Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Courage

I have not told my garden yet

This poem from Emily Dickinson caught my eye this week. I found it in a volume of her poems for young people. Nonetheless, I heard it as an adult poem about adult pain. My comments follow the poem.

I have not told my garden yet,
Lest that should conquer me;
I have not quite the strength now
To break it to the bee.

I will not name it in the street,
For shops would stare, that I,
So shy, so very ignorant,
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it,
Where I have rambled so,
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go,

Nor lisp it at the table,
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the riddle
One will walk to-day!

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Young People, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated by Chi Chung. Published by Sterling Publishing Co. (2008)

This poem is about death: Emily’s preoccupation with death, and her own death. Whether final or as daily reality. Each stanza adds depth to her poetic riddle.

Stanza 1. Emily thinks about her garden, the place that brings her happiness and peace. It seems she’s afraid she might not survive breaking the news, though we’re not yet certain what the news is. It’s clear this won’t be easy or happy news. Not for the garden, the bee, or her.

Stanza 2. Emily thinks about village shops that stare at her when she’s out and about. There she’s known as shy and perhaps ignorant. She has no intention of letting the shops know her plans. They wouldn’t believe that she, of all people, would have “the face to die.”

I take this “face to die” as setting her face toward death, which she names in the last line of the stanza. She faces death with determination, perhaps the way Jesus ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem—the city in which he would die.

For Emily, it doesn’t matter what the shops or shoppers might think about her. She’s stronger than she’s given credit for. Indirectly, she’s saying they don’t know her at all. So why should she tell them anything at all about her “face to die.”

Stanza 3. Emily now thinks about the hillsides and the forests. She loves both settings yet determines to keep them in the dark. It seems that if she doesn’t tell the hillsides about it, they won’t tell the forests. Perhaps they’ll think she doesn’t love them anymore? Or perhaps the hillsides and forests will die of sorrow?

The verb ‘rambled’ has more than one meaning. It could mean rambling around in the woods, as well as the rambling of Emily’s voice speaking freely to the trees and hillsides. Not to ramble anymore would be a great loss for them and for her. Here she can speak out loud freely and directly. Yet she isn’t going to tell them the day she’ll “go.”

Stanza 4. Finally, Emily has no intention of talking about this at “the table,” which I take to be her family circle. Not even in what we might call baby talk that’s less than clear. She’s also determined not to suggest that “within the riddle” is a hint that “One will walk to-day!”

The last stanza seems to have two meanings: one about her family circle; the other about the poem itself. Which has me wondering whether this is ‘only’ a riddle, or a veiled clue to her unhappiness and desire, if not clear intention, to “walk to-day.” To die to her family and her beloved garden, and never return. A form of death no matter how you read the poem.

I don’t know whether Emily wrote this poem before or after she wrote I Years had been from Home. I do know these are the words of a woman in distress who chooses to tell the truth but tell it slant.

Yes, my heart goes out to her. Emily has a level of courage I haven’t often seen or heard in this life.

Thanks for visiting and reading, and leaving your own interpretive comments or questions if you’d like.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 July 2018
Photo found at correntewire.com

A vexing situation – Sexuality 5

I’m tired of dancing around the politics of sexuality, whether proclaimed by the church and church-related institutions, or by political parties on both sides of all aisles.

All my life I’ve lived by other people’s agendas. Toed the line (most of the time). Made sure I didn’t cause a problem for the powers that be (even though I did).

For a change, this is my agenda: As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am to

  1. love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind
  2. love my neighbor as I love myself
  3. love myself

It couldn’t be simpler or more terrifying than that. Those three, taken together, are my bottom lines. Any attempt to gain my loyalty or affirmation falls short if it requires me to add or subtract from this list.

If I were applying to teach at a seminary and made the first cut of candidates, I might say something like this to the search committee.

  • I would like to hear from each of you about your personal journey, including things you’ve struggled with in your life, and how this affects the way you relate to seminarians, particularly regarding sexuality. In return, I’m committed to sharing the same thing with you about my struggles, and the way this has affected my work with seminarians, both male and female.

Perhaps this is unrealistic or unfair. In any case, I don’t think I would get many takers.

I am now and have always been an outlier about sexuality. Partly due to my troubled past with my father. But also because of multiple friendships with gay men and lesbian women, my own troubled past, and fear of being drummed out if people don’t believe me or, more likely, find me unworthy.

