Saturday, April 30, 2016

Violence, Abortion, and Frank Peretti

Last November, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was taken over by a gunman. Robert Dear, who killed three people and injured nine, believed he would be thanked for taking action.
Dear told a detective that "his dream" was that, when he died, he would be met "by all the aborted fetuses at the gates of heaven and they would thank him for what he did because his actions saved lives of other unborn fetuses"...
--NBC News report

Forensic psychologists have testified that Dear has a delusional disorder, yet the image of "aborted fetuses" talking in heaven jogged a deep memory from my early adolescence. 

I had only recently outgrown my baby dolls when I read Tilly, a 1988 novelette by Frank Peretti, with a foreword by a Christian contemporary music artist. The story was written in 1986 as an audiodrama which aired on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast August 10, 1987, before Peretti had gained fame among evangelicals for his vividly imaginative stories of devout mortals engaged in fantastic "spiritual" combat between angels and demons. 

The book Tilly reads like the script for a Hallmark movie. A short movie, because the text takes up only eighty of the book's one hundred twenty-six pages. (In 2003, the anti-abortion group LoveLifeAmerica turned the story into a forty-minute film that aired on PAX TV.) The writing is sentimental, the characters two-dimensional. This is undoubtedly a fable with an agenda. 

Kathy and Dan have three children and difficulty communicating. Their troubles began after Kathy terminated a pregnancy nine years ago and they never talked about it. Unbeknownst to Kathy, she'd actually delivered a live fetus. 

Botched abortions, more common with outmoded methods, are the "pro-life" movement's wet dream. In 1977, Gianna Jessen was born alive following an attempted third-trimester saline instillation abortion. More often used in the 1970's, instillation abortions counted for less than 2% of U.S. abortions in 1985 and only 0.1% in 2007. Graphic photos displayed by abortion protesters still often represent the effects of saline abortion. But back to Tilly

After breathing for an hour, Kathy's fetus-now-newborn expires in the hands of the Hispanic nurse Anita (Peretti makes a point of her last name and draws attention to her "dark Latin eyes"). The body is described as "burned and scarred", suggesting that Peretti pictured the effects of a saline abortion, though that method was already rare in the mid-80's.

The nurse leaves the Family Planning Clinic with the remains and takes them to a Reverend O'Cleary who makes arrangements with a funeral home and a cemetery, despite having neither a birth certificate nor a death certificate. Nurse Anita wears black and is the only one present at the service. The funeral home director finds the scene of her grief "shattering". The minister provides financial assistance and Anita has the grave marked with the name "Tilly". 

After a chance encounter with Anita at the cemetery, an exhausted Kathy dreams she meets her aborted daughter, now a polite nine-year-old, one of many children who arrived in heaven as aborted embryos and have grown up nameless but safe in a sort of Neverland-plus-Jesus where they are generally happy except for longing to be held by their mothers and given names. Half the book takes place in this dream where both motherhood and childhood are idealized ad nauseam. Tilly, the only child among hundreds in possession of a name, tells Kathy she forgives her and Kathy wails out her anguished remorse. Before waking, Kathy tells the girl she has always known her as Tilly. 

As a young teen not much exposed to fiction, I found this tale gripping and heart-wrenching. As an adult, I find it flimsy and fake, but that doesn't mean it hasn't quietly conditioned many a young evangelical to find abortion emotionally distressing, even if they don't understand it. 

Last month, the Indiana legislature passed a bill requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated following abortion or miscarriage. Governor Mike Pence signed the new law "with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families". I had to wonder, where did these legislators get the idea of burying fetal remains? Could some of them have read Tilly, perhaps? What's next? Will women have to give their pregnancies names before getting abortions? 

This truck parks daily across the street from a women's clinic.
Theologically. Peretti's description of heaven is confusing. Some children are described as "ugly". Tilly, who sobs, sings like a bird, and has impeccably manners, reassures her mother, "I'm happy here!" and "Life isn't that long." In Peretti's world, terminated pregnancies have souls that go to play with Jesus, who lives down the road and tells them stories while they wait for families who will finally give them names. 

