Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I Don't Want to Spoil the Party

I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go
I would hate my disappointment to show
There's nothing for me here so I will disappear
If she turns up while I'm gone please let me know

I've had a drink or two and I don't care,
There's no fun in what I do if she's not there
I wonder what went wrong I've waited far too long
I think I'll take a walk and look for her

Though tonight she's made me sad
I still love her
If I find her I'll be glad
I still love her

I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go
I would hate my disappointment to show
There's nothing for me here so I will disappear
If she turns up while I'm gone please let me know

Though tonight she's made me sad
I still love her
If I find her I'll be glad
I still love her

I've had a drink or two and I don't care
There's no fun in what I do if she's not there
I wonder what went wrong I've waited far too long
I think I'll take a walk and look for her

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trigger Warnings: You'll Know Them When You See Them

I experienced substantial trauma early in life. Piecing together the few memories I have of those times has produced a skeletal narrative, one that has frequently frustrated me. From time to time, mild side effects of what is probably PTSD crop up. Sometimes I experience spontaneous panic attacks that mercifully subside quickly but since that time, I’ve always been unusually highly-strung and jumpy. Fortunately, each of these symptoms has its life-cycle, from start to finish. Until the past few days, I could always count on them to be temporary.

Saturday afternoon I watched a movie, alone in my apartment. The theme was innocuous enough, one of those black and white film noirs full of witty dialogue, dames, and a rapidly unfolding mystery. Before I knew it, and all at once, I was experiencing substantial psychological pain. Dealing as I do with depression, which is to say regularly, I knew this wasn’t it. I felt dirty and anxious. My hands shook for hours. For most of a day, I was not a sexual being. The very thought of sex in any form with any person disgusted me.

Taking all of this in, I thought to myself, this sounds like something a rape survivor would say. And then I realized, I AM a rape survivor. And I may never know what produced this response. It could have been a subtle thing like certain sounds or even the way a room was lit on the set of the movie. The cause could be one of ten-thousand things, which is one of the most exasperating things of all. During this experience, one is not in control of one's body or one's brain. Subtle and unsubtle reminders of this lacking on your behalf show up as uninvited guests.

I had read the symptoms of what I was now experiencing a time or two before, but without direct experience, I could have never prepared for it. I used to say that I wanted to remember it all. Now I’m not so sure. There may be a reason why my brain has clamped down on past memories like sutures. I thought that knowing every detail would finally create full healing, that I could have blessed resolution forever. In this circumstance, I realize now that it might be best to give my brain the benefit of the doubt henceforth.

One of the debates raging among feminists is the concept of trigger warnings. Skeptics feel that these experiences are more hysteria, more psychosomatic, more Salem Witch Trial than anything else. Others point to survivors of one form of trauma or another, intending to protect them from pain and discomfort whenever possible. I’ve always been wary of how quickly useful terminology can become a parody of itself, cheapening the altruism and intention that went into it in the first place. Yet I do try to be sympathetic when I read another stomach-churning first-person account of a rape and sexual assault.

This doesn’t mean that I ever thought that triggering and trigger warnings were patently false. On the subject of obscenity, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously noted that, for him, he knew it when he saw it. Regarding the after-effects of trauma, I can now say that I, too, know it when I see (or experience) it. I can no longer deny what I am feeling, nor can I take for granted the length of time this episode may last.    

True empathy is difficult for each of us without direct experience. Until Saturday, I was certainly sympathetic towards those who were victims of rape and incest, but there were limits to my compassion. I wasn’t intending to overlook anyone’s private struggle, but I simply did not understand and did not know how to understand. There are genocidal wars currently raging in our world and many humanitarian crises, but beyond my computer and television screen, these are only abstractions. I am not there. I do not know them. And I won’t pretend that even the struggles of my life make me an expert activist. What I can do is to listen. We do too much talking in the First World and not enough introspection.

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand.’
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then evil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

I include this parable for the benefits of activists of every treasured cause. Some of us will hear us. In the best case scenario, we will produce a hefty crop enough to feed a thousand people. Others may have good intentions at first, but their roots and commitment are not deep enough to sustain their initial devotion, so they wither and die. When times become painful or rough, they will not remain. Still another group will sprout and grow, but they’ll find worldly pleasures like money and immorality more compelling and rewarding.

