five minutes ago to hand us the plate of matzah? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to dole it out all at once?

The pastor once again opened his Bible to 1 Corinthians. “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

More pausing, more nodding, more remembering.

“Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech Haolam, borei p’ri hagafen. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”

Once the last drop of juice was down my throat, a vision of Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans nestled in the white wax paper–gleaming like a hoard of gemstones or rainbow dragon’s eggs–seized me.

Soon and very soon, I told myself. The trumpet of the Lord will sound and Time will be no more.

When the pastor’s last words echoed through the hall, I was ready.

“The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”

Then the silence was broken by the scraping of folding chairs against the floor, the gathering of coats, and the rising hum of people chatting to one another.

I meandered over toward Mrs. Cotter’s aisle trying (unsuccessfully) not to look too obvious. She smiled and opened her purse and rummaged for the prize.

 And then, oh, glory for me!

It wasn’t the Shekinah, but for a seven-year-old girl with a sweet tooth, it was close enough.

This was an eschatology that my small body could understand. The wait was long, but in the end my yearnings were satisfied. Hope might be deferred until the end, but the end always came.

I learned my earliest theology and doctrines of the End Times from jellybeans. From these first teachers, I learned the futility of preparing for an end that was always coming but never here.

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A Body Frenzied: Recovering From White Evangelicalism

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A Body Frenzied: Recovering From White Evangelicalism

Write your story as though you know yourself.

The words materialize under my pen in one of my 99-cent lined composition books. As soon as my eyes read this self-generating command, I know what I ask of myself is almost impossible.

Writing as though I know myself is no simple task. Because I write in in order to know myself, there will always come moments when I look back and watch myself muddle through to that knowing (or, perhaps more accurately, to something my mind categorizes as 'knowing').

I look back on my writings and see a girl grasping in the dark, feeling for things she does not yet understand. This is how I encounter most of my book: as an old story full of evidence that I do not know myself. Or, more generatively, that I am on the brink of illumination.

The strongest parts of my book are the stories where I am not trying to make a point or assert a belief, but instead to describe sense perception: colors, shapes, words, memories. I arrange them into narratives, of course, but don't try to immediately assign or demonstrate meaning. If there is meaning, it is in how my subconscious shapes the story, not in the theological or philosophical points I hope to make. Not in the propagation of things I believed.

It's hard to work with such a beast of a manuscript. I wonder if I need to let go of the old stories.

I realize that there is an irony in considering this apocalyptic action. In the evangelical milieu I grew up in, the world was always on the brink of destruction, a slate to be wiped clean (burned) to make way for the new heaven God would create.

And so the universe laughs when I talk about letting go of the stories, of everything. As though I could. As if I had that supreme power of erasure and re-writing. As though it wouldn't be the stories erasing and re-writing me instead.

But neither can I write and finish this book within the old frames, the old assumptions and securities. I had beliefs and dogmas that stayed my course. And I believed them until it became impossible to meet the world with these burdens still strapped to my back.

I find myself not only bored with so many of my previous preoccupations, but viscerally sickened by them. White evangelicalism thrives in a kind of unreflective bubble, confronting only the questions that manage to squeeze past the gatekeepers undercover. The perpetuation of white supremacy relies on the slumber of its unwitting adherents. I find the shape of white evangelicalism unnervingly conducive to sleep.

White evangelicalism had me in a constant state of self-reflection, but a reflection that stayed comfortably in the realm of my relationship with God and my existential crises about the relationship. I was fixated on the state of my heart before God: whether my soul and body were pure in the eyes of God.

But white evangelical Protestantism spoke out of both sides of its mouth in this regard. On the one hand, I was pure because Jesus had washed me clean. But I could never be really pure in this life, except in a forensic sense. Jesus was the actual clean one, not me. God looked at me through Jesus lenses (or declared me pure on Jesus' tab).

As Alan Watts said, the church institutionalized guilt as a virtue. The best thing I could be was a sinner-saint, constantly erring, constantly cleansed.

But what was this obsession with personal purity? I see it now as a distraction, frankly. By focusing attention on the inner workings of the heart in isolation, the white church didn't have to confront itself as a larger entity and cultural force. It didn't have to face itself as a body bound to white supremacy, the Galatea to the Pygmalion of white supremacy.

The more I examine the stories I lived in as an evangelical, the harder it is to work on my book without being overwhelmed by them.

I sometimes feel impatient and frustrated with them. I want to grab the stories by the shoulders, shake them and yell, "Why don't you know me? After all we've been through? After so many years and hours I've worked on you, trying to shape you into a story that's honest and piercing and sad and beautiful, why don't I see myself in you? Why don't the words fit me anymore?"

