Sermon from Within the Glass: On Infertility and Revelation

I walk down Sugar Land city center’s main street, Mama, Trip, and Graham–my 1 1/2 year old son–just behind me.  Trip’s guiding the stroller which has become more of a storage device to hump bags and water bottles than the baby throne it’s meant to be.  Other people joined teams, designed t-shirts, walked with their fertility doctors.  We’re new at this, and the older woman manning the white registration tent apologizes in a deep drawl that she can only offer us one t-shirt: Walk of Hope, it reads in blue and yellow block letters, because no one with infertility should walk alone.

A year ago, two years ago, I would never have done this.  My participation in a public walk would have concretized a truth about which I felt deep shame and despondence, and the same fear that had me decline the offer of a support group, would have had me reject “belonging” to a group of people I did NOT want to identify with at all.

Now, on the first Sunday of National Infertility Awareness Week, I see women in shirts with slogans like “One Goal, Two Lines” (as in the two lines on a pregnancy test that mean yes! yes!) or “HOPE” wherein the O is replaced with a pink heart.  There are also couples with no strollers, no smiles, a few women who swipe mascara from beneath their eyes–they’re still in the thick of it, childless, and I have trouble meeting their eyes and feel no small amount of horror when Graham grabs one of their calves, mistaking it from his tiny height for mine.  All around us booths announce their sponsorships from brand name pharmaceuticals to acupuncturists to hospitals.  Everything smacks of revival meeting: the testimonials, the loopy exerts of scripture passages across backs, the balloon release of bright orange “prayers” into a gunmetal grey and yellowing sky.  As if we’re all a little touched.

The religious subtext unnerves me.  It’s so confusing to me, how quickly everyone adopts the language of church when the science of infertility and its availability to women is still endangered by a political culture whose God would have us settle for prayer as our only medicine. Not that I don’t believe in prayer–I do, very much.  But I could write a million pages about the bioethics of infertility treatment, an entire tome of righteously indignant sermons about how we’ve turned the medical problem of infertility into a moral problem.

I don’t want to do that today.  Today, as we start walking across cobblestone that causes my son–a new walker–to lose his stepping now and again, I’m thinking about glass.

IVF is the acronym for in vitro fertilization.  In vitro, in Latin, means “within the glass.”  The glass is the problem for some people.  That fertilization might occur outside a woman’s body, at the hands of doctors and scientists, strikes some people as sacrilegious, as humans playing God.

They’ve missed the point.  There are only two places in the Vulgate–the Latin version of the Holy Bible–that use the word vitro.  Once in Proverbs in a line that warns against excessive drinking.  Then again in Revelations when the angel reveals to John the Holy City, the glorious new Jerusalem where all shall reside in the coming kingdom.  Its walls, John says, “were made of jasper,” the “great street of the city was of pure gold, pure as transparent glass.”

et platea civitatis aurum mundum tamquam vitrum perlucidum

The great street of the city was as transparent as glass, God in all her glory, visible, knowable, finally and fully clear in vitro.

Of course, we don’t live in the new Jerusalem, and what John recounts is called a “revelation” for a reason.  Revelations by definition are small moments of disclosure, whispers, slits in the blinds that paint thin streaks of light across a dark floor and only hint at the full morning. Revelations often arrive in the form of dreams or visions, in moments where our human consciousness bleeds its edges.  In Luke’s Gospel, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has a revelation when Gabriel assures her in a dream of the possibility of Jesus’ birth through her body by reminding her that God cured the infertility of Elizabeth, her cousin and mother of John the Baptist.

I first saw my son within the glass.  Minutes before the transfer procedure, minutes I spent as if in a dream, Dr. Schenk projected Graham’s image onto the wall of the operating room.  In his glass house, his five cells shivered and spoke.  A light so slim and golden.

Most mothers–most people–will never see such a thing.  They will never witness the miracle of reproduction through transparent glass.  Science has revelatory power.  Galileo knew it.  Darwin too.  It does not close the door to faith; it punctures the dense wood of doubt.

I’m not saying infertile women are somehow more holy than other women, or that our medical condition trumps much more severe diagnoses, or that illness itself is holy, except in the sense that the poet Mark Doty writes: illness is torturous but “nonetheless it reveals more of what things are.”

And here we are.  A group of women of every skin color, size, and religious background connected only by our diagnosis of infertility and the people who love us most, our husbands and wives, our mothers, our doctors, not quite enough of our children.  We’re walking down a street as mundane as any across America, its pragmatic hems stitched with chain stores and waffle joints, but I hear the faint bell-like music of so many clinking heels on glass as we move through this new city of our shared vision.

Amen.

 

#startasking

 

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Sermon for Bodies

Confession: for over 25 years I’ve hated my body.  Or, what I mean is, I’ve wanted my body to be different.  Or, what I mean is, even while proclaiming feminism from the hilltops, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t fret over food or let the word “fat” manspread all over the subway car of my skull or the last time I caught my own reflection in a mirror or thick-paned window and resisted the urge to perform a quick look-test.  I can’t remember the last time I passed that test.

I’m not anorexic or even abnormally obsessed.  I’m an American woman, and, therefore, a woman at war in and for her body.

I’m always thinking about bodies–coveting them, judging them, assessing them, admiring them, worrying about them–but lately I’ve been thinking about them more.  For one thing, writers I love are decrying the the decimation of the black body.  Just today, Claudia Rankine wrote in the New York Times Magazine about the magnificent Serena Williams:

“Imagine that you have to contend with critiques of your body that perpetuate racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive. Imagine being asked to comment at a news conference before a tournament because the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has described you and your sister as ‘‘brothers’’ who are ‘‘scary’’ to look at. Imagine.”

And as Ta Nehesi Coates argues, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” a tradition so naturalized we rarely see the destruction except at its most pronounced.  Trayvon.  Sandra.  Serena.  I know these writers speak the truth, but as I’m not black, I must try to imagine, what does it mean to live inside a vulnerable body, a body that by simple virtue of its being might be a dangerous container?

We can’t, of course, imagine our way into a type of oppression we don’t experience.  We can, however, imagine our way close to it, and we must.  I don’t know, except in an intellectual way, what it is to live in a black woman’s body in this nation and I don’t see the police cruisers that roll through the neighborhood streets that map a black man’s psyche.  What I do understand–and what can bring me into at least an outer circle of understanding–is the experience of living in a compromised body, a body that won’t do or be what the world expects it to be, and a body that cannot fence out every gaze or break through every assumption.  What I do understand is that the world might deny certain people the shelter of their own skeleton and skin.

In a dangerous world, to love one’s body in the face of its threatened destruction is a radical act.  When I was struggling with infertility, I began to believe that my body was broken, that it lacked value since it could not make me what–the world tells us in various ways–a woman is meant to be.  Much in the way a black body might impede one’s ability to live inside a dignified, safe body in a society that assigns more value to whiteness, a body that cannot produce children might impede my body from basic dignity in a society that defines motherhood as a condition of real womanhood.  Infertility is nowhere near as widespread or brutal as racism, and blackness is not a medical condition–I don’t mean to imply that–but the various ways our bodies get coded have real implications for our lives.  Likewise, the female body in general, because it has for so long been assigned value only by what it offers to men, might leave me feeling…well…homeless.

But what really sent me down the body rabbit hole this week was the verdict in the Owen Labrie rape case. The St. Paul’s boarding school student was accused of raping a minor female student.  She gave the longest testimony.  In addition to her testimony, several of Labrie’s friends–boys–testified that he bragged about sex with her, and they read text messages aloud to the court in which Labrie used the language of conquest and violence to detail his encounter with the accuser.  Over her voice and theirs, the jury cited lack of evidence and acquitted him of the most serious charges.  After I read the verdict in the paper, I went to my Saturday morning yoga class, a class I try never to miss.  My teacher said to us, “The body changes the mind, the mind changes behavior, and behavior changes outcomes. We have to start in the body.”