Until Saturday, though seeing, I did not see. Though hearing, I did not understand. I nodded my head up and down in cadence, intending the best, but somewhat blind. I will not pretend to be smart enough to undo the ways of people, though I pray that my words be amplified by the Holy Spirit. I am a healer by nature. I am a fixer. For those who count themselves as the same, read these words if they give you comfort. Some will hear your message and some will not, but for their own reasons, not yours. It had to be their idea first, even if it really was yours. Being an activist requires humility as much as it requires initiative.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Liason: Work in Progress

What follows is a portion of a short story I've been working on for the last six months. I'm not going to post the whole thing because I intend to have it formally published. In addition, I doubt all of you have time to read a ten-page story. I hope you enjoy it.


She set before me a glass of water and an apple, as though I was a little child. I was her lover, but she associated me in some ways with her teenage daughter. A younger woman might have acted in ways that were sensuous, but maternal became the default for an older one. Some men enjoy being mothered, but I was always too proud to cry out for a nursemaid.

I wasn't the first. One intrepid soul five or so years before me showed up at her front porch with a shotgun. Her long-suffering husband managed to talk his way out of getting a couple good blasts with buckshot. I liked to think of myself as somewhat classier, not behaving like a typical redneck in Clayton County. I had no intention of stealing her away or wrecking her home. Adultery was fun for its own sake. Far from remorseful or feelings of guilt, I enjoyed the secrecy and the sneaking around behind her husband’s back. But mostly I enjoyed the pursuit and the way that dares and impulsive behavior built steadily upon each other.

After the earlier incident, it had been a while since she’d sought a partner, especially one as young as me. Other women her age had found themselves unable to reconcile the years that separated our date of birth. Some had grown sons my age or a little younger, and that fact alone was enough to make them choose total abstinence. I severely doubt a man would draw the same sharp distinctions. Having daughters the same age wouldn't be a similar impediment.

I was raised by women, in a household without a father. The youngest of five, I learned how to behave and analyze the world around me from my mother and my four older sisters. Dad got a rare form of brain cancer shortly after I was born. It took him two and a half years to die, but when he finally passed I was sadly too young to remember him.

Often our present reflects our past. The husband of my latest girlfriend had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which was slowly robbing him of life. She had barely grieved. She didn’t hate him, but she held him responsible for keeping her hostage. She’d had to live for decades on end in an unfamiliar city, when she’d never wanted to leave her native New York City. In the process, she’d learned to have a healthy respect for Southern culture and Southerners, but knew she would forever be a Yankee.

Where the two had settled was his city, never hers. Mostly she’d resented him in a half-hearted, going-through-the-motions sort of way. Once, she had been very bitter, but time has a way of smoothing out rough edges even if they never go away. They’d stayed married for twenty-five years and over the years she'd devised a thousand rationalizations to justify staying with him. Beyond the one incident of which I was aware, I knew she’d taken other lovers besides me, but I never inquired in detail about them. Everyone finds a way to compensate for a difficult circumstance, some more successful than others.

To her husband and daughter I had materialized out of thin air. But then again, she’d always had her own secret, private life that she never shared with either of them. In reality, I’d been around for a while on the periphery, on the sly. We’d been sneaking around for months. Well before I arrived on the scene, she’d demanded her own space, even partitioning off the house to separate what was hers from what was his. By the time I arrived, he was too impaired to notice or to care. The plan she’d hatched was for me to move in with the family to assist with her husband’s care. Then, when he passed away, I would take his place, kind of like the changing of the guard.

It wasn’t a bad arrangement, all told. He was so ill that we could get away with being a little incautious every now and again. The diagnosis had been terminal from the beginning, so we waited patiently for him to expire. I helped with washing sheets, cleaning bathrooms, and keeping things neat and orderly. He never suspected a thing. He was a quiet sort by nature, like his daughter, and appeared to like me.

Once, I asked her if perhaps we should tell her husband what we were doing. He’d never believe me, she said. I accepted this as truth and assumed that ignorance was bliss. The euphoria of getting away with something was enough that I wanted to preserve the mystery.

She had only one rule. While he was still living, we could never use the bedroom she and her husband shared. Instead, she’d completely remodeled the upstairs attic, installing a reasonably comfortable bed in one corner. The only drawback is that it was unheated in winter and boiling hot in summer. The mattress was a little too small for me so my shins sometimes scraped against the rough, itchy pine boards.

