Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine

Bicycle and cobwebs, in my grandfather's basement

Sometimes I find myself consumed with ongoing doubt, chewing on a concept like a dog gnawing on a bone. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel. Why marriage? Why is it so important, in almost every culture, especially to organized religion, and especially now to those in the church? The anthropologist in me wants to say that it’s because society and religion’s central goals are controlling sexual mores. The feminist in me wants to say that it comes from Victorian ideals of the angel of the house.

The evangelical and Republican obsessions with “family values” come not from the Bible, but from the cultural change of the last 150 years. Before the industrial revolution, women had a role in pivotal role in society—they were farmers, teachers, craftspeople, homemakers in the true sense of the word. They created homes, they kept house. But when all of those tasks were outsourced—when vegetables and cloth and meat were bought in a market and children were taken away to school, women lost their role and the “angel of the house” myth took its place.

So women lost their place in society, and a new role was created for them, that central, annoying dichotomy of madonna versus whore. I’ve hypothesized before that the day of a wedding is the one time when a woman is a virgin, a mother, and a whore, all at the same moment. Hence the white. It’s a culmination of all a woman’s roles in one single day. “It’s your day,” scream the bridal magazines. No wonder.

My central thesis is that sexual ethics and gender politics change, over time. David had 300 wives, and yet he was a man after God’s own heart. No matter what kind of model is set out in Genesis, the church has changed and fundamentally twisted that vision over time, throughout history. As a single Christian with unconventional views on women in culture and marriage, I’ve been asked before for my opinion on the church’s view of intimacy. One of my first published reviews was a for the Christian Century on a book by Lisa Graham McMinn, called Sexuality and Holy Longing.

It’s always good to discover Christians discussing difficult issues, but I found Rob Bell’s book on the matter to be much more cogent and controversial. His new book, Love Wins, explores the ways in which a traditional evangelical concept of heaven and hell may not be exactly biblical and has earned him the title of heretic. In my mind his previous book, Sex God, was overlooked and much more controversial.

Almost all earthly religions have a tremendously warped view of the sexual realm: Catholics with their pedophile priests, Muslims with their suicidal boys, going happily to the arms of their 72 virgin lovers, evangelical Christians with their bizarre double standard (homosexuality and fornication are wrong, divorce and remarriage perfectly fine).

Rob Bell’s point is more simple and elegant. We, as human beings, exist in a realm somewhat lower than the angels and somewhat higher than the beasts, and that applies to our sexual realm as well. When we engage in sordid sexual practices, one-night stands with strangers, orgies, et cetera, we are lowering ourselves to the level of beasts, and our calling is higher than that. But to say that we are somehow above sex, more pure, more holy, raises us up to the level of the angels, just as erroneous of a judgment. We are somewhere in between, sexual beings in need of grace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

En route from Ulster Park, New York, to Aroostook County, Maine

Bride and groom

Spending time at weddings always leads to reading Song of Solomon, the Bible’s only out-and-out paean to sexual desire. “Many rivers cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned,” says Solomon (8:7). It’s a shocking book, right there in the middle of the Old Testament, on the order of Plato’s Phaedrus that celebrates the joys of erotic love.

My missionary-kid friends and I used to sneak into the bathroom to read the “dirty” verses. “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of they garments is like the smell of Lebanon… thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins….” (7:2-3 KJV). We’d blush and giggle, the way I imagine ordinary kids do when they discover an errant Playboy.

It’s hard to imagine the purpose of the writer isn’t to arouse. The church still doesn't know what to do with Song of Solomon, a clearly pornographic poem stuck in the middle of their canon. “It’s about Christ’s love for the church,” say evangelical pastors, trying to explain away the difficult passages. Is it? Because it seems to be pretty clear what it’s about—an extramarital affair, carried on by a royal gentleman mysteriously similar to King Solomon.

There are consistent parallels among all of the world’s great religions, and one of them is a celebration of sexual connection. I don’t disagree with the evangelical pastors, really—the poem does seem to be an extended metaphor. A love story, yes, but also an explication of how desire can help us touch the face of God.

