Dark Gifts, Part II

 

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“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.”

–The Baal Shem Tov

 

We have been living in the Mess Hall at the camp for months when Christmas rolls around, and I am excited by the snow.  My siblings and I are all struck silent and still by the prospect of being confined, although we don’t know to call it that.  We are huddled at the top of a dirt road, safe in the Mess Hall, relieved that it is impossible to drive down to get to the main road and make the 95 minute trek to Communion. So here we are.

Trapped, but safe.

I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be in this winter wonderland, away from the possibility that my parents will be summoned to preach or teach. I don’t want anything for Christmas except for to stay here forever, to stop driving down the hill, to never have to drive down the mountain again, for this cocooning never to end.

The Mess Hall is one large room with a concrete slab floor, and we are fortunate that there is a 1947 stone fireplace, where we can dry wet things and hang stockings. We have stockings made of felt, with felt images, pieced together by women who have been called by the Lord to work with their hands.  We are told that coal or oranges are traditional gifts, relegated respectively to children who are either naughty or nice. Now that we’re living as if we belong in another century, we believe this, having almost forgotten there was ever a world before now, that we once lived on a street, with neighbors, in a house with a toilet and a shower.

The night in our bunks is cold, but we are full of hope.   

“The man in the moon is watching us, Mikey.”

My brother looks at me with droopy eyes, like he’s been ordered to nod off, but refuses. I point out the window, toward the glow of the moon, noticing the pine needles strewn across the field of snow like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, marking the way home.

“Is that God?” he asks, “Is that where God lives? Or Santa Claus?”

“God lives in Heaven,”  I explain, “Santa lives at the north pole.”

“Is the north pole on earth or in heaven?

“The north pole is where the magic happens on earth.  God saves his magic for after we die.”

“Are you going to die?”

I’m only four years older than he is, but I look at Mikey with maternal confidence, like I know what I’m talking about.  “Santa won’t let me die tonight. But if I do, if I die before you, I will ask God to make sure Santa takes extra good care of you.”

“If God can do that, why doesn’t God just take care of us now?”

Our parents rustle in together, en route back from the outhouse.

“Lights out” our father barks, and darkness descends as if from the hand of God.

We wake up to sun reflecting on snow, the pine needles too numerous to follow in any one direction.

Underneath the stockings are four suitcases: yellow for Lori, pink for me, blue for Wendy and brown for Mikey.  We will live out of these suitcases for the next ten years.

My siblings and I spent the rest of our childhoods (every weekend, most summers, and whenever we missed our ride back up the mountain) at whatever home would take us in. I learned to pack lightly, to come and go, to conform to whatever subculture I entered for the time it took to sleep and be fed, and then to leave and try not to come back too soon. I learned to be polite and ingratiating, but not get too attached. I learned what love looked like, how it manifested itself, how intimacy was expressed in so many different ways in so many different homes, but I also grew to understand that love was for the families who lived there and I was always a visitor. I learned to come and go without asking for anything, to avoid being noticed, to take what was given, whether I wanted it or not. I learned to live with disappointment, without attachment, to travel lightly and to exit quickly, before I could see the visible signs of being unwelcome. My escape hatches were pre-planned and well-rehearsed. At one home, I would jump off the garage roof to slip out the back gate onto an adjoining field. Occasionally, I slept out there on the grass.

The first man in my adult life who loved me made quesadillas with avocado in his mother’s kitchen, food he enjoyed and wanted to share with me. No one had ever done that before. The second man who loved me stocked his refrigerator with foods I liked, so when I came over, there was always something for me to eat, without asking. These were more than kind gestures. These were concrete illustrations that they wanted me in their space.

I returned their love largely because I felt claimed.

I’ve begun a meditation truth practice. For one month, I have been committing to sit with whatever truths come up about myself. This practice doesn’t require me to share these truths with anyone. If something feels relevant, I may write it down. But the practice is merely to show up and feel what comes up, without running away. Every day.

Showing up for myself has been far more difficult than manipulating exit strategies. I’ve always been ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Staying on the ground is harder.

Certainly, there are things I’ve been mindful to build, and I am proud of the home, career and relationships I have spent decades cultivating.  But I am the kind of person who would rather walk than wait for a ride. I am more comfortable with physical discomfort than with nurturing, and I would rather sleep outside in the rain than ask anyone to take me in.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

There is always the return.

I still find it difficult to know what foods to choose for myself, to have any idea what I want or need, to see self-nourishment or self-care as activities worthy of my time.

But I’ve come to know what is mine.

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary who worked in seclusion in a monastery rather than accept the limitations of a woman’s traditional life trajectory, reminds us, “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, a world interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”

You cannot disown what is yours, no matter how many times you walk away. Wounds that heal still leave scars, and sometimes all we have to follow is a trail of blood. I would rather keep moving than sit around waiting to be claimed. Over and over, when things start to settle down, when I begin to feel too comfortable, I look for the exit sign.

But now, when I throw my things in a suitcase, restlessly searching for the next transition, I know how to find my way back home.

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Dark Gifts, Part I

It’s very hard to grow, because it’s difficult to let go of the models of ourselves in which we’ve invested so heavily. — Ram Dass

On August 15, 2015, on the bottom floor of a gutted house in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what was once a living room, Ron Athey lay stretched out on a table naked, balls bound and swollen, fishhooks pulling back his eyelids and his nipples, the skin of his collarbone, his belly and his thighs, like acupuncture gone wild. A short row of men lined the side of the altar on which he lay, and massaged his quivering thighs and heaving torso. There was a balcony upstairs, where viewers congregated and drank from the open bar, from whence a spotlight shone down, creating a circle of bright light around him, evident from all vantage points in the venue. Even from a fair distance, I could see the beads of sweat above his upper lip, as the men massaged thick wads of cream into his sweaty flesh. One of the men stepped aside, gesturing and encouraging me to walk forward. I made my way up to the platform to stand next to Ron. I put my hand on his chest. I felt it rise and fall as I rubbed gently. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were angled toward the ceiling, but it appeared to me like they were looking at the sky.

