This Assignment is So Gay, Plus Also Some Notes on Disease and Mortality and Parents

This post is supposed to be about the really exciting poetry anthology that was just released, in which I have three poems. And it will be. But not in any kind of straight line. We have a bit of a tangle to get through first.

It’s time to start teaching again soon. I’ve been working on my syllabus (in fact, I should be working on my syllabus right now), making sure that my calendar is in order, and generally preparing.

It hasn’t been an easy summer. I had such clear plans for myself this summer, and had begun to get into their rhythm, when both of my parents got serious, frightening health news within a few weeks of each other. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and my mom, breast cancer.

My dad is on some medication that seems to be helping a lot, and my mom has since had surgery and is recovering very well and rapidly. Both diseases are in early stages, and, at least for the present, things look like they are going to be ok for both of them. But still. The experience sent me for a spin, in so many ways.

When I was little, I used to deal with the idea of death, and my parents’ death in particular, by deciding the only way death would be acceptable to me was if I lived to be very old and my parents lived to be extraordinarily old, and we all died on the same day.

Much has changed since then. My parents are no longer together, and I don’t live with either of them anyway. I don’t know, if such an odd situation as I described above came about, if it would be particularly soothing to me. Charlotte and I were at the beach recently with her family, and there was a piece of art on the wall in the master bedroom that said something like, if you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live a day without you. We both agreed that this sentiment seemed a bit odd to us: are you wishing your partner to have a sad last day of life, since you just died? Isn’t it a little creepy to quantify your love and decide who gets to die first based on that?  But death, disease, and vulnerability of those I love, of myself, and of my parents, particularly, whose strength of body I have counted on without even knowing I was doing it, and whose vulnerabilities seem to point in a direct but unreadable line to my waiting, seemingly so healthy flesh– which I know so intimately and yet whose significant eventual weaknesses I do not, cannot know– well, these things still have the power to stymy me completely, to leave me dizzy and disoriented in a landscape of being for which I have no map.

One thing that kept happening, in the maelstrom of my reaction to all this, was that I would think with surprising dread about the school year coming up. “Why am I doing this?” I thought, meaning the program I am in, the classes I will teach, all of it, I guess. “Does it matter to anyone?” It just seemed, I have to tell you, like a lot of stress and work that might not actually be important things to do–for me, or for anybody.

So… I didn’t quit, or anything. I traveled to see my parents. I traveled to see my friends.  I read a bunch: some my disciplined school reading, which I clung to despite my (hopefully temporary) inability to do the kind of organizational work I need at this stage of the game, and some just for desire’s sake– my old childhood standbys, a book for a book club, new books by fiercely loved authors. Finally, I began to work on my syllabus for this coming semester. Ideas for how to structure my teaching popped into my head on the subway and receded as soon as I was in front of the computer. I wrestled. I played. I counted out days– enough time between one assignment and the next? Too much?

When I visited my mom before her surgery, I kept trying to get her to drink more water to prepare for the dehydration that would result. I’ve always been a thirsty person, so I felt this was an example I could easily set, something I actually understood in the wilds of surgical language, paperwork, preparation. “It’s a skill I have,” I said, a bit facetiously,  as we walked into my grandmother’s apartment building. “Being a pain in the neck?” my mom quipped. “Well, I’ve had a good role model,” I replied, and we laughed and laughed, something in the easy teasing breaking through the fear and tension that were pressing in otherwise. Later, I heard her talking on the phone about reality TV, making the exact same complaints I had made in a separate phone call, one she had not heard, to Charlotte. I thought about apples and trees.

When I visited my dad, we went out for dinner and he told me that he is coming to realize that he is not his brain, that the threat to his brain does not have to be a mortal threat to him, himself, in the reality of himself. He doesn’t know exactly what that means yet, but he believes it. And I believe him. He has promised that the cracking of everything you thought you know does not have to be the end of growth or wisdom. And I believe him. He got a big dessert and enjoyed every bite, and then he got lost looking for where we were going next, second guessing himself and wandering too far. I thought about apples and trees some more.

I have not fallen far, in many ways. I am so far, in others. I am not far in ways I cannot see, ways that are beyond the potential of body to fail, to suffer, to falter, ways that are about the spirit and the mind and the things that make me laugh.

