An Ocean of Raindrops

Like a rainbow reflected in water, or the pattern of clouds across the sky, life as it is now is our gift. That there is nothing more beautiful for us to find.

My husband is an atheist. I asked him once, how can that be, that all we have are these moments? That holding our breath and waiting for true beauty to reveal itself wastes our only chance to experience the truly beautiful? He remarked without hesitation, “That’s what makes it so beautiful. It is just these moments.” I was stunned by his revelation and immediately the tears began to flow. In that brief second of time I could see the beauty of the world through my husband’s lens. Like a rainbow reflected in water, or the pattern of clouds across the sky, life as it is now is our gift. That there is nothing more beautiful for us to find. I also saw my husband’s true beauty. That here is a man who is good for the sake of goodness, not out of fear of some looming punishment.  A man who refuses to take any part of the great tapestry of life for granted. Because of that, he sees what God sees. He appreciates the hum of the elements coming together as one unending symphony of life, wherein Heaven and Hell exist only in the mind, as does our creator.

One can easily understand this philosophy. That rather than God, it is WE who choose how the brush strokes meet the paper to create the masterpiece that is LIFE, that we are as Godtruly choosing our own destinies, inventing our own realities, deciding how the masterpiece of the world will appear.

It is not a choice to love each individual raindrop of the ocean of creation. But what we do with that love IS a choice. Do we run from it? Do we throw it away by assigning responsibility for its care to some unseen deity? Or do we surrender to our love of the world and its many precious creatures? I agree with my husband wherein loving a collection of raindrops that when gathered together equal the water of life is an indescribably beautiful thing- A thing granted only those souls profound enough to accept it.

In this life, we choose our reality. We label our moments as either worthy or that which must be thrown away. But what if? What if we are throwing away the good stuff? What then? I’ve heard therapists and doctors talk about mindfulness as an antidote to depression and at first I felt confused by the idea. I didn’t understand how to be mindful on a level that would change anything about how I felt. But to view mindfulness though the lens of imagining that my raindrop and its role in the great art of the world is of the same importance as the ocean of drops surrounding it, I can then surrender my inner critic and experience each breath of life the way life is meant to be experienced. Without the constant editorial presence we develop along the road to adulthood. Great works of art are made up of elements. Artists realize this. That the individual brush strokes are what create the final image. That without each connection of the brush to the page, the image would be a different thing. Distinctly and irreversibly changed. We are each of us a brush stroke, creating the masterpiece of our world. We choose what our art becomes. The painting only God can see. God being the greatest artist and alive only if we choose Him to be for ourselves.

My daughter is sick. She has the flu and pneumonia. When my children are sick I always focus in on each tender moment with them, terrified of losing them to their illnesses. I watch the rise and fall of their chests when they breathe, I feel the dampness of their foreheads, the heat of their cheeks when they are flushed with fever. I listen to their coughing, analyzing the sound in case they don’t cough in the doctor’s office. I am completely aware of them, mindful of their existence. Their beauty becomes even more poignant because I am aware of how precious they are, and how vulnerable. I am not afraid to love them, even though to do so is to surrender myself to the possibility of loss.

Religion teaches us not to love the world, that there is a greater beauty beyond its borders. In the bible John 2:15 states:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.  If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

This is not the only example. When I was a bahai I was taught the same thing. The Bahai writings state:

O friend, the heart is the dwelling of eternal mysteries, make it not the home of fleeting fancies; waste not the treasure of Thy precious life in employment with this swiftly passing world. Thy comest from the world of holiness- bind not thine heart to the earth; thou art a dweller in the court of nearness- choose not the homeland of the dust.

-Baha’u’llah

In both of these messages there is a great emphasis on detachment as a means of coping with potential loss. It’s as if we are told to resist falling in love. A wonderful movie called Jack and The Cuckoo Clock Heart is almost an ode to this idea. Anyone who hasn’t seen it needs to. The protagonist Jack is born with a heart of ice and it is replaced with a cuckoo clock. He is told it will work only if he never falls in love. The moment he falls in love his life is over. The clock stops when he gives into his heart’s desire. He basically has power over his own life and yet he doesn’t because how do you control falling in love?  Again I think of my children. The fact that I could never accept that losing them would do anything other than rip a gaping hole in the world’s tapestry. That for me, the world would not be as beautiful without them. The image would be dramatically and irreversibly changed. I admit my love of them and of the world. I admit loving the details that comprise my reality in all of its diverse glory. I love them and the world because quite simply they are worth loving. I will forever rage against and mourn for their loss if they were to be torn away from the great work of art that is life. It is my right.

Esteemed architect Miles van der Rohe famously coined the phrase “God is in the details.” I love this saying because it attributes meaning to the small parts that make up the whole. It highlights the beauty of the elements that would otherwise be lost in the grand scheme. van der Rohe knew what atheists know, what other lovers of perfect situations and circumstances know. That beauty is what we say it is. That each moment is precious, but it is up to us to claim it. To emphasize the beauty of each individual piece of wood, metal or glass that fits together to create a building so beautiful it catches one’s breath. To fight for the recognition and protection of such beautiful things simply for the reason they are there, for us to love. It is up to me whether or not  to fight for my right to be thoroughly attached to the raindrop that is my child. To fight for the right to love the image of the world that is created with my child in it, knowing I will forever mourn the loss of it should that image change.  It is still worth taking that leap. Falling in love with your child, with your lover, with the world. Even though all things change and all things die, what we know of them will still exist if only in what they left the world and the memories they left the ones who loved them. It is up to us to be grateful that although the moments did not last, their memories will always echo through the chambers of our minds. That although the image was temporary, I was there and witnessed the harmony of the elements of the world through the lens of my experience. And the beauty of it did bring my to my knees and I felt blessed.

The Conversion Machine Part 3

I put my arm around her and said “Who cares what anyone thinks. It’s your baby, your body. You don’t have to get married. You don’t have to feel like God is disappointed in you. The price has already been paid long before you were the sparkle in your mother’s eye. Just make a life for your little girl and for God’s sake it’s just sex people have it all the time. You just got lucky.

