Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Further Negotiations: The Bishop & The Badly Behaved Boy

Before my beloved and I could get married in the Church, I had to write a letter to the Bishop explaining myself. The talking points included supporting my husband in his Catholic faith and my commitment to raising Catholic children.  I was also to address my reluctance to convert, which is to say make a case for my refusal. 

I own an autographed copy of Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father.  And I could have stopped right there.

Daly, the author of Gyn/Ecology went on to write Webster’s’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, Conjured in Cahoots with Jane Caputi. Long before I met my husband, at the book signing for the Wickedary in a small bookstore in Claremont, California, I offered up my copy of Beyond God the Father for her signature. My roommate and I had driven 40 minutes to sit with a handful of other women and listen to Daly read. She looked nothing like we expected. We expected what Janeane Garofalo looks like now. Daly looked like a grandma—soft in the middle with the tightly permed gray hair favored by women of the Great Generation. She was wearing a quilted vest with multicolored appliqués of battleaxes on the sides—a friend had made it for her, she joked, from one battleaxe to another. 

How do I unpack that paragraph for anyone unfamiliar with Mary Daly? Officium Libri Catholici published her first book. I’m pretty sure that means her 1966 book Natural Knowledge of God in the Philosophy of Jacques Maritain got the thumbs up from Rome. Two decades later, she was fired from Boston College, a Jesuit university, because as a feminist separatist she refused to allow male students to attend her graduate seminar on women’s spirituality. As a feminist separatist, she believed that the patriarchy is so pervasive, entrenched, and toxic that the only way for a woman to retain authenticity and integrity, is to foreswear men and make a politically motivated choice to sleep only with other women. (Women with daddy issues unite! Closet lesbians who need a good excuse unite! I was the former, and my roommate was the latter.)

I “went to art school” and by that, I mean I kissed a girl and I liked it (though not the earlier mentioned roommate). I also kissed a much larger number of boys, and I liked that too.  For many years, the split between my mind and body was so deep, bodies were irrelevant to me in many ways, most notably irrelevant to me was their gender. I did not fall in love with bodies; I had crushes on people. (I didn’t really know what love was until I met my husband—and, as we all know, every angel is terrifying.) 

Ok, so here we have a person who at one time described herself as a radical, but not separatist, feminist (and still does). A person who proudly attended the Los Angeles March for Women’s Lives and still has her ticket stub. A person who believes in her heart of hearts that Christians as a category and Catholics in particular are overly obsessed with what other people are doing with their mucus membranes and with whom—as if the marital relationship, the love relationship, at its core is best understood by Tab B fitting into Slot A—and not just any Tab and not just any Slot, but specific Tabs and Slots owned by specific souls—do souls have gender? I wonder—but not really, because I am certain that they do not. But there’s no point in bringing it up with the Church. The Church is obsessed with keeping penises out of anuses and keeping female mouths and hands away from vulvas.   

To this I say, they should give back all the art produced by sodomites. Sell it all and give the money to orphans. For starters: The Sistine Chapel as presented by Verizon Wireless. 

So, it probably comes as little shock that my husband warned me to stick to my talking points in my letter to the Bishop. (A recurring theme in our relationship—with each other and mine with the Church: Don’t tell the whole truth. Don’t dig too deeply. Don’t pick at it. It, whatever it is, is a mystery.)

I didn’t mention the book or my views on same sex marriage, women in the priesthood, or the importance of women controlling their bodies and owning their sexuality, but I did tell the truth.

The draft I shared with my husband included the following thesis: While I do not think I can be a good Catholic, I am certain that I can raise good Catholics. Since I do not come from a strong faith tradition, and since we believe having a faith tradition is important, I will support my husband’s faith practice.

My husband sat down at the computer and deleted the phrase, while I do not think I can be a good Catholic and all of its supporting statements, whole paragraphs.
At the time, I believed he was simply doing the tap dance his mother needed to be happy with our union; and in order to do that tap dance; he needed to do another for the Church. (This raised many questions about his integrity.) For many years thereafter, I believed his insistence on having a “Catholic family” was more about imposing his will, getting his way, winning in a long series of power struggles in which getting his way seemed more important than any other principle that may have applied. 

