On The Wall

I love this photo. My friend the art critic and Pulitzer finalist Jen Graves (yes, I’m boasting) took it last month at a preview of an exhibit at Seattle’s Frye Museum of Art.  That’s me up there on the wall — my words, that is — and she’s reading them aloud to him.


What she’s reading is this:

Write what you know, they say.
But I write what I don’t know,
led by stubborn desire
to explore,
to see what there is,
or what might be,
or could be.
I play with ideas,
with paradox,
and wrestle with words
— pin them down –
— lose hold of them –
— delete them —
until the right ones appear.
I recognize them
and then, startled,
come to a dead halt
lest they shift again.
They may not seem so right
tomorrow, yet here they are,
in the world,
suddenly solid.

The fire extinguisher seems a tad de trop.  As might be the show’s title, ‘Genius 21’, which surely runs the risk of begging the question.  It’s on through January.

Infinity Comix!

Here’s a great two-page record of my infinity talk at the Goodship Academy of Higher Education the other night, and the discussion that followed.  It was made by artist Jed Dunkerley, whose extraordinary talents range from animation design to musical theater.

(The talk, based on the next-to-last chapter of Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, ended up on the front page of the Seattle Times.  It began with the pianist playing Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ and yes, that’s me inviting people to come sit on the floor.  The book’s due out in April, and I’d show you the cover except… well, infinity means it’s not yet finalized).




windhoverI slow down for falcons.

Falcons, eagles, hawks, cranes, herons, kestrels, all manner of large birds.

If I’m on the road, I pull over, stop the car, get out, and allow myself to be entranced.  If I’m at home and spot one from my office window, I abandon the keyboard, step out onto the deck, and stand transfixed, silently urging it closer even as it spirals farther away.

This is one reason I’ve been stretching the muscles of my mind trying to commit Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover to memory — the first eight lines, that is, since the last six go all over-the-top Christ-our-Lordy and do nothing for me.

A mere eight lines should be easy enough, no?  It should be what my Irish mother used to call a doddle.  And yet while I think I have an excellent memory, this poem defies me, and has done so for well over a year.

Try reciting it out loud, slowly, rather than reading it fast and silently:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

You see what I mean?  Wouldn’t you love to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing?

This is one of the two most anthologized poems written by Hopkins, the closeted gay man who became a Jesuit priest and indeed kept his heart in hiding — except in his poetry.  The other is Pied Beauty, which you might know from its first line, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” but that I love for its seventh, which expands dappledness to “All things counter, original, spare, strange.”

The idea of beauty as counter, original, spare, strange is so damn beautiful, and yet it’s ‘The Windhover’ that haunts me, so much so that it comes with me everywhere I drive.  Physically comes with me, that is, nestled on page 468 of The Rattlebag, an anthology edited by Ted Hiughes and Seamus Heaney that has taken up permanent residence on the passenger seat of my car, jostling for room with the occasional human passenger.  Every time a drawbridge goes up (this being watery Seattle), I open the book to the dog-eared page and recite the lines a few times, eyes open sometimes, closed at others.  Yet no matter how I do it, nor how many times I do it, I find myself stumbling, and have to stop and look at the printed page, always discovering yet another transcendent phrase that’s escaped me.

‘The Windhover’ defies memory, at least for me, and this makes me marvel not only at the lines themselves — at each evocatively, even provocatively precise word — but at how Hopkins wrote them.  He has to have held the whole of the poem in his mind in order to write it, has to have each word following each word firmly in place.  And yet as a mere reader/reciter, I can’t keep track.  The poem seems to spiral away from me, to soar out of sight, leaving me thrillingly aware of the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Strong Words For Strong Women

A couple of years back, I started referring to my friend Rebecca Brown as “the divine Ms Brown” (as in “the latest piece by the divine Ms Brown…”). Not that I have any desire to worship her – or anyone or anything else for that matter – but her writing definitely touches on the transcendent. The word fit.

robin_seattlemetThen I realized that another friend, contemporary-art curator Robin Held, deserved a better adjective than all the “amazings” and “wonderfuls” constantly used for her. I started thinking of her as “the iconic Ms Held.” That fit too.

I could always stick with the usual words, of course. But when “awesome” is used for everything from the latest video game to a new flavor of ice-cream, it becomes meaningless. There’s no real awe there, just as there’s no real wonder in “wonderful.”