Somehow I made it through eight years of that life. I remember the strangeness of our Jamaican honeymoon where all the tourists were white and the servants were black. The heartbreaking shanty towns, full of barefoot children playing among huts constructed out of cardboard and discarded metal with tin roofs. There were no playgrounds for them. I remember A woman getting arrested while braiding our hair for not having the proper paperwork. I remember the shops; clean, beautiful and full of white people. The rich white vacationers disgusted me. I hated the flippant way they ordered about the help. I wished they would suddenly switch places with their servants. The thought of it made me smile. I remember men constantly trying to sell Ian weed. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing I’d married the wrong man. I tried to be happy in Jamaica but the whole thing felt like a lie. I’ll never go back there. You’d have to drag me.

We didn’t stay long in Alaska as a married couple. Ian had a ton of friends in Oregon, a posse really, and it seemed like we could start our lives there. It didn’t really work that way though. I felt so stifled by the bahai faith, by this set of laws I was supposed to follow. It brought me nothing but pain from the outset. Of course they mindfuck you by saying your misery is a result of tests from God and they are gifts. The more tests and difficulties the more God loves you. It’s practically foolproof.

Until you start looking into the life of Baha’u’llah, prophet founder of the Bahai faith. He married his first wife Asiyih Khanum, when she was just fifteen years old in 1835. He then married his second wife Fatimih Khanum, eleven years his junior when she was just twenty-one in 1849. He then married his third wife Gawar Khanum some years later. This is of course in keeping with the custom of muslim men in the middle east and this is what Bahais will tell you in defense of his multiple wives. They’ll claim he was just following the laws of the land and hadn’t yet written his own. Really? So he just wanted to fit in I suppose. I didn’t know prophets cared about “fitting in.’

On behalf of the Universal House of Justice 10-23-1995

Regarding the wives of Baha’u’llah, extracts from the letters written on behalf of the beloved Guardian set this subject in context. They indicate that Baha’u’llah was “acting according to laws of Islam, which had not yet been superseded”, and that He was following “the customs of the people of His own land.”

When Baha’u’llah did write the Kitab-i-Aqdas (His book of laws) following the laws was so ambiguously difficult they had to be translated and explained to be understood and even those doing the explaining were unsure.

A synopsis and codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas:

The text of the Aqdas upholds monogamy, but as it appears to also to permit bigamy The Gaurdian was asked for a clarification, and in reply his secretary wrote on his behalf: “Regarding Bahai marriage; in the light of the Master’s Tablet interpreting the provision in the Aqdas on the subject of the plurality of wives, it becomes evident that monogamy alone is permissible, since bigamy is conditioned upon justice, and as justice is impossible, it follows that bigamy is not permissible, and monogamy alone should be practiced.

Several things bother me about this entire subject. To my mind, if Baha’u’llah truly were a prophet he would not have married three different women, especially not a fifteen year old girl, and then excuse himself from breaking his own laws by claiming his marriages occurred before he revealed the laws. Another issue I have with this thought process is that the only reason for prohibiting polygamy is His Revelation. Not because women were deserving of feeling at ease, loved and protected in their homes and NOT having to share their husbands. Because maybe women didn’t want to feel like property, just one more shiny object of desire their husband has racked up. No, simply because at this time the laws don’t allow for it and should that change we’ll be back where we started.

I tried to fit in with the other Bahai women in Portland, Oregon. I washed my face and kneeled and prayed the memorized Bahai prayers because of course as a Bahai you are not allowed to use your own words to pray, you must pray the prayers written for you. We were all so young I guess we thought we were making a difference. We all abstained from alcohol, smoked (because that healthy habit was allowed) drank a ton of coffee and tea, had as much sex with our husbands as we could stand to keep them happy and did our best not to gossip although we did, with relish. I was the first one to get pregnant. The only words to describe the feeling is sheer joy. I knew my baby would be beautiful, loved and perfect in every way. Like dominoes the rest of them fell. It was like I somehow made it ok for us to move on to the next step. One after another they got pregnant. I related most to a couple of the girls. One in particular I spent most of my time with. I couldn’t stand her husband. He wouldn’t let her use the air conditioner in her car even when it was in the 90s and she was SO pregnant because he got it in his mind that the air was impure and somehow the baby would breath it?!! He also made her drink gallons of milk because he believed she needed to store it up to breastfeed their daughter. It was such an ignorant belief I had to resist laughing in his face. He was insistently, consistently wrong as hell, but I adored her. I couldn’t understand why she married him other than her family was devastated she had broken Bahai law. I remember sitting at the piano with her, her eyes full of fear and guilt. I could see the tears threatening to fall. I put my arm around her and said “Who cares what anyone thinks. It’s your baby, your body. You don’t have to get married. You don’t have to feel like God is disappointed in you. The price has already been paid long before you were the sparkle in your mother’s eye. Just make a life for your little girl and for God’s sake it’s just sex people have it all the time. You just got lucky. Don’t have a cliche shotgun wedding. You’re better than that. Of course that’s exactly what she did. And they fought tooth and nail until they decided to live separately. I wanted more for her. After Ian and I headed back to Alaska to be closer to my mom and have her help with Jaden, I thought about her every day. I even wrote her a song:

Under a Veil

You and I used to get mad, plotting escape like two thieves                                                                Walking the baby in circles you cried, He’s no lover!                                                                       Afternoons spent at your place, doing laundry and watching the kids                                           We’d try not to drink too much coffee…years later I wonder…                                                

Were you happy baby living under a veil?                                                                                               Is it sweeter there where you don’t have to think for yourself?                                                                               When he holds you close does he shut out the rest of the world and all of its darkness…                        knocking you senseless…

You and I used to get mad, and then laugh at all their words.                                                     Knowing we knew more than they did, it was one of our secrets                                               You’d play piano for me, and I’d sing our babies to sleep                                                             That life seems so far away now…since I chose to leave it

But were you happy baby living under a veil?                                                                                               Is it sweeter there where you don’t have to think for yourself?                                                                         Are you still the same girl who talked about running away,                                                                          Who longed to be free…Do you ever miss me?                                                                      

Kimkoa 2015

She’s different now though. Too busy to call, too busy to text, too busy to remember we were young girls together once, learning how to be mothers. Life does that to women. It steals the essence of their youth, not by an obvious hardening but by a gradual forgetting we were young. Young enough to walk in the rain at midnight smoking under umbrellas. Young enough to run through the rose gardens drunk on the fragrant air, young enough to giggle like school girls when we talked about sex and husbands and how we thought we knew so much but in reality we knew nothing at all. We’d give each other advice on how to please our husbands in the kitchen and in the bedroom. Sometimes we’d laugh until our sides hurt.

