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.