Archive for October, 2017

The Gift of Fire

amywink October 19th, 2017

fireweedwindow1-2.jpg

The Gift of Fire

After the destruction
of enraged burning,
radiant spires
erupt out of
earth blackened
yet hardly dead,
phoenix from ash,
a flame of grace for
a charcoal landscape.

When you, during
weary afternoons,
gaze out this
photograph into elsewhere,
think of me
and know I,
looking through
my own window
remember you,
growing beauty
where there
once was
fire.

(1996)

Swimming in the Faith Lane at the Townlake Y

amywink October 19th, 2017

Swimming in the Faith Lane
at the Townlake Y

After the day’s writing,
I spend my afternoons
in water at the Townlake Y.
There, a great democracy
of bodies prevails, so away
from self-consciousness
we all swim, aged and middle young,
under the mantric banners
spanning each lane:
Faith, Responsibility,
Respect, Honesty,
and Caring, the
bright goals
for thought and
moral action.

I swim slow, almost
languid in the water,
but, in concert,
my body finally
works with mind,
so like a strong
unwavering tide,
I gain a thinking pace
unmatched by outer
progress, unfettered
by doubt or gravity,
buoyant in the
soft and necessary waters
of a consoling faith.

(2004)

The Gift of The Self

amywink October 18th, 2017

“Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you.” Ruth 1: 16

“So which one of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And he said, “he who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10: 36-37

When I returned to teach at Southwestern, in 2003, after a long and damaging struggle to find a place for myself in academe, I had to balance my desire to return to the place where I had first felt completely in the right place and the knowledge that I was no longer the person who had felt so at home there as a student and that the place I might be looking for was no longer a place I was for which I was suited . When my favorite professor and former advisor, T. Walter Herbert, stopped in at my office one day to welcome me, I was profoundly grateful for his presence and his quiet support as I tried to explain that I felt I was no longer the person I had been when I left there in 1987. He said quietly “I am so glad you are here.” and thankfully, I did not weep but I did feel sheltered, and just as he had done during my 4 years at Southwestern, he shepherded me toward my new life, reminding me that he had always seen me and he still saw me and valued me, even wounded and different I felt I was on my return. The moment between us could have been labeled the Parable of the Kind Teacher and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exactly like a visit from God after a really bad day. As I sat there in his presence (and His) I was again in the exactly right place, where I could begin again.

Years earlier, in 1986, Dr. Herbert, who had been my academic advisor since my first year (1983), and all of whose classes I took and absorbed with rapt attention of a literary disciple, had taught the first Women’s Literature class at Southwestern, out of which grew my dedication to women’s literature, women’s lives and women’s stories. It was a class that profoundly changed the way I thought about the world, not because my thoughts had been changed, but because my thoughts had been validated. While I had been quietly holding–sometimes not quietly– onto the idea that women were important (raised by feminist parents, don’t you know), I hadn’t seen much evidence in my education. While I had read women writers in other classes, their presence was only spotty, one or two out of 10, and even though their coverage had been mostly respectable, it was the history department that offered women’s history (which I took and loved). I had had to read unassigned books (gasp) in high school to find where the women writers were. While I loved the history, the heart of the writer is always stirred by literature and I was always an English major.

But not until 1986, when the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women was published, did I see the entire possibility of women writers captured in the giant book, with bible paper pages, similar to the other Nortons I had used in all my classes. The Nortons that said “This Body of Work Is Literature. The Names Herein Are Valued.” (As a graduate student I would later explore what had been left out and come to understand the challenge of canon formation and whose story gets told and whose story does not but that was later). My 1986, my brilliant professor, a Melville scholar, took the risk to value women when he could have easily remained a voice of the patriarchy but he decided the creative risk was for growth, ours and his, was entirely worth it. As John O Donohue writes in To Bless the Space Between Us, “to truly live a creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening. There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different and different. I have never seen anyone take a risk for personal growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over.” Everyone I know still remembers that class as life-changing–and I still know many of the members of that class. That class gave many of us insight into ourselves and the gift of the stories made our own lives more valuable. I think it gave the four brave men who took the class made up of, I think, at least 30 women, insight into themselves as well. For me, Dr. Herbert and that class gave me the gift of my writing self. It in that class that I made the first real effort toward finding my own authentic voice as a writer.