I stepped away to let others through, and to look for my friend Denise, an art professor who had worked with Athey as a graduate student at CalArts. She had invited me to this art show tonight because, she said, “you are brave.” I hadn’t known what she meant. Athey has a long history of bold and bloody performances, which she well knew, and I didn’t. I found her buried in the corner, looking small, like a child. She asked me if I touched him. I nodded.

“I can’t” she said, “It makes me nauseous, seeing him like that, doing that. I could never touch him.”

I nodded again. I got it. The room was hot and dense with the smell of beer, blood, sweat and massage oils. Intellectually, I understood this whole thing was raw and intimidating and probably a little dangerous. But I felt comfortable in the space, and oddly at peace with the worshippers, the theatrics, the suffering and the witnessing of it. The laying of hands felt familiar to me, and the noisy backdrop was like a soundtrack of speaking in tongues.

A voice boomed through the speakers and the spectators hushed. Ron rose from the table, as if from the dead, peeling back the hooks and discarding the wires. He garnered a cape and hat and began to walk in a circle, and with each step, his cape blew back gently to reveal his naked, vulnerable body, testicles now unbound and gorged with blood, so they looked impossibly large. The audience carefully stepped back to give him space. The voice from the speakers spoke of Pharaoh and mercy, exculpation and redemption, sin and ablutions, captivity and exodus. I thought of Moses and his band of followers leaving Egypt and walking toward the promised land.

I stood silent, reverent and rapt, as did the viewers around me.

The truth is, most people are horrified by Athey’s art. He has performed prophecy, pain, Christian mythology, transgressive and redemptive sexuality, and the politics of queerness when being HIV-positive (as Athey has been openly since the 1980’s), was a death sentence. Critics find him masochistic, dirty, extreme, and grossly inappropriate. I can’t argue with any of those labels. Yet through his work, I am reminded, yet again, that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. Throughout his performance, I felt like I was more than a voyeur, or even a witness. I was a participant in a holy catharsis, in a space transcendent like a cathedral, communal like church.

For some of us, change and growth, transformation and metamorphosis, require more than words. For some of us, the symbols and integration of those symbols on or into our bodies helps us shift identities, from archetypes we clung to as children, to more fluid ways of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes this takes more than intellectual knowledge or analysis. Sometimes we have to walk through the desert barefoot and feel our way across the sand, without a map, or even the assurance of a destination point.

When I am afraid of cataclysmic change, I often think of the goddess Kali, who is the embodiment of the terrifyingly beautiful cycle of life and death, the pyrrhic clearing of the old to make way for the new. She burns away what no longer serves us and forces us to shed outgrown patterns and strategies and emerge as something new. Kali destroys the safety nets we cling to, so that we can grow into a new container of being.

Ron Athey’s work, like Kali, has stayed with me, walking beside me like a friend.

Athey’s fishhooks and binds are clearly self-imposed. By inviting people to participate in his suffering, to bear witness to the process of transformation, he gives us permission to endure our own pain, without apology or excuse. This isn’t an apocalyptic message. The visceral experience of being present for another’s transformation reminds us that we may have to give up our old, comfortable life to change the way things are. Athey reminds us that healing, like freedom, is a process.

Experiencing pain doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice. When I think about the ways I willingly push myself–my body, my mind, the boundaries of social acceptance–I am reminded that growth comes with a price. Paying it is a fair exchange.

 

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The Throat Chakra

Truth.  The real truth only comes years later, when finally one day your body feels safe enough to feel it. –Tom Spanbauer

The screaming started a year after I had my thyroid removed, and a few weeks before someone I used to love broke into our family home, causing a great deal of damage.

For three weeks, on and off, at what felt like random intervals, the demon would come to me and sit on my chest in the night, dense with the weight of an anvil, and slowly drain the breath from my lungs. Paralyzed, I would watch it compress my chest, pinning me to the bed, syphoning my lifeforce, eliminating my breath in tiny increments, freezing everywhere in my body but my eyes, which continued to blink and dart and roll, furiously fighting against surrender, refusing to accept death at this creature’s gnarled hands.

But eyes aren’t much of a defense against a demon, and I would feel myself begin to fade into the sheets until somewhere in my throat the scream would begin to form and escape my mouth in a barbaric, primal roar that wouldn’t let up until it exhausted me into a little ball of quivering quiet.  

When the screaming began, my family would turn on the lights, and see that nothing was there, so they would shake me, gently, and then more aggressively to wake up, please wake up, while I screamed without words at this thing, at this thing, please, get this thing off of my chest.

At some point I would recognize the person who was actually in the room, but the demon still held me, so that I had no control over the scream, where it started or how it ended. When my senses became alert enough to hear it, it was a sound outside of me, just as the sounds of my family pleading for me to stop were outside of me, instructing me to wake up, trying to convince me I was dreaming.

But it wasn’t a dream. It was an assault.

The voices of my loved ones made familiar sounds outside of me and I could hear them, even as I heard the scream outside of me, alien and intrusive, like an out of sync audio track in a foreign film. The scream was its own entity, and I could hear that sound like the crescendo in an orchestral score, the sound of a woman rising up and fighting for herself.

The throat chakra is the energetic space that pertains to our self-expression, our personal truth, how we define our purpose in life, and our ability to express ourselves to others, with creativity and authenticity. When our fifth chakra energy is blocked, we may find ourselves unable to speak our truth when we need it the most, we may have difficulty expressing our needs and desires, and we may lie to avoid conflict or to keep others from knowing who we are.