When her husband left this life, I made my way at last into the inner sanctum, a place I’d never been allowed to enter until that very moment. Because of simple curiosity, I was very interested to know what it looked like. We returned from the funeral, energetically casting off our black mourning clothes, having played appropriately pious and grieving until that moment. The transfer was conducted like a coronation, with grave seriousness. She’d gone to the trouble to put clean, smooth sheets on the bed. Now I formally took my place next to her, seated on my throne.

Finally she was ready. The ceremony commenced. The only thing I didn’t like about our lovemaking is that she was a very poor kisser. She had thin, pursing lips, and mine were much more generous in size. Kissing her always felt a little like kissing a Muppet. I’ve always found the act of lip-locking very sensuous, and it disappointed me that we couldn’t seem to strike a balance. By now I knew my efforts in that department were mostly useless, so I decided to explore elsewhere.

I went straight to the source. The labia and all outwards parts of the vagina had completely lost all elasticity with time. They drooped downward so precipitously that it was difficult to know where the opening began. It was as though they had surrendered completely to gravity. Her breasts, lamentably, had taken the same path. They had no remaining definition and elasticity. They sagged. I’d been a touch rough on them the first time we’d had sex, and she quickly corrected me.

You’re going to have to be gentle. She smiled.

I was gentle from then on, but, honestly, she was not gentle with me. She told a story of a sadistic male gynecologist who’d taken pleasure in performing an unnecessary surgery. The procedure had greatly cut down on her sexual sensitivity. Because of this, and at her strict direction, I hunched and twisted my shoulders in a thousand different ways to produce her climax. It was uncomfortable, and her arms always wrapped tightly around my back, pushing hard from below me, side to side against both shoulder blades. It reminded me somewhat of cross-country skiing.

But when it was finished, the result was always the same. I accomplished my intended purpose once again. I was pleased for that. I stared down at her as her eyes rolled back in her head, letting out a heavy sigh. A few second later she regained full consciousness and her glassy eyes re-focused. It was as though she had slowly returned to earth from somewhere else, very far away.

Her paranoia and obsessive behavior knew no limits. I never understood what she was afraid of, really. I thought that if I was the most important person to her, then surely I would be entrusted with a few personal details here and there. But this was not to be. She adopted her moniker as a second skin, as though all vestiges and traces of her given name had been heretofore purged.

None of that mattered at first. For my part, I was strongly attracted to her and always had been. In the beginning, I could barely believe my good luck.

One day, as we were lying together once again, side by side, she spoke her mind. It was the first time she ever talked about us as a unit, as though we were something resembling a couple. She hoped I’d support her in her old age. I said nothing, but the idea did not sit well with me. I was living a fantasy on my own terms, and she had very practical dreams. When in middle age, I would still be reasonably young. She, however, would be a senior citizen. I’d just taken a lengthy part in a caretaker role, albeit not by myself. When it came her time, I might be able to count on her daughter for assistance, but most of the burden of care would fall upon me.

She’d made her sacrifices to keep us together and so had I. For the duration, I'd had to cut ties entirely with my family, who disapproved strongly of my living arrangements. They made their displeasure known loudly, enough that I might well be an orphan. Even with the pain of estrangement, I stayed with her for four long years, because at least there I had some degree of general stability and validation. I had a place to stay, food to eat, and a woman who I assumed loved me. Everything else I was sure I could handle given half a chance.

But after a while, I couldn’t handle the daily third degree when I received came home from work. Where were you? What did you do? Who did you see? She was secretive about every last one of her personal dealings, but mine had to be publicly aired. I couldn’t even pick up items in a grocery store for her. She had to do them herself. Routine errands were out of bounds for me if they involved her in some way. The pursuit and the fantasy were no more. After a year, the novelty was gone and I began to question whether this was really worth it.

All I felt now was hassle. She nixed many plan that I viewed as sensible. I could never learn her real name, real date of birth, and other information she considered private and sensitive. I simply couldn’t understand her fears and she rarely explained them to me in much detail. I chalked everything up to a kind of untreated neurosis and gritted my teeth. She called herself an odd duck, but I am sure I could understand an odd duck. She was something else, something I could never grasp.

After a while, I’d had enough. It wasn’t the looks I got from the faces of her friends and my friends. Those I had long since blocked out entirely. I hadn’t gotten bored with her. It was her daily scrutiny and the lack of transparency on her part that prevented us from having a functional relationship. I’d never gone into this expecting that we would marry, nor had she. 