So in 2003, after I sat with Dr. Herbert again, I began to think of who I had been in my days at Southwestern, the self I had become in my four years there, the self that had been encouraged by teachers and by fellow students who made up the community I loved so much, the core of myself that I still carried with me even as I had been asked afterward to be less than myself, less intelligent than myself, smaller than myself, quieter than myself, different than myself, less threatening than myself, not at all myself. In thinking about why I loved my time there, I recognized that it had not been all pleasant and sweet–as some people think of privilege college students lounging around “not doing any work”– and especially not safe from challenging ideas but had instead been an extremely tumultuous time, filled with emotion and change as we all came face to face with the world of our friends and learned of the differences in our lives away from home. We learned to see each other and make connections, to make a practice of working toward understanding as we walked with each other through the process of becoming adults (There is a shirt at SU these days that explains something fundamental about that small learning community. It reads Mouthwestern: Where Your Secret is Safe with Everyone. It is entirely true and probably why SU grads are so kind to each other–we know what we did there. What happens at SU stays at SU).

One particularly emotionally and culturally charged issue everyone seemed to be confronting then were questions of sexual identity. In the mid 1980’s, the range of sexual identity letters LGBTQia (for those who are unsure what those letters mean, it’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intrasex/Intersex, and Asexual) were not being explored. The choices were very binary: Gay/Straight. Either/Or. Bisexuals just can’t decide. Pick a side and stick with it. People were in one camp or the other, never the two shall meet. And sometimes each camp decided for another person’s identity themselves, without bothering to inquire. Being so labeled could be deadly and can still be deadly. Being forced to decide just so everyone can safely be labeled is also very damaging. Being claimed by either side without being asked, also quite troubling because a person’s own identity is exactly that, her own.

But despite what the larger social culture wants (everyone in a nice neat box), sexuality and gender identity are very fluid and even in 1948, Kinsey reported this fluidity on his now famous Kinsey scale. People are wide-ranging and change during their lives. It’s the reason we now have all the letters to explain it including Q (Q=questioning, or “it depends”)– though sometimes I wonder if we are getting so many narrow slivers of labels (cis gender) to name gendered identity (gender is the cultural construct, sex is the biological component and both are fluid and wide-ranging) that the those defining labels do nothing but divide us further from each other and somehow keep us all from simply just being. The labeling is still an attempt to make us decide. We must all settle down and decide, no one can be a nomad because that makes everyone really uncomfortable and God forbid anyone be uncomfortable. It’s just not natural to be uncomfortable. . . .is it. And also, make sure you couple up. Pick a side and couple up. Single people are just plain weird. (And we are, in fact, usually Highly Sensitive Introverts and we’re all good with the singleness and weirdness).

