Down home, where they know you by name and treat you like family,
Down home, where a man’s good word and a handshake are all you need.
Folks know when you’re fallin’ on hard times you can fall back on
Those of us raised up—down home. (Alabama, 1985)
When my grandmother died, it was April, and the lilacs were in full bloom. I think back on those lilacs now, realizing that they, like the women in whose lives they played such a part, define homeplace for me. I realize that I cling to them, the flowering, decadently-scented lilac that stands at the doorway like the angel at the Garden of Eden, and the women of Big Mama’s. But the angel armed with flaming sword was placed at the Garden’s entrance by God to keep people out, so homeplace, even as it beckons, has its own fiery barriers. I can no more cross the threshold of home guarded by the lilac than Adam and Eve could get past God’s messenger. And yet, just as the searchers have sought the now mythic Eden, Southerners, like me, spend an endless quest yearning for homeplace, trying to go home.
It was around my grandmother’s table that I first learned about homeplace, as she and her 5 remaining daughters, the sisters, recollected the old hard days and made plans to go back. In the same way that bell hooks (1990) contends, “houses belonged to women” (p. 41), for me, home is made by them. On Sundays, over coffee and caramel cake, they lovingly described the house and place where six babies were born. I learned that the old homeplace was a location of enshrined desire. And it is within nostalgia, a yearning for home, that desire and homeplace ideology intersect.
Daddy’s people did not like Mother’s people. My father’s father had finally left the farm, got factory work, and moved inside the town limits. When his son, my father, fell in love with a girl from “the mountain,” it appeared to them like a step backward. My mother’s home was a place of noise and music and laughter and hard liquor—everything that Daddy’s fundamentalist Christian mores denounced as sinful. The pact was made: when they married, she would disavow that lifestyle, stay away from home. I knew very little of my maternal family until I was 12 years old and my mother could not stay away any longer. She took me with her to Sunday coffee at Big Mama’s.
By the time I met them, Big Mama had left her job at the local truck stop, and the sisters had divorced the wild young men who drank and played music on Saturday nights. I returned to a Sunday afternoon matriarchy that had resigned itself to calm. Now the sisters and their daughters returned to sit around the same table, now cluttered with chipped coffee cups rather than bottles of Jack Daniels. Big Mama’s house was not quiet or orderly. The old house creaked and heaved with determination as it enveloped the lives it cradled, including, again, Mother’s, and now, mine.
Some images never leave us. When Big Mama got sick in 1983, the sisters rallied. Nobody was taking care of their mother except them, and they stayed with her around the clock for a year. On a Sunday very different from those spent around the table, I saw death still in the claiming. Big Mama had no appetite and was drinking only a little milk. Mother was at her bedside trying to get her to eat yogurt. I could not bear to go into the dark bedroom, witnessing the scene instead from the next room, as close as I could get but not nearly as far away as I longed to be. My mother coaxed her mother to eat, tiny spoonful by tiny spoonful, cooing to her as she had to my own baby, to me as an infant. She tenderly spoke words of love to her mother, words devoid of joy, words sickeningly rich with heartache. I had never felt so low and empty and sick, and I never have since.
After she died, I was wracked with remorse because I missed so many years. I loved her, and I treasure the time I spent with her. But regret and guilt are old friends who call often; there would be no moving forward. Then I dreamt my dream. She and I were alone in the darkness, and I, grown and helpless, was sitting in her lap. She enveloped me in an old string quilt, soft and comfortable with age. Her words and her body soothed me; I knew that I had known her. And my heart and mind rested easy.
When the sisters finally made the pilgrimage back home, some 50 years after leaving it, they carried with them buckets and tools. They came for artifacts, tangible memories. Each collected cuttings from foliage that remained, now overgrown with scrub bushes and weeds. My mother and her four sisters cut through the wild vines and tall weeds to re-claim their mama’s garden and take it home with them—old plants: mock orange, iris, forsythia (yellow bells), and lilac. Since then, wherever Mother has lived, wherever I have lived, we have dug up a piece of those plants, with good roots so they will live. “They won’t ever even know they’ve been moved,” she tells me. I do this because wherever I live, it comforts me to know there is a lilac by my door.
This piece was adapted from an academic paper published as Whitlock, R.U. (2006). Season of lilacs: Nostalgia of place and homeplace(s) of
difference. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education. Fall-Winter 2005.
