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Freethinkers Win Lawsuit and Get Their Seasonal Display


Yesterday in Little Rock, ground was broken on something amazing.

I say it’s amazing, because here in the Bible Belt, there is precious little tolerance for non-Christian points of view. If one isn’t Christian, one is unknowably alien, and to some, one is completely suspect.

Isn’t this a Christian nation? (Well, no, actually this country isn’t a theocracy at all.) Without Christian values, aren’t we likely to devolve into moral depravity? (No. Christians don’t have a monopoly on moral behavior – never have had and never will have.) But we all should accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior! (Says who? Jesus? That has all the logic of a parent whose justification is, “Because I said so!”)

“Anne, you’re an atheist.” I hear the condemnation, and I take umbrage. I prefer the term “polyatheist.” There are a lot of gods I don’t believe in. And no doubt, anyone reading this is also a polyatheist. There are lots of gods that have been worshipped over the eons of humanity, and I’d bet my money that not a single reader of this essay believes in very many of them.

Christianity adopted many pagan traditions as it evolved. Celebration of the solstices and equinoxes are among those traditions. Christmas falls within a few days of the winter solstice, as does Hanukkah. Likewise, do the celebrations called Saturnalia, Maruaroa o Takurua, Deuorius Riuri, Amaterasu, Yule, Bodhi Day (also known in Buddhism as Rohatsu), Hogmanay, Soyal, Zagmuk, Beiwe, Shabe-Yalda, Lussi Night, Meán Geimhridh, Brumalia, Lenaea (the ancient Greek Festival of Wild Women), Alban Arthuan, Choimus, Inti Raymi, Maidyarem, Karachun, Makara Sankranti, Ziemassvētki, and Perchta. This list is by no means exhaustive. We will never know the many ways the winter solstice and the days surrounding it were marked by paleo-humans, but they left unwritten records of the fact that the event was noted and celebrated. Places like Stonehenge make drawing this conclusion inescapable.

So what is so groundbreaking in Little Rock?

The fact that a group of non-Christians have been allowed to place a display on the capitol grounds explaining the significance of the winter solstice. Last year the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers asked the Arkansas Secretary of State for permission to erect a display and were refused the opportunity. This year, they again asked permission and again, were denied. So they filed suit through the ACLU.

And WON!

This, in a place where the State Constitution makes discrimination against atheists legal!

You don’t believe me? See Article 19, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution:

“No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”

Last February a rational thinking legislator tried to get a resolution passed to pave the way to repealing that section of the Constitution, but, sadly, it went nowhere.

But hope springs eternal. Perhaps even Arkansas will someday be seen as progressive, or at least not medieval.

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December 17, 2009 Posted by | Arkansas, News, Politics, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Respectful Atheism


I am not a Christian.

I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.

I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.

That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.

My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.

My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.

I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.

When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.

His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.

So why did I go to church? I went for my son.

The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.

Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.

Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.

One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.

I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.

In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.

My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.

In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.

Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)

I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.

I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.

I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?

I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.

Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.

When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.

No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.

I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.

To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.

For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.

Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.

Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.

It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.

We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.

I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.

I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.

I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.

I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.

My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.

I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.

We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Pondering the Soul of the World


It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, (spoiler alert) the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three religions springing from the loins of Abraham. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process. Is this an omen?

June 2, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | 2 Comments

Happy Birthday, Daddy


Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

January 6, 2008 Posted by | Conversations With Children, Death, Health, Lawyer, Personal, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I Haunt Them


In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  But his concubine became angry with him and she went away to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back.  Judges 19:1-3


“It’s Bobby Wayne!”

The shock at hearing my husband’s name was only slightly less than the shock of hearing it spoken with such pleasure by my father.  Exchanging a look with Mama, I moved to the kitchen window. The familiar F-150 was indeed in the driveway, and Daddy, who had been working on his old Camaro under the shade of the live oak, was stuffing a shop rag in his hip pocket and walking toward the truck with a grin on his face.

I couldn’t believe it.  Daddy knew why I had left.  The meth had led Bobby to more and more erratic behavior, and by the time I was able to get the money together to get back home I was practically unable to use my left arm any more.  I think Bobby had broken it at least twice, and the second time he didn’t let me go to the hospital for two weeks.  They said they’d have to break it again and do surgery, and he said he didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it never did heal right. Finally it seemed like the muscles just seemed to quit working in it.

But Daddy was greeting him like a long lost son, not the abuser of his only daughter.

Bobby stayed three days. By Monday morning, Daddy had loaded my things into the bed of the pickup and told me my place was with my husband. Mama didn’t argue about it any more after Daddy popped her in the mouth Saturday afternoon. I had no choice. Bobby had been making sweet promises about how good things were going to be. I thought that if things got bad I’d just walk out again.

We were on the outskirts of the city, about an hour and a half from home, when Bobby told me he had to go see a man there for business.  Since the only business Bobby ever did involved things like guns and drugs, I knew we weren’t likely to go to a good neighborhood.  I was right.

We were in an area that had clearly seen better days. “Urban blight” is the euphemism for it. Porches sagged without anyone standing on them.  Graffiti covered everything from the walls of the homes to the fire hydrants to the sidewalks, and I could understand none of the writing. No one ever taught me this other language or the script in which it was written.

Bobby parked on the street in front of what looked like a store front that had been converted to living quarters. Before getting out of the truck he reached under his seat and removed his pistol. He checked it to be sure it was loaded, then stuck it into his pants at the waist, covering it with his t-shirt. “Stay in the truck,” he said.

As I waited, tough looking men drove by.  I saw no women.  No children played outside. Finally I lay down on the seat and slept.

Bobby had been inside almost three hours when a group of men approached the truck. When they tapped on the window I sat up, confused for a moment. An ugly scar bisected the cheek of the tall man who demanded Bobby’s whereabouts through the slightly lowered window. Wordlessly, I pointed at the building. The tall man stomped off, his followers behind them. There were about ten of them.