The sensual Sanskrit stories from the Hindu holy scriptures do the same thing. Some of them are tied into the philosophy of tantra. Tantric yoga is a way for the masculine element to connect with the feminine element, a habit that can be cultivated inside of one’s own yoga practice. All us contain within ourselves both masculine and feminine elements and an asana practice (moving through physical postures) can be a way to achieve connection between those two sides of yourself. Traditionally, though, Tantric Hinduism prescribed sexual activity as a form of worship.

The Kama Sutra is the most famous Hindu “love manual,” but really functions much more as a Fourteenth Century Esquire. Seriously. It teaches men how to compare their penis sizes. My friends at Wheaton found a more progressive version when they took an elective in World Religions and read the selections from the Vedas. “The whole thing is about sex!” they exclaimed, under their breath, handing me their text late at night. Sure enough, it was. The union of the divine feminine and the divine masculine, Shiva and his bride Shakti, explored in depth. Illustrated, to our great embarrassment and fascination, by detailed murals on the walls of Indian temples. “Can that really be done?” we asked ourselves, peering closer. (The answer is no. It can’t.)
“…its fingers by the forthflashing rays of his nails seemed to run up hastily, to grow long and laugh, and the hand seemed to raise five other fingers in the five senses, that, in desire to touch her, had just made their entry full of love. Then contending feelings took possession of Kadambari as if they had gathered together in curiosity…” --Bana, Kadambari

Sounds a lot like Song of Solomon, doesn’t it?

In Hindu spirituality, the body is divided up into seven chakras, one of which is a spiritual center focused around the genitalia. The mystical Jewish tradition of kabbalah also identifies spiritual centers, in places virtually identical to the chakras. The Jewish mystics also celebrate sex as a way to approach God. I can't claim to know much about the most sacred part of that tradition, but coupling, in some literature, is claimed as a form of holiness.

Even Islam has its own mystical sexual tradition in Sufism. As difficult as it is to believe, there are feminist Muslims, and it’s good to remember that not all Muslim traditions are connected to vindictive and bloody misogyny. Instead, with exquisite lyricism, mystical poets describe divine love in the language they would use for a mistress—
“She is a pearl hidden in a shell of hair as black as jet,
A pearl for which Thought dives and remains unceasingly in the deeps
of that ocean.
He who looks upon her deems her to be a gazelle of the sand-hills,
because of her shapely neck and the loveliness of her gestures."

“It has been said that the Sufis invented this figurative style as a mask for mysteries... apart from any such motives, the Sufis adopt the symbolic style because there is no other possible way of interpreting mystical experience.” That’s according to The Mystics of Islam, by Reynold Nicholson in 1914. Wait a minute. Did he just say that there’s no other way to talk about mysticism than by using sexual metaphor? I think so.

My conclusion? I’m not saying much other than pointing out an odd consistency. Maybe there’s more to sex than meets the eye. There’s certainly more to it than our culture’s ghettoized understanding would have us believe. Shall we believe solely that sex is the grubby province of porn overlords in eastern European sex dens, of city strip clubs, and of darkest imagination?

No. Throughout our global spiritual history, our mystics have proclaimed sex to be something more, something beautiful. Something greater. If only we can begin to believe.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Orange, Connecticut

I’ve been feeling some qualms about writing such a political post last weekend, but I feel another one coming on. Everyone else wears their politics on their sleeve, why can't I? I’m at my aunt’s house because it’s wedding season—my baby cousin is getting married after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy this week. Obama was there to personally give him his commission—on a Coast Guard cutter based in Kittery, Maine. I’m a bit jealous of his next five years at sea, but not enough to enlist. At least not right now.

I've been following hometown Chattanooga girl Lauren on American Idol this season, so this week I also watched the promo for the Beyonce video “Run the World (Girls)”. It was an attempted feminist manifesto, and in some ways it was. It makes me happy that I live in a culture where a female musician can make a statement like that, where a housemaid has as many rights as the world’s most powerful financier, where a politician’s wife has the courage to stand up and leave in the face of betrayal.

