Posts Tagged 'religion'


In a normal circumcision, there is a little bit of drama, of course. The significance is there, hanging heavy in the air like incense. Like incense, this is a sin or a virtue unspoken. A little drama in a piece of skin, establishing forever, viscerally, the concept of guilt, resentment, forgiveness, redemption.  The connection of regions and religions speak a shared vocabulary of hierarchy, a shaking of walls. All of life is suffering. Suffering, then death.  Then feast days, the feast days of corn and mutton and fry bread and birds flying high overhead, looking down on the land of the people, fields ripe and heavy, the heavy hanging bells of Castilian guilt, the wine, the blood, the suffering of our lady, the suffering of our lord, the dragging of the cross, the piercing of the breast, the blood, the snake, the butterfly, the dragon, the quickness of water, air, light, and wind all blowing together and apart. Dust devil is a saint in some religions, you know, delivering change, confusion, delight. If someone says church to you, what do you say back? Rebirth, renewal? Rejection, redemption?  Confession, repression? The four directions, the trinity, the one-ness, the nothingness, the void? The gods reaching out are feeling us, lost little shapes in a black velvet bag – they cannot see us, just feel, the feeling of each of us is unique as every marble, every stone, every leaf, every feather.  What can be seen without looking? What can be felt, heard, smelled, known with fingertips, with breath, with thirst, with longing? Knees are for kneeling, for praying, for seducing, for begging, for holding arms up, reaching toward an offered embrace.


Thanksgiving prayer


Mama put granny in front of the fireplace with a bowl of black-eyed peas to shuck. Shuck shuck, shucking peas is good luck, I hear gramma singing to herself. I myself don’t care much for black-eyed peas. Too much work, and they taste like dirt, don’t you think?

 Well, coming as we did from both pilgrims and Indians, this branch of the family is steeped in traditions. Gravy boats, tureens, peace pipes, feather head-dresses, whisky and tantrums. Remember old grand-dad’s granddad? Well, not exactly, but remember the stories of old granddad’s granddad? One-legged Indian, hand-rolled cigarettes. Remember the feel of tobacco sticking on your lip when you roll your own? Remember the match scorching the ends of your fingertips? Remember the big mixed-up feasts, with corn and store-bought pies and Tofurky for the half-dozen vegans every generation has produced since Tofurky was invented by scientists in the cold-war time, developed for astronauts, for up in the night sky where who knew what principles might apply to the decomposition of meat products in a zero gravity environment for the edification of star-traveling carnivores. Tofurkey was originally packaged in a tube like toothpaste or hiker’s peanut butter, but was created to be served for Thanksgiving in orbit.

Forty years ago today, I squeezed a bit of gravy onto my Tofurkey, sitting like a log on my melamine plate, which was latched securely to my armrest. It was the first time in 30 days I had raised food to my mouth using a utensil, a fork-like device that clamped over the bolus and delivered it to my mouth in a more natural way than the tube-to-mouth suck we’d all been doing since leaving earth’s gravity. Our first Thanksgiving in outer space. Cranberry lozenges. Pumpkin pie patches – these leave a taste without ever touching the mouth. A weightless burp. These are real-life stories from the astronauts and the cosmonauts – we were a peace delegation, we were cold war campers, with whipped cream and hope and toilets with seat belts – and we shared this ritual. Thanks-Giving.

I give thanks for the long-ago realization of my Mayberry dreams, my red-headed childhood, my belief, fostered by the irritable but non-toxic dreams of my grandparents, who suffered as all working people have suffered since before we had lift-off, since before Houston had a problem, since before the giant step was taken. The belief in transcendence, the transcendentalists of early American thought. The uppity belief in the power of belief. Beyond gravity, space, time, history. I give thanks for marshmallows, whatever they are, for relatives, for strangers, for the dancing cosmos that do not know whether we celebrate in darkness or in light, on earth or in the heavens. Amen.

Bottom feeder

another giant squid

This is what it’s like to be a bottom feeder. First of all, we love ink. Ink is invisibility. Ink is darkness. Ink is what we write our history with. Look out there, out there into the vast whiteness. It has nothing to say until the ink drops into its wide open. No turning back once the ink has been spilled.

You want to tell your history, that’s fine, nobody’s stopping you. You want to tell someone else’s history, that’s different. There’s danger there, smells like sulfur, smells like burning cactus, smells like the brushfire or the war that can rush in and wipe out an entire clan.