“Amazing” is popular, but seems to indicate surprise that any woman could be strong and intelligent and outspoken.

“Incredible” begs the question.

And as for “courageous” – if it takes courage for a woman to speak her mind and be active in the world (at least in the West), then we’re in worse trouble than I thought.

There’s a whole range of monikers we could use instead of the standard wonderfuls and awesomes and amazings.  I began jotting them down, and found that I could put names of women I know to every one of them. I’m pretty sure you can do the same:

— the badass Ms X

— the incomparable Ms Y

— the unstoppable Ms Z

— the outrageous Ms A

— the formidable Ms B

— the dynamite Ms C

— the fearless Ms D

— the fearsome Ms E

— the notorious Ms F

— the path-breaking Ms G

— the ferocious Ms H

— the inimitable Ms I

— the indomitable Ms J

— the brilliant Ms K

— the magnificent Ms L

— the dynamic Ms M

— the genius known as Ms N

— the epic Ms O

— the mind-blowing Ms P

and this isn’t even the whole of the alphabet.

Some of these tags are stronger, some less so, but you get the idea: We need better accolades for strong, intelligent women. And quit with the weak female-only ones.

Words like “gutsy” don’t cut it — who ever describes a man they admire as gutsy?  “Ballsy?” — oh puh-lease…  “Incredible”? — really, you find it hard to credit?  “Innovative?” — aren’t we all?

So let’s innovate.  No matter what gender you are, feel free to pitch in and share better suggestions in the comments.  And start using them. Liberally.

Think big, think strong, and celebrate strong women with strong language!

A Hard Choice? Really?

The right-wing is trying like hell to do a number on the minds of American women. You know that thing about abortion being the hardest choice a woman will ever have to make, or the one she most regrets? Bullshit.

90_percentIn fact 90% of all American women who’ve had an abortion are either glad or simply relieved they did (click here for the research.)  And for every woman I know who’s had an abortion (that’s half the women I know, and quite possibly half the women you know too), a safe, routine, minimally invasive procedure was far from the hardest decision of their lives. For many, like me, it was the simple, sane choice. The only hard part was finding the money to pay for it.

You want a hard decision? What about marriage? Or divorce? Taking on a mortgage? Choosing a cancer treatment? Allowing a terminally ill spouse to die with dignity? What about the multitude of hard decisions we all have to make in the course of our lives, men and women?

But right-wingers don’t think women capable of rational decision-making at all.  It’s apparently especially hard for us delicate souls, which is presumably why they think we agonize over it and decide wrong.  How very Victorian of them. They’re apparently white knights in shining armor, out to save every woman from her own distressingly poor judgment.  In their ideal world, no woman would be “allowed” to make a decision without prior permission from the Republican caucus.  Certainly not any woman with an income under a million a year.

But it’s not our decision-making that stinks, it’s theirs.  Because not only is it morally and ethically bankrupt, it’s full of lies — deliberate lies.

— Like Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina pretending to be near tears as she talked about watching a video that didn’t exist and never had.

— Or the head of the House Oversight Committee trying to play gotcha with the head of Planned Parenthood by using a bogus chart created by an anti-abortion group.

— Or abortion opponents pretending there’s no such thing as an embryo.  They’d have us think that every abortion is that of a full-term viable fetus, when none are.  The vast majority of abortions are embryonic, medically defined as up to eight weeks from conception.  But hey, you can’t see an embryo on a sonogram, let alone wave photographs of it in an attempt to guilt-trip women.  So lie, baby, lie — and screw the lives you mess up in the process.

It’s clear by now that nobody cares about facts in the fantasy world of today’s Republicans.  Real facts, that is, as opposed to imaginary ones.

Those of us who live in the real world know for a fact that imaginary facts are dangerous.  Remember those non-existent weapons of mass destruction used as the reason to invade Iraq?  Or those non-existent scientists asserting with great authority that there was no such thing as climate change?

Forget hard decisions for the moment.  Here’s an easy one:  A year from now, do all you can to make sure we send this gang of women-hating, war-mongering, planet-polluting liars back to whatever slime pit they crawled out of.

Who’s Really Pro-Life?

How have we allowed this to happen? How have we allowed anti-abortion activists to call themselves pro-life? How have we not called them out, loud and clear, on this Orwellian double-speak?