When it comes to sexuality, no one has an undamaged mind, heart or body. In addition to relentless private victimization, the advent of ritualized, commercialized pornographic images and social media voyeurism makes a mockery of our felt need to root out those who flagrantly (publicly or privately) violate their own sexuality or the sexuality of others. We have been sinned against, and we have knowingly and unknowingly passed along our anguish.

Finally, though this post is about men as well as women, we women have more to lose when it comes to sexuality.

Nonetheless, if we women keep arguing and distancing ourselves from each other, we’ve lost even more. It doesn’t matter whether we’re homosexual, heterosexual, transgendered or bisexual. It doesn’t matter what color we are or how many husbands or partners we’ve had, or what we have or haven’t done in our pasts. What matters are areas of common concern, and taking initiative to meet each other around those issues, even though it may mean meeting some sisters for the first time.

I’m a dreamer. So was Jesus Christ. As one of his followers, how can I refuse to go where he went? Yes, it’s a kind of death. But the kind that passes life along to our daughters and sons, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, neighbors, and even to ourselves.

As always, many thanks for listening.
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 4

When I interviewed for a faculty appointment at the seminary in 1983, no one asked about my sexuality or sexual history. I was married and had two children. I was an active member of the Presbyterian Church. I was interested in women’s studies and issues of importance to women, and as a theological student I had a good record and outstanding references. Besides, my guest lecture was well received.

Years later, I’m the dean, responsible for having a confidential conversation with each final candidate about sexuality and other topics. This includes conversation about the now-official standard of the seminary on human sexuality and moral conduct, questions they might have about this area, and questions I was expected to ask them. Which I did.

In order to help us through this sometimes awkward conversation, I used a one-page handout excerpted from a 1996 memo to the faculty. It was about the new board-approved policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. I sent it in advance to our final candidates, with other material about the seminary.

If the candidate was already inclined in the direction of the seminary’s policy, there was no hesitation. However, if the candidate had questions, it was sometimes awkward. Not just for them, but for me.

I couldn’t pretend that living with this policy wasn’t important. To my surprise, some were reassured by my history with students struggling with sexual issues. The same was true about ways I dealt with classroom presentations and dynamics. There might be room for them here, and it wouldn’t be easy. Especially in the classroom.

The new policy, nearly 10 years in the making, included a statement about behavior, and two implications for faculty.

  • Regarding behavior, those who affirm and practice forms of sexual intimacy contrary to the seminary’s guidelines will not be admitted as students, or employed at the seminary. A further sentence, for the benefit of faculty members hired earlier than 1996 said, “This item is in reference to all decisions subsequent to the adoption of this policy.”

Regarding faculty, there were two stated implications.

  • First, we were to make sure seminarians dealt with the range of positions about current moral issues the Church faced. These included human sexuality and moral conduct.
  • Second, in our teaching we couldn’t argue against the seminary’s policy about sexuality (whether heterosexual or homosexual). We could, however, tell students about our own struggles regarding human sexuality and moral conduct, including our present understanding of difficult issues related to sexuality. Nonetheless, we could not “undermine or invalidate” the seminary’s policy. Furthermore, when speaking publicly or privately on behalf of the seminary, we were to articulate clearly and uphold the seminary’s policy.

The first implication was fairly straightforward. The second, however, felt late and one-sided. I’d learned the hard way which questions I could and could not answer in large required courses. Now, however, any sign that I was still ‘struggling’ with these issues sounded to some like the equivalent of teaching against the seminary. The only safe professors were those in full and complete agreement with the policy as stated.

I keep wondering what I would do differently if I were being interviewed today for the same faculty position.

Thanks so much for reading, and for your comments along the way. One more post coming (I think)!

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 3

It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.

According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.

Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.

Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.

The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?

During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.

Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.

I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.

Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.

I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018

The Shape of Forgiveness | Part 2

“Forgiving is a journey; the deeper the wound, the longer the journey”
“We do not forgive because we are supposed to; we forgive when we are ready to be healed.”
Lewis Smedes, in The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How, published by Moorings, 1996

When I was a child, my father required me to beg forgiveness from him and from God. Most often after a beating, or as the so-called resolution of a sisterly argument about an alleged offence. This was often tricky, because I knew the facts as presented weren’t quite all the facts.

I’m grateful forgiveness isn’t a required event. Especially forgiveness of my father.

I didn’t know it then, but my process of forgiveness began the day I confronted my now-deceased parents about being shamed, humiliated and silenced. The process isn’t yet completed, but I’ve made unexpected, life-giving progress.