So I came back from this, and I came back to my syllabus. (I know– we keep lurching back and forth, but this is how it has felt, so disjointed and everything so pressing). I was going through the mountains of paper my previous students had left me, and I found their words evaluating the course for me, bright, slippery, coated in salt and spice and drips of honey. One said a story we read pulled him in “like a fish.” One said she knew that one paper she wrote was her best, even though she didn’t get her best grade on it. Many said they loved our discussions best, getting to talk about things that mattered to them. I loved our discussions best, too. I always do. One said he fell asleep in them sometimes because they were boring, but admitted that maybe this would have improved if he had said something himself. They lied to me, I’m sure, occasionally, but they also told the truth. And the truth, in the balance, was that it seemed like we’d done something worth doing. That it was better, for at least a handful of them, to have taken this course than it would have been if they had not taken it.

I began to get excited about teaching again.

We lurch through these semesters, while our outside lives fray and tatter and come together and fall apart. We do it together. I think it’s hard to understand how fully we do it together, until you have been on both sides of the classroom, slipping the mantle of anxious authority on and off your shoulders, hoping for magic, for alchemy, for honesty, for connection, for five minutes together in which you all seem to want to be there, in which everyone is learning, although it’s rarely whatever the lesson plan had laid out for the day.

So there’s this anthology, and it’s full of all queer-teacher-poets, talking about teaching and queerness. And the premise, I think, is that what we say as queer teachers is significant precisely because of our identities, of the way we are situated in the world, even if we are not talking about sexuality at all. And the premise is also that teaching is something worth singing about, worth twisting words into beauty about. Worth the time it takes to do, and also worth the time it takes to write and read about.

And I realize, writing this, that this woven-together feeling that the book values and emphasizes, the idea that my queerness matters to my teaching and my teaching to my queerness, even if they seem separate– this is why I couldn’t just write a post that said, hey, y’all, I’m in a book! Or even something that was just about teaching and/or queerness, but rather I had to talk to you about what has really been going on.

I think in some ways that’s what this book celebrates. The “really” about all of us, and the way it may feel like a detraction, something that takes us away from the work we should be doing, something that distracts– when honestly, it is what makes us teachers. The “really” of our lives, beautiful, ugly, wicked, confusing, secret, thrilling– that’s the magic word. That’s what erupts in the classroom, every now and then, in the middle of the plodding and the oversleeping and the where-the-hell-is-the-worksheet-I-printed-out and the oh-the-paper-is-due-TODAY?, and suddenly we are somewhere holy. Suddenly we are somewhere true.

Here’s the link to the book’s website: http://www.thisassignmentissogay.com/home, and here’s the link to buy it from the publisher: http://siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com/product/this-assignment-is-so-gay-lgbtiq-poets-on-the-art-of-teaching

I hope you enjoy– this post, the book, your families, your lives, the remainder of the summer and the start of the school year. Thanks for reading!

An Avalanche of Excitement!

It’s been such a while since I posted anything here that I actually have tons to post! And, of course, not very much time to do it in. But I figured I will give you an overview now, and then, over the next few days, hopefully actually say something substantive about each of these things.

First of all, Word Up, the amazing community bookshop I’ve blogged about before, needs help. We lost our space in August and are having a huge fundraising campaign to reopen, and, not incidentally, there’s a dance video in which I (and many others) dance to show our love for Word Up. Word up is supremely important to my neighborhood, and the concept of Word Up, a community space dedicated to books, art, music, theater, and education and performance of all kinds, is supremely important everywhere. I hope you’ll watch the video, because it is super amazing, and check out the campaign and throw some love, money, reblogging and tagging, etc. our way. We have a long way to go, and every little bit counts. //www.indiegogo.com/wordupbooks

Secondly, my story “Woman-Time” is included in The Best Lesbian Erotica of 2013, edited by Kathleen Warnock and Jewelle Gomez. My story has magic in it. The real kind, as well as the sexy kind. You can get it here:http://www.cleispress.com/book_page.php?book_id=503 or at your local queer-and-small-press-friendly bookstore. I know here in NYC you usually get it at Bluestockings: http://bluestockings.com/. Also, I will be reading from this story at the KBG bar in NYC on December 20th! Please come! I would love to see friends both known and as yet unknown there. Here’s more info on that:

Drunken! Careening! Writers!

Best! Lesbian! Erotica! 2013!