They pounded on the door, and although they apparently talked with whomever was on the other side, I could hear nothing.  I saw the angry looks on the men’s faces, though.  I saw two unsheath knives. Another’s gun was poorly concealed in the waistband of his jeans. A man on the edge of that crowd leaned down and picked up a piece of pipe.

While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.”  – Judges 19:22-24


The door opened then, and I saw an older man holding a young girl by the arm.  She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old and she looked terrified. He shoved the child toward the crowd of men, but the tall one with the scar pushed her back inside.  There was more discussion.  Gesturing, and then loud voices told me that they wanted my husband, they wanted him now, and they wanted him dead.

Bobby had taken the keys with him when he went inside. I locked the doors of the truck and sat in the middle of the seat.  I was afraid, but I didn’t panic until I heard the thundering demand from the tall, scarred man: “If he won’t come out here and answer us like a man, he’s a pussy.  We want the pussy. If you don’t give us that pussy, we’ll take his other pussy!” He was pointing at the truck.  He was pointing at me.

The men surrounded the truck.  Terrified, I refused to open the doors.  The man with the pipe struck the window on the passenger side.  It took him several tries, but finally it shattered and he reached inside and unlocked the door.  They pulled me out of the truck.  At first I screamed my husband’s name. Then I simply screamed.

They more than raped me.

Every man in that crowd had his turn, and several of them had more than one turn in more than one place on my horrified body. I lost track of the number of times each took me, and the way each took me. My abdomen felt near to exploding, then was numb. Two at once, three at once, there were more than I could count. I knew I was bleeding because they pulled away from me drenched in my blood.

Apparently their access was not easy enough, because they pulled my legs apart to more easily get at me from front and back at the same time. My hips and thighs cracked audibly, and I knew I would not be walking again any time soon.

When they forced my mouth open to defile me there, too, I bit down. Mercifully I felt only the first few of their blows to my head.  After that, I lost consciousness.

As morning appeared the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. – Judges 19:26-27


“Get up. We are going.”

I lay on the pavement at the door to the house. I couldn’t answer.  My jaw was probably broken, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth were gone. Painfully I lifted my head slightly and dropped it again. I could only see out of my right eye, and Bobby looked blurry even out of it.

He reached down and yanked on my arm. I screamed wordlessly.  It was obviously broken and the shoulder was probably dislocated as well. My legs had no feeling in them.  I couldn’t walk.  Bobby dragged me whimpering to the truck and threw me in the passenger side, ignoring the fact that I was naked and the broken glass was ripping my skin to shreds.

I died on the way home.

When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.  – Judges 19:29


What I found to be humorous about the whole affair was that he packaged up the parts of my body and mailed them to the men in that crowd.  He also mailed a piece of me to the man in whose house he had hid.  He sent my head to my parents. Daddy opened the package and vomited. I laughed.

I haunt them all. The pieces of my flesh that were sent to each man allow me to stay with him.  The fact that their flesh is part of me because of that awful night allows me to stay as long as I wish. I have learned to give them boils, to call lice and fleas to their hairiest regions, to drench them in a stench so powerful none can stand near them, to afflict them with breath so fetid even their vicious dogs turn away from them. They don’t sleep at night, these twelve men who wronged me.  The man whose seed created me, the man whose seed claimed me as his wife, and the ten men whose seed defiled me against my will do not sleep because of the wrongs done to me.

The thirteenth man, the one whose seed never became a part of me, is haunted by his own daughter, whose reproachful eyes remind him of the woman he sacrificed, and remind him that he nearly sacrificed her.

She prays to the bit of finger she saved from the rotting flesh that was delivered to their door by an unsuspecting postman.  She prays to me to help her escape the madman she calls her father.

She will kill him soon.

I will help her.

October 30, 2007 Posted by | Creative Writing, Death, Fiction, Religion, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report


laughing-sutra.jpg

 

Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Catholicism – WOW!


Jack, my 15 year old son, and I were watching Dogma the other day. You know, the Kevin Smith classic where George Carlin, as Cardinal Glick, rolls out a kinder, gentler Catholicism and its new front man, “Buddy Christ.” Naturally it made me think about other changes the Catholic Church has made recently. I initiated yet another theological conversation with my favorite Scion.

“Did you hear, Jack? Limbo’s gone.”

“What do you mean, gone? What happened to it?”

“The Vatican abolished it.”

“Abolished it? Just like that? How? I mean, I thought it was, like, dogma!”

“It says in this article that ‘Limbo has never been defined as church dogma and is not mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states simply that unbaptized infants are entrusted to God’s mercy.’ So I guess Limbo was just policy.”

“So how does the Church have the authority to abolish Limbo? That would seem to be under the jurisdiction of God to do.”

“Well, according to the articles I read, it seems that the Church was really just wrong about Limbo existing in the first place. It never really was there.”

“I thought the Church was infallible.”

“The Pope is infallible. The Church, well, like the Muse and the Apostle say here in Dogma, there was the silent consent to the slave trade, and the Church’s platform of non-involvement during the Holocaust. Protestants were condemned to Hell until the 1960’s when the Church made an exception to heresy. And there’s the whole usury thing, too. Mistakes have been made.”

“Other than the unbaptized babies, who was in Limbo?”

“Um, I think anyone who would have gone to Heaven but wasn’t baptized. You know, the people who qualified except for the technicalities. Pre-Christian Jews. Pagans. Good Buddhists.”

“Does that mean that if I live a good life and do right, but don’t go to Church or anything, that I still go to Heaven?”

I rolled my eyes. “The notion was that only those who didn’t get the chance to know about Christianity would go to Limbo. It wasn’t fair to send them to Hell since they didn’t know, but they can’t get to Heaven except through Christian beliefs. So you have to toe the line.”

“Okay, so, now that Limbo doesn’t exist, and apparently never did, what happened to the souls the Chruch thought were warehoused there?”

I checked the article I had seen on the internet. “Hmmm. I’m not sure, and evidently the Church isn’t, either. It says here that ‘the carefully worded document from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission stops short of certainty in this regard, arguing only that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope,” rather than “sure knowledge.”‘ That really doesn’t say much, now does it?”

