How to Be A Poor Christian

It’s ironic because, of course, all the original Christians were poor as dirt.  It should be easy!  The founder kept saying things about how it was good to be poor, but in a nice way, not like, “Isn’t it great to wonder if you should get cereal at the grocery store because cereal is expensive?”  Because that sucks.

Can you imagine, the guy said, “It’s pretty much impossible for rich people to be okay,” and they kept this in the book of his sayings.  Think of the things they must have left out!

I have mostly belonged to churches that were rich, partly because I have spent my career working with the poor, and on Sundays I just can’t be freaking out about if the church can pay the light bill.  I need to know someone else has got that.

(That is not to say these churches, and the Episcopal church as an international organization, don’t gather and send a lot of money to people and places who need it.  They do.  And I love their beautiful, beautiful buildings, which inspire me and make me feel safe.)

Belonging to a rich church, though, means that when they do the pledge-gathering and money-collecting, you can realize that the other people there are possibly not worrying about if they will be able to pay their rent.

There’s an assumption that everyone sitting out there is holding something back in these speeches, oh, God needs you.  And a person who is battered and shaky from working with people who are abused or poor or deeply suffering can feel like, “I don’t belong here.”

The guy who spoke at church today talked of a touching and worthy ministry with people who are poor, but I was also wrapping my mind around the idea that I now have a job where my superiors set up a food pantry for us, and that I was going to ask my parents for money for rent.  Why did I make life choices based on service and do-gooding instead of money?

I’ve been reading Sarah Smarsh’s book, Heartland, which if you have not bought or read, you should buy immediately (or demand it from the library!  or borrow my copy!).  She writes about the shame of poverty, and the way our government has slowly turned up the heat to boil people who are poor in their own oil since about Nixon.  (Fun fact she includes: Nixon was proud that more people applied for and got food stamps under his administration how can that be true?)

Her family was rural poor.  My family was overeducated, underpaid because doing “women’s work,” and without camaraderie in our money worries.  Basically my situation now except there are other graduate students around.

I thought a lack of money meant I had done something wrong, though what it meant was that people in power thought they deserved what they had, and more.

This is an idea Smarsh highlights repeatedly in the book.

I don’t think I can hear it repeated enough.

It just warms my heart so much when you reveal you lack money.  It’s so transgressive.

If someone, regardless of a lack of funds, still have a glass of wine or buy a $10 breakfast or a lipstick or a book and says to herself, well, I’ll figure that out later, I love this person forever.

I had a friend at my church in Kansas City named Wayne.  Wayne had some mental illness, or was two shakes short of a lamb’s tail, as my sister says, or whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  He was the fool in the Shakespeare play of our services.  When two of my students were shot, Wayne was one of the only people who responded to me in a way that made me feel better.  “That’s awful!” he said.  “Do you want me to pray with you?”

If I were not a very quiet Episcopalian, this might have been a normal exchange, but I am, and it wasn’t.

Wayne would tell me he needed money for food.  Sometimes I gave him some.  It depended on if I had cash, or if I was feeling safe myself, or poor, myself.  It was all right if I didn’t.  He would ask me for a ride.  I would drive him.  But I admired his ability to ask for what he needed.

My first impulse upon feeling I need something is to watch television.  Or feel sorry for myself.  Not super effective.

Wayne gave me silly little presents that no one wanted or needed and were not his.  Say, a boutonniere from a wedding at the church the previous day, or a brochure from the rack in the hallway.

So Wayne died.  He was old.  He’s the third person at the church who was sweet to me and died.  Three significant holes.

Wayne helped me remember that my show-off brain does not help me love people, or love myself.  It’s good for doing all this grad school reading and figuring out how to help my students.  But not for healing, not for love.

I listened to Dr. Ford testify this week, and then I got in the shower and cried and cried.  I got out of the shower and made myself get dressed, but I had to stop and cry again.

I couldn’t listen to Kavanaugh speak.  I just couldn’t.

Although I for real blame God for every instance of violence and the pain that comes from seeing and hearing an entitled dangerous bully have such power over my country, I went ahead to church.  Last time I went, I felt better, so maybe… whatever.

