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

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

What's Happening in Israel/Palestine?

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

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

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

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

What I've Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Global Immersion Project

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

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

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

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

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

Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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

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

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

Churches for Middle East Peace

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

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My Body Given

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My Body Given

An excerpt from my always-in-process book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“V-necks draw attention to the face.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are the sign, the witness, the testimony.

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

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.

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

Or was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Modest Knees: When Your Body Prophesies

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Modest Knees: When Your Body Prophesies

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

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

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

“V-necks draw attention to the face.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mrs. Cotter's Jellybeans: My First Theology Teachers

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Mrs. Cotter's Jellybeans: My First Theology Teachers

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

Mrs. Cotter's JellyBeans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More pausing, more nodding, more remembering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 And then, oh, glory for me!

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

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

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

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A Body Frenzied: Recovering From White Evangelicalism

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A Body Frenzied: Recovering From White Evangelicalism

Write your story as though you know yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

questioning the sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe I didn't discover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you join me?

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White Jesus Snuggling a Baby Dinosaur

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White Jesus Snuggling a Baby Dinosaur

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

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

You can read the rest of the post here.

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When Words Walk Out

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When Words Walk Out

when words walk out on your mind
and visions turn, slam the door, 
and disappear down the street,
fading into the silent moonbeams--
may your body wake to the radiant
memory woven throughout
your skin, your blood, your bone:
you have been loved,
you are loved,
and, loved, you will always be.
as the shore knows the shape of each grain of sand,
and the galaxy feels the pull of its stars,
you are sensed in the wordless landscape
and felt in the wine-dark sea.

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 5)

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 5)

This is the fifth part of a multi-part creative nonfiction piece. Here are the firstsecond, third, and fourth parts.

Autumn, 2008. The Lake District, England. 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 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 barest stones.

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 4)

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of a multi-part creative nonfiction piece. Here are the firstsecond, and third parts.

Birmingham, Alabama. July, 1985. Anthony Ray Hinton looks up from mowing his mother’s lawn and sees two white police officers.

The officers handcuff him and arrest him for robbery, kidnapping, and first degree murder.

“You have the wrong man,” Ray Hinton tells them. “I ain’t done none of that.”

But Ray’s innocence doesn’t matter. He’s the man they’re looking for.

“I don’t care whether you did it or not,” one of the officers tells him. “But I’m gonna make sure you’re found guilty for it.”

The officer stares at Ray. “There’s five things that are going to convict you," he says. "Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man is gonna say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care. Number three, you’re gonna have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. Number five, more than likely you’re gonna have an all-white jury.”

The officer just keeps looking at him. “You know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction.”

This, here, is the horror of consciousness gone power-hungry: the miracle of the indissoluble confronts us, but its reality frightens us so bad we go wild trying to break it down, to shatter it back into potentials. In a world brimming with possibilities, the actual forms and suddenly we think the realm of the real has gotten too crowded: there’s not room for me and you–it’s us and them.

This, here, is the specific horror of the great white gaze: cultivated, manufactured, codified in the laws of the United States of America, enshrined in our Constitution that assigns limited personhood to Black and Native peoples.

The invention of race was no accident. There was (and still is) money to be made in the legal and social classification of humans, in the racialized gaze.

Race and racism,” writes Drew G. I. Hart, “are commonly misunderstood terms. Despite its common usage, race is not a natural biological category for human beings, though physical features certainly create boundaries of difference...Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. Racial categories are not inevitable; they were created–and not very long ago, given the length of human history.”

Since time immemorial, gods have been identified as creators. The nuts and bolts of the process, and what constitutes an act of ‘creation,’ varies from place to place, time to time, and god to god–but deities are fairly consistently pegged as artisans, progenitors, world-shapers.

The air is thick with gods–from the Japanese puffer fish beating sand into intricate patterns with its fins, to the satin bowerbird crafting its hut-like nest, to the potter sitting at her wheel to the inventors of the white supremacist gaze that creates boundaries around people and assigns their functions.

On South African apartheid, Trevor Noah writes:

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

Gods above, below, beyond, and before us. The world teeming with those that look and are looked at. To those that see and are seen goes the power of shaping reality.

The officer stares at Ray Hinton, impervious to the illogic of his own creation. What does it matter if Hinton did or didn’t commit the crime? He’s guilty. Simpler that way. The gall of gods is to complicated. Liminal bodies, these gods. Won’t sit still. Won’t be contained. Always wanting to be free and dancing like supreme deities.

Behold! The strong black god that you will not look at, lest you see his glory and it kill or transform you.

Science–don’t they teach science in these schools? In a world of infinite potentials, reality begets more reality, not less. The strong, black god is not the end of the white man, but his true beginning.

But Ray Hinton doesn’t need you to look at him to crown him a god. He’s the son that’s been looked at, the god flowering under his mama’s gaze.

No, I write this for your own–and my–salvation, tracing these words into your palms so that you will have the look of a man that sees.

///

April 3, 2015. Birmingham, Alabama. The State of Alabama drops all charges against Anthony Ray Hinton. After nearly thirty years on death row, Hinton–now fifty-eight–walks free out into the open air.

“The sun does shine,” he says as his family and friends crowd around to embrace him.

Sunlight is sparse on Alabama’s death row. The prisoners live in 5’ x 7’ cells almost twenty-four hours a day. If the weather’s fair and enough prison staff are available, the men spend an hour in the exercise yard, surrounded by razor wire fences, looked over by guard towers above.

Sound, too, is rare. I’ve got to get used to noise and the sounds of everything because it’s fairly quiet on death row. Every man is in his own world.