Communication is, at base, an act of connection. We may be connecting intellectual ideas, clarifying economic transactions, or sharing intimate feelings, but regardless of tone and content, the action of communicating merges us with our listeners and expands beyond the boundaries of our own minds.

To open our fifth chakra, we practice synthesizing old ideas into something new, something more concrete–through listening, speaking, writing, chanting, telepathy and art forms. When we share these things openly and honestly with others, we deepen our connection not only to them, but to ourselves. When we lie, to ourselves and to others, we create dissonance and distance.

Of course, before we can share our truths, we need to be self-reflective enough to know what they are.

At the time, I didn’t find the the gash across my neck, nor the stitches, nor the healing process, nor the fact that my vocal cords had been stretched apart during surgery, to be of any particular significance. Nor was I able to acknowledge, even afterwards, how the fear of that demon was connected to signs that the past wouldn’t stay in the past. I wasn’t able to connect these dots because I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I was feeling, let alone express it to anyone else or to ask for help in understanding my relationship to these events.

My throat remained constricted, tight, strained and raw during those weeks, even on nights I wasn’t screaming. On the nights I did, I could only whisper my way through work the day after.

I am now committed to a daily spiritual practice of ruthless self-honesty. And when Visuddha, my fifth chakra, is open enough, when I have rigorously practiced communication within my own body and mind, when I have sat long enough with the pain to have built up neural pathways of radical honesty, I will find the courage, strength and will to express these truths to others. And I will be ready to create art.

 

 

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Anahata

For the person who survived on scraps of affection, there may be a lifelong habit of contraction that is only obvious when you are showered in appreciation. Here the heart is challenged to receive at a greater capacity than it has ever known. Bearing the pleasure means beginning to notice those jumpy places which anticipate pain, which expect abandonment, which brace for danger when it’s no longer there. Only then can we begin to invite a gentle exploration of pleasure, allowing life into those areas which have been cordoned off in self-preservation. We must acclimate, often through grief, to the life-giving nature of love which is all around us waiting to be received.  — Toko-pa Turner

When I was Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for the first time, I was 10 years and 5 months old.  I was put in “isolation” in the Hematology Ward, which means I was housed alone, and medical personnel wore masks and gloves when they came into the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, and neither did they, but I was covered in bruises and petechiae, and I had what looked like a single bug bite near my pubic bone. They drew vials and vials of blood, took my vitals every few minutes, lanced the welt, and discovered that my platelets were dangerously low (below 5,000 per microliter) and I had chickenpox. These may or may not have been related.

I spent a lot of time alone in the hospital.

For the next 3 years and 3 months, my life revolved around my illness. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I often slept on my grandparents’ fold-out chair, because they had a phone and lived less than an hour from Los Angeles. They were old and my grandmother had had a stroke a few years prior. The house was quiet and I often went days without speaking to anyone, or anyone speaking to me. I didn’t go to school, and for a long time, I had no access to books. I spent a lot of time on the fold-out chair, looking at my grandmother’s accordion desk. When she died, it’s the only thing I wanted.

I rarely talk about any of this.

It wasn’t really the illness that broke me. It was the isolation, the distance from the community into which I was born, the inaccessibility of my siblings and my parents–who all lived far away in the mountains, and for whom visiting wasn’t convenient or a priority.

Three years is a long time at that age.

The girl in that hospital bed has begun appearing to me lately, asking for my help.

This may or may not be related to learning to accept love.

In the chakra tradition, the heart is the center, the essence, the spiritual core, the source from which energy flows in each direction, from the lower three chakras that represent physical matter, to the ideologies of the higher three chakras that house our spirituality. The heart chakra integrates and balances the various aspects of our being, including what we long for and what we fear.

As we age, we continue to hold awareness of all the ages we’ve ever been. We might think of the entity comprised of mind/body/spirit as a container that houses all parts of ourselves, from the needs (met and unmet) of our bodies to the needs (met and unmet) of our spirits.

The task of the heart chakra is to recognize and integrate the disparate aspects of ourselves, from the performing parts we embrace to the shadow selves we fear. For most of us, it is a challenge to have compassion for all of these selves, especially those we believe are broken.

Rather than seeing love as an extension of need or desire, when we develop unmitigated compassion, we can begin to build an empathetic connection, starting with ourselves, and extending to others.

When we work to balance the fourth chakra, we begin to transcend ego, and loosen our self-defined boundaries. While strong boundaries are necessary to protect ourselves from abuse, they are also an attempt to shield ourselves from pain and vulnerability. But pain and vulnerability are central to the human condition, and denying them keeps us closed off from reality. Meditating on the heart chakra helps us recognize the people, places, events, commitments and emotions that scare us the most. Facing these with with an open heart is central to our well-being and to our growth.

The world I grew up in was the only world I knew, and it was so normalized, it has taken me a very long time to understand what I gained and what I lost from my isolation.

I wish I could go back and hug the girl in the hospital bed. I would tell her I love her, and I would sit with her and hold her hand and read to her, and I would assure her that whatever happens, I won’t leave.

 

 

 

 

 

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Some tips for young journalists

I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power….I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work. — Mary Oliver

 

I accompanied nine of my students to the College Media Association Convention in New York City this week, and here is a small sample of what we learned:

Meredith Talusan, Executive Editor @ them:

“Part of it is just being at the right place at the right time, but the way I look at it, as long as I’m doing good work, the opportunities will present themselves. I’m most interested in the quality of my work.”

We should have a Chief Content Officer.

Kimberly B Johnson, Associate Editor at Konbini:

Brand Identity

Obtaining the Knowledge

Finding the Stories

Becoming the Expert

When you immerse yourself in a culture, the stories find you. Small companies will give you more freedom over your platform.

