What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions

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Patriarchy Is Poison, Y’All



Seriously? I had trouble coming up with the title for this post. I must have typed in at least fifteen possibilities. Who wants to hear me harp about the evils of male supremacy again? The truth is, spring has finally arrived up here, the sun is shining, sap is running, I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday, and I want to be outside in my garden. So this will be brief. But I’ve been reading around online, and it’s hard not to want to chime in. With my recent disillusion with the Orthodox church impelled largely by the stench of patriarchy that permeates it, I may be overly sensitive to stories that trip that wire. But dang it, when in a short space of time I read this story of men in the protestant churches abusing their power over children and this one about whether women should be allowed to teach the Bible to male students (the overwhelming answer is “no,” but they didn’t ask any of the people who might’ve said “yes”), and this one about the Nigerian schoolgirls who’ve been kidnapped and apparently forced into sexual slavery, my boundary for crap I can digest without purging some in the form of a blog post is exceeded and I just have to say, enough. Patriarchy is poison, y’all. And as the author of that last story points out, it predates religion, which is why the atheists who insist that we should just get rid of religion and everything will be hunky dory are so wrong. (Did you ever notice how male the lineup of the New Atheists is, btw?) Religion didn’t create patriarchy, patriarchy poisoned religion, because it poisons everything. It’ll poison a marriage if you let it, it poisons government, it poisons education, it poisons the business world, and yes, quite obviously, it has poisoned just about every religion on the planet. Even Zen Buddhism hasn’t escaped it. Heck, even Wicca has its share of male dogmatists who try to tell women who’ve inherited matriarchal family traditions that they’re doing witchcraft wrong. Really.

So what’s the antidote? Talking about it, clearly, is good medicine. I see more and more men seeking to be allies, and that’s incredibly heartening. But I see others digging in their heels, and not just those in older generations (otherwise I might be tempted to employ patience and just trust that it would fade away as all the old geezers died off). Part of the problem is that the male supremacists have done a good job of convincing people that feminism = female supremacy. That we’re man-haters. That our male allies are gender traitors or somesuch. But it doesn’t. Feminism, as the bumper sticker says, is the radical notion that women are people, too. And should be treated as such. And that’s all we want. We want partnership. And remember: patriarchy isn’t just about men dominating women, it’s also about richer, more powerful men dominating the poor and less powerful men, too. Patriarchy is, essentially, the idolization of force. So feminism seeks to liberate everyone, male and female alike, from this confining culture that tells everyone how they must conform in order to be accepted and to prosper. God has created us each with the imago dei within, and we can be true to that best when we support each others’ flowering without rejecting this or that trait because it doesn’t jibe with preconceived notions about what is masculine or feminine.

There. I feel better now. I’m going outside to play in the dirt.


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That Didn’t Last Long, Or: My Intolerance for Intolerance

I tried. I tried really hard to be Orthodox. So much of it felt lovely. But there were these dark shadows nibbling at the edges. The biggest of them sported a familiar shape: patriarchy. Male supremacy has smeared its dirty fingerprints all over everything about it. Dig into the patristics and you’ll discover the worst kind of misogyny. Women told they should feel shame for their very nature. Beyond not having our calls honored, not being allowed into any part of ministry beyond baking for coffee hour. The author of our liturgy may not have denied the existence of our souls, but he and his brethren sure said plenty of nasty about us. 

But every shadow has a bright spot. I followed my husband into Orthodoxy, and he followed me out of it into feminism. He used to take quiet umbrage when I used that f word, when I fingered patriarchy here or there as the underlying source of some problem in our culture. Now, having done his best to participate in this most patriarchal of religions, he gets it. It was too much even for him. As part of our recovery from our attempts to embrace orthodoxy and its inherent misogyny, we read Sarah Bessey’s blessing of a book, Jesus Feminist. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It made me cry, tears of relief. Yes, yes! Please.

The other thing that bugged us was the church’s stance against marriage equality. It’s not like we ever endured a homily about the evils of same sex attraction or anything. It was never spoken. But once, at the diocesan family retreat, sitting at a table with some priests, discussing the possibility of my son’s entering seminary, I voiced a desire to see more of the spirit of John the Baptist afoot, to see godly men speaking truth to power. And one priest piped up with praise for our bishop having written a screed against New York’s legalizing marriage equality. Really? I asked. Is that what we need to be worrying about? What about dropping bombs on children? How easy it is to worry about someone else’s sex life instead of confronting the military-industrial complex that makes our lives easier. But almost since the beginning there has been complicity between orthodoxy and empire. It goes on. Well, it can go on without me.

