“Nine Months,” “Cryptic Crossword LV,” “Her / Him / Our / Their / Us / Them / They Body,” and “Jaws Was on TV on a Saturday Morning”

We are delighted to present this week’s selections from the Brain Mill Press Poetry Month Contest, Break Poetry Open, by talented poets Raymond Luczak, Holly Painter, henry 7. reneau, jr., and Mercury Marvin Sunderland.

We hope you’ll enjoy these editors’ picks as much as we did.

Nine Months

Raymond Luczak

mom still wonders how i lost my hearing
she mentions having a miscarriage in april 65

& being surprised to find herself pregnant

again in june 65 dr santini said id be born in january 66
instead i arrived in november 65 fully formed

not a preemie i go home two days later

not long after my sister carole takes
to reading out loud from a book
she is learning how to read to me
as i am trapped in my crib
i have apparently cocked my ears

to her voice laboriously decoding words

then mom changes her story

she remembers having the miscarriage in march 65
it fell out of her while she sat on the toilet

at 16 i constantly wondered

if that was indeed possible

a body expelling her own fetus

a heatwave in july 66

i turn pink & hot but everybody is hot anyway

mom wonders maybe somethings seriously wrong

at the hospital i am found to have double pneumonia

& a high fever i look close to dying so a priest is called in
i survive my last rites of death but my hearing doesnt

then mom changes details again

she says she had a d&c done in february 65
when she felt her fetus wasnt growing

it wasnt even two centimeters long
no idea whether it was a boy or girl
i no longer am sure what to believe

after i come back from the hospital

carole reads to me again

this time i bob my head around

she doesnt realize ive lost most of my hearing
no one has either
she gets frustrated with me & gives up

by the time i turn 2 & a half

mom asks her doctor why i havent begun talking

he says maybe hes deaf

she comes home & tells dad to stand me up & turn me

so i can face the wall up in the tub since he was washing me
i don’t respond to my name

research indicates a twin in the womb could miscarry
leaving behind its other half

in the 60s technology hadnt existed to detect

such a tiny baby
thats why moms pregnant test results in june 65
had so surprised everyone

up & down oak street where i once roamed
the trees are mostly gone

but the shadow of my other half

still runs a mean yellow stripe
right through the road of my life
the mystery of never knowing him

Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of 22 books, including Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels). He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His online presence includes: raymondluczak.com, facebook.com/raymondsbooks, and twitter.com/deafwoof.

Cryptic Crossword LV

Holly Painter

Holly Painter lives with her wife and son in Vermont, where she teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont. Her first full-length book of poetry, Excerpts from a Natural History, was published by Titus Books in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2015. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also been published in literary journals and anthologies in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore, and the UK.

Her/Him/Our/Their/Us/Them/They Body

henry 7. reneau, jr.

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience, like a chambered bullet that commits a felony every day, an immolation that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, he has self-published a chapbook entitled 13hirteen Levels of Resistance, and his collection, The Book Of Blue(s) : Tryin’ To Make A Dollar Outta’ Fifteen Cents, was a finalist for the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Jaws Was on TV on a Saturday Morning

Mercury Marvin Sunderland

Mercury Marvin Sunderland is a gay Greek/Roman Wiccan autistic transgender man who uses he/him pronouns. He’s from Seattle. He currently attends The Evergreen State College, and his dream is to become the most banned author in human history.

Mercury is a 2013, 2014, 2015 winner of ACT Theater’s Young Playwright’s Program, a 2015, 2016 selected playwright for ACT Theater’s 14:48 HS, a 2016 winner of the Jack Straw Young Writer’s Program, a 2016 selected participant for the Seattle Talent Show hosted by Rainier Beach High School, and was hired as a paid representative of Youth Speaks Seattle in 2016. In 2017 alone, he was selected for and won the 2017 Youth Speaks Seattle Grand Slam, and went off as one of the top five youth slam poets representing Seattle at Brave New Voices 2017, an international slam poetry tournament treated as America’s national tournament, and was selected to perform slam poetry alongside former Seattle mayor candidate Nikkita Oliver at the University of Washington. In 2018 his illustrations were selected for While Supplies Last, an art show hosted by Anthony White, a Cornish College of the Arts graduate. In 2019 he received his first literary journal acceptance from Fearsome Critters Literary Magazine Volume Two, his second from the February 2019 issue of Marathon Literary Review, his third and fourth from Across & Through Literary Magazine, and his fifth from The Dollhouse Literary Magazine.

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

Forming out of the Void

At eight years old, I sat in church while the pastor informed the congregation that a wife’s body did not belong to her, that marriage meant that her husband owned her sexuality.

I doubt this was the first time I had heard this sermon, but it juts out in my memory. I sat stiffly in the pew, every inch of my skin hurting. It isn’t fair, I couldn’t say. I don’t want that, were forbidden words. The future I was being offered was the present: my body belonged to men now, and it would belong to men in the future.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all. The language of my Evangelical faith was, Less of me, more of Jesus, and, Not my will, but God’s. You surrendered to God, you died to self, you released all control and let God define you. And it was God that said that I would grow up to marry a man and give my body to my husband.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all.

There was no raging against this. As much as it hurt, as sick as I felt listening to those words, it was a sickness akin to grief: an acknowledgement, a resignation. This was the truth, commanded by God himself, and no small child had any power to change it.

I could only relinquish myself. This was the one line in the sand: obey God or rebel. One led to contentment, happiness, fulfillment. The other pain, destruction, and hell. All that was required of me as a child, the only thing I needed to learn was how to obey better. Obey the Lord. Obey my parents. Obey authority. And one day, my future husband. There was nothing else.