Women are standing up for themselves, but nothing seems to change. Was that video as much a feminist manifesto as it was a chance to ogle a dancer’s booty? It’s so ironic as to be almost laughable when women clearly don't rule the world. Asserting something doesn’t make it true. What does the culture at large say when a housemaid accuses a powerful man of rape? She must be lying. It must be a conspiracy. Our world is still one where politicians betray their wives, no matter how beautiful, intelligent, or graceful.

Every time I attend a wedding, I ask why I haven’t made the choice to be married myself. I had plenty of friends who made it their sole aspiration, in high school, college, and after. I scoffed at them because what they longed for was the state of being married, a family, children, rather than an individual to share their lives with, an equal partner for life. The key, I believe, is to find that person first. First comes love, THEN comes marriage.

Song of Solomon 3:5: “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases…”

I heard a pastor recently say: “family is the reward of the righteous man.” That’s been the perspective of the evangelical church for a long time now, with their focus on the family. But it’s not true. 1 Corinthians 7:8: “...I say to the unmarried, it is good for them if they remain even as I am [single], but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry.” It’s only the weak that marry, according to Paul, those who "burn with passion."

The highest ideal for a Christian is a single-minded pursuit of God Himself, nothing else. Anything else, even family, is merely a distraction. Family can’t be a goal in and of itself, at least not according to Scripture. As Paul also says, I don’t judge anyone who makes that choice.

But it’s a choice, and not one everyone has to make.

I’ve struggled with marriage not because I haven’t found someone that I want to marry, but because I can’t make peace with the concept. There are so many aspects of traditional marriage that seem to convey aspects of ownership. The ring: is that a symbol of love, or an indication of a claim being staked? A proof that the lowly female has a provider with adequate income? Why do so many of the women I know choose to take their husband’s names? Why is it that even Prince William doesn’t have the joy and privilege of wearing that ring if it’s only a “symbol of love”?

If I want a companion for the rest of my life, I’d almost rather incorporate. At least then I’d have equality written into my charter.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

You’ll never touch these things

Buds in Maine. I can't wait to get back and see if they bloomed!

I’ve written about global warming before, even going so far as to say that it’ll be viewed historically as a conscious choice of the rich white man to make his weather better and himself richer at the expense of the poor multitudes at the lower latitudes. Nonetheless, I feel a thesis coming on, after listening to a piece on NPR today about government subsidies for the oil companies. Part of me wants to quote the thing wholesale, because it was so disgusting. I can’t do it justice. (I found it: listen here at your own peril.)

I’ll try, but I may end up falling into diatribe. You have been duly warned.

Two brave and politically-minded Democrats proposed a bill to eliminate the subsidies that global oil gets from the American government. It’s around $2 billion, so, really, nothing. At least not in comparison to the trillions of dollars our government is trying to cut. Democrats want to pay lip service to the concept of deficit reduction, sure, but I hope that maybe some of them believe that the American taxpayer shouldn’t be adding to the profits of the most profitable companies ever in the history of the universe.

So what do Republicans (and all oil-state Democrats) say? It’ll raise gas prices! It’ll cost American jobs! It'll force America to be more dependent on foreign companies! What’s the real solution? Drill, baby. Drill.

Here’s Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader:
“By taxing American energy production, they’re also outsourcing American jobs. So let me get this straight--higher gas prices, fewer American jobs, and more dependence on foreign competitors at the expense of American energy? That’s their plan? No thank you.”

I can’t believe that we haven’t accepted yet that fossil fuels are dying. And killing us, both. I flash back 100 years, and wonder—what happened to those forward-minded politicians who proposed ending subsidies for the buggy-whip industry? I’m sure there was public outcry: what about all those poor workers in the buggy-whip factories? What about the American horse? What about carriage drivers?

Even though I’m a devout Scandinavian socialist (most days), I believe whole-heartedly in American entrepreneurship and competition. If fossil fuels were authentically priced, both in true production and environmental costs, then alternative energies would have a real shot. Wind and solar could be competitive. But it’s not until we eliminate the buggy-whip mentality, this foolish prejudice in favor of outdated products, that they’ll be able to compete on a level playing field.