I connected deeply with another girl who wasn’t part of our core group of Ian’s friends and their wives. She was different. There was no callousness when it came to Sarah. Her essence was as gentle as a breeze on an almost still lake in the sun. She was one of the purest hearts I’ve ever known. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her. We’d go to this hipster fancy tea place on Hawthorne Blvd and order flowering Jasmine tea. We’d watch the tea bloom, the cream colored blossoms popping out from the olive green leaves. We’d share our lives, our hopes and dreams. We’d share our struggles and our grief. We’d trade places crying on each other’s shoulder. Sarah had no pretense, no ulterior motive. She often cried about work and how they treated her. She was scientist, she worked in a lab testing foods for the state. I remember I called her once from Hawthorne. I had been walking and it was raining and I just was hit with a feeling of intense grief. She showed up and made me get in her car and she had made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was so Sarah. Of course she did. It was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich to this day I’ve ever had.

As much as I loved Portland’s lush summers, I was terribly allergic. As much as I loved the culture, the restaurants and the shows we had no money to enjoy them.  As I wrote in my post: A day Without Rain the endless rain of the winter months depressed me terribly. By the time we left we had moved across the bridge and were living in Washington for the public assistance and health care. I was lonely for a life I couldn’t name. I felt I was living Ian’s life, all the while drowning for lack of oxygen in my own. This was the beginning of Jaden’s love of music. He had such a hard time falling asleep and so I would drive him around listening to all my favorite cds that I figured weren’t too exciting so he’d be able to drift off. We listened to Joni Mitchell (he used to ask me to sing “Little Green” to him every night.) We listened to Coldplay, Carole King, Billie Holiday, Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Louie Armstrong, Norah Jones, Aimee Mann. He loved getting in his car seat, he knew what it meant.

Jaden doesn’t remember much of Portland in those early days. The walks we would take in his stroller with the other moms in the group. The late night gatherings. I remember saying goodbye to Sarah. It felt like I had a glass heart that shattered. I knew I’d never find another Sarah. And as hard as I tried to stay in touch we haven’t talked in more than fifteen years. After all this time I’m still looking for her.

Landing in Alaska the smell of the evergreens was indescribably beautiful. After living in the city for so long I’d forgotten how clean and pure the air and the water is. I was excited to have help with the baby and to be able to have our own cozy little trailer to call home. I couldn’t have been any more naive if I’d been hit over the head with a cinderblock and thought it fell from the sky. The trailer was on Ian’s parents’ property and it was literally crawling with bugs. It also had mice in all the cupboards. I have a distinct memory of waking up and walking down the hall to the living room and Ian was jovially spraying a line of massive ants with raid. “Mornin’!” He called out to me as if he were making pancakes. I think I turned on my heel and went straight back to bed. I used to have to boil the silverware regularly after cleaning up mouse turds. Yes, it was quite a palace we lived in.

The worst day was when I woke up and flying ants were dropping on me from the ceiling, and crawling down my nightgown. I screamed and threw off the nightgown, pulled on jeans and t-shirt, grabbed a laundry hamper and filled it with some clothes. Then I ran into Jaden’s room put him on top of the clothes in the basket and carried the whole thing out to the car. Jaden went in the carseat, the hamper went in the trunk and I peeled out of the driveway, not stopping until I reached my parents’ house. I think I was already driving by the time Ian figured out what was going on. I called him from their house and told him I wasn’t coming back until he fixed the insect problem and the rodent problem. He said “Ok” in that way of his when he has no idea what else to say and no plan to fix anything. I did eventually come back after finding out I was pregnant with Elliott. The trailer had been fumigated, but unfortunately Ian decided he wanted to build a mini studio at the opposite end of the trailer and he used manure board to do it. So although there were less bugs, and less mice, the kitchen smelled like, well, shit. As summer marched on the smell got worse and worse and worse. I couldn’t figure out why and I couldn’t stand it. I complained to Ian to no avail so I took the issue up with his parents. As usual they told me I was being difficult and oversensitive probably due to the pregnancy. I complained and complained and complained. They did nothing. Until one fine day they were cited. A neighbor called and complained about the smell emanating from their property and an investigator was dispatched. As it turned out they had raw sewage bubbling up all over the grass not more than a few feet from the trailer and surprisingly close to where the kids like to explore. I remember Ian’s mom telling me they’d be working behind the trailer and I might want to keep the window closed without mentioning a damn thing about the fact that I was aware of a problem months ago and she put us all at risk. In my mind I punched her in the face. In reality I just stared at her until she left.

By the time Elliott was two and Jaden was four I had had more than enough of the trailer, Ian’s ridiculous parents, our charade of a marriage. I remember coming home from work and Jaden was dragging his little brother down the stairs in his diaper. “What are you doing?! Where’s your father??”

“He’s sleeping and I’m taking Elliott for a walk.” Jaden said matter of factly.

“Of course he is.” I sighed. Another time I came home from work to find both boys in their rain boots eating cheerios off the floor. There was milk everywhere.

“We’re having breakfast mama!” Jaden was proud of himself.

“Yummy” Elliott smiled cheerios falling out of his mouth. “I love mama.”