“So what about all the souls in Limbo?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they can go to Heaven now. And the good news is that from now on there’s no waiting. Unbaptized babies who die can go straight to heaven.”

“Man, I bet the people who had to spend all that time there are pissed about that.”

“Why?”

“It’s like doing time. Paying dues. They had to do their time in Limbo with no hope of ever getting out, and now the new guys get to go straight to Heaven. They get a free ride, without the Guantanamo-like experience the old guys had.”

“Guantanamo?”

“Yeah. You know, those guys in Guantanamo have no idea when or if they’ll ever get out. So if we have another war and suddenly they are freed and the new POWs we get are repatriated without the wait as soon as the President announces ‘Mission Accomplished’ – and are designated POWs without the ‘enemy combatant’ BS – the Guantanamo guys will be pissed off.”

“I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms.”

“And Mom, what if the Church is wrong about this, too? They abolish Limbo but God still won’t let the innocents into Heaven since they weren’t baptized? I mean, what if the policy really isn’t changed and the Church didn’t get the right memo?”

“Well, son, I guess those souls will have to go somewhere. I just don’t know where.”

“You know, the government still has a lot of empty FEMA trailers… I bet souls don’t take up too much room.”

“How many souls do you think would fit in a single trailer?”

“I don’t know. Is it anything like how many angels fit on the head of a pin? I mean, they aren’t, like, substantial or anything.”

“Hmmm. And I suppose they won’t exactly eat a lot, either. Jack, I think you’re on to something.”

May 18, 2007 Posted by | Conversations With Children, Death, FEMA, Humor, Movies, News, Politics, Religion | Leave a comment

Ishmael, Part II


Ishmael, Part II magnify

I appreciate the comments on the first installment of my blog on Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The second installment on this book is the more interesting, in my opinion. Why? Because it explains part of the mythology of our culture by retelling two important stories we all know. Both are stories from the Book of Genesis.

Although I may draw the ire of Bible literalists when I say this, I think the explanations Quinn gives of the Fall of Man (Adam’s banishment from Eden) and of the story of Cain and Abel make supreme allegorical sense. The explanations opened doors in my mind.

All of us are familiar with the story of the Fall. God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in Eden except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam eats from it so God banishes him from the Garden. (I am deliberately leaving out Eve and her role because the word “Adam” means “mankind, ” and mankind is what Ishmael is concerned with.) Most of us are taught that this act of disobedience was something God could not tolerate. When Adam ate the fruit of the tree he realized he was naked and was ashamed. Hello, instantaneous cultural mores!

Ishmael explains the story from a slightly different perspective: that of the gods. The fruit of the tree gave knowledge of good and evil, but it did not impart the wisdom of how to use that knowledge in the long term. Knowing that something is good in the moment does not mean that that same thing will be good in the future. Also, what is good for one may be evil for another. Mankind is too selfish to make that distinction: if something is good for Man now, then that is Man’s choice. If it results in later harm, well, Man will choose to deal with the consequences later. Just like someone commented on yesterday’s blog, humans want instant gratification.

The example Ishmael gives is of predator and prey. If the lion kills the gazelle, it is good for the lion and the lion lives to hunt another day but it is bad for the gazelle, which dies. If the lion misses the kill, it is bad for the lion because the lion starves to death, but it is good for the gazelle which lives for another day. By controlling his ecology and his world, Man has assumed the mantle of choosing which lives and which dies in this scenario. Although man has the gods’ knowledge of good and evil, Man does not have the gods’ wisdom to choose correctly every time. Man’s poor choices result in an ecological imbalance.

The knowledge of good and evil is therefore something entirely situational for Man. Man only chooses what is good for him at the time. Man does not choose what is good for the world at all times. He cannot. Man’s arrogance and his mistaken belief that he has both the power and the wisdom of the gods is his own undoing. It will cause his own destruction.

The second Genesis tale Ishmael relates is what we know as the First Murder. The sons of Adam, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a herder, both make sacrifices to their god. Cain is jealous because the god prefers Abel’s sacrifice, and kills him. Cain is banished from society as a result and carries a mark that identifies him as evil.

Ishmael tells the man that although the Hebrews preserved the story of the brothers, it was a Semite story to begin with. The Semites were a culture that predated the Hebrews and the Arabs. The Semites lived on the Arabian peninsula and in the fertile crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. As Leavers, they took only what they needed and left the rest alone. The were hunter-gatherers and later nomadic herders. In years of plenty, humans and other animal and plant species flourished. In years of famine, the numbers of all species diminished. They would flourish again when food became plentiful.

Agriculture is believed to have begun in the Fertile Crescent. When Man began farming, animals were no longer allowed to graze on farmland. The farmers produced much more food than they needed, and times of famine became less frequent. The species that had lived where the farmers were cultivating land moved elsewhere. As more land was put under cultivation, the farmers, now a Taker society reshaping the world to suit themselves, pushed the nomadic Leavers from their lands. The story of Cain murdering Abel is the story of the northern Taker Semitic tribes murdering the southern nomadic Semitic Leaver tribes to make room for more agriculture. It is a story of war.

The gods prefer Abel’s way of life, which allows all living things to flourish in good times and which means all living things suffer equally during lean times. Cain is banished from living in the hands of the gods because he has assumed the mantle of the gods by reforming the world to his own purposes. The mark that identifies him as evil is his arrogance and continuing destruction of the very planet he needs to maintain in order to survive.

Basically, Ishmael explains, Takers believe that the world belongs to Man, whereas Leavers believe that Man belongs to the world. Takers see themselves as running the world. Leavers allow the gods to run the world. The gods, of course, prefer Leavers, and Leavers are sustainable. Takers are not, and will eventually destroy themselves along with their world in contradiction to the gods’ intentions.

In his final lesson with Ishmael, the man asks for a program to save the world. Ishmael tells him,

“The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world- not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”

“Yes, I see all that, but that’s a program for mankind to follow, that’s not a program for me. What do I do?”

“What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.”