The sexual abuse took my body before I understood I had one. It was part of my formation of consciousness, how I categorized the world. What houses looked like houses where children were being hurt? What men looked like men who loved their daughters too much? Why did so many girls look like they deserved to be spared when I certainly didn’t? I made these assessments with the casualness of familiarity. By the time my parents were separated, and it was my second oldest brother leading me off to the bedroom, I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I was handcrafted by God to be a girl. It was my mother’s prayer. In the terror of an abusive husband and the chaos of two sons, she wanted the innocence of a girl, the quiet calm of a daughter, whole and set apart from the trauma of abuse. So God created me for her. I was an infant so beautifully still, so sweetly quiet, my mother could forget she was holding me in her arms. An answer to prayer.

But I was also girl; my mother put on me the predilections of what she saw as feminine traits. My emotions were suspect, held up to scrutiny to determine whether they were true or had hidden motivations. Spoiled, prone to dramatics, feigning illness and weakness. A cunning child, willingly provoking her brother to violence for the sheer delight of getting him in trouble. My anger was an intentional cruelty I inflicted on my family, my tears manipulative attempts to avoid punishment. When my mother reflected on my childhood, it was with the assurance of her parenting skills; I was bad, but she had made me better. I was lazy, rebellious, manipulative, and she taught me obedience.

I was not a teenager, my mother pointed out with pride. Teenager meant self-exploration, independence, rebellion—all things that contradicted the relinquishing of self. The only lesson on defying that God taught was how wrong it was to defy God. So why not skip all that? Why not jump ahead to the right conclusion and avoid the misery?

For once my mother was proud of me. I received praise from her when I scorned my childhood self and called her a spoiled brat. Who else but someone who loved truth, whose thinking wasn’t clouded with self-interest, would be willing to acknowledge how wicked they had once been? I was wise now, someone who cared about logic before emotion. I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night; these were facts. The body—the flesh, as our Christian faith called it, in all its carnality, only wanted to trick us, and I was not going to be tricked.

I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night.

I had to rearrange my feelings to match what I was supposed to feel. The only trauma I was allowed was “a girl without her father,” and everything I experienced was assigned to it. Any other problem was merely physical. I was inexplicably sick a lot: headaches, stomachaches, allergies, and a chronic case of PMS my mother insisted could plague me all month long.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven. It’s not that I was entirely unaware that begging God to kill me had no spiritual motivation. But when I slipped up, when I admitted to myself what I really felt, I had to go back to the process of making my emotions line up correctly.

I was a girl. I wanted a boyfriend. There was no question. It was easy to be this way, to logically reverse emotions. What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys. There was no conscious effort on my part, no confusion or doubts. It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so. They were determined by God and I had no fight in me.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven.

I was solidly an adult before I could finally tell others about the sexual abuse. I worried that my mother was right; I was manipulative. Because to talk about the abuse was to intentionally recall the trauma, to bring to mind the kinds of chronic pains our bodies let us forget about. I didn’t have to do this, so didn’t it, by definition, mean I was playing the victim? It felt less like I was tearing down the walls to find the fresh, real, spontaneous self underneath. I was making myself climb back into my body and teaching myself how to map those feelings into emotional expressions.

Abuse survivors are often handed a narrative that says: there is no such thing as the complete destruction of the human soul. No matter who hurts you, no matter how broken you might be, you can’t help who you are, the reality of you. There is always a before to get back to, a version of yourself that exists untraumatized that you merely need to find. If any part of you is still affected by the trauma, then you have not arrived at your real self.

What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys… It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so.

What of me was unaffected by the abuse? What self existed prior to it? No one cared if the trauma was what caused me to say, I am straight, I am a girl. No one asked me if I should separate myself into pieces to determine their uninfluenced truth.

I couldn’t tell you who I was, only what I wanted. When I said, I’m attracted to women, it’s because the idea sounded so good. I wanted to be; it was the first time I imagined love as good. Was that the abuse talking? Someone who runs into the arms of women to avoid their trauma with men?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space. Does it make too much traumatic sense, the chronically dissociated survivor, calling themselves non-binary? What proof can I offer anyone that this is my unchangeable soul?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space.

None. But I’m more inside my skin than I ever was before. I have dimension, solidity, a sharper sense of my skin. What more is there to owning your body other than finding what makes it easier to live in? I’d accepted for so long narratives that said that easier was cheating, that healing meant forcing yourself into what made you miserable or afraid because it was good for you, that who you are was somehow different than who you want to be. And yet I cannot deny how much easier it is for me to look in the mirror now and say, I am me.

I looked at God and said, I am mine. I take back everything. No more surrender, no more less of me, no more resignation to who I’m supposed to be, whether I like it or not. Obedience taught me how to surrender myself and rebellion is my refusal. There is nothing more rebellious than the word no. No, I did not deserve the abuse, no, I am not my mother’s daughter, no, I will not marry a man, no, I belong to me.

It is incremental. I spent so long comfortable with being uncomfortable, so used to contorting myself into obedience. But I am teaching myself to resist, shaping myself so that my body feels distinctly separate from others. I am no longer without form and void. I called myself into existence. And it was good.

top photo by Zac Frith on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Anger

The way to remove darkness from a room is simply to turn on a light. In the same way to rid yourself of any difficulty, concentrate on the solution rather than the problem.

—Daniel Levin, Zen Oracle Deck

I’m a renewed fan of the manga Fullmetal Alchemist. I watch each episode now with more conscious eyes. View anything from a conscious eye, and it sparks questions of how it relates to life in real time.

Alchemy—a transformational process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. In the manga, all alchemists create a transmutation circle which allows them to transmute the energy of one source to another of equal mass. However, Full Metal, the code name for Edward Elrich’s character, can do this without a circle—a “secret” he acquired during a risky transmutation exchange.

I considered the art of transmutation with anger, another form of energy yet to be mastered.

Passion, the root of anger, is an intense, driving force of feeling or conviction. Merriam-Webster includes the word “overmastering” in their definition, so it is possible to master our anger through passion?

I considered the art of transmutation with anger, another form of energy yet to be mastered.

Feelings of anger tend to be triggered by incidents left bottled up in our belly—the seat of our emotions. The bottled-up feelings burst and transmute into destructive behavior. The aftermath unearths a rebirth that’s not always positive.