Ray can barely take it in. Life outside death row is like stepping onto a new planet. This new world without fences–is it even part of the same universe as the cell he’s inhabited for thirty years?

Ray takes a morning walk for the first time. He goes to the house where his mother used to live and walks around the yard. No one stops him. No one tells him where he can and can’t go.

Every night, I go outside and look up at the stars and moon, because for years I could not see either. I walk in the rain, because I didn’t feel rain for years.

Look up at the moon and be startled. Gaze at the stars and remember: only a god feels the frost of raindrops on the face and the scald of salt-tears on the cheek.

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Twists and Turns and the Magic of Dark Blue Nights

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Twists and Turns and the Magic of Dark Blue Nights

The air is cool as three-year-old Marshall and I step out into the dark blue night for an Autumnal Walk down to the wrought-iron bench in front of the English-style pub just a few blocks away from our apartment. 

The Autumnal Walk is a formal excursion usually reserved for Friday nights or Saturday mornings, always accompanied by hot cocoa or cider. Today is Tuesday: the day of the PhD interview. But the Skype interview with the UCPH faculty is over now--it has been for several hours. My nerves are just beginning to quiet.

As we walk, I feel relief in the realization of powerlessness. The week of practice and preparation, and the careful, but nerve-wracking performance of the interview are all over. It is out of my hands. I have no power over the outcome, and I know there is nothing more I can do to influence the result. I no longer feel the burden of responsibility.

Tension and release. Mad, rhythmic work, and then surrender, elation, dissipation. Stories are like that. And maybe the self is, too. Muscles straining, stretching, burning. Then wild flight, body soaring above and within itself, then down, down, down. Plummeting again and again.

 As Marshall and I sip warm spiced cider from mugs and meander toward the bench, I look up at the silent dark blue sky. And I remember how much I love autumn nights--how magical they've always felt to me. Sad nights, these cold stretches of dark blue sky dusted with stars. So full of longing to pull everything into myself, and for everything to pull me into it. Lonely nights, dark and lovely.

I go to bed Tuesday night, knowing I will hear back about the position very soon.

///

I awake the next morning to an email from the University of Copenhagen about my PhD application. Out of twenty applicants, they have only interviewed four--the decision is made quickly.

I'd imagined both scenarios: what I might feel and say if I was accepted and how I'd react if I didn't get the PhD job.

For acceptance, I'd planned jubilant, but tempered rejoicing. As much as I believe in education, I don't believe in the rat race that is academia. If I got in, I knew it wouldn't be just because I was hard working or some nonsense like that. Fully-funded gigs are rare. If Copenhagen worked out, it would be an incredibly fantastic opportunity, almost a fluke in the system, too good to be true.

For rejection, well--I'd imagined it, but wasn't really quite sure how I'd feel. I guess I figured I'd cross that bridge if/when I came to it.

Now that I'm here, on the other side of the long-awaited decision from the university, it strikes me how ready I was to use acceptance into a PhD program as a justification for all my choices about academia leading up to it. It's amazing how easy it is, when we think we've succeeded, to imagine that it legitimizes the road we've taken to get there. Conversely, when we think we've failed, we imagine there's a problem with the steps we've taken. If we've really made the right decisions, we think, how did we end up here?

It's a dangerous way to think, one that will leave us constantly judging ourselves for contingencies over which we never had real or complete power. We measure our days by their end, erasing the in-between and robbing our memories of the startlingly raw beauty of the unfinished.

As I reflect on the road to Copenhagen and a career in biblical studies that (at least for now) can't be taken, I wonder that I am disappointed, but not devastated.

I was ready to get back into the academic swing of things. I was ready to take on that role again. When I presented a paper at a conference in Copenhagen back in August, I remembered how much I love academic work in Hebrew Bible. While there's so much I hate about the academic system as a bureaucracy, the act of study and scholarship--the reading and writing and conversation--has always felt right to me. I had a beautiful next three years of researching, writing, teaching, and studying envisioned.

But now that this door is closed and I sense the opacity of the future, I just feel sad. I'm not devastated because I already know how it feels to have my identity as an academic obliterated. It's been over three years since I realized that I would need to build a new identity for myself that wasn't dependent on my success as a professional scholar.

I think I've stopped (mostly) being angry at the academic system for shaping my identity and then ousting me from it. I've stopped being angry at it for giving me an identity and then snatching it away, leaving me to fashion a new face for myself, a new vision.

I'm still very young, but I'm old enough to know that our faces change. There are some periods of time when we feel like we see ourselves (and our futures) clearly, and other times we feel opaque and faceless. Tension and release. Light and dark. Clarity and blurred vision. This is the way of things in a world teeming with life.

///

I write an email to an old mentor telling him the outcome of my application. He is a wise and cherished friend that we don't see often, but who always seems delighted by our dreaming and scheming. We go out for milkshakes together just about every 1-2 years.

"I'm so sorry to hear about the news," he writes back, "and share your disappointment. But I also remain hopeful. I believe your path--with all of its twists and turns--is a good one."

Your path is a good one.

It's wildly wonderful counter to the burdensome philosophy of the static life and unchanging self. What if we really believed that our path was good, with all of its twists and turns? What if we stopped being preoccupied with reaching an ideal place or an ideal self and, instead, enjoyed the delights of the wide and wandering path right here, right now? What if we stopped seeking a world without tension and release, but leaned into this one wild and precious life?

Marshall and I reach the bench by the pub and sit a while. He keeps his eyes fixed on the road in hopes of sighting an ice cream truck, but I look across the road and up into the dark blue night.

I don't know what's next or where I will go or who I will be. But I know that my path, with all of its twists and turns, is a good one.

