The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress. If this resonates with you or you find it interesting, please do let me know. I’m working hard to craft a memoir that is vulnerable and evocative and it’s helpful to have affirmation along the way.
The Patriarchy I Did Not Smash
I run my hand down the cold, carved scales of the dragon’s arched, serpentine neck. The sun god has long descended to the netherworld and the bricks beneath my fingers have lost their residual warmth. I move my torch closer to examine the details of the beast’s body, stroking its plated belly.
The dragon’s form is gold painted stone embossed on a wall of glazed blue bricks that gleam like polished sapphire and lapis. Its head and tongue are those of a twisting snake, but its middle is a panther’s torso, its feline forelegs and paws frozen in mid stride. Its back legs bear the ringed tarsi and talons of an eagle, and from its hind grows a tail as long and reptilian as its head.
I feel no ground under my feet as my body pulls back from the image to survey its whole. Am I moving back from the dragon or is it moving away from me?
Darkness surrounds and yet as the distance between us grows, I see that I am before the gate of a walled city that towers forty feet high. Its entire surface is a menagerie of animals set masterfully in an azurite sea. I see at least ten more dragons arranged beside each other in ordered pairs; above and below them are golden bulls with turquoise hoofs, the creases of their muscles outlined in black.
The doors of the gate open inward and I pass through them and along the processional way. The city is empty and noiseless except for the sound of my breathing and the soft burning of my torch. I smell a faint aroma of cedar.
The faience walls to my right and left are lined with gilded lions, jaws and eyes open wide, my fierce companions on the way to the temple. I do not know how long I am among the lions or how I move along the way.
The lions disappear and I am at the base of a long flight of stairs that stretches up and into the center of a ziggurat where the gods sit enthroned over the city.
At last I feel the ground under my soft, bare feet. The baked clay steps feel cold and dusty as I ascend, but my quadriceps are burning. The scent of cedar grows stronger and begins to mix with other smells. The oils of myrtle and the dry, peppery prick of cypress and juniper wash over me.
The steps lead to the first terrace and I turn to look at the city, visible to me even in blackness. I see far below me the hundred lions that stretch toward the edges of the city to meet the azure gate of bulls and dragons.
I know I should have heeded their warning, that the powers these creatures guard are stronger and more ravenous than a thousand wild animals with gnawing bellies. The figures in this shrine I am about to enter move with the force of countless armies, hosts of both humans and angels. They speak with the authority built by the tales of their gruesome battles, their robes drenched in the blood of their enemies.
I turn back to the stairway and continue upward and inward until I reach the uppermost terrace and slip from the open air into the labyrinthine halls, leaving behind the world of beasts and humans. I walk through a series of antechambers to get to the central cella. Burnished bronze lamps stand at intervals along the hall, illuminating the way to the gods.
I reach the inner room where the cult images sit on their altar benches, a table of food spread out before each. Their bodies are carved of tamarisk wood and overlaid with gold and silver. The temple artisans have set jewels into the gods’ sockets and fashioned chains of gold and lapis lazuli for their necks. The weavers have dressed them in robes of coral and turquoise thread.
The cult statues are no bigger than infants, but they cloister the immensity of divine sanction in their bodies.
Panic seizes me. I realize in this moment that I have done it all wrong. I should not have been walking, but running. I should have torn through the streets like a warrior on the day of battle. The city should be aflame, my armies breaching the walls and razing it down to its foundations. I should have a band of soldiers thundering behind me ready to smash these gods and cut off their heads.
But I have come alone, with only a torch and an ax and my words. I cannot assault these wretched gods that rule my world with the might of a hundred silenced stories.
I start to babble, heart pounding in my chest. Surely, if I explain everything, these molten gods will understand and turn and see. I don’t know what I am saying, but I know it is the truth. At last, we will have it out face to face. And even if they do not listen, my stifled voice will go out to the ends of the earth and all the world will hear my witness and vindicate me.
The lamps of the shrine go out and the room becomes pitch. I hear only the sound of my rasping and my heart rattling my insides.
Try as I might, I can never seem to decapitate these cult images in my dreams. I am always talking to their heads as if I can reason with them, as though by some magic their amethyst eyes will open, their ears receive my speech, and their golden lips part to talk with me.
