Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Being Back in New Orleans

Being back in New Orleans, my home city, is incredibly wonderful. These are some of the things I'm enjoying about life in New Orleans.

A PLACE WHERE YOU LIVE: This may sound odd, but I had an interesting impression the first time I returned to New Orleans after moving to North Carolina. I left New Orleans at the end of April 2006, and I drove back in October 2008 for my high school reunion. As I drove into Mississippi, I began to feel more and more at home, largely because the land is flat and there are lots of pine trees, which are familiar to me as a plentiful type of tree in Louisiana and Mississippi, north of New Orleans. Then, when I drove into New Orleans itself, I had an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Everything was familiar--the architecture, the streets, the vegetation, the speech patterns, the people. And this was my thought: New Orleans is a place where you live. North Carolina is a place where you go. I'm trying to live in a place where you go. This is completely subjective, of course, and I imagine that North Carolinians would have the reverse impression. Nonetheless, I feel very blessed now to be in what, for me, is a place where you live!

MY APARTMENT: I have a great apartment on the second floor of a two-story double, with a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. The bedroom and living room are quite spacious. I have two beds in my bedroom and I bought several room dividers so that I can accommodate a house guest by sharing the bedroom and yet give us each some privacy. The living room is large enough for nice parties. I have off-street parking and many windows that let in lots of light. A friend of our family, Rae, lives across the street.

I'm just a block from the Mississippi River, and I can look out my windows and see the Mississippi River bridge, boats sailing past, and bikers riding on the levee. Besides the river, I'm also right near a set of train tracks and the streetcar line. I can hear boat horns, train whistles, and streetcar jangles.

BIKE TRAIL: The Mississippi River levee is just a block from my house, and it has a paved bike trail atop it. This makes a wonderful bike ride of an evening. I like to ride as far as the Huey P. Long Bridge and back--about forty-five to fifty minutes. It's also nice to ride to River Shack Tavern in Jefferson LA--Monday evenings are the red beans & rice special with live blues music by Amanda Walker.

The paved portion of the levee trail is quite long, extending from Audubon Park, through Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, and into St. Charles Parish as far as Destrehan LA. Beyond Destrehan, the bike trail continues but is no longer paved. It shouldn't be hard to ride on, though, as it is well-packed dirt. I rode as far as Destrehan and back on Labor Day--it took me four and a half hours.

BIKING: It's wonderful to be back in a place where I can ride my bike. I can bike to work and to many other places. I can go for a week or more without needing to use my car, especially in summer when we have daylight well into the evening. In North Carolina, beautiful as it was, I had to use my car to get anywhere. This was a concern because if I ever had car trouble I wouldn't be able to get to work. (Actually, this never did happen.) Here in New Orleans, I'm so close to work that I can walk if I need or want to.

FRIENDS: I have my family and long-time friends in New Orleans. My brother Danny is in New Orleans, and the families of my two married sisters are a forty-five-minute drive across Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville LA. I sometimes drive over for family dinner at my sister Janet's on Thursdays.

The Party Pals are a group of friends who like to have each other over for parties. These include Barbara & Dick, Ellen & Paul, Toni & Ken, and me. We are the core members. Other people sometimes attend our parties, too. These are some parties we've had.

  • Black & White Party. Everyone wore all black, all white, or a combination of black and white, and I served black and white foods--black beans and white rice, black olives and white cauliflower, pumpernickel bread and white bread, blackberries and vanilla ice cream.
  • Paul Revere's Midnight Ride Party. I showed the scene of Paul Revere's midnight ride from the film Johnny Tremain, we read Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride," I displayed pictures of Paul Revere's silversmith work, and we discussed the concept of connectors from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, since Malcolm Gladwell uses Paul Revere as an example of a connector.
  • Santa Lucia Breakfast. This is a Swedish custom. I served coffee, coffee cake, and spinach-cheese-egg casserole, I told the story of Saint Lucy, and we all sang the Santa Lucia song.
  • New Year Party. I've had several of these shortly after the New Year, but I especially remember one that featured the singing of "Good King Wenceslas" as an eight-part round. (If you have enough people, you can sing it as a sixteen-part round--I've been in a group where this was done.)
  • Saint Nicholas Party. We had an appearance by Saint Nicholas himself in the person of my friend David.
  • Name Bugs. This party featured drawing name bugs. You fold a piece of paper in half lengthwise, open it and write your name along the crease, fold the paper and rub so that you get a mirror image of your name on the other side of the crease, open the paper and use the double version of your name as a base to draw an interesting bug.
  • Snowflakes. This party featured making paper snowflakes.
  • Story Circle. Each person told a story from his or her life.
  • Talent Show. Each person shared a talent, very broadly defined.

My class from the Academy of the Sacred Heart has been meeting for monthly lunches ever since our fortieth class reunion in October 2008. The Academy of the Sacred Heart is a Catholic girls' school in New Orleans that goes from Pre-Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade, so many of us in my class were together for fourteen years. Our classmate Ninette has been wonderful in organizing these lunches.

EATING: I'm in walking or biking distance of great eating places! These are just a few.

  • La Madeleine Country French Cafe--wonderful French onion soup
  • Bangkok Thai Restaurant
  • Pupuseria La Macarena
  • Franky & Johnny's--neighborhood seafood restaurant
  • Oak Street Cafe--boudin fresh from Opelousas LA
  • Rue de la Course coffeehouse
  • Cafe Luna
  • Casamento's Restaurant--oysters beyond compare
  • Bee Sweet Cupcakes
  • Blue Frog Chocolates

LOYOLA UNIVERSITY NEW ORLEANS: It's wonderful to be back at Loyola. I'm enjoying teaching the international students and reconnecting with colleagues old and new. I also like the spirituality at Loyola. The Jesuit priests are far removed from the oppressive version of Catholicism that I grew up with. I feel very much at home at Loyola. It's right in my neighborhood, and Audubon Park is just across the street.

PRYTANIA MOVIE THEATER: The one-screen neighborhood Prytania Movie Theater is close by. The Prytania is doing a classic movies series several days a week. The eighty-eight-year-old father of the Prytania's owner, Mr. Rene Brunet, introduces the classic movie of the day and stays around to chat over coffee and cookies in the lobby afterwards. Some of the classic movies recently shown or to be shown include The Sound of Music, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vertigo, The King and I, To Kill a Mockingbird.

CULTURAL HOME: It's extremely nice to be in a place where I know the history and understand the cultural references.

Hurricane Katrina: Moving Back to New Orleans

I moved back to New Orleans on May 25, 2009, after living in western North Carolina for three years following Hurricane Katrina. Here is how my return to New Orleans came about.

My return home was precipitated by the economic crisis and its effect on Western Carolina University (WCU), where I was teaching. WCU is a part of the University of North Carolina state system, and thus subject to state-mandated budget cuts. The state mandated an eight or so percent budget cut for 2009-2010, with seventy or so percent to come from reduction in personnel. This hit faculty in positions like mine especially hard. I had a year-by-year renewable teaching contract at WCU. WCU decided to eliminate most faculty with this type of contract--easy to do by simply not renewing the contract for the following academic year.

As an aside, these faculty cuts have been especially hard on the English Department, where I taught. Many of the first-year writing sections were taught by yearly-contract faculty and had a maximum student enrollment of twenty students. With most yearly-contract faculty gone, the tenured and tenure-track faculty must now teach one or more sections of first-year writing, and each section now has a maximum student enrollment of twenty-five. Some faculty members are teaching four writing classes this year with twenty-five students enrolled in each--this means one hundred writing students. I had eighty writing students at a time (four sections of twenty students each). I can't imagine what it must be like to teach one hundred students!