“I love you too pumpkin”

“Ian! GET OUT OF BED!” I yelled down the hallway, furious, but half laughing a the spectacle.

“Huh? What happened? I didn’t hear anything…Oh Jeez!!” Ian’s reaction was unreadable. he wasn’t fully awake.

“Have fun cleaning that up” I said, and headed down the hall to the bedroom.

A few days after that I was sweeping the kitchen floor and Jaden was watching me. Suddenly he made the statement that changed everything for me. “Daddy and me and Elliott make all the messes and you clean them up Mommy!” I stopped sweeping and looked at him. I looked at the run down trailer, at the mass of cords and instruments tangled on the floor. I looked at the shabby little window that opened into two panels of greenish glass. I looked at Ian’s speakers and his mix board and his manure board and inside I started screaming.

“You know Jaden, you’re right and I’m sick of it.” I realized in that moment I had to get out. Out of the marriage, Out of the Bahai cult, out of all of it. I looked at my sons and promised myself that whatever happened They would not grow up and become Bahais. I swore I’d show them a different life, a broader and brighter one with more color and life and less rigid rules designed to imprison them.

I’ll never forget when Ian said you know I’m only with you for the kids. I thought I could say the same thing! I had tried over and over to convince him we weren’t right for each other. The last time I told him I was leaving him he told me “I’m not going to be the first one in my family to get divorced!” His face was pinched and his eyes were like daggers. My answer was easy.

“You know Ian, it’s not really up to you is it?!” And I walked out the door. It took me eight years to get physically free of a loveless marriage and a religious cult and many more years to heal from the brainwashing and nearly obliterated self esteem. In the early days I would almost throw up every time I had to drop the boys off with Ian for his custody weeks. I also walked around feeling like I was going to be struck by lightning because the Bahai faith teaches you that there are special punishments for those of us who hear the message and reject it. I also took a dive in a completely different direction and threw myself into a relationship with a woman who had borderline personality disorder, which is tale for another day. But once I did get free, truly free, the air was the purest I’d ever breathed. The water tasted like sunshine. I felt taller, more centered and the master of my own free will for the first time ever. I was only nineteen years old when I signed my life away. And I’m forty-one now. For all the good, the bad and the ugly, I can say I’ve lived. And what is life for, if not to be lived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Conversion Machine part 2

She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl.

I have to talk more about Desiree. Funny and sweet, she was the kind of friend every girl should have. She was beautiful but unaffected by it and we spent all of our time relishing our childhoods. As I mentioned in part 1 her father was a vietnam veteran and as sweet as his daughter. The man did not have a racist bone in his body. He was a large man with a belly that hung over his camouflage pants and surprisingly kind eyes. He would start drinking every day in the early afternoon, and not long after that his best friend, another vet and a black man would show up and join him. They would share stories of their tours in Vietnam often crying. Rick was a kind drunk, a watery-eyed, wistful, lost drunk, a true casualty of war. He had my picture on the wall next to his daughters. He used to call me his other daughter. Not his black daughter, or his daughter’s black friend. He was never like that. I was his daughter. He would squeeze me and I never minded his beer breath or his sincere sadness. I was just happy to belong. Desiree would do her routines for him and he would get so excited clapping his huge hands. “That’s my girl! Knock ’em dead Desi!” Her little sisters Julie and Jessica and I would watch her in awe. I was endlessly proud of my pretty blonde friend.

Sharon was nothing like Rick. Desiree’s mother was cruel, spiteful and jealous. She would turn on you when you least expected it. She was an angry drunk and she was drunk all the time. We learned to ignore her except when she was yelling at Desiree. After that Julie would cry, Jessica hid and I balled my fists in anger.

When things were good, they were really good. we would play every game imaginable. We would make up dance routines to Paula Abdul and Madonna. We would play at the school twirling on the gym bar. We would stay up late watching scary movies. We would play imagination games in the bedroom, the one bedroom all the girls shared. Eventually we’d fall asleep, a tangle of little girl arms and legs. Those nights were marvelous. And then the birthday party happened. My mother dropped me off at Desiree’s house, and there was a horrifically violent war movie playing. Now we were maybe eight years old at the time. My mom came in and said matter of factly,

“My daughter is not allowed to watch those kinds of movies” (she had no idea I had regular nightmares from the kinds of movies I saw at Desiree’s house.) Sharon just sneered at my mom several drinks in by that point, smoking at the kitchen table. Rick immediately turned it off and apologized profusely. My mom wasn’t exactly comfortable leaving me there but I desperately wanted to stay so she relented. As soon as she left they put on “Bachelor Party” and I couldn’t figure out why there were so many breasts on the television. The majority of us turned our attention elsewhere and began playing. Unfortunately things began to get worse from there. Sharon decided she was going to really tie one on. Jealous of her daughter’s popularity and desirous of attention she began making a spectacle of herself. If you’ve ever seen Sharon Stone in the movie “Casino” that was Sharon. I was walking from the living room to the bedroom to get barbies hoping to not have to be Ken or the one legged black one when I heard Sharon call or rather slur my name. I looked over and she was sitting on the toilet, her pants around her ankles, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The bathroom smelled like hairspray, perfume and stale cigarette smoke. She had blue eyeshadow on up to her eyebrows and bright spots of blush on each cheek. She had lipstick on her teeth.

“So are you having fun?” she slurred at me.

“Um, I guess so.” I wanted to get out of there, had to get out of there.

“You guess so? You can’t say anything nicer that that?! Hand me that toilet paper.” She was angry now and I knew I had to do something, anything.

“Yes ma’am. Um I have to go, I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone.” That seemed like a reasonable way to leave.

“I have to get the barbie dolls for everyone. Jesus Christ!” She mimicked me in a cruel, high pitched voice. “Get out of here then!”

I booked it out and down the hall. I found Desiree. I didn’t want to upset her on her birthday but I had to say something.

“Des…Your mom’s drunk and she’s going to the bathroom with the door open.” Desiree looked crestfallen.