Update: CBS News confirmed that an Islamist extremist group claims responsibility as retaliation for the NZ Christchurch bombing. Seems ISIS and the locals are vying for top spot. So my musing is this: if “Islamic Extremist Groups” are terrorists, then are white nationalists who wear red MAGA hats also? They’re playing with and off each other right now. Endgame is the same.
Earth Day 2019
Warrior God. God of the victor David. It is with humble defiance I approach you, calling in my part of the covenant you have with your people~~all of us. Yesterday, at the moment 31% of the inhabitants of this planet shouted Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!, 290 souls on a tiny speck of it were blown up as they worshipped you. Five hundred more were wounded in this execution, 2,000 years after the one we remember. Terrorists, the news tells us. A local Sri Lankan group who couldn’t figure out how to coordinate and carry out a mass murder were provided resources by an international group who made suicide bombers out of them. The local attackers learned well; Sri Lankans know terror today—right at this moment—terror in the dreadful feeling, in the knowing, that it might not be over. Terror leads to terror and death to death. The story is familiar.
Loving God. David’s Good Shepherd. In the cruelest irony, today is Earth Day. This is the day that activists and poets alike remind us that we are destroying the very ground we live on, the very air we breathe. We are indiscriminate in our destruction, though, for we also kill each other. Christ is risen, indeed. So I will repeat the words of the prophet, How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab 1:2). And I ask all of us who praised the Cosmic Easter Bunny yesterday, just what in the world has Christ risen for? Grant us peace on earth, or at least grant that we may want to want it, for peace leads to peace and love to love. I trust you from the depth of my soul. When it comes to this, I do not really have a choice. Amen.
My paper at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference is Intentional Monogamy in the Age of Tinder: Queer Theology and Re-thinking Christian Sexual Ethics. That one title contains at least four ideas for an academic paper~~and here in one place I’m going to try to pull them together to look again at a concept that we take so much for granted we do it without thinking. Monogamy.
I’ve begun framing my academic research over the last four years with theology; I even did a stint at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and “the” Christ are not just relevant our world today, they are essential. They are my starting point; from them I move to Feminist Theology and Queer Theology, which are topics for another day. Just know that theology~as I define it the search for the nature of God~in its various perspectives has allowed me to get here. Where is here? Queering Christian Sexual Ethics. And to do delve into that field, I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice~monogamy~and look at it through a lens of queer feminist theology.
Queer theology is not, for the uninitiated, the same as LGBTQ Religious Studies, although it can, I suppose, be included within that broad field. It does not, concern itself with What The Bible Says About Homosexuality, about which Rev. Dr. Daniel Helminiak has written so concisely. Queer theology is radically different. For example, the late Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid named God queer and proposed an Indecent Theology in which sexuality, theology, and politics are intertwined. In such discussions, one can consider the trans nature of God. Paul Tillich describes a postmodern god and helps us think of God not as an old white guy with a beard who looks after us as his children, or better, as no image at all~just James Earl Jones’s commanding voice. Neither is God our “mother,” in a gendered turn of the conventional. And, it isn’t that God transcends gender, that is, to go beyond its range or limits. God is transgender, for God flows across genders in ways that defy categories. Godself is fluid and trans, and in this, God is transgressive. This is Althaus-Reid’s notion of a Queer God, where queer is transgressive and political, gender and sexuality-bending~~and also playful. This is not a god that man has worked for 3,000 years to craft in his own image. This is God that can hold being the Ground of Being. I want this God on my side.
And, just as over the last centuries we have constructed a God who suits dominant White Western cultures, we have also constructed normal, normative sexual ethics~~and we have strategically bound them to the search for God, to theology. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for what humans do when we get naked with one another. To queer Christian Sexual Ethics, then, is to associate it with Queer Theology, to transgress what humankind sanctions in the name of God.
To make the discussion less abstract, I look at the singularly sanctioned form of marriage relationship for mainstream Christians: monogamy, the practice of having one partner at one time. In case you’ve forgotten the official sanction of monogamy, here it is again. It’s called the Wedding Vow:
“I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). She conducts this interrogation of monogamy to explore the possibilities of polyqueer sexualities~relationship forms and practices that include more than two people in them~for shattering inequalities. She positions monogamy, rightly I believe, as an institutionalized social structure that bolsters power relations; this is mononormativity. I suppose because I identify as monogamous I felt as I read that Schippers was throwing out the baby with the bath water. She didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here~for another time~on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities~personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Those of you who know Sarah know that this in fact is romantic. One evening we were talking about the nature and dynamics of our relationship when she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing during our casual discussion and said, “Yes, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned~~used all my skills to persuade her~~and myself~~that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. for me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, Good lord, do I have to try them? Not necessarily, she said, just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.