Well, back to my story. Fortunately, WCU has an admirable Provost--Provost Kyle Carter. He sent a strong message to all WCU Deans and Department Chairs that went something like this: The budget cuts mean that we will need to eliminate faculty members next year. These faculty members are persons with meaningful lives here in western North Carolina. Losing their teaching positions will cause great difficulty for them. We need to be aware of this and help in any way we can. At the very least, we need to make decisions now about who will remain and who will go, and communicate these decisions to the faculty. That way, those who will not be here next year will know early enough to make other plans. Please make these decisions by the end of January and let your faculty members know.

As a result of Provost Kyle Carter's compassionate directive, I learned before the end of January that I would not be at WCU the following year. I am very grateful for this. Also, the English Department at WCU was very supportive. Many faculty members kept us informed of postings for teaching positions that they became aware of and offered to write letters of recommendation.

This was all very helpful but didn't prevent me from slipping into a funk, from which I finally emerged with the support of my friend Merry. Merry insisted that I come to New Orleans over spring break (the first week of March) and that I stay with her and look into teaching in the ESL (English as a Second Language) Department of Delgado Community College. Delgado has a large array of ESL classes, but had to limit the number of classes offered in 2008-2009 for want of enough teachers. I did this (I was in such a funk that Merry had to lovingly insist) and I had a great time staying with Merry and re-connecting with my colleagues at Delgado--Betty, Mary Ann, Linda, Yadira, and Cindy.

As it happened, though, I wound up with my old teaching position in the Loyola Intensive English Program (LIEP) of Loyola University New Orleans. When I emailed Debbie at Loyola to let her know that I was applying to Delgado and that she might be contacted as a reference, Debbie told me that Loyola was ready to re-open LIEP, where I had taught for thirteen years (1992-2006) and which Loyola had closed after the initial post-Hurricane Katrina semester of Spring 2006. I felt incredibly fortunate (and actually somewhat guilty) to have two work possibilities (Delgado and Loyola) at a time when so many people are struggling to find work. I chose Loyola.

I moved on May 25 with wonderful support from family and friends. Marsha, my landlady and friend, was incredibly helpful with finding packing supplies and other helpful moving information. My friend Ken actually flew from New Orleans to North Carolina to help me drive back to New Orleans with a small U-Haul truck (Ken driving the truck and me driving my Toyota). My brother Danny helped me unload the U-Haul at a storage facility. Ellen and Paul housed me for my first two nights back in New Orleans. Merry then housed me until I located an apartment. Once I had moved into my new place, Noel hung bamboo shades on the windows, extra clothes hooks in the bathroom, a full-length mirror in the bedroom, and a mailbox on the front porch. I felt incredibly blessed and supported.

My next post will tell what it's like to be back in New Orleans.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Living in North Carolina - Reading, Writing, Teaching

This post continues my thoughts on my three years in North Carolina following Hurricane Katrina, focusing on reading, writing, and teaching.

CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE. This is a wonderful local bookstore in Sylva, owned and operated by Joyce. Joyce brings in many interesting authors, who read from and speak about their works.

One of the first authors I heard speak at City Lights was Kit Bakke, author of Miss Alcott's Email, about an imaginary cross-time correspondence between Kit and Louisa May. Kit would email Louisa, and Louisa would receive the message as a hand-written letter in her mailbox in Concord, Masssachusetts, in the late 1800s! Louisa's hand-written replies, sent by post, would appear in Kit's email in-box! This sounds a bit cutesy, but Kit pulls it off very well, and her book is an insightful, in-depth look at Louisa May Alcott and the cultural context in which she wrote, as well as at the latter half of the twentieth century, particulary Kit Bakke's years as a member of the radical left-wing group the Weathermen (or the Weather Underground)!

City Lights also brings in many local authors to read. At these readings, the owner, Joyce, often gives away advance copies of newly published books that Joyce receives from publishers. As one enters the room for the reading, one sees that every chair has a different advance copy book on it, so one can sit on a chair that has a book one finds interesting. The idea is to take and read the book on one's chair, if one wishes, and let Joyce know whether or not one recommends that she stock it.

City Lights has a wonderful custom of inviting volunteers to help with the annual inventory at the beginning of January. I did this in January 2009. I had a fun time working with a partner to catalogue the inventory of the store. We all had lunch together, and we each received a book of our choice as a reward for helping.

READING. I read all kinds of books that I never would have read if I hadn't lived those three years in North Carolina. These were books by local authors.

Ron Rash is a wonderful author who teaches at Western Carolina University. He has written poetry, short stories, and novels. I am especially taken with Ron's four novels: One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Serena. My favorite is Saints at the River. This novel begins with the accidental drowning of a twelve-year-old girl on vacation with her family near a fast-running river in the mountains of northwestern South Carolina. The girl's family wants to dynamite the river to bring up the girl's body so that they can bury her, while the local people don't want their river disturbed. It's easy to see that Ron began as a poet because his descriptions of the area and the people are exquisite and poetic.

Pam Duncan is also an author on the English faculty of Western Carolina University. Pam has written three novels: Moon Women, Plant Life, and The Big Beautiful, each one about rural women in North Carolina. I have enjoyed all three of Pam's novels. She is working on a fourth one, The Wilder Place, which I am eager to read.

Joan Medlicott is the author of the Ladies of Covington novels, about three ladies who become friends and reinvent their lives in their late sixties and seventies. I met Joan at a book fair in Sylva, as she sat at a table surrounded by her books, which had caught my eye. Joan assured me with great sincerity, "You will love my books!" I thought, Well, then, I'd better get started reading them! And Joan was right. I believe that I eventually read all the eight or so novels in the Ladies of Covington series, and I did indeed love them!

Charla Muller lives in North Carolina and wrote 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. This book is Charla's account of the year following her husband's fortieth birthday, the year during which she provided him with a very special birthday gift--sex every day for a whole year. And then she wrote about this in a book.

Thomas Rain Crowe. Thomas is the author of Zoro's Field: Life at the End of the Road. This memoir tells of Thomas's four years living on the land of Mr. Zoro Guice in southern North Carolina in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thomas, in fact, had determined to live as Thoreau did, but to do so for twice as long, as well as more thoroughly. Thomas really stayed on the land, living in a log cabin without electricity or indoor plumbing and feeding himself with what he grew. His trips to town for supplies were infrequent. In Zoro's Field, Thomas tells what it was like to live so close to the land, following sun time instead of clock time. He is realistic about the joys as well as the difficulties of his life during those four years.

Haven Kimmel lives in North Carolina and has become one of my favorite authors. Her books (two memoirs and four novels) take place in small-town Indiana, where Haven grew up. Haven's memoirs are A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, about her childhood through age ten, and She Got Up Off the Couch, about her depressed mother's decision to get up off the couch, attend college and graduate school, and begin a teaching career that has lasted into her seventies.

Haven has four novels: The Solace of Leaving Early, Something Rising (Light and Swift), The Used World, and Iodine. The first three novels form a trilogy about women in small-town Indiana: a young woman intellectual struggling to relate to two orphaned little girls, a young woman pool hall champion and carpenter, and three very different women who run the Used World Emporium and suddenly find themselves caring for an abandoned baby. I LOVE Haven's first three novels and each of the main women characters.

Haven's fourth novel, Iodine, is in a category of its own. It is written in the first person, from the point of view of a young woman with an abusive past and a shaky grasp on reality. In reading Iodine, one follows the workings of this young woman's mind, but her mind slips between fantasy and reality, and one is never quite sure how things stand. I would say that Iodine is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone with mental illness.