Maybe that was my mistake, the mistake woven into the fabric of fundamentalism: the hope of fixity.

I carved an image of myself and expected it to remain as cold, still marble. And it did: the book was a faithful representation of who I once imagined myself and the world to be.

But I supposed that clinging to this hard, unmoving image would conform me to it, that I would be fixed, solid, pure. This was the ideal of Christian fundamentalism. This was the promise of all our dogmas and creeds. That the world changed, but God was unchanging, the constant in the chaos. The rock. The anchor in the storm.

The eternal, immutable scapegoat designed to defer our waking and keep us from owning our shit.

***

I am not a startled Pygmalion wondering at the sudden warmth flooding the face of my creation.

I am a terrified Galatea, body aflame with the rush of nascent cells, eyes fluttering open for the first time. I am not the cold, brittle marble that white evangelicalism wished me to be: silent, still, breathless, witless.

I am a body frenzied with sensation, shot through with all the wonders and horrors of the waking world.

I write as if on the edges of consciousness, as if just beginning to wake. I make my way to the threshold and step out into the land of the living. 

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Your Many Names: The Inane Quest for the "Authentic" Self and What the Heck Is My Book About?

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Your Many Names: The Inane Quest for the "Authentic" Self and What the Heck Is My Book About?

My book began as a question about ancestry: Whose child am I? 

This query had multiple dimensions. I was trying to write my way through the trauma of my father's verbal and emotional abuse, and the disintegration of our nuclear family. If being my father's kid meant existing in dysfunctional relationships without any effort to change, I didn't want that association. Blood be damned. I knew there were other ways of building families.

This personal quest for family/father connections on an emotional level was intertwined with the confusing question of my cultural heritage, which was also connected to the religious.

My mother was a Protestant Christian and my father was a messianic Jew. Jews and Christians share many of the same religious texts and stories, and a degree of theology, but they are also quite different in many ways. They are two children born of the same mother. The share commonalities, but they have gone down different paths and developed their own distinct ways of being (and even these broader religions have many distinct iterations).

Culturally, theologically, and in terms of ritual praxis, we were closer North American evangelical Christians than Jewish. But even saying that is too simple: we had practices and traditions that were distinctly Jewish, intertwined with our Protestant ways. It was that complexity that gave rise to the book--I couldn't just say I was Christian or messianic Jewish or evangelical or just one thing. I was many things woven together.

The question of whether or not I was "really" Jewish (which I wrestled with since I was a kid) led to the bigger question of what "really" means. I realized that this question is everywhere and never satisfied. It has been used as a weapon to exclude people and perpetuate legal and social discrimination. It has resulted in violence, people being forced out of their homes, abuse, enslavement (and on and on). An explanation as to why my neighbor isn't my self is often the preface to exclusion: "Here's why I am entitled to something and my neighbor isn't."

The obsession with the essential, authentic self--the "real me"--isn't an abstraction. It's the mechanism that fuels racism, sexism, classism, and all the other -isms we can generate. For example, on the legal plane (in tandem with the social), the founding documents of the U.S. draw boundaries around authentic personhood by creating legal classifications. As Mark Charles has explained in detail in this and numerous other articles, the definition of "all men" in the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence excludes Native peoples. In this case who is a "real human" is what's at issue.

These legal examples can be found in abundance. For example, Trevor Noah writes on South African apartheid about the government's racist legal classifications:

Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there wasn’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”

In the instance above, white = human, and then each person's degree or level of humanity is defined by their proximity to whiteness, which affects their legal and social standing.

The quest for the "real" insists that the self must be just one thing--just white, black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, male, female. Not Jewish Palestinian. Not Israeli Muslim. Not a white cisgender Italian American woman. Not African-Irish-American. Not Filipino-Pakistani-Danish. Not these many complex combinations of nationality, citizenship, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and gender identity. Identities that seem to compete with one another in the same body--at least when we buy into that these identities don't belong together. No, give us something easy. Something boxable.

The elusive "real" self is concerned with setting borders and boundaries. It is preoccupied with what is "me" or "my group" and what is not-me.

This was what my book wanted to be about (even though I didn't know it at the start).

To the question of my own ancestry (and all its dimensions: ethnic and cultural, spiritual, social, religious), I must give many answers and none at all. I am no one, so long as "one" means this-and-not-that: "Me my essential self, me alone." Me without naming the identities and influences that have and do shape me--that's no one! That is not a relational, sentient animal. That person does not exist.