While all of those things are true, it is also true that—when we hadn’t been to any house of worship for a few years except in the company of his family or mine, and I said I would be attending the Shambhala Meditation Center in Berkeley, California with our eldest and then only child—he refused “to allow it” and said he and our girl would be attending mass at our local parish.

Because I was not lying about anything in my draft, his “refusal”—if pompous, and I may add in the spirit of Daly, Dick-tatorial—was fine by me: at least the family would be attending worship services with greater frequency than an obligatory genuflection at Easter and Christmas. 

Five years later, I have been to mass most Sundays give or take family vacations and household DIY project weekends. Because I think it’s important to worship as a family. Because I don’t like the idea of driving the hatchback by myself to the nearest Unitarian church while the rest of my family attends mass.  Because when I made my vows, it was clear that while my conversion wasn’t mandatory, it wouldn’t hurt. Because when I made my vows, I meant them. I intended to be The Face of Love in my husband’s life. (While he may claim I am the embodiment of a mean and spiteful Old Testament stern father ogre, I have tried to be the embodiment of the compassionate and forgiving New Testament nurturing mother archetype. What we most despise in ourselves…) Because whether any of us like it or not, the Catholic Church is my faith community—we’re stuck with each other. Because when you raise Catholic children—they go to Faith Formation classes, they attend special masses for children and first communicants, there are parent meetings—there simply isn’t enough time to uphold another faith practice if you are the primary caretaker of said children.

 As my husband is fond of reminding me, no one is twisting my arm. That’s true.

However, his “refusal” has shut down the other possible options.  It would be cruel and confusing and counterproductive and undermining of the whole worshipping-as-a-family project to change course at this point—but then I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be best for the kids.

Yep, no one is twisting my arm. I chose all of it. The husband. The children. The family. The Catholic family. I expressly did not choose a traditional marriage in which my husband “puts his foot down” or “refuses to allow” or announces, “this conversation is over.”

I will get more from conversion than it will cost me.  

He would get more from conversation than his refusal will cost him.

So, how does a person, me, get from Point A: The Catholic Church is the Patriarchy (Malleus Maleficarum/holocaust of women, The Crusades, Eve was framed) to Point B: The Catholic Church is full of mystics, radicals, and progressives (Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Romero, Sean Penn, Fr. Gregory Boyle, Sr. Helen Prejean, Fr. Robert Drinan)? 

One possible answer: the universe (God) made sure I found people in whom I would see a possible reflection of what I might become, a reflection in which I was Catholic, the way they are Catholic. Like the kente cloth/Peruvian hat and braids image, my list of Catholics (not all in good standing with the Church) tells me it is possible be a Catholic and still be me. 

 Sr. Helen Prejean 

Fr. Greg Boyle

Friday, February 5, 2010

Further Negotiations: Prayer

 Sometime prior to 1998, my best friend Ken, Jay—his lover of many years—and I sat on mats in the yoga studio on Larchmont, which offered free introductory classes once a month. (Larchmont is a street and a shopping district in Los Angeles just south of Melrose Avenue and adjacent to the big houses lining Highland Avenue.) We were listening to an instructor talk about yoga as a fitness and spiritual practice. She demonstrated some showy asanas or poses—inversions like head and hand stands, the gravity defying switch from down to up dog, and the pretzel-like balancing act of bakasana, crane or crow pose. (I eventually was able to hold bakasana, and if you’ve seen the size of my behind…well, getting it airborne and balanced atop the fulcrum of my arms is quite an accomplishment.) 

The instructor introduced a petite woman who spoke about what yoga meant in her life. She was one of those twenty-something sylphs who does not yet look like an adult. She had been raped, and yoga had helped her to live in her body again. She demonstrated a sun salutation, bridge (a backbend), and spoke for a while in a headstand leaning against the wall.  The instructor concluded the talk portion of the freebee with more discussion of how yoga helps to fuse the gap between mind and body, how it allows people to get out of their heads and live in their bodies. At some point prior to a recititation of the discount packages available, the petite twenty-something folded slowly down from the wall and quietly excused herself.

We began the workout portion lying on our backs while the instructor encouraged us to feel ourselves in our bodies. At this time I was a size 24 and had been for about a decade. I was and am fat, pleasantly fat, but fat, not plump or big-boned, fat—the polite Midwesterner, my husband for example, would call me a “big gal.”