Wayne Caldwell is the author of Cataloochee, a historical novel about the settlement of the Cataloochee Forest in western North Carolina. In the 1800s, a number of families established themselves on this land and then raised several generations there, but their homes were taken over by the United States government in the first half of the twentieth century to create a national park, forcing these families to leave the land they had become so much a part of.

I was once present for an interesting and slightly disturbing interchange between Wayne Caldwell and Hattie Caldwell Davis, author of Reflections of Cataloochee Valley and its Vanished People in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hattie is in her eighties and is very close to the events surrounding the removal of her people from Cataloochee. Her book is a historical account of these events, while Wayne Caldwell's novel is fictional.

The interchange between Hattie and Wayne took place during a writers' panel on the importance of place in novels, where Wayne was a member of the panel. (The panel was part of a day-long book fair in Sylva.) During the question-and-answer session following the panel members' presentations, Hattie raised her hand and criticized Wayne for fictionalizing the Cataloochee events. Her own book, said Hattie, was the true authentic factual account, and Wayne had no right to take a true event and fictionalize it. Hattie seemed to think that she owned the Cataloochee events. The panel moderator tried to explain the very legitimate role of historical fiction, but Hattie would have none of it.

This explained to me the odd feeling I had experienced upon seeing Hattie's book display in the book fair area. The information posted at her table declared that her book was the one true authentic historical accurate factual account of Cataloochee, nothing fictionalized. Okay, I thought, why are you protesting your factuality so much? The display definitely turned me off. When I heard Hattie criticize Wayne, I understood where she was coming from, though I think she's dead wrong. No one owns the events they lived through, and any author has the right to compose historical fiction.

THE AMMONS SISTERS. The Ammons sisters are two remarkable women in their sixties: Amy Ammons Garza (a writer) and Doreyl Ammons Cain (an artist). Amy and Doreyl are the founders of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, an organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Appalachian Mountains. Amy and Doreyl's work includes the following.

  • Cultural workshops in schools: Amy and Doreyl visit schools and engage the children in cultural workshops that involve storytelling, artwork, music, writing, and drama.
  • Writing and art workshops for adults: Amy offers a writers workshop and Doreyl offers a pastel painting workshop.
  • Publication help: Catch the Spirit of Appalachia publishes books, often by first-time authors telling their stories. Amy works with the author through all aspects of the publishing process, including marketing the book.
  • Amy's novels: Amy has written a trilogy of wonderful novels about her family: Retter: A Novel of the Mountains (about Amy's grandmother Retter Coggins Ammons), Cannie: The Hills of Home (about Amy's mother, Cannie Owen Ammons), and Sterlen: And a Mosaic of Mountain Women (about many other women in Amy's family).

I participated in Amy's writers workshop and began writing about my experience of Hurricane Katrina. Amy invited me to be the Spotlight Personality for the monthly paper Fun Things To Do In The Mountains, for which she writes and which she edits, and each month for four months, I wrote an article about Hurricane Katrina for Fun Things.

I also participated in two public readings associated with Amy. Each November or December, the members of Amy's writers workshop read from their work at an event sponsored by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia. The first time I read, I chose "Baseball Bonanza," an imaginary account of a baseball game in New Orleans based on the bare-bones outline of a shaggy dog story that I embellished considerably. The second time, I read "Hurricane Katrina and Refrigerators," which I've posted on this blog. These public readings were quite extraordinary in that Amy created a meta-story that she narrated between our pieces, and Doreyl illustrated our reading in pastel painting on a large canvas as we read. The audience listened to the reading and watched Doreyl's spontaneous illustration at the same time.

WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY. Western Carolina University (WCU) is a mid-size (about 7000 students, I believe) state university in Cullowhee, North Carolina. I taught at WCU during my three years in North Carolina. Mostly, I taught First-Year Writing. My students were mainly straight-from-high-school first-year college students, many of them local. This was quite a change from the international students I had taught at Loyola University New Orleans. The number of students was also a big adjustment. In the Loyola Intensive English Program, classes often had about twelve students, whereas at WCU I had four classes of twenty writing students each. This added up to eighty writing students and involved a large amount of work.

Besides First-Year Writing, I also occasionally taught Writing for Careers and Introduction to Professional Writing & Editing.

My colleagues in the English Department at Western Carolina University were very friendly. I sensed no barriers between tenured/tenure-track professors and non-tenure-track faculty like myself. Faculty members often had parties at their homes and invited the whole English Department. I remember especially Beth's annual Halloween party, with a different theme each year. In 2006, the theme was monsters, and I went as a generic monster using normal clothes in my wardrobe that would make a monster outfit--black shoes, black socks, black slacks, black long-sleeve turtle-neck blouse, red gloves, red ski mask. In 2007, the theme was cult movies, and I went as Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings--white tennis shoes, white socks, overalls with vegetables sticking out of my pockets, gardening shirt, gardening gloves, straw hat, and gardening shears in my hands. In 2008, the theme was games, and I went as a chute and a ladder from the game Chutes & Ladders--regular outfit of slacks and t-shirt but with poster board made into a chute in front and a ladder in back.

Western Carolina University had a great library, good technology in the classrooms, and a vibrant Center for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. There was also a wonderful drama department, and I bought a subscription each year to the season of student productions.

My office mate, Lizzie, was a very generous person, a dedicated and skilled teacher, and a joy to know. I miss Lizzie. Although all in the English Department were wonderful colleagues, I especially miss Bill, Chris, Deidre, Julia, Lizzie, Maggie, Marsha Lee, and May.

NO MORE DISSERTATION. Finally, it was in North Carolina that I decided to discontinue work on my dissertation for the Ph.D. in English Composition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I believe that I might have managed to complete the dissertation had there been no Hurricane Katrina and had I remained in New Orleans, where I had a stronger support system. But the adjustment to living in a new state along with the greatly increased teaching load, and dissertation work on top of this, just didn't work for me.

Thankfully, I didn't dither around but made a clear decision to stop. I communicated my decision to my dissertation advisor, detailing my reasons for discontinuing the dissertation and my gratitude for all I had gained at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In fact, my advisor appreciated this, having all too often worked with Ph.D. candidates who simply weren't going to be able to finish the dissertation but who kept clinging to what clearly wasn't working.

I also made a decision to view my Ph.D. work positively. I did not complete the dissertation or the Ph.D. degree, but I do have ABD status with all that this entails. Specifically, I accomplished the course work for twelve challenging and informative classes, wrote interesting papers for those classes, connected with great friends and colleagues, received stimulating teaching ideas, and completed fascinating reading and notes on the subject of story in the preliminary work for the dissertation that I didn't complete. I choose to view this as a success! Best of all, I do feel free of dissertation work that had become overly burdensome.

Hurricane Katrina: Living in North Carolina - Friends and Environment

After Hurricane Katrina, I lived in Jackson County, North Carolina, for three years, from May 2006 to May 2009. This post will tell something about my life in North Carolina, focusing on friends and the environment.

DONNA GLEE. Donna Glee has been my friend since we met in New Orleans at Newcomb College of Tulane University in 1971. Donna Glee was sixteen years old and a freshman. I was twenty-one years old and a senior. Donna Glee is a highly creative person. She lives in Balsam, North Carolina, and works in the town of Cullowhee, where she designs experiential week-long seminar retreats for public school teachers through the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. An example of such a seminar retreat might focus on the theme of bread: the participants would learn about the history of bread, hear about the role of bread in story and myth and religion and art, recall memories involving bread, visit a flour mill and a bakery, taste various kinds of bread, bake their own bread, write poems about bread, and experience bread in as many ways as possible.