The real beauty part is that now I’m feeling free again to continue to explore my spirituality outside the confines orthodoxy imposes. The spirituality of my indigenous forebears, for instance. The green magic of my Celtic roots. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still very much a Christian. But what that means is so much more flexible and fluid and life-affirming than what these small-minded men have so far imagined. I know it has everything to do with love, and any Christianity that says I can’t love every one of my neighbors as myself is a false Christianity in my book.

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Christianity, Cultural Identity, Misogyny and Terrorism

I’ve spoken of rediscovering immanent divinity as being necessary for creating the sustainable human culture capable of coexisting with the rest of the biosphere as it recovers from the damage we have done with our ignorant idea of “progress” during the Industrial Revolution and its ongoing aftermath. If we recognize everything as sacred, as part of The God that Is the World, we’ll treat it with the care it deserves and which will ensure a livable planet. This is not just a convenient attitude, either. There’s much evidence in the accounts of the mystics, recent and ancient, as well as modern scientific accounts of quantum entanglement, that indicate that it is, indeed, all one, and that our perception of separation is a delusion.

As part of my own embrace of my rejected spiritual heritage, Catholicism, which has been left in the hands of the stupid and the mean for too long, I’ve run up against a problem: I can’t participate in the Church because of its institutionalized misogyny. So I’ve sought to simply be a Christian. I’ve even taken to wearing a cross, on occasion (a lovely silver Celtic cross, with a dove in the top arm, created by a local craftsman): the Celtic cross, with the solar circle, acts as a symbol of the god of resurrection rather than the god of sacrifice (symbolized by the crucifix). I was saddened to discover, after acquiring it, that some white supremacists have begun wearing the Celtic cross as a symbol of white pride. So it came as no surprise to discover that the terrorist in Oslo self-identifies as a Christian, though he admitted that he’s not very religious. Like other white supremacists, Christianity for him is more of a cultural identity. It represents a means for him to align himself with a group against another group, the Muslims. (Of course, I have a feeling that Islam operates for terrorists who self-identify as Muslim in much the same way.) I should not have to remind you, gentle reader, that Christ did not condone violence, and elevated love above all other virtues, the “Christians” on TV and inside the Beltway notwithstanding.

I was fascinated to discover, though, that he also went into detail regarding his opposition to feminism (here’s an interesting analysis), and I found this misogyny to be particularly ironic in light of his self-identification as a Christian. Christ, you see, was a feminist (see, again, The Chalice and The Blade for more on this). And while Christ’s gylanic message has so far largely fallen on deaf ears (as has his call for compassion and social justice), it has not been entirely wiped out and continues to give hope to many that we will, one day, manage to create heaven here on earth and “live presently.”

Norway’s response to the massacre is heartening. Instead of giving in to terror, they are more resolved than ever to practice peace and unity in diversity, determined not to let their democratic ideals be undermined by fear. Would that we had taken a similar path after 9/11. It would be a different planet.

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Mary Alexandra Agner and The Doors of the Body

Continuing the Back to the Future blog book tour, here’s an interview with Mary Alexandra Agner, author of The Doors of the Body (Mayapple Press). You can read her poems “Apparition,” “Ua Huli Ka Ia (Hawaiian Lullaby),” “The Godmother Limit,” “World Enough, and Time,” and “The Eight-Fold Year” online.

1. I love the way you give voice to women we’ve encountered in literature and folktales, with an edge that brings them to life in ways their original authors would most likely not have intended. It seems subversive (which is a compliment, coming from me). What made you decide to do this?

I like telling stories. Initially I believed everyone when they told me that poems can’t tell real stories, meaning long, involved ones like prose does, and so I tried to tell stories that would fit in the size of a lyric poem. This meant I had to set up the background of the story and characters quickly, and torquing existing, well-known stories enabled me to do that.

As for the subversive aspect, all I can posit is that I am an angry person who wants to refuse the stereotypes about myself that have been imposed on me. I understand the function of stereotypes in a fight-or-be-eaten
situation but in the contemporary world we more often blind ourselves to the person or situation in front of us by reducing them to a set of assumptions.

Maybe Cinderella did want to go to the ball and gush about dresses and swoon into some man’s arms, never having to worry about money or cooking, but I doubt those desires are the only ones that sum up her hopes and dreams.