Why don't we build houses with roofs made of solar panels? Why doesn’t every suburban residence have its own windmill? Why have fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles stayed more or less level for the last fifty years? Because of the oil and coal lobbies. Because of corrupt politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, whose campaigns are funded by those industries, and who care more about their reelection than our country’s future.

But mainly because of YOU. Because you (and me) can’t be bothered to pick up a pen and write a letter to our congresspeople. Because we can’t be bothered to reduce our consumption.

What did the piece conclude? The bill is not going to pass. Even 51 unified Democrats in the Senate can’t get the bill past a filibuster. The American people are going to continue to put $2 billion a year in Exxon-Mobil’s pocket. As if we don't pay enough for gas already.

What’s the only thing that’s going to change our future? Our own choices. We have to choose to get involved in political life. We have to make better choices about our carbon consumption.

I have been consciously choosing against high consumption for seven years now, but I'm still getting in a car tomorrow and driving 1000 miles with gas at $4 a gallon. I flew in a plane last month. I don’t have much money, but I still believe should pay more for those things than I do. They should cost more for all of our sakes.

Why did the buggy whip factories shut down? Because we didn’t need them any more. It's not until alternative energy is given a fair chance that we really will stop needing oil.

(On a less political note, how do you like my blog redesign? If you hate it, give constructive criticism in the comments. If you love it, say glowing things! It costs you no fossil fuels. Except for the electricity for your computer. Never mind.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why pretend

Art by Cora. A self-portrait, maybe?

My thoughts lately have been consumed by old photographs and the existences they account for. Spending so much time in Michigan with my grandparents’ photographs has made me contemplate the importance of the historical record. Someone could discover my old journals 100 years from now, and they could be important to them, or more than important. A record of how life was now.

My logbook from Secret is the same way. Even now I look at my nautical log and I’m able to inhabit the space I was in then, understand the weather, the challenges, the sail. I think of this site as a literal web log, a logbook in the truest sense, a record of my thoughts, my movement. I’m tracing my path and recording it in words, words that I hope will be important to someone, even if it’s only my own seventy-year-old self.

I love nostalgia. It’s a feeling no one can quite put in words, an ache that can possess me, overcome me, turn me into another person. It comes on suddenly, when I see backlit photographs, or remember a perfect, incandescent moment from my childhood, or just think of a moment from my past that will never come again. So much of the grief I felt during my grandparents’ funerals was actually nostalgia, a grief for a past forever lost.

I have so much difficulty with the passage of time, accepting that each moment is only here once and then gone forever. Maybe the reason I need to put words on paper, or onto an electronic server, is because it makes me feel like I’m freezing time, that I’m calcifying it at a single moment, like one of those Matrix shots where the camera swoops around the characters as they hover in stillness. Because otherwise we just blink and it’s gone.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Strange dear

Me as an eight-year-old. Yes, this was my constant position.

In an earlier post from back in the day, I talked about the importance of little notebooks, how the record of immediate thoughts allows a writer to flash back in time. Journals are almost time machines, bearing us back into the past, like something from Fitzgerald. I always wanted to be the kind of person who journalled, and now I am—I’ve been keeping stream-of-consciousness notebooks for almost three years now, a habit I developed after Cameron and also as a way to grieve the loss of my boat. Now I have a whole bottom drawer filled with the past, and opening any of those pages allows me to inhabit the space that I lived at a separate moment in time.

In church today I sat behind a girl and her grandmother, and during Prayers of the People Form VI she whipped out her diary (direy, as she spelled it) and began to write. She hid her words from her grandma, but I could read them: “Dear Direy, Nana treats me like a baby. She won’t let me sit with my friend.” I flashed back to when I used to keep a diary with a lock in grade school, and all of the events that traumatized me then but now have dissolved into the past. I have that diary floating around somewhere. I’m so happy I have a record of my eight-year-old thoughts.