Donna Glee is very versatile: she is a seminar designer, a teacher, a writer, a Spanish speaker, a problem solver, a registered nurse, and a deep thinker.

I stayed with Donna Glee for my first month in North Carolina. She lives in a brown log cabin on a mountainside in Balsam. During my month with Donna Glee, we took regular hikes up Balsam Mountain and watched old episodes of the TV program Frazier in the evenings. We both agreed that laughing at the Frazier episodes together heightened our enjoyment--we seemed to laugh more heartily together than we would have if we were laughing alone!

MARSHA. After a month with Donna Glee, I moved into what became my permanent address in North Carolina--the basement apartment of a very interesting and creative woman named Marsha. Marsha lived (and still lives) in the main part of the house upstairs. Her house is at the end of a series of ascending paved mountain roads and a long upward dirt road. Marsha's grounds include a wonderful flower and vegetable garden, a large lawn, a forest, and various trails. Marsha also has several blueberry bushes. Marsha's dog, Bella, became a good friend, too!

Marsha is very enterprising. Her enterprises include a thriving landscaping business, a small business in essential oils, a flower nursery business, teaching communication skills and community organizing skills at a community college, offering her home and grounds as a retreat or seminar center, and renting out her basement apartment.

COUNTRY LIVING. I was definitely out in the country, living at Marsha's. I learned that we didn't have to lock our doors! Coming from New Orleans, I had never heard of such a thing! I could see the glorious stars and constellations at night. In fact, I could even walk safely around the mountains at night, often accompanied by Marsha's friendly dog, Bella--who loved to walk with me, day or night.

MOUNTAINS. Living in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smokies, was brand new to me, coming from the very flat lands of south Louisiana. Wherever I looked, there were always the mountains, strong, solid, surrounding. Bare and brown in winter, lush and green in spring and summer, aflame with color in autumn. Roads sloped up and down. When I walked around in Sylva, the county seat, I found that the next block over was often directly above or below the block where I might be situated; in other words, I had to climb or descend to walk to the next block!

DRIVING. Living out in the country, in the mountains, meant that I had to drive to get anywhere. Getting to work was a ten-mile, twenty-minute drive each way, and this was considered close. In New Orleans, on the other hand, I was used to a bike ride of ten minutes or less to get to work. In fact, it was often possible in New Orleans to have a week or more go by without needing to use my car.

SNOW. Snow was a problem, though a beautiful problem. I taught at Western Carolina University, which didn't normally close when it snowed because most students lived in campus dormitories and could walk to class. Although faculty and commuting students were told that we should discern safety for ourselves and not come to the university if we judged the snow and road conditions to be dangerous, I nevertheless felt obliged to be present for my classes if at all possible. The first time it snowed heavily, I actually tried to drive to the university and had a terrible, frightening time. The normally twenty-minute drive took over an hour and a half, and I got stuck twice. (Marsha was out of town that week, so she wasn't present to advise me!) After that, I spent the night at the university on the sofa in the faculty lounge whenever snow was predicted. This got old very fast! I also had to park my car at the bottom of the long dirt road leading up to Marsha's house when snow was expected.

FARMER'S MARKET. I discovered a fantastic farmer's market in Rabun County, Georgia, called the Osage Farmer's Market. Naturally, I gave it a French pronunciation at first--Osahge--but I quickly learned that the pronunciation is Osayge. The Osage Farmer's Market is open from appoximately Memorial Day at the end of May until the end of October or beginning of November. The wonderful fresh produce includes amazing heirloom tomatoes! Oh, these are so delicious! The Osage Farmer's Market also has wheels of hoop cheese and various homemade breads and honey from home-raised bees.

THE FOUR TOWNS. Four towns interconnect in the area where I lived: Sylva, Dillsboro, Cullowhee, and Webster. Sylva is the county seat, with a main street and lots of small businesses. Dillsboro has artsy shops and boutiques and caters to tourists. Cullowhee is the site of Western Carolina University, with many students and professors living there. Webster is a country town--most of the houses are surrounded by land with cows and horses.

WEST CAROLINA INTERNET CAFE. This wonderful internet cafe opened in Dillsboro right about the time I moved to North Carolina. The proprietor, Theresa, lives above the cafe. Theresa offers a menu of delicious soups, salads, sandwiches, and pastries, as well as all sorts of coffee and tea and smoothies. She also has an array of computers as well as wireless service for those who bring their own laptops. The cafe also has a room with a television and a movie screen, and Theresa occasionally shows a film of an evening. Various groups and classes meet at Theresa's cafe. Theresa has two small dogs, Oscar and Rusty. Oscar starred as Toto in Smoky Mountain High School's production of The Wizard of Oz!

SOUL INFUSION TEA HOUSE AND BISTRO. Soul Infusion is a great tea house owned and operated by Karin and Jason. Soul Infusion has a huge variety of teas and beers. Karin also prepares delicious lunches and dinners daily on a rotating menu. Her cream of mushroom soup is absolutely fantastic, and I have never had a more delicious (or more lovingly prepared) Cobb salad anywhere! Interesting conversations always happen at Soul Infusion--with Jason or Karin or with any of the many interesting people who frequent Soul Infusion.

SPRING STREET CAFE. This is the best reasonably priced fine dining place in Sylva. Spring Street Cafe is owned and operated by Lisa. Lisa herself bakes the delicious cakes and pies for dessert. Lisa's blueberry pie is one of my favorites. I always loved the Sunday morning brunch at Spring Street Cafe, especially the Rock Star Oatmeal--delicious oatmeal with soy milk and fruit, a huge bowlful! During the summer months, Spring Street Cafe is open for lunch and serves wonderful sandwiches. My favorite was the one named for my office mate at Western Carolina University, the Lizzie! Designed by Lizzie herself, this is a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with avocado!

EL PACIFICO MEXICAN RESTAURANT. This is a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Sylva where Donna Glee and I liked to eat. El Pacifico serves huge bowls of delicious chicken soup (sopa de pollo) with avocado in it and cilantro, and limes to squeeze into the soup. I always gave Donna Glee my lime because she LOVES lime in her El Pacifico chicken soup, and it's far more fun to watch Donna Glee enjoying TWO limes in her soup than to enjoy one myself!

ARTHRITIS. I've had arthritis, particularly in my right hip, for years. Much to my surprise and delight, I found that when I began taking daily walks in the mountains, the pain in my right hip all but disappeared! I haven't set up a walking routine in New Orleans, but I can tell that my right hip needs one!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Move to North Carolina

In 2005 I was rooted. My roots extended far into that deep but shifting alluvial soil of New Orleans. I was born in New Orleans, as were my parents, my grandparents, some of my great-grandparents, my three sisters and two brothers, and most of my cousins. I had lived in New Orleans for over fifty years.

I felt secure with family close by. I could meet my sister Maria or my brother Danny for lunch at a moment's notice. The families of my married sisters, Sandra and Janet, lived a short forty-five-minute drive across Lake Pontchartrain. My brother Michael, disabled from a stroke, lived in a neighborhood nursing home, so I could pop in anytime for visits. I had a wonderful circle of friends--from school days, family connections, neighborhood, work, writer's circle, piano studio, yoga, reader's theater, French club.

It was my thirteenth year teaching English to international students in the Loyola Intensive English Program of Loyola University New Orleans. I knew the ins and outs of Loyola, whom to see to get what done, the short-cuts around campus and around any red tape.