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"Are You Crying, Mama?"

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"Are You Crying, Mama?"

The year my son was born was painful, but it was also the year my super powers were unlocked. That first year of motherhood was the year I rose into myself.

I was lucky, I know, not to have any severe forms of postpartum depression or any number of routine physical or emotional post-birth afflictions experienced by many women. All things considered, it had been an "easy" pregnancy, and though the labor had been long and painful, it was relatively uncomplicated.

Still, the transition to motherhood is always hard, and Josh and I had very little by way of a support system.

I had a year left in graduate school: a full two semesters left in a program that I'd seriously considered quitting each previous semester for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the workload. The coursework had seemed unreasonable, but still achievable when I was a childless student without a job or other commitments. Now it seemed impossible to me as a nursing mother whose hungry baby, the Provost had made it abundantly clear, was not welcome in the classroom.

I had a few friends, but none that could babysit regularly, and we could not afford childcare. Josh was tired. I was tired. Marshall was a scrawny child those first few months. He'd start to get the knack of nursing, but then I'd be away long days at class three days in a row, and he'd get confused by the bottle Josh provided.

After half a semester, one of my eight-week quad classes ended and my schedule, mercifully, loosened just a little. I skipped as many of my classes as I could without receiving a penalty so that I could take Marshall off the bottle. Because dammit I was not going to let my child remain underweight so that I could listen to a professor talk at me about the importance of inerrancy or why he believed in a single authorship theory of Isaiah. 

Wasting my time was one thing. Unwittingly contributing to my son's undernourishment was quite another.

Once Marshall was able to breastfeed exclusively, he started to gain weight, just as our family doctor had said he would.

"Why don't you take him to class with you and nurse there?" Dr. White had asked. He was very Catholic, very natural birth friendly, and very pro-nursing.

"I tried, but...." a sob caught in my throat and I couldn't finished. Josh explained to Dr. White as best he could.

Dr. White raised an eyebrow. "You should tell these Bible professors to read their Bibles," he said. "Isn't there something in Isaiah about God being like a nursing mother?"

I laughed painfully. "Yes, I'm writing a paper on it."

Now, off the bottle, my son gained mass and I gained fortitude. I learned to work quickly and efficiently. I had less time, but packed more umpf into each moment. Faced with the potentially paralyzing fear of failure at academia due to motherhood (or, rather, failure because academia is build for white men of leisure), I gradually became at peace with the idea that my contribution to the world is not reducible to my academic achievement.

I think I also learned (dare I say it?) how to be happy. 

Fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck the ivory towers and the scent of libraries and the coffee-fraught all-nighters spent on double-spaced papers. I'll trade this rat race for sore breasts and the smell of my baby's face and sleepless nights and exhausted days.

I couldn't cast off my academic burdens just like that, but I learned not to be so frantic. I worked hard, but I took leisure seriously, too. I set up a reading stand and read my textbooks while breastfeeding. I sat on the couch nursing Marshall on my left side and hand-drafting a paper on my right (typing requires two hands, alas). I bought an electric rocker (blessed be its inventor!), which sometimes calmed Marshall long enough for me to translate some Hebrew homework.

But when I couldn't viably squeeze in homework, I let myself be happy. When there wasn't enough time (and, really, there never was), I just enjoyed my child. I took him on walks in the stroller. I made myself nice coffee. We watched so so many episodes of Poirot together. When night came and I was too tired to concentrate on dense school reading, I indulged in an essay from Alberto Manguel's volume Into the Looking-Glass Wood.

In these days, I also learned how to be sad. This is the power that doesn't always make it into the superhero folklore: learning to channel the energy of grief. Letting sorrow be. Letting yourself be taken by sorrow, but not eternally swallowed by it. Managing sadness, forging it into a tool.

I can't tell you how I did this because I don't really know myself. But I remember the day that I realized that as long as I was a mother of a small child, my emotions would affect not just me, but my boy. (The truth was that they affected my husband also, but I was less aware of this at the time.)

I don't remember the day (it was probably in those tremulous first weeks of the semester), but there was an afternoon at home when all the stress came to a head.

Josh was at work. I was alone with Marshall and that old demon impostor syndrome. I'd been unduly shamed by the administration for attempting to bring my child to class to breastfeed. I knew I wasn't a bad mother. But I was a bad academic. I was the mother's body highly prized by evangelicals until it had the gall to want acceptance in other spaces. The mother's body branded "unprofessional" so long as there was a baby on its hip.

And that afternoon, with the sky swirling dark and sheets of rain slapping against the living room window, I lost it. I cried. Hard. Wailed, even. I let my grief loose into the world.

As I cried, the baby in my arms cried, too. I honestly don't remember which of us started first, but we both kept at it long.

After a time, I stopped crying and rocked Marshall until he was calm, too.

It was then that I saw the power of sadness, and knew that I could not be careless in how I managed the expression of my emotions. If I wasn't careful, I might pull my child into my pain in unhealthy ways.

I determined to guard myself. I knew suppressing pain wasn't healthy either, but I decided that from then on I would determine when and where I expressed sadness.  I learned how to stop and breathe when I was frustrated, angry, hurt, or feeling depressed. I let myself cry, and feel, but if Marshall was with me, I breathed deeply and conjured a gentle rain instead of a raging storm.

Now that Marshall is a little older (three) and we can talk about things, I am more apt to express around him because we can talk about it.

"Are you crying, mama?" he asks. He offers to bring me a "foo" (his word for toilet paper or tissues).

"Yes," I answer.

"You're not crying?" he says with a question-like lilt at the end, as if he wants it to be a true statement, but isn't sure it is. "You're not sad?" he says with a worried smile of disbelief.