I’ve been thinking about that nameless girl.  About how badly I want her to love her body, and about the lifelong battle such loving will likely cost her.  Once, my husband said to me, “Instead of thinking of your body as infertile, and, therefore, disabled, why don’t you think about what it did–how it was strong enough to handle all those shots, all those drugs, all those surgeries?”  Why don’t I think about how it peeled itself off the floor and put its fists up like even our endangered bodies do, claiming and carrying the heavy mantle, how it achieved the unlikely and unthinkable?

I want to say to that brave girl who used her voice in court, a voice which must rise up through the body’s valleys and deep gorges, “Look what your body did.  It survived.  It spoke too. What an amazing body it must be.  Imagine.”

Wendell Berry wrote, “There is no unsacred place.  Only sacred places, and desecrated places.”

I’m 38 years old and I’m tired of the desecration.  Of other bodies.  Of my own.  I’m tired of participating–wittingly or unwittingly–in that desecration when I was invited at birth inside the sacred.

All day long I pass windows and mirrors, and my own body stares back at me.  And the body of live oak trees, and old bungalows, and dogs, and redbirds, and strangers.  What I see there has to be enough.

Enough.

Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on the Nature of Prayer

“I will pray for you,” the mother says to her lost son.

“You’re in my prayers,” says the funeral attendee to the grief-stricken relative.

“Pray for me,” the frightened hero says to his love interest.

Lately, I’m not prone to turning down prayers from strangers or loved ones.  You want to pray for me, go ahead.  Your prayers certainly won’t hurt me, if they don’t necessarily help.  The world never suffers from more kindness.

But sometimes the statement “I will pray for you” falls flat.  I can almost see it die somewhere between the speaker’s mouth and my ear cavity.  Or, it’s so vaporous, so full of casual levity, that the wind catches it as soon as it exhales into air.

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of prayer–what is it, exactly?

“I will pray for you” is an active statement.  I, subject.  Will pray, verb.  Direct object, you.  As a statement it also implies that the speaker will create something–the prayer–as though our bodies can conjure up a physical, produceable thing with shape and form and then offer it to God.  Here, God, I made you this prayer. 

The syntax implies that we provide the contents and God the vessel for them.

What if prayer works the other way around?

Mother Theresa once said, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

Similarly, Ghandi said, “Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is a daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Both of those quotes evoke emptiness, a void, a lack of words or desires, and turn the person who prays into the vessel for God’s grace.  What is longing if not a chasm?  And if the goal of prayer is not to request or complain or beg, if we are not the subject but the object, not the giver but the receiver, and in prayer we hollow ourselves before God, then prayer must be intensely personal and private.  I could no more do it for someone else than I could peel back their scalp and read their thoughts.

Prayer is not purpose-driven, but instead a motion toward the most sublime passivity.  And in that sense, it strikes me as essentially feminine in nature.

For example, one synonym of empty or hollow is barren.  

Prayer is an emptying out, an act of becoming the vacancy, the womb, into which the seed of God’s grace implants itself and grows into a thing we could not have conceived of on our own, and is never what we ask for or expect, a thing that we carry, a wondrous thing that sails through us, but is not of us.

When I understand prayer this way, I feel more comforted lately than when I imagine prayers said for me dissipating as they aim upward with their flimsy wings.

Sylvia Plath–less virtuous and well-adjusted perhaps than Mother Theresa or Ghandi, but nevertheless a mentor for me–said, “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”

May I be that empty sky and God talk to me.

Amen.

Sermon for Red Shoes

(I’m doing a special guest post as part of Fashion Fridays at my friend’s beautiful blog, Sappho’s Torque.)

review_redshoes
From the 1948 film, “The Red Shoes”

When I was in seventh grade, Charlie Chavez asked me to be his date to the homecoming dance.  We attended T.H. Rogers, a public school in Houston for “gifted and talented” kids, all bused in from neighborhoods as diverse and far away from each other geographically and culturally as Denver Harbor, Bellaire, and Third Ward.  Charlie lived in Sharpstown.  His single mother arrived with him to pick me up from my aunt’s townhouse on the Southwest side the night of the dance.

My aunt Julie, my mother’s youngest sister, served as my babysitter and personal style consultant during my pre-teen years.  For one thing, she was much younger than my mother.  For another, she actually cared about things like hemlines and hair accessories whereas my mother, a lifelong athlete, generally lived in sneakers and workout gear.  She rarely wore make-up (or needed it).  So she gave her younger sister the green light to help me prepare for my date with Charlie with the caveat that I wear something age and pocketbook appropriate.

Let me say this by way of confession: I wasn’t getting dolled up for Charlie, bless his heart, who in seventh grade barely reached 5’0’’ tall and whose crush on me showed so blatantly on his face and in his folded-up notes passed by various peers to me in homeroom that it embarrassed me.  I was dressing up for myself, for the world, for my own budding body that I could feel moving into womanhood the way animals sense earthquakes long before they crack the earth open.  And I was getting dolled up for Abassi Parker, an 8th grader and star basketball player on our little school’s team.  I just knew that if my Aunt Julie and I could find the perfect dress for me at 5-7-9 or Foley’s that Abassi might fall in love with me back.

I still remember the dress.  White with a print of tiny, navy blue flowers scattered about its bodice and the three shallow tiers of skirt so typical of eighties wear.  The dress mattered less to me than the accessories, though.  Julie taught me that day in the mall about the importance of a contrast color.   Under the fluorescent lights in a Claire’s boutique, she insisted on red.  Red would perfectly offset the blue and white dress and give me a dash of daring.  Red earrings, red bracelet, red shoes.

Red. Shoes.

Long story short, Abassi Parker did not fall in love with me at the dance, but my outfit did solidify Charlie’s crush on me so that he had the nerve to buy me tickets to The New Kids on the Block concert and leave them in my locker with a half-eaten box of chocolates for my birthday the following February.  And another more enduring love affair was born that night—my own, with red shoes.

Every woman should own a pair of red shoes.

In Western consciousness, the color red has historically pointed to a woman’s promiscuousness and sinful nature.  In Revelations, a harlot appears atop a red beast, carrying in her hand the cup of Babylon.  Revelations 17:4 reads “ And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”

Yikes.

We all know too of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, the deep red A marking her as an adulteress deserving of exile and castigation.

Red shoes have occasionally shed their shameful history in our cultural consciousness.  Witness Dorothy’s ruby slippers, for example.  But even in that less sexualized version of the red shoe, the slippers work as a symbol of Dorothy’s ability to save herself.  Traveling to Oz, she sought outside help to get home.  Meanwhile, the solution she really needed the whole time would not come from the outside.  The magic elixir, quite literally, carried her body toward the mysterious Oz, and eventually, it carried her back to Kansas.

Perhaps that’s the allure of red as an accessory even in our more tolerant times.  Red hints at something disobedient or powerful in a woman; red is a cheeky emblem of a woman’s inner grit and moxie.   Even as a twelve-year-old girl I intuited that wearing red on my feet meant I would walk into a room on my own terms.

If you ever want to feel your womanhood in all its glory, buy a pair of red shoes and, while you’re getting dressed for the occasion, play David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on high volume.   It’s one of the sexiest songs ever, especially when the singer pleads:

If you say run, I’ll run with you

If you say hide, we’ll hide

Because my love for you

Would break my heart in two

If your should fall

Into my arms

And tremble like a flower

Let’s dance

Put on your red shoes

And dance the blues.

If you don’t have red shoes, red works in other accessories as well—red lipstick is never a bad bet.   It’s the nod toward audaciousness that matters. Go ahead, red says, I dare you.

The best explanation of the power of red that I’ve ever encountered occurs in poetry, specifically, in Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?”:

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Poor Charlie Chavez.  He never had a chance.  He could not have understood the powerful thing born in me that day that had nothing to do with boys.