I knew the language of New Orleans and all the cultural references. I oriented myself by the four New Orleans directions--uptown, downtown, toward the river, toward the lake. I used French-influenced expressions with the verb "make," as in "He made twenty-one last Saturday," meaning that he turned twenty-one years old last Saturday. My closet held items I could throw together for a costume: ballet slippers, a grass skirt, a Mexican straw hat, face paint, beads, feathers, a black velvet tail.

But after Hurricane Katrina, I lost my teaching position: the post-hurricane financial cut-backs at Loyola included closing the Loyola Intensive English Program after our Spring 2006 semester. New Orleans was broken, and no one seemed in a hurry to fix it. People around the country questioned the wisdom of living in a hurricane-prone area--and I began to see their point.

I decided to move. I chose Jackson County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains (the Smokies) of western North Carolina, where my lifelong friend Donna Glee lives. I wanted to be near someone I knew.

I had also heard of the NC TEACH program, a summer program that prepares mid-career adults to move into public school teaching as a means of alleviating the teacher shortage. I applied and was accepted. Once I arrived in North Carolina, though, I learned of openings for renewable one-year-contract lecturers in the English Department of Western Carolina University. This would involve teaching first-year writing at the college level, and would leave my summer free to continue my studies for a Ph.D. in English Composition in the summers-only program of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This latter position is the one I ultimately chose.

I left New Orleans on Thursday, April 28, having sent the bulk of my belongings on ahead with a moving company. I packed my car with the help of my sister Maria and her friend Malik, took care of a last-minute slow leak in one of my car tires, and drove to my friend Marcella's in Chattanooga--the same Marcella who had sheltered me on evacuation from Hurricane Katrina.

The next day, Friday, April 29, I drove the rest of the way to Donna Glee's home in Balsam, North Carolina, right near the entrance to the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. I would stay with Donna Glee while searching for a more permanent address. I arrived at Donna Glee's with a heavier heart than I had realized: Donna Glee had no sooner welcomed me than I collapsed in tears on her porch. Actually, it was a blessing to stay with Donna Glee. She is a comforting sort of person, and her supportive friendship smoothed the path for me in countless ways as I adjusted to living in a new place.

Part of that adjustment involved getting a North Carolina driver's license. This might seem like a fairly straightforward task upon moving to a new state, and indeed the process itself was straightforward. My internal feelings, however, were not. For several weeks, I felt disoriented and slightly dizzy whenever I glanced at my new North Carolina license. Was that really me pictured on the license? But how could that be me on a license that said anything but "State of Louisiana"? There was something jarring about the two identities--me and the name of a different state--that my mind refused to put together at first. If I wasn't a Louisianian, a New Orleanian, then who was I?

Ultimately, I spent three years in North Carolina. My next post will tell something of my life in North Carolina during those three years.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Removing Jesus from the Throne of My Heart

Jesus used to be on the throne of my heart, directing my life--at least in theory. The idea of inviting Jesus to be on the throne of one's heart is that we humans make a mess of our lives when we are in charge, but that when Jesus is in charge, he transforms our lives so that we are deeply fulfilled and are pleasing to God.

Unfortunately, this never worked for me the way it was supposed to. After I invited Jesus to be on the throne of my heart, I simply felt guilty whenever I wasn't doing what Jesus wanted, which was frequent. I wasn't telling others about Jesus enough, and I certainly wasn't as selfless as Jesus wanted me to be. In fact, doing all the selfless things Jesus wanted just didn't appeal to me at all. When I did try to do what I thought Jesus wanted, I often wound up a total grump because I was forcing myself to do things I didn't want to do.

Then I reached a turning point. I did something that I absolutely knew Jesus would not want me to do--and I did it on purpose. I flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to hear a friend sing the role of Susanna in Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro. I wanted so much to hear my friend sing in this opera that I love. So I bought a ticket to the performance and a plane ticket from New Orleans to Cedar Rapids and back, and I reserved a hotel room in downtown Cedar Rapids, a block from the theater where the opera would be performed. I flew to Cedar Rapids on Saturday morning, saw the Saturday evening performance, and flew back to New Orleans on Sunday.

I knew absolutely that Jesus did not approve of such frivolous spending. It cost approximately $500 for the opera, the plane ticket, and the hotel room. Jetting around the country to see an opera seemed decadent and selfish. Instead of spending that money to please myself in such an extreme way, I should have given that money to people in need.

But I wanted to see my friend as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. I wanted to give myself that experience. And I chose my own desires over those of Jesus. And I enjoyed it. Oh, it was so wonderful! I was floating on the joy and beauty of that opera for weeks. My friend was pleased that I came, too.

It wasn't too long after this that I decided to dethrone Jesus. I actually sat down one day for the dethroning. I said something like this: Jesus, I won't pretend any more. I don't want you in charge of my life. I don't enjoy it when you're in charge. In fact I'm way more grumpy when I try to do what you want. So I hereby officially remove you from the throne of my life and enthrone myself. Maybe my life will be a mess, as they say, with myself in charge, but at least I'll enjoy it more and I won't feel so guilty all the time.

I told a few of my friends about this, and I was struck with something my friend Dick said: "It will be interesting to see what kinds of things you do now--whether you do good things or bad things." Yes, it certainly will, I thought.

And you know what? My life did not become a mess. I did not find myself doing bad things. In fact, I noticed something interesting. I found myself actually wanting to do good things. But they were good things that I naturally wanted to do, not all these good things that Jesus wanted me to do that had no relation to the kind of person I am. Jesus wanted me to talk to people about being saved and to do extraverted kinds of helping behaviors. I, on the other hand, wanted to have more honest conversations about what I and others believed. I wanted to read, write, draw, and enjoy music. I wanted to have friends over for meals and parties. And I wanted to be helpful to others in ways that suit who I am.

I also noticed that I do indeed want to do wrong things at times. The kind of wrong things I find myself wanting to do are based on satisfying an emotional impulse or assuaging fear. For example, if someone hurts me, I want to lash out in anger or to hurt that person back in some way. Likewise, if I'm afraid that I won't have what I need, I feel compelled to grasp and hoard. But I'm also aware of a deeper part of myself that doesn't want to give in to anger or fear. What I want most deeply is to be compassionate--to act with deep respect for the other person and for myself. I want to pull back, recognize that I'm feeling angry or fearful, and choose to act from a place of love and respect instead.

Without Jesus on the throne of my heart, I am free to discover my own core of divine compassion and wisdom. This compassion and wisdom is already there. It is an intricate part of who I am as a human being. But I cannot be in touch with this part of myself if I am constantly focused on what Jesus wants rather than on what the deepest part of me wants. With myself on the throne of my heart, directing my life, I can examine my sometimes conflicting desires and choose to be who I most deeply want to be.

I have found that, at my core, there is not a chaos of wrong desires that make a mess of my life. Wrong desires, such as wanting to satisfy an angry impulse or to grasp greedily what I think I need, are very much on the surface. At my core, if I take the time to go there, is a well of compassion, respect, and wisdom. This is not pride speaking. It's simply part of the package--it's part of who we humans are, if we can but recognize our deepest core.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Poem: Fever Dreams

I wrote the poem below while thinking of the odd but enjoyable dreams I've had when I've gone to bed slightly feverish from too long in the sun.

By Karen Ashley Greenstone

When my temperature is one hundred and three,
These are some things I like to see.

Sometimes I like to hallucinate
Of mice who mate,
Or snakes who skate,
Or a hippo with a curly pate
Who ambles along at a clumsy gait
To the watering hole where she likes to wait.

And then at times I like to dream
Of live ice cream,
Or a dancing scream,
Or a traveling team
Of mad moonbeams
That fill the heavens with crazy gleams
Till all the planets start to steam.