I take the proffered foo. "Yes, I'm sad, Marshall. Did you know that it's okay to be sad sometimes? That it's okay to cry?"

He nods slowly. "Yeah," he says.

I take him in my lap. I hold him as the storm runs its course.

After the rain has passed, I say, "Why don't you pick a book and I'll read to you?"

We both know the pattern. There's always a story after the rain.

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 3)

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 3)

This is the third part of a multi-part creative nonfiction piece. Here are the first and second parts.

March 3, 1887. Tuscumbia, Alabama. Six-year-old Helen Keller meets the teacher that will bring her out of darkness into light by introducing her to language.

Little Helen lives in a world of smell, taste, touch, deprived of sight and sound by an illness at age nineteen months.

Helen remembers the home of her childhood before the sickness, the small two-room house that looks like an arbor from the garden. The house is covered with vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckle. The little porch is cloaked in a screen of yellow roses and Southern smilex. Bees and hummingbirds hover and hum.

She remembers the scents and textures of the house and garden after going blind and deaf: the perfume of the violets and lilies, the cool of leaves and grass as she buries her face in them, the soft touch of blossoms on the tumble-down vines covering the summer-house at the far end of the garden. The fragrance of dew-washed flowers mists the air, rising from the garden of roses, butterfly lilies, trailing clematis, and drooping jessamine.

But even the vast tactile landscape and deluge of olfactory sensation feels clouded with a thick emotional black.

Helen feels many things.

Jealousy–when her sister is born and Helen is no longer her mother’s sole darling.

Glee–when she locks her mother in a room and feels the vibrations of her banging and pounding on the door for three hours.

Terror–when her dress catches fire and burns her hands before the nurse can rescue her.

Impatience–when she cannot understand the meaning of the letters that she feels her teacher, Miss Sullivan, tracing onto her open palms with the tip of a finger.

Frustration–Helen smashes a doll to the ground.

Satisfied delight–when she feels the fragments of the broken doll at her feet.

But she feels no sorrow or regret at the outburst. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.

Little Helen feels, at times, something akin to regret. After the tantrums, kicking and screaming wildly at her nurse, Ella, Helen knows that she has hurt her. But the feeling never sticks long enough to keep her from lashing out again when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Empathy escapes little Helen, but she is on the verge of revelation, on the brink of generativity.

She communicates basic desires with gestures, but lacks the building blocks of complex language to organize her sensations and develop a cognitive world that recognizes its cooperation with other conscious beings.

There aren’t two worlds, but to Helen there are: the interior world of her immediate sensations and the silent, dark, exterior where everyone else lives, a world she doesn’t know. Her world lacks the strong, animal sense of time cognized by the human brain, and the flowering of cultivated memory, the ability to link one event or sensation to others.

Helen is conscious, waking, but has only a dim sense of her relationship to other waking things.

Miss Sullivan brings Helen her hat, a signal: they are going outside into the warm sunshine. Helen hops and skips with pleasure.

The teacher and student walk down to the well-house, drawn by honeysuckle scent. The teacher sees the water spout in the well-house and decides to try again. She has tried before to teach Helen the naming of things, tracing letters into her palms and giving her the corresponding object: “d-o-l-l” paired with the pre-shattered doll. She’s tried to teach her “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r” that day already, but Helen keeps conflating the two.

But here they come again to the water, to that cool, strong god, tamed and coursing from a spigit. The teacher grabs one of Helen’s hands and pulls it beneath the spout gushing with cool deity. Into her other hand, she spells “w-a-t-e-r.” Slow at first, then rapidly.

Helen stands still, attention fixed on the motion of her teacher’s fingers.

Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!

The water had the look of water that is looked at.

Thus I came out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from that sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, “Knowledge is love and light is vision.”

The girl had the look of a girl that looks.

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 2)

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Gods That Are Looked At (Part 2)

This is part of a larger piece of creative nonfiction. The beginning can be found here.

The ancient Egyptians look at Hapi, god of the Nile, a deity whose false beard reaches just to the tops of his female breasts. A cloth covers the loins that (we might guess) are turquoise like the rest of his skin. Hapi’s stomach is rounded as if stuffed with the fat of the land he has nourished.

When Hapi is god of the northern part of the Nile, he wears papyrus plants and his wife is Buto. When Hapi is god of the southern region of the river, his wife is Nekhebet and he wears lotus on his head. He oversees the water that floods the Nile, depositing the silt on the bank that makes the crops grow.

Hapi is a very old god, maker of the universe, creator of the earth. Over time, Hapi disappears into Osiris, god of the dead, god of earth, god of vegetation.

The droughts are Osiris’ death, and the flooding are his rebirth.

The sacred stories say Osiris is murdered by his brother, Set, who tricks him into trying out a fine sarcophagus that Set then casts into the Nile. Osiris’ wife, Isis, searches for the god’s corpse and finds it. She goes out to gather herbs and potions to bring Osiris back to life, but Set discovers the body, tears it into fourteen pieces, and flings it across Egypt. Isis finds and gives her husband a proper burial, but first she revives him (and his fish-eaten penis) long enough to copulate and conceive a son.

Osiris becomes king of the afterlife. When the Nile swells and floods, it is Osiris born again. When the Nile recedes, Egypt mourns Osiris’ loss and gives gifts on the shore. When it floods, the priests pour sweet water into the Nile and proclaim Osiris found.

But these are only two (or one?) gods.

There is Anuket, goddess of the Nile, decked in a headdress of reeds and ostrich feathers. Her sacred animal is the gazelle.