In my sophomore year at SU, I was surprised to be offered a bid to join a sorority. Very surprised. I didn’t really think sororities were for me (rent-a-friend, and all that judgy-ness). I judged the members by my assumptions about them. I did not go through Rush but was offered what’s called an “open bid” after Rush and I remember the complete timidity of those women at my door and my own complete surprise at being asked to join Delta Zeta that spring. I do not know who was more shocked about it. I generally assumed I was invisible except for a few close friends and they generally assumed I was terrible hostile to sororities but they decided to risk it anyway. That entire fall, I had been hanging out with my friends and making more friends than in my first year and I really enjoyed the company of the women who were already in Delta Zeta and also everyone who was in the pledge class that year, including my dear friend Kristi. I came late to the party but was happily welcomed into the pledge class of 1985 (many of whom I am still friends with and who are all terrific people in their own way) and walked right into my first controversy regarding women’s sexuality and community. Not long after I accepted my bid, the rest of the sorority was embroiled in controversy regarding offering a bid to another young woman who had not received a bid from another sorority because she was gay (gasp) and tensions mounted in the pledge class about allowing a lesbian into the sorority (which, of course, already had a fair share of lesbians in it, as well as heterosexual women and also the entire range of sexualities). The tensions were naturally, of course, as we were all young, 18-19, and facing new things and wondering about what other people’s sexuality had to do with our own and what our own had to do with anyone else’s (not a damned thing, as it turns out) and what we should do about this young woman, who we had been told was also suicidal because of her rejection. Since I had already known someone affected by the suicide of her mother, that information seemed paramount to me and my heart was not inclined to reject her and cast her out of our community to her doom. But my pledge class had to decide, the sorority had to decide and we had to vote as a group to offer the bid. It’s all actually very weird and clubby and just the kind of thing I, with my egalitarian nature, completely hate. I am terrible gate-keeper. If you want someone kept out, ask someone else because I will likely figure out a way to let them right in anyway.

But one of my pledge sisters, Anji, came and asked me to hold the gate closed. Someone had told her “Go talk with Amy” (Thanks) and I was brought into the choice before us in a way I had not expected. At the time, I was struck by her anxiety and her concern and remember watching her as she spoke with me, whole body closed and stiff, her eyes clouded and dark. I felt for her just as I felt for the other young woman who needed so much to be let in. Which way to turn, which choice to make? I promised Anji I would think about it.

I could say I prayed about it except I was not much of a prayer in those days, not like people think of prayer, but I was very good at having long internal conversations with God (despite what some people thought of as my lack of religious faith), and I am still good at those conversations, I like to think, and often my writing is like one long wonderful conversation with the indwelling Holy Spirit, by the end of which I have learned something powerful or beautiful or gained a completely new understanding of my experiences. So at that time, I thought about it with God, and my faith and my compassion, which were already essential aspects of myself, even if I didn’t practice those things very publicly (the inner life of an introvert is extremely rich. It’s why we don’t always have to talk.) Unlike Huck Finn, who found his close place in a struggle between what he had been taught was right and what he understood to be right, my Christian (Methodist) upbringing was open-hearted and open-minded. My parents had, even when uncomfortable, favored kindness and compassion when faced with choices like this. I did not have to choose between hell and the kind thing. And that is exactly what I decided, the kind thing for the woman who needed the community. I could not harden my heart against her. I voted yes and kindly held the gate open. That kind thing, as it turns out, happened to be the kind thing for Anji too. Sometimes the fear of others is actually the fear of self. We see the frightening truth in someone else that we can’t yet manage to accept about ourselves and we fight to keep that frightening truth at bay, to hold back the forces of change as we grow toward the self we truly are, the true self that God knows we are. Anji and the young woman we accepted into our sorority spent eleven years happily together in a loving and committed relationship that also ended gracefully when both were ready to move on to new lives.

Anji and I are still friends and we often talk about our mutual interest in women’s history and I helped her with some of her writing and thinking about her dissertation and first book. And when I asked her if I could tell this story, she graciously agreed and wanted to know what I remembered about that challenging time. She also told me the rest of her story, which I also have permission to tell. She had voted no, but someone she respected and loved came to her to read her the riot act and Anji realized the person she loved was also lesbian. Confronted by this new understanding, Anji returned to the chapter room where the debate continued, withdrew her No vote . She learned that the sorority actually intended to extend the invitation despite the single no vote but she was very glad she had withdrawn it anyway. She was also glad I was so tender-hearted because so much of the rest of her life turned on that moment. I was glad to have chosen wisely and given the gift of myself and in doing so, given Anji the gift of herself, because it is in the giving that love wins.