Joanne Lipman on That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

We all have unconscious bias. We have been taught to overestimate boys’ skills and to underestimate girls’ skills, which starts in infancy.  For example, by objective measurements, parents overestimate their boy babies’ crawling abilities and underestimate girl babies. As early as six years old, boys pay themselves more (in Hershey kisses) than girls do for the same tasks. In fact, in repeated studies, boys paid themselves more at every age than girls do.  And in college, professors call on male students more frequently than female students.

Women get interrupted more often than men, even if they’re Supreme Court judges. And often, it takes a man repeating what a woman says for her idea to be heard.

Open secret: women are not as valued as men are in our culture.

Advice from journalists at VICE

Modern storytelling requires a multi-platform news delivery system, and the world is hungry for what youth is creating.

Have a portfolio with links to work you’ve done, posted on platforms like Medium.

Keep an updated Instagram site.

Do something that gets you out of your comfort zone, and keep producing. Master your craft. Be consistent and reliable, develop a personal style, and be adaptable (code-switching).

Take as many informed interviews as you can and don’t give up.  Self-learning is crucial. Look at professionals you respect and find out the trajectory that got them there. You might be surprised.

It’s not about internships or degrees. It’s about active links to your work, and strong storytelling with multimedia delivery, regardless of platform.

Some of the perks of working for VICE  include: no dress codes, options to telecommute, and free snacks.

From various students, advisers and industry professionals, during presentations and conversations:

Twitter is mandatory for journalists. Your social media accounts should be your name. Avoid dashes, underscores, or any symbols difficult to remember. Be as consistent as possible across all platforms. Building a following on every platform will help with engagement, sourcing for stories and brand building.

When people visit your social profile, are they impressed? Does your social media presence look like you?

When someone wants to hire you, they will cyberstalk you. Period. Be sure you know what they will find.

Your photo should be consistent across all platforms. Create a brand for yourself. Become a logo. Cover photos should be thematically consistent. (Look around at the background and be sure there’s no clutter or diversions.)

Your bio: must-haves: name, what you do, what you’re passionate about, and don’t mention anything in your bio that you’re not willing to post about.

If you want to get hired in this industry, you need a website. Use Google to search the best domain to buy your name. Maybe use WordPress, but buy your name, rather than use a .wordpress. Make the effort. Figure out how to do it and take the steps.

Generate content and post on your own website, in addition to social media. Everything should link to your website, which should have all your social media icons. If you start a blog, make sure you post regularly. Give your contact info on the site.

Don’t have a private social media account.

Connect on LinkedIn – make sure you have a professional presence – which may be a duplication of your website – connect with as many people as you can on it.

To truly do personal branding well, you need to treat your own social platforms like that of a brand; any brand that performs well will have a clearly defined strategy. Set an objective. Define your audience. Set you voice and tone. Create specific goals for each platform, and decide how you will measure success.

Outline a list of words/adjectives to use that define and describe your brand. Always use an image with a post when possible, and size your image for each specific platform. If you’re not professional on a platform, make it private (even though, of course, nothing is ever private).

Use hashtags in a sentence, whenever possible. Try Hashtagify.me

Monitor and keep a constant eye on your network/beat, follow members of your community on social media, set up google alerts and use google trends.

Engage and be social on social media. Get involved in the conversation.

Grow and become a node for information and serve needs that are unmet by other organizations

Be (and stay) active on the social accounts you decide to focus on. Don’t be afraid to schedule tweets to keep your feed active.

Block people you don’t want following you.

Consider Trello/Slack integrations

Adopt newsletter strategies that can help with workflow issues.

Understand the difference between digital content versus print content.

Consider Apple News, traffic drivers, partner platforms, algorithm de-prioritization – developing communities you can talk directly to – you can’t trust any other platform to prioritize you.

Instagram stories – cover live events, show behind-the-scenes, and cover sports

FaceBook groups – Your publication can be enhanced by developing a community – by being an authority on everything on campus, delivering content they can only find through us – form a community group, make it private, create a barrier of entry, an air of exclusivity and connectivity

Lauren Duca, American Writer on “Establishing a Unique Voice in Today’s Media Landscape”

We should practice radical transparency – We’ve been doing a performance of objectivity in journalism, pretending the truth is a math equation. But we have new tools now. We don’t have to rely on the appearance of being true; we need to do the real work of researching and showing our process to the public. Legacy newsrooms used to be filters and provide accountability, but there were always holes in that. False information has always been presented to the public eye. We need to rethink how we factor in as journalists.

It’s impossible to keep track of the news at all times. We need to offer the public guides that they trust.

Freelance is powerful work because you’re not owned by anyone;  you can speak your truth, and you don’t have to wait to start.

While there are certainly new challenges in the digital age, there’s also an opportunity for diversity of voices, for independent channels, for stories we’ve been numb to for many years.

Read and reread The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach

Journalism is a trade, not a profession, and you learn by doing. You have to be motivated by your own sense of ethics, and have a commitment to verification. People may label Duca a“deranged feminist,” but she is transparent that she is writing opinion, not polemics.

Duca tried to sum up her career trajectory, the bottom line of which is that she was always desperate to find out how other people did it, and what she noticed is that you can master as aspect, but as a journalist, the ground shifts under our feet.  When you’re searching for stories, think about what excites you, what you want to tell your friends later when you get drinks, what have you been strangely exposed to.

You have to write to be a writer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one really knows everything.

New journalists much challenge power by empowering citizens with information.

Media companies are desperate to tell stories online and young people are particularly adept at producing stories online with an emotional connection. Know your strengths. A freelance career is tough, but you can use the time to learn your field. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm is a fabulous book.

The more you build your foundation, the stronger a journalist you will be. If you want to start a column (and you’ve been told that no one cares what you have to say), consider what you are uniquely bringing to the conversation. And then be rigorous in bringing it.

The truth is not a math equation. If you’re drawn to defending someone, and you are committed to verification, do the work to prove that position, be willing to learn and stay open, keep people around who will challenge your perspective, so you don’t get caught in the echo chamber of your mind.