Rebecca Lynne Fullan

Sid March

…and special surprise guests!

with your hostess, Kathleen Warnock

Thursday, Dec. 20, 7pm

KGB Bar, 85 E 4th St., NYC

FREE

Finally, my poem “Telling My Beads” was published in The Other Journal as part of their Prayer issue, and you can read it right here: http://theotherjournal.com/2012/11/29/telling-my-beads/ It’s based on a true story, and includes a rainbow rosary. Also, if you like, I will read it to you– there’s an audio file on the top of the page, and that’s me reading the poem.

So: community book & art spaces, sexy stories, and poems about prayer. That is a good summary of some important aspects of my life, and certainly my writing life! I hope you check them out, and I hope to write something more substantive about each of those things in the coming days.

Ash Wednesday Thirteen Ways

Here is a poem I wrote today.  A present, for Lent, from me, to you.

Ash Wednesday Thirteen Ways

Anger the beginning

and end

of my observance.

 

In Granada, we caramelized

sugar in our spoons over

an open flame.  Took

what remained

on the underside and crossed

each other’s foreheads, laughing

laughing.

 

Someone is running

in the subway station

along the dangerous

caution yellow, like it’s

a track, singing.  I want

them to stop.

 

Today I notice especially

the Jewish men

with beards and hats

and yarmulkes.  The choice

they are making or

not-making

every day.

 

Behold, behold,

behold, behold—

to look, to take

in fingers, to put

in mouth, to swallow

to smear on face,

Oh Lord.  I am

beholden.

 

I have never trusted

a priest with

my whole heart,

not one.

 

The priest who marks me

is an old man, but looks

strong.  Remember you are

dust and to dust

you shall return.  He smiles

with great kindness, as though

this news is welcome, as though

it is what I have been waiting for.  And it is.

It is.

 

I present myself in ice,

hoping to be melted.

Someday the sun

will eat the earth, you know,

in its death pains.

In its growing.

 

Oh, what a fool

he is, to speak

of a small church, a pure

church.  There is no small-

and-pure, O papa,

there is only your flesh

and my flesh being one

flesh that is Christ’s flesh,

and isn’t that just

the worst?  Aren’t we just

fucked by it, you and I, doesn’t it

make you

laugh?

 

On television, the whales

are having the most beautiful

hunt I have ever seen.

It is a dance.

The whales circle,

and sing the herring

right into their mouths.

 

At church I often think

that people will shout at me,

attack.  Also on the street,

sometimes, on the subway,

at night, when the door to my

room is locked.

 

Jesus,

I want you

to love me enough

to leave me alone,

and to want me enough

to bother the hell

out of me.  I present you

with a note: Do you

like me?  Check yes

or no.  I spend my evening

smudged

and scribbling.

 

Dolphins throw themselves

into the air to say things,

and whales sing all

together.  I watch.

The ash on my forehead

itches.  Gladness comes.

Resilience: Coming January 24th (so don’t give up yet!)

Resilience Galleys for your viewing pleasure

So, after the It Gets Better project started, I spent some time imagining the video I would make for it.  I thought about it as I was walking to work in New Jersey.  It was a bit of a long walk, and involved a short cut through this sort of overgrown parking lot, where there were lots of tall grasses and Queen Anne’s Lace growing over everything.  I always liked this part of the walk.  It was like a pause in the regular progress of the day and my mind.

I’d been thinking about It Gets Better, and thinking about how I wanted to say that it mattered that people stay alive, even if they don’t go on to have awesome careers and financial stability or a terrific love life according to legible social standards, or… anything, in particular.  I wanted to say that queer young people and everyone else are needed for reasons deeper and more mysterious than this, and also more fundamental.  I paused among all the grasses and flowers, and it occurred to me that what I wanted to say was that people are needed to see the world in the exact way that only they can see it.  It felt important, right then, that I was there looking at the life all around me, even though there would be no tangible consequence of this, probably, even though I wouldn’t describe myself at a “grass and flower and bug looker ater” when people asked me what I do.  What I thought right then is that you never know when it is that you are seeing the world as only you can see it, participating in it, in that particular moment, as only you can.  Seeing bugs and smelling flowers as they need to be seen and smelled.

I never made the video, but a little bit after that I found a call for submissions for a collection of words, stories, poems, and essays aimed at queer youth.  It was due the next day, so I sat down and wrote a poem.  I called it “To A Young Person Who Has Not Yet Realized She is Embarking on a Fairy Tale.”