In my undergraduate classes, students will often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of the simple answer). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act~~in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied.
What’s next? I aim to situate this discussion~~with more theorizing for my day job~~into a deep look into Christian Sexual Ethics, a field that looks how we can humanely and kindly treat each other in our sexuality. Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
I remember when Tim Tebow played for Urban Meyer at UF. As Tide fans, my family and I spent hours of quality time discussing the overratedness of the young quarterback. We speculated at how much of the hype was brought about by Coach Meyer’s public affection and admiration for him. Watching Tebow and the Gators throughout the season, we were sure that he was pretty much all Florida had offensively. Devoted Bama fans, we were also sure that Coach Nick Saban drew that same conclusion and would therefore shut Tebow down and win the 2009 SEC championship game. Which was exactly what happened. Tim Tebow had seemed to be the Florida offensive strategy. My family fairly scoffed at the site of him sobbing after the game. We had been right all along.
And then came Denver. I don’t follow pro football like I do SEC college football, so I only understand the basics, which I am interpreting loosely. Tebow was drafted by the Broncos, but did not make starting QB. After a 1-4 start to the season, though, Denver’s coach decided to give him a try. And they began winning. Even then, Bronco’s vice president and living legend in Denver, former QB John Elway said that Tebow wasn’t going anywhere in the position, that basically he wasn’t the fit the Broncos were looking for. In the meantime, Denver’s record went from 1-4 to 8-8, with a shot at the playoffs.
Taken together, it would seem like the Tide, my family, and I would be satisfied that Tebow had gotten what he deserved. But we aren’t; because that just paints part of the picture of Tim Tebow. I guess one of the reasons we scoffed at his hype and his coach’s regard for him was his religious expression. Rather, his public religious expression. He talked about Christ at press conferences; he told about his mission work with his family. And on the field, he did what is now referred to in reverence and derision–depending on who is doing the referring–as “tebowing,” kneeling down to pray after plays and games, etc. I have to be honest, I didn’t think too much of that when he was playing against Alabama.
But, again, then came Denver. Keeping in mind that my family are staunch Christians, I guess, as my mother would say, the continued talk about him got noticeable. The smugness we had felt at Tim getting his bell rung by the Alabama defense faded as one commentator after another, not to mention comedians, Tweets, and talk show talkers would find ways to work Tebow’s faith into discussions of his football playing ability. And most of them were not giving him much respect for either. And then last week Bill Maher–with whom I usually fall on the same side of the fence–made just a crude, un-funny remark about Tebow and Jesus. He worked in Satan and Hitler, too. More crude and even less funny. Bill reminds me of that guy you sat across from in homeroom who mocked everybody, making you afraid to say or do anything that would attract his attention lest you were next.
Lots of guys (and gals) play sports and are religious. Thanking Jesus and Mama after the game, dropping to one’s knees after a touchdown, and joining the other team for prayer in the endzone are all commonplace. Likewise, guys (and gals) who played Heisman caliber college sports in college who find the pros a little more challenging. That, though, is fair game. Over Thanksgiving my son, who thinks sports news is the actual news, watched two commentators named Mike argue for an hour over whether Tebow should be an NFL quarterback. But the undercurrent of religion was there. It, not his propensity to avoid the forward pass, is the source of the mockery in their voices. And that is out of bounds.
Talking about Tebow is never uncomplicated–and no, apparently it is not an option to not talk about Tebow. He won games for Denver but lost the last three in a row. He prays and wins; he prays and loses. He is both praised and criticized for both running and passing. I have a friend, for example, who sees him as a total hypocrite. “All that ‘tebowing,’ and I bet he gets laid a whole lot. I don’t know. But, would those two be mutually exclusive? Is celibacy also a requirement? Would that help his passing game? During yesterday’s bowl game marathon, I saw his “I ‘preciate that” commercial and I thought it was a pretty healthy response. Here’s the link.
So that’s my Tebow rambling. I know undoubtedly it’s connectable to larger thinking, but I don’t want to expend the thinking right now to sort out exactly what.
More on this later.