I walked in and felt quite self-conscious.  I am an experienced churchgoer, and a large part of me is showing off at a new church, like, look, I know what to do here.  But this is a small-town church, I thought.  People will, like, notice that I am here.  Why did I wear red?  And why are there so many white people?  I missed my thoroughly-mixed congregations in New York.

Then the acolytes and priests walked in, and both of the acolytes were young men who were black.  Stupid God and God’s stupid jokes.

Were these the anti-gay Anglicans?  I had checked that, right?  Right?  The anti-gay Anglicans have all changed to let everyone know they are Anglicans, not Episcopalians.  I think.  No, definitely.  It’s cool.

When we sat down because a hymn was done, someone up front was still standing, and a sliver of back was exposed in a black garment.  What’s up with that?  I was new there, and for all I knew, this was somebody about to read a lesson or something.

When I went up to communion, I saw that the person in the black garment was a guy wearing a Cat in the Hat costume, with eyeliner whiskers on his face, and purple sparkle fingernails.

I’m still mad as hell at God, and scared, but I like to sing.  And they read the story of Esther, which was a good call: woman speaks truth to power and saves her people.  And it was nice to see the Cat.

Image: “The Lost Piece of Silver,” Sir John Everett Millais, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Make A Man Out of You

When I began teaching college students, I realized: this is what it’s like to be a man.  I was a woman, and now I’m a man.

All right: this is what it’s like to do work that has historically been done by people of privilege (teach college) instead of by women (teaching people younger than 18).

Will #metoo ever get to teachers?

In two of the schools where I taught high school, I was sexually harassed by students.

At the other, I taught older students, and administrators were willing to stand up for me when students were disrespectful.  They were not willing to do this for all of the teachers.

The solution to this was that I have talks with the student and the counselor, talks that neither the counselor (who was great) nor I had time to attend.

The counselor also refused to hold repeated meetings to discuss why a student was harassing or threatening me if the student would refused to participate, or did not follow through with anything from a first meeting.

Thus, students who talked about my body, asked about my sex life, or physically threatened me, were my problem.

I was not reaching out to them to build relationships.

The bigger problem was that those students, mostly male, were taught a lesson about sexual harassment.

Teacher friends of mine have their asses grabbed, have students yell at them, “She’s a cunt!”  Have students talk about their bodies.  Especially difficult when your job is to stand in front of people.  Every day.  All day long.

Many of those people are no longer teachers, though I considered them to be talented and thoughtful and much-needed.

A decade ago, I showed up in a public high school classroom.  I had spent two years studying education.  I was expected to screw it up.

It was repeatedly demanded of me that I prove what I was doing.  Why aren’t your objectives on the board?  Where are your lesson plans?  Why are you doing that?  Why aren’t the students doing this, or that, or that?  

A great deal of my job, a large percentage of my mind and my time, was spent on trying to defend what I was doing, rather than actually doing it.

I was also expected to be kind and friendly and sweet to all your students, even when their behavior was abusive.  If you show them you care about them, they will work for you.  Sometimes that’s true.

As a teaching assistant at a university, with no teaching background necessary, it is expected that I will do well, do my best, and make my work environment comfortable and healthy for me.  Don’t accept late work.  It’ll just drive you crazy.

Teaching at a university has been a job for educated men.

After I am done teaching my college students, I have TWO DAYS to think about how it went, and what to do next time.  I get to spend some of that time reading theory and stories about what might be helpful for my students.

If my college students express emotional distress, I am to refer them to mental health professionals.  I am not trained for that.

If most pre-12th teachers were to refer a kid to a mental health professional, it would take between days and never.

Days for a kid are years.

I have 36 papers to grade, instead of 80.  It is awkward for me to talk about grading multiple drafts of a paper.  A university colleague says, “How do you have time for that?  That’s so generous of you?” How did I have time to grade 80 papers?  I didn’t.   I read fast.

No one throws things in my classroom.  And no one shows up to attack me because I can’t figure out who is throwing things, and why, or how to stop them.

At my most dysfunctional school, the principal moved me from freshmen to seniors.  They hired a man for the freshman spot.  He quit.  They hired another man.  He quit, too.  Those kids had five teachers in one year.  None of the three women quit.  (One moved, one was fired, and I stayed.)