We were more friends with benefits than anything else. Neither of us wanted to be tied down. I’d thought I could handle it, but after a time it began to drive me crazy. She pleaded with me to stay, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I missed my family and I wanted my life back. Negating all her insecurities had worn me out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quote of the Week

"We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about a particular degree of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized."-Reinhold Niebuhr

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Video

Goodbye Mama goodbye to you, too Pa
Little sister you'll have to wait a while to come along
Goodbye to this house and all its memories
We just got too old to say we're wrong

Got to make one last trip to my bedroom
Guess I'll have to leave some stuff behind
It's funny how the same old crooked pictures
Just don't seem the same to me tonight

There ain't no use in shedding lonely tears, Mama
There ain't no use in shouting at me, Pa
I can't live no longer with your fears, Mama
I love you but that hasn't helped at all

Each of us must do the things that matter
All of us must see what we can see
It was long ago you must remember

You were once as young and scared as me
I don't know how hard it is yet, Mama
When you realize you're growing old
I know how hard is not to be younger

I know you've tried to keep me from the cold
Thanks for all you done, it may sound hollow
Thank you for the good times that we've known
But I must find my own road now to follow

You will all be welcome in my home
I got my suitcase, I must go now
I don't mind about the things you said

I'm sorry, Mama I don't know where I'm going
Remember little sister look ahead
Tomorrow I'll be in some other sunrise
Maybe I'll have someone at my side

Mama, give your love back to your husband
Father, you have taught me well, goodbye
Goodbye Mama, goodbye to you too Pa

When Parents Retire

My parents planned out their retirement methodically, much like Josef Stalin, with their own five-year plan. The did it the way the television commercials say you’re supposed to go about it. Mom went first in August of last year. Dad retired at the first of this summer. Now they've been hard at work fixing twenty-five years of repairs that had been pushed off for this very moment.

This is a momentous occasion for both of them, but their responses have been more muted than I expected. I suppose if you've worked for fifty years or so, the combined labor has a way of making you tired and footsore. The end for both was not an exuberant sprint, but a weary and obliging trot across the finish line. They deserve to live out the rest of their days in relatively calm, even though having reached this stage in their lives reminds me once more that life is finite. The ultimate biological machine, at least so far as we know, is the human body. It tends to wear out after a while.

I want to keep my focus upon them, not myself, but I admit I’m having some serious reservations. Much of my life is tied up in that house and the city in which it is located. My folks will be leaving both behind, retiring to the beach, as so many retired couples do. If I peer out of the front door, my attention focuses briefly, inevitably on the bus stop where I waited for middle school and half of high school. We waited by a storm drain, every morning, at the spot where the concrete met the asphalt of the road.

My bedroom had many configurations, much like an art gallery, one of which showcased a large CD player against one corner. It blared the music of the time, and my latest album purchase. Every inch of the walls, in those days, was covered by store-bought posters of musicians and movie stars. After I left for parts elsewhere, I remember how sparse and bare it seemed when it all had been taken down. My sister moved home for a while, taking my room for herself, scattering clothes across the carpeted floor. She owned several vinyl LPs and a decent player, though her purchases always came from thrift stores and garage sales.

From recent conversation with my parents, I’ve gathered that their fondness for the house is not my own. My father felt that it was too expensive to maintain. He criticized the workmen who built the house, feeling they rushed through the job. But I have to be pragmatic in my nostalgia. Being that two people now inhabit a space designed for five, it is clearly more house than they need. Moreover, it seems that my folks don’t have the same strong sense of ambivalence that I have.

My mother’s childhood home has been visited probably once in twenty years. Her father died after a severe bout of cancer, and the home reminds her of those awful final months and days. After my aunt died, Dad never had much reason to visit his parent's house, either. He might have even been ashamed of it, showing, as it did, the extreme poverty of two career textile mill workers, his own parents, who never passed 9th grade. Dad got out at 17 and never looked back. We regularly visited when my sisters and I were small children, but conditions on the ground changed.

Childhood is difficult regardless of circumstance, but I was an imaginative child. I could escape into my books and later play my guitar with a single-minded focus. As I walk through the house in my mind, I recall a million tiny confrontations and words exchanged. Every corner has a memory, even with a fresh coat of paint or an elaborately re-designed sundeck. I remember my grandmother, an unfiltered cigarette smoker, staking claim to one corner. I remember, years later, her being shocked when I picked the opposite corner to light my own cigarette.