If you’re a young woman and you do responsible work, but continue to receive harsh criticism, recognize that some people don’t think a woman (especially a young one) has the right to an opinion. Newsrooms traditionally blindly accept patriarchy as the norm in the media. As yourself who is controlling the lens.

 

Infinite Game

…every love story is a ghost story…

Last week, a friend brought me 80% Dunkle Schokolade from Germany and I couldn’t taste it.

He opened the packaging like performance art, broke off a shape resembling a scar. I watched him do this, grateful for the gesture, mesmerized by the movements. I reached out, tried to appreciate the taste and quality and texture of his gift, but it felt cold in my mouth.

I wondered if it was his kindness that scared me.

This morning, I made coffee and I saw the bring pink hues of the Haitian art packaging that protected the leftover chocolate on my desk. I turned it over to read the history, looked at the list of ingredients, curiously fingered the ridges of the foil. Then I wrapped myself in a red wolf blanket, warmed my hands on the coffee mug and held the chocolate next to the heat of the drink, softening around my fingers till it was pliable, like clay.

I licked the chocolate and a wave of resistance sprung up like a flavor, unspoken goodbyes choking me as I swallowed, a machine gun of memories punctuating the background, loud and violent, like a backdrop of war. My parents, my grandparents, the Field, Phosterians, Chapel, the Trip, Quiet Street, Devotions, driving through grooves of mud so thick, getting out is more than dark and dirty.

I hadn’t thought to tell him that Europe is not always a college playground, that sometimes abroad is the only place you can think of to go, but it’s not far enough away.

I dipped the chocolate in the coffee and rolled it around with my tongue and the coffee and chocolate calmed me, like a cigarette. I sensed the taste of fig, with a touch of floral and a tinge of nut, and it was warm and layered and acidic inside of me, the way a lover moves inside of you, and the bitter sweetness alternated in syncopation, like a heartbeat.

 

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The F Scale

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.  It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”  – Toni Morrison, Beloved

I have never understood the phrase, “just friends.” Friendship isn’t a a consolation prize. Friendships can be the most cherished, solid and enduring relationships we have, a chosen space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and seen.

Of course, it depends on how you define friendship.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. He suggests that in a healthy friendship, friends love each other for the sake of the other, as much as themselves, and they wish good things for each other, whether or not it directly benefits them.

I believe all my friends wish good things for me, but without a certain degree of closeness, I think it’s difficult to know how to participate in “reciprocating goodwill.”

One day, on a road trip, in an attempt to understand exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned a “friend,” my companion and I created an F-Scale,  It was a long drive and we worked on this so thoroughly, I sometimes forget that these terms aren’t a codified language. For example, sometimes I assume other people know what I’m talking about when I say, “Yesterday I had lunch with Wendy, an F2.”  

This whole idea of a scale may appear callous, but it’s astonishing to me that we don’t have more nuanced variations of the word “friend.” As someone who takes friendship seriously, I recognize that at least two of these categories would be better labeled as acquaintances–but in the interconnected era of social media, it feels necessary to use at least cop a nod to the F word. The base concept here is that anyone who actively wishes good things for another person is in the generic sense, a friend, but we might value our connections in some sort of vertical order, like this:

F 5 –  Those I know the name of, and respect details I am aware of about their lives, but this information has mostly been garnered through other people in our shared social spheres, and is really more an illusion of connection.

F4 –  Those I interact with publicly on a semi-regular basis, enjoy their presence and their stories, but our interactions are primarily through shared commitments, not specific intent.

F3 – Those with whom I share a meaningful connection, with whom I schedule to spend time and/or have multiple points of contact, but our in-person interactions are significantly limited by geography, conflicting schedules or otherwise disparate social systems.

F2 – Those with whom I have had many consistent, meaningful interactions, choose to prioritize time with, and care about the details of their lives–but we have not yet found a rhythm to our mutual interactions, so there is a degree of uncertainty, irregularity or question of sustainability.

F1 – Someone I care for deeply, with whom I have an ongoing conversation, mutual trust, respect, and honest disclosure.  I care about their hopes, dreams, opinions and goals, as well as their faults, fears and failures and can read many of their thoughts and moods. I feel free to express genuine concern, without fear of reproach, and we can count on each other’s responsiveness. We both initiate and prioritize our connection, and give deliberate time and energy to each other’s welfare.

At a Writer’s Conference, I once had lunch with a woman who had her own friendship barometer and we eagerly exchanged notes. Her view was gloriously simple:

  1. I will have coffee with you.
  2. I will have a drink with you.
  3. I would bury a body for you.
  4. I would kill for you.

I told her I thought there was a pretty large leap between categories 2 and 3 and she laughed. “Thin love ain’t love at all,” she said, “that there is the line.”

And this got me thinking. Since love is definitely something exchanged between genuine friends, what do we mean when we say we’re in an intimate relationship? Is a healthy romantic relationship significantly different from our closest friendship? With an F1, I am personally open, willing and expecting to be transformed. If that’s the case, is romance an F1 with sexual attraction? Are there quantifiable differences between a lover, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a spouse or a partner? Is there a differing degree of loyalty inherent in each term? How often do people intuitively agree on how they prioritize their connections?

For many people, a romantic relationship requires more time and attention, as well as a commitment to and integration of shared values and experiences. But I would argue there is a similar element of interdependence between the closest of friends. And both friends and lovers can break our hearts.

Most Americans define an intimate relationship as one in which they’re sexually exclusive–but certainly not everyone does. And plenty of people are in long term marriages rich in friendship, shared interests and values, in which they no longer have sex.

Perhaps people who are in intimate relationships that work for both parties don’t play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.