For you, dear readers, here are of a few of this year’s best versions of the red shoe, in my humble and heavily biased opinion:

 Seychelles American Flag Wedge

Frye Oxford Wingtip in Rose

Savannah Clog in Red from Swedish Hasbeens

and, of course, Wendy Davis’ sneakers.

Amen.

Apophatic Sermon

apophatic, adj., from the ancient Greek “to deny”–of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what he is not, also referred to as negative theology

God is not negative; not the void from which rise our birth cries; not the deathbed bequest;  not a hole-puncher in the ballot box; not the vertiginous mountain top or any purple majesty; not leagues or the leviathans that flirt with tidal forces; not the missed pill all alone inside a Tuesday on the pharmaceutical calendar; not the mobile that hangs like a Kandinsky painting escaped from its canvas above my bed in the doctor’s office; not a doctor; not, unfortunately, the serratus anterior muscle; not a car seat or a seat belt or a speed limit; not the innermost layer of the earth; not Ursa Minor; not a virgin; not Whitney Houston’s power notes or Shakespeare’s poetry; not the scars in the wood grain; not the splinters, not the pulp, not the cross timber; not the cross’s timbre; not phonemes or logos; not the note I keep folded up from 10th grade nor its ball-point roses; not this liturgy; not this litany; not the dimple in my left butt cheek nor the birthmark on my left arm; not evil; not a status update; not the philosophers’ weary sigh; not a flock of pre-teens wearing new sneakers; not a logical fallacy; not logical; not a matter for reasoning maybe; not a father or a son; not masculine, or not a man anyway; not a rod; not a rocket booster or launch pad; not kale; not the dry quiet in my grandmother’s house corners; not the string coursing through a strand of pearls; not the book’s spine, not sans-serif; not yours and not mine; not made in our image; not supersize; not self-help; not the single gasp inside a stadium of gasping; not for sissies; not gone; not this blood flow; not “shining from shook foil”; not the bodies that lay in my bed, the dog shedding, the broad back bending into dreams; not a highway; not this overgrown road; not a cumulus cloud like a tumor at noon; not an end mark but not a dash or ellipsis either; not a sentence; not this sentence; not circuitry systems or a click-click-click of the fingertips; not inside our hungry guts; not of or from or above or beyond; not a murmur or sharp steeple; not a pigeon pose or a dirty winging of joints from their bones; not teeth-chatter or small pox; not old; not a language I know; not a phrase I can thread with words unspooling from all that knotted nothing; not signifier nor signified; not my ilioinguinal light or the blindness in my inner thighs; not tonight or tomorrow; not now; not ever; or–I’m so very afraid–not ever not.

Sermon Against Happiness

Seven years ago, I traveled to Africa to visit my brother.  I flew into Nairobi via London and hoped he’d show at the airport, because I didn’t have a backup plan.  I didn’t know any hotels in Nairobi.  I didn’t have an address for my brother across the Kenyan border in Arusha, Tanzania.  I was alone and unprepared, really, for a new continent.  He showed.

Together we flew from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, and from Dar we caught a ferry to the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa.  When we landed in Zanzibar, we took a two hour bus ride over a road with more pot holes than pavement or dirt with trees on either side that almost masked Osama Bin Laden’s face lauded on tiny flags perched atop the sporadic huts.   We finally arrived, covered in dust and travel sweat, at the beach.

My brother’s friends, other interns at the ICTR (The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), had already arrived through various paths to the resort. They planned the vacation together—a whole week away from witness statements and legalese, away from the horror of history.  In many ways, my parents sent me to Africa as the family ambassador: I was meant to negotiate with my brother to discover how he was holding up against the aftermath of genocide.

Zanzibar is still the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve gotten around some.  After emerging from my mosquito net into the sand my first morning, I wrote in my journal:

The sky is solid blue–no scratch of white, no grey scars.  Sweat accumulates between my shoulder blades and dirt appears as if from nowhere on my suitcase, my pant leg, in the crevices of my fingernails.  At the bungalows a small, wrinkled man registered us into Room 203–he only smiled once and not at us, at a small native boy with gapped teeth.  A wood staircase leads to the beachside restaurant and the water.  This is what strikes me most: turquoise water which fades to a slate gray in the distance.  It is as though I have entered a palate of blues.  My insides curl and my chest heaves to behold it.  I am never prepared for this kind of natural beauty; I have not been properly prepared for it.  I am frightened, and my instinct, sadly, is to look away as though window shopping and search for the next grand thing.  I try hard to continue staring water-ward, but it pains me, this power, this (silence), so much more voluminous than myself.

Back here in Houston, in 2013, I live in a much different space and time.  I have a retirement plan and a dog.  A house on my stroller-infested block sold yesterday for $900,000.  I’ve been thinking about that journal entry, though.  A lot.  Because here in 2013, on the other side of the Atlantic and far from the girl who might fly to another country without currency or a travel guide, I have everything that should make me happy.

Yesterday I cried outside the gym.  I sounded ridiculous, but I asked my husband, “Is this it?  I have to go to the gym everyday?  I have to live with treadmills and rubber doorstops and leaf blowers and Ziploc bags and left turn lanes?  And I have to go to the grocery store?  And I have to answer emails?  I just.  I can’t.”

First world problems, right?  Only something more serious is going on for me.  I’m not hormonal and I’m not a brat, mostly.  Instead, something about the modern world’s expectations for me–an educated, financially stable, middle-aged, married woman–causes me an ungodly amount of anxiety and my bereft spirit has lately refused to cooperate.  I am actually physically incapable of grinning and bearing it, at least without prescription medication.

Something about the “American Dream”–oppressive illusion–not only disguises, but actively prohibits spiritual wholeness.  The “American Dream” tells us to be happy, and happiness is that place where you can turn on Netflix and feel contently complacent.   Happiness is a reasonable mortgage payment and a 10% tithe every week, a numbing and dulling of the heart’s aches and desires.

We are so quick, in our striving for happiness, to medicate and problem-solve.  We have Xanax and Sisco.  Meanwhile the soul rebels.  The soul requires shitstorms.  It lives and breathes on struggle.  This is not to say that we should romanticize suffering.  I love Wendell Berry’s lines with regard to happiness:

Why all the embarrassment
about being happy?
Sometimes I’m as happy
as a sleeping dog,
and for the same reasons,
and for others.

Berry would be the last person, despite this plea toward zen-like being, to condone complacency.  No.   We, however, have this idea that happiness is the absence of pain, but I’m beginning to suspect that real happiness hurts.   Or rather, I’m beginning to suspect that our lives aren’t meant to be a journey toward self-improvement and happiness as the modern world typically defines those abstractions, and that, in fact, if we could reach out and grab happiness it would burn straight through our flimsy skins.

Imagine that the Jewish mystics are right and that God is a vast light broken into shards across the earth so that each little dark thing has a speck inside it that glistens.  We can’t even look with our bare eyes into the solar system’s round sun.  How would we ever, in this world and in these bodies, be able to see the full light of God?  That much happiness would scorch and blind us.

St. Augustine wrote that “man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”  I used to read that line as a reprimand about certain lifestyles.  I would try to imagine what other way I should live so as to make happiness possible.  But I missed his point.  The problem with man in Augustine’s sentence is not how he lives.  The problem lies in the first clause: man wishes to be happy.  It’s the wrong wish.  Or wishing is wrong, period.

On the island of Zanzibar in the year of our Lord 2006, my brother cried sometimes.  He told me a story on New Year’s Eve about a Hutu priest who offered hundreds of Tutsi people sanctuary inside his church.  When they all got inside, he burned the church down.  We drank our beers and walked to the water’s edge.  My brother said, “I can’t even drink enough to feel drunk.”  He was, in this sense, too alive for numbness, to0 scraped up for anesthesia.  It hurt to look at the water, to try and behold that breadth of beauty in the place we stood.  We could not have contained all the ocean inside the weak vessels of our human bodies.