Cleaning Matthew’s Room

amywink October 17th, 2017

Cleaning Matthew’s Room

for Pam and Dennis

“We are cleaning Matthew’s room,” she said,
“but he doesn’t want to throw anything away.”

Listening, I think
he is an historical child,
aware of collecting
preserving the archives
of his previous selves,
who he has been,
what his creations were,
at three four five
until now ten
soon to be eleven.

So he gathers creativity around him,
comforted with personal significance,
the evidence of presence and
accomplishment in this childhood,
a history of his own being.

His collections, his life’s work,
are reminders of ability,
of learning the process—
the work of life, as much as art—
cushioning the transition
into his next growing year
in this beautifully difficult world.

_________________________________________________________________

In The Shelter of Each Other

amywink October 16th, 2017

“It is in the shelter of each other that we live.” Padraig O Tuama

I entered Southwestern University in 1983 and began encountering the world beyond the boundaries of my family and my high school social order. It was the first place I felt in the right place even though it took me a year to settle into the new and the change had been frightening. In so many ways, college is the place where you discover who you are and the gifts you bring to the world and to each other. Even when the discoveries are frightening, the rewards are great. It took me a year to find my sea legs and I almost decided not to return because the tuition seemed too high. But it was the calm and generous blessing of my father, who countered my mother’s anxieties about money (and autobiographical angst, an essay I am likely to write eventually), with a simple phrase “We have enough money. We have enough money to pay for this.” and I went back to Southwestern for my sophomore year.

That year, I encountered two amazing people who would become my life-long friends and companions of mind I desperately needed, and who I remain empathically attuned with this day. Kristi, who remains my gut-check friend, determined to balance my inner demons, and who always shows up (and whose friendship began in English classes our first year together) and the first gay man I deeply loved, Joel. There were other friends who surrounded me as well but these two have always remained very close to my soul and even though we have had some challenging moments (Joel is the only person I have ever slammed the phone down on–when we had phones to slam. But we sorted it all out eventually and we learned an important lesson about friendship, deep love can also mean deep conflict but love wins every time if you let it). Because this was before email, the summers we spent apart were spent in the 19th century practice of letter-writing and both of these were developed in the cognitive intimacy of our epistles (not ironically, this is the same way my friendship with Stacey would continue to develop after she returned home to Chicago and I tried to make way in the world of academe). The letter is a kind of amazing document of the relationship of companionate minds, like the diary is a document of the relationship between its writer and the self she is creating through the writing (She Left Nothing In Particular explores that kind of writing, fyi, and the introduction to my edition of the Embree diaries, Tandem Lives, explores the relationship between the diarist and her eventual outside reader). I still have all those letters I wrote to Kristi and all those letters I wrote to Joel. Both of them still have all of my letters–even though someone has accused us of hoarding, we do not let go of those encounters. They bring us far too much joy.

We also spent a great deal of time talking on the phone and Joel’s time difference (Arizona) and Kristi’s (Alaska) meant I had many long conversations in the late night to wee hours of the morning. I would often know exactly the moment when each of them would call as well. Like I said, we were attuned.

Except, for a while, there was something Joel was hiding really well from me–not so well from others– but it remained hidden from me probably because I wasn’t actually looking for it, and not hidden to others because they were desperately looking for it and thought I should be looking for it too.

The nature of our coupling culture means that a happily single person is, in some ways inherently, perhaps, fundamentally (even frighteningly) wrong. The idea of coupling pushes women into relationships for safety and security, and pushes everyone into relationships for the sake of not being alone. Being happily single also makes people incredibly nervous about their own need for companionship. Many people have told me what I think about marriage without even asking me what I think about marriage. I have, apparently, some very odd thoughts about marriage, unbeknownst to me. Let me say right now, I have no trouble with egalitarian marriage and there is nothing wrong with anyone who prefers to be in the company of a partner. It’s all good.