Could it be the Phoenix was an angry bird, tired of her old life, and allowed herself to combust to cleanse her spirit of what no longer served her?

My own angry narrative reads of dismissal. Emotions categorized as erratic behavior. People made a point to remind me I have so much to be grateful for, and they aren’t wrong. Just wasn’t where I was at the time. Didn’t have an “anger manager” to teach me how transform those feelings into something useful, so the fire regressed back into a bottle of repression. Anger soon became this misunderstood feeling I couldn’t quite grasp or verbalize. The source undetermined. A dangling feeling that would manifest as manic words on a page or nasty ones spewed at a loved one or unsuspecting innocent.

Could it be the Phoenix was an angry bird, tired of her old life, and allowed herself to combust to cleanse her spirit of what no longer served her?

To say anger is only allowed to those who experience trauma minimizes the experience of another. Being a woman of color, specifically, our anger is constantly minimized as unwarranted banter, but Solange Knowles says, you gotta right to be mad… From Serena to Cardi B, even fellow colleagues in the workplace, all treat their anger as side-hustle emotion with no room for growth and scale.

“Angry” Woman Archetypes

I’m sure the woman with metaphorical platinum spoon gets a deep side-eye when she expresses distaste with her controlling parents. Their constant need to silence her voice and impose upon her an “adult path” absent of her own mind and beliefs. Although their intrusive behavior could be the result of financial codependency or her parents trying to live life through her, we’ll never know, because her anger is dismissed. I mean, daddy pays her way, so what is her real complaint, right?

Lack of individuality becomes an issue here, and the expectation to build relationships off a family name is daunting because no one seems to see them outside of that. Fear of expressing their own free thoughts because it may be misquoted in a public forum for likes and reach.

I contemplate how frustrating it can be. Afraid to speak out and assert their need and desire for individual happiness without being “cut off.”

Maybe the woman in the underserved community never sought to have multiple kids and lose sight of her dreams. Spend half her childhood caring for her brothers and sisters because grandma worked twelve-hour shifts or because mom couldn’t juggle the responsibility alone or because her dad chose the hustle over parenting.

These are only surface issues, though, because I’m sure her story runs deep.

But…

Because many of us only look at the surface, see her pop out that EBT card in Whole Foods, ’cause at least she’s trying to be healthy, we judge. Give her the bootstrap lecture and do our due diligence to hold her accountable for her lack of action. Is she wrong for feeling as if the same government programs geared to help her, enabled her due to lack of resources, restricted funding, or case managers who play favorites and fudge numbers to maintain federal assistance?

A seed to consider.

Then there’s the working woman. She works her ass off for those racks of cash, three weeks PTO, and the self-care indulgences each quarter, but that hard work hasn’t netted her anything besides net pay. The proverbial glass ceiling, quite the reality, and the need to take a leap became the daydream that keeps her up a night and doped up on caffeine. She fears trotting down the same path as the woman she saw at Whole Foods swiping the EBT card—though secretly she wishes it was her. The anger courses through her belly and grows. At her break point, she expresses her disdain with the economy and tax bracket disparities during her monthly girls’ brunch, but her friends quickly remind her should be grateful she can even afford brunch.

But should she?

Each day, she navigates through the “big boy” terrain, shattering glass ceilings left and right. Constantly planning her next move, only to be told she isn’t qualified to make one but too qualified to stay where she is and can’t seem to get the qualifications that would make her qualify for the qualified.

They’re angry.

Angry they can’t seem to break through. Angry that friends and family minimize their experience into simple affirmations to be repeated three times, while you spin around and touch the ground, but that isn’t always realistic. Their feelings, our feelings, in this moment, right now, are realistic, and it behooves us to constantly tell women they must wish them away as if they never existed. As if their anger, no matter the source, is invalid.

When did we become Justice?

An Angry Solution Prescribed by Alchemy

I sought alchemy as the perfect resolution to our anger because it requires us to master our emotions yet doesn’t dismiss or minimize what we feel. Our anger evolves into a solution, not a problem. The fuel we need to propel forward. The idea of alchemy requires our focus on passion as the source and to reconfigure it into useful matter. Full Metal uses his alchemic power to emerge an iron staff from the ground and fight against his enemies.

Are you willing to use your anger as a means to fight against your enemy?

I sought alchemy as the perfect resolution to our anger because it requires us to master our emotions yet doesn’t dismiss or minimize what we feel. Our anger evolves into a solution, not a problem.

In this case, the enemy is self: woman vs. woman. Anger as an alchemic formula for healing requires us to be like the fire bender and redirect the energy into a new passion. We deconstruct the old path and reconstruct a new one.

If you are the woman in the underserved community, can you take that anger and use it as fuel to push through the roadblocks? Make those “superiors” your footstool. Demand your worth because, deep down, you’re worth more. Are you willing to see yourself as the Phoenix, burn down everything you thought you knew, rise from the ashes, and soar?

As the working woman, can you wrangle your anger and create your own position or start a company of your own? Design a way to kill the narrative that you are only as good as your last good deed, master your finances and carve out the best life you can possibly live. Are you willing to accept that you alone are the master of your destiny?

Are you willing to see yourself as the Phoenix, burn down everything you thought you knew, rise from the ashes, and soar?

To the platinum spoon baby, you are not your parents’ name. Understand that an angry woman with money longer than a man’s peen is the world’s greatest threat. Can you tap into the likes of every woman who’s played the boy’s boardroom and be the Queen you are? You run the board. Allow your anger to be the leverage to attain your “pawns,” find you a good rook and work the hell outta that board. Money and status may be an access key, but it is your passion, through anger, that will set you apart from all the other players in the room.