I think with romance, we often lose the delicate balance between effort and air. In most of our relationships, we don’t do the proverbial slow dance. We bob around each other, mirroring each other’s movements, holding hands, spinning in and out each other’s orbit, engaging with whichever person brings us the most pleasure or meaning in the moment. We make effort, then give space, and as we find ourselves getting closer, we tend to do more of the former and less of the latter.

In romantic relationships, however, we often expend and expect effort, without the grace of air, and with a possessiveness that can feel claustrophobic. While I respect and value the idea of mutual surrender between intimate partners, we are often less genuine and generous with our romantic love than with our Filia love. And because we are less attached to the fear of loss, we are frequently more committed to a practice of honest communication with a friend than we are with someone with whom we’re sexual.

We might do well to shift our expectations, and hold our romantic relationships to the same standards we hold our deepest friendships. Perhaps when people ask us what’s up, and we find ourselves having to categorize someone we may or may not be dating, we might more effectively explain, “We’re just romantic.”

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Manipura

 

 

“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”  

Sometimes the chakras are referred to as the wheels of life, even though we usually think of them as a vertical line, a hierarchy that goes straight up the spine.

These days, I’m more interested in horizontal thinking than vertical thinking. Sometimes a lateral move is the best move we can make.

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

The purpose of the third chakra, Manipura, is transformation. A friend recently asked me to explain the relationship between the second and the third chakras. I tried to describe how when we activate the point of matter (chakra 1) with the line of movement (chakra 2), we generate energy. It’s like rubbing two sticks together to ignite fire. It is the fire of our will that propels us away from fixed patterns, away from the path of least resistance, and steers us past the expectations of others into a realm of integrity within the self.

He asked me how I maintain the discipline to keep moving. I said for me, moving is survival.

The Field was my home. It was the only home I had. The Field was my family, my fortress, my ballast, my only love.

Be brave enough to break your own heart.

When I was 13, I had been in and out of Children’s Hospital for over 3 years. I had felt weak and helpless and alone, separated from the Field since I was 10 years old. The operation I was offered was a risk. The doctors said it could go either way. My mother told me I should stay back, but she wouldn’t stop me from moving up. She told the Leaders at the Field where we come from that if they didn’t let me move up, I might die on the operating table.

Where I come from, this is the language we used.

Nothing could force me to stay one moment longer than I had to.

I moved forward.

My friend asked me how I learned to take care of myself at such a young age, how I could trust my choices. If I didn’t take care of myself, no one else would, I said. He pressed me further, “But why didn’t you just look for someone else to take care of you?”

Do not look for healing at the feet of those who broke you.

Where would I have looked? Need is inversely proportional to power, and my needs were too great for anyone to fill. I couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t afford to give up my power.

If you’re not enough for yourself, you’ll never be enough for someone else.

I left the Field at 17 because I had to. It was the only way I could grow.

 

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Let’s Talk about Enthusiastic Consent

 

 

it was when i stopped searching for home with others

and lifted the foundations of home within myself

i found there were no roots more intimate

than those between a mind and body

that have decided to be whole

 

— rupi kaur

 

A couple weeks ago, four women I know, three of whom are students at Chaffey, handed me or quoted or asked me if I had read Rupi Kaur. All on the same day. How do you not know this poet, they said, she’s everywhere! Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. So of course, I began reading her. And I see why at this particular moment in time, she may be the zeitgeist.

Women are angry. Women are trying to find a way to declare ownership of their own bodies. Instead of looking to the authorial voice of men, women are looking to other women for answers.

Uma Thurman recently wrote a searing editorial in The New York Times, ending with, “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you. It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”

In a New York Times’ Magazine article, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn” Maggie Jones profiles a high school porn literacy program. At the start of the program, 27 percent of the teenagers agreed that “most people like to be slapped, spanked or have their hair pulled during sex,” and 45 percent of the teenagers said that porn was a good way for young people to learn about sex. She argues that “you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power.” Cindy Gallop, creator of an online platform called MakeLoveNotPorn, says: “Pornography didn’t create the narrative that male pleasure should be first and foremost. But that idea is certainly reinforced by “a male-dominated porn industry shot through a male lens.” And Al Vernacchio, a sexuality educator who talks to his high school students about sexual pleasure, mutuality, and the ingredients for healthy relationships, says that the problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships….You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.” Yet 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls admit to watching porn before they turned 18, internalizing the pervasive narrative of male prerogative in heterosexual copulation– without affirmative consent.

The media send women mixed messages when it comes to sex. Advertising teaches women that to be sexy is to have power, but if a woman overtly dresses or acts sexy, she is often slut-shamed, and if she is a victim of sexual assault, she is often judged culpable for own attack. This is part and parcel of the Madonna-Whore schism through which women are sifted and compartmentalized. In A Uterus is a Feature, not a Bug Sarah Lacey depicts how the deification of “family values” is a sociocultural lens purportedly protecting women from social ills –from rape or working motherhood or even from single motherhood– but is actually a form of benevolent sexism that comes at a high cost. Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence University says those who score high on benevolent sexism are more likely to blame women when they accuse men of sexual assault. He says “The protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men, or blame women. The alternative–acknowledging that the system is broken, and that virtue can’t protect you from violence–can be too terrible to contemplate.” Lacey claims that it is a tool of the patriarchy to make a woman feel like she is the problem, not the culture we’re living in.

Many Americans believe that feminism isn’t needed because women are already equal. I want to move beyond the accepted definition of feminism as the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities and borrow a wider understanding of feminist consciousness from Gerda Lerner. For the purposes of this discussion, feminist consciousness consists of the awareness that as a gender, women are subordinate to men; the recognition that this subordination isn’t natural, but culturally determined; the development of a sisterhood; an autonomous definition by women as to the nature of their current condition; and the development of an alternate plan.