(I’d like to note that, after writing a 20K word novella-in-verse and being in the middle of a 65K word novel-in-verse, I no longer listen to people who, like me initially, managed to forget about Homer and Beowolf.)

2. In the first (title) poem of your book, “The Doors of the Body,” you allude to (borrow from) the myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld (whom you reference explicitly in a later poem dealing with a different part of that cycle). I probably wouldn’t have recognized the source myth without having recently dipped back into Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book Women Who Run with the Wolves. How important do you think it is that the reader recognize the allusion, or do you think that recognizing it might even detract from the reader’s emotional experience of the poem (by making it less an encounter with an archetypal feature of the psyche and more an intellectual exercise)?

I’d prefer the reader to understand the starting point of the poem in order to fully appreciate the trajectory. However, it has been my own experience, both as a reader and a receiver-of-readers’-comments, that it is the internally consistent world that makes the largest impression.

I have read poems and felt left out of them because I knew there was a story being alluded to that I did not know, but if the poem allows me to make up my own interpretation of what that story is and the poem builds off of my made-up understanding, then I will enjoy the poem.

3. Poems aren’t like children: we can play favorites. Which is yours?

Willa Cather’s “Dedicatory,” Catherine Carter’s “The Stingrays,” Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Mt. Lemmon, Steward Observatory 1990,” Eve Langley’s “Native-born,” Nancy Willard’s “Night Light,” Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells,” Eleanor Wilner’s “Cuneiform,” Sara Henderson Hay’s “The Witch,”The Valorous Acts of Mary Ambree,” anything by Judith Wright, everything by Abbie Huston Evans.

4. If you could choose any woman, dead or alive, to be your mentor, who would it be? Or, if you feel yourself past the point of desiring or needing a mentor, whom would you have over to tea? (For the latter, no need to limit yourself to one…have a party!)

I’d like to talk with Rachel Carson about bridging the schism between writing and science. I’d like to argue with Allie Sheldon, even if I lost. I wish that I had been able to listen to Grace Hopper or Mary Somerville or Elizabeth Barrett Browning speak.

I would like to know, since women are stereotypically (sarcasm) considered the holders of memory and wisdom, why we forget that we have strong foremothers. We did a great job with fairy tales, why not these? Oh, perhaps that’s the answer to your first question.

5. I detect a strong whiff of the transgressive in your poems, of women refusing to accept the limitations placed on them by patriarchy. What’s your relationship with feminism, and where do you hope to see the women’s movement go in the future?

I don’t think men are inherently better than women. I think everyone needs to believe that.

I would like every choice to be valid, not just those that follow a stereotype nor those that (currently) completely overturn one.

For me this has always been a personal struggle. Every interaction I have with men or women, inside or outside of work, I work to show them this is the truth.

6. Your poems feature a strong (but flexible) metrical element. How intently have you studied prosody?

Pretty intently.

I read poetry for the music. I believe that part of what differentiates poetry from prose is music: repetition is integral to the meaning being conveyed. This repetition can exist on any level: consonance, assonance, meter, rhyme, anaphora, refrain, and so on.

7. What are your future plans for writing? Will you continue to give voice to dead women, or are you cooking up a different dish?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop inhabiting the voices of dead women; there is so much to remember. Right now I’m in the midst of revising my novel (in verse) which tells the story of the woman who defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia. You don’t get more dead than that.

I’m also at work on a manuscript inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, one poem per play, and that includes many poems that don’t personify women.

Next fall, my chapbook The Scientific Method will be published by Parallel Press and while that does have dead women (scientists) in it, it also has a paean to the Navier-Stokes Equation and a lullaby for a dead spacecraft.


Please, Roman Catholic Church, Excommunicate Me

In my last post I said I was a little nervous about unveiling my book because it makes clear that I wholeheartedly reject organized religion. Well, I guess I’ve gotten over it, because for a few days now my FB status has insisted that my next blog post would carry the above title. I do like to keep my word, so here I am.

I was raised in a rather strict, Irish-Catholic heritage, in a parish just north of Daytona Beach (that hotbed of sin), St. Brendan’s, where the Irish Catholic churches sent missionaries (I was 12 before I realized there were priests who spoke without a brogue). We went every Sunday. When I was a girl I was in love with Jesus, whose love I felt returned in the beauty of the natural world. When I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up, the simple answer was saint. I planned on being a nun until my hormones kicked in at puberty. I’ve completed all the sacraments save last rites.