Inhabit my body? Why on earth would I want to do that? My reaction is visceral: the sort of reaction one would expect from a woman who had lived most of her life deep inside her head pretending that her body had absolutely nothing to do with who she was or how people treated her despite sometimes shockingly cruel evidence to the contrary. I shook it off, like trying to shake off spiders.

Inhabit my body? Are you out of your fucking mind?

The class concluded. We rolled and put away our mats. We went to lunch at the Greek place up on the corner. I ordered the gyros with tzatziki. I did not think about yoga again.

My husband and I rolled along—planned a wedding, got married, and were married for four years—before we decided to have a child. The pregnancy and child became the focus of my obsessional thinking. I resolved to be the best pregnant woman to have ever conceived. I began walking three miles three times a week at the USC track with my husband and his best friend, Johnny. I signed up for Bradley Method, hospital-sponsored, and doula-led birthing classes. I hired a doula. I read a small library of childbirth and infant care manuals. I bought my first fitness magazine, Fit Pregnancy. Because more than one source recommended it, I paid upfront for ten pre-natal yoga classes on Larchmont. Then I paid for twenty more classes and received an even deeper discount. I attended every class and managed to be the ridiculously gravid woman who proudly announces from her mat that she is forty-one weeks pregnant.

In my zealotry it does not occur to me that a person who has yet to bridge the gap between her mind and her body will not be able to insure a successful birth through what is primarily an intellectual and ego-driven effort. My first child is delivered via caesarean section in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway, downtown at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Ouch. And the c-section recovery was no picnic either.

New obsession: I must model health for my child. I must change my life. I must remake my world and my place in it so that my child will know how to be healthy and loved and at peace in the world. I’m sure I’m not the first or last woman to make those vows while intoxicated with the scent of newborn skull.

I lost almost 100 pounds. (How, you ask? A herculean task, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For me, that task involved spending several hours a week at the gym, four hours a week in meetings at UCLA’s Risk Factor Obesity Diet Program on Saturday mornings, and several more hours a week walking my first born around Los Angeles in her stroller. I weighed and measured all my food and calculated the calories. I calculated the calories burned—at 600 calories an hour, swimming is the best calorie per hour activity other than cross-country skiing. I calculated calorie intake minus calorie output per week with an eye toward hitting a calorie number below the calories needed to maintain my weight at 100 calories per pound. Under no circumstances make yourself miserable eating for a 120-pound person if you weigh over 200 pounds—that’s just crazy making—and you’ll feel like shit while you lose your mind. And that, my friends, is the only way to lose weight and maintain its loss—you do that and continue to do it for the rest of your life. It’s the “for the rest of your life” part that trips everyone up—and I suspect that’s part of the popularity of the 12 step programs—but I digress. There you have it: the secret formula.)

It took two years. I was finally the same size I wore in high school, not small, not even close to small, but I could pass for big boned, rather than fat because all that exercise tightens up stuff that would be lax otherwise.

I hold bakasana indefinitely. I work on doing a headstand. Butter and oil leave our lives. Cabbage replaces rice. Fruit replaces bread. I feel good.  I practice ujjayi breath during all forms of exercise, save swimming. (According to Wikipedia, “This breath is especially important during transition into and out of asanas [or] postures, as it helps practitioners to stay present, self-aware, and grounded in the practice, which lends it a meditative quality.”) I experience the love of God while prone on my yoga matt listening to an instructor chatter about being present, self-aware, and grounded. My ujjayi breath joins the chorus of ujjayi breath in the sweat-smelling studio.

(Size 14 according to Lane Bryant, but no one else, I was sitting in the dry sauna at the 24 Hour Fitness next door to Amoeba Records in Hollywood. It was Friday night and this woman comes in. This woman is a type. This is the type: she has been beautiful all her life and her expectation that she will be treated exceptionally because of her beauty is deep and inchoate. Now, pushing 50, she has to work harder to be beautiful, maybe for the first time at all, and there is panic welling somewhere deep and next door to her expectations for her life. But, part of being that woman is that those sorts of thoughts aren't acknowledged, maybe ever. So, she sat down across from me, and I could feel her assessing me  my eyes were closed I was doing ujjayi breath  sinus problems. Then she says, excuse me, I don't know what your journey is, but you know I stopped eating bread and it has changed my life... and on she went... she had a date later, she liked to work out to get in a good headspace before going on a date, and on and on, on the premise that I needed to lose weight and needed her help, I was Ugly Betty and she would be the magic life coach who would sort it all out for me. Fuck her. After a few I just like to breathe quietly in here had been ignored, I tried to practice compassion. By the time she left   thank God!   I understood she was just trying to build herself up for a blind date. Still, fuck her.)