“Yes, but . . . is it enough?”

Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the was they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”
The above quotation is taken from Daniel Quinn: Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam, NY (1992)), pp 248-249.

April 24, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science | 1 Comment

Ishmael – Part I


Ishmael - Part I magnify

Yesterday’s Earth Day post drew some interesting comments and left a burning question in my mind. If “going green” isn’t enough to slow the global climate change and stave off apocalypse, what can we do?

I want to tell you about a novel I read recently. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, explains why human beings are such poor stewards of our planet. We have destroyed our world because we believe ourselves to be gods. We change our surroundings to suit us and we kill anything that gets in our way.

Quinn is a radical Neo-Tribalist, and he lays out the philosophy and the reasons for Neo-Tribalism in a Socratic dialogue between a telepathic gorilla and a man. Neo-Tribalism is a theory based on the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the “Noble Savage” guy) and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (the god of structural anthropology), among others. The idea is that modern culture will result in annihilation of the human race. Overpopulation and abuse of resources, coupled with the idea that mankind has a right to use up the planet as it sees fit is what modern man does, and is it not sustainable. We will survive only if as a species we return to a hunter-gatherer existence, living in harmony with the planet and the other species on it.

Quinn’s novel Ishmael contains more than ecological philosophy, though. It is a dialogue between man and ape. It is social philosophy. It is religion. It is profound. It shifts paradigms. It moves the cheese. This book has changed lives.

The human protagonist in Ishmael responds to a newspaper ad: “Teacher Seeks Pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in Person.” When he applies for the pupil position, the man must grapple with the surreal discovery that the teacher is a telepathic silver-back gorilla who calls himself Ishmael.

Finally, in answer to Ishmael’s question of why he seeks a teacher, the man admits that he wants to understand “how things came to be this way.” The man feels that something is wrong with the world, that there is a Great Lie being told, but he can neither identify what is wrong nor identify the lie.

Ishmael begins teaching the man about his own species and his own cultural biases. First, the man must understand that many of the things he believes to be true are part of a mythology. The most important myth to recognize is the myth that the world was made for Man to do with as he pleases.

Ishmael divides mankind generally into two groups: Takers and Leavers. Takers are those who take from the world and from the other creatures around them. Takers take all they want, which is more than what they need. They believe the myth that the world exists for their kind, and they brook no argument otherwise. We are Takers.

Leavers are the people we call primitive. They do not farm, they do not take more from the world than they need to survive. They are hunters and gatherers. Very few Leavers continue to exist, because the Takers plant the Myth wherever they go and convert the Leavers to Takers.

Once the man understands that the notion that humans are the pinnacle of creation is a myth, he is better equipped to understand “how things came to be this way.”The great lie is that man can do as he pleases to change the earth. The lie is based on the myth.

Ishmael’s student comes to understand that Man, in his guise of Taker, is the only creature on the planet to believe the myth and the lie. Other species compete within the ecosystem; man changes the ecosystem to suit himself without regard to the consequences for other creatures or even, ultimately, for himself. Leavers and the rest of the species on the planet compete for survival, but they do not “wage war” against the planet or other species to do so. Takers wage constant war against the earth and against the species Takers perceive to be competition. The competition may be the way a river flows, the existence of an insect, or plants Takers consider to be weeds in their gardens.

To live sustainably, Quinn argues, “you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.” By killing our competition (the pests that invade our crops, the wolves that hunt our sheep, the swamps where we want to build our cities, the Leavers whose way of life is alien to ours) we Takers wage war against the world.

Think about this. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about this amazing book and its philosophy.

April 23, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | Leave a comment

Prostitutes or Virgins?


I am distressed to report that I have to reevaluate the whole Virgin thing.

I have recently been directed back to the series Blogging the Bible, and a rather upsetting thing was brought to my attention in the entry on the Book of Hosea. According to David Plotz, the author of the series, God’s first instruction to the prophet Hosea is to go forth and marry a prostitute.

WHAT? I got whiplash on that one. A whore? God told his prophet to marry a WHORE? You gotta be kidding me.

Then Plotz reminds me that there are lots of prostitutes in the Bible.Tons of them. Gobs. Plotz says, “There’s scarcely an unmarried woman in the Bible … who isn’t a prostitute, or treated like one! There’s Tamar, who turns a trick with her father-in-law Judah. The Moabite women, who whore themselves to the Israelites. The Midianite harlot who’s murdered by Phineas. Jacob’s daughter Dinah, whose loose behavior sparks mass slaughter. No wonder they call prostitution the oldest profession—it’s the only profession that biblical women seem to have.”

Crap.

Where are the Virgins? I thought the men of the Lands of the Bible were into Virgins! What’s the point of the Virgin Training School if we aren’t going to be trading camels for our Virgins? I thought I had an entrepreneurial opportunity here!

I mean, I guess I should have realized something was up when the last time I blogged about the Virgin Training School Neither Habib Aktar nor Hachbar Vinmook showed up. Habib has found his Virgins and evidently returned to Cleveland or wherever, and Hachbar must still be in the Land of Bigfoot and Unicorns. Neither of them show up to hang out with me any longer.

I’m desolate.

Lonely.

~~Sniffle~~

I have gotten all revirginated. I have studied the Pop-Up Kama Sutra and I have practiced the positions with my anatomically correct Virgin Barbie and Camel-Rider Ken dolls. I have danced the Dance of the Seven Veils until the silk chiffon has fallen to pieces from over-use. I have listened carefully to the critique of my assigned Navy SEALs. I have diligently practiced getting the 69th comment on the blogs of as many friends as possible (without making it look obvious, of course).

Where have I gone wrong?

Are you guys interested in buying my Virgins or not?

And where the heck are Hachbar and Habib?

March 3, 2007 Posted by | Creative Writing, Humor, Religion, Virgin Training School | Leave a comment

Midrashim


The other day someone noticed one of my feeds that seemed uber-apropos for a self-proclaimed Wench who runs a Virgin Training School: “Jeremiah and the Lustful She-Camel” screamed the headline from Slate Magazine.