The adherence to nonsensical dogma like transubstantiation, combined with the flagrant misogyny of the patriarchal hierarchy, and the popes’ insistence on forbidding birth control (despite the damage to women’s lives AND the environment that such a policy causes), had encouraged me to eschew my Catholic upbringing by the time I was in my mid-20s. But it was impossible to completely eliminate something that had been sown so deeply; I ended up on a spiritual quest, due to an ingrained need for the numinous, that led me to explore other traditions, starting with Taoism, to Buddhism, to the Bhakti tradition in Hinduism (a tradition centered on cultivating love), to Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), and even atheism, all the while practicing an intuitive, earth-centered spirituality. Finally I’m at a point where I embrace a positive (meaning assertive) Agnosticism. (Despite what some militant atheists insist, agnosticism is not the idea that one isn’t sure what is true, god or no-god, it’s not a refuge for intellectual cowards, but an assertion that one doesn’t believe one can know ultimate truth.) Looking at the geo-political paradigm, at the damage our current world-view(s) has (have) led us to do to each other and to the natural world, I can’t help but feel that certainty is at least partly responsible for the world predicament. A little humility would be a good thing. A little “I don’t know,” or “fu jiki,” as the Japanese Zen embrace. Here’s a short poem from my book (originally published in Free Inquiry, the journal of the Council for Secular Humanism):

Before your Grandma’s Funeral

What do you say to the nice old ladies
after your book-worming has taught you

the religion y’all once shared is just
a bunch of stories with suspect origins

like a poor man’s quilt, pieced together
from the brightest and the darkest bits

of the generations who went before
also just guessing and imagining

while the earth shook and thunder clapped
and the stars whirled and flashed overhead?

Seems to me that the myths religions promulgate at best are simply attempts, pre-science, to explain how things came to be. At worst, as explicated in The Chalice and The Blade, they are used to control people and to justify exploitative and dominating hierarchies. I said in my last post that the gylanic (egalitarian in all senses) message of Christ in the gospels was hijacked by the Roman empire to serve its own, quite contradictory ends. The man who did this, of course, was Constantine, a man who had his wife boiled alive, who had his own son murdered, and who force-fed the pagan Celts sanctified bread while their jaws were mechanically pried wide enough to break, until their stomachs burst. That’s mighty Christian, eh? And the Roman Catholic Church as it stands now is the natural flower of this beginning. It continues to encourage the subjugation of women, the rape of the natural world, the exploitation of the poor. Not to mention the rape of children (it seems hardly necessary to include that, as much press as it’s gotten, but there it is).

I remember when I was a docent at the New Orleans Museum of Art. They have a portrait of the Archangel Michael, painted in the time of the colonization (when the natives were being “converted” and used as slave labor) of South America. His stern visage is quite European, and against his shoulder he holds, not the flaming sword of ages past, but the flared musket of the overseer. At the time it was clearly intended to send a message to those laborers when they came to church. Now it hangs in the museum testifying against their exploitation, a potent visual metaphor.

None of this is news, of course, to anyone. So why am I now intent on securing an excommunication? We recently had attempted to rejoin the Church. Our kids were eager to belong to a religious community, eager to have an acceptable answer to the question “What are you?”, eager to have easy access to volunteer opportunities to help others. So we thought we could come back to the church, recognizing that much of their doctrine isn’t so bad when viewed metaphorically (that message in the gospels still rings true). But now this: Female Troubles, Lisa Miller’s article in Newsweek about the Church’s attack on women religious who dare to stand up for other women, or who harbor nefarious feminist ideas. Ugh. At a time when the Pope should be doing all he can to make the men in his organization bear personal responsibility, he’s attacking the women for not keeping in their place.

This is not an organization I can align myself with. Sitting in Mass some weeks ago, I was so emotionally torn it was hard to control the tears. On the one hand, I felt like I’d come home. It was beautiful. Facing a portrait of Mary, I thought, yes, the Church, unlike the protestant sects, has retained at least a little bit of the divine feminine in Mary. But sitting with my daughter, straining to understand the homily of the foreign priest while the eloquent sister sat to the side, not allowed to serve in that capacity though much more able, and hearing all metaphors for the divine delivered in the male gender, I thought, NO! I can’t do this to her. And I won’t.