We must have sensed the blasphemy of grasping at happiness in the shadow of such a horror story.   But faces seaward and suffused with sorrow, we also recognized happiness as something real and true.

Just beyond us.

Amen.

Sermon for Clarice Starling

Recognize any of the following names?

Kay Scarpetta.  Sarah Linden.  Robin Griffin.  Stella Gibson.  Olivia Benson.  Jane Tennison.

No?   How about this one?

Clarice Starling.

I was eleven years old in 1991 when The Silence of the Lambs opened in theaters.   Jodie Foster’s doe-eyed, frail-framed, FBI agent-in-training heroine and her sadistic counterpart, Hannibal Lector, captivated the nation.  Consider me one of the enchanted.  Every other psychological thriller I’d ever seen (not that I’d seen many) centered around a male anti-hero, usually a prickly, rough and tumble type who played by his own rules and brooded almost as well he beat up criminals, but who possessed some modicum of moral integrity way down deep in his alcoholic soul.  Or, I’d seen the quirky, somewhat hapless but charming detective, the Jim Rockford.  Enter Clarice Starling into the mix, a strange blend of fragile and fierce, of female empathy and intuition and male pragmatism, a protagonist so compelling even the cannibal rooted for her to find the serial killer and save the girl.

Save the girl the girl detective did.  Who can forget that final chase scene?  Clarice pointing her gun wildly into the dark cellar, blind and breathing shallowly.  The killer behind her in infrared goggles and no shirt reaching out to brush her hair with his fingers.  The click of his gun cocking, her quick, wide-eyed 180, the blast after blast after blast of her weapon firing into his face.   I still cover my eyes, and I’ve seen the film too many times to count.

The girl saves the girl.  Finally.

I recently confessed to my friend’s husband that I have been obsessively consuming crime thrillers on Netflix and Hulu.  I binge watched AMC’s The Killing, then I binge watched The Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake, then I binge watched the BBC’s The Fall.  I’ve already scene every episode of Law and Order SVU.

He pulled his chin in toward his neck and said, “Ugh.  The most violent, horrific, upsetting stuff on TV.”

Game of Thrones notwithstanding, he’s right.  Often, I can’t sleep at night after indulging in one too many episodes.  But still I come back for seconds and thirds.  I’ve always eaten up the books and television shows and films that go deep into the darkest places of the human psyche and its physical enactments of terror.

Why?  I think the trick is in the girl saving the girl thing.

I’m drawn to the female detectives most as though Clarice Starling spawned something by depositing her little crime thriller eggs into my young psychic sea.  In the past, and even now when I watch more current crime thrillers, I could only see myself reflected in the victim–almost always a young, attractive woman and almost always coveted by the killer for her perceived sexual or intellectual power over him.   I was the victim in all those old versions, and I had to wait for a man to save me.

The delicious complication in a murder story where a female plays the lead–the thing that keeps me at the dinner table–is that I get to see myself reflected as both victim and savior.

As a potential victim, I have another woman on my side, investigating usually by studying character and trusting intuition in direct contrast to the deductive reasoning made so popular by Sherlock Holmes.  She sacrifices to save me–she sacrifices her respect, her relationships, her body (it’s no wonder, really, that it took so long for women to be written into these roles since, at least historically in fiction, they’re so good at self-sacrifice).  And my savior, while usually solving the case, remains helpless to salve any wounds.  Justice she achieves, but she cannot save anyone from the wreckage of trauma, even herself.

What I mean is: I save me.  I even have the right name for the job.  Casey Fleming.  Clarice Starling.  Sarah Linden.  Notice that all these names are trochaic, four syllables.

And I don’t know.  It’s oddly reassuring to me how completely messed up these ladies always seem to be even while we, the audience, trust them to keep going, keep thinking, keep pushing until they’ve solved the case and, hopefully, saved the girl.

It means no matter how messed up I get, no matter how many times my superior takes my badge and weapon from me, I can still save myself, no gun needed, just my moxie and my smarts.

In the female detective’s spiritual world, she lives haunted by the victims and the victims are disproportionately women and children, not the lions but the screaming lambs of God.

In our spiritual world we so often assign a gender to our saviors.  Father.  Son.  Man.  In our spiritual world patriarchy still provides so much of the subtext.  In our spiritual world we tend to leave women two options–virgin or whore, both roles that leave us ripe for victimhood.  In our spiritual world  the mere fact of my femaleness means I have little agency in front of evil.

In that kind of spiritual world where I occasionally feel trapped, maybe a broken and hellbent lady cop is just what the doctor ordered.

Or maybe I should try sitcoms.

Amen.

PS Of all the shows I’ve devoured recently, Top of the Lake is best.  Jane Campion, queen.

Clarice Starlingsarah-linden-photototl_rgriffin_535x320tumblr_mms7dmfmhp1rkrwmdo10_1280

Sermon for Brokenness

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I drink to separate my body from my soul.”  He would not be the only one to try such a futile endeavor, to think she might unshackle her soul from the body’s cage with magical key-shaped elixirs, to think, erroneously, that the cage and the prisoner are two different things.

It’s one thing to believe in mind-body-spirit connectedness when you possess a healthy, young body.

But imagine you have a body that really feels like a cage–a body with a horrible or chronic disease like ALS or Cystic Fibrosis, or a body that doesn’t suit the norms of beauty, or an infertile body.  Then, you’d like nothing more than to cleave your soul from its fickle sinew.  Your body feels like a betrayal, a jailhouse instead of a home.  It can make you angry.

For example, if you can’t translate the following sentence into standard English without help, then I don’t want to talk to you about my body and I don’t want your illiterate platitudes:

The AVG DPO for a BFP is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a BFP may include increased CM and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of AF, so your DH may have to remain sensitive during the TTW, and you may get a false BFN because your HCG levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a FRER. 

But if you’re trying to have a baby, like me, you’re fluent in the language of neurosis and can play translator without batting an eyelid:

The average day past ovulation for a Big Fat Positive is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a Big Fat Positive may include increased cervical mucus and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of Aunt Flow, so your Dear Hubby may have to remain sensitive during the Two Week Wait, and you may get a false Big Fat Negative because your human chorionic gonadotropin levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a First Response Early Response pregnancy test. 

And still, you may have the words and not the meaning.  You may not know there exists an entire culture of women who speak this language to each other, that use acronyms both as a form of intimacy and a form of shame and silence.  You may not know that the preoccupation with a body that’s not working the way you want it to work, and its relentless chatter in the form of aches and pains and ghost symptoms, can be one of the most soul-killing experiences a human might endure.

Sometimes I want to unzip my spirit from its skin, like a dirty dress that I’ve worn to too many events in the same week.  More often, though, I have the opposite and counter-intuitive reaction: I want to keep wearing that dress until the stench and lint and sweat stains mirror what they clothe.

What’s this got to do with God?  Well, don’t worry–I’m not going to talk about those Old Testament matriarchs who suffered so mightily from infertility they offered their aged husbands Egyptian concubines only to have God grant them a baby in their 90s or something absurd like that.  Those myths have their magic, but they irritate you when you want a baby yourself because science shows I don’t have until my 90s, God or IVF nonwithstanding. The only thing I like about any of the stories is the moment Sarah laughs at the prophets who foresee Isaac.  I like to imagine she scoffs more than giggles.  Like, “Yeah, right, Yahweh.”

No, I’m going to talk about poets, specifically Christian Wiman and Mark Doty.  The former suffered from bone cancer, the latter the death of his partner from AIDS.  The body is familiar if painful territory for both men.

And then I’ll talk about the incarnate word, spirit made flesh in the form of Jesus.

The title poem to Wiman’s most recent book of poetry speaks to the broken body, or, rather, the brokenness of all things earthly.  I admire most its form, how well it responds to the poem’s content–the repeated line, broken in various ways until its last utterance when it is no longer riven but whole, without the fractures and sprains of commas or dashes:

Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

 

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where

 

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

 

Christian Wiman, from Every Riven Thing (2010).