I wish I could tell you I grabbed the patriarchy and smashed it with the zeal of an ancient Babylonian warrior dashing a cult image of an enemy’s god. But that would be a lie. My liberation from the old gods has come slowly, timidly, with the fear and trembling of one afraid to lose their own face. I grope about in a dark room, searching for the right shape on which to expend my fury.
But which image do I shatter? The face of my Grandpa Nick, his protruding, irascible lips spewing racist, sexist bile laced with verbal affirmations of his paternal goodness? The dulled, deep-set eyes of my father lost in a vacuum of buried trauma, wakened only by a sense of the world’s wrongs?
Do I break the benevolent smiles of my male Bible professors, cheeks flushed warm with empathy and blissful ignorance of their own power? Do I split open the face of my ancestors’ invisible god, whose image has been all of these and none? And do I cut down my own body for complicity in its bondage and its repetition of white well-meant stories that pave the road to a racialized hell?
Where is the patriarchy? Hand me that ax. I will end this once and for all. I will cut down these altars, raze these temples, and cast every last one of these carved gods into a salt-sown field outside the city.
But I am not that brave. My hands shake and release their weapon. As it thuds and clanks to the floor, I breathe into myself and then out into the darkness.
Fear radiates from my every ligament, but it isn’t cowardice. This body is warrior and artisan fused together, an imminent eruption of iconoclastic and iconophilic energy. I am pulled between the cathartic thrill of swift shattering, and the slow, painstaking work of dismantling and rebuilding, edging toward a burst of new creation.
I pick up my ax and put it away; I may have need of it later. But today I am an artisan, pulling apart the patriarchy piece by piece, examining each material before I work it into a new shape.
Maybe I am a coward, afraid to up and shed my skin in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. But fear of skin is the foundation of this hoary shrine. I must love my body as I lose it, replacing it unit by unit.
The work of my shaping started long before I was aware of it or gained any agency. A child is raw material in the hands of artisans, a Galatea among countless Pygmalions.
But not all sculptors are the same, and over time you start to see how their visions compete for mastery over your body.
And you start to realize that you, too, are both sculptor and sculpture, and that mastery is a contradiction in terms. When you are the maker and the made, absolute ownership dissolves. It no longer matters who built your world, it is yours, ours. We are working it together, and this requires open eyes and elastic forms.
But we are not consistently or equally pliable. Time and trauma harden us and the worlds we have constructed. We fracture and crumble and the gods that hold our gaze are reinforced or broken down. We must sustain the myth or crack its skull.
I closet my ax, but keep it sharp, training with it every day.
I wish I could tell you I smashed the patriarchy, but the truth is that the patriarchy smashed me. It cut me into segments and doled me out for consumption, predicating my being on the premise that I couldn’t be whole unless I had all my old pieces in the old form. It broke me and told me brokenness was a sin, that god likes his humans pure, stable, categorized.
But I am not so frightened of breaking as I once was. I know that I am not alone, that we are one body, one house. Destroy this body and it rises again in a new form; malleable, resilient, and queer as fuck.
I may not have smashed the patriarchy. But I can read the signs of this body and tell you its days are numbered. The intractable borders of patriarchy are no match for the lithe limbs of a body that recognizes itself even as it moves among the shadows of so many shifting shapes.
Shapes. I see it now–that’s what all the fuss is about. It’s as simple as a child fumbling with plastic cubes, cylinders, moons, and triangles too big for its hand, trying desperately to push them through the right holes of the shape sorter. And a parent hovering close to catch the mistakes, knowing that society does not take kindly to the shapes it was not built to fit.
Hear the applause when a block makes it through the hole designed for it. Watch the correction when the moon gets pushed through the triangle hole. It’s a matter of survival now. Only the right shapes will make it through.
But this is the secret of the body’s power–it’s mutable, adaptable. It is form and formlessness in a single breath.
Shape intersects with power–long have my bones felt what my mind could not verbalize. It wasn’t until I enrolled at a small evangelical university, where I majored in Biblical Studies, that I first began to understand the pain and pleasure of amorphism. There, my first lesson in forms came from my Bible professor, Mr. Andrews, whose body I never touched.