More recently, our RCIA class gathered for one of our Tuesday night meetings at a neighboring parish to hear Sr. Mildred speak about prayer.  The chapel of this church is lit to a low glow. There is a statue of Mary draped with several rosaries of varying quality—cheap plastic beads, pressed rose petal beads, semiprecious stone beads. (In my irreverent mind, I am reminded of Mardi Gras beads and imagine Mary happy on Bourbon Street.)  The room is absent the bank of candles I associate with Catholic churches. (All the churches in Europe had banks of candles back in ’91.) There is a lectern, a small folding table, and rows of upholstered metal stacking chairs.

Sr. Mildred tells us that prayer is the means by which our quotidian physical experience is brought closer to the extraordinary plane of the spiritual where God, Mary and the saints exist. She moves her hands in a horizontal stripe, one atop the other running parallel about six inches apart, from her right to her left. The point of prayer, she says, is to bring the two together. This time her hands do not run parallel, but converge on her left at a disappearing point on an imagined horizon. (I am reminded of the painter, Mark Rothko   and Thomas Merton, his friend   and how for a while I was obsessed with the metaphor of landscapes  not in any scholarly way, but as an object of meditation and fodder for my own writing.)

Until I listened to Sr. Mildred, my understanding of Catholic prayer was limited to what it must look like to many Protestants looking in: Catholics recite from prayer cards, Catholics pray the rosary, Catholics participate in call and response prayer during mass, Catholics do not talk with god except in extemporaneous requests for the blessing of church sponsored events. Catholics do not converse silently with God: they offer praise aloud and in groups.

Sr. Mildred reminded me of another nun who spoke at a Women’s Center-sponsored conference at the University of California, Riverside in the mid-eighties. As I remember it, the speaker at the UC Riverside event was the directress of a Los Angeles halfway house for women leaving prostitution. She spoke about the day-to-day operation of the house, interspersed with individual success stories—she could have been any random type of progressive giving a presentation on the socially valuable work of her organization. Then she told how above her desk in her office is a picture of a woman of color from another culture. This picture, she tells the crowd, is her picture of God—where others would hang a crucifix, she hung the portrait of a woman likely wearing kente cloth or the ubiquitous Peruvian hat with braids. The Sister tells us that once speaking with one of the women living in the house, the woman asked about the picture. Hearing the Sister’s explanation, the woman began crying; it was the first time she had conceived of a cosmology in which a woman like herself could have anything to do with God.

The current Catholic definition of prayer, Sr. Mildred tells us, is “conversation with a real and present God.” She asks us to consider the word conversation, which implies both expression and reception—talking and listening. We forget as Catholics, she says, to listen to what God needs to tell us because we are so busy asking for things. She presents the various types of prayer: chant, novenas, the Lord’s Prayer, the rosary, petition, meditation, journaling, prayer cards, etc.  In this discussion I am moved because she confirms as legitimate Catholic spiritual practice those forms of conversation with the divine with which I am most comfortable and practiced: journaling, meditation, silent conversation with God.

So I have begun to try something Sr. Mildred suggested: simply listening. Not meditating on the yoga matt, simply allowing myself to experience and appreciate health as an expression of grace—having gained back every ounce and then some over the last five years, my yoga practice and experience of good health is limited at best—but praying silently with a question mark hanging over my head. Instead of asking for God’s will to manifest in my life and the life of my family during the offering of petitions during mass, I make myself receptive. I dial the number and leave the line open.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Further Negotiations: Zealotry is Scary and Dangerous

When I was tiny I attended Creative Playschool, a cooperative preschool that my mother helped found. (Faculty wives got together and got a Montessori-style preschool up and running.) I remember marching around holding construction paper circles stapled to drinking straws while singing along to a song about the colors of the rainbow sung by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Joni Mitchell. We had a tractor tire to play in, and a sailing dingy filled with sand. We had clothes to play dress-up in, and a class hamster.