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Women, Self-Promotion, Community, and the Real Work

I’m sitting in my cheery breakfast nook, typing on my Neo, listening to soothing music (songs dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, we got from a link on Annie Finch’s Facebook page), recovering my center after spending the past couple of days occupied with social networking. This is my second foray into Facebook. The first was aborted due to a policy of my husband’s employer. He’s now self-employed (and learning all about self-promotion himself, and I’m free to be myself as publicly as I choose. And with a book the release of which is immanent, it’s really part of the job description. But it’s something I don’t do without qualms. Part of it IS a safety issue. As the daughter of a criminologist and the wife of a psychiatrist, I’m probably hyper-aware of how sick people can be (so to any relatives or close friends who are wanting pictures of the kids, just ask, and I’ll send you links to private albums).

But it’s not just that. There’s something particularly icky about the feeling self-promotion gives me, a self-centeredness that feels ugly and pretty counter to my personal poetics, which are all about seeing into the perspective of the Other (whether that’s someone of an alien faith or another species), a great world-nurturing, an embrace of the unity of things. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s not just religion’s admonishments that make me feel that way, but also a gender-specific societal conditioning. There was a conversation recently at Harriet about the disparity in the numbers of women being published, and it came down to us submitting in lesser numbers (though the fact that some cultural gatekeepers may exhibit a bias against “women’s writing” or women’s perspectives is evident, given incidents like the recent Publisher’s Weekly book-list fiasco). Considering that the number of women writing is huge (going by enrollment in creative writing programs), the fact that so few attempt publication points to something that needs to be examined (this gender imbalance between production and exhibition is pervasive in all the arts, as illuminated in the recent movie Who Does She Think She Is?). As I confessed at Harriet, I’ve been very lax about it myself, only sending out small numbers of submissions very rarely (all considered, I have an impressive batting average). The book manuscript being published was entered, in earlier versions, in two or three contests only, and then to one press at which, not being widely published, I really had no hope with. Plain View Press attracted my attention with this bit of verbiage: “Despite evidence that relentless violence has taken root worldwide, there is hope and there are artists to show the human face of it.” I sent a query, then a sample, and then the whole thing. It turns out that Susan Bright, my editor, started the press as a feminist one decades ago, branching out to wider social-justice issues later. It’s a testament to the big-tent attitude of contemporary feminism, btw, that she would choose to publish a book of poems written by a housewife.

But back to why women lag behind in self-promotion. Is it a feeling, instilled at an early age, that we can’t possibly be good enough? Or simply that it’s not “nice,” not “ladylike,” to push ourselves on others? Men don’t seem to have much trouble with the idea. Like with most societal phenomena, I’m sure there’s a confluence of contributing factors; it’s helpful to worry about only the ones we can control. So I’m working on my cognitive framework. Taking a page from Eckhart Tolle, I’m examining my thoughts on the matter and trying to see how I can think about self-promotion differently in order to feel more comfortable with it. I know I do NOT want to experience it as any sort of competition. I’ve heard that Sylvia Plath devoted a fair bit of mental space to ranking herself in relation to other women writing poetry; I can’t help but wonder if that contributed to her psychopathology (or was it symptomatic of it?). I know I refuse to see poetry as a zero-sum game. I prefer a cooperative model (as I do with all economies) in which a rising tide raises all boats. For that reason I’m hugely grateful to women like Amy King, who let me, a complete unknown, send her my manuscript, and Joanne Merriam, who so generously introduced me the other day to her followers at Twitterworld, and, for that matter, to Annie Finch, for accepting my friend request and for being a role model for other women poets, a shining example of a woman who has succeeded hugely in the Po-Biz without sacrificing her humanity or femininity (see this post in which she proudly claims the title Poetess). These are talented women who have managed to overcome whatever societal conditioning may have impeded them in the beginning in order to get their writing out there. I’m pleased as punch they see fit to give a hand to someone like me, for whom it’s been a temptation to take the Emily-Dickinson route, leaving my poems bundled in ribbon for my survivors to deal with (my daughter assures me she would), which would be much more pleasant. The world is a mess, though. When Brian was in school at Georgetown (for those who don’t know, it’s a Jesuit school), I read a book from the library, very Catholic (my inherited faith from which it’s well-nigh impossible to fully extract oneself), about the responsibility of the artist. This was when I was about to embark on my senior year of college as a writing major, and I was giving serious thought to what I should do with my art. Later, my study of Buddhism convinced me that my desire to ease the suffering of the world was a valid one.

Like most practices, this is going to be a balancing act, and I must find the sweet spot between not doing enough to promote my work, and becoming so involved in that aspect of it that I neglect the work itself. Because this book is just the beginning. Stay tuned.