Control (or Why I’m an Abolitionist)

[Image description: sunlight and shadows making patterns on a wall and part of an interior door.]

Content Warning: Child abuse, religious trauma

Sometimes you think of that day
when you heard a friend’s mom was telling all the parents
she read they should use dowel rods to spank their children
for the really bad sins
and your stomach lurched and tightened
because you already knew how it felt to have a wooden spoon
broken over the back of your bare thigh and
you thought of the bookends you made with your grandpa
using some wood he helped you cut into triangles and two lengths of dowel
and you imagined the weight of those rods
and tried to calculate how much more it would hurt.

And you’d heard some say it takes a village
but you don’t know what to do when the village parents agree to
hit their kids with items they bought casually at the hardware store
and tell them it’s God’s loving discipline
and you know some kids don’t even get I love yous
and at least you do
and you try not to think of it
and also try to be as good as possible
or at least hide anything you think might be
a really bad sin so that maybe, maybe,
you won’t have to find out.

And then the day you see what
the marks of a dowel rod spanking look like
on someone else’s skin
and you lose your shit
and can’t stop sobbing, can barely breathe
because you know in your gut those bruises look nothing like love
and you swear to yourself you will never hit your own child
with a wooden spoon or a wooden rod,
no, you’ll only use your hand
and only not-too-hard swats to the bum
because that is how the indoctrination works
to keep you from imagining there could be another way entirely
and you think a gentler, less-bruising punishment
is the only alternative because to be part of the village
is to perpetuate its violence to maintain control.

And your heart breaks still
knowing that your children were touched
by even your toned-down version of the violence
and you hate that you ever bought into thinking your responsibility
was to control every aspect of your child’s behavior
with swats or isolation or yelling or retaliation
because these things were supposed to be God’s tough love
and keep them from evil.

But you also think of the day
that you realized that “Love is patient, Love is kind”
were not just words for wedding days
but words for every day and every part of life together
and especially your kids and you
and that guiding with patience and kindness
instead of controlling with harm and punishment
could be that other way entirely
that you couldn’t even imagine
when you were just a kid in a village
gathering up pieces of a broken spoon
from the living room floor.

Allegiances

Artist: Thomas, Hank Willis. Title: Stars and Bars. Date: 2015. Medium: decommissioned prison uniforms.
Photographed on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum in October 2020
[Image Description: Artwork by Hank Willis Thomas created from the blue field/stars of a U.S. flag, surrounded on three sides by black and white stiped fabric sourced from prison uniforms, creating a visual like a double United States flag.]

I will no longer pledge allegiance as I was taught,
to a nation, religion, or book,

If pledging to the nation requires I pretend liberty and justice applies to all,
in light of clear evidence contradicting.

If pledging to a book canonized by men insists I make-believe its words prevent sin,
when those words are all too often used for hate instead of love.

If pledging to a Christian flag demands I swear an oath to so-called brotherhood,
united to exclude, traumatize, and injure those it views as other.

If my allegiance to a flag and nation means
I endorse its government killing citizens in the streets,

killing innocents in the middle east,
killing refugees in camps,

then I withdraw the allegiance
I spoke every time I said the words.

If my allegiance to a book means
I must blame the abused for their abuse,

blame victims for their suffering,
blame the struggling for their struggle,

then I withdraw my hand from the cover
of that leather-bound volume and turn away.

If my allegiance to Christianity means
I must advocate harm of the marginalized,

harm of the poor,
harm of our earth,

then I will not be a Christian,
will keep my allegiance to myself,

refusing to make any pledge to idols
that desecrates the still, small voice of the Divine within.

Corners

[Image description: sunlight projected onto a blank wall through windowpanes, making the outline of the window, with the corners where two walls and ceiling meet visible.]

Disorienting,
waking up to find I’d relegated
wild, creative parts of myself
to the corners of my own existence.

Wasting energy fashioning masks and filters
from the more-acceptable parts
and my perception of other’s needs,
drowning in exhaustion keeping them in place.

Ill-suited, perpetually reconfiguring
in attempt to fit my soul into soulless, man-made structures,
never drawing a full breath,
never fully seen.

Painfully slow,
reclaiming space to be unwieldy,
to forgive my younger self,
befriend my contradictions,

and sit with my own words
long enough to let them change me,
breathing all the way in,
all the way out.

The Woods on Easter Morning

[Image description: Old, faded beech leaves, paper-thin and clinging to a branch, with new leaf buds visible]

Last year’s beech leaves,
green-glow faded,
clinging ghostlike now
where tomorrow’s leaves bud,
waiting to unfurl,

reminding me somehow
of hand-me-down World Books,
once neatly lined on grandfather’s shelf,
faux-leather binding brimming
with yesterday’s meaning for words,

like the second-hand prayers
meant for our forefathers
and the scriptures that gloss over women—
their contributions, their names, their very existence—
to paint a man’s world for us all.

We’re supposed to learn the written words,
acquire the knowledge,
strive for perfection,
become more logical,
stick to the facts as told
with only one side in mind.

But my soul wants to
sit, unhurried,
considering birds
and lilies
and beech leaves,
in all their glorious beauty,
watching them
give it all away.

As lovely as I find translucent
remnants fluttering
in early Spring’s chill-tinged breeze
and the nostalgia
of leafing through old encyclopedias,

I long for Mother Earth’s wisdom,
the understanding hidden within
the trees they cut down
to make those shiny-edged pages.

I need the knowing that emerges
from standing under new leaves
while they are soaking in sunlight,
photosynthesizing,
transforming energy
to create new growth.

I want to give them my exhalation
and drink in theirs until
my marrow
and bones
and lungs
and spirit
take root in
new revelations
and ancient truths, renewed.

I’ve fought to wrestle my life from the grip
of lies and outdated half-truths
that make me less made in God’s Image
for having two X chromosomes
and fought equally hard to
find full truths

and I am weary,
wearing thin and papery,
tired of clinging and
unsure if I believe in resurrection,

but longing
to know what happens
when I give up fighting—
for or against—
and just let go.

Good Friday

[Image description: Sun shining on a tree, with a fallen tree trunk suspended in front, making the shape of a cross.]

Reducing a life
to the circumstances of death,
suffering and dying,
out of context.

Obscuring, glossing over
compassion, contemplation,
commiserating, challenging,
and years showing Women,

Sex workers,
Immigrants,
Outcasts,
Rebels,

“You are beloved.
You are so, deeply and fully loved.”

Pretending the rich and
religious were peripheral,
that he wasn’t
also telling them

“You are beloved.
And so are they. Live accordingly.”

Month after month, sharing the good wine,
soothing the old wounds,
building unlikely community,
and always, always listening to the voice of Love.

Always, always asking others
to hear it too.

Is the cross the best distillation
to encompass this wild freedom,
this unwavering love,
this gift of a life

poured out
at tables,
in streets,
in temples?

Or is it an idol, an excuse,
a mere symbol we point to
so we can say his death was the key
that absolves us

of living
the life he showed us.