Once I was playing cards in the back room of a little trailer house in Four Corners and I heard the wind pick up suddenly, and it was like I could see them even from inside, tumbleweeds rushing across the black night and suddenly igniting, igniting like monks in red robes, self immolating and taking down the fragile open country and everything that lives there with it.

I understand the meditative life of the tumbleweed, I understand the need to move, to feel the wind catch and carry us somewhere new. I knew about that even before I left Navajo country after the fire. I found my home on water, water green and blue and dark, almost black, where I fell in and never went back to dry land again, not for more than two, three days at a time. Long enough to find myself lurching when I came back to dry land, feeling the hitch and pull of gravity and rotation more strongly than I felt them on the water.

My family’s been landlocked for hundreds of years, most of them. My sea ways made me foreign, weird and unrecognizable as a giant squid, coming up from the deep only rarely, with gifts for my sister’s children, and then her grandchildren, until I am the only old salt on the Navajo nation, bringing seaweed ristras and monkey balls and painted tentacles. I stay a couple days, give them the salty sweet taste of my bottom feeder’s life, and then I leave again, leaving behind nothing but a trail of ink, and a history they can fabricate from the secrets hidden in the bright open sky and the black mesa reaching in the four directions around them.

For me, I add two more directions: straight up into the heavens, and straight down, into the cold, dark waters, where the wild shy ones live, where I feel most at home.

The sighting

green tractor

Bubba likes the pit stop at the Possum Kingdom best. Nice lake there, keep the skeeters down by using industrial strength bug spray, enough to kill the catfish when they eat ‘em. Catfish is good eating. Best fried, but then what isn’t? Think about it: donuts, turkeys, corn dogs, ice cream. There aren’t many things that aren’t best fried. Bubba says the exception is fried pickles, but I like those fine, as long as I got something big and sweet to wash it down with. Only thing about fried food is you gotta have extra napkins or else old jeans, either or.

What changed Possum Kingdom the most, for the best, some folks think, was when the miracle happened. Face of Jesus on a green John Deere tractor seat. Big as life: that seat was muddy from Bubba sitting on it after wrestling with a couple hogs out by Clearwater, and the imprint of his holy hiney was a dead ringer for the risen savior. Bubba’s wife LouNesta spotted it and showed it to me first, I gotta tell you that, but don’t think I’m bragging or nothing, only God can take credit for a miracle. But I took the pictures and uploaded them onto my church’s Face Book page and next thing you know the donations are flooding in, for forty days and forty nights that money was running fast and green as young wine. Bubba’s sister, MayLou, was Dairy Queen that year and handed out over 400 chocolate dipped cones at the state fair, proceeds of which were given to the church, but that was nothing compared to the donations flooding those Paypal gates of heaven. I took another look at the tractor seat after it all hit the fan, but I feel like I should say truthfully I never did actually see Jesus there, just old Bubba’s buttcheeks and a smudge that people told me was the crown of thorns.


Samantha loved peppermints when she was a little girl. She loved to go to her grandpa’s diner and order one cheese omelette with hash browns and white toast with orange jelly. She always had a cream soda with extra ice and a cherry to go with it. But the high point of her breakfast was always the peppermint. She got to stand behind the cash register taking people’s money while she sucked on it, and said “thank you and have a nice day” to each and every customer as she gave them their change. I always thought she’d take over the diner some day, when her grandfather got ready to retire. Things change. That’s okay, that’s okay.

Samantha was adopted. People said things back then, Samantha being the one who brought on our “real” child, Sarah. That’s how it happens, they said, adopt one child and then next thing you know, bang, you’re pregnant. She and Sarah were only three months apart. Sarah was bigger than Samantha by the time they were a year old, and faster, and stronger. That happens even with natural siblings, I know, but it seemed like Samantha didn’t stand much of a chance, when I look back at it now.

Adaptation is a function of survival and evolution. To succeed in a given environment, not just in an individual life, but in the long run, adaptations happen in part to ensure reproductive success and the continuation of species.

In successful adaptation, more happens. I need to be green to protect myself and my offspring in this ecosystem, therefore I am green. My orange sister, on the other hand, stands out and calls to the predators, here I am, here I am. It’s not easy being orange. I try not to blame Sarah for Samantha’s failure to adapt, but sometimes I dream about her, seven years old, drinking her cream soda – that little girl loved cream soda. She loved graham crackers, too, and bonfires. We went camping a lot the year after she left us, out in the woods where we could picture her still, with marshmallows and graham crackers, the gap between her front teeth.