“Ok, I’ll deal with it.” She left the room and headed down the hall. I could hear Sharon yelling at her, berating her, calling her snob, a little bitch,

“I guess I’m not good enough for you and your little bitch friends!!” I did what I had always been taught to do. I called my mom.

When my mom showed up I had gathered up my stuff and Desiree stood in the doorway crying her heart out, My mom kneeled down and hugged her.

“Desiree? Do you you want to come with me? I can call your friends’ moms and you can come to my house. We’ll get you a cake and you girls can watch movies and have popcorn and no one will yell at you or make you cry.”

“I can’t.” Desiree said between sobs. “I have to take care of my little sisters.” She cried and cried,

“They could come too. I know your dad wouldn’t mind I’ll talk to him.”

“He’s passed out. I have to take care of my mom.” So we had no choice but to leave her there. I heard Sharon call her a cunt as I walked to the car. She stood in the doorway crying, and watched us drive away. I’ll never forget her pale little face streaming tears surrounded by falling snow.

I clung to my friendship with Desiree like a child clings to a favorite toy. As time passed she started to grow up and grow up fast. Finally past the barbie rule I was just one of the girls at her parents’ little duplex and if I ran fast enough I could get to her house from mine in less than ten minutes. She lived right next to our elementary school and after my horrible ordeal with Eric the bully from Hell my parents moved me from that school to one across town with an optional program and kids from “the right side of the tracks.” Truthfully I loved the new school, fifth and sixth grade were an oasis compared to my earlier elementary school years. I made friends, some of whom have lasted until today. One was a friend and then family member until recently. She was the one who invited me to the bahai coffee house where I first encountered the conversion machine. In an ironic twist of fate I married her cousin. I suppose we’d still be friends/family if I hadn’t confronted her in a bipolar rage about the abuses and humiliations I suffered as a member of the bahai faith. Don’t feel sorry for her. I’ll give you an example.

Right before my ex-husband and I were supposed to get married, his entire family wanted us to go to Seward (a neighboring town) and get couples counseling from a man named Ivan. Now I was completely and totally against this for good reason. My first encounter with Ivan was walking into Ian’s (my exhusband) house and everyone was sitting around him as he was talking. We took our seats and what came out of his mouth I’ll never forget. He had a thick Belgian accent and was extremely fat. Even his ears and lips were fat. As we took our seats he was talking about “gays.” He was relating a story about a “gay” he knew who was a complete pervert. “They keep their pee and poop in jars under their bed. They are very perverted. You must stay away from them at all costs.” What?! Did he just say that?!  I looked around the room and everyone sat calmly hanging on his every word. My god, I thought, there are children present. I looked at Ian and said

“We’re leaving.” Unbeknownst to me in their family it was a cardinal sin to leave when Ivan was pontificating his sick drivel.

“Oh that’s just Ivan, trust me he means well, he’s an awesome guy,”

“Uh-uh, no way in hell am I staying around to hear anything else this guy has to say and I don’t care if your family kisses his feet when he enters a room, I AM DONE.” Needless to say we left and that was not the end of it. Not by a long shot. So back to Lindsay. My friend of thirty plus years and then family. She took it upon herself to convince me Ivan was worth the effort despite his disgusting side tangents. She felt Ian and I absolutely had to go to Seward and I told her NO WAY. So she, Ian’s sisters, his parents, several of his brothers and best of all Ivan himself all organized an intervention. Ian took me to his house under the guise of hanging out and suddenly I was sitting at a table with everyone staring at me and asking me questions about what I was so afraid of, and why couldn’t I be open with everyone and why didn’t I trust Ivan. Let me tell you I gave them ten minutes and then I was out of there. They called my name, I didn’t care. When Ian finally got to the car I started screaming at him. I told him if ever did anything like that to me again it would be the last time he’d ever see me.

“How dare you?!!” I was filled with rage. “He’s a pig, and I don’t know what the Hell is wrong with you people!” (He really was a pig, he would tear open packages of raw ground beef and eat them by the fistful.) Ian was all apologies and shitty explanations. In the back of my mind I knew I’d have to go to Seward and listen to this blowhard. I was beginning to see the dark side of the bahai faith. The side the conversion machine so cleverly hid from me. I rode with Lindsay to Seward. I just wanted to get it over with. She was chattering on about Ivan’s accomplishments, that he took in wayward youth and helped them get back on track. That his methods were unorthodox but he saw results. Her endless blathering made my head hurt and I tried not to be sick over what I knew was going to be a shit show. I didn’t know how right I was.

When we got to Seward things were fairly benign. I found Ian and he was at ease, which he often was, he never rattled easily. Ivan’s wife ushered us into another room where we sat across from Ivan who had a large white paper notebook on an easel that he could write on and flip when he wanted a clean page. Most of what he said was difficult to follow and made little sense. But a few things are burned into my brain forever. One of them was when he was talking about Ian’s cousin Tea, a minor Ivan had taken in because she was having troubles. He related to us that not only did he let her sleep in bed with him and his wife, he told her as a way to be more comfortable with her heavier stature that “making love to a fat woman is like making love to a cloud in the sky.” Is that really how you should be talking to an underage girl? I thought. But I felt stuck, caught up in the machine. It was as if the longer he spewed his bullshit at me the more my brain started leaking out of my head. I kept looking at Ian for some kind of sign that this was all so very, very wrong but he showed nothing. Nothing but a blind acceptance and reverence. When we finally got our assignment I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We were to have sex that night and make as much noise as possible. He wanted to be able to hear us across the compound. So like good little soldiers we did exactly as we were told. I hated every perverted minute of it. I kept wondering when my brain would find its way back into my head. The next morning when we went to the restaurant part of the compound everyone was all dirty knowing smiles. Ivan laughed loudly and said we put on quite a show. He was right in that regard, it was a show. There was nothing real about our entire visit and it was just as terrible as I feared it would be. I had little contact with Ivan until the wedding where Ian and his family wanted him to make a speech. It was uneventful and I heard nothing more UNTIL

Ian’s mom broke all ties with Ivan because he was accused of molesting several girls at his compound for wayward youth, among them Ian’s cousin Tea. It was a huge mess, Ian’s sisters were under Ivan’s spell and went against their mom to defend him. Ultimately he was guilty and just like insular religious communities everywhere, he was not prosecuted by the authorities like he should have been. He merely lost his voting rights. It’s appalling the way the assembly handles these things. One has to wonder what would be bad enough for them to involve the authorities? Not rape apparently, or child molesting. God only knows. Needless to say Lindsay and I are no longer friends. I mean the whole Ivan thing and then she invited me to get a pedicure for my birthday and I ended up having to pay for myself. Luckily I had cash on me.

