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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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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