So, my other response, and then one I actually put into the world, about this whole queer youth support thing, is full of fairy tale imagery and mythical frameworking.  I wonder how it relates to my first idea.  I would like them to be the same, somehow.  The grand quest and the moment of seeing in an overgrown parking lot.  God knows I love them both.

I submitted my poem, and it was accepted, and now there is a whole beautiful book, including my poem and many other poems and stories and essays and words,  called Resilience, coming out January 24th.

The money from the book is going to a project called the Make it Safe project, which provides LGBT themed books, fiction and non-fiction to schools and shelters that may not have any material representing queer folks.

I hope you all will buy the book, read it, love it, support the various projects implicated in it, and live your lives like you’re in a fairy tale and the invisible moments of looking might matter most of all.

Here’s where you can find the book:

http://betterbookproject.blogspot.com/

Also on facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/ResilienceBook and twitter:  https://twitter.com/ResilienceBook

Queer Vocation, or Violence and Voice

Yesterday, in my Medieval Conversions class, we were discussing the Prioress’ Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this (be warned, Chaucer certainly tells it better): In Asia somewhere, there’s a city where Christians and Jews both live, though in different areas. There is also a Christian school. A little Christian schoolboy hears older children singing a hymn to Mary and is totally transfixed by it. He learns the song by heart, and sings it all the time, including when passing through the Jewish quarter. The Jews hear him, and become outraged, and hire one of their number to kill the boy. The murderer captures the boy, cuts his throat, and throws him in a privy-pit, where everybody in the Jewish quarter goes to empty their bowels. His mother is worried when her son doesn’t return home, and so she goes looking for him, and eventually finds him, lying face up in the pit with his throat cut, and, miraculously, still singing the Virgin’s song. This draws a crowd, and the boy is taken to church, singing all the while, and all the Jews are bound. The boy reveals that a little grain has been placed under his tongue by Mary to keep him singing, and so the abbot removes the grain and the boy dies. All Jews who knew about the murder are punished by being dragged through the streets behind horses and then hanged.

There’s lots going on in this story, and like many Medieval stories, it’s disturbingly steeped in anti-Semitism. That wasn’t always my primary focus when I was thinking about it in class, but it stayed with me like an aching limb as we talked things through. There’s a line early in the tale, about the Christian children at school that describes them all as being “an heep,” and we were laughing a bit at the image of children all piled up in a heap, and then talking about groups in the tale that are treated collectively, which led us to the Jews at the end, being killed “an heep.”

For a minute I smiled, thinking about the heaped up schoolchildren, and then I remembered that I know exactly what Jews being killed “an heep” looks like. And so do you. Those horrible images of the Holocaust, the bodies piled on bodies, the arms, the legs, the heads, the necks, the spines all heaped up together juxtaposed themselves over the words about Jews in these and other writings I have read. They layered in my mind in a visceral, inescapable way, and I rubbed at my head and I thought maybe I should make a huge art exhibition, something that would take up rooms, with images of the Holocaust and words, centuries of words, miles of words, that marked and remarked Jews as worthy of death.

Class ended and I left. I was walking down the street, feeling overwhelmed, and the idea of how hate and violence and revilement can infect culture, or maybe sort of pool around in its hollow places, sitting there like stagnant water, until later—maybe hundreds of years later—they come back again, reconstitute themselves, and erupt in new ways. And people die. And the rhetoric is never really gone, waiting to fork a tongue and come on out again.

It made me feel hopeless, doomed. I reached out in prayer, and then I was struck by the idea that the whole structure of Christianity, which my prayer was surrounded and in some ways constituted by, was contaminated with this anti-Semitic poison.

I was thinking, too, about the Occupy movements, about my involvement with them, about a student strike being called next week at exactly the time of the class I’d just left, a class I enjoy, and for which I am scheduled to do a presentation, next time.

So I said a prayer, anyway, for openness and for learning. I said a prayer opening myself up to learn and to understand what to do.

I continued walking, passing Macy’s on my right, and grumbling internally about their already-present Christmas decorations, even as I wanted on some level to stop and stare at the admittedly thrilling display. I got to a corner where, on two previous occasions, I had seen a tall black man surrounded by posters and signs laid on the ground, with a small semi-circle of people around him, preaching. I’d glanced at one of the posters as I went by, heard a snatch of his words, and interpreted the whole thing as something about which races and nationalities were included and loved by God and which were not. The whole thing was so frightening and disturbing to me that I did not stop and check things out further, so perhaps that is not what he was saying. The images on the posters looked violent, bombs blooming out in red and yellow fire.