Instead of a lightning bolt of rage, we must create a metaphorical transmutation circle and transmute our anger to solutions. Anger is rarely, if ever, viewed as a gateway to a solution because it is seen as a fault. “Miss Which” in A Wrinkle in Time gifted Meg with her faults as a superpower. We when accept our anger as a solution, as opposed to a fault, we become “passion alchemists” and use that energy as a portal to set ourselves free. When you claim agency over your faults, no one or thing can own you.

We when accept our anger as a solution, as opposed to a fault, we become “passion alchemists” and use that energy as a portal to set ourselves free. When you claim agency over your faults, no one or thing can own you.

top photo by Aldo Schumann on Unsplash

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

Time, Rhythm, and Life

I don’t know how far back memories can go to infancy, but I think that most of us can at least imagine a time before we became aware of time.

Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.

When we’re infants the world is a crib, our parents, and the people we rely on to keep us alive. We have no concept of time; we’re not even conscious of the fact that our bodies need food and sleep. As we grow, the world becomes a playground, an endless canvas for our imaginations to explore. Before long, we become aware of the physical limits imposed on us by the outside world through pain, or the guidance of the people who raised us. By then we’re aware of time, although that time is still largely our own. When we play, we get caught up in the joy of it and keeping track of time is the furthest thing from our minds. An afternoon of playing with friends can feel like minutes until you notice the sun is setting and you’re being called home.

When we move into our teens and adulthood, time seems to pull us in different directions. Our lives become a maze of work schedules, class times, romantic and family relationships. Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.

The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them.

Whether shaped by culture or life experiences, we all have a rhythm. One person’s rhythm may lead them away from following schedules, toward following their dreams without regard to forethought or safety. Another’s may lead to them working eighteen-hour days and becoming the president of a company. Sometimes those dreams are dissimilar, but either lifestyle can burn a person out. The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them. How many brilliant artists never use their gift because the rhythm of their traditions told them they could only be a complete person by becoming a mother? How many entrepreneurs with amazing ideas are trapped in jobs they hate because the larger rhythm of their cultural background says they need to be the breadwinner of a family at all times and anything else is a pipe dream?

A lot of my own life has been about dancing to someone else’s rhythm. The pattern was set early, from getting up every Sunday morning to accompany my grandfather, a popular Baptist preacher, to church. Because I was a preacher’s kid, there were a lot of expectations on me to be successful, although I had no idea what that meant in general, and definitely not for myself. Regardless, I took the idea of being successful into my working life and my personal life. Looking back, I can recall relationships that I wasn’t really a part of because I was so focused on my next move that I refused to enjoy the moment I was in. I sabotaged a lot of potential relationships and friendships that way, and it’s something I still wrestle with.

We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going.

We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going. Obligations happen soon enough, and it’s better to enter into them when you’re sure that they’re a responsibility you can handle. I don’t have kids, but everyone I know who does tells me that any selfishness in your character has to be let go of once you’re in control of the well-being of another life.

The same is true for romantic relationships. Whether it’s an emotional connection, dancing, or sex, it’s amazing when two people create a rhythm that builds on itself until you reach a place that satisfies you both. A relationship, a true relationship, is compromise. Anytime you attempt to merge separate personalities and life experiences in the same physical or psychological space, there will be compromise. But before you can compromise, you need to be a complete person, aware of the things you want and stand for. To do that, you need time for self-reflection, however long that takes. Otherwise, you have a situation where one partner feeds off the energy and time of the other partner, until there’s nothing else to give.

A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.

A few years ago, I fell in love with an Italian women who was living in the U.S. At times, she would get depressed and tell me she missed the culture she grew up in. She had spent several years in America. We decided it was fair that I experience her way of life, so we moved to Italy. The day after we arrived, I left our apartment to go to the corner store up the street. It was closed, along with most of the other businesses. People were out on the streets talking with friends and family, enjoying the day. A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.

It was my first experience with the riposo, the Italian version of the siesta, when work stops and people suspend their schedules to rest and center themselves before heading back to finish out the workday. I didn’t understand at first. Later, I realized what an amazing thing it is. I didn’t know anything about the concept of work-life balance, but I was in the middle of a culture built on that. People actually took the time to enjoy the things they worked for. I didn’t know how much I had internalized the American attitude of living to work. When the relationship ended and I returned home, my rhythm had synchronized to the Italian pace of life. I tried to keep a little of that close, but America is a hard place to make that happen if you’re not independently wealthy.

This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is.

This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is. There’s twenty-four hours in a day, and they all need to be filled with some sort of activity that will get you to the “next level.” If you have a job, you gotta hustle to work. When you get there, you gotta be sure your superiors see you being active. Being productive is beside the point. It’s like American society runs on the fear of falling behind everyone else. Instead of doing something for the pleasure of the thing itself and for your own benefit, everything becomes a race where the only goal is to not be overtaken by your competition.

That’s a dangerous way to live. When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.

When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.

We need to give ourselves room to breathe. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do if you’re responsible for your own livelihood and the security of a family. But if we don’t do something as a culture to relieve some of the pressure we’re under, a physical or psychological collapse will happen eventually.

The elders in my family had a saying: children can’t wait to grow up, and when they do, they wish they could go back. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but I do now. Once you’re in, you’re in. But there has to be a way reclaim our rhythm before it’s gone forever.

I’m still trying to reclaim my own. You can’t discover your own pace if you’re following someone else. We need to learn how to make time to live for ourselves before we can give anything to the people we love and care for.

Follow Torraine on Twitter @TorraineWalker

top photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Living with Ghosts

I. Sponge

The narrative of immigration is peripatetic—and not just in a physical sense. The experience of leaving and coming, of going and arriving, of coming to terms with and never fully accepting the elusive nature of the very experience is like a ribbon that you attempt to straighten out that curls up the moment you let go.

For a while, during the years where I felt neither here nor there, I hated having to admit where I was from. I think it may have been partly in high school, but in that circular way that our brains have of unraveling the threads of loss and fear and dread, I remember feeling this in college, too. It would come in like the tide, here now, gone later, then back again. In my mid-twenties, I spent years avoiding most interactions with Russians who were strangers to me because I didn’t want them to know I was one of them.