Teaching college, no one talks over me.  I get to say what I want to say, what I’ve learned I want to say over many years of studying literature, writing, and life.  What does it do to your view of what you deserve when no one will listen to you, year after year?  And when you are told that is your fault.  You’re not engaging the students.

No one has told me I don’t care about my students.  In fact, they have told me, don’t do too much.  You have to keep your sanity.

My college students, all freshmen, wrote literacy narratives, and many of them wrote about influential teachers.  I read several essays about wonderful, inspirational teachers.  And several that suggested none of their teachers cared except this one.

How was your teacher treated?  By administrators, by students?  We know that she (before middle school, almost definitely a she) may suffer significant financial stress from low pay, lack of cost-of-living raises, and spending money on  basic supplies to do her job.

I am encouraged and heartened by teachers’ unions growing power, and the possibly the pendulum may swing to give teachers more security and respect.  It is not nearly, nearly enough.

Students are not employees.  They are learning and growing, and making mistakes, of course.

But without a strong system for handling teacher abuse and harassment, one that both protects teachers and educates students, our schools perpetuate cycles of misogyny and abuse.

Important, though aside, asides:

Probably a woman?  About 70% of the time, but higher in preschool (90%), which is also, I hate to tell you, school.

Teaching assistants are on a nine-month contract, so they can work at another job during the summer, and they receive tuition for their courses.  Also, though this is another post, at my school, the GTAs are unionized (which is very unusual) and they have gotten me/us a raise, thank you, union!

How much teaching is done by teaching assistants? About 40%.

Teaching assistants are not adjuncts.  I haven’t been an adjunct, but I believe they are treated as if they all have husbands who make a lot of money, and their job is a charming hobby, like Japanese flower arranging, although they may actually be people who need to buy groceries and go to the doctor and want to know if they will have a job next month.

Image: detail of “Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,” Southworth and Hawes, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Two Weeks a Scholar

I have always lived at the top of a hill.  Here I live not at the bottom, exactly, but quite a ways down.  Where the town is.

The climb to the top, where the university sits purposefully poetic, is three short blocks at a steep angle, on concrete, and then brick, sidewalk.

It rains and rains, so that as I descend today, in the short steps of a mountain goat, a sheet of water runs down 11th Street, a centimeter deep but the whole street wide.  The former rain waterfalls into the gutters, which are barely keeping up.

I slept twelve hours, from ten to ten, and woke up still feeling tired.  Maybe this was illness, my teacher has just been ill.  Or maybe it is just exhaustion.  My last boss once said, “Everyone has different levels of energy,” which I took to mean that he didn’t think I was a bad person because he had gone to Harvard and worked 21 hours a day, while I spent Sundays sometimes doing little more than eating and lying around.

I sat on the couch to decide if I was going to class or not.  (Student class, of course teacher class would have been different.)

I climbed the hill, and the obtuse theories of my teacher became compelling and complex as she explained them.

The ways I feel fish out of water in academia: I think scholarly writing and research are often boring as well as useless; perhaps it is elitist; people using words that are fancier just to sound fancy almost enrages me; when I am in a lovely, clean classroom with quiet, polite people, I remember how poorly I was treated when I was “only” a high school teacher; too may white people; and: for every theory there is an opposite and equal intellectual masturbation, which is what I am probably thinking about as you explain anything to me.

But also I love books, study, and learning.  After my compelling and complex class, I ducked into the library.  The outside of it is a gothic imposition, demanding to be noted as an homage paid to scholarship.  The inside is flat blue carpet and desks, and then, if you go through the right doors, the five stories and half-stories, straight out of “Being John Malkovich,” where I led my high school students to see how many books a university has, and prayed we would not encounter anyone fucking in the stacks.

I did not encounter anyone but people innocently sitting at desks.  The first floor of the stacks has nice new desks with outlets and windows, on that back edge of all the metal shelves with all the books, almost worth nothing, almost outmoded, but not quite, still content to sit there and wait for someone to have an interest in what’s inside them.  I opened one wide, dusty volume that had a bookplate: “Gift of the Author.”  I opened someone’s published thesis on Melville.

The ceilings must be no more than seven feet, in the corridor between sections of stacks, they must be a little over six feet. I could easily touch the ceiling with my hand.  It’s for rabbits.  For smaller people.  For emaciated ghosts.  There is no trace of the idea of pointed arches, grey stone, the suggestion that there might be stained glass or statues.