Oh, my, but there are volumes of possibilities in that headline! I’ve written a silly story about it that has very little to do with the actual article. You can read it in a moment, but first I’d like to talk a bit about the article and the series that begat it, as well as some books I recommend to anyone interested.

The article is part of David Plotz’s series Blogging the Bible: What’s Really in the Good Book. Plotz is a faithful Jew who, like many of us who have attended services in the religion assigned to us by virtue of our birth, reached adulthood believing that he knew what the Bible taught and what the stories were. In the article in question he examines the Book of Jeremiah and comments on how Jeremiah spends a good deal of time early in his sermons talking about sex – or at least comparing people’s bad behavior to sexual misconduct. He describes them at one point as “running about like a lustful she-camel.”

In the introduction to his series on the Bible, Plotz explains that at a bat mitzvah for a friend’s daughter, he picked up a copy of the Bible and idly flipped to Genesis Chapter 34 and began reading. What he saw startled him and started him on a new quest to discover the book he assumed he knew fairly well. He is now blogging a book of the Bible at a time and reexamining what the book says. It’s an exercise I have immensely enjoyed following. I highly recommend the series to anyone interested in religion.

Like Plotz, when I find myself unwillingly stuck at a religious ceremony, which is pretty much anytime I find myself at a religious ceremony, I pick up the Bible and idly flip through it. Almost without exception I find something that appalls me about this so-called benevolent God we are taught about, or about the teachings of his Son as explained by Peter or Paul, both of whom I think corrupted the message beyond recognition.

Chapter 34 of Genesis is the subject of a marvelous contemporary literary midrash by Anita Diamant called The Red Tent. When I read it several years ago, Diamant’s interpretation and extrapolation of the story of Dinah, half-sister of Joseph (he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) sent me on a quest to discover more of these wonderful novels.

I’m a voracious reader, but the sheer number of midrashim I devoured over the next few months impressed even me. I felt as though there were finally people out there – other, sensitive, questioning, intelligent, appalled people – whose language I could finally understand and to whose thoughts and responses to Biblical stories I could finally relate.

I still read every contemporary literary midrash I come across. I like them. I like the fact that heroes like King David are shown to be petty and mean, like in Queenmaker, by India Edgehill. That’s how he impressed me in the first place. That and arrogant, of course. The same author has written about the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Wisdom’s Daughter.

I like that Abraham comes across pretty much as a schizophrenic dolt, as in Orson Scott Card’s Sarah.

That’s right, the brilliant and prolific Orson Scott Card has written three midrashim so far. He is the Hugo Award winning author of Ender’s Game fame, the start of a classic science fiction series that brilliantly combines interspecies space battles and computer video games. This is the same Orson Scott Card who wrote the fabulous alternate history/fantasy series the Tales of Alvin Maker. Alvin, the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, whose “knack” for “making” makes him almost god-like, has interactions with actual historical figures from the time period including Chief Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, Napoleon Bonaparte (exiled in this alternate history to Detroit for his crimes against Europe), and my own distant cousin and President-for-a-White-Hot-Minute William Henry Harrison, he of Tippecanoe fame. Card has written lots more that is absolutely wonderful, but I’ll let those of you who don’t know his work email me for more information if you’re really curious.

Card has written midrashim about Rebekah, wife of Isaac and mother of the twins Esau and Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob and mothers of Joseph and Dinah and the twelve tribes of Israel. I sincerely hope he writes more. I really enjoy his work and it delights me no end that he has delved into another genre I love.

Marek Halter, a Polish writer whose family narrowly escaped the Warsaw Ghetto during German’s occupation, has written the Canaan Trilogy which includes another book about Abraham’s wife Sarah, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and Lilah, the sister of the Prophet Ezra. Halter also has written several other books about the Jewish people including The Book of Abraham, which is not about the father of the Judeo-Christian-Islam traditions, but about a man who lived after the time of Jesus in Jerusalem when the Romans sacked it in 70 C.E.

More books in the genre include Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther; Brenda Ray’s The Midwife’s Song: A Story of Moses’ Birth; In the Shadow of the Ark, by Anne Provoost; and Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson, by David Grossman. A very funny but poignant look at the missing years in the life of Jesus is the subject of Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a novel Guy, High Priest of Meatloaf recently turned me on to. I’m here to tell you, if a High Priest of anything advises you to read something about religion, you should.

The books I’ve listed here are just a few of the contemporary literary midrashim that exist. If you’ve read something in this genre that I haven’t listed, please leave me a comment about it. I’m always looking for more.

And please, don’t anyone tell me I’m going to hell for not believing what they tell us in church, temple or mosque, or for not accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Save it for someone who is more impressionable than I am and who hasn’t embarked on an exploration of religion to find out more about it.

Enough of the seriousness. On, now, to my own quasi-midrash: Jeremiah and the Lustful She-Camel. It is not a polite story.

January 13, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humor, Religion, Virgin Training School, Writing | Leave a comment

Jeremiah and the Lustful She-Camel


When I was 12 years old, before my bar mitzvah, even, the God of my Fathers spoke to me telling me I was chosen to spread a warning about how unhappy he was with the behavior of the people of Judah. I was hesitant to be a prophet. The pay isn’t great and generally no one much listens to you until it’s too late. Then you’re forbidden by the deity from saying “I told you so,” which would be somewhat rewarding. In fact, I told him I was just a kid and I didn’t want to do it. He insisted. I refused to listen.

Boy, should I ever have listened. This is what happened.

“Jeremiah!” yelled my mother. “Have you finished your chores yet?” For some reason she sounded exasperated.

“All except for milking Susannah,” I replied. I always put off the camel milking for last. I knew it made Susannah more cranky, but even when she’s in a good mood a lactating camel is no barrel of monkeys.

This time it was Susannah from whom we got the milk. That was somewhat better than when the Lilith, our other female camel, was the target of the evening milking. Whenever I had to deal with Lilith I’d hide for extra hours to avoid her. I would always hope that my brother would be assigned to deal with her, or even one of the girls. Lilith was, I swear, possessed by demons.