At other times my thoughts will turn
To the arctic worm
Who has to squirm
Through tons and tons of snow packed firm,
Or even to the tropical germ
Who aims to infect the epiderm
Of the mighty majestic pachyderm.

And finally my mind will swirl.
Then acrobats whirl
With lips that curl
And hands that hurl
Pink flying squirrels
At tap-dancing girls
Who are all named Merl.

These thoughts all pounce
As my fever mounts
Until I have reams
Of fever dreams
And hallucinations
To stun the nations.


Some Christian see a crucial difference between Christianity and the other major world religions: in other major religions humans must strive to reach God, while in Christianity God reaches out and comes to us. I, however, think that it is important not to let this crucial difference obscure an even greater similarity: Christianity and the other major religions share a common assumption that God is outside of us. Whether we are striving toward God, or God is coming to us, in both cases God is assumed to be outside ourselves.

This assumption, that God is separate from and outside us, shapes the experience of many Christians. These Christians speak of a God-shaped void inside us, a void which can only be filled by inviting God into our lives to sit on the throne of our hearts and direct us. I believe that many people feel a God-shaped void because of their basic assumption that God is Out There. Believing that God is outside us actually creates the experience of an inner emptiness. Those who believe that God is outside us will put all their energy into striving toward God-Out-There, or into inviting God-Out-There to come in.

Even after God has been invited in, a Christian often continues to experience God as Someone Else, Someone who was outside and who has now come inside her from without. This Christian senses that she is no longer in control of her life but that God, who has now come within, is controlling her. In fact, when such a Christian does something good and helpful for others, she often says, “I didn’t do that in my own strength. It was God acting through me.” God is perceived and experienced as completely separate from the self. God is within the Christian, but as an outside Power: what God wills and does within the Christian is separate from what the Christian wills and does on her own.

For me, this perception of God as Someone separate caused serious problems during my earlier Christian years. It prevented me from listening to and knowing myself. I believed that I had to be concerned with God’s will, and since God was separate from me, this meant shutting down and negating my own thoughts and feelings so that God could take command. All my energy and attention went into God: God’s thoughts, God’s ways, God’s desires. I was prevented from listening to and discovering who I was, for I did not matter; it only mattered who God was and what God wanted of me. I had to suppress myself and my own voice in order to think God’s thoughts, speak God’s words, and do God’s actions. Karen had to disappear. In fact, I was cut off from myself in two ways: both as an individual and as a woman. Since the Christian God is male, doing God’s will meant doing His will. I was under the control of a male God. I had to deny both my individual self and my womanly self.

Thus, the assumption that God is separate from us leads to the experience of an inner void without God, or of an outside Power controlling us when God enters our lives. This can cause us to feel that we must deny and negate ourselves in order to hear and do God’s will.

But I now believe that a different basic assumption about God is far closer to the truth of what is: the assumption that God is already within us as an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. In other words, I am created with a part of myself that I might call God-Within-Karen, or God-in-Karenshape. This very different assumption creates an entirely different set of experiences.

With the basic assumption that God-in-Karenshape is an integral part of who I am, I do not experience a God-shaped void, or inner emptiness. I do not perceive God as Someone Else toward whom I must strive or whom I must invite into me from without. Instead, I find God within me. Listening to God and listening to myself are not two separate activities. Listening to God is listening to myself. Just as I learn to listen to my rational thoughts as part of myself and to my feelings as part of myself, so, too, do I learn to listen to the voice of God-in-Karenshape as part of myself.

I believe that the perception of God as separate from and outside us makes us effectively blind and deaf in a spiritual sense because it prevents us from using our inner eyes and ears. Imagine a person who keeps her eyes shut all the time, not because she has no capacity for vision, but because she is unaware that she has eyes to open! Such a person is effectively blind, not because her eyes don’t work, but because she never uses them, not realizing that they are there to open and use.

In the same way, many of us do not open our inner eyes and ears to God within, not because God isn’t there, but because of our basic assumption that God is separate from us. Unaware of God within, it never occurs to us to connect with the God part of ourselves; hence, we feel a void. Feeling a void, we assume, not that we are ignoring a part of ourselves, but that we are empty. Our belief in a separate, outside God creates this experience of inner emptiness. We look to be filled by God from without because we do not realize that God is already within. We cannot have an experience of God within us unless we go within ourselves to experience God there. And we will not go within ourselves to experience God unless we first assume that God is within us to be experienced.

I believe that God is meant to be experienced in this earthly life from within: within myself, within others, within the world. In fact, I find it impossible to have an experience of God as separate and without. God comes to me as God-Within-Friend, God-Within-Stranger, God-Within-Sunset, God-Within-Full-Moon, God-Within-Oak, God-Within-Azalea, God-Within-Elephant, God-Within-Spider, God-Within-Hurricane, God-Within-Rainbow, God-Within-Color, God-Within-Music, God-Within-Poetry—and most frequently and powerfully as God-in-Karenshape.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Massaging Infants and Toddlers

In the Prologue to Frank Schaeffer's new book Patience With God, posted on Frank's blog at, Frank tells us that one of the greatest joys of his life is massaging his baby grand-daughter, Lucy. Frank helps Lucy to stretch after her naps by rubbing her limbs. This type of loving massage is wonderful for babies and toddlers. Here are some of the wonderful things that come from this loving massage--for the baby as well as for the parent or grand-parent or other loving adult.

  • WELCOME TO EARTH. The baby is a spirit newly arrived on earth in physical form. Massage helps the baby make the transition to the physical. This loving physical touch welcomes the baby, letting the baby feel at home on our physical earth. It tells the baby that the physical aspects of life are good. The massage feels good, and being in a physical body is good. A massaged baby soon feels at home on earth.
  • DEFINING THE BODY. Massage helps the baby define the body. As the loving adult touches the baby's body, the baby develops a sense of being in a body, of feeling the body's various parts as they are touched. A massaged baby feels comfortable in her body.
  • DEEP SENSE OF LOVE. Massage physically infuses love into a baby's very bones. The baby literally feels the love pouring into her. A massaged baby knows at a bone-deep level that she is loved.
  • TIMELESS PLACE. The loving adult giving the massage is transported to a place beyond time. That is, time falls away and the loving adult exists purely in the present moment, flowing with the love between baby and adult and the physical rhythm of the massage. This is wonderful for the adult--a time away from cares, a time to replenish life energy, a time to simply be.
  • DEEP BONDS. Loving massage creates and strengthens a deep bond of love between the baby and the adult. This bond will last throughout life on earth and into eternity.
In a previous post, I mentioned the concept of mitzvah, described by Kathy in How Free People Move Mountains by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. A mitzvah is a good deed. The good deed itself is a blessing. In fact, the good deed is such a blessing that one may not even recognize that one is doing a good deed. One may simply feel blessed. When a loving adult massages a baby, this is a mitzvah.

Breaking Taboos

In 1969, when I was nineteen years old, I decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church, in which I had been raised. This was during the spring of my first year at Newcomb College of Tulane University. At this secular college, I was away, for the first time, from the homogeneous environment of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, which I had attended from Pre-Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. At the Academy of the Sacred Heart, all my classmates had been upper-middle class, white (the dominant race), Catholic (the dominant religion in New Orleans), and Democrat (the dominant political party in the South at the time). That very homogeneous social context had presented me with the unified worldview of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican Council II, a worldview in which everything was white or black, right or wrong, good or bad.