And I’m thinking of the prologue to Mark Doty’s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, where he re-positions a childhood memory into the most breathtaking metaphor:

In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities and architectures revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, “futuristic”–a strange word which suggests, accurately, that these colors had something of the world to come about them. Of course there wasn’t any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation revealed a secret aspect of the world.

Imagine illness as that light: demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant when we speculate that death is what makes love possible. Not that things need to be able to die in order for us to love them, but that things need to die in order for us to know what they are. Could we really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying? The button pushed, the stones shine, all mystery and beauty, implacable, fierce, austere.

Imagine illness as that light.

Imagine our bodies, healthy or sick or momentarily struggling, as the light of God.

Imagine we might need affliction to illuminate our souls.  (know, in this imagining, the unfairness of such a reality on some, truly sick people)

Imagine we could not have a soul without a body.

Imagine the necessity of Jesus’ human body.

Then the body cannot be a shade of shame or a thing to denounce.  Then the body cannot be a cage, and drinking, dear Oscar Wilde, might be more for marrying our bodies to our souls than separating them.  Then the body has no use for a language of signs and signals and acronyms.

The flesh is the word, the word is the flesh.

Even, and especially, when the flesh is broken.

 

Amen.

Sermon for Barney

“I was talking to Barney the other day,” I said to my students one Tuesday morning.

“Who’s Barney?” they asked.

“Barney the Homeless Guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

One of my students–an eternally nerve-ridden young man, an eager hand-raiser with noticeably pronated feet–opened his mouth a little.

“Um,” he said.

I waited.

“You know the homeless guy’s name?  Why?”

Why indeed.  Why do I know Barney’s name?  I wish I could say I had the manners to ask him his name since I see him at least twice a week, but no, I can’t take credit for any such appreciation for his dignity.  My friend and former roommate, a woman with more moral fortitude than me when it comes to strangers, befriended Barney a few years ago when she worked at the local coffee shop.

Barney scares people.  He usually works the corner where our neighborhood dead ends into the Interstate.  Unlike other homeless people, he doesn’t sit with a cardboard sign or come at your windshield with a spray bottle and rag.  Barney storms right up to your driver-side window, his drug-pocked and sun-scraped face inches from the glass, and then turns his hands up in the air and squints his eyes as if he’s saying, “Come on, man.  What’s your f-cking problem?”  When the driver doesn’t acknowledge his begging, he often throws down his arms and walks away shaking his head; he looks seriously pissed off.  Plus, he’s got this shock of reddish hair that, unwashed, lifts up from his scalp like a Troll Doll.  If you didn’t know him, you’d be terrified.  I’ve seen people roll into the U-turn lane at the last second to avoid dealing with him.

But at his core, Barney is harmless.  The last time I saw him, my husband rolled down the window to apologize that we didn’t have any change on us, and Barney smiled and said, “No problem.  Have a nice day.”  He really likes our dog.  He really likes dogs, period.  Dogs are more generous with their affection than humans, after all.

My student’s question–You know his name?–has festered inside me this week,  my student’s horror that I might be intimately acquainted with a person of ill-repute, even if said person’s reputation comes from his housing status and not any really criminal behavior.

That student sits next to another student, a girl, who once argued in class that we should give homeless people Bible verses instead of money because, for one thing, they need Jesus more than money, and for another thing, they would use the money for untoward purposes anyway.  She didn’t use the word untoward; she used the words “crack or something.”

Let me offer a quick qualifier: my students are 13 or 14 years old and I’m not sure they need to ask people who scare them for their names.  I’m sure their parents have warned them about dangerous adults.  And, they’re of the uber-privileged variety, my kiddos.  They can’t and don’t want to imagine that good people might fall on bad times.  They can’t imagine about the homeless man, for example, who told a social worker I know that his wife died and he “just crawled inside a bottle and never came out.”

Mostly, though, my students and many of their adult counterparts in neighborhoods all over this country have not suffered enough yet to know the cruelty of handing a hungry man a Bible verse instead of food or money, the sadistic condescension in thinking that they know what the homeless person will spend his money on or that they should have any opinion on the matter at all.

Kindness requires empathy, and empathy blooms out of the dark earth of suffering.  I’m thinking in particular of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

 

You must see how this could be you.  Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.

Barney is scary, but he’s our scary.  I mean, my neighborhood belongs to him as much as it belongs to me.  In fact, he arrived before I did.  I should know his name.  I should take care of him.  I should enact those Bible verses I carry inside me rather than handing them out as counterfeit grace.

I worry less about those afternoons when I recognize Barney under the highway’s long shadow than about the day I stop seeing him there.  And I should.

Amen.

Sermon for a Girl in Steubenville, Ohio

Lord, have mercy.

I’ve been following the rape trial of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio who has accused two football players of  “digital penetration.”  In Ohio, as in some other states, the legal definition of rape includes penetration with fingers, or other foreign objects.  Yesterday, this 16 year old girl testified for two hours about what she doesn’t remember from that night and the social media shit-storm (a video the boys posted to YouTube of her naked in a basement, etc.) that she used to piece together what happened to her.  

I was struck by two things:

1. We all have to piece together our trauma, refracted as it is by the mishappen glass of our memories. 

2. The New York Times writes: “Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond were rising stars in the football program, and some Steubenville residents have complained about a culture that protects the team. Others say the girl, her supporters and the news media have blown the episode out of proportion.” Have blown the episode out of proportion.  My heart feels its fault lines move.  

I have been this girl.  I am this girl.  

Instead of completing this post, I want to include an memoir piece I wrote years ago, first published in the literary journal, Fourth Genre, in the spring of 2007.  It’s much longer than a blog post, but if you’d like to read it, I’ll embed the text here for you.  Please keep in mind that I subscribe to Tim O’Brien’s idea: I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.  

These things happened to me.  But I love my friends and family, so some of the characters are composites, some things omitted, some things blurred.  

I offer this to her, that girl in Steubenville.  Brave girl. 


Amen.

 

Take Me With You

 

by Casey Fleming

 

If I could tell this story as my former self I would. If I could tell it in your words. But I can’t. I hardly know you anymore. I hardly know the place you come from, the place you live, the place I loved once. If I could tell the truth, I would do that too.This is my truth—not yours.You would have kicked and screamed at some of the things I will say about you and your native home, about your parents. No, you were not a screamer.You would have grieved quietly, and alone, as usual.You might have—maybe—written an enigmatic sentence or two in your journal and then laid your head down for a restless sleep.

What haunt me are the things you will never know.You will never know that the woman I am now wants to tell you, it’s okay, you’re okay. I need you to believe me. 

**

Houston. September, 1992. The football boys were already lined up around the edge of the pool, their feet dangling in the water, splashes shattering into the air like fireworks. They were a happy bunch. Rachel hissed into your ear, Oh, GOD, this is going to be embarrassing. Look, look. Mike is right in front of the diving board! Rachel let out a squeal that annoyed you. It seemed childish, and on this day you wanted to be anything but a child.

Your new bathing suit had padded lining, so your boobs, at least at first glance, appeared to stick out further than your rib cage. You tugged at the elastic edges, already self-conscious about having a significantly larger back- side than other 15-year-old girls. Only three weeks earlier Joe Kleinfelder told you that you looked like a pear—little on top and big on the bottom. You wanted to be mad, but deep down knew he was right. It’s okay, he said, the black guys will like you. Your biggest fear that day, besides being a child, was being too much of a woman. You couldn’t imagine anything much worse than your ass hanging out the back of your bikini for the whole free world to see.