Even as I did it, I asked myself, why?

Saying the word “Russia” carried with it a Pandora’s Box of truth and myth that exhausted me to even think about.

It’s not the same in my head, because in my head, it’s Rossiya.

We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.

Once, I think I was thirteen, someone asked me why Russians said “Russia” in a certain way. I think she emphasized the “shia” part as sounding wrong coming from our mouths. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I began to. The answer is the simplest there could be—we have accents. We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.

Another time, a boy in school asked me if all Russians carried bombs with them. I was twelve, only a year into America, and I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to pull off the pithy ‘yes, I’ve got one in my pocket right now’ response I really wanted to give. In the meantime, my sister was being asked if bears really walked around the streets of Moscow. She was in college.

The word “Russian”—these letters in this combination—evokes a picture of a country like a reflection in a shattered mirror. Sure, there are truths to that name, but they’re skewed, seen through a lens that doesn’t care for introspection or even closer inspection. It’s tiny pieces, certain slivers of truth that have lost some crucial point of a whole picture.

Russia is funny accents; mafia thugs; mail order brides; vodka; endless winters; fucked up laws. It’s Putin shirtless on a bear being pasted onto a unicorn via Photoshop; illegal music downloads and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It’s laughable pop music and mangled phrases that lose their meanings because no one really cares what they actually stand for, just that they sound funny. It’s the ironic hipster T-shirt with CCCP on it, a beanie with a hammer and sickle worn to set off a carefully cultivated neckbeard; it’s comrade, it’s Stalin, it’s the butt of a joke.

Rossiyamy Rossiya—isn’t that.


Rossiyamy Rossiya—isn’t that.It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended.

It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended. At least, what I had expected. We none of us had planned on exile, but here we are. It sounds overwrought, overly self-important. For years, I’ve denied the truth of it. Whenever anybody asked, What was it like, to leave? I’d simply shrug it off.

It sucked. What else can you say? It sucked, but thank God we made it.

It sucked, but it sucks much less now.

We’re free here, and we’re doing well.

But the loss persists—insidious, incomprehensible, impossible to put into words. As I try to lay them down, they jump around and refuse to land in a way that would pinpoint the why of it. Why it happened, why it matters. I was only a kid, after all. But a kid is a sponge. I absorbed what it meant to be Russian before I could fully form a consciousness. And once you’ve taken it all in, there’s no wringing it out—at least not completely.

II. Missing Space

Ours isn’t even the most tragic story. As far as these things go, it’s actually a good one. When we flew across an ocean, my dad had a job offer from a prestigious university in his metaphorical pocket. We were poor as dirt, but there was a promise of a better life. He’d be paid so little we’d need food stamps, but he’d be paid. The life we were leaving behind couldn’t even offer that much, as I found out later, when my mom decided we were far enough away from it all to take me into her confidence. “If I hadn’t typed up all those dissertations on the side, we would have starved,” she told me when I was sixteen, over breakfast. Matter-of-fact.


For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.

Again, I’m trying to straighten out a ribbon that refuses to unravel. What am I really trying to get at, what am I really saying? Am I talking about leaving? Am I talking about being sad about leaving? Am I talking about leaving having been the best decision my parents ever made?

Yes. And I’m talking about how, even at eleven years of age, I was keenly, sharply aware that this was a loss that was permanent. There would be no going back.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.

When I think back, I see a gilded, liminal time when I spoke a language I had been born into and felt different in a way that was commonplace. The fears of my childhood were ordinary and, when they weren’t, were at least shared by others.

Sure, it said “Jew” in my parents’ passports—but wasn’t that normal? I learned fairly early on not to discuss my ethnicity. For the longest time, I believed that all Jews were good, because they weren’t a danger to us. They were fellow Jews. Boy, did that one annoying family friend fuck me up. “But he’s Jewish! How can he be so annoying?” I’d ask myself after yet another encounter.

My grandpa, prominent journalist of his town, was suddenly severed from a friendship with a local poet. They’d shared a plot of land for years, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries—all the staples of a Russian garden—when suddenly, his friend ended it all. Why? He’d discovered his inner Russian.

We weren’t Russian, of course. We were Jews.

It’s a tangled, spiraled thread that feels impossible to unpick even at thirty-three.

After we immigrated—how I hate that word; it feels diagnostic in its stigmatization—I would ask my dad if he ever missed Russia.

“No,” he’d shrug. “What would I miss about it?” In his overly sentimental moods, he would add that all he’s ever needed has been us, his family. The rest was pointless nostalgia. “I don’t miss places,” he’d say.

I did. I missed it viciously, in a way that felt like I’d been eviscerated at the airport.

With my guts hanging out, I was forced to go to school deaf and mute. When my mom and sister took me to the middle school to get my English tested, I’d forgotten how to even say “door.” All I knew was “mother, father, sister, brother.” They put me in Level 1 ESL.

I showed up to my first day of school with a note written by my sister: “My name is Elizabeth. I don’t speak English. Can you show me where to find the ESL classroom? Thank you!”

My name wasn’t Elizabeth. But that was what I was supposed to call myself from then on.

III. Yids

In ninth grade, a history teacher said “Russia” in the middle of a sentence and my head snapped up.

“She wasn’t talking about you,” said a girl I’d been friendly with for years. “Calm down.”

I shrank back, lowered my head immediately. I knew the teacher hadn’t been talking about me. But it’s the cocktail party effect. You know—you’re at a party, there’s chatter every which way, and then somebody says your name and you immediately twist around, trying to see where it came from before you’ve even fully registered the movement.

The tangle goes further, even more confusing and insidious.

“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go.

For years, I shrank away from anything or anyone Russian. After devouring War & Peace and all of Chekhov at thirteen, I refused to pick up Anna Karenina in high school. “I know how it ends,” I’d tell my mother irritably. “That’s not the point!” she’d fire back, giving me a look like what she was really saying was, Whose daughter are you?