So I didn’t want to lose Desiree as a friend but I could tell she was running with a faster crowd than I was and I didn’t even understand her new way of being. It was middle school and I was pretty much the same, but suddenly she was all hairspray and eyeliner and miniskirts and boys. So many boys. One of the last times I saw Desiree was just before her mother almost burned the house down. Drunk as usual Sharon passed out in bed with a lit cigarette in her hand. The bedroom went up like a lit match. I never knew if Sharon was burned or if she woke up in time to deal with her bedroom engulfed in flames. I know they kept living there, the back of the house black from the fire.

Ian and I had over three hundred people at our wedding. Neither one of us had any idea what we were doing. After Ian proposed I said yes because I didn’t know what else to say. I had no idea what love was. I’d never had a boyfriend other than Sir Rapes A lot (Actually After Navid raped me we went to the local spiritual assembly about it and they did nothing other than advise us to pray about it. Truthfully I’m quite sure they didn’t believe me. The whole process was humiliating at best. Shortly after that I heard he did it to another girl. Someone new to the faith, naively investigating it and blindly trusting. Someone just like me. A victim of the conversion machine.) And then Ian. We were kids. We’d followed Bahai law and stayed chaste, Ian’s mom really pushed for the nineteen day engagement period. She wanted us signed, sealed and delivered. I don’t know why she pushed for it since its an encouragement not a law, but I can guess. Bahais take that chastity law pretty seriously.

So it was a flurry of activity. nineteen days is not a long time to plan a wedding. especially when everyone we knew plus the entire Bahai community would be there. The night before the wedding I called Ian and told him we were making a mistake.  He said it was just cold feet. He showed up the next morning with a dozen red roses. It was the sweetest gesture, I thought he’s right, this is just nerves. Of course it wasn’t just nerves.

This next part is the hardest part for me to write. The wedding ceremony was beautiful, my father sang, I felt like a princess. Then it came time to say our vows. Bahai vows are different than other vows. All you say is “We will all verily abide by the will of God.” So our vows said, it was time for the kiss. I didn’t know what to expect but I hoped for butterflies or shooting stars or even fireworks. But I felt nothing. It was like kissing my brother. I felt tears of shame and ager start to well up behind my eyes. I blinked them away and made the kiss long and dramatic so no one would catch on to how I really felt. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, waiting until marriage to kiss someone, to have sex with someone is a terrible idea. The few people who make it work are just that. Few.

I cannot say I regret the marriage. I would never say that. I have two beautiful sons from that union that I wouldn’t trade for the world. There was just so much hardship, judgment and pain they had to endure from the divorce. They say children are resilient and they are, but they are also fragile in ways we are not. They want to be held, reassured. They need security and they need hope. Children are hopeful creatures. In the midst of great turmoil they carry with them a heart shaped balloon of hope. They carry the hope that behind the next door will be an angel, fairy, leprechaun, unicorn…happiness.

Julie came by my house many years later. I hadn’t seen her sister Desiree in years. She said she just wanted to say hi, to see how I was. She said her father died, that he kept my picture on the wall all the way until the end. My other daughter she said he called me. she said I gave him great joy and she thanked me. I looked at her freckled cheeks and pin straight blonde hair. Her blue eyes sparkled.

“Julie you look exactly the same. Like time stopped for you.” She laughed and shook her thin hair.

“I could say the exact same thing about you!” I had to smile.

“So how’s your sister?” I hoped she was free, free of her mother and all of the pressures of being too pretty too soon.

“She’s gone, she left right after dad died, I’m never sure where exactly she is maybe Colorado. She doesn’t like to feel trapped anywhere. She drives an awesome truck, sometimes she visits but she hates mom so she never stays long. I miss her.” Julie lowered her eyes. A single tear slid down her freckled cheek.

“I miss her too Julie. All the time. Next time you see her you give her my love. Tell her I say good for her for going her own way, It’s a brave thing to do.”

After Julie left I smiled, thinking of my friend traveling the country on her own terms. She was the first friend I had who didn’t care that I was mixed. She just wanted me to dance with her, to do gymnastics in the yard, to talk about all the secret wonderful things about being a girl. Not once did she ever make me play with the broken barbie. That was Julie’s thing. Desi didn’t even like barbies. She was always ready to grow up, she liked magazines and cars and makeup. She liked walking through the neighborhood and checking in with all of her followers. She loved going to the movies. And she could spend hours playing Super Mario brothers. For a while at least, she was my sister and my best friend.

To be continued *

The Conversion Machine Part 1

Homosexuality is not only NOT permitted but gay men and women are encouraged to marry heterosexual partners and procreate for the sake of God. I know personally several such couples and as you may expect it doesn’t end well.

As a child my parents sent me to church camp. I grew up singing praise songs and laying myself bare before the lord with other children and their devout, fundamentalist mothers. Unlike my own thin, active, mother who had no interest in religious pursuits, these women could quote the bible by heart. They were large and soft, with a cascade of chins and bosoms that went on forever. I’ll never forget watching their heavy arms shaking as they raised them, singing and clapping along to a rolling spiritual, “How great Thou art…” The smell of strawberry rhubarb pie wafted through the air, just above the hymnals. I felt the twisting of my swimsuit straps underneath my dress, waiting to be set free as I threw off my itchy clothes and jumped into the cool lake. I was barefoot every summer at Reunion. That’s what it was called. A coming together of God’s believers. As a child I loved it. I called it Love Camp.