The meeting I set up with my parents took place the eve of my 50th birthday in 1993, more than 23 years ago. During the meeting I asked for my father’s apology, with no expectation that he would apologize. My husband, my sister Diane, my mother, and a trusted pastor witnessed the conversation between my father and me. It lasted for 1 ½ hours.

My father refused to apologize for anything. He wasn’t interested in revisiting what happened between the two of us or between him and my sisters. He’d already done all his business with God, privately. Nothing I said or did would change his mind.

I was on my own, without my father’s blessing. Disappointed but not surprised. Still determined to work on my healing.

We say punishment should fit the crime. Even so, I believe forgiveness must fit each situation, especially those with life-changing consequences. This isn’t about mistakes or forgetfulness. It’s about the Big Stuff we wish had never happened to us.

Forgiving my father has been a long, sometimes painful process. I’m not yet there. Still, looking back, I see several areas of progress. Sometimes with lightening-speed insight; most of the time with determination, grit and courage to take the next painful look at him and at myself.

Since that historic meeting in 1993, I’ve made progress in at least the following areas.

  • Acceptance of the life-changing enormity of what his behavior meant for me then and now
  • Interest in my father’s life story
  • Appreciation for his wounds, including his determination not to ask for help
  • Awareness of his deeply rooted shame
  • Compassion for him as another human being

I was surprised at how much more comfortable I became around my father, even though his opinions about me never changed. I enjoyed being in interview mode, though I didn’t always like what I heard. I was also comfortable being in the compassion mode. Especially because he carried many griefs, sorrows and disappointments similar to mine.

Nonetheless, I knew this change for the better wasn’t yet forgiveness, much less reconciliation. It was more like a cessation of warfare and a sometimes uneasy truce. I still had work to do.

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 April 2017

The Soul selects her own Society —

house-door-1860s

I wish Emily Dickinson had left a note about this poem. It seems maddeningly ambiguous about her context and meaning. What do you think it’s about? My comments follow.

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –

Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –
At her low Gate —
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –

I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Here are my thoughts as of today—informed by my experience as a woman and by social, national and international realities.

  • Is this a riddle? I don’t think so. Riddles can have more than one true answer, but only when all clues in the riddle line up with each possible solution.
  • The subject of the poem is named immediately – “the Soul.” Everything that follows describes choices of the Soul, personified as a woman.
  • The action in the poem is simple. The Soul makes her own choice about whom she will or will not receive. She then shuts the Door, cutting off access to all others and ensuring her own Majority (of one). This isn’t a decision made by consultation or by popular vote. It’s a one-way decision of the Soul.

If this is about a human being, I celebrate our ability to choose whom we will or will not allow through the Door – into our lives. That doesn’t mean each choice we make will be wise. It means the choice is ours, for good and for ill.

On the other hand, I think Emily is suggesting more than this.

Notice these words: The Soul ‘shuts the Door’ – is ‘Unmoved’ – is ‘Unmoved’ – is ‘Like Stone.’ This suggests a one-time decision such as how the Soul choses to live her life. These words might also suggest this Soul is a snob or merciless.

Yet I see no evidence of this. She doesn’t seem to come from high Society or live in a magnificent palace (note her low Gate). She simply makes her choice and doesn’t look back. Her nay is nay, and her yes is yes. No use trying to change her mind.

It’s possible the supplicants are trying to help this Soul in some way. Or perhaps use her? They may want her vote or her support. They might promise her one thing and deliver something else. Whether the Soul knows this or not, I still applaud her courage when she shuts the Door, Unmoved.

Emily’s poem challenges me to be wise and clear about opening the door of my soul. Some bargains and sure-things end up being disastrous. Not just in our private lives, but in our national and global life.

In the end it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks I’m a snob or blind to reality (which I sometimes am). My choices aren’t always wise. Still, I believe God gave me the capacity to learn wisdom and discernment, if I’m willing to practice it. This means, as Emily’s poem implies, going against popular wishes or expectations from time to time. Especially as a woman, though also as a family member, friend, neighbor and citizen.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 February 2017
Image  found at remodelingnewburyport.com

Interrupt and Replace

I woke up this morning feeling down, weary and discouraged. ‘Dis-couraged.’ An interesting word. It means I had courage ‘back there,’ and now I perceive a deficit. How can this be?