I walked back down the hill, home.

I have this magnificent mantlepiece in my apartment.  In front of where a fire once was, in front of what is now sand and corn cobs and some newspaper that crumbles immediately, is a cast iron grate.  It is broken into two pieces.  You can easily set the top piece on the bottom one, though, balance it, so that the design shows and there is no alarm at it being broken.

It is so beautiful, I struggled (wrong word) with how to get the eye to hit it right away.  I watched decorating show after decorating show (see, not struggling) to figure it out.  I have deep aesthetic opinions, but they are only accessible after seeing the idea.

I hung a big dark grey drape on the chimney’s body, above.  And I bought some fake candles which came with (wait for it) a remote control.  So I can aim it at my “fire,” and the “fire” goes on.

Now you see it.  And outside it rains.

Note: Watson Library has a charming and funny history, being a disaster since its birth.  The university has continuously failed to have a nice and appropriate library.  And it was named after a woman, a librarian.  More here.

Image: Rain ensemble, Bonnie Cashin, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


My life is perfect now.

I moved into one-fourth of an 1880 house, giving me my own leaded glass window, a glamorous fireplace, and so much space I feel like a refugee family should move in with me immediately.

Many family and friends came to help me move, and brought food, and we ate pizza and I forced them to drink beer though it was only 11:30 AM, and we listened to side B of “The Sound of Music” on the record player I stole from the high school where I used to teach.

I now live four blocks from one of my favorite coffeehouses and bars in the universe, a block and a half from a place where I can get eggs and toast and coffee and the local history museum and city hall.

Also my anxiety zoomed up, as any reasonable person would expect, but I am not necessarily reasonable.

I am aesthetically obsessed with my new place, perhaps more than usual since I haven’t lived with my own stuff for five years.  It’s been in boxes and basements.

A good deal of the time after I moved in was me wandering the apartment, putting up pictures, taking them down, putting up drapes, taking them down, moving furniture slightly, changing the spot for the vase from this spot to that.

And then trying to work, both at my graduate school prep, and my freelance work.

I made the realization, at about eleven last night, that the wall above the mantle must be dark gray.  I can’t paint without permission, so I hung a big dark gray drape up there, at twelve feet.  I bet it’s quite exciting I bet to see me climb a ladder, or a chair and then a piece of furniture I assume is sturdy enough to support me, to hang things near the 12-foot ceilings in this place.

However, the cat does not care.  She’s having a bit of trouble smelling, because she is allergic to dust in her old age.  And who knows if she can see?

The fireplace looks amazing with the dark gray up there, though.  Suddenly you can see it, it’s black inlaid with something, and an intricate iron grate in front.  The grate is broken in half, but you balance it right, and no one can tell.

“Do you want me to glue that for you?” my dad said.

“You have glue that glues iron?”

“I think so,” he said.

“No, you don’t.  It’s called fire,” I said.

When I walk to coffee (which I actually have to do, as I no longer own a coffeemaker, silverware, a toaster, dish towels, or a colander), I walk down a street of Victorian and their staider, older homes, all of which I love the pants off of.

One is lavender and looks like a cat lady threw up all over it in a very neat way, another looks straight out of New Orleans, the trim, the squareness, the stateliness, and there is a historic plaque house which has a door with a doorknob at a level for British people or elves, and those square windows that go around windows that make me hot.

My great-grandparents had only one architecturally nice thing in their crackerbox house, a door with square stained-glass panels.

Seriously, I think the house was made from a box of crackers.  A cardboard box.  Not a tin.

The story was that someone pulled the house up out of a creek with a team of horses.

My apartment is also “flooded with light,” as they say, but seriously, it is.  I am swimming in light.  And not direct light, but eastern soft light and northern light and a touch of southern, really incredible light.  At night, I can watch a stoplight change (I like the red, as well as the don’t walk), and the name of the street on green (Tennessee, which is a great word), and at some angles, just trees, as if I am way out in the country.

It’s basically the complete opposite of a New York City apartment.

I cross the street when cars aren’t coming, while everyone else in this college town stands on the sidewalk patiently like God is watching.

Also I walk too fast here, I can really look like an asshole, but then, I walked too fast in Manhattan, which is one of the saddest realizations I ever came to, that even in Manhattan, one could be walking too fast.