You and her friends had planned for this day—you all knew it was com- ing. Drill team initiation. No one could dance during football season, unless they went through this process. The current members of the team prepared you: you learned a special dance, a song to sing, and a certain way to swing your hips, the perfect form to use when jumping, in full straddle, from the high diving board. Each girl was to dance, by herself, around the deep end of the pool where the players eagerly anticipated the show, climb up the ladder to the high dive, and sing the required song before jumping. The players formed a fence around the deep end and stared toward the div- ing board, awaiting this performance; the sweat of their muscled shoulders gleamed; their lower legs disappeared into the water. We all went through it, the elder girls assured the freshman, it’s supposed to be embarrassingYou’ll sur- vive, said Allison Cauldwell. Allison was your “big sister,” a sophomore, so she had already been initiated last year. Like you, Allison had a crush on Mike McCormick, but she also put hand-decorated picture frames and a gold-and-black teddy bear in your welcome basket that morning, so you didn’t confide in her that Mike walked you to your locker every day after sixth period, and that sometimes his hand slid across your lower back when he left you.

When you first arrived Coach Ryan greeted you. Howdy, little one. Where’s your mama? You told him she was at a swim meet with your brother. Coach Ryan was friends with your mother, who taught down the hall from him in the science wing of your high school.

Rachel giggled again. Amy Howard complained to her mother, a chap- erone, that she didn’t want to do it. That she couldn’t do it. Her voice cracked, but her mother pushed her into line behind Rachel and said, Oh, Amy. You felt sorry for her— Amy never wore shirts that didn’t cover her stomach, or shorts that ended above her knees, and she limited her makeup to mascara. Today she was the only girl wearing a one-piece swimsuit.

You scanned the crowd of players for a familiar face. Mike McCormick caught your eye briefly and smiled—a gentle smile and then a quick wave. For a second, you felt safe because you remembered what Mike’s hand felt like on your thigh the other day in Spanish class, when he asked you for a pen. It felt warm, and strong, and seeped through your jeans like hot water.

Hallie Spencer was the first girl to go. The rest of you coerced her into being the guinea pig because you knew she’d get more applause than anyone else. She had a killer body. Her voice was unnaturally soft, almost broken, when she stood at the edge of the board and sang: I’m a gopher girl and I always gopher guys, and when they don’t gopher me, I always wonder why. Then she crossed her hands over her chest when she jumped, and so couldn’t touch her toes on the straddle jump like she was supposed to. The football players booed and cracked up. Hallie slowly emerged and broke the surface of the water, her painstakingly hair-sprayed bangs slapped tight to her forehead.

**

I ran into one of those football players not too long ago. I saw him at some shady night club I was coerced into visiting by some of my old high school friends. Marcus— a black football player, also voted Best Looking Male of your graduating class.

I expected him to be as you described him to me: arrogant, dismissive, cocky. But instead he too seemed uninterested in the club patrons, the neon disco globes, the bad DJ. He pulled me into a corner booth and asked a lot about my life. He remembered you fondly. I told him about the East Coast, and he filled me in on the West Coast. He’d been living in L.A. the past three or four years.

You’ll see me, he said, on the next season of The Bachelorette.

Get out! I said. So, it’s already been filmed. Can’t you tell me what happens?

No. I’m under contract.

I bet you make it to the final round. Obviously, you don’t win, because you’re not married, I said.

He winked.

A few months later I sat all my closest friends down in my apartment living room to watch The Bachelorette, a silly show about a young woman who picks a hus- band from a group of bachelors the TV station has chosen for her. Marcus only made it to round two. I was surprised, but Avé, my most honest friend, said,

“Yeah, right. They always get rid of the black guy on the second episode. They don’t want to appear racist by cutting him the first round, so they wait until the second. But they sure as hell don’t want to bring a black guy home to mama, let alone the national viewing public.”

**

You can’t remember much of your turn, except for the bile threatening its way up your throat and the heart’s endless hammering. You were, however, keenly aware of the way your bathing suit rode up in the back as your hips popped from side to side. You climbed the diving board. You had to go slowly because your legs shook. You walked to the end and sang your song. You sent up a quick prayer that when you straddled the air your pubic hair didn’t hangout. Somehow you hadn’t anticipated anything after the jump—that blessed freefall. Under water, all you could see were the players’ swollen calves and feet in all directions, so you swam toward the shallow end of the pool to avoid them, and watched from there while Rachel, and Maria, and poor Amy Howard, and Gabriela, and Latisha, and everyone else took their turn. Each of their tender bodies glowed briefly against the blank, hot sky and you wanted to remember them that way: frozen in time above the diving board.

**

When I went North for college, I entered the first-year class of Smith College the same year that fellow Texan Ruth Simmons took office there as the first black pres- ident of an Ivy League school. The Houston Chronicle headline read: Making History.The newspaper explained:

When she is installed as president of Smith College on September 30, Ruth Simmons, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, will become the first black woman to head a top- ranked college in the United States.

I told some women there your story. I joined a group called Rape Awareness and was promptly assured that your story did not qualify, and more importantly, that everyone knows what kind of girls become cheerleaders. A young woman with a shaved head and thrift store clothing and a house on Martha’s Vineyard told me I could support survivors but not be one, as though I was trying to join a sorority. I tried to explain the difference between a cheerleader and a drill team colonel, but at the end of the day, they both have pompoms.

Ruth Simmons and I went North together, experienced the heaviest snowfall of the century that first fall semester. I did not even own a scarf.

My senior year, after someone had drawn a stick figure hanging from a noose on the marker board outside a black student’s dorm room, the Black Students Alliance organized a rally. I attended. So did Ruth. None of us expected her. If I could explain to you the composure and grace and quiet strength this woman exuded every day, you might understand why we all adored her so much. How many student bod- ies do you know that erupt into applause every time their college president enters a room? If I could explain to you the example of success and refinement she offered us, you might understand the vast silence, and the quickening pulse of the crowd when she began, unabashedly, to cry, as she said into the microphone: I moved away from Houston a long time ago, and I had hoped that I would never see anything like this outside of the South. I believed this place was different.

** 

After everyone took their turn jumping off the diving board, the players and elder drill team members joined you all to play in the shallow end of the pool. All you recall is a number of baritone voices and tanned bodies all around, and being pushed toward the center of the group. They’ll throw you in the air, someone yelled to you—you think maybe Hallie. It’s fun. Then you were there with all their big hands everywhere, sliding across your skin, slithering, preparing you to be launched. You balled yourself up to be shot into the air like a cannonball. It was only a split second, but your skin crawled and you realized your bikini bottom was creeping up and you felt something like a tampon, but harder, alive, moving—a finger, then sev- eral fingers, then somebody else’s fingers—and then a moment of nothing but bright blue before you hit the water again. For a brief second, you expected to see a brownish cloud appear in the water between your legs, and then you thanked God you weren’t hurt bad enough to bleed.

At the other end of the pool you coughed up water and then told Rachel. Someone stuck their fingers, you whispered. She threw you a wild- eyed look, but she also touched your arm. Someone stuck their fingers inside meAnd moved them around. Thighs clamped shut—hers and yours—and then there was the commotion.

Allison Cauldwell was crying on the side of the pool, her wet blonde hair turned a slimy shade of green, and directors’ and coaches’ mouths moved in a mad frenzy. The football players shook their heads and threw their hands up like we don’t know what you’re talking about.

Please stop crying Allison, you thought, you’re making a scene. Rachel whis- pered, do you think they did it to her too? And then it did became a scene: mothers hastily plucking their daughters out of the water, Ms. Bates—the drill team director—screaming at Coach Ryan about protecting her“girls,” a few angry football players pointing fingers or standing quietly in the background with their eyes nailed to their feet.

**

In college I took a class that reminded me of you. Gender in the African American Community.To this day, I swear that it was my best college course, even though it wasn’t at Smith Collegeit was during the fall semester of my year at the University of Texas. I also swear that Professor Anderson, with his brown skin and sea-green eyes, was the best teacher I ever knew and the first in a long string of pro- fessor-crushes I would have in my adulthood. He drew a triangle on the blackboard and at each of three points wrote the words in scrawling letters: race, class, gender. Then he asked the men in the class, mostly athletes and black, if they thought racism or sexism a worse crime.They laughed.