Of course, I didn’t understand that completely when I was a sophomore in college, because one doesn’t. One has to learn that it is perfectly fine to live to the contrary of a cultural “norm”. One has to learn to brave the wilderness. But I did love Joel and I found in him a wonderful companion who was so delightfully funny and kind and with whom I shared many deeply thoughtful conversations about life in the world. We were both sensitive to nuance and connection, loved reading and theatre. We seemed a perfect match (though honestly, we were so similar in temperament, it would have likely been terrible choice to marry each other, aside from the issue of his sexuality) because God forbid anyone in college remain unmatched. So, with the stupid advice of some, I sort of pursued him–which I was terrible at doing and often had to be done with the help of alcohol (gasp). Note to self and others: if you have to borrow dutch courage to do something it’s probably the wrong thing to do. Authentic connection requires nothing but the willingness to encounter another person outside our perceptions of that person. It is in the exquisite risk “to still our own house so that Spirit can come through, so that we might drop into the vital nature of things, and the risk to then let that beautiful knowing inform our days” (Mark Nepo, The Exquisite Risk).

But my awkward pursuit led to one of the most profound encounters I have ever had and to a fiercely deep love for another human being. As Mark Nepo writes, “the exquisite risk is a doorway . . . that lets us experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is always near. Truth opens it. Love opens it. Humility opens it.” But Joel and I were not yet operating with his truth and his truth was what needed to be told but it was hard to tell. We took a long walk one day, down the road behind the campus (delightfully named One Joint Road for the length of time it took to roll your car slowly down the road while smoking a joint, which I never ever did, by the way. A better name might have been Revelation Road.) I said my peace but he was not yet ready to tell his truth. I told him I’d wait. And in that period of waiting was grace, that promise of Divine kindness, and I was able to still my own house so the Spirit could come through. Whatever happened I was fine. I had told my truth and could wait for his.

I can’t remember exactly how long it took for us to finish the conversation we started on the road (not long, one day, or two) but we had to do it in the dark, not the light of an afternoon walk. We sat in my dorm room’s loft, listening to Sting’s album, Nothing Like the Sun, and Joel had brought a second to support his revelation (a close and mutual friend). He was also a little drunk because he needed to borrow courage from somewhere to make his Truth known. But he took the risk and told me he was gay, which I suppose I already knew in some way. I am not sure what he or his second thought I would actually do–fly apart in a rage? break down in hysterics? Both of those reactions so out of character as to be completely laughable but I think both parties were operating on an idea they had of me, and not an authentic understanding of me.

What I said was, and I hope he remembers this too, “Do you still love me?” and he answered “yes” and through that quiet threshold we walked together.

Mark Nepo writes “the risk that leads to revelation and then courage is, at first a very quiet threshold that we must dare to cross, through which life waits like a hidden secret in the open. This quiet risk somehow reminds us that there is nothing between us, nothing between the oceans and our hearts, between the sands and our eyes, between the infinite sufferings and splendors that make up the breathing world of life on earth. Though often unseen and often unheard, everything living affects everything else. The net is incredibly wide. We are not alone–for all it’s comforts and fears–we are not alone.”

In 2001, when I came home in abject failure (at least as culturally defined) from six long years on a job market designed to defeat you for a place in a system designed to make you selfish, I was blessed by a visit from Joel and his partner, Hernan, and with the presence of three other wonderfully vibrant gay men I knew from college. They gathered me up and took me to lunch where I spent some peaceful and uncomplicated time in their sheltering company. I did not know Hernan but he leaned in to talk to me and asked “what do you do” as if to ask “tell me who you are.” I answered “I don’t know any more. I used to be an English professor.” And he let me be silent about it. I felt in their presence the kind of shelter I had not known in a long time. I was with a group of people who had learned to brave the wilderness and who knew what it was like to rise from a shattering experience and have the courage to begin to live their authentic lives. These beloved children of God carried me, laughing, through the threshold into my new and unknown life.

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