But in college, I was exposed to ideas beyond this sheltered Catholic environment. I met atheists with strong moral convictions, like Linda, homosexuals who were delightful and compassionate people, like Fred, and women with ambitious goals for their lives, like Chachi, who planned to be an orchestral director (and who achieved that goal). Madeleine Murray O'Hare spoke on our campus. In my biology textbook, I read a compelling argument for evolution. This was all very exciting to me.

I became angry at the way I had been controlled by fear of God in the Catholic Church, and I decided to leave. My first conscious act of severance was to miss Mass on Sunday, an act of defiance that the Catholic Church classifies as a mortal sin, the penalty for which (if not confessed and forgiven) is an eternity in Hell. Accordingly, Sunday came and I did not attend Mass. I intended to spend my Sunday morning enjoying myself in my own way, instead.

But I was not prepared for the internal consequences of my act. I had defied the One True Righteous Omnipotent Omniscient Omnipresent GOD by defying the command of the Catholic Church, the voice of God on earth. Ugly internal voices assailed me and blocked out all other thoughts.

"What if it's true after all?" these voices hissed. "What if you've really committed a mortal sin? What if you die, and you find out it's all true, and you go to Hell for eternity?"

These thoughts were insistent, and they terrified me. The fear was indescribably intense and crushing. How had I dared to go against the All-Powerful God? How had I dared?

I endured this terror for several weeks before these voices began to subside.

Years later, in my thirties, I learned to name the experience I've described above. This happened as I was reading Sonia Johnson's memoir, From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman's Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church. In this book, Sonia names my experience of leaving the Catholic Church and the resultant terror. Sonia herself had experienced a simlar inexplicable terror afrter deciding to disobey the elders of her Mormon Church by speaking publicly in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. She felt as though a deadly threat was approaching from behind, and she kept jerking around in panic to glance behind her. Like me, Sonia was uprepared for this internal reaction, and she didn't understand it.

Several months later, Sonia had a conversaton with Alison Cheek, a member of the very first group of women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. Sonia learned that Alison, too, had felt this strange terror while on her way to celebrate her first Eucharist. Alison was able to name the experience for Sonia (and for me): breaking a taboo.

Alison explained to Sonia that every culture has taboos, rules that govern life and death. In our culture, many taboos are unspoken, but they exist--very strongly--below the level of consciousness. The chief taboo in any patriarchal society is women's disobedience to men in authority. In breaking this taboo--by becoming an ordained Episcopal priest, by disregarding the Mormon elders, by leaving the Catholic Church--Alison Cheek, Sonia Johnson, and I had defied male authority, and we knew somewhere in the depths of our being that we had broken a major life-governing rule. Hence, the terror.

I have been amazed at how many women have had this experience of terror after breaking a taboo. When I have told other women my story of leaving the Catholic Church, along with the taboo-breaking explanation provided by Sonia Johnson through her conversation with Alison Cheek, I have often received responses like these: "I felt that same kind of terror the first time I had sex outside of marriage, after my divorce"; "I felt like that the first time I had lesbian sex"; "I felt terrified the first time I told a family secret, in therapy."

Women know, deep in their bones, that disobedience to powerful males means death. (Just a few hundred years ago, this was literally true, and in some places in our world, it still is.) The terror remains with us and surfaces when we break this taboo.

I would be interested to know if men have this experience. Are there taboos, which if broken by men, result in an intense internal terror? I wonder if engaging in homosexual sex might be one. Perhaps also cross-dressing. It would be interesting to know more about this as regards men.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why I Believe That the Bible Is Not Inspired by God--My Fourth Reason

The Bible gives a twisted view of God: in the Bible, God is pictured exclusively as male. This is a distortion.

Certainly it is a good thing to depict God in a personal way. To relate to God personally, we need to think of God in personal terms, and all the persons we know are either male or female. God, of course, is not a person with a physical body, so God is neither male nor female. But we need male or female images of God so that we can relate to God personally; otherwise, God becomes an It, and it's hard to relate personally to an It.

Unfortunately, in the Bible, God is depicted as exclusively male. God is always He, Father, King, Lord--never She, Mother, Queen, Lady. This is a distortion. If we need to speak of God as He or She in order to relate personally to God, then we need to use both. To picture God only as male suggests that God is indeed more male than female, or that God is male and not female, which is untrue.

I know from my own experience that we need to picture God both as He and as She. Here is how I know this. I grew up relating to a male God--the Biblical God the Father. God the Father was scary--very exacting, easily roused to anger, quick to punish. I never succeeded in trusting God the Father. I knew that I should love and trust God, and I tried to persuade myself that I did, but I was actually terrified of Him. I simply could not feel close to God.

This problem was solved when I read When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone as an adult. Merlin Stone explains how God was viewed as female, the Great Mother, for millennia--going far back into pre-history. God was Mother long before God was Father. This was wonderful news to me! I decided to pray to Mother God--and immediately I found that I could love and trust God. I determined that I would forget about God the Father--I had given Him His due--and pray exclusively to Mother God for the rest of my life.

Now, here comes the interesting part. I prayed exclusively to Mother God for several months, and then I felt that something was wrong. Something was out of balance. Picturing God exclusively as Mother was as unbalanced as picturing God exclusively as Father. I needed Father God as much as I needed Mother God.

It amazes me that I could have received this insight even though I had had so much trouble with God the Father. Yet I found that I was able to picture a Father God that Mother God would wish to be associated with.

Given that I was able, in a matter of a few months, to figure out that an exclusively female God was as unbalanced as an exclusively male God, and to figure this out even though I had had such difficulty relating to God the Father of the Bible, it does seem odd to me that the Bible writers, over several thousand years, could not figure out that they were way off balance in picturing God as exclusively male. I could see, within months, that I needed both a male image and a female image of God. Why couldn't the Bible writers see this within thousands of years?

Well, of course, I have an idea of the answer. It goes back to what I said about culture in my previous post. In a dominance/subordination culture, where women are subordinate, it is not within the realm of possibility to picture God as female. Of course, God would be a dominant male within such a worldview.

Nonetheless, it remains the case that picturing God as exclusively male, as the Bible does (or picturing God as exclusively female, as I did for several months) is a distortion. We need both male and female images of God. Because the Bible doesn't offer both, the Bible's depiction of God is twisted.

Why I Believe That the Bible Is Not Inspired by God--Three Reasons

Francis Schaeffer said that he became convinced of the truth of the Bible upon reading the Bible all the way through. He could tell that the Bible was inspired by God. It had the ring of truth. This astounds me.

I, too, have read the Bible all the way through--more than once--and this has convinced me that the Bible is most definitely not inspired by God. I say this for four reasons. I will discuss three of these reasons in this post, and the fourth reason in my next post. If Francis Schaeffer were alive today, I would love to hear his response to what I have to say.

CULTURAL ASSUMPTIONS. First, I'll need to explain something about culture. All of us grow up within a culture and absorb our culture's values and assumptions. We absorb these values and assumptions at such a deep level that we believe them to be Reality--The Way Things Are.

For example, our culture places such a high value on individualism and competition that it is obvious to us that species and individuals within species are competing to survive. Nature operates on the principle of survival of the fittest--that's Reality, The Way Things Are--it's plain to anyone who looks at the world around us.

It might shock us, therefore, to learn that survival of the fittest is not plain at all to a Native Australian, whose culture emphasizes cooperation. Looking at nature, a Native Australian sees a vast web of cooperation, where some animals volunteer to be food for other animals so that life on earth may continue. To Native Australians, it is obvious that nature cooperates and that some creatures sacrifice themselves for the sake of life--that's Reality, The Way Things Are--it's plain as day to anyone who looks.