Nephthys, goddess of death, vegetation, and rivers. Her headdress is a house and a basket. She is the inversion of her sister, Isis–Nephthys is death and Isis is rebirth.

Khnum, god of creation and waters, source of the Nile, and the god that creates the bodies of children on his potter’s wheel from the Nile’s clay and places them in their mothers’ wombs.

Sobek, god with the head of a crocodile, god of the Nile, the army, military, and fertility.

Tefnut, goddess of moisture, air, dew, rain, weather, fertility.

I name only a few.

*

The Canaanites look at Yam (Sea), whose epithet is Judge Nahar, Judge River. Yam’s greatest rival is also a god of water: Baal Haddad, god of the storm, thunder, lightning, rain, fertility.

Baal Haddad rides on the clouds, clutching bolts of lightning in his fists. When Baal descends to the underworld, it leaves the summers dry. When he returns in autumn, storms revive the barren land.

Egypt and Mesopotamia hold fast to their river gods. Their agriculture depends on irrigation from these water sources. But here in Canaan, the life source for crops is rain. The stormgod must be kept close.

Baal Haddad conquers the serpent Yam. He strikes Yam’s skull and rends him in pieces.

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Gods That Are Looked At

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Gods That Are Looked At

Gods That Are Looked At

Some may imagine that there are two worlds, one “out there” and a separate one being cognized inside the skull. But the “two worlds” model is a myth. Nothing is perceived except perceptions themselves, and nothing exists outside of consciousness. Only visual reality is extant, and there it is. Right there.

–Robert Lanza, Biocentrism, 36

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

–T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”

*

I sit on a wide slab of broken concrete that veers down into the stream.

“What’s that?” my redheaded three-year-old, Marshall, points a dirt-caked fingernail toward another piece of concrete that juts up from the middle of the stream, submerged except for its tip, water frothing at its seams.

Trees along the bank stretch upward and lean over us, and tangles of brush thicken the water’s edge. On the other side of the stream rises a hill of dry grass under a soft blue sky. At our backs, the beaten path lies in a small stretch of forest, a preserved nature trail that I might forget is a trail if not for these masses of concrete.

But I know this is no wilderness. We’re still in suburbia, our apartment door a scant half-mile away. The entrance to the trail stands at an asphalt road not more than a hundred yards.

Marshall sits beside me in his knitted cap and Paddington Bear coat, his bright blue mittens wrapped around a navy plastic cup long-emptied of the stove-stewed cocoa. Honey, milk, cocoa powder, chocolate chips–all slurped down two minutes into our expedition.

I sip homemade coffee from a ceramic to-go cup and listen to the brown water of the Wissahickon rush by. “Just more concrete,” I answer.

We are a silent pair of old men fishing by a creek, lazing like the Saturday it is.

A Cooper’s Hawk soars in circles over the trees and high above the hill. “Look,” I point upward to the patch of blue sky. “Did you see the bird?” I ask Marshall. “She’s in the trees now, but look–she’s circling back around. Can you see her?”

“Yeah,” he says, “I do.”

The hawk flies away and we resume our placid river-gazing.

I think the river is a strong brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier.

I look at the thread of thin mud dribbling by our feet. No strong god this.

And yet this stream feels like a muted, but substantive, glory to me–a wonder for a suburbanite living just a short train ride from Philadelphia. I can see in this small trickle of water how a river could become a god where a river god is needed, in another age or region of the world that relies on the river for agricultural flourishing.

But here it’s little more than a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten by the dwellers in cities.

I am not a city-dweller, but we have our own strange gods in the American suburbs, gods by other names, gods that order our days for better and for worse. Gods of light and energy that determine when we rise and sleep. Transportation gods that ordain where we go and how we get there. Gods of urban planning and architecture that stratify our towns and decide what gets built where. Socio-economic gods enshrined in our legal system and upheld by our white supremacist myths, gods that determine who makes how much and where they live. Gods that reflect how they are looked at.

Often, gods start to bleed together. They dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river.

Here in the suburbs, there is little reverence of the river or honor for the storm. Rain and river neither sustain or disturb us, so we pay them little heed until we feel the weather gods lashing out because of our neglect and abuse.

As I write this, hurricane Irma rips through Florida. Already it has torn through the Caribbean, passed north of Puerto Rico and surged through northern Cuba. Last week, hurricane Harvey devastated southeastern Texas.

Floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes–natural disasters have been around since time immemorial and have been pinned on gods for just as long. Drought means a storm god is missing. Flood and storm are the work of a miffed deity.

But that was in the old days, in the polytheistic imagination. In spite of the proliferation of gods, the West insists we have just one (or zero, depending on who you ask). When the U.S. experiences a natural disaster, there’s always a pastor or two on hand to say that this one God is punishing us for legalizing gay marriage. It is not the weather gods angry at us for making the earth hotter, gods roiling at our exacerbation of the planet. No, the one God sends a hurricane as the “due penalty of our error,” the error of letting people marry whom they choose.

But I’ll waste no more time on the impious, the frauds that don’t respect their own visions. They don’t take responsibility for the beings that rise and dance in response to their gaze. I want to live in the company of people who are mindful of the gods within our purview.

As I sit on the creek bank next to my son, the child of my body–my self disseminated, de-centered–I feel only wonder.

Everything is full of gods.

I don’t know what Thales meant by this statement or, for the life of me, why I always remember it wrong. It sticks in my mind as The air is thick with gods. A fog, a sense of density, an everything. The universe is an ocean, gods are its water. No matter where you turn, lo and behold! A god. There it is. Look! A god that is looked at.

I turn my head to look at Marshall staring at the water. “Are you ready to walk back now?” I ask.