Anti-abortion rhetoric is rife with extreme and imaginative beliefs. When I was a naive, young, and vocal opponent of abortion, no speech or rally was complete until the Holocaust had been invoked. Actually, the Holocaust was trivialized each time the comparison was made, since Nazi atrocities paled beside the perceived magnitude of this legal medical procedure. Occasionally this rhetoric does get criticized, but it is still commonplace in anti-abortion circles, where women choosing to terminate unnamed pregnancies are rated a horror ten times worse than the Holocaust

If one believes the anti-woman propaganda that claims a doctor can be worse than Hitler, resistance begins to seem logical. Yet when over-zealous men and women resort to violence against abortion providers or pregnant women, abortion opponents are always quick to distance themselves from the "delusional". 

Kathy asks for Tilly's forgiveness, though we are not told what she wants to be forgiven forIn the conservative narrative, abortion wracks women with guilt, disrupting their marriages and robbing them of maternal fulfillment, no matter how many children they already have. That may be a delusion, but it is shared by many religious Americans, who will not be satisfied until women accept their role as mothers and abortion has been restricted out of existence altogether.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

For Love of Libraries

This was originally a piece I wrote for the Wichita Public Library. I love sharing my passion for books!

My Grammie taught me to love aisles of books by taking me along to her "li-ber-dee-dee" before I could pronounce it. I used to imitate the way my elementary school librarian read to us, the way she wore her reading glasses. After my parents pulled me out of school, the public library was a magical passage to other times, places, and knowledge. That my mom saw its treasures as potentially dangerous added to the thrill. The day I got to wield the "date due" stamp while assisting a church librarian, I felt I'd arrived. Another church we attended met in a rural school library, I read titles whenever my attention drifted, and the Harry Potter poster behind the preacher. I took my baby sisters to the public library, introducing them to my favorite characters. Lyle the Crocodile. Curious George. Amelia Bedelia. Years later, I stole time with a library book while my own children were in Sunday School.

Libraries have always felt safe to me, hushed retreats from too many people, havens when adjusting to an unfamiliar place. From Oklahoma, Illinois, and North Dakota to the southern Philippines, I always found the libraries. So when I moved to Wichita as a new bride, the library was a natural place to seek the books that had always my best friends and mentors.

Over the last fifteen years, I've moved....
from cookbooks and John Grisham and theology
                          to politics and parenting and dinosaurs,
from Dr Seuss and childbirth and American history
                          to education and neuroscience and trauma recovery,
from memoirs and Bill Peet and Tolstoy
                          to the history of Palestine and the meaning of marriage,
from Agatha Christie and ancient mythology
                          to binge-reading Margaret Atwood
                                       to Neil Gaiman
                                                    to Furiously Happy
                                                                 to Kansas geology.

Flannery O'Connor blew my mind open in the best possible way.
Arnold Lobel's Frog & Toad are part of my romantic history.
Craig Thompson's graphic novel Blankets healed portions of my soul
And Shalom Auslander made me laugh till I couldn't breathe.

Via audiobooks, David McCullough and Neil Simon kept us company on cross-country road trips.

The films we've borrowed--on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray--have brought us together, made us feel, and shown us what we value.

I've frequented the Wichita library at half a dozen locations and volunteered at my local branch.

I love new books, classic books, picture books, and banned books.

I love the smell and feel of dead trees coming alive with meaning again in my hands.
My husband prefers to receive his stories wirelessly as 1's and 0's.
My children, all avid readers, are well-acquainted with books in both forms.
The summer reading program has been part of their lives as long as they can remember.

The riches that are the Wichita Public Library taught me to dream and enabled me to transform myself into the person, the mom, the lover--the Woman--I imagined.

Each book leaves its mark,

I believe in words, in books, in literacy and libraries.

I believe in pursuing answers to questions one is afraid to voice,
And thanks to the Wichita Public Library, I could always afford to do that.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts On Mother's Day

In a society that is conflicted about motherhood, it is not considered acceptable to criticize a devoted mother's choices. Like Pip in Great Expectations, we are urged to “be grateful to them which brought you up by hand.”
I recognize that my mother likely did her best while coping with more than a dozen pregnancies, untreated mental illness, and psychologically abusive religious teaching. Her best was not good for the children she raised over those decades. I do have happy memories from my childhood, but Mother's Day tends rather to send them scurrying into corners.
This post is dedicated to the many Quiverfull "sister-moms" who are learning as adults how to mother themselves.

Panic clutches my throat in the Hallmark aisle. Its tingling waves lap at my fingertips.

“You’ve always been there for me, Mom.”