The driveway and basement became a service station to many a car. I knew nothing of automobile repair. Dad would patch together the once-dead until I created a new problem for him to fix. On my teenage trips to Atlanta, two and a half hours away, he would make sure my turn signals were functioning properly and my windshield was clean. He didn't have to do it, and I know many parents would not. Though we've had our differences, I recognize the gesture was one of love, and I am finally willing to take it on its own terms.

The notion of shrines and monuments has never been foreign to me. Some people stare at them uncomprehendingly, briefly. They move on to the next, displaying the same reaction. To me, at least, the house is a monument to lots of things. It was where I first kissed a girl. Until they got run down, both of my father’s parents were present, housed in a basement apartment we had specially built for them. It was, outside by the mailbox, where my rebellious sister sneaked away late at night, arriving at school the next day sleep deprived.

A surprise blizzard in Birmingham dumped 18 inches on an incredulous, uncomprehending public. After the ominous green lightning subsided, around 5 am, I walked out into snow that reached my kneecaps. The scene was pristine, as no one else had yet woken up and sullied the landscape. That image has been seared into my brain, one I know to be uniquely my own.

It will probably be easier than I’m anticipating. Though I’m usually not much of a sentimentalist, here my secret romantic side shines through. Unlike my parents, I will make a silent pilgrimage to the house from time to time, if only to see what the new owners have changed. Much of me exists at that house and I measure my progress using it as a thermometer. I much don’t like the notion of my folks passing away someday, but I know they will. Maybe this can be my own silent ritual, to preserve the memories for myself and my younger relatives.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Feminist Statement or a Bizarre Nude

This picture has been heavily photoshopped and cropped from its original state, which was more or less a traditional nude. Notice what is left out and what has been kept as is. Sometimes I enjoy playing with art. I hope you enjoy it. I feel inclined this way about once every five years or so. May it liven your Friday.

A Quaker Post for Friday

Part of being granted scholarship money to attend a Quaker conference requires writing up a synopsis. This summary will be presented at Meeting with a Concern for Business, which is the means by which we conduct formal business.

YAFCON 2014 Synopsis

From June 6 to June 11, 2014, approximately 45 Young Adults convened for YAFCON 2014 at Pendle Hill. The focus of the conference was Leadership and the Testimony of Community. Past conferences have highlighted other Quaker Testimonies, as will next year’s YAF con. 

Each day’s scheduled activities included intensive workshops. It should be noted, however, that participation was not one-sided. Group participation was integral to every program, to prevent them from becoming dry, dull lectures. In addition to a variety of Friends who hailed from all across the United States, speakers and participants also came from as far away as Rwanda and Kenya.

Most attendees had specifically Quaker jobs. For example, many worked for AFSC, FCNL, and Quaker Voluntary Service. Their employer provided them the time and the money to attend. Many attenders had known each other for years, through their Yearly Meeting and now their occupation. However, they were no less warm and accepting of newcomers. Regrettably, several Friends were unable to stay for the entire conference due to work demands. 

YAFCON 2014, though enjoyable, was a serious, intense affair. Participants were told that taking part in every activity was likely impossible and that practicing self-care was important. Many found themselves thoroughly drained halfway through each day’s activity, needing to take naps to rest and decompress. Each structured activity lasted for two hours and two sessions were scheduled each day, one in the morning and a second in the evening.

But in the meantime, there was plenty of time for fun. The second full day concluded with a campfire, s’mores, and singing. For those who had energy left, each day, a silly community building activity was scheduled shortly before dinner. While on the topic, dinner offered a variety of food options for all diets. The food was uniformly excellent. The first day we ate Indian food from a local restaurant, but the rest was prepared by the kitchen staff.  

By the end, many had made fast friends with each other. An Excel document was circulated among us, providing contact information of each of us, encouraging us to continue the connections we had made during the week. The atmosphere was pleasant and we learned quite a lot, both about the topics covered in workshops and ourselves.   

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mother Earth

A tribute to Washington, DC

You may highhand me all the time
Never go my way
But dirt is waiting for you
There's a debt you have to pay

I don't care how great you are
Don't care what you're worth

'Cause when it all ends up
You're going to go back to mother earth

You may own a city
Get all the girls
You may have an aeroplane
Flying all around the world

I don't care how great you are
Don't care what you're worth

'Cause when it all ends up
You're going to go back to mother earth

You may play the race horses
Even on a track
You may have enough money baby
To buy anything you like

I don't care how great you are
Don't care what you're worth

'Cause when it all ends up
You're got to go back to mother earth