“No,” he says, not turning his eyes. “Let’s stay.”

This, here, is the miracle of consciousness: to be confronted with the indissoluble. Everything is full of gods, the universe swirling with infinite potentials, thick with what could be if we would only stop and perceive. A world where there are no ‘false’ gods. All the gods perceived are perceptions. All roses have the look of flowers that are looked at. Nothing exists apart from consciousness. Of all the gods and flowers that might be cognized, these are the ones that capture our gaze (or are captured, framed, by our gaze).

In a universe of possibilities, uncountable abstractions that could become concrete, this right here is the actual I see.

I am at this juncture of the Wissahickon, looked over by these particular trees. I drink the coffee in my hand, the cup crafted from hot water and two thimblefuls of beans from Ethiopia, the coffee I will never drink again even if I make a similar-tasting cup from the same batch of beans. I sit beside a small human who might have been, or been very different than he is now, a conscious body that is changing day by day.

As the slight brown god flows by under our watch, all the gods dissolve into its current.

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They Call It Love. And Maybe It Is.

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They Call It Love. And Maybe It Is.

No Dating to Kiss goodbye

My parents didn't forbid me from dating as a teenager, but my pool of eligible young men was restricted to church and my homeschool group. And thanks to a book written by a twenty-one year old homeschooled kid about the foibles of dating, we were all about courtship. Terms like "boyfriend," "girlfriend," and "dating" were dirty words.

There were a few good humored, sensible young men in my homeschool group that were very easy on the eyes. But although hope sprung eternal, I think I knew deep down that it was fruitless to imagine that any of them would solicit my father's permission to come over once a week to sit stiffly in our parlor to pay me court.

But I imagined anyway. I was pretty sure it would look something like this (sans the dancing, but definitely including the hamster):

It wasn't until my last semester in college that I fell in love for the first time. Throughout college, I'd always had a thing for one gent or another, but this was the first time I'd experienced anything mutual.

Though I had yet to experience reciprocal inloveness, I wrote about love constantly in high school and in those early college days. It amazes me how frequently and authoritatively I wrote about romantic love before I had ever had the experience of being in love. As I sorted through my paper files this weekend, I came across this fragment of writing from about ten years ago that I think I meant to work into a love story:

Manhattan in Winter.jpg

These few paragraphs say so much about how I understood love and inloveness in my early college days. They drip with a hope in the magic of inloveness, but also the impulse to kill that hope in magic before it exposed me for a fool.

I've been in love for over seven years now, and I can't speak with authority on some kind of universal experience of inloveness, I can say something provisional about the potentials of romantic love. Or at least do better than viewing all inloveness as parasitic by default.

The Dazzle of Real Fantasies

Those early stages of dazzle are not unreal or (necessarily) unhealthy phantasms, the bubbles that will be burst once we get down to the daily nitty-gritty of "real love." I think that's actually a very suspicious disposition toward love. Rather, sometimes our deepest and most emotionally raw realities are fantasies of the loveliest kind, real fictions to be nurtured and elaborated on. 

Our experience of what people might think of as the "highs" of inloveness are (or at least can be) co-authored realities that produce a heightened sense of mutual awareness (the "us" factor). They are not the fake stuff that we must beat back to get to the real stuff of love, but the beginnings of a delightfully fabricated reality of life together that we must continue to fashion anew.

Likewise, "the daily grind" of ordinary life is not the foil to these concentrated moments of awareness of being in love, but the necessary food of a relationship that is contingent and changing. I'll dare to contradict Shakespeare and say that love isn't ever-fixed mark, but a perpetual movement. And I'll affirm (contra Hartley Coleridge) that love is a fancy and a feeling, not "immortal as immaculate Truth" unless we own that immortality is contingent upon perpetual transformation and "truth" is anything but spotless. The surest way to kill love is to expect it to be always the same, and it's from this expectation of sameness that we get the inloveness/daily grind dichotomy.

My pre-inloveness writings have a common theme: a roiling hope in the realities of deep connection, and also an abject fear that such love would never materialize (and, further, that if it didn't it would be my fault for failing to engage the "really real"). What I missed (among many things) was the concept of creation and cultivation. Love isn't a matter of "real" vs. "fake," but of creating an awareness of the environs in which love grows and learning how best to tend and nourish.

Magic sweeps in, washes over and into us. It's the spell of the tide that flows over us and ebbs back into the dark sea, the undertow tugging us into its uncertain deeps. Don't be afraid of its unfathomed worlds or the strength of its grip. In time, the sea will cast you up again onto dry land. You will trace the sand with your finger, the wet sand that (scientifically speaking) did not exist until you perceived it.

You will touch the solid, shifting earth and wonder which was real: the magic of the sea or the rootedness of dirt? And you will be answered by the crash of waves and the sensation of particles moving beneath your hand.

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Food, Sex, and Grammar: Why 'Biblical Manhood and Womanhood' Aren't Biblical Enough

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Food, Sex, and Grammar: Why 'Biblical Manhood and Womanhood' Aren't Biblical Enough

The analysis of the act of eating may be considered similar to a grammatical analysis. A meal is as complex as a sentence or a paragraph: it is constituted by smaller individual elements, words, that are the essential ingredients which have on their own a peculiar provenance and that carry one or more tastes. These basic elements can be taken singularly, of course, but they are enhanced, and give much more sense, when they are mixed in a potentially unlimited number of ways--and each time they acquire a whole new meaning. In fact, setting up a meal is never just an answer to a physical necessity, but it serves very specific and different purposes of communication. Food conveys meanings, in much the same way as a text, and in the same manner it might thus be read and understood, once the language it speaks is known. Furthermore, the metaphor of a grammar analysis is also useful to recall the sense of rules, of a grid in which each element must find its place: in order for the whole system to work properly, each constituent must follow some accepted and renowned paradigms. Thus, the relationships among words, sentences or paragraphs are rigorous and dynamic at the same time.