I show less interest in wearing any shoes but flip-flops, and I think my bruised-from-moving and spider-veined legs are sexy, here.  Not because I’m young, because I’m recalling that men who like me usually like women like me.

And this is a hippie town.  I’m like, why am I even combing my hair?

It took me eight hours to get my internet installed, between the guy being late, and then having a dickens of a time drilling a hole in my wall, climbing out my window onto the roof.  He was very tall, speaking of tall people, and also polite and sweet, and thus I did not go in and scream at him, “What the fuck is taking so long?” although at the end I was thinking that.  “I would just like to be able to answer a question like, what time does Target close?  Or, how can you help your congested cat? without worrying I’ll get another text from Verizon about my data, and I’d like to work and make some fucking money since I am spending money like a bleeding-out patient in an operating theater.

At like 7 pm he finally had the stuff installed, and I ordered food delivered to me like money was no object, and put myself to bed.

I listened to Dax Shepard interviewing Vincent D’Onofrio this morning.  Vincent D’Onofrio is not only incredibly sexy, he is also pretty insane.  (Probably these things are related, sure.)  The guys were talking about having mental health issues, addiction for Shepard and whatever D’Onofrio’s problem is, and about how when you are rich, famous, in love, doing what you love, you can identify your issues because IT’S NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

This caused me, in the shower, to recall that I had every reason to expect my move would cause me to need daily anti-anxiety meds on top of my normal meds, because THIS HAPPENS EVERY TIME I DO SOMETHING REALLY STRESSFUL.

On my way to coffee this morning, I walked straight into a gaggle of police officers.  They were all standing on the corner in front of the t-shirt place chatting.

Ten or twenty people had on these t-shirts that said something about art.  There was an argument out here about a piece of art that was a flag, and there was some threat that the people mad about the art were going to show up and cause a ruckus, or else a bunch of pro-gun white supremacists were going to show up, particularly on this, the anniversary of that shocking and disgusting display in Charlottesville.  Apparently this did happen here about a year ago, people showed up with guns.

I learned this chatting with a woman at coffee.

“I’m sorry, I’ve only lived here for a few days,” I told her.  “Maybe next time I can hang out with you guys.”

Image: Design for a Fireplace, Anonymous, British, 19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with DT being in town.  One great benefit of being in Kansas City is that one never has to see “Trump” on anything, except that one chiropractor on 93rd Street, which I am sure is no affiliation.  The provinces, as I think of out here, in the provinces we are a little protected.

But then I turned on the TV for background noise (this is one way I seduce myself into working from home), and “The Price Is Right” was on, which was perfect background noise.

The local news interrupted the showcase showdown.  This is the airport!  He is here.

My body filled with adrenaline, feet to crown of head, I got up, threw on clothes, deodorant, sneakers, texted my friend who was already at the protest.

I made myself drink a glass of water.  I stopped and bought three mylar balloons because I wanted to write three things on them.  Then I drove downtown.

My friend had suggested parking far from the action, and I did park far off, and started walking.  The sign I took is a little ambiguous, well, it shouldn’t be, but is: Celebrate Immigration, Cherish Journalism, Love Truth.  In our current situation, all even the last proposition is controversial.

So as I walked, and walked past some old ladies with badges who looked like they might be part of the event, and a table of Trump t-shirts and buttons, and a table of Fuck Trump t-shirts and badges.  A guy yelled after me, “We love immigrants, too!” which from his tone I could tell we had different ideas of what “love” meant.

And I’ve always been instructed, as a protestor, not to respond to hecklers, to respond to any feedback with a thumbs up, a smile, a wave.  If they’re for you, this looks kind, and if they’re against you, it makes them look like assholes.  (Thank you to Julie O’Conner and the animal rights kids who mentored me through my first protests.)

My balloons were bouncing along behind me.  One said, FREE PRESS, one said LOVE IMMIGRANTS, and one said TRUTH.  The helium seemed to have little effect, compared to the wind.  I felt like I had brought three inflatable puppies.

I passed a few other folks who looked at my sign and tried to decipher it.  And a few who gave me a thumbs up.  And two who gave me a high five, also.  And a lot of people squatting and smoking outside their office buildings, on break.  Wearing uniforms.  And people wearing their work badges, walking in twos to get lunch, or to get some air that was actually relatively fresh that day.  In the shade, it was comfortable.