He was not there yesterday. But I pictured him there. And then I saw myself, standing at the edge of his crowd, and I heard myself yelling, “THESE WORDS KILL. THESE WORDS KILL.”

The day before yesterday, one of my composition students stayed to conference with me after class. He told me about a video his friend had shown him, of a Jamaican, black, gay man being beaten and then burned to death. I was horrorstruck and rageful, and trying to find an expression of this while still steering him toward a workable research project.

“Obviously,” he said, “beating and burning someone to death is too extreme, I don’t agree with that, but this is their cultural belief—”

“The one leads to the other,” I interrupted him. “They’re not separate, not completely. If you treat lives as worthless in words, someone will come and take those lives away.”

These words kill. The words of hate spoken in our streets, in our subways, in our schools, in our senate. And I was tired–as I walked to my train yesterday I was burning with tiredness—of having the voices of hate being the voices that shout. Of letting people say, we are the saved ones, you are the damned ones. Of letting people scream that God will enjoy burning homosexuals in Hell and walking by quietly. I was tired of hate being loud and love being quiet. I was ready to shout.
I began to think about sex, about my sexuality, and about church, and about God. I have thought about these things many times, but they blazed up new for me yesterday.

I want to tell you this story: I grew up loving God and loving church. I was not bored; I was not disengaged. I loved Jesus, adored him. I loved being Catholic. I enjoyed Mass. I took part in all kinds of ways. This was not a cultural love—not only that. This was not a social, I’m-part-of-this-group love—not only that. This was my love for my God. It was mysterious. It was overwhelming. It was mystical and real and very solidly experiential.

Today, I do not know what to say when people ask me what religion I am. I do not know how to share the joy of my religious experience because of layers of pain and fear that stand between me and the religiosity I so enjoyed when I was younger. Going to church is a strained and conflicted experience, and yet I don’t like the idea of trading in my Catholicism for something else, so I stay home most Sundays. I feel nervous when I think of times when I will be called upon to go to Church, and I feel nervous when I think of staying away. I feel pretty fucking goddamned nervous a lot of the time. So I try not to think about it too much at all.

These changes in my feelings are not because I am a bisexual woman living in a loving, mutual, sexual partnership with another woman, and I somehow recognize my sinfulness and feel divided from God—though there are some who will say that this is why.

I don’t feel this way because I am not strong enough or brave enough, or because I can’t just suck it up and deal with the whole church-stance-on-sexuality thing like a lot of other folks do. I thought this was why for a long time. I thought this was my problem, an individual problem, something I, personally, in my own heart and head and soul, needed to work through.

Yesterday, sitting on the train with the Prioress and the Holocaust and the murdered Jamaican man all together in my mind, I understood that I feel this way because of spiritual violence. I feel this way because of spiritual violence that has been and is being committed against me and against lots of other people, queer and straight, of all colors and races and genders and abilities, in sacred and secular spaces.

I do not feel comfortable and at home in Catholic spaces NOT because I have often heard priests preaching against homosexuality. That only happened once, and I walked out—followed by my girlfriend, my mother, and my octogenarian grandmother. I have heard many other Catholic people be completely warm and accepting of homosexuality—many, many more than I have heard denouncing it or me.

I do not feel comfortable and at home in Catholic spaces because this church that professes to love and mother me would protect that one priest and would not protect me. Because everyone has a right, according to what the church teachers, to denigrate and deny my life, my family, my experience, my love, and my body. And defending those things must be done secretly, quietly, sotto voce, under the radar. I could go to a Catholic church my whole life—but could I stand there and marry the woman I love? Could we stand at the fountain and baptize our children? And if we did—what would happen to the church that let us? Who has the power? Who is supported? You know the answers to these questions. And so do I. And so does every queer person in every congregation, even the most welcoming.

That is enough. I am here to tell you that that is enough to brutalize the spirit. The silence is enough. The secrecy is enough. This kind of atmosphere is antithetical to spiritual growth. It is the exact opposite of love and welcome. There need be no shouting, no dramatics. These words kill in a whisper. These words kill in a roar.