- Stefania Ermidoro, Commensality and Ceremonial Meals in the Neo-Assyrian Period (pp. 13-14)

I love this comparison of meals to grammar, not just because I adore words and food, but because I think of everything as communication. Each element of the universe, humans included, is constantly moving as part of a web of relationships, perpetually turning into a new meaning.

My deepening understanding of language is (I think) what led me away from a belief in fixed gender roles and from my narrow view of what could constitute healthy sexual identity and praxis.

If I had time and energy, I could guide you through my long journey as a biblical exegete through the deep and murky waters of hermeneutics, historical criticism, linguistic analysis, and the many ways that interpreters have approached the Bible to understand its significance for contemporary life. But when it comes down to it, my changing view of language, of reality, is what changed my approach to gender and sexuality (and continues to change it). 

The categories I grew up with (very similar to the rigid binaries expressed by the CBMW in the Nashville Statement--let the record show that I was a big CBMW fan as a teen!) just didn't cohere with the complexity and plurality of experiences and perspectives I saw both in the text of Bible and the book of the world. When I say the CBMW isn't "biblical enough," what I mean by extension is that it isn't linguistic enough: it doesn't fit with the elasticity of language or even the Bible as a plurality of dynamic linguistic creations.

People as ingredients

People are sentences made up of the words of their experience, and together we make paragraphs and essays and books that are potentially endless. We are the ingredients of a meal that can be combined in many different ways to create endlessly delightful dishes that can be assembled in a variety of different ways to comprise a banquet.

It's typical for traditionalists of the CBMW variety to express a fear that society and culture (and likewise the church) will lose its structure or verge on moral collapse if people depart from what they see as God's design for human sexuality as expressed in the Bible. I see hermeneutical issues with this argument, but beyond these debates is a related problem: it does not cohere with the simple witness of language itself. 

As Ermidoro expresses above, language is both rigorous and dynamic. Its evolution and dynamism doesn't mean it lacks structure or order, but that the structures are provisional and flexible. In this sense, there is no end to what we can create through the combination of different ingredients (or, if there is an end, it's not within our purview).

To accept a spectrum of experience (whether in regard to sexuality, gender, or anything else) isn't a departure from order, but an acknowledgement that at various times and places, societies have put limits on the types of words/ingredients/people that could comprise their ordered social "meal" (for a variety of reasons), and that these limits are provisional boundaries, not ideals for all human societies of all times and places to emulate. In fact, in many cases the limitations are not only arbitrary, but oppressive, unjust, and rooted in hatred or fear of difference (an easy example is the ban on interracial marriage in the U.S. that persisted until 1967, and the false racialized narratives that still persist in American consciousness).

All cultures and societies create limits for a variety of different reasons. Limits are not inherently bad (in fact, they are necessary and implicit in any structure). And sometimes people purposefully impose limits on themselves or their communities in order to open up other opportunities. For example, some people may choose never to marry and/or be celibate because they want to devote themselves to other things (be it the church or a career or another cause). Or, if you have an extreme peanut allergy, you would probably want to avoid peanuts (but that doesn't mean peanuts are deadly to everyone).

These are limits that are helpful for some, and not for others. The problem comes when provisional structures become ossified and divorced from other components of the structure (which is in constant flux).

I would venture to say that the most consistent argument advanced by Christians in support of complementarianism as God's ideal (and against any sexual experience outside of marriage between one cisgender man and one cisgender woman) is that God has given us a recipe book for the human sexuality. This recipe is thought to be derived from the Bible and/or Church tradition, and is advanced as the perfect guide to get the chemistry just right to create the perfect culinary masterpiece!

But the proof is in the pudding. 

the pudding

And as we've learned through the witness of those who can't be squeezed into the cisgender heterosexual category, there is a lot more diversity of "ingredients" than the dominant culture wants to acknowledge and accept. To argue that 1 cisgender man + 1 cisgender woman is the only proper way to make a marriage, you have to argue either that 1) other ways of combining ingredients is bad or 2) that the ingredients are actually bad.  

If we're going to talk about "bad ingredients," we'd have to debate what constitutes "bad." Remember that so much culinary delight and nourishment has come from rotten stuff. Is it moldy milk or is it cheese? Sour cream anyone? I don't enjoy soured milk on my cereal, but it's great for baking a chocolate cake or making pancakes! Beer? Wine? And isn't honey made of bee spit (or something like that)? 

I'm not even sure we need to apply the analogy to humans since it's plain as day to anyone who actually has a friendship with any LGBTQIA person that there's nothing inherently bad about them anymore than there is anything inherently bad about a heterosexual cisgender woman like me. We all commit relational transgressions, and are in need of growth and maturity and working through our issues, but that's different from saying someone's a bad apple. That's the kind of thinking that gives rise to eugenics and gay conversion therapy.

So to argue for "traditional marriage" as the only morally acceptable option, you'd have to go back to the combination argument: that what we've got through Church tradition is the right ratios for human sexuality.

Now of course in baking and cooking, the chemistry is important, but as I've noted above, it's a relational (and often experimental) process. We make provisional judgments (for better and for worse) all the time about what makes a good combo ("Julie and John aren't well-matched, they should never have married!"). 