As time went by my parents lost touch with the reunion folks. Having been raised Catholic my mother had a hard time committing to any church. All she saw was rules. eventually she settled on the Lutherans, as they seemed the most benign. My Dad was raised African Methodist Episcopal and stayed committed to it for the entirety of his life, however he supported my mom on her religious journey because that’s what husbands do. By the time I was in high school my parents had abandoned all pretense of living a religious life. I had gone with my close friend Amy to church a few times and been saved a couple of times but ultimately I was the same person as before I walked down the aisle and bared my soul. Something was definitely missing.

After my first year of college in New York I decided the city wasn’t for me. I had no desire to go anywhere but back home. So I did exactly that and ran right into the Bahai faith. It started simple enough, a girl I’d known most of my childhood invited me to a coffeehouse. Having nothing better to do that night I decided go. Unbeknownst to me, that decision would seal my fate. At the outset it seemed harmless, sweet actually. I saw young people and older people at this makeshift little coffeehouse in an out of the way building. The most shocking thing and what I instantly fell in love with was the racial diversity.

Growing up mixed race was like walking a tightrope. I lived in constant fear of falling into the hands of either side. Making friends was akin to stepping on land mines. I craved acceptance as a child and never really found it. I wanted the black girls to like me. “I’m black too! I have curly hair and brown skin! Just look at my father!” My heart cried out to them expecting them to hear me. But it wasn’t enough. My hair wasn’t curly enough. My skin wasn’t dark enough. I talked like a “white girl.” I acted like a “white girl.” To them I was privileged with my long hair and light skin. My educated parents. So they pulled my hair and slapped my face and sent me away, a reject. So I turned to the white girls. The white girls who took pity on my strangeness. Who teased me sometimes but were just curious enough to befriend me. I remember three little blond girls who took me in to their white trash world of hairspray and nail polish. Their mother’s Playgirl magazines littering the couch. war movies on television and empty beer cans all over the floor while their dad snored, dreaming of his tours of duty in the heat of Vietnam. I remember their mother, racist, alcoholic and jealous of her oldest daughter Desiree. Her platinum blonde hair stuck out from her head in a fringe, a cigarette hanging from her lipsticked mouth. I remember Desiree doing cartwheels in the backyard in her cheerleading uniform while her mother watched her from the doorway.

“Those cartwheels look like shit!” She sneered. “You won’t last a week on the squad looking like that.” She took a huge swig of beer and headed back into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. It was not the first time I saw Sharon make Desiree cry. It definitely wouldn’t be the last. I remember playing barbies with her little sister Julie, naive and hell bent on following the rules where ever she could find them.

“Let’s play barbies. Here, you can play with the black one.” In Julie’s mind it made perfect sense. Looking back on it the fact that they even had a black barbie was astonishing. It had to have come in a pack their Dad bought.

“But she’s missing a leg!” Yes. Out of a sea of barbies I got to play with the only black one who’s hair stood straight up and was missing a leg.

“Fine.” Julie at eight years old was faced with her first ethical dilemma. “I guess you can be the Ken doll. She was satisfied with her decision. “Yep that will work perfectly.” She tossed the Ken doll at me. I felt nauseous and instantly lonely. I knew Julie had no idea what she had just done. I also knew it would probably never get any better.

It never did get any better. It only got worse. By the time I was in sixth grade I had a group of friends, all of us oddballs. They were all white of course. I had given up on trying to be friends with the black girls who hated me mercilessly. I was tired of being told I was a freak because I talked white and I had a white momma and why couldn’t my daddy stick to his own kind. I knew my black aunties and my black cousins loved me and that was the best I was going to get. It was still hard though. Achingly lonely. My mother’s family completely disowned us. I’ll never forget sitting with my white cousins whom I had met for the first time at Christmas time. We all sat in a row around my grandmother as she handed out presents. I was so excited, waiting for my turn. Would it be a talking doll? A stuffed puppy with its own brush and blanket? I watched my cousins opening their presents with unrestrained joy and when it came to my turn I looked up at my grandmother expectantly, barely concealing my excitement. She looked down at me, the smile fading from her face and handed me a check. I stared at it, completely confused. I looked over at my mother and saw her face flushed with rage. “I didn’t know what to get her.” My grandmother said nonchalantly and turned her attention back to my cousins.

“I knew this was a mistake!” My mother muttered angrily under her breath. “Give me that honey, I’ll get you something.” She took the check and stuffed it in her purse. I sat there blinking back tears watching my cousins unwrap and play with their presents. I watched my mother’s sister and my grandmother smiling at them, as they showed them off. They were like a scene out of a movie. I knew I didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew my father wasn’t even allowed to be there. I just wanted to get the hell away from those people and never look back.

As I got older I became more and more aware of how I didn’t fit in. There was me and then there was everyone else. I would look in the mirror and wish I could see anything but my own face staring back at me. I was stuck between two worlds; hated by one, misunderstood by the other. As a means of survival I did what so many of us do. I threw myself into the arts. I could sing, I could dance, I could captivate an audience. It was my outlet. I could forget about not fitting in, about being bullied and teased. I could forget about being rejected by my own family. I could forget my self loathing and my loneliness. Under the stage lights I could be anyone I wanted to be and the audience would applaud. This carried me through middle school and high school where I lived in the choir room and through my first year of college as a drama major studying music, theatre and dance at Ithaca college. There was still something missing however. What had carried me through my younger years began to be a burden. I realized I didn’t want to have to be other people to be accepted. I wanted to be accepted for being myself. I wanted to dance but I didn’t have the feet or the back for it. I wanted to play music but although I could sing beautifully I was never any good at musical theory or mastering instruments other than my own voice. I realized I was on a path to nowhere and so that year was my last. Back home I had to regroup. I started working a series of dead end jobs to stay busy and tried to figure out what to do next. I was at a lonely, pivotal point in my life, ready for change and vulnerable as hell. The Bahai faith came along at just the right time, preyed upon my insecurities, and took over my life for the next nine years.

