Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Our Lost Children

Ministry in Meeting for Worship on Sunday brought me to the memory of the Sandy Hook massacre and time I spent in the Zen Community of Oregon, almost 15 years ago. Here is my reconstructed ministry-not-shared with those gathered Friends, and you.
In 2001, I spent time at the Zen Community of Oregon, practicing and living into the vision of community and discipline that was thriving there. I visited for more than a week in March and most of the month of August, 2001. I participated pretty fully in the life of the monks. I practiced three times daily, sitting and walking meditation. I participated in communal 3-bowl meals, with offerings to Buddha, chanting, and silence. I worked in the gardens, the yard, and most importantly, tended to the Jizo garden.

Jizo is a Boddhisatva. My understanding of a Boddhisatva is someone who, through dedicated practice and the intense love and presence that comes from this practice, commits themselves to being present for the betterment of all beings. Jizo travels with all who are suffering, and particularly stands with, walks with women who have lost children, and children and travelers.

While I was visiting and practicing with this community on the side of Larch Mountain outside of Portland, we cleaned and prepared the garden for women to come and honor their lost children. The Jizo statues were covered in leaves. The walking paths needed a raking. My friend who was living there let me know that the women would come and place red cloaks on the statues, leaving notes for their children, if they liked.

I didn't see the women come, but on the day they came, I felt a quiet and sadness settle into the land. I remember watching a spider who was waiting outside of the zendo and had woven a brilliant web in the early morning light. I wanted to wait and watch the women, to understand what they had lost, what they gained from their visit to Jizo. I had no context with which to understand their suffering, their comfort in Jizo.

12 years later, with the loss of a child to miscarriage, I gained some context for this experience. Now a year out from that loss, pregnant with a child who by all accounts is staying, I am reminded of the 2 year anniversary of the death of 27 children, women, and men, at Sandy Hook Elementary. I wrote, at the time, about naming evil and our complicity with evil. I did not connect to Jizo because I had not experienced loss like that yet. I did not connect to this memory because I had not come to name the deaths of children as loss I shared.

I also have come to see other losses in this light. The intense and continued loss of black life to the impunity and rage of the white police state hits me differently today, remembering my loss, Sandy Hook, and Jizo. Trayvon Martin was a child. Tamir Rice was a child. Eric Garner had been a child, was a parent. Michael Brown was a child. There are many others.

What would a garden for these deaths look like? Can we honor our personal losses in a context of honoring these deaths, these wrongdoings?

Maybe they are too different. Losing a child to a disease, miscarriage--too soon, too soon-- is real and painful, but with no recourse, no way to fix it. Losing a child to gun violence, untreated mental illness visited upon the vulnerable, and systems of racism and impunity around black peoples lives-- too soon, too soon-- point in the direction of a need to fix something. A need for justice.

But there is no way to fix the death. It happened. We are left with their absence, and suffering.

I have no doubt that Jizo is walking with all of these children. Where there is suffering, we need to not be alone. I buried the baby I lost on the land, last October. I have not been able to go back and visit that spot, out by one of the big old trees in the woods. But I'm thinking about getting some Jizo statues, creating a space where we can visit with those we've lost, for whatever reason. The land can hold these losses, and there are many-- alive and beyond-- who can help walk with us in this grief.  Let us walk in this grief, together, so we can better act to build justice and end impunity in our world.

7 pm, ET, December 16: I posted this in the morning, and as I was driving to an appointment with the midwifery practice I am working with, I heard about the death of over 100 children in Pakistan at a school. I find this devastating, I don't quite have words. But I want to acknowledge in this post that this happened, and connects with what I am writing.

Right now I am thinking: is there a garden big enough to hold the grief of our lost children? Is the whole world to be our mourning place? I don't know. I don't know. Maybe.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Against Biological Determinism, or, There’s Something Growing In There!

Warning, this is explicit, and about body parts. Don’t read if you prefer to not think about body parts or sex.

A skit of James Franco competing with a 4 year old from SNL-- and being 31 weeks pregnant-- inspired me to write about bodies and what they say about who we are.

The skit itself was silly, and made me laugh to myself as Franco (who is almost constantly channeling the dirty old man he will undoubtedly become) yells into the camera about seeing the scrotum of the father of a four year old years before the boy is born. “We play squash together. He took a hard dive and his balls came spilling out of his shorts. They were huge and red and Tommy [the four year old] was still inside them.”