But unless we discover solid evidence for why certain ingredients shouldn't be arrange in a particular way, we'd have no reason to keep them from doing so. In fact, when we keep ingredients apart arbitrarily, we deny their right to find their place in the feast of meaning, which ends up depriving everyone and limiting the scope of our communal palate. (And in the case of Julie and John--they're already together, so it's likely that our unsolicited thoughts about whether or not they make a good cake isn't helping them, but only reinforcing our opinion of what we think tastes good.)

As anyone who has baked or cooked or exercised hospitality knows, recipes and the order of a meal are very flexible and subjective, and there is also the element of taste. Serve a chocolate walnut pudding to ten people and eight of them might think it's delicious, but the other two guests (unbeknownst to you) don't care for it at all (one doesn't like chocolate and the other as an allergy). It may indeed be a lovely pudding--but it's not for everyone.

(Sure, if there's arsenic in the cake, probably everyone will die, but since I've born witness to a number of lovely lesbian marriages that as yet have not poisoned me or anyone else, I'd venture to say that the "bad apple" argument applied to LGBTQIA people still doesn't work.)

culinary combinations

Say you want to make a cake. The basic ingredients are the same as any other pastry: flour, sugar, dairy, salt, and a raising agent (unless you're making a gluten or dairy-free pastry). But the order in which you mix these things together and the ratio and a host of other things will change based on what you are trying to create. You say you need butter. Butter is butter (let's call a spade a spade!). But it's also dairy, but then so is milk. You need two dairies. Unless you want to make a sour cream cake, and sour cream is also dairy, a third type of the (allegedly) same thing. Well, they all come from a cow, don't they? Unless they come from a goat or another animal. Is it still butter or is it goat's butter and goat's milk?

We can endlessly categorize these things (and do), and many of these categories even have a basis in biological makeup (e.g.,butter, milk, and sour cream that all come from the same cow). But the fact that they can be become a plethora of different things and be defined in a variety of different ways points to their vast potential to create an excess of meaning, and it's certainly no argument for putting a cap on what they can mean.

Flour? Okay. What kind? Pick one, portion it out, get the ratios right--but of course they're ratios, relational. How much flour you add will depend on how much butter and sugar you put in. And of course the heat of the oven and the time it takes to bake will all need to be gauged in relation to the other elements, like the shape of the cake pan. And is it a sheet cake or a cupcake? Or, wait, is the cupcake a muffin? Or is the cake a fruit bread? Or is shortbread actually a cookie?

And you don't even want to know how my husband and I disagree on what makes a scone a scone and a biscuit a biscuit.

My point is that our very reality is predicated on the dynamism of structures that shift and evolve. This isn't an ideal we try to conform to--this is the way we function as language. Denying our mutability and our potential to become new meaning may feel more secure or coherent for a time, but it's counter-productive, uncreative, and perpetuates injustice.

Plus, it's boring.

So to those who have so often been pushed outside of the conversation, denied a place at the table: know that you are language and you are lovely.

You may be an uncommon word. Perhaps even a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in a single body of literature, a word whose meaning is difficult to understand because it is so rarely heard. But you belong here. You belong here because you are here, and your presence opens up the universe to an excess of meaning.

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When "God's Design" is Code for "You Threaten Me"

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When "God's Design" is Code for "You Threaten Me"

I've spent over fifteen years (over half my life) thinking about gender and sexuality from various angles ("biblical" and otherwise), and I have yet to encounter a world in which "God's design" isn't just code for "your difference threatens me."

People have the right to work out their sexual identity in safe spaces. Pious, universal declarations about "what God intends" for human sexuality will not help the church, but fuel fear and create further space for social stigma and legal oppression of those who don't fit within the heteronormative framework of the dominant culture.

Believe me, as someone who has lived in such Christian spaces for many years, I understand the good intentions of those who make such declarations about "biblical manhood and womanhood." But if there's one thing I've discovered over the past three years that has devastated me to my core, it's that people can be kind, caring, well-intentioned, and generally decent people, and still perpetuate massive injustice.

Sometimes I tremble when I look back on the ways my lack of perspective has reinforced and perpetuated injustice, and fear that I am still perpetuating injustice because I am unable to experience the world from someone else's center.

But I refuse to acknowledge that a blue pill existence is a necessary or permanent state of things.

Whatever you believe, whatever your convictions or story, you cannot rely on what you have always known because what you know has been experienced from your own center. And that experience from your center has been joined to the experiences of people who look and sound like you.

These people are actually different from you, but through repetition you've created the comfortable illusion of sameness. Together you have eaten meals and forged new memories and created a communal core experience by collapsing the individual perspectives into a monolith to eliminate the terror of difference.

But then someone different comes along--or, rather, someone whose difference you feel more acutely because it doesn't fit into the illusion of sameness you've created. And it frightens you of course because you've learned that all things are best experienced from your center or your community's illusory center. In your design for the world, you are the core, the stillpoint of the turning world. And that must be preserved at all costs.

But there is an alternative to this perspective. A disposition (both individual and communal) that says, "I cannot experience consciousness from your center. You must tell me your story, and in the telling I will learn to know your existence and not to fear it."

The power you think belongs to you will be scattered, dispersed, redistributed. You will not see from every center, but you will live in the joy of knowing that every center matters, that your body is not diminished by the presence of another body. You will love that body as you love your own.

You will love, but you will not be free. For in letting go of your need for your center to be the center, you will find a new terror.

You will find yourself spread out through the cosmos, bound in relation to all things. You will find that your body was never in danger from difference, but from the illusion of sameness. And you will find that in loving your neighbor's body, you have loved yourself.

You will find no escape from the world you so desperately love, no relief from the weight of relation. You will radiate from every center, and every center will radiate from you.

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