They say there’s a lot in a name. Lilith was already named when my father bought her from Adam, who claimed to be a wandering Edenite. Riiiiight. Old Adam said he had a new camel and keeping up with two was just too much work in his wanderings. I think he had trouble finding fodder for them both. I could have told him that wandering in the desert was no way to feed a lactating camel, but I was just a kid and he wouldn’t have listened to me.

My mother was pleased because we had to rely on goat’s milk when Susannah wasn’t producing, and she thought the strength and endurance of a camel was preferable to that of a goat. She said that children raised on camel’s milk would be strong and able to withstand the life of a Bedouin better. Since we lived in a city, I found that somewhat difficult to reconcile, but I was told to honor my father and mother or suffer the wrath of a nasty, vindictive god, so I did. It didn’t make milking time any better, though.

Lilith is the name of the first demon mentioned in our holy book. She was a bitch, that Lilith. She didn’t want to be with her husband, interestingly enough also named Adam, and refused to return to the Garden of Eden when Adam’s god (also my family’s god), sent some angels after her. That pissed the god off, so he made her eat her own children or something. I forget exactly how the story goes, but I know that if any woman doesn’t want to be married to you, you might as well put her aside because she’ll make your life hell on earth otherwise. And bad things will happen to your kids.

I don’t think the camel Lilith wanted to be a member of our family. On this particular day I recall that I trudged grudgingly to the barn to milk Susannah and the first thing that happened was Lilith spat upon me. I hate camel spit. It’s slimy and it stinks. I wiped my neck and shoulder off and glared at Lilith. I swear that camel-bitch was laughing at me.

I brought the bucket and milking stool into Susannah’s stall and set myself up for a twenty-minute session. I had to keep Isaiah, Susannah’s new baby, away from me while I milked his mother, so I opened Lilith’s stall door to put him in with her for the time being.

Mistake.

Biiiig mistake.

As soon as the stall door was open Lilith pushed out to make a break for freedom. I cursed under my breath and headed after her. I grabbed a rope to attach to her halter as soon as I could catch her. She was out in the barn yard and the first thing she did was antagonize the billy goat. She was nosing around him like she might eat him alive, and he was butting her for all he was worth. Even with those sharp horns on his head, Lilith didn’t seem to care. She just kept tormenting him.

I finally managed to insinuate myself between Lilith and the fence and slip the rope through the loop hanging from her halter, but tug as I might she wasn’t coming with me.

“Jeremiah!” my mother yelled again. “I need that milk now!”

I didn’t answer. It was talking all my energy and breath to try to tug Lilith away from the goat. The last thing I wanted was to have to dress Lilith’s wounds if those nasty horns penetrated her skin. Lilith was oblivious to me, though. Of course, a twelve year old boy, and I was a small twelve year old boy, is no match for a full-grown she-bitch camel.

Herod, the king of the yardbirds, decided that was the prime moment to dive at my face. I threw up my arms to protect myself and Lilith took that opportunity to pull completely away from me and gallop to the other side of the barn yard. Slapping Herod and kicking his harem of pullets away from my path, I decided to go milk Susannah and leave Lilith for later, after I had taken my mother the milk.

Of course, when I got back to the barn Susannah had kicked over the stool and had one of her big nasty dung-covered feet in the milk bucket. Cursing again, I growled and took the milk bucket over to the well. The well was to one side of the barnyard. Unfortunately, it was the side of the barnyard where Lilith was placidly chewing her cud. She stared at me as I groused my way over toward the well, muttering under my breath about camel demons and buckets of shit. I glared at her for good measure. I could have sworn she was laughing at me the way she curled her lip. I hoped she wouldn’t spit on me again.

It was taking several minutes of rinsing and scrubbing to get the camel-foot shit stain off the inside bottom of the bucket. I had to a good job because if I didn’t, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach drinking the milk with my supper and Mama would want to know why, and when I told her she’d accuse me of trying to poison the little ones. I could lie and say I wasn’t feeling well, but then she’d just send me to bed early and I wouldn’t get to go play with my friends afterward, and she’d probably want to stuff me full of foul-tasting potions until I really did feel sick. Mothers.

So there I was, scrubbing away at the bucket, when Delilah, the barn cat, decided to chase a rat under my feet. Why Delilah chose that moment to become a mouser I will never know. Why the damn rat chose the safety of my feet I will surely never know. I hate rats. I yelped and jumped. I jumped in a direction intended to take me out of the path of the rat. That means I jumped closer to the well. Since I was already leaning up against the well, there wasn’t far for me to go. I sort of landed across the well.

I was unbalanced, half into the well which was pretty deep – we were in the desert after all and water doesn’t exactly grow on trees near the surface. I had a bucket in one hand and a rag in the other and had to drop one of them in order to hold on and not contaminate the well water with my corpse. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide which to let go of in that split second, and I ended up with the bucket still in one hand and my rag-covered fist against the opposite side of the well. I couldn’t see the bottom. I looked, and it was nowhere in sight. At this point, if I dropped the bucket I’d be bringing milk to the supper table in my cupped hands. IF I could get out of the well intact, that is. And IF Mama would let me even darken the door of the house.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I started yelling for help. Of course, my head was pretty much down in the well so my yells weren’t doing me much good. They were sort of echoing and reverberating off the well and not going much of anyplace at all.

That is when Lilith decided to be helpful.

At least, I hope that’s what she was doing. Frankly, I doubt it, but I still, to this day, do not allow myself to dwell overly much on what her thought processes must have been. I’ll share with you my deepest fears, though.

I think my yells, echoing and reverberating as they were off the walls of that deep well, bouncing off the water at the bottom and bouncing their way of the walls back to the top, must have sounded like a male camel in must. You know, horny.

Lilith was drawn to me by those yells, I think, and started licking at my backside.