Many of those against abortion are the same right-wingers who want to nuke the hell out of Iran or any other designated enemy of the day; who support the death penalty no matter how many death-row inmates have been proven innocent; who obstruct all attempts at gun control even when kindergarten kids are massacred; who see nothing wrong about cops shooting unarmed black men in the back. But a single fertilized egg inside a woman’s uterus? Suddenly, that’s sacred.

They’re not pro-life. I am. And Planned Parenthood is. And NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, is. Because nobody here is advocating for abortion per se; what we’re for is the right to have one. For motherhood to be a matter of choice, not compulsion. And for a child’s right to come into the world wanted and welcomed. What we’re for, in short, is life. Not life in the abstract, but real life, as it is lived.

What we’re for is not more but fewer abortions. And the way to achieve that is clear: sex education in schools, and freely available contraception for women. Yet the anti-abortion crowd is against both. Which means that all they ensure is that there’ll be more abortions.

no-more-coat-hangersThe historical record is clear: women have always aborted pregnancies, whether with herbs, with knitting needles, or with wire coat-hangers in back-street abortions such as the one that nearly killed a close friend when I was a student. So now that abortion is safe – a minor medical procedure – the anti-abortion crowd are doing everything they can to make it dangerous again: to make the woman pay for having the gall to be sexual, and to make the unwanted child pay too.

If a woman chooses to carry a pregnancy to term and then give the child up for adoption, I totally support her choice. But it is cruel and punitive to force her to do so. It is downright obscene to insist that a rape victim carry her rapist’s child. And to make a woman give birth to a severely disabled child doomed to die in pain within hours, weeks, or months is nothing less than torture, of both mother and child.

This isn’t about the Bible or the Quran. It’s about punishment, about a basic attitude of life negation, of harshness and joylessness. It isn’t pro-life; it’s anti-life.

If its advocates weren’t causing so much misery and suffering, I might even find it in myself to feel sorry for them.

My Abortion

Planned_Parenthood_busNearly every woman I know has either had an abortion or helped another woman get one. I know this because as the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood ramps up, I’ve been asking. Old and young, black and white and brown, married and single, straight and gay, religious and irreligious – women have been telling me their abortion stories.

But I think we need to tell them publicly too. To break the weird veil of shame and secrecy that still hangs over the decision, even when abortion is legal. To stand up and say “Yes, sure, I had one.”

So here’s the story of mine.

I was 20 years old – young and dumb, as every 20-year-old has every right to be. Not that dumb, though, since I was using a diaphragm thanks to the Marie Stopes clinic, the one place in the whole of England at the time that would provide contraception to an unmarried 17-year-old.  And the diaphragm worked fine until my first summer in Jerusalem, when it didn’t. Not because of any fault in the device, but because I hadn’t put it in. Carried away, late in my menstrual cycle, I’d said “Come on, it’s okay.” And three weeks later, realized it wasn’t.

There was no doubt in my mind what I needed to do. The guy I was with was a no-goodnik, the result of a bad case of delayed teenage rebellion on my part. I had an undergraduate degree in psychology but no idea what I wanted to do next, only that since I could barely handle myself, no way could I handle a baby. But abortion was still illegal in Israel. And I was dead broke.

I found my way to the Jerusalem branch of an aid organization for Brits – a single room with a single occupant, who took one look at me as I stood miserably in the doorway and before I could open my mouth said “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

I nodded yes.

“And you need an abortion.”

Another nod.

“And you don‘t know where to go.”

Again, a nod.

“And you don’t have any money.”

At the final nod, she said “Sit down,” and made three phone calls: one for an appointment with a leading gynecologist who didn’t believe in forcing women to have children; one to her HQ to get approval for a loan to pay his fee; and one to a publishing house to get me a job as a copy-editor so that I could pay back the loan.

We have been firm friends ever since.

The procedure itself was a non-event. (The doctor gave me a prescription for the pill and said he hoped to never see me again, though in fact he did, but not with me as the patient – he ran a maternity clinic, and was the obstetrician for three of my friends as I helped with their labor.) I parted ways with the no-goodnik, and set about the never-ending process of growing up.

And now, almost half a century later? No regrets. Quite the contrary, since I suspect this was the one rational decision I made the whole of that year. In short: thank god I had an abortion.


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