I am hardly the first person to say this. But I want to make it clear. And it is not just about me, and it is not just about sexuality, and it is not just about church. I want you to feel it through my experience, and I want you to look, carefully, at the places where you worship, work, live, sing, play, read, cook, sew—who is there? Who do you know is there? Who is silent there? Who is not present at all? Where are the people of color? Where are the immigrants? Where are the women? Where are the queer people and the gender non-conforming? Where are the poor people? Where are the disabled people? If they are not there, or they are silent—it is up to each of us in positions of privilege to notice, and it is up to us to take the risk and ask why and ask what we can do to make the spaces we are in places where all can be welcome, where all can worship, work, live, sing, play, read, cook, sew…

It is time to be loud. And it is time, for me, and I hope for many who have experienced spiritual violence, to recognize our lives as ones we have been called to. Last night, through all of these swirling experiences that I have tried to recreate for you, I felt a strong sense that intense, joyful, Jesus-loving, religious-little-girl me was not on some separate trajectory from questioning, wounded, angry, men-and-women-and-Jesus loving exiled-Catholic adult me, but rather that my vocation, my call from God, is to be found in these very experiences.

I don’t know that I was “born this way,” though I also did not experience my sexuality as some conscious, particular choice. I do feel that I was and am called to be who I am, in all my embodied particularity, and that my queerness is part of a holy, mysterious call. And I feel called to be louder about love in the face of hatred, wherever I see it.

I don’t know what that looks like yet. I know we still live in the fog and mud of history and old and new hates are waiting to swallow us whole. But I still believe in a better kind of resurrection, too. And I just wanted to tell you, and ask you to begin, with me, to use your voice and declare a call, declare a welcome, declare a defiance of that which limits and destroys love and life. I just wanted to tell you. I just wanted to begin.

When I was trying to think of what to say, what message of worth I would like to give to oppose the messages of worthlessness I was hearing, I thought about saying “You are essential to the universe. The entire universe needs you to be exactly what it is right now. You are vital to us all.” And then I thought a moment more, and added, “Just like the blades of grass.”

Amen.

Following Up (and Down and All Around)

Today, I read a lot of Endgame by Derrick Jensen.  If you recall from my mention in a previous post, it’s about taking down civilization to build up a liveable world.  Among lots of other things.

It took me awhile to buy it, after I wrote that post about Justice and Heat and Beauty and that book and gay marriage and trees and all… Not because I had to go far; I got it at Word Up.  Not because it’s expensive– the two volumes together were only $6.  Because… I was waiting.  Because it is scary, and because it is large, and also, in some other way that I don’t know how to articulate, because I was just waiting.

There’s a lot in this book, and some of it I am absolutely, hands down sure is true.  And some of it I am not.  But so far there is nothing in it that I am absolutely, hands down sure is false.  I can say that much.  And I’m not actually writing this post to go on and on about this book– not yet, anyway.

But I wanted to follow up.  Because everything I wrote before about the trees and their stripped off bark and their beauty is true, but it can’t be the end of the story.  The end of the story can’t be, I look at the injured trees and they are still beautiful.  That’s a great middle.  But it would be an end that takes me out of relationship with the trees, or makes the relationship only something symbolic and about my psyche.

Of course relating to trees is totally symbolic and about my psyche (she phrases this way so as not to invoke psychic, not to go too far so that you’re picturing the thoughts of trees flowing into her brain, even though that kind of is exactly what she means, if we just had a word better, larger, more precise than “thoughts”).  But it is also about my body and my breath (most especially my breath), my fingers and my feet and my head and my lungs, and the bark of the tree and the roots of the tree and the leaves of the tree.  If it becomes only about the idea of me thinking about the idea of a tree, the relationship is a fantasy– and no longer, I think, the kind the helps.

What I mean to say is that today I looked up what to do when bark has been stripped off trees.  I learned that probably these trees will survive.  I learned that stripped bark on a tree is very, very much like open skin on a person.  So it helps to clean it.  It also helps to trim back raggedy bits of bark around the wound, and to bind up any strips of bark that remain with the tree so it can heal itself.  But right today, I didn’t have tree trimming equipment and I didn’t have bark binding equipment– but I had water and soap and a sponge.

I took it all down to the trees and I cleaned all around the wounds as best I can.  It was surprisingly scary.  I felt like someone was going to ask what I was doing, or that whoever is hurting the trees  would pop up and… stop me?  Attack the trees?  Attack me?

I also felt much more keenly aware, in my fingers and my whole body, of the trees as alive.  It made my sadness and anger at their mistreatment stronger, different.  And I also felt, finally, that I was giving something real to a tree, which maybe I had never done before, not in this physical way.  That part felt good.