One of my favorite Bob Dylan stories is that when he was nineteen, living in Greenwich Village in the sixties, he carried a spiral-bound notebook every where he went. His friends would see him stop, in the middle of the street, on a sidewalk, whip out a pen and jot down whatever he happened to have thought of. I imagine him standing at a streetlight, the crowds moving around and past him, annoyed, while he chews on a pen, lost in thought. There’s so much I admire about him as an artist, and one of the things I most admire is the way he didn’t allow what anyone else thought to bother him, ever. He stole an entire record collection of a friend at the University of Minnesota, because he believed he could make better use of it.

He was so focused on his calling. He knew what he was put on the planet to do, and he let nothing get in his way. Not the folky naysayers or the critics or the people who hated gospel. He followed his own path, no matter the consequences, no matter the cost. He didn’t even give in to embarrassment, which I often feel like is my greatest enemy. He was brave enough to stand on a street corner in a crowd and write. I wonder where his notebooks are now?

I journal, but I’m not always good at tracking those flashes of insight my subconscious sends me throughout the day. I found myself sitting at a stop sign today when a story came, a story that’s now dissolved like a dream. It happens all the time, three or four times a day. I push the stories back where they came from, stuff the ideas down. I don’t want the burden of having to write them. I’m not strong enough for their weight.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Peter, my brother, in Grandpa's garden

When I lived on my boat, I woke up every morning at six AM to listen to the weather on the shortwave. I developed a notation system so I could record every variable reported. How many knots the wind would blow, the swell, the projected systems beyond the ten-day forecast. The weather was a daily, ever-present part of my life.

I remember the first tropical system that reached us. Andrea, she was called. The first named storm of the season. By the time she reached our boat she had dwindled to little more than a line of black clouds. But I remember that line of darkness. I watched them drift forward, a clear system, a line, an identifiable being. This is Andrea, I thought. She menaced on the horizon, a named thing.

She passed, and we had other storms to deal with, none severe, but it was then I figured out a meteorologist’s intimacy with her storms. I understood why they named them. Each system had its own presence, its own being, as if it was, in fact, a created individual.

One of the things I gained on the boat was the equivalent of a university degree in astronomy, meteorology, and marine science—all the ancient nautical arts. That’s not quite true (in fact, I’m rather sure it’s not true at all) but it felt that way. In order to survive, I had to study my texts, listen to the radio, dig through data. If it wasn’t a degree, it was certainly a crash course.

The storm that passed through northern Alabama and Georgia last week had that same gravity. I’ve only seen the barest edge of its passing on my drive, but my friends, the maps, and the photographs all convey that same presence. The storm had its own identity, its own individuality. The destructive force felt personal, as if it came from something with a name.

I don’t know what’s causing all of this horror. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, this tornado, now earthquake clusters along the Maine coast and flooding in the Midwest. One thing follows another, like there’s something seriously off-kilter that needs correcting. Like it’s personal.

The Christians say rapture is near, the scientists say climate change, the Aztecs say the world is ending. I don’t know. I can’t quite believe in any of those answers (I believe in global warming, not that it causes earthquakes), but it does feel like something major is changing in our weather systems. Right? Don’t you feel that way, too? Why aren’t the scientists saying it? There has to be a reason.

Maybe there isn’t. Maybe this is how it’s always been, always will be. Years of peace, followed by years of disaster. The farmers and the sailors both know it. I’ve talked about it before, how both farmers and sailors have the same intimacy with their weather. They hug the weather to themselves, hold it next to their bodies like a lover.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Something isn’t right

Cora and Floyd Jenks, married November 10, 1915

One of the amazing things about the last couple of days has been the giant box of photographs uncovered at my grandmother’s house. I guess a couple of my cousins, maybe my aunt, knew it was there, but I don’t think any of us knew how many of them there were. We’ve discovered letters and photographs from the 1800s, full scrapbooks with handwritten notes, my grandmother’s high school yearbook with all of her friends’ inscriptions. The story that’s captured all of our imagination, though, is that of Cora Douglas and Floyd Jenks.