The long string of qualifiers to one person's identity isn't an exercise in futility or vain loquacity. It is a necessity in a globalized world that is becoming increasingly aware that we are all connected to one another, and that absolute borders don't exist. No one is "pure." We have multiple overlapping identities. If these identities can be embodied in a single person, there is hope for the world. If one person can live peaceable with herself, with all her many names living together on the same sacred site of the body, then it means peace with our neighbors is possible. We can live together on this earth if we realize that our neighbor is our very self.

To declare these names together is to map (and continually re-map) your self into the world--to chart your location and relationships and honor the communities that have formed you.

It may be that some of the religious Nones are more on point and community-oriented than many who stake their claim in one particular religion or identity without qualifications. By embracing the "None," you are both affirming and need for naming, but also declaring the futility of a single name.

The Nones know that one moniker will not do, at least not anymore. People are ancestrally rich, in need of perpetual unpacking to get at who we are together. If we are to embrace names, it must be a conglomeration of qualifiers, an unending series of names that each tries--through their juxtaposition together--to do some kind of justice rather than being subsumed by the one-that-isn't-many.

This is not a step away from history, lineage, solidarity, community. It is a giving up of the supremacy of a single name to be renamed by the many. We aren't just the name our fathers bequeathed to us, but an abundance of names held together in a single house that can only be one when it is many.

So that's what my book wants to be about. Let's hope I finish it at some point.

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How I Didn't Discover the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape (Hint: They Were Already Here)

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How I Didn't Discover the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape (Hint: They Were Already Here)

What's in a name?

I have started to do a little research on the Native history of the county in which I live in an attempt to learn more about the people who lived here before being displaced by the colonists. I am not very far into my research, but already I am reminded of two challenges that every historian faces and needs to keep in mind while researching:

(1) sources always have a bias because everyone tells their story from a specific perspective and cultural location

(2) names are indicators of perspective/bias, and so the naming (and re-naming of things) can be very telling

I'd encourage you to start thinking about the names of the streets, rivers, towns, cities, etc., where you live and try to find out when/how/why they came to known by those names. I live in what's now called Montgomery County, which is next to Philadelphia County. The town is known today as "Ambler."

Ambler was named after Mary Johnson Ambler in 1888 (because, apparently, she helped provide medical aid to a ton of people at the so-called Great Train Wreck of 1856), but before that the area was known as the Village of Wissahickon, after the Wissahickon Creek. The name of Wissahickon Creek, which runs through the town now called Ambler where I live, is thought to be a corruption of a word from the Unami dialect spoken by the Lenape: wisameckhan ('catfish stream'). 

At least, that's the etiology for "Wissahickon" that I found in articles that linked to The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia, and their source is Donehoo's book from 1928, Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania. I haven't come across anything yet that contradicts this, but these are not Native sources, and even the way the information is phrased sounds like it's someone's best guess. My question (to which the answer is still pending) is: Is this what the Native peoples who lived in this area called it? 

questioning the sources

I share this example of Wissahickon Creek not because I think I've yet learned much about the history of Native peoples in the area (I haven't yet!), but because it illustrates the potential issues with "official" mainstream sources and access to accurate information. I hope my reflections on source issues will help you in your own study.

I started my search (like any good academic) with Wikipedia, knowing that as I narrow my search, I will find that much of what I learned initially is inaccurate or only partially true. My knowledge of the history of this continent (even its history since the founding of the U.S.) is very limited, and I knew the quickest way to find out what Native peoples inhabited the corner of the world that I now inhabit would be Google. Google delivered: the Lenape's historical territory included present-day New Jersey (where I was born) and eastern Pennsylvania (where I live now). 

I vaguely remembered reading the fictional story Dickon Among the Lenapes by Harrington as a kid. I don't remember much of what was actually in that book, but I do remember just taking everything at face value as an accurate depiction of Lenape life and culture. At that point in my life, I thought of history as a series of facts, not realizing that how a historian/storyteller chooses to tell the story (what they include, what they omit, how they name things, etc.) has a perspective on the events embedded within it. There is no such thing as unmediated, unbiased history. 

That in mind, it's a good rule of thumb that to realize that for every perspective you come across, there will always be another (if not several) other perspectives. This is especially important to keep in mind when you are aware that there is an overabundance of sources from dominant culture perspectives but you have to dig to find perspectives from marginalized communities. This doesn't mean that there won't be any true facts in the dominant sources (I'd be surprised if William Penn's Own Account of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians included nothing factual at all), but that these sources represent the perspectives of the colonizers that needed to justify their colonizing. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, is not in the best source for understanding Lenape culture of the 17th century.