While she couldn’t get me to read any of the English books she’d picked out for me at eleven, at eighteen I was ignoring her pleas for me to read in Russian. “You’ll forget the language,” she’d fret.

Good, I’d think savagely but bite my tongue before it could come out and start a real fight. And anyway, my parents were the ones who’d made the decision, the ones who’d picked up our lives and dumped us in the middle of the unknown—why were they fighting so hard to stay un-American? It was like the Borg—we’d be assimilated sooner or later.

“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go. In the grand tradition of teenagers everywhere, all I wanted was to blend in and disappear but I couldn’t, because I still had traces of an accent, my parents’ English was worse than mine now, I had gaps in my cultural knowledge, and I hated all of it.

I was a mass of quiet, vicious rebellion.

Why wasn’t I getting all A’s, wasn’t I their daughter? But I was “doing my best,” I’d argue, parroting back the values that newly swirled around us like smog and were roundly rejected by my parents. Why weren’t B’s enough for my parents?

Because even with their gold medals for stellar grades they couldn’t have gone to the best universities. They’d both been marked as “Jews” and made to crawl to earn the same rights as those whose passports proclaimed them to be Russian.

I missed my town with an ache I couldn’t seem to fill. Stateside, we had everything—a good place to live, eventually two incomes, friends, food aplenty, relative security. Even my grandparents made it out, two and a half years after us.

It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.


It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.

Russia had taken more than it had given. From my grandmother, it had taken her father when she’d been a girl, imprisoned and later executed in secret for the crime of being a “Polish spy” (a Polish Jew, of course). It had taken her mother and thrown her in a labor camp for ten years, aging her to the point of no recognition upon release. It had stripped my grandmother of rights and forced my grandfather to later make a choice: divorce his “enemy of the state” wife with whom he had three children or get fired. It wasn’t any kind of choice, and he found a good job in a different city, but it had followed him all his life. He was a Jew, and he looked like a Jew, but at least his last name didn’t end in “shtein.” Of course, when he was born, the clerk at city hall refused to believe that the name his parents wished to give him was Jewish enough. “No,” he said. “He’ll be Meier in his papers.” How much easier to point him out then, you see.

From my sister, it took away the chance to not be terrified when, on a staircase of our apartment building, someone yelled, “Kill all yids!

From me, it took away the chance not to live with constantly simmering fear and confusion. It took it away from all of us. When I was ten, before we left, life was pretty good, it was normal. I had friends, I had art school, I had music school, and I was happy. I had regular school, too, and I was doing well in all my subjects, except I couldn’t seem to get ahead in Russian and Russian Lit. My teacher was young, just out of university, and from her, unlike from everyone else, I never got a single A. One day, I came home, slumped against the door, and told my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

My sister talked to a good teacher of hers. Something happened behind the scenes. I started getting A’s from a tight-lipped, pissy teacher. It was never spoken out loud, but it was known, anyway. She didn’t want to reward the Jewish girl.

IV. Ghosts

I can’t stop loving the memories, I can’t stop being myself, shaped as I am by the values ingrained so deeply that they’re etched permanently under my skin. Values that fuck me up as I endeavor to evolve into something manageable, values that are like a yoke pulling me back—and sometimes, a prod that’s shoving me forward.


Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.

I have to battle myself every time I take a risk, because who do I think I am to believe that risks pay off? Risks are too dangerous, aren’t they? Better not to stand out. Better to immerse yourself in philosophical thinking, surround yourself with art and culture, so as to fill the space that’s telling you this is all you can do, because all other doors are shut to your ilk. We don’t investigate our own emotions, we glance off of them like a flinching touch because if we delve any deeper, we’ll never crawl out.

I’m slowly learning you can embody it all—because, of course, philosophical thinking and cultural pursuits do not in and of themselves preclude you from taking bigger risks. Maybe avoiding taking risks was not something I learned in childhood, after all. Maybe it isn’t cultural. Maybe it’s mine.

Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.

This love is heavy; it’s a burden. Even now, there are bills being presented to the Duma that would further stigmatize and flat-out prohibit homosexuality. I’m queer. What would have happened to me had we stayed?

I have little doubt that I’d already be married to a man, with children, living a life of more fear and bleak unhappiness—existing, but not the way I do now. The picture is blurry and gray. I think I would probably be surviving, at best. I’m sure I would love my children, maybe even my husband. I would also have invisible chains binding me, invisible maybe even to me. The ghost of that self haunts me almost daily, the potential loss like an abyss I stare into, flinging mental pebbles just to see how far down they’ll fall. A pebble for the loss of the identity I am free to own today, another for the loss of the future that now unspools before me, open and hopeful. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming about the might-have-beens.

America has given us all a chance. I’m married to a woman—married on my own terms. I’m in love, and I’m free to be in love, for all that homophobia is alive and well here too. I’m free to write this, free to think in any way I do. I was free to get upset and pissed as hell when my parents expressed a dislike for the idea of this marriage because I had finally been told, by an entire society acting as an institution, that me being queer was not a moral issue, nor was it an evil thing. I was free to be mad at my parents because I knew that I was right and they were wrong.

They’ve since changed their views, and that’s another thing America has given us.

V. Unsettled

In America, I may be suddenly Russian, but I’m also white. I can say the words “I’m Jewish” and not be terrified of the consequences.

But in America, I also hear the underhanded comments. Jews run Hollywood. Your people are good with money. She’s such a JAP.This hasn’t changed—it’s just become less overtly dangerous.

Even still, I love the place where I am from. I love it for all the ways in which it’s doomed, the ways in which it tried its best to crawl out from under a dictatorial shadow only to be thrown right back into that endless, horrid void of xenophobia, terror, and propaganda.

“Vile country,” my sister said once over the phone when I called her about some particularly awful new homophobic law. “Just horrible.”

By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover?