What this reminded me of is the myth of the homunculus. I am not sure where I ran across this thinking, but I’ve always associated it with the deprivation of non-masturbation and genital identification with sexuality. The homunculus idea is that inside each individual sperm there is a miniature person, waiting to be implanted and grown to baby form. If, as Franco jests and 16th century philosophers posited, each sperm is a potential person, than masturbation for people with penises is really murder.

When I was a child, there were whispers of this old viewpoint in the Catholic school I attended from seventh through ninth grade. I was at an all girls school, however, so it was mostly discussed at the lunch table. Lucky for me, I was not from a devout home, so my suspicion of this thinking was high. Not so for other girls. Wide eyed and unsure of what their bodies were for, these girls were the most scared of what was going on down there. I remember listening to girls talking about sins of the flesh, and the risk of boys committing murder if they made sperm come out of them.

In 8th grade, we got to health class, and all these conjectures fell away, except for the specter of the homunculus, and its attendant question-- What are our bodies for? The sisters couldn’t help us, at least not with ease or self-awareness, as they had rejected the urges of the flesh, or sublimated them in good works and self-deprivation. But for we who knew we weren’t heading that way-- once we could believe we were desirable at all-- these questions loomed large. What happens down there?  What are our bodies for?

When I started having sex, it was with people with penises, and then people with vaginas. I found pleasure down there, and I sidestepped any concern about use and function by departing from heterosexual assumption at 15. Without the phantom mythic homunculus, I was free to see my body as my own, and the bodies of my lovers as something other than strictly speaking useful, as I had been taught in middle school. I also started being able to see erotic pleasure in more things than the body, or particular body parts.

In seminary, this experience I named in a feminist sense as body-god(ess)-talk, where the information and the vicissitudes of the body become a site for naming the divine, as a site for worship, as a place that moves between peoples, that creates something new. It wasn’t about reproduction, at least not in the normative sense. It was generative, and it was both about the body and not determined by it.

And then I started wanting to have a kid. I was 32 when I really started having that feeling, and I see this as part of healing for me. Part of rejecting that determinism of the body meant that I felt I also had to reject the possibility of family and parenting. So the desire to have children, from wherever it sprung, was something I repressed, much like those sisters in middle school (I knew I had more in common with them than I thought!). At 32 I stopped repressing, and started healing work to get ready to have a kid. And at 37, #1 came through my body into the world.

And now, #2. As the last weeks of pregnancy loom large, and my belly looms larger, I wonder about the homunculus, and the fear from which he comes. Am I carrying a fully grown being? Am I merely a vessel for this creature? Some conservative thinking about pregnancy and women’s roles would say, yes. The homunculus still lives in the hearts and imaginations of those who do not see what is really happening with pregnancy.

The symbiosis of pregnancy, the incredible interconnection, and the development of a being from very little to a baby is pretty amazing. But it’s not anything to privilege over any other life changing event. Oftentimes I have heard mothers say-- you have no idea until you become a mother, until you are pregnant, until you are nursing, until you are until you are……. You know, this is true! But it’s no more true than someone having other body experiences that are singular, that are personal, that do not ultimately determine who that person is. We are bodies. We have experiences. They are powerful.

What is happening to me is a fundamental experience of the body, but so are most other things. The desire to compare or privilege this experience over other bodies and their experiences recreates the world where the homunculus can grow big in our psyches. And I am truly not saying that what is happening to me is small-- or unimportant. But it does not determine value, or create more meaning or value than other bodies and their experiences. If I did that, if I wanted to have the pregnancy pedestal made for me and other people with uteruses who choose to grow babies in them, then I would be risking the loss of my sense of self to this experience. And I would be ignoring the rich depth of body experience and sources of the divine in my life before having children, before I chose this path of engaging my biology. 

This is my body, in all its vicissitudes, holiness, and commonness. And I honor the body growing in me, as a part of me, and as not all of me.  And with each birth, with each experience of the body, I wave goodbye to the homunculus ghost in this misogyny machine, and know there is more than what we bring to the project of nurturing life, in ourselves and in each other, in this world soon changed by someone new. We'll see who they are.