My point here is that cultures have different values and make different assumptions about Reality. God, though, dwells within what is truly Real. The Creator of the entire universe is not enmeshed in any earthly culture, as we are. God, the Creator of all, stands outside culture and would speak to any culture with clear moral discernment based on true Reality, What Really Is.

Yet God as depicted in the Bible does not do this. The Biblical God makes the same cultural assumptions as the Hebrews! I find it nonsense to believe that the Creator of the universe cannot get past seeing the world through a Hebrew cultural lens.

Hebrew culture was based on relationships of dominance and subordination: men over women, parents over children, masters over slaves, Hebrews over foreigners. Slavery was a given. War was the accepted means of settling disputes as well as simply expanding one's territory.

The Biblical God accepts all this as Reality. It's The Way Things Are. But if we're talking about the real God of all, wouldn't we find God dismantling the dominance/subordination system, the institution of slavery, and violence as a means of settling conflict?

Instead, we find the Biblical God commanding the Hebrews to invade the land of the non-aggressive Canaanites. And when nations beyond Canaan were conquered, we find that God tells the Hebrews to take for themselves all the young unmarried women. This is SEXUAL SLAVERY! Of course, these young unmarried women belonged to three subordinate classes: woman, foreigner, conquered. In a dominance/subordination world, they were doomed.

The Biblical God is so imbued with the Hebrew cultural worldview--the dominance/subordination system is such an intricate part of Reality for this God--that this God can authorize sexual slavery without batting an eye. God doesn't even SEE the horror.

This does not have the ring of truth. It has the ring of despair. What chance would I have in a world where God blithely offers young conquered unmarried women to their conquering males?

So we have a Biblical God who can't see past Hebrew cultural assumptions. How did Francis Schaeffer answer this, I wonder.

FEAR-BASED OBEDIENCE. The Biblical God uses fear to command obedience. God scared the Hebrews to death with all that thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the commandments. The least disobedience received incredibly harsh punishment: God ordered that a man be stoned to death for the crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. And one didn't even necessarily have to do anything wrong to incur God's wrath--one could be punished simply for being related to a person who disobeyed God. When Achan stole some of the spoils of war that God wanted destroyed, not only was Achan stoned but also his whole household, including Achan's children and--get this--all Achan's oxen, asses, and sheep! This is rule by terror.

There is no ring of truth here. Again, we have the ring of despair. What chance would I have in a world where God kills a man's child and animals for that man's disobedience?

How can I believe in a God who would have me tiptoe through life with a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach lest I misstep and be crushed by God. What did Francis Schaeffer say to this?

DON'T QUESTION. The Biblical God does not seem to want us to use our minds. Whenever a Biblical prophet brings God's word to the people, it is clear that the people are to obey--or else. They are not to question.

This is far different from those present-day prophets whom I respect, such as Gary Zukav. When Gary has a message from God to impart, he always says something like this: I have something to say that I believe is from God. But it's very important that you not swallow what I say automatically as absolute truth. Instead, use your own discernment. Listen to what I have to say and see whether or not it rings true for you. Always remember that this word is coming to you through a human filter.

None of the Biblical prophets ever says anything like this. And considering the huge filter of Hebrew cultural assumptions through which we hear God's word in the Bible, it seems that discernment in reading the Bible is highly in order. Without that discernment, what do we have? We have people who believe that God approves of slavery, that God assigns women a place subordinate to men, that God condemns any homosexual act even between two people in a life-long committed relationship.

This does not have the ring of truth. Truth is not afraid of questions. Truth welcomes discernment. I actually do have some idea of what Francis Schaeffer would say to this because he believed in absolute truth. But I would still like to hash out the ideas of discernment and human filters with him.

This post gives three reasons why I believe that the Bible is not inspired by God. My next post will give a fourth reason, a reason that deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Dead Are Close to Us

I believe that the dead are very close to us. They are no more than a thought away. They are not gone. They are very present.

Often, though, when someone dies, we experience gone-ness. As far as we can tell, our loved one is gone. Here's why it feels that way. Something, indeed, is gone. What's gone is our loved one's presence in a physical body on earth. Our loved one is no longer with us in physical form. This means that we can no longer see or hear or touch our loved one. And we are so bound to the physical experience of each other that, when we can no longer perceive someone with our five senses, we feel that the person is gone.

When a loved one dies, our grief and longing are intense. We want to sit down with our loved one as we used to do, gaze into our loved one's eyes, hear our loved one's voice, hold our loved one's hand--but we cannot. And since this physical way is the only way we know to experience someone, for us our loved one is gone.

But there is another way to experience and be with those who have died. It is not a physical way. But it is a way.

I learned about this other way to be with the dead when my mother died. I'll try to explain what happened, starting with my mother's funeral.

I knew that people would come up to me at my mother's funeral and say things. And I determined that I would do my best to accept graciously whatever they said. It is not easy to know what to say to family members of the dead and people try their best to say something comforting and empathetic, so I determined to take everything anyone said as a gift.

What people actually did say fell into two categories: (1) it's terrible that your mother died, and we'll miss her immensely, and (2) it's a blessing that your mother was spared prolonged suffering, and she is in a better place. I was able to respond gratefully to both types of comments.

One woman, however, told me something that turned out to be a special gift in an odd way. She said, "Karen, these next months are going to be difficult. You'll find that you'll have to remember again and again that your mother is dead. As things happen during the day, you'll think, I'll have to tell my mother about this, and then you'll remember, Oh. I can't tell her. She's dead. And you'll have this experience many times."

I realized that this woman was telling me these things to help me, but as she talked, I became aware that I knew I would not have the experience she was describing. A thought formulated itself in my mind: No. That is not how it will be for me. When I want to tell my mother something, I will simply tell her. And she will hear me.

So this woman gave me the gift of making conscious something that I hadn't realized I knew: I can continue to communicate with my mother.

And this is what I have done. I know that my mother is present, just not physically. When I want to tell my mother something, I simply tell her. I can tell her out loud, or whisper it to her, or think it to her. And I know she receives my message. Here's an example. My mother loved flowers. I have no doubt that she still does. When I see lovely flowers, I can admire them, think them to my mother, and know that she's right beside me enjoying them, too.

I do not feel my mother's presence in any tangible way. I simply know she's there. And that's enough for me. I don't need to feel anything.

My mother died in 1997. Since then, my father died in 2000 and my sister Sandra in 2002. Occasionally, I believe that one or another of them says something to me. This comes simply in the form of a thought--a quiet, natural thought, not at all jarring or attention-catching. The thought is something that I probably wouldn't think on my own, and it has a Mom quality or a Dad quality or a Sandra quality to it. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, I pause and say, for example, "Mom, I hear you. Thank you for this thought. I love you and wish you all joy in the spirit world." I am grateful when this happens, but I would be content without this, just knowing that my dead loved ones are near and that they hear what I think to them.

I feel very sad when I hear people say of the dead, "If only my mother could be at my wedding," or "Your father would be so proud if he could only be here to celebrate your achievement." I believe that my dead mother and father are at all my important events. They themselves are really and truly present, just not in physical form. This means that I don't see them or hear them or feel them. But I know they are there.

I believe that if we can open ourselves to a different way of being with the dead, we'll find that they are very close to us. If we cling to what we can no longer have--seeing, hearing, and touching our loved ones--we will experience only gone-ness. But if we can let go of that need for the physical experience, we can send our dead loved ones thoughts and know that our loved ones receive these messages. We can even reconcile with someone who has died if we were not able to reconcile on earth.

I find that I don't need a tangible experience of my dead loved ones. I simply know that they hear what I think to them. And that's enough for me.