Samantha and Sarah started going to that church when they were in seventh grade. It was a holy roller church, with speaking in tongues and people throwing themselves on the ground as the spirit filled them. I said no, no I don’t want them to go, but we talked about it and decided we couldn’t in good conscience call ourselves fair and open minded in the matter of religion if we didn’t let the girls explore. There are phases in childhood. Explorations of place, of friendship, sexuality, spirituality.  All perfectly predictable, and we did not want our children locked into a single limited perspective, even if it was our own.

You know I place a high value on being open-minded. Sometimes, now, though, I wish I’d been less tolerant, more restrictive, and most of all that I still had two daughters, not one daughter who I love no less than ever, and a big gaping hole in my heart where the other one used to be.



“Behold, anonymous omelet goddess,” Dmitri smirks and brushes the hair off her neck, giving her a friendly post-coital kiss. Goddamit, she thinks, shouldn’t he remember my name? He hands her a plate of sliced orange. Civilized gesture, she thinks.

Respectable women do not do this tightrope dance, do they, this retrograde zipless fuck – do they? Does anyone still do this? Dmitri puts a slice of orange in her mouth and slides his juicy hand netherward. She jumps up and writes her name on the white board magnetically attached to her fridge.

Zuzu DeGraib, she writes in red dry-erase marker. That is my name. She cuts the omelet in half and takes hers outside, shutting and locking the door behind her. She smokes a cigarette, without any coffee, picks at her toenails, listens to the whining buzzsaw of her neighbor’s conservative talk radio, and eventually goes back inside. Dmitri is gone. There is a smell in the room, of unfamiliar sex, eucalyptus oil, a lingering scent of orange. There are seeds neatly piled in one corner of his breakfast plate.

Later that day, Zuzu leaves the house, wearing her waterproof khaki jacket with the boy scout patches, and her favorite shoes, with the rhinestone horseshoe buckles she’d affixed with gorilla glue. Zuzu is deeply afraid. She reads the dictionary every day, looking for words to help her describe how she feels. Desperate. Delirious. Repetitive. Like someone who eats zeroes and ones for a living. Like someone who lies, and lies down with dogs. She looks up words for history, for memory, for moments of change. The Smithsonion. She looks it up. How much money does it take to go to the Smithsonian? How far is the Smithsonian from this town, this old Lithuanian town tucked into the northern woods near the Canadian border? Why isn’t there a fence between us and the Canadians? She asks her imaginary mother, who is long gone into a macabre alzheimer’s fog, from which she periodically yodels out Zuzu, Zuuuuuu Zuuuuu, raising Zuzu from the dead, from the heavy short sleep she sleeps when she sleeps at all.

She sits on the stairwell on her back porch, pictures her toenails decorated and painted in tiny pointillated miniatures. She sees starry starry night on her left big toe, a little Matisse with lady and umbrella on her right big toe. She thinks about DaVinci. She thinks about cutting off her own ear. DeGraib, you are pathetic, she writes on the white board. She uses a Sharpie, permanent, to remind herself.

Rules: These are the strict and unbending rules of Zuzu DeGraib, starting today, she writes:

  1. No gratuitous sex.
  2. No breakfast with strangers.
  3. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
  4. Clean your blender after each use.
  5. Donate to the Save the Lemur foundation.
  6. Change lip gloss every 30 days to prevent bacterial growth.
  7. Character counts.
  8. Answer your mother when she hoots at you, whether you like it or not.
  9. Stop smoking.
  10. Spend money instead of groveling around begging for attention from people you don’t care about anyway.

Later that day, she throws the magnetic white board away. She orders a new one online.

Lemurs are only one of thousands of animals facing extinction. It is hard to know which dying species to save on any given day, so her method has been to work alphabetically through the endangered lists. Anteaters, buffalo, koala, orangutan, zebra. She dreams in Noah’s arks, she dreams two by twos, she dreams four by fours, she dreams that nothing is meaningless and that all things are possible. When she sleeps her heavy short sleeps.

The spotted owl and the brown trout are also on the endangered species list. Brown trout taste especially fine grilled outdoors and served shortly after death, with friends and fruit salad. Zuzu is very fond of fruit, but less fond of strangers eating omelets with her without remembering her name. She is sensitive that way, she supposes.

