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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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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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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “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.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 

 

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mexico

The first time I went to Mexico, I was 8 years old, just a little older than my oldest son is now. I didn’t go to Tijuana like most Americans seem to, and I’ve still never been there. We went, instead, to my stepmother’s home in Merida, Yucatan, the very tip of the boot of Mexico. We flew over the ocean for a bit, and I imagined the plane sinking into the gray expanse. After a stop in Mexico City, we landed in Merida. It was all people, cement, and noise. Lucy hustled us into a cab and said something in Spanish to the driver. Or yelled it. When she switched from English to Spanish, her voice always seemed to get much louder. I stared out the window as we drove over bridges and crossed highway lanes. I read signs I was incapable of understanding. When we were off the highway, I noticed the colorful houses, the bars over the windows, and people and dogs everywhere on the sidewalks. We finally stopped, not at a house, but at a tar paper shack with a tin roof, which sat upon a dreary patch of rock and dirt. Tiny people emerged to greet us. I was taller than all of them. My stepmother was short at 5 feet, 0 inches, but her family was even smaller. Hands stroked my hair and mouths kissed my cheeks and I was hugged by what seemed like thousands of people and there was Spanish all around me and none of it made sense. A girl approached me, with wide open eyes and long, stringy black hair. She was maybe 12 years old, Clarita, I would later discover her name was. My stepmother’s youngest sister. She stared excitedly into my eyes and spoke exuberant Spanish words at me. She seemed to be asking me a question. I knew the words “si” and “no,” and I chose to answer with “si.” Before I knew it, I was being pulled away from the family, down the sidewalk, past stores and houses and parks, through alleys. Clarita held my wrist lightly, leading me along. Every few minutes, she would pause and ask me a question, and I would reply with “si,” and off we continued. I had never been in a city like this before, with so many people out on the street. I felt Clarita’s eagerness thrum through me. I absorbed it all. Suddenly, a look of concern washed across Clarita’s face. We had been gone too long, I understood. There was a moment when I realized that I had no idea where I was. There was the briefest flash of fear. But Clarita quickly tugged me back through the maze of the city to the house.

Diegolina, whom I would soon be instructed to call Abuela, was crying. “Ay dios mio,” she lamented, taking my face into her hands, clutching me fiercely to her body. Then more Spanish. My stepmother yelled into Clarita’s face, and Clarita took off.

I was a freak in Mexico, the good kind of freak. People stopped in the streets and openly stared at me. Strangers touched my hair and bought me chips. Grown men whistled at me, assuming, I suppose, that I was an adult. My stepmom explained that many of them had never seen a (white) American before. I was not a beautiful girl. I had crooked teeth and was awkward, large, and ill-dressed. In Mexico, I was suddenly a celebrity and it made me both embarrassed and proud.

I stayed out in the streets until 1 and watched in horror and interest as the other kids burned the tail of a black scorpion. I went swimming in an underground cave with bats, the turquoise water filled with fish. I visited Mayan villages and ruins, stared at the women in their beautiful white dresses embroidered with flowers of every color. I ate a freshly slaughtered pig. I watched a man break a chicken’s neck on an interminable bus ride and sell it to a woman next to me.  I got so sick I stopped eating and drinking and fainted in church. I caught a baby sea turtle in the ocean at Progreso Beach. I danced at a stranger’s quinceanera, in a ridiculous polka dot dress. I was bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes as I slept on a hammock in one room with 8 of my stepmom’s relatives.  I became fluent in Spanish.

When we left, my stepmom’s entire family accompanied us to the airport. Many of the younger cousins had never been to such a place. In the bathroom, her family members pumped liquid soap into bags for later, amazed that it was free. I grew up fairly poor, but I had never seen poor like this. We had toilets at our house. We had walls and a roof and enough food.

I have never gotten along with my stepmom.There is no malice there, at least not anymore; we simply do not belong together. I don’t know why she took me with her on the two trips she made to Mexico during my childhood. I know it wasn’t intended to be an educational experience or anything like that. She grew up barely surviving; that kind of bullshit is for gringos like me. And I am certain it was not because she couldn’t stand to be away from me for very long. Regardless of her intention, it changed the way I saw things then, and now, and for that I am grateful.

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