I grew up hearing the stories about Cora, my grandfather’s mother. She was beautiful, and artistic, and musical. She sang a perfect soprano, and would bail on chores in order to draw pictures in the apple orchard. Looking through the box of photographs, hers is the presence that has come most alive. We’ve found her paintings, and a photo of her with her camera in hand, the baby book she made when her first son was born. She seemed to have thought of herself as a delicate flower, and took pictures of herself and her sisters in elaborate poses.

"The last rose of summer, blooming alone" --Cora's inscription

She and my great-grandfather Floyd were desperately in love. They married when she was twenty and he 24. Under a picture of the rose-strewn bower where they were married, Cora wrote “Where two hearts were made one.” She and Floyd would harmonized together during hymns in church, and moved to their own farm, five miles from her parents. She became pregnant, and named her first baby Douglas, her own maiden name.

Then she became pregnant again, only ten months later, in 1918. She contracted influenza, while pregnant, during the epidemic of 1918, and died only three weeks after my grandfather was born. He always blamed himself for her death, and evidently his father and brother did, too. The baby boys moved back to live with their grandparents, and spent the first five years of their lives being cared for by Agnes, Cora’s older sister. Agnes was eight years older and unmarried, a spinster.

Five years later, Floyd married Agnes, the woman whom my grandfather always called “mother.” She’s the one who made both boys boiled-egg sandwiches, on bread smeared with an inch of lard, every day for lunch before they walked to school. She’s the one who kept the Belding farm together, who made the butter, who cooked and cleaned. She’s the one who had a fifty-inch waist, according to family legend. When I hear farm wife, I think of her.

Floyd couldn’t go to church after Agnes’s death. When he heard the hymns they used to sing together on the radio, tears streamed down his face. When he died, a year after Agnes, he chose to be buried next to Cora.

My grandparents now rest beside Agnes, in a little graveyard beside a potato field, beneath a maple tree. Both women have become real people in my imagination. I imagine they loved each other, and that they both loved the boys. I imagine that Floyd loved both of them in different ways. He loved Cora with youthful fire, with passion. He loved Agnes with the day-to-day love that comes from hard work, and sacrifice, and steady, regular habit. Which is better? I don’t know. Cora remains 24 years old forever in our memories, but Agnes is the one who got a lifetime of contentment and companionship.

Agnes and Floyd, married 1924

Monday, May 02, 2011

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grandma Jenks with two new grandchildren (me on the right, cousin Aaron--twice as big--on the left)

Grandma Jenks died yesterday evening, the day of her husband’s funeral. Emmaline and Gordon Jenks were married 66 years and died within three days of each other. Death is never pretty, but it doesn't get much more perfect, or romantic, than that. It’s fun to do the math—how long would I have to live? How much must one love another person to have that strength of will, a will that holds strong against death?

The family has spent the last 24 hours poring over the box of photographs we brought over from her house, a box filled with photos most of us have never seen—some from as early as 1895. We’re sharing stories, whatever we can remember. My main regret is that we didn’t take the time to record her telling us the stories. If you have grandparents, go right now and ask them. I always thought I’d have time, somehow. Even six months ago would have been soon enough.

This morning I broke down when I found two packages of lemon jello in the cupboard. Last year, she asked me to make a lemon cake for my dad. She said, “He really likes it.” I ran out of time during my visit, though, and finally went to my dad.

“Do you really want me to make some cake?” I asked.

“I never liked that kind,” he said.

So the truth came out. “Does Dad like that cake?” I asked her. “Or is it you who wanted it?”

“I had a bit of a hankering,” she said, bashfully. That was Grandma all over. Unwilling to ask for things for herself, whether for good or for ill. If she had told me, maybe I could have made it earlier.

But I never baked the cake. I left, flew back to Chattanooga or Chicago or Maine, wherever I was headed. I ran out of time. The lemon jello’s still in the cupboard.

I’m happy we have a record. The pictures, and each other. Our memories. I grieved yesterday, but today I’m joyful. She’s not in pain. She doesn’t need morphine. She’s gone, but so is her cancer.

Grandma and Grandpa Jenks. Happy.