One of my classmates murdered the hamster. Because she was stupid. Really.

We had on hats, the fifties style ones meant to be pinned to a French twist, and old lady dresses, meaning big flowered prints with buttons up the shirtfronts from the elastic waist to the men’s style collars. The dresses dragged on the floor. For some reason we were playing in one of the large rooms under the University of Redlands library instead of in one of The Village apartments—cinderblock rows of apartments built to house GI Bill students.

Ginny. I want to say her name was Ginny. Ginny was holding the hamster—maybe it was a mouse. We loved it. It was soft and pretty and gave us tiny nibble kisses on our fingers. She was taking care of it. So she wrapped it up in a Kleenex blanket and tucked it in to bed in her plastic coin purse.

I said, No, you can’t put it in there; it won’t be able to breathe.

She looked at me blankly. Deep breath, then, They have lungs. They need air. They have to breathe like us.

Blank stare, then, Nuh-uh.

Yes, it needs to breathe. You have to take it out. Now!  I grabbed for the purse and missed.

She dodged me and kept flitting around the room with her purse full of mouse.

I told her again, panic rising, You can’t put the mouse in the purse; you’ll kill it.

No, I won’t.

Yes, you will. You’re killing it!

I was wide eyed. I ran for the teacher: She’s killing the hamster! She’s killing the hamster!

And then the teacher calmly asked where the hamster was…let me see it…Oh. My.

The body of the mouse hamster curled in a limp little half moon on the teacher’s palm. Ginny burst into tears. I stood back, outside their little circle of grief and consolation, hating Ginny, hating the teacher, and then completely flummoxed by the other adults and children joining the circle, all feeling bad for stupid little homicidal Ginny.

Nuh-uh: evolution is just a theory. Nuh-uh: global warming is an unproven theory. The Big Bang? Says you.

Oprah’s guests recently included Ted Haggard and his wife, Gayle. She explained her choice to stay with the reverend Ted and work through their problems. He explained, what? How grateful he was that she stayed? Theirs was a confused message. I came away from the broadcast clear that Gayle has written a book about her experience and Why I Stayed is now available at major booksellers.

I believe they are sincere in their faith and their commitment to each other. They appear to be people who were blindsided by the truth of their lives—a truth that remains obscured by a world view that will not allow for such a truth, however much concrete, experiential proof is served up on a silver platter by Providence. I imagine they grew up in “caring Christian homes” attending Bible Belt churches several times a week. I imagine old Ted is as stymied by his behavior as is his wife.  They have the look of people with a faith so deep and deeply illogical that it lives next door to denial and delusion.

Or he’s a sociopath—which is a distinct possibility—you can’t lie as well as he does without some kind of crazy going on. His lie is without the panic of the guilty. Sociopath is a distinct possibility. That’s scary.

Blinded to the truth of himself is scary too.

Linda Lovelace comes to mind. Lovelace became a born again Christian sometime after her Deep Throat years. Ordeal, her story of degradation in the porn industry, reads suspiciously like the other texts I read for a graduate course titled Pornography and Melodrama. It didn’t read like Thinking Through the Body, a serious feminist study; it read like My Secret Life, a very old amalgamation of naughty stories. Pornography for good Christians. Stories of enemas and spankings and all manner of fetish told in the context of testimony. Clever. Probably lucrative.   

There are times when I watch people lie to themselves and others in an open lie everyone has agreed to a priori—the sick days taken around holiday weekends, for example—and I see the social utility of the exercise. I understand completely when it is accompanied by the half smile, or the jovial nod, or the practiced questioning of coughing fits prior to the long weekend. Kind of like when the closeted guy everyone knows is closeted, walks around the office singing Evita songs and tells stories of fabulous vacation exploits in which one need only change the genders of the players to arrive at the truth. The clueless are allowed blissful cluelessness, and the clued don't have to feel the contagious crazy of denial.
There are other times —when everyone seems to have genuinely lost sight of the truth underlying the communal lie —when I get frightened. Visceral fear: increased pulse rate, wrinkles between my eyebrows, fluttery chest and tight stomach.

When the zealots start talking, I am four years old trying to save a hamster from stupid Ginny.