We spend a lot of time teaching a woman that she needs to protect herself from men, but we seldom acknowledge how much strength or agency she already possesses, and we rarely procure a paradigm where she can envision what it would look like to seek her own narrative, including articulating both desire and pleasure, in or out of the bedroom.

rupi kaur:

what’s the greatest  lesson a woman should learn?

that since day one, she’s already had everything

she needs within herself. it’s the world that

convinced her she did not.

Women have gained access to education and jobs, but our bodies are often colonized by patriarchal values. Here are just a few cultural myths about the gender we assign to female bodies:

  1. Our primary cultural myth, taken from the Judeo-Christian Bible is that Eve was created for Adam, out of his rib, as a helpmate. When she gave Adam the apple, her punishment (from God) is to have pain in all things related to childbirth and to accept her husband as her master.
  2. The voice of authority is male, from the voice of God, to the majority of our current political and economic leaders, to nearly every figure we have ever learned about in history.
  3. The ideological apparatus sanctifying women for their motherhood, for nurturing, and for their role as caregivers, encourages women to see themselves in the role of the Other, and put herself last.
  4. Penetration is the only “real sex.”

Dominance is not always gendered, and people of any gender can pleasure one another and hurt one another. But men are disproportionately the perpetrators of violence and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual assault. In her novel Power, Naomi Alderman explores what a society would look like if women had an advantage in physical strength men didn’t have, creating a world in which women’s superior strength catapults into wealth, world leadership, and gendered violence. She suggests that the nurturing role women play has less to do with the biology of reproduction and more to do with power. In the world as we know it, men’s physical power evolved into social power and then to economic power. And women have been socialized to accept this as natural. Even though physical strength is no longer the way most of us earn a living, chances are, if you’re a woman, you have less economic power than the men in your immediate social sphere.

If you’re hungry, you’ll accept crumbs.

Today, I want to address why women accept crumbs. I want to talk about equality of affection as an alternative plan to our current sexual paradigm. I don’t want to focus on where the line is on rape or assault. Like so much of this movement today, I’m not calling for legal action or restitution, but rather asking for social accountability. As women, I think it’s time we set the bar higher in our sexual experiences than being relieved or grateful we weren’t raped.

I want to address how women see themselves, their bodies and their value. Much has been written on why women don’t say no, and on the array of socialization we receive to be accommodating, nurturing, smiley and nice. In fact, we have had this conversation enough times that affirmative consent is now California Law in public colleges. A woman doesn’t have to say no. She has to say yes.

In 2014, Senate Bill 967 added Section 67386 to the Education Code relating to student safety. California has created a standard that requires affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties. The law protects both partners by ensuring a mutual understanding. A person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. And California colleges are being held more accountable for prevention, evaluation and a consistent protocol surrounding sexual assault. It could come in the form of a smile, a nod or a verbal yes, as long as it’s unambiguous, “enthusiastic” and ongoing.

This may seem radical, but discussions of what constitutes consent aren’t new. Sexual Consent policies at Antioch College were presented in 1991 as follows:

Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct. The following are clarifying points:

  • Consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity.
  • All parties must have a clear and accurate understanding of the sexual activity.
  • The person(s) who initiate(s) the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent.
  • The person(s) who are asked are responsible for verbally responding.
  • Each new level of sexual activity requires consent.
  • Use of agreed upon forms of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable, but must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.
  • Consent is required regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history, or current activity (e.g. grinding on the dance floor is not consent for further sexual activity).
  • At any and all times when consent is withdrawn or not verbally agreed to, the sexual activity must stop immediately.
  • Silence is not consent.
  • Body movements and non-verbal responses such as moans are not consent.
  • A person can not give consent while sleeping.
  • All parties must have unimpaired judgement (examples that may cause impairment include but are not limited to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, physical health conditions).
  • All parties must use safer sex practices.
  • All parties must disclose personal risk factors and any known STIs. Individuals are responsible for maintaining awareness of their sexual health.

These requirements for consent do not restrict with whom the sexual activity may occur, the type of sexual activity that occurs, the props/toys/tools that are used, the number of persons involved, the gender(s) or gender expressions of persons involved.

At the time, men like Rush Limbaugh made fun of every aspect of this policy. Talk show hosts ridiculed it on nearly every station.

But just for a moment, imagine: what if these conversations were baseline expectations? What if it were common practice between new partners to ask for what you want and wait for a reply? What if developing a shared sexual language was the norm? What if equality of affection was as common as the right to vote?

Equality of affection is when there is a balance of support and respect between two people where each person’s needs, desires and expressions of affection are considered equally.  

If we want both affirmative consent and equality of affection, do we know what that looks like? The old saying that “no means yes and yes means faster” is no longer applicable or defendable. So what does yes look like from a woman? What does mutual pleasure look like between men and women? How can your partner please you if you don’t know how to please yourself? How can you enthusiastically consent to pleasure you haven’t come to expect or require?

We know that women have been socialized to be nice, to be deferential, and to be of service. Studies verify that it’s far more difficult for women to say no than for men to say no. But when we don’t have affirmative models, it’s also difficult to say yes. It’s difficult to know what we desire, to identify what feels good in our bodies, and to know what we want, let alone ask for it. How do we say yes when we don’t know our own minds? When we don’t know how to listen to ourselves? Most women have no female voice of authority in their heads. Who do we listen to when the voice of God is male, and the version of God we’ve been handed down has taught us to see ourselves as a helpmate rather than the protagonist of our own story? As Sally Kempton says: “It’s hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”

To explore and experience sexual pleasure, we must first recognize our own desires and our right to explore them. It’s an act of resistance for a woman to recognize that her body exists primarily to serve herself rather than other people. And this is particularly challenging in a culture that is uncomfortable with people talking about their own pleasure.

Jocelyn Elders, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.” Conservative outrage erupted, and Bill Clinton asked her to resign.

How can anyone know what they want if we shame them for safely exploring what that might be.