I haven't read yet this book On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory that I found when I Googled "problems with Dickon among the Lenapes" (expecting to find articles with footnotes to sources that discuss the book's level of historical accuracy). But I suspect that there's quite a bit of truth to what the author says in this section (pp. 44-46ff) about Harrington, Longfellow, and other writers who saw themselves as preservers of Native culture, but ended up with works that bore little resemblance to the actual peoples they sought to depict.

Having figured out that the Lenape occupied the region where I live now, my next question was: Where are they now?

the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe I didn't discover

The perspective I got from my history textbooks in high school was that Native American tribes were mostly (if not completely) peoples of the past. I know my education in this regard isn't an anomaly--this is the dominant perspective presented in the mainstream history texts.

But it's also patently false. With a little more Googling, I came across the website for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe--because of course they still exist! The tribe's website provides a link to a free e-book by Rev. Dr. John R. Norwood (Kaakluksit Pedhakquon(m)achk(w) [Smiling Thunderbear]) tellingly titled: We Are Still Here! The Tribal Saga of New Jersey's Nanticoke and Lenape Indians.

The website gives a very brief history of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe that includes these introductory paragraphs:

The history of our tribe in its homeland goes back over 10,000 years. We are the descendants of those Nanticoke and Lenape who remained, or returned, to our ancient homeland after many of our relatives suffered removals and forced migrations to the mid-western United States or into Canada.
Our Lenape ancestors were those who inhabited New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York and eastern Pennsylvania at the time the Europeans came. We called ourselves "Lenni-Lenape," which literally means "Men of Men," but is translated to mean "Original People." From the early 1600's, the European settlers called the Lenape people "Delaware Indians." Three main dialect clans, each made up of smaller independent but interrelated communities, extended from the northern part of our ancient homeland at the headwaters of the Delaware River down to the Delaware Bay. The Munsee (People of the Stony Country) lived in the north. The Unami (People Down River) and the Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) inhabited the central and southern areas of the homeland of the Lenni-Lenape.

When I read that, I knew I'd found my sources. This was the best place to begin. I downloaded We Are Still Here! onto my Kindle. In the preface (p. 5), Rev. Norwood writes:

Much more can be said, and has been said, about the history of the Nanticoke and Lenape people who are now spread throughout North America. However, my task is to provide a brief, but comprehensive, summary of the historical information pertaining to the Nanticoke and Lenape people remaining in three interrelated tribal communities in Southern New Jersey and Delaware, with particular emphasis on how the legacy of the Lenape and Nanticoke ancestors in each community continues among the people called “Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians” in New Jersey. All too often, remnant tribal communities along the eastern seaboard have been overlooked and forgotten after the main body of their people migrated away. A lack of awareness of the history of such tribal communities is not merely unfortunate; frequently, it results in their being oppressed, mislabeled, and isolated. There is a persistent resistance to merely accepting their ongoing existence. Such opposition is sometimes for political and economic reasons; but, often it is because of racial bias and institutional arrogance based upon ignorance.  

It's my goal to work toward the removal of my own ignorance, and help others cultivate awareness of the history of such tribal communities as the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. To this end, I'd like to invite you (especially if you were born in or live in New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York or eastern Pennsylvania) to read We Are Still Here! along with me and/or form a book discussion group with a few friends who live near you. 

You might also consider becoming a member of the Friends of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians, which has as its goal "to encourage support of the tribe by people who are not eligible to join the tribe, but are interested in our well-being." The organization "furthers tribal resources and networking, and also encourages positive interaction between the tribe and the non-Native community."

Will you join me?

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White Jesus Snuggling a Baby Dinosaur

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White Jesus Snuggling a Baby Dinosaur

Just before Christmas, I published my first piece with Red Letter Christians: "Calling the Bluff on White Jesus." Here's an excerpt:

Jesus and Baby Dino.jpg
I love this picture of white Jesus clutching a baby dinosaur to his bosom. Apart from the fact that it reminds me of a young mother snuggling her sleeping baby (which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside), I find this picture provocative and prophetic to the point of hilarity.
When I look at this white Jesus cuddling sweetly with a wee little reptile, I’m confronted with the question: Which is the more absurd part of this image — the cute baby dinosaur or the white Jesus?
White Jesus is prevalent year-round, but when the Christmas season rolls in, white Jesus becomes more immediately visible to the public eye. Nativity scenes with white baby Jesus grace the lawns of the faithful and their churches. Christmas cards, illustrated children’s books, movies, all manner of Nativity bling — it can be hard to find a holy family or shepherds or magi that aren’t white.
What’s up with white Jesus? Is there anything wrong with depictions of Jesus as white? Well, no. And yes. The answer depends on what ‘white’ means.

You can read the rest of the post here.

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