At work, she catalogs and sorts, sorts and catalogs. There are amazing numbers of categories to be found in books, CDs and games. Even more when seasonal variations are considered. Like most book sellers, she is willing and in fact eager to answer questions about books: reference books, fiction, history, books of endangered species, self-help books, books on sex, books that reference obscure saints and books about the Smithsonian.  Books about religion have recently started getting on her last nerve, although when the trend first started she nibbled at each of the major religions in turn, some sweet, some sour, some bitter and some strictly rancid. She spit them out, but couldn’t help hearing the nastiness continue in the trash talking god on her neighbor’s radio. Too bad he was deaf. Maybe she should cut her ear off.


Penelope’s dagger

“Parlez-vous Arabic?” Peter Heffalump asks a sailor staggering by in the broken port town where he’d washed up after some serious blackout binging. Padre Heffalump, he’d been until recently, but defrocked now, stained and desperate. Peter Heffalump is disgraced, and in keeping with tradition had gone off the deep end with someone’s credit card, perhaps even his own priestly Mastercard. Way over the limit. Too far to fix it with prayer, and how is it that confession and forgiveness is not the same thing as keeping your job, Peter wonders. He is stained and greasy with the remains of his deconversion. He is not a priest anymore, just some schlub in a foreign country without papers and very much in need of a desk job in which to hide his shame.

Oh shame, Peter said to himself in English, Arabic, French and Lakota. Shame, the smoke that follows the burning bush, the revelation of sin. Sin is smoking, sin is a shakin’ groove thing forbidden to the hierophant and the Igors who serve him. “I kiss your ring, excellency,” says Peter. He imagines the ring sliding on and tightening ever so slightly and then kicks himself – stop it. Like water off a duck’s back, he tells himself, just let it go, but the image of the ring stays with him through one sermon after another.

Peter Heffalump is a poor sad overachiever, a hypochondriac and a toady. His best friend, Penelope Resin, came with him to seminary disguised as a boy and that was maybe an omen, amen. She didn’t stay long and sent him a dagger with her name engraved on the handle, and he had that dagger still, for just in case, just in case. Peter and Penelope ran with the fast crowd in soda shops after school in a mythical fifties that they saw at the drive-in and then in movies of the drive-in and the mythical fifties and then on sitcoms of the travails of teenagers at drive-ins in the mythical fifties until the broken record of pop culture created I like Ike Ike Ike Ike Ike and eventually they believed in it, so much like organized religion, like the blind faith of supply side economics. Peter believed everything he read, heard or saw. He was the most gullible of cultural consumers. Making Peter into a priest was like taking candy from a baby, easy, sweet, and him just looking up innocent and warm, apple pie and caramel, with ice cream melting at just the right moment.

Guilt is a fine thing, and shapely. From genuflection to pop-n-lock to shuck-n-jive to the gyrating pelvis of Elvis and the soul train of priesthood, Peter had a secret that he kept from himself, tightly wrapped in unbleached muslin and pressed against his chondriac. Once in a while he felt it as a pain near his solar plexis, which made him pause, words like plexis, words like solar, words like soap on a rope, slippery in the shower. Peter was prone to absent-minded reflections on sin, which seemed harmless enough until the day that the genie was released and then Peter lost his job, his calling, his address and some of his working vocabulary in several languages.

What would you do? Meditate? Pray? Call your mother? Peter had been a pastoral counselor and tried to give himself advice, but the language of guidance had gone missing along with the guide book and the page he so wanted to be on. A page we can all agree on, he said to himself, sitting in the noisy African port where the smells were so heavy, so spicy and dirty and raw. Back to dry land, must get back to dry land, he muttered, picturing himself as Peter O’Toole, dry-lipped and romantic. So he called Penelope, she of the secret priesthood and the dagger and asked her for airfare home and a couch to sleep on.

And now he is in Oakland, with the window open in her second floor apartment, and outside the air is damp and cool and he hears the sounds of neighborhood. This is a regular city neighborhood, American style. There is barking, a TV sound, the beeping of a truck backing up, an unknown bird trilling somewhere nearby. His heart is a sound too, a rolling, repetitive diadochochinetic sound that is uncertain, murmuring and warm, contrasting with the chill air washing over his forehead. Penelope is gone, gone to her desk job, gone to make some phone calls to help Peter get his first job without a collar, without an order, without an oughta. He does not know the rules of secular engagement, a battle he has not fought since childhood, when bigger boys with names like Bob and Doug and Al held his head in the water and baptized him in fear. Peter left them behind then and now he must interview with them, for jobs like selling lawnmowers, or managing a small print shop, or teaching English, or painting apartments. He fingers Penelope’s dagger, safe inside its small velvet box, and considers his options.

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September 2019
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