If I go back to my childhood and teenage years, I know when dis-couragement happened and why I need to attend to it, lest I lose my voice or become an enabler.

As a young girl I knew when the flames started licking around my legs, weakening my focus and my courage. Back then I persistently carried focus and courage into every punishing situation inflicted upon me. First by my father, and later by men with power to inflict punishment on me as a professional. It’s called bully behavior.

One gift of being a childhood survivor with PTSD is the ability to feel when certain dynamics are in the air. Dynamics neither we nor the person in control are necessarily able to change.

The behavior we’ve seen thus far from our new president is the behavior we’ll most likely see for the next years of his tenure. We already saw it in the presidential election cycle. Nothing has changed except this: the power of the office of President of the United States of America now protects him.

So here I am today, feeling dis-couraged by the events of this past week.

What can I do to change things? I can’t change or replace him. Nor can I change or replace myself.

Back to my father. As a child I was powerless. There was no way I could replace him with a different father. Nor could I interrupt his agenda for me. Especially when he determined I needed to be punished.

I’m an adult now. I’ve done my homework. I’ve learned not just to interrupt and replace the internal voices that mess with me, but the voice of my father talking about himself. He died in 2010.

Now there’s Mr. Trump. I want to interrupt him. The presidency isn’t all about him. Nor is it a platform for bully-talk toward and about others. One painful example will do: his language and behavior toward women who are, apparently, there to serve the desires of his heart.

So how can I do my bit to interrupt Mr. Trump’s monologue and replace it with contrasting voices? Not in debate form, but as a proactive, fearless way to change the conversation, the topic, and the outcomes. The Women’s March is an example of other mass interruptions that changed the topic, the political conversation, and the outcomes.

I want to be part of a movement to interrupt political bully talk and replace it with dialogues that make a difference. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about. Or how your courage is holding up.

Thanks for listening!

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 January 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Replacement

I Years had been from Home

dickinsonhomestead_oct2004

~~Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts

In this narrative poem, Emily Dickinson seems to have a real destination in mind. Yet she focuses almost entirely on her internal fears and consternation. What’s going on? My comments follow.

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare stolid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –

c. 1872
from an 1862 version

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Emily doesn’t tell us precisely why she’s going Home. She’s been away for Years, and seems to have left something there–“a Life I left.” What might that mean? Perhaps she means she’s moved on and doesn’t want to become entangled in her old life. Or maybe she’s looking for something missing. I don’t know. She doesn’t get that far.

Instead, she describes the gripping, painful internal storm that erupts as she approaches the front door, prepared to ask her leading question. It’s as though she suddenly realizes the importance of this event—what it might cost her. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea.

Emily’s poem reminded me of an experience I had several years ago. Though the circumstances differ, the experience raised similar feelings in me.

I was in Savannah for Dad’s memorial service. That afternoon a number of family members drove out of the city to my favorite childhood home, the scene of happy and unhappy memories. The old colonial-style house looked out over a tide-water river that still beckons to me.

Hoping for a glimpse inside the house, a few of my younger relatives went up to knock on the door and ring the bell. My heart froze with a feeling I can’t even name. What would I say if someone came to the door? I felt fear, confusion and consternation.

No one came to the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, yet still felt strange until we got in our cars and drove away. Though I loved seeing the river and the outside yard, I had no desire to meet the new owners or see the inside of this house. It contained too many convoluted memories and secrets.

Emily begins by calling her destination Home. By the time we get to the end of the poem, this Home has become a House. No longer the place it was, and not a place she needs to revisit.

The ending might sound comical if it weren’t for the magnitude of her fear. Fear, it seems, that she or her life  might get high jacked in the process. And so she flees like a thief.

I’m left wondering whether something was stolen from Emily in that House she first called Home. Or perhaps she left that life behind and doesn’t want to lose the life she now has. Either way, I applaud her courage.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 January 2017
Photo of Dickinson Homestead found at wickipedia.org

The Lady of Shalott and I | Story #2

The Lady of Shallott

Painting by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Tate Gallery, London

In 1983 I began teaching theology at a seminary in the Philadelphia area. Though my office was small, it had a window and built-in bookshelves on almost every wall. The other wall slanted in at the top–taking up precious space and head-room. Read the rest of this entry »

My heart still pounds | Part 3 of 3

What happened next
When I finished reading my statement, I felt exposed, apprehensive, and relieved that I’d finally put my thoughts together and said them out loud. Read the rest of this entry »

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