She lets herself feel the anger I wish I could feel, but I can’t. When I think of Russia, I think of our small town, just outside of Moscow. I think of the books that shaped me, for better or for worse, the artists whose works shone despite all the efforts to tarnish them with claims of treason and perversion. So many quotes and phrases float to mind every day that I simply can’t translate, can only mull over and cherish. I think in English, but there are these words, these Russian words that have no translation, and I think in those, too.

I love that they are a part of me. I love their meanings, I love the history behind each and every single one. When I think about Russia’s history, I see it all—I see the ugly truths, and I see the pursuit of greatness, of betterment, of enlightenment. The anger that I allow myself to feel is not at the country itself, but at the system that has shaped it. At the men at its helm who’ve done everything in their power to not care for the people they’re meant to be leading.

By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover? A country that poisons and assassinates as a matter of political strategy? What could you possibly love about a place that gives you scraps and tells you to be happy with what you have because it could be so much worse?

I feel like I have floated all my life in different spaces, and I’ve rarely settled. But the idea of my childhood grounds me at the same time as it cuts another nick in my guts.

I know where I come from. I know that it isn’t here. I know that all the contradictions within me were not placed there by any single society, but were born out of who I am and who I’ve always been outside of external influence.

What would I have been had I been born on American soil? Another duality: the idea of existing in a place that gave me life feels singularly simple, uncomplicated like air, yet I would never give up where I came from, nor where and who I am now. It’s an impossible task to make sense of this. So I continue to exist on two separate planes.

Several months ago, someone asked me after a typically circular conversation about the whole experience: “Did you even want to leave?”

And with no preamble, I burst into tears—the sort of uncontrollable sobs that humiliate and empty you out. It hadn’t been my choice to make. My parents did the only thing they could have done, and it turned out to have been the best decision of their lives.

But I was eleven, and I have never fully forgotten.


My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.

There are a million ways to be Russian: there are millions of Russians. Those still living within its borders and those scattered around the globe. There are so many of us. I see us everywhere. I recognize our faces, I know our clothes, the looks in our eyes. I see us where I least expect to and hear us everywhere.

We left. We left because there was so little to stay for. But we gather in groups, we stockpile our nostalgia in movies, books, music. Some of us deride America even as we use its resources. Some of us pretend that our microcosm of Russians is Russia, that we can carry on like we never left at all. I reject this way of being Russian in America. But it’s still a way to cope.

My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.

VI. Street View

In my darker, more masochistic moments, I open up Google Maps and search out my hometown. I look up our address. Every time I do, it sends a jolt of ‘Why is the building still there?’ through me. How is it still there? How has it not disappeared along with us? How can I look at it and not be able to touch it? How can it simply exist? It still looks the same, but some surroundings have changed. Instead of woods and pavement, there are restaurants, car dealerships, newsstands.

In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me.

Incredibly, like a throwback, a reaffirmation of the other of it, the steam baths are still across the street—just sporting a new overhead label. An old tradition dressed up in new corporate clothing.

I scroll through the streets and think, This is where we walked and saw a family friend for the last time. My sister said, after we parted, “We’ll probably never see him again.” Now I look at that street and think, she was right. And that fence is new. I can’t get past the fence, just like I can’t get past the last of the forward arrows. I can’t fall into that world, I can only look in from outside, separated by thousands of miles and a screen.

I look up my school. The street with our old apartment isn’t on street view, and after I discover this, I dream about it that very night. In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me. I even dream about the playground that is now, at least according to Google Maps, a parking lot. This is where I fell, I tell her.

Every now and then, I’ll call my parents and say, “Hey. Thanks for taking us out of there.”

VII. Flipside

In the end, this love is one-sided. The country never really wanted us. For all that the small petty bureaucrat tortured my parents when they went for their refugee visa interview, for all that he told them they were making a huge mistake, that America was awful, that his daughter was there and she hated it, so really, You’re better off just staying here, they don’t want you—it wasn’t America that didn’t want us.

My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case.

I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I learned it when Russia officially sanctioned a neo-Nazi party after we left, and I learned it when it slowly began to cut off the small freedoms it had gained post-USSR. Step by step, anti-Western sentiment sowed the now-blossoming seeds of fascism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and we, Jews, simply feel grateful to have escaped.

My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case. It’s given me so much, but when asking for my loyalty, it looms over me and casts a shadow so large it absorbs me whole. This love will never be equal, either. I will always be subservient, groveling at its feet, enduring endless debates about whether or not outsiders like me have any essential value.

But when I came out to my parents, it was a million miles away from where I could have been. When I married my wife, it felt even farther.

Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind. It exists where it can no longer hurt me, but it taunts me with its slow descent into abject horror.

That was my country once. It’s where I’m from, where I was born, where I was raised, where I have an entire mental map of my town as if I’d only seen it yesterday and not over twenty years ago. It exists in Technicolor stereotypes on my TV, in jabs from well-meaning people who want to show they care that I’m not American and stifle my ability to define myself for myself.

Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind.

It’s no one’s fault, not really. Why should anyone care, much less know all the detail of, what it’s like to have been born into a country that would nearly devour you whole, then reluctantly spit you out? It’s unanswerable. I only know my own experience—I can’t speak for anyone else. But it never leaves. I try to have a sense of humor about it, I mock and I despair, and while I think in words, I remember in pictures.

I remember the present I got for my eleventh birthday: a shiny pair of white sneakers. I’d never owned sneakers before, and this was momentous. I’d be able to keep up with the other kids, the kids whose parents weren’t a barely paid nuclear physicist and an administrator. I vividly remember opening the box just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on TV (we had access to music videos by then; we even had a color television set) and I remember the feeling of being unable to imagine anything better than my new pair of sneakers. I took a walk later that day by myself, and I watched my new sneakers glow as they pounded the familiar pavement, and I thought, what language do they speak in America? I don’t even know. But I memorized each crack in the pavement, each street corner, each place where I had had memories.

We left two months and seven days later. I’ve never been back.

Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee.  All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.

She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.

She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.

The Women’s Story

It has been an intense few months.

We’ve read about scheming politicians, afflicted refugees, innocents killed for the sake of “national security.” We’ve seen protests suppressed, military overkill, and, of course, an utter disregard for the truth supported by the dissemination of “alternative facts.”

I am, of course, talking about the biblical texts we’ve read in church.

For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” King Herod has heard rumors of a baby king—a rival for his throne. Since Herod can’t find the particular baby in question, he decides to kill all the babies.

So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.

For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

Jesus’ parents save him from the slaughter by becoming refugees. In an ironic reversal of a foundational Jewish story, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape into Egypt and remain there, in a foreign land, until word comes to them of Herod’s death.

So, we have targeted innocents fleeing a brutal political regime, and, fortunately, no wall at the Egyptian border.

After this cheery episode, we arrive at Epiphany, which gives us the back story to Herod’s death orders. You may know this as the story of the three wise men. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and they were magi, or astrologers, who really weren’t very wise. But still, lots of people know the basic idea: men from the east follow a star to find the Christ child and offer the most inappropriate baby gifts ever. These gift-bearing foreigners show up anachronistically in nativity scene after nativity scene.

So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.

The character that doesn’t make the cut for the nativity scenes is King Herod, but he’s a central figure in this story. The magi come to him asking, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” Herod’s advisers cite the prophets, who say the child will be born in Bethlehem. And Herod says to the Magi, “Hey guys, when you find that itty bitty little baby king, swing back by and let me know where he is. I’d love to go worship him.”

So we have a fearful politician desperate to maintain power who is not honest about his intentions.

The men from the East don’t seem wise enough to figure out that the last thing Herod would do is worship a rival king. Perhaps Herod was charming, a convincing liar. Perhaps the magi were the type of people who hear what they want to hear, who filter out disconcerting and inconvenient warning signs. Whatever the reason, they don’t seem to suspect Herod’s ulterior motive in wanting to find the child. (Fortunately for baby Jesus, though maybe not for all the other babies, God comes to the magi in a dream, sending them home by another way.)

So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.

So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.

And that’s all within a couple weeks of Christmas. Fast forward through Lent to Palm Sunday and we meet another insecure ruler. Okay, we don’t actually meet Pilate in the Palm Sunday story, but he’s there. The Bible tells the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Historians tell us that Pilate, too, would have ridden into Jerusalem—he needed to be there during the week of Passover to make sure the pilgrims didn’t get out of hand. As governor of the region, Pilate would not have been riding into town on a donkey. He would have been on a war horse accompanied by a military entourage.

So, we have a politician desperate to look powerful, eager to be adored by the people—people who, for the most part, despise him. And we have a joyful, peaceful parade that amounts to a protest against the current political establishment. I imagine Pilate insisted that his crowd was bigger than Jesus’ crowd.

So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.

As you might know, while things start off pretty well for Jesus on Sunday, by Friday it’s all gone to hell. Judas, a disciple, has agreed to betray him. His best friends keep falling asleep in the garden where Jesus is praying his heart out. And then the mob shows up—a group of men rounded up by the chief priests and elders, carrying clubs and swords. They are there to arrest Jesus. Jesus who, as far as we know, never carried a weapon. Jesus who, as he tells them, had been preaching in broad daylight all week and could easily have been arrested without this stealthy nighttime campaign.

So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.

Jesus’ ensuing trial is a master class in dysfunctional politicking. (Or, I suppose, functional politicking—depending on your perspective.) A conservative faction of a religious group convinces the powers that be to go along with their agenda, threatening dire political consequences if the political leaders refuse their request. The political leaders, Herod and Pilate, pass Jesus back and forth—neither wanting to be responsible for him. And Pilate asks a haunting question at Jesus’ trial: “What is the truth?”

So we have politicians who fail to carry out justice, instead engaging in political maneuvers designed to shift blame away from themselves and appease a wealthy and powerful special interest group.

Then we have Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The men who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb tell the priests and elders what happened: there was an earthquake, and then an angel descended and said that Jesus had been raised. The religious leaders are worried about how the people will react when they hear this story, so they pay the guards to tell a different story: we all fell asleep, and the disciples came and stole the body.

So we have fake news.

I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart.

I realize that these dark musings may not be in line with what I, as a pastor, am expected to preach in Easter season. I should be proclaiming the Good News. Shouting about new life from the rooftops. Exalting in God’s power to heal and transform. Pointing to God’s promise to bring justice in this world and eternal life in the next. And sure, as a Christian, I think that’s all true and grand.

But these days I’m actually gravitating to the human aspects of the biblical story. I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart. I suppose some might find it depressing to have these ancient stories of corruption and death as companions to the troubling daily news. But I find it oddly comforting.

The Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.

If humanity can survive the likes of Pilate and the Herods, maybe we can survive our current president. When I consider the biblical story, I realize that, as awful as things are, maybe we are simply dealing with mundane, run-of-the-mill evil, and not a new breed of unconquerable super-evil.

In addition to the “misery loves company” comfort I find in scripture these days, I also find hope. Because the Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.

Here’s what amazes me about the Resurrection narrative. (I mean, besides the earthquake and lightning angel and dead guy alive again.) There were two basic stories circulating about the body of an executed Jewish rabbi. The logical stolen body story was being circulated by respectable male guards and the powerful religious establishment. The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.

The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.

Today, there are two basic stories circulating about the current presidential administration. Let’s call one the “inauguration story”—that America is first; that our military power makes us great; that this president has the biggest crowds. Let’s call the other one the “women’s (march) story”—that America is on open and inclusive country; that our commitment to care for the vulnerable makes us great; that this president is an incompetent sexual predator. (I mean, he’s a competent sexual predator and an incompetent president.)

Two stories. I find comfort in scripture these days because these ancient words suggest that, in the end, the story told by the women is the one that endures.

top photo by Gradikaa on Unsplash