Now, it was during the hot months of summer, and I wasn’t exactly wearing a lot of clothing. I mean, I had ditched my normal Bedouin-style robe for the loincloth I wore while tending to dirty chores, especially those dirty chores that had me mucking out camel stalls and such. Robes drag in the dirt and get, well, dirty. And if there is camel shit for them to drag through, they’ll drag through that. Did I mention that camel shit really stinks? It stinks worse than camel spit, I’m here to tell you.

So I’m naked except for a loincloth, stretched across the opening of the well, my nearly bare ass poking out, and my yells making me sound like a bull camel ready for action. My voice was changing in those days and sometimes the higher-pitched yells came out as a lovely basso. Lilith, naturally, was curious. She started licking my backside, as I mentioned.

Did I mention that camel spit is sticky? She was bathing all my parts in sticky, stinky camel spit and of course, my reaction was to yell harder. Lilith’s reaction was to lick harder. I thought she was going to remove my parts entirely with her stinky, sticky camel spit and her really long, nasty camel tongue.

Have you ever tried to suck your manly parts completely inside your body while a camel is licking them? By the time Mama sent my little brother Solomon out to see what was taking me so long, I thought my parents were going to have to change my name to Jemima and hold a bat mitzvah for me the next year.

Solly poked his head in the well where I was yelling. “Hang on, Jerry,” he said. Right. Like I had much choice. Solly was eight, and realized he wasn’t strong enough to get me out of the well by himself. He got my dad.

My dad, Hilkiah, busied himself with scholarly pursuits for the most part and left the running of the barnyard to his kids and the hired help. Dad saw me there, spread-eagle over the well, that she-devil Lilith licking me between the legs for all she was worth, me yelling for all I was worth, and apparently he thought I was enjoying myself.

He found the rope I had dropped earlier when I was trying to catch Lilith and put her back in the barn and started whacking me with it. That had the fortunate side effect of making Lilith’s demon tongue stop slobbering my privates with stinky camel spit, but did nothing to help me get out of my precarious position over the well.

Fortunately our neighbor, Zedediah, happened by at that moment and helped Dad haul me out of the well. Both of them were laughing. I failed to see any of the humor and told them so. I was rewarded with another whack with the rope, but fortunately it wasn’t a very hard whack. Dad was laughing too much to haul back and hit me really hard. Solly was looking a me pretty wide-eyed.

I’m not sure who milked Susannah that night. I know it wasn’t me. I went into the house and Solly brought me bucket after bucket of water and I spent about two hours scrubbing camel spit off my manly parts. The next day they bred Lilith to Zedediah’s bull camel, Rocky. It seems that she was in heat.

A few days later I meditated on my experience. Sort of simultaneously I was looking for the deadliest insult I could muster for the sinning people of Judah, just to make sure they listened to me. Yes, I decided I really had no choice but to take up the staff of a Prophet of God. To be effective, I knew I had to get my point across in the most graphic way possible to let my people know that this shit they were doing was not going to be tolerated any longer.

Naturally, given my experience, I came up with the notion of using the words “Lustful She-Camel.” There is nothing worse. I included it in the first sermon I gave. It’s immortalized in Jeremiah 2:23-25.

Believe me, if God gets a Lustful She-Camel to fellate you, not only will you listen, you will do anything he asks just so it doesn’t happen again.

January 13, 2007 Posted by | Creative Writing, Fiction, Religion, Writing | Leave a comment

Hamas Leader Says Israel’s Existence is a Reality


Honest to god, this is the REAL Reuters Headline.

It leads me to ask the obvious question:
If Hamas is just now figuring this out, where have they thought the bombs were coming from all this time?

January 10, 2007 Posted by | News, Politics, Religion, War | Leave a comment

Kurdistan


Kurdistan magnify

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic populations in the world without a country.

The Kurds are an ancient people who have inhabited the area of Kurdistan for as long as 8,000 years.  The Kurdish language cannot be taught legally in Iranian schools.  It is banned entirely as a language in Syria, and Turkey has prosecuted people for using it even as recently as 2003.  The only part of Kurdistan where the language thrives is Iraq, and Iraq hosts Kurdish refugees from the other parts of Kurdistan. Although the language in Indo-Iranian in origin, “the historical development of the Kurdish language (both grammar and vocabulary) is distinct and different than the other members of the Iranian language family,” according to Wikipedia.

For centuries the Kurds have been persecuted much like the Jews of Europe and the Native tribes of North America.  For instance, in the 16th century, as the Ottomans conquered more and more of Persian, entire Kurdish regions of Anatolia were systematically destroyed.  Cities were and crops were burned and the people who survived were forcibly marched to Azerbaijan and even further east, as far as 1,500 miles away to Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

Because of their ethnic identity, Kurds have continually sought autonomy from the governments that have split Kurdistan.  When the Ottoman Empire finally decayed out of existence in the early  20th century, many Kurds expected that autonomy.  When it failed to materialize, they believed that the newly created Turkish republic had betrayed them.  Backed by the United Kingdom, Turkish Kurds declared independence in 1927 and established the Republic of Ararat, which was never recognized by the international community.  In 1931Turkey resumed control over the disputed area. Turkey again suppressed Kurdist revolts in 1937-1938, while Iran did the same in the 1920s. The Soviet-sponsored Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, in Iran, lasted barely more than one year after World War II.  Kurds fought Iraq’s Baathist government for independence in the 1960’s and in 1970 rejected limited territorial self-rule within Iraq, unsuccessfully demanding larger areas including the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies and practices which were widely condemned by the international community.  Among the more notorious actions against the Kurds under his rule was the Halabja poison gas attack, when Saddam used of chemical weapons against the Kurds. Thousands died.

Later, Saddam’s army, under the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid, carried out  a systematic genocide of the Kurdish people. From March 29, 1987 until April 23, 1989, more than 2000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and an estimated 50,000 Kurds were killed in rural areas. The large Kurdish town of Qala Dizeh (population 70,000) was completely destroyed by the Iraqi army. The campaign also included Arabization of Kirkuk, a program to drive Kurds out of the oil-rich city and replace them with Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq. Kurdish sources report the number of dead to be greater than 182,000. Saddam Hussein is currently on trial and no doubt awaiting sentencing for his crimes against the Kurds.