Always. Always there.

Swaddling me in your cold anxieties. Suckling me at the breast of your fear. Training me to live like you. Good enough means safe. And it’s hard to be sure. We are sinners, after all, whose self-centeredness sentenced Jesus to execution. I am three when I ask God to forgive me.

You guard me from the godless dangers of Halloween, and Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy. You feed me carefully, anxious about my nutrition. I learn to cook at your elbow. You teach me to shun the mysterious evils of shrimp, pork, excessive sugar, fortune cookies, and blue food coloring. You bake me carob chip cookies and put sesame-honey candy in my stocking.

You are anxious to protect my feminine purity. My pajama pants and girlish blue jeans are deemed immodest and “that which pertaineth to a man”. You replace them with nightgowns and denim jumpers and dress me like Laura Ingalls. You send me to Grammie’s house with a cotton dress for swimming. No matter how far away you are, I feel guilty for watching TV.

You hate your straight hair, so you teach me to curl my own fine waves. My ears stick out like yours. You tell me they are large, so I try to hide them. When you decide to perm my bangs, I pray that the chemicals will not blind me. When my waves are finished, I am relieved that I will not have to learn Braille.

You teach me to sew, but when the puffy-sleeved sateen blouse the color of rose petals fits my budding figure too well, you send it straight to storage to await a less-developed sister. I try to understand your reasons. I really do. Just like the time I got a makeup playset for Christmas and you wouldn’t let me open it. Or when I won The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School and you took me to the store to exchange it. Or the time your dad sent me Anne of Green Gables and you refused to let me read it. Later, I will return a necklace to JCPenney because when I bring it home, you pronounce it too gaudy.

Vaccines frighten you. When whooping cough strikes, watching my brother choking on his own breath terrifies me. I have my shots, so I am safe. Years later, I will make certain my babies are immunized before coming to stay at your house where their aunts have been coughing for months.

My birth must have traumatized you—you deliver the next ten babies at home. Attended only by my young engineer father. I am nine when you have me read the Emergency Childbirth Manual for firefighters. Just in case. I am six when you thrust my newborn sister into my arms as the afterbirth contractions hit you hard. I hold her and try not to watch you writhing in pain in the rocking chair. Not long after, my neck spasms. For months, I cannot turn my head, or sleep through the night. Kids at school ask why I hold my head funny, but I don’t know. You treat the tightened muscles with alternating ice and boiling hot compresses, and by nightly pinning my legs and shoulders to the carpet with your arms and legs while Dad firmly twists my head to either side. I cry.  

The government and teachers’ unions frighten you—so you pull me out of school. For the next decade, I fill in workbooks by myself at the dining table. But you are there. A “keeper at home”. Cooking, cleaning, diapering, sewing, breastfeeding, potty-training, praying, gestating, napping. Always there. One afternoon you send us to our rooms to rest and you lie down, too, forgetting the saucepan on the stove. The screeching smoke alarm rouses us all. You extinguish the burning kitchen cabinet while I haul my baby sister from her crib and wait with her in the front yard.

I am both the top and bottom of my class. Sometimes I grade my own work. We skip subjects you can't teach. When you don’t like my attitude, you send me to your bedroom with the “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” quilt and the crystal prism and the cane-seat rocker, where you beat me with a wooden spoon while rainbows dance on the walls. Afterward, I apologize to the whole family for “being a bad example”.

Year after year, I take my example seriously. I dutifully make you cards and buy you gifts. When you are sick, I bring you snacks. I write letters at your bidding and sign my name. I balance your checkbook. I make clothes for you. I cook when you can’t. I learn how to teach my siblings. I bathe them, braid their long hair, sew their nightgowns and pinafores, push them on the swings, watch them at the beach. When you give birth while our old plumbing is broken, I take your bloody linens to the laundromat. I do the grocery shopping for twelve. I change a thousand diapers. When you have a breakdown, I pack your suitcase. I care for six of your children for a week while you are out-of-state. I do it again when I have two infants of my own.
  “Saying thank-you hardly seems like enough...”
“I can’t imagine a force more powerful…”
“We’re lucky to have the special kind of relationship we do…”
 What the fuck, Hallmark?

A thousand miles of distance couldn't keep me from feeling you always there, needing something indefinable from me. 
We did have a close bond. And it took me too many anxious years to realize I could dissolve it.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

I was always there for you.