One Tuesday I raised my hand to point out that the Black Panthers treated their female members like slaves. I felt mean when I said it, but my voice did not quiver. I actually used the word slaves.When the men began to argue with me—vehe- mently—Professor Anderson raised his right hand high into the air to silence them. I think she has a good point, he said in his calm, velveteen voice.

I thought of you then. I couldn’t help it.That tiny scar I have somewhere inside me pulsed and grew pink—it ached as though it could sense a heavy storm on the horizon.

** 

Monday morning at school gossip whirled through the halls in hurricane fashion, turning heads, slamming lockers, and raising voices. Allison is leav- ing school, she’s switching schools, someone told you. Rachel passed you a note in biology: Allison’s parents came into the building this morning, all hell is about to break loose. Her face barely contained her excitement when she slid the note over your desk. And then Corey Locklin, a cheerleader, told several girls at your lunch table that DeAndre Lewis did it, and Allison’s parents wanted him expelled and maybe charged.

DeAndre Lewis. His name did not ring a bell. But you envied Allison her memory. In your mind, those fingers inside you had many faces—all those hands, how could you have connected them to one specific face? Your perpetrator looked like a team, not a person.

During sixth period you wondered if Mike would meet you outside class, whether he would pretend to have passed by with friends as usual, and whether he might hold your hand this time. Sometime between Great Expectations and semicolons, a student aide popped her head into your English classroom—excuse me, she said, Ms. Jackson wants to see Casey Fleming in her office.

The walk to Ms. Jackson’s office was long, and abnormally quiet, so quiet you could hear each footstep as it rattled the lockers and echoed. Ms. Jackson was an assistant principal and in all your years of schooling you had never been called to a principal’s office for any reason. And she was not just any assistant principal—other students warned of her potential for mean- ness. She had pale skin and her hair was huge and curly; most people referred to her by her student-given nickname: the Fro Ho. Although it seemed unlikely, you couldn’t help but feel as though you were in trouble, so you pulled hard on your lower lip and your bladder tightened.

Four people stood in Ms. Jackson’s office when you arrived: Coach Ryan, an assistant football coach whose name you never knew but who had deep acne scars pocked into his cheeks and forehead, Ms. Jackson, and Corey Locklin.

Casey, come on in and sit down.This is about the Drill Team Initiation this past Saturday.

Ms. Jackson looked up briefly at Coach Ryan as if they shared some secret. Her enormous hair cast shadows on the wall behind her. Coach Ryan nodded.

Something unfortunate happened, I understand, and I don’t want to pressure you, but Corey here informed us that you may have been involved as well?

The only thing you knew about Corey Locklin was that she had a huge forehead, went to fake tanning beds, and had an alcoholic mother who wore gaudy, jewel-heavy rings on her fingers. She was not your friend.

Corey, Coach Ryan interjected, thank you for being so honest with us and concerned about your friend.You can go now. Go on. Git.

Corey left and as she closed the door her hair swung over her shoulder—it reminded you of a hand-painted fan your grandmother brought back from China, black and very thick.

Casey.We need you to tell us exactly what happened to you.Allison’s parents are very upset.

You told them what you could.

Thank you. I understand this is hard, but we need you to tell us exactly where he touched you. Don’t be embarrassed to use the word.

The voice you used then—vagina?—sounded like a stranger’s voice and your insides cringed to hear it.

Okay, now. Coach Ryan here is prepared to kick DeAndre off the team and speak to his parents. Does that sound okay to you?

I don’t know. Coach Ryan’s smile scared you. I don’t—I can’t be sure it was him. Just him, I mean. I couldn’t tell.There were so many people.

But was it a black boy? With a gold tooth?
I don’t—probably.
DeAndre? We need at least two witnesses to take any action.
I don’t know.
The air-conditioner’s whirring rubbed up against the silence. The leather chair squeaked against your jeans. Everyone waited for you to say something more, but you didn’t.

** 

The things you confessed to me years later: There were more black players than white on the football team.You never knew many of their names.There were only 3 black girls on the entire 70-member drill team, and no black cheerleaders. After that day, you never dated Mike McCormick.You wanted it to be DeAndre.You wanted to blame him too. It would have made everything easier.You had a night- mare that night that would reoccur throughout your adulthood. In it, you drive a car up the Sam Houston Tollway, where it climbs up and up before splitting off into I-10 East and I-10 West.Your brakes give out, you can’t turn right or left.You crash through the barrier and go flying off the end of the highway into a sheet of clouds.

**

After you returned to class, and the bell rang, you saw Mike standing against the wall, alone, staring right at you. He did not even pretend to be passing by with friends. The two of you walked in silence. You walked all the way down the stairs and out the front entrance of the building together. In contrast to the cold inside of the school, the daylight shimmered, the warm wind raced, and you could hear the flags—Texas and the U.S.—clap in counterpoint against the flag pole. This sound comforted you until Mike finally whispered, Corey Locklin says that you told everyone it happened to you too, but that you just wanted attention. Casey, tell me the truth—his blue eyes burned red, which made your stomach ache and you wanted so badly to kiss him then—did that nigger hurt you too?

**

That same year I had my crush on Professor Anderson, I started to date Al Samson, an old friend from middle school, from before drill team. He was beautiful, a base- ball player, and had loved me since we were ten years old. His skin was so black, so very black, that the tiny wrinkles around his eyes shimmered and moved, spider webs or rivers. If I were a fish, or a dragonfly, I could have crawled right inside them and disappeared.

I want to tell you this. Sometimes it makes me angry with you. A bottomless, raging angry.When Al held my hand, or touched my body, the skin on his palms felt rough, foreign, like sandpaper. He never knew but it scared me, his skin. If he woke me in the night, when I least expected it, and pressed a coarse hand to my back, my body trembled and, I swear to you, I could not tell if it was love or fear.

My friend would tell me years later that I exoticized Al, and maybe she’s right, and maybe that’s the real source of my anger. Because when I was 12 he was Al who passed me notes in Spanish, and Al who sat with me on the school bus, and Al who laughed way down deep in his throat, and I have no memory at all of what his skin felt like next to mine. I only remember that it made me happy.

** 

You went home that night shaken. When you arrived you walked down the skinny front hallway lined with family photos and then took your shoes off and placed them toe to toe next to your father’s, mother’s, and brother’s shoes, already abandoned there by the side table. Yours were by far the smallest. Your father sat in his usual spot, on the right side of the couch, TV remote control in hand, glasses perfectly perched on his nose.

How was school, Sister Girl? your father asked. He meant it. He was that kind of parent, not the kind who asked because they were supposed to. He really wanted to know.

Fine, you said in a small voice.

This is the important part of your story. Because you told him then, about the pool, about the principal’s office. And your mother appeared from behind the kitchen counter to listen. But you must not have said it clearly, or loudly enough, because neither of them got sad. Neither of them got angry. Neither of them pulled you to them in a rush of parental empa- thy. You got no ice cream, no chicken fingers and French fries (your favorite meal), no nothing. Your father looked at you perhaps a little longer than usual—in that way he did when he was studying something. But that was it.

You didn’t cry. Maybe that’s why they didn’t know to react, since you were the kind of girl who cried easily and often. Maybe if you had shed a tear an alarm would have gone off—a high-pitched, steely one and your father would have asked you to sit next to him on the couch and your mother would have ripped someone at the school a new asshole for not bringing her into the principal’s office from her classroom down the hall, for daring to interview her daughter without her mother there to protect her.

But you didn’t cry. You thought maybe what happened wasn’t so bad. Maybe what happened was part of growing up and you, a perfect A stu- dent, couldn’t bear to fail at that. You thought maybe you did something wrong too.