So should Kurdistan be autonomous?

Since we invaded the country, the most peaceful portion of the Iraq has been the Kurdish north.  I have seen several articles about non-Kurdish Iraqis moving to Iraqi Kurdistan to escape the violence.  One has to wonder if this mass migration will result in the violence being brought to the doorstep of the peaceful Kurds. To a degree, it already has in cities like Kirkuk and Mosul.

Kirkuk itself is a thorny issue within the issue of Kurdish autonomy within Iraq.  Kirkuk is in a region with vast oil resources, but lies on the southwestern edge of the Kurdish area.  Negotiations with the Baathist government in 1970 broke down over whether or not Kirkuk would be part of the Kurdish autonomous region.

Iraqi Kurds want independence.  It would seem at first glance that an independent Kurdistan would be reasonable, except that our ally Turkey objects.  Turkey has the largest population of Kurds.

The area that would make an ethnic Kurdistan actually spreads into six countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.  An estimated 25-40 million Kurds inhabit the area, which is approximately the size of France.  If Iraqi Kurds win independence, there could very easily be a domino effect in the other five countries with Kurdish populations.  This would destabilize the entire region, especially Turkey, Iran and Syria.  I can’t imagine anyone wants to see any of these countries, especially Iran or Syria, destabilized.

November 4, 2006 Posted by | Foreign Relations, Iraq, News, Politics, Religion, War | 1 Comment

‘Well! That wasn’t very Christian!’


 

Recently I have read blogs about topics that either called for religious responses or were about religion – which is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong – but in a couple of cases I was left with the feeling that either the specific post or the comments in response to the post were sanctimoniously narrow-minded. This never fails to get under my skin.

No offense to its followers, but it really bugs the bejeezus out of me when someone appears to claim that Christianity has the corner on the market of good and charitable acts.

I’m not going to publicize what my religion is. There are exactly four people on my friends list who know what it is, and three of them are closely related to me. I don’t talk about religion a lot, but I do study it. I study it mainly because I tend to study anything controversial, and religion is one of the most controversial things out there. I don’t tend to talk about it much because I never know who’s going to get hacked off thinking that I’m blasting their precious dogma.

So, with the intent of blasting no one’s dogmata with nuclear weapons, here I go, talking about religion. (I know, I should prepare to get blasted myself.)

Fact: There are many different religions practiced on this planet.

According to Wikipedia, the dominant religions and the numbers of their adherents are:

1. Christianity 2.1 billion
2. Islam 1.3 billion
3. Secular/Atheist/Irreligious/Agnostic/Nontheist 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism 900 million
5. Buddhism 708 million
6. Chinese folk religion 394 million
7. Primal indigenous (“Pagan”) 300 million
8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
9. Sikhism 23 million
10. Juche 19 million
11. Spiritism 15 million
12. Judaism 14 million
13. Bahá’í Faith 7 million
14. Jainism 4.2 million
15. Shinto 4 million (see below)
16. Cao Dai 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism 1 million
20. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
21. Rastafari movement 600,000

Yes, Christianity has the largest following of any religion. However, more people in the world are non-Christian than Christian. This is something many Christians just don’t seem to appreciate when they blithely talk about something not being the “Christian” thing to do. Oh, the ignorant arrogance of that statement!

Think about this:

Fact: Every religion, without exception, provides a moral framework for its adherents.

Fact: That moral framework is virtually identical to that of every other religion.

Ergo: All religions are virtually identical in their morality.

When I hear the phrase, “That wasn’t very Christian!” it is usually with the sound of judgment ringing in my ears. The speaker has just measured someone else’s conduct or words and found them lacking. Likewise, when someone says, “I’m a Christian, so I wouldn’t _________” (fill in the blank with your own imagination), they are also normally passing judgment on someone they find to be behaving inappropriately.

If every religion teaches the same moral rules, how is it that Christianity has a corner on the morals market? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. What’s worse for Christianity is that those people passing judgment are doing one of the very things their religion teaches that they should not do: the are judging. I hear either of these two phrases and I assume, from that point forward, that the speaker is a hypocrite.

I have heard an argument that this country was established on Christian values and morals. I respectfully disagree with that assessment. Even a casual reading of what was recorded in The Federalist Papers on this subject will enlighten us. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wrote the establishment clause to give Americans freedom of religion, as well as freedom from it. Not all of the founding fathers were religious men, and at least one was publically an atheist.

School prayer has been a big issue for many Christians. It is challenged only rarely, but always by parents who do not want to have religion thrust down the throats of their children.

As long as there are tests in school, there will be school prayer – just not necessarily praying out loud. We should remember, though, that unless our children go to a school connected with a specific religion, the children there are of many faiths, and not just the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions that worship the same god. Yes, that god is the one worshipped by the most people in this country. But there are Buddhist and Hindu children in our schools, too. Wiccans send their children to school. So do Unitarians. And there are plenty of children who are not being instructed in any form of religion.

What is the function of religion? Basically, religions exist to provide that moral framework I mentioned. It’s something all religions have in common. The tenets of each religion may be different, but the basics are the same. Religions instruct us how to get along with other people in a society.

Most of our morality is actually codified as law, but there are still issues of fairness that simply can’t be codified. Those uncodified morals are the ones we have to make choices about in daily life. Sometimes they can be condemned as situational ethics, which is another entire area of contention, and maybe the subject of another blog. But as for the morality that is not part of the law, we should remember that teaching morals is the province of parents, not the school system. If we want our children to have honor and integrity, we must teach them those things at home. If we want them to be compassionate and generous, we must teach them that at home. If we want them to be faithful to their spouses, nurturing to their children, and keep their flower beds tended as adults, we as parents must teach them that those things are important.

And we should also teach them that when the neighbor parks his boat on our petunias, the neighbor is not being un-Christian, he is being rude and troublesome. No religion would condone such behavior. For that matter, no society would.

November 3, 2006 Posted by | Philosophy, Religion | Leave a comment