I turned right and furiously climbed the hill across downtown.  I was a little sweaty and my calves strained a little.  It was a lot of Kansas City walking, not a lot of New York walking.  Seventeenth to 10th, and Baltimore to Broadway.  I got to Grand before I realized that I was going the wrong way.

A man came out of the building where I was standing in the shade realizing I had gone the wrong way in my own city, well, the city I’ve lived in the longest, by far.  “My friend is at 10th and Broadway,” I told this office guy.

“Yeah, that’s down there,” he said, as if I were straight off the turnip truck.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.  You see, I really do have no sense of direction.

I went back down the hill.  I might have realized my mistake because my church is on Broadway, but no.  I made it to Broadway and my fellow protestors.  Four corners of 10th and Broadway had people with their signs.  The kids with bullhorns, and hippie lady with facial hair, the older veterans, quiet with flags, the gay dudes, one of whom held an American flag upside down.  The people who just stood, they didn’t have a sign.  Some familiar faces, now that I have been to a few protests here.  The Poor People’s Campaign people.  The Black Lives Matter.  The moms against guns.  The immigration people.  We get together now.

And we chanted, as we do.  I learned some new ones.  We struggled over: “The people/united/shall never be….”  Some thought defeated, some thought divided.  Rhyme is so important in English.  I can’t emphasize that enough.

My balloons were in the way, refusing to float up over our heads, ready to bop someone in the face.  So I turned and tied their ribbon strings to the street barricade behind us.  And next time I looked back, Truth, Immigrants, and the Free Press had disappeared.

When the presidential motorcade zoomed around the corner, a couple of blocks behind us, people started shouting, “Fuck Trump!  Fuck you!” Which I did not enjoy.  I mean, when I listen to NPR in my car, which is too often, I frequently say, “Or, you could go fuck yourself,” but that is me alone expressing myself.  I don’t want rage in public.  In public I want to get together, and be brokenhearted, and be angry, but not raging.  Rage burns down everything.

I hope someone found the balloons.  I hope they didn’t choke birds, or whatever other bad things loose balloons do.  “Hey, truth!  Here it is!” someone said.

Triangle Stories: 1

  1. Four little pigs went out on Halloween.  Their mother did not know how to count.  Every time, she was with the: one, two… wait…. And the four children waited because what else could they do?

She pushed them in a stroller-for-four, up and down the apartment hall, and each neighbor was curious.  One, two, three, four?

“They’re not kosher,” one neighbor whispered.

“And who is the big bad wolf?”

“And why aren’t they blind?”

“And where is the grandma?” other neighbors said.

“I don’t know.  I don’t know,” the mom said.

Mom had three more children and she dressed them as the Beatles minus John.


2. The owner of the building didn’t even know what he owned.  He was on life support at Mary and Associates General.  A machine breathed for him, like Frankenstein, he breathed, but without Frankenstein’s innovative thrill at being able to breathe.  The owner of the building and the body was not working

His wife came to visit twice a week, and his son once a month, and his daughter every other week, and his lawyer, once a week.  He owned 40 buildings in the area, and it was going to be a bitch-mess untangling of assets when he died.  He resisted will-making because he didn’t like death.

A man named Harum trimmed his fingernails, and toenails.  A woman named Isolde bathed him, as much as he could be bathed.  The dirty water never looked very dirty.

He lived a long time.


3. The plantains were not bananas, she realized as she unpacked the toys for her new day care.  It was in the first floor of the building.  It was called “Little Angels,” and like all places with “angels” in the name, it was to be terrible.

When inspected, dead bandaids would be found stuck to the floor and the toys, and a piece of broken glass would be found amongst the Duplos.  And the soap dispenser was empty.  This owner, though, was Excited to Serve the Community By Making Money.  She had just been diagnosed with MS, and needed a desk job, like applying for grants for day cares.

“Are we supposed to have weird food?  Should I get the plastic sushi?” she said to no one, as she hobbled over to the trash with the play food plastic shell packaging.  She was hobbling from stubbing her toe earlier, the MS had not caught her that tightly yet.  “I don’t know,” she said to herself.