I’m trying to stay in touch.  I’m trying to open to and understand the relationships I have with the different lives all around me– and, also, remember that it’s not all about me.  It’s not all about how I see things or what I feel about a tree, it’s also about what that tree needs and if I can provide it.

Remember that saying, the personal is political?  The corporeal is spiritual, too, the spiritual is corporeal.  What is in our souls is not separated and floating, detached from our bodies, but pervades our bodies and is pervaded by them.  I believe.

So there I was, washing the trees, hoping it would do some good, and concurrently (in the general trajectory of my life) feeling more and more suspicious of much of the trappings of Christianity and even, sometimes, maybe, just kinda, or a lot,  suspicious of its heart– and in my head is this song:

Jesus took a towel and he girded himself, and he washed my feet, yes he washed my feet.  Jesus took a basin and he knelt himself down, and he washed, yes he washed my feet.

I ask the trees for their blessing when I go by them each day, and I try to give mine.  But now the stakes are changing.  Now I know that the stakes are grounded in my body, and the bodies of the trees.

So mysterious, I don’t even know what to say.  But I wanted to say something.

This isn’t much of an end, either.  Good, maybe.

Justice, Heat, and Beauty- A Week in Review

Yesterday, I was getting a ride home from my boss, and we heard on the radio some kind of recap/discussion of the rape accusations made by Nafissatou Diallo against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  My boss turned off the radio and spoke about how confusing the case was, how at first he had believed Diallo and now he thought she might have seduced Strauss-Kahn.

I had not been following the case in detail, so I just listened.  Then my boss said, “Sometimes, I don’t know about justice.”

I let out a breath, in a sort of laugh-sigh-surprised noise.

“I sure don’t,” I said.  “I sure don’t know about justice either.”

This past week has been brain-meltingly hot.  The kind of heat during which I walk seven blocks and want to collapse, during which I  hole up in the bedroom where there’s an air conditioner, eating and sleeping and spending all my time in one compressed space.  But I can still feel the heat, coming in at the skin and radiating through me.

I feel so creaturely in the heat.  The parameters of my comfort and my survival narrow.  This window I mostly live in, where my focus is not primarily on my bodily needs, is so easily made to close in on me.

In my Upper Elementary School class, which consists of rising 5th and 6th graders, we move at a break-neck pace: 20 vocabulary words per day, one book per week.  Last week’s book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.  I felt like I needed to do something to supplement the book and teach the Holocaust.  I asked them what they knew.

They knew about Hilter.  They knew about Jews being killed.  They’d heard of some of the other groups singled out.  Homosexuals got a brief titter.  They nodded at figures like six million, twelve million, but seemed strangely unimpressed by what the Danish had done in rescuing nearly all of the more-than 7,000 Danish Jews.  Then, a supplemental reading mentioned the death camps, and I realized that the numbers were just numbers, because of what they didn’t know.

“What are death camps?”

I tried to explain.  They wondered aloud why, if you found yourself in one of these camps, you wouldn’t just defy your captors, simply to hurry death.  They thought a little more and concluded that it is not easy to die.  I told them that some people survived and were still living today.

This shocked them.  They had thought World War Two was maybe 100, 200, even 300 years ago.

The living and the dead were thick in the room, but there was so little time.  I showed them a video talking about one shoe taken off one child who went into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. (http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/educational_footprints.shtml)  A man showed us the back of the shoe, which had been carefully stitched and repaired by some adult hands.  He described what had happened to this little boy as he approached the gas chamber, how the people had been told to tie their shoes together so they could get them again.

“Oh,” one of my students gasped as they showed a staircase leading into the gas chamber, “They actually filmed it?”

I did not tell him his error, because in that one moment he seemed to understand what he was seeing.  The class ended right after the video, and on its horrors I was mostly silent.  Feeling like Virgil in the Inferno, like the Ghost of Christmas Future.  Look and see, look and see.

On one of the hottest days this week, having been shut up in my room for great swaths of distorted time, I decided to take a short walk.   I walked to the small park near my apartment building.  I approached one of the huge trees, feeling drawn.  After a moment of self-consciousness, I put my chest and my cheek up close against its bark.  I stood against the tree, close, silent.

Have you ever hugged a big tree like that?  Put yourself up against it?  I feel the life of that tree in those times, how big it is, how small I am.  How I move and move and flash by quickly, while it might stand and stand and stand.  It is a good feeling all through me.  Slows me down.