Your parents laughed out loud together at a sitcom on television, and everything fit neatly into its place. The fan above your heads hummed at its usual rhythm and the sun fell in squares from the French doors onto the car- pet. So you went to your bedroom, closed the door, and fell into the bed.

Lying there, you remembered all their faces—Corey Locklin’s proud eyes and black, black hair, Coach Ryan’s patient and encouraging but stiff smile, and Ms. Jackson’s expectant, hopeful prodding. And you remem- bered walking out of the office and the heavy door taking its time to close behind you, and the way you stood outside it looking down the tunnel of endless orange lockers, and how you felt then such a darkness.

 **

At one of Al’s baseball games in college I tried to tell your mother again what hap- pened to you.This time she did cry; so did I. She didn’t believe that you ever told her—she swore she would remember that. I ended up consoling her, because her response to sadness is always anger first and she yelled at me. She accused you of having an exaggerated adolescent sense of drama; she doubted your recount of events. Luckily, we were separated from the other spectators, sitting on our own splintery wooden bleachers along the first base line.Al stood in the outfield, his dark skin shiny in the humid, thick-as-syrup mid-evening heat. From his vantage point, we were nothing more than pale outlines that stood every once in a while to cheer for a great throw or catch, then sat, then stood and sat again.We could sense when we were sup- posed to do this without paying any attention at all.

He could not have seen our blotchy faces, all shades of red and pink, mine lined in mascara, my mother’s streaked only with salt.You would have felt betrayed by her outbursts and denials, but I understood her heart was breaking. I could see by the way she gripped the bleacher, her knuckles impossibly white.

I believed her when she said that she would have done something had she heard you the first time. She is the kind of mother that acts, and reacts, relentlessly, and pushes her children to be as relentless. Like that time you got stung by a bee while waiting on deck for your swimming relay when you were eight years old.Your mother, who also happened to be the swim team coach, said, “You’re okay,” quickly made you the first swimmer of the relay instead of the fourth, threw you onto the block, swatted your butt when the start gun went off (your bee sting pinched and ached, still unattended to), and said, Go, Casey. Swim. Fast.And you did, your right leg full of sting the whole lap. And your relay won first place, and she was there at the other end of the pool to pull you out, all slippery and wet as a seal, and she tenderly pressed tobacco into your sting, which made it sting less, and then she brought you ice for the swelling. See, she said. You’re okay.

And she acted then too, at the baseball game.When Al trotted in from the field and filed with the other players out of the dugout, and said, Hi, Mrs. Fleming. Thanks for coming, she kissed him hard on the cheek, took his hand and then took mine and said with utmost cheer, Let’s get some Frito Pie.

** 

 At the pep rally the next day at school, the gymnasium roared with stu- dents. From down the hall you heard the approaching thump of a giant drum as the band marched into the gym. Because you passed initiation with flying colors, you sat for the first time in full uniform: the bodice newly dry-cleaned so the sleeves popped out of the black and gold cum- merbund a bright, pure white, your hair pulled back and held in place by a bright gold bow, your black skirt barely covering your ass and from beneath it your panty-hosed legs locked together in perfect position. Lipstick gathered in the corners of your mouth.

The first game of the season was that night. You could feel the anticipa- tion slide off the football players’ and cheerleaders’ backs and into the sweaty air, filling your lungs too. Banners and streamers in all shades of gold and black swung from the rafters, and a podium stood center court, await- ing Coach Ryan’s address to the student population.

After he spoke, you would dance the first dance of your drill team career before the entire student body. Your stomach hollowed at the thought of it. You tried to ignore what felt like a giant bruise between your legs that stung each time you peed since last weekend’s initiation pool party.

Coach Ryan stepped up to the podium then and the crowd hushed. The cheerleaders’ pompoms shivered against the basketball court floor. You noticed that Coach Ryan’s gut kept him from standing too close to the microphone.

I’ll tell you what, he said. These young men behind me are ready for a great season.

The students cheered.

Yes, sirree.These boys are strong as iron ore.

Rachel giggled next to you, and poked you in the ribs. When Coach Ryan talked in his thick Texas accent “iron ore” came out sounding like “aaarn ore,” at least four syllables long, and it struck you both as hilarious.

This team is like aaarn ore, I swear to you.Ya’ll are gonna get quite a show tonight.These boys have a lot of Po-tential. I’m proud to work with ’em every day and ya’ll should be proud to watch ’em. Aaarn ore, I tell you. Aaarn ore.

** 

Today I look through your memory box, your scrapbooks from high school. I find three letters from your father. He started leaving them for you the summer after you were hurt in the pool. Maybe a famous quote, or passage from a book, sometimes just his own thoughts. He’d fold the piece of paper in two and hang it over your steering wheel so that you’d sit in the platinum heat of the driver’s seat and read them before heading for school each morning. It was his way of saying things fathers have a hard time saying to daughters, his way of educating you.The notes I found:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
The soliloquy of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz: What makes a king out of slave? Courage!
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!
What makes the elephant charge his tusk
In the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!
What makes the Sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the ape in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!

Courage! Dad

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father— “I know moon-rise, I know star-rise,
I lay this body down.
I walk in the moon-light; I walk in the star-light To lay this body down.

I walk in the graveyard, I walk through the graveyard To lay this body down.
I lie in the grave and stretch out my arms,
To lay this body down.”

—One of the 10 Master Spiritual Songs of the African slaves in America

Love, Dad

 

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
You’re way cool and doing as good as you can when you’re only 16.

**

When Coach Ryan finished his speech, Corey Locklin led the cheerlead- ers out onto the court, and they made fists with their hands and jumped in the air, curls bouncing everywhere. Players and students whistled. The cheerleaders chanted: We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how ’bout you.

Then it came time for the drill team to dance. You stood. You all marched, hands on hips, head high, in single file onto the gymnasium floor and waited for the music to start.

When song finally filled the gym, you danced with all your might that day, and smiled so hard your cheeks throbbed and your jaw ached. The stands became a giant smudge of faces. You hit every pose, every beat, exactly right. When the song ended, and applause broke out, your heart banged loudly against its cage and your lungs heaved in and out the dense, spectacular air of perfection. Then you watched Mike McCormick stand up from the hordes of players in front of you. He looked right at you, through you, then turned his head away and blew Allison Cauldwell a kiss, and you heard her delighted squeal in your ears for a long time afterwards.

**

I find something else tucked away between ribbons and senior photos, messages hastily scrawled from friends that say things like “Stay sweet!” or “It was fun know- ing you.” I find a photo of you on the football field.

You must have just finished a performance, because you are marching off the field in a line of girls and all of you head back into the stands. Behind you, football play- ers and band members and cheerleaders (there is the briefest side angle of Corey Locklin’s enormous forehead in the crowded background) file out of the stadium too; one injured player receives help from an assistant coach. A ripe green turf stretches beneath your feet.You are smiling into the stands—a wide, effervescent smile that rises between your clownishly rouged cheeks—most likely at your mother’s camera. This photo was taken only weeks after the incident, and what strikes me most is that you are happy, blissfully so. It takes my breath away.

I look at you smiling up at your parents and know that you stored up that smile especially for them. Because they prepared you to be the kind of person who dares to stand on a dangerous strip of land and dance.They prepared you to do that even without them.

I look at the players behind you, and I cannot tell the color of their faces, which of them will be a good man and which will not. I look at this photo and realize it was never their faces that scared you, but their masks.

I look at you smiling and I remember the wind rushing into my face, the exhil- aration of a 100-yard stage, a stadium full of rapt observers, my nimble body, the rat- tat-tat of a drum roll. I remember kicking my leg high into the night sky, my toes disappearing into the stars, the persistent feeling of hope, hope, hope in each choreo- graphed step.

I pretend it is me in the stands, and your smile is telling me something too.That smile says, like my mother and father before it, you’re okay. I’m okay. And I believe you.