Recently, I’ve been asking nearly every woman I know how frequently she experiences pleasure during partner sex. Not necessarily orgasm, but consistent pleasure and a feeling of well-being throughout the entire sexual encounter. This is an unscientific sample, but over half the women admitted the majority of sex they have had hasn’t been physically pleasurable to them–even though they often felt emotional pleasure through pleasing their partners. That most women enjoy pleasing someone they care for isn’t a problem. The question is, why is it so difficult for women to seek mutual pleasure for themselves during these encounters, and to ask their partners to facilitate their pleasure. And why don’t we socialize men to ask?

Maybe because many women don’t even ask themselves what they desire, in or out of the bedroom. Most women aren’t accustomed to seeing pleasure as necessary, and in the process of earning a living and caring for the needs of our families and communities, it often drops low on our priority lists. Sex-positive language that affirms women’s desire is not a sociocultural norm in The United States. To develop one, we will have to envision a new paradigm.

I think it’s no coincidence that Dr. Elders was dismissed for promoting self-pleasure. It’s a radical statement and a radical act for women to take their pleasure into their own hands.

Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As part of a feminist consciousness, I want to end this presentation with proposing practices for a path to pleasure.

It starts with listening to our bodies.

Think about a situation you are looking for clarity around and play a simple game of what if. Ask yourself, what if I said yes to this…pause…breathe…notice what sensations you experience in your body, and feel out what a yes brings up for you. Feel it in your body, not as intellectual analysis. What does it feel like to say yes in this situation? And then do the same for the no. Compare notes. Compare sensations in your body – tightness, strain, pains or lightness, relaxed shoulders, an ease to your breathing a calm sensation. Notice how your body reacts when you imagine a yes versus imagining a no.

  1. Show up for yourself. 
  2. Know what kind of touch feels safe to you. Start there.
  3. Court what it feels like to be safe in your body. Practice feeling this. Whether it’s through yoga or meditation, know how to be alone with and in your body, what if feels like to be fully present.
  4. Shame can’t stay alive inside of you unless you believe the story you’ve been told. Write a new story.
  5. Take time to check in with yourself and ask yourself, what do I need right now? Practice self-care.
  6. Know your body. Know what feels good to you. Know your pleasure points.
  7. Notice what lights you up. What makes you feel light, spacious, tingly.
  8. Do more of that.

Maybe if women practiced self-pleasure, there would be more enthusiasm in their consent. Maybe once we know what feels good to us and feel we deserve it, we will know how to tell our partners what brings us pleasure, and expect our encounters to reflect our mutual needs.  

rupi kaur:

i will not have you

walk in and out of me

like an open doorway when

i have too many miracles

happening inside me to be

your convenient option

not your hobby

I realize that both genders are victims of abuse–emotional, psychological, sexual and physical–but recognizing and penalizing abuses of power is only half the solution. We need a paradigm that recognizes women’s experience and pleasure as equally relevant in all sexual encounters. Until recently, sex from a woman’s perspective has been so marginalized and obscured, it hasn’t even entered the common discourse. For patriarchal hegemony to come to an end, women must overcome their internalized feelings of mental and spiritual inferiority and speak up. A woman must be encouraged to know her own body, her own pleasure and her own story–and then learn to tell it. Only then can she know what yes means, and enthusiastically consent to mutually pleasurable sexual play.

 

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The Bible: Part II

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson

I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle.  Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign.  If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop.  Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies.  Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop.  Show me you are listening.  Show me I matter.  Please still the tassel.

I pray this every day.  I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America.  As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.

It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s.  Maybe I’m not in tune with his words.  Maybe that’s the problem.  I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested.  I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross.  So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now.  I will read your Holy Book cover to cover.  In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

You are the word.  I am the flesh.  Let your word become my flesh.  Let my flesh become your word.

And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.  And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns.  I keep vigil.  When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.

And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could.  In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self.  And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary.  I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically,  I also go back.  I mark passages.  This is not what I have been taught.  I have been taught not to question.  I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question.  Esther makes me question.  Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:

Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition.  She didn’t remarry among her own family.  She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ.  Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones.  She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value.  Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear.  But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die.  People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.  

I don’t trust romance.

Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this.  She says if she perishes, she perishes.  But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic.  At eight, I know this.

Esther doesn’t choose the King.  The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.

The King chooses Esther.  He protects her people. She is his family of choice.

I will collect a family of choice.  I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.

Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night,  I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome.  I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word.  I read every single word.  

And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me.  God did not make that tassel stand still.  We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics.  And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.

 

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We Will Begin Again

"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire

GentlemanSparks

Gentleman with a hint of Spark. If you have any Questions you would like answered email GentlemanSparks@Gmail.com with the subject #ASKGS x

midnightpears

Just another WordPress.com site

The Winter Bites My Bones

The Collected Poems of Dennis McHale: 1981-2016

A Birth Project

Transracial Adoption from one black girl's perspective

The Guilty Preacher Man

abandoned illustrations

projectophile

\ˈprä-JECT-oh-fahyl\ (noun) 1. A lover of projects, especially those derived from scavenged materials and made more beautiful through paint, thread and sandpaper.

Another angry woman

Thoughts and rants from another angry woman

Unkilled Darlings

Faulkner said, kill your darlings. I say, put them on the internet and let strangers read them.

MiscEtcetera v2

Random bits about libraries, digital culture, life, and writing

glass half full

This is my blog. I write a lot about autism, raising boys, and my own alcohol consumption. I also tend to cover topics like poop and toothpaste. You've been warned.

jessepeckwrites

about all things human

Megan Has OCD

About Mental Health, Daily Struggles, and Whatever Else Pops in My Head

The Belle Jar

"Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences." - Sylvia Plath

Daniel Nester

essayist, poet, college prof, hubby, dad, Queen fan

spookyactionsbooks.wordpress.com/

a publisher of quality chapbooks

James Henry Dufresne

"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire

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