On the way home, newly attentive to trees, I noticed the thin, young trees that line my street.  Someone had stripped a big chunk of bark off of one of these trees.  Over the next few days, I saw this on at least four.  It has to be deliberate.  I can’t imagine why.  I put my hands on the trees and wish my hands were bark to cover them again, to heal them.

In the midst of this week, I worked a shift at Word Up, and began reading Endgame by Derrick Jensen. (http://www.derrickjensen.org/)  Jensen is a radical environmentalist who describes the society and culture and world we live in in terms so poetic and resonant that my secret suspicions, long harbored and often not quite voiced, come out to meet him, murmuring, “yes, I know.”  He thinks that the whole world around us is incredibly real and beautiful and holy.  He also thinks that civilization will, if not destroyed itself, destroy all people, plants, animals, and the planet we all live on.  It is quite something, to go from an articulation of destructiveness that I do see all around me, to this position about civilization itself, as a whole, being irredeemable.  That is so frightening I do not want to ignore it, but so extreme I do not want to swallow it too easily.

I thought about the word sustainable, so popular a term these days.  Then I thought about its opposite, what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  It hadn’t occurred to me before.  I imagined, briefly, where I would be, if New York City ceased to function.  If the faucet gave no water and the food stopped coming and the order broke down.

I thought about that person, standing there and telling the other people on the way to the gas chambers, “Tie your shoes together.  You’ll want to find your own shoes again.”  This person knew, of course, that they were sending the others to their deaths.  What did it feel like to say this?

Today I walked home, touching the trees, putting my hand on their bare places.

On Sunday, Charlotte and I went down to City Hall to watch some of the first same-sex couples get married in this state.  (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/portraits-of-gay-couples-just-married-in-new-york) There was a small crowd of cheering, happy people.  Everyone waited for couples to emerge.  For the first time, in this public, governmental place, people were erring on the side of queerness.  That is, if you were a City Hall employee, wandering out with your same-gender buddy for lunch in the sweltering heat, you were liable to get cheered and applauded as new spouses.

It was way more dazzlingly great than I anticipated.  Being “other” as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship is something I’ve thought about, written about, but I didn’t realize, until it happened, what it would mean to me to be in a place, a public, open, official place, and know that the people around were more likely to misread Charlotte and me as “married” than as “friends.”

There was one protesting man standing on the sidelines, in a T-shirt that said “Jesus Saves Us From Hell.”  There were marvelously polyvalent clergy with golden stoles and headpieces and accessories.  On their stoles I caught glimpses of crosses, Stars of David, other signs I couldn’t quite make out.  There were two African-American men playing the violin and the cello, playing the wedding march, again and again.

And the people stepped out, old and young and middle aged, in dresses and suits and shorts and skirts and jeans.  They were many colors, many sizes.  Some came surrounded by family and some just two by two.  They looked surprised, stepping out into this receiving line of strangers.  Getting approval just for being as they were, something that so often garners the opposite.

I thought about the end of the world, and the terrors of the world, and how very, very close evil lies.  How entwined it is with the good.  I can make my friend a meal with all the love in my heart, to nourish and support a person I love, and perhaps that food was harvested by someone practically living as a slave.  Perhaps that food came from an animal that had lived an abused and stunted life.  And yet, the food is there.  The love is there.  It nourishes.

All life from death, all death from life, and yet we are not by this exempted from responsibility.

So quickly we move through this world.  So hard to know where to place our trust.  So dangerous to be silent, to be paralyzed by fear, not to choose.  So many trees and animals and people that will suffer–whatever we do–that go today, in suffering, to death.

And yet when it rains after days of heat, I turn my face up and rejoice.  I put my hands on the stripped bark of the trees, the small trees I could not press my chest against.  And when I see the green of the leaves at the top of these trees, I love the green that I see.  And when Charlotte curls against me, I do not have to wait for the man in the shirt about hell to take off his shirt and smile.

I sure don’t know about justice.  And it may be the world is burning like my brain has been burning.  There is a famine in Somalia, violence again in Darfur, people shot in Norway, people shot here.  And I feel my fingers tremble– fine motor skills have never been my forte, and it seems these repairs need such delicacy and strength.

I sure don’t know about justice.  But I know I walk in beauty.  Despite it all, because of it all.  Now I walk in fucking beauty.