That night at the coffee house seemed like a magical one. There was music, there were people of every color who wanted to talk to me, there was a cultural life that I desperately wanted to be a part of. What I didn’t know was how these cults operate. They draw you in, figure out what you’re lacking in your life, and promise to fill it. They usually have a recruiter there who is skilled in the fine art of brainwashing and this night was no exception. His name was Oscar. Oscar Degruy. He was a tall black man claiming to be from the inner city of Chicago (coincidentally where I was born) and he was smooth talker. Smooth as silk. He focused heavily on one of the tenants of the Bahai faith that the eradication of racism is one of the most vital components. The prophet founder Baha’u’allah believed in the integration of the races above all other things, which obviously I loved. Unfortunately there were far too many stones in that soup. He and his band of converters worked on me at that coffee house until three o’clock in the morning when I finally relented and signed their card. I’ll never forget his intense gaze staring right into my brain. “What are you waiting for?!” I was so exhausted and I craved that acceptance so I said yes. It was as simple as that. I could have said you had me at integration. Interestingly Oscar did not fool my father who met him a few days later and actually did grow up on the west side of Chicago, surrounded gangs and violence. His comment to me was,

“If even half of those stories he’s telling are true he’d be dead in a hot minute. You don’t wave your gun around say those things in the hood unless you don’t want to see tomorrow.” Oscar in fact disgusted my father who saw him for who he really was, a wealthy cult recruiter from Los Angeles with a liar’s heart and a lack of conscience. As a young, starry-eyed brand new believer I failed to heed my father’s warning. Sometimes we have to learn things the hard way.

As these things go, as quickly as they unfold their peacock feathers, the bottom feeders come out to play. I had the misfortune to get trapped by one such bottom feeder, Navid was his name, Navid Falconer, and he would steal from me a thing that cannot be replaced, that cannot be atoned for, that there is no justice one can turn to. The moment I walked into that coffee house he set his filthy sights on me and in my innocence I was flattered never having been the subject of anyone’s affection in such a blatant way. Navid was from a prominent Bahai family, his brother and sister and both of his parents were active in the community. He was also a body builder. His upper arm was as big as my head. He intimidated me in a way I’d never experienced before. He took me to the movies. He took me to his house to meet his mother who warned me I was too good for him. He took me downstairs to watch a movie. He convinced me to check out his bedroom. It’s ok, you’ll be fine, you’re so cute worrying about everything. Just lay here and talk to me for a while. And then all of a sudden the dam broke. It was force and confusion and arms and suffocating and a quiet loss of innocence. He raped me in his bedroom while his parents obliviously went about their business. I could literally hear the floor creaking as they walked around. I’ve heard other rape victims say it happened so fast I didn’t have time to scream. It’s true. I remember the exact moment after it happened. I remember I was in shock. I told him “But I’m a virgin. I’m saving myself for marriage.”

“Not anymore.” he said and laughed. I’ll never forget that laugh. There was cruelty around the edges and in the middle was the kind of hilarity between guys after a particularly funny prank. It was a frat boy’s laugh. I felt all the blood rush to my lower legs. I felt like a block of ice. I laid there while he kept raping me staring at the ceiling listening to his parents walking back and forth and imaging strangling him to death with his own belt. It didn’t end there. These things never do. I wanted my power back. I HAD to have it back. So I stayed with him. I refused to admit he had stolen something so precious from me. I willed myself to believe it was consensual. That I had wanted that cruel theft. I remember him at my parent’s house. I remember my father offering him a beer. He had no idea what Navid had done to his little girl. Navid accepted it, another violation of Bahai law.

On Bahai Law:

The consumption of alcohol is forbidden
The use of marijuana and other drugs are forbidden unless prescribed by a doctor
Premarital sex is forbidden
Marriage is between one man and one woman
Homosexuality is forbidden and likened to a person with special needs or an addictive disease such as alcoholism
Backbiting is forbidden, one must not say anything negative about anyone else
One must remain politically nonpartisan
One may not criticize one’s leader despite how bad they may be
It’s ok to smoke because that’s harmless
One must engage in a period of fasting where one does not eat or drink from sunup to sundown
One must pray three times a day washing hands and face before each prayer
If one abstains one must say a long prayer at noon complete with washing hands and face and prostrations
One must proselytize, ceaselessly teaching the youth and the ignorant the tenants of the Baha’i faith so as to recruit new members
One should engage in the independent investigation of truth unless one is questioning the laws. Then one must shut the hell up and obey.

You can imagine everything I had been looking for when I walked through the doors of that coffee house and signed that card in the middle of the night. But unfortunately all I found was a litany of empty promises, terrible advice and an extension of a middle eastern lifestyle I wanted no part of. The governing body called the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel is all men and when you ask why, you are told that is one of the “sacred mysteries” you must accept. Another sacred mystery is the law on homosexuality. Homosexuality is not only NOT permitted but gay men and women are encouraged to marry heterosexual partners and procreate for the sake of God. I know personally several such couples and as you may expect it doesn’t end well. Some run off unable to deny their true natures, Some stay but lead secret lives heard about in hushed whispers over coffee, cigarettes; the victims of endless gossip. The kids are irreparably harmed, surrounded by lies and half-truths, raised to regard with cynicism even positive, well-meaning guidance. You must remain non-partisan and never speak ill of your ruler regardless of how horrible he or she may be. Men and women are considered equal but different, each encouraged to pursue their own equal but separate roles (I believe we’ve been down that road before.)

Navid didn’t last and thank God he didn’t. It wasn’t long before I was married to the cousin of the girl who introduced me to the Bahai faith in the first place. We set our sights on Portland, Oregon and it’s promises of a brighter future. We had no idea what lie ahead.

*To be continued*