Friday, September 26, 2008

Peace Be With You

I’m taking a break from Baha’i the Way, maybe retiring altogether. For now we’ll call it a sabbatical of uncertain duration. I have lots more to say and about ten posts in some stage of development. I haven’t posted anything yet on some of the issues I care about most. But I may be done with my personal need to re-examine the Baha’i Faith, and I’m trying to simplify my life. I will be active at my other blog, Heaven in My Foot, and I may even post Baha’i thoughts and stories over there.

What business does a wastoid like me have running two blogs anyway?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

He Was the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of His Country; She Was My Best Friend.

Note: This very long post is a very short version of the story it tells. I hope some people will give it a real read.

Let me tell you a story about an American woman not named Margit, and a man not named Baz, from a country here not named—call it Fland, short for far-away land. I will use their not-names to protect her. The protection he needs can only be found in a secure, humane prison—or in death. Not that I am calling for his death, but I can’t imagine him healing on this side of the river.

In the days preceding the marriage of Baz and Margit in faraway Fland, I fell to fretting, really without much cause. There was the letter from Baz that Margit’s mother had read me over the phone. Formula prose. Baha’i out of a can. I had been positive about the upcoming union, despite how briefly they’d known each other—good things can happen quickly. But, I wondered, could Margit be happy with the man who wrote this letter? She was a storyteller, a joker, a woman of lively words. She was playful, adventurous, and very social. Her personal missives did not come from cans.

After her family returned from the wedding, I talked with mother, father, and sister in turn. They said veiled things like, “Well, now they begin the process of getting to know each other,” or “They are different from each other, very different,” or “It’s clear there’s some place for us in her life, it’s just not clear what that is.” Her mother sent me a small album of wedding pictures and a Xerox of the journal which the three women of the family had kept during the nuptial week. Nobody said anything bad about Baz. But Margit wrote in the journal that things had been hard for her with him; she thought it would get better after the wedding.

At that time, I could not use a computer at all due to pain in my hands and arms, and in Fland Margit did not have easy access to email. So I sent audio letters on CD via snail mail and knew of her only the snippets I gathered from her mom. Some weeks after the wedding I received a first brief email from her, relayed by Larry. There was no humor in it. Okay, that worried me. There’s always humor in Margit’s speech and correspondence.

Knowing Margit was lonely and struggling, her mom sent out Sam’s Club calling cards to Margit’s closest friends. I started calling Fland. I was awake at odd hours anyway, being a poor sleeper, and I had a strong feeling I should keep her connected to her former life.

I didn’t call often; that felt risky. If Baz was about, the vibe was uncomfortable, like it wasn’t really okay to talk. Margit said he thought she relied too much on her friends. He also said she was selfish, self-centered, arrogant, and lazy. He was efficient; she hardly got anything done. Margit tried to accommodate the criticism, and I tried to catch her when he wasn’t around. Often she was traversing the city to meet him, by foot and by bus. On the bus she couldn’t hear anything I said over the noise of engines, so I listened. The tears were few; she told me what she felt she could, slowly, a little bit more, always trying to make sense of it, to be strong, to find improbable hope. Mostly she talked about his anger and her attempts to communicate to Baz how she felt.

Not only was Margit sorting out Baz and his ways, but much of the time their two-bedroom apartment also sheltered his twin brothers and their mother. The mother freely volunteered her critique of Margit as well. When you become part of a family in a culture very different from your own, disentangling cultural difference from dysfunction, theirs and yours, is tricky. I know this firsthand from my experience as an exchange student in Indonesia, and I didn’t want to jump to simple, outsider judgments. Larry kept saying to me, “I don’t care what their culture is—that’s just wrong.” And I think he was right. But I couldn’t say to her, “Margit, this sounds to me like emotional abuse.” I was always afraid of saying something she wasn’t ready to hear and losing her trust.

A downstairs neighbor who, along with the rest of the neighborhood, heard their fights, told Margit, “a wife should be like her husband’s tail.” “Okay,” Margit said to me, “so the ideal of the Faith is service. If I think of it that way it doesn’t seem so bad.” What do you do, what do you say, when your friend half a world a way tries to quell her own anger by translating woman-destroying expectations into the ideals of her faith? I don’t know what I said. We talked as if she was working out a marriage. But she was surviving. I know that now. Surviving. I kept calling and sending CD’s. Please keep talking to me, Margit, please.

Despite the difficulties Margit said she still felt, at core, that it was right for them to be together. On her best days she said, “The reality is, things are just really intense between us.” At times she expressed hope that they would be able to be of service together, that their different strengths complimented each other and could combine to the practical benefit of the Faith. When I asked how Baz saw this, she said she didn’t know. She sounded very vulnerable.

They married in March. In June a work conference called Baz to the United States, and they planned to visit family and friends as well. In our last trans-planet conversation Margit described briefly a billboard the bus was passing; it displayed a public awareness message about physical abuse of children. She said the beating of children was extremely common there, that parents even boasted of having hit their kids so hard they had to take them to the hospital.

Margit said that Baz had been abused by his parents. Family fights had erupted over this recently. “It’s your fault I’m like this,” he had yelled at his parents, “You did this to me.” I couldn’t get a clear answer about what “like this” meant, only that there were big problems between everybody, but especially Baz and his mother. Margit talked about needing to get professional help for Baz, but he considered the guidance of the Baha’i Faith all the help a person needed. Margit was hoping that on their trip to the United States and in consultation with her family, he would open to the idea.

I prayed that she would stay in the U.S. and not return with Baz to Fland. It seemed unlikely.

At her first opportunity Margit called from the hotel in Washington D.C. Baz was sleeping. She had unpacked their bags, hung and stowed their clothes. Do I remember correctly that she had also ironed them, or was that a packing chore only? All very important. “I arrive and just want to call family and friends, but I know he’ll get angry,” she said, “if I don’t do it right away”—while he rests from the long journey, I noted silently. “I’m getting better at it,” she said. “He’s so appreciative when I get things done.”

“Things are really hard,” she said. She cried. I had to go.

Baz got angry the next day when Margit decided not to swim in the roof-top pool as they had discussed. Following her dad’s analysis, she tried to understand what happened as a communication problem or a personality clash—she was spontaneous while he needed plans to be followed like contracts. But she sounded unconvinced. Her parents had come to D.C. to see them and bring them a car to use, and Margit said her father had expressed concern for the potential for abuse he saw in their relationship. For the first time she acknowledged the possibility to me.

I talked with Margit at each stop as they traveled to Vermont from D.C. She always had to get off the phone right away whenever Baz returned to wherever they were staying. I knew there was emotional abuse, but it was this detail that made me afraid it was physical as well. It is so typical of abusers to isolate their victims and control their behavior, to restrict their independent action. They made their way up the eastern seaboard with occasional fun and plenty of trouble. Margit was becoming less protective, more willing to name things for what they were. She corrected me once when, after hearing of the latest crisis, I made a flaccid remark of sympathy with their marital trouble, connecting it to something in my marriage. “We are not even close to that level of understanding,” she said. She was changing fast. I wondered if I could keep up with her. Was I ready to face the truth?

Boston to our house is three hours. They left in the morning, and Margit called a couple times from the road to report delays and difficulties. Like the little piggy who cried all the way home, Baz was acting out all the way to Vermont. The last call came near 8:00 pm. The charge on Margit’s borrowed cell was spent. She was calling from a payphone in a parking lot about twenty miles away. Baz had walked off. She couldn’t see him at that moment. She said she thought things were really falling apart. There was a chance she would be dropping him off at the bus station so that he could return to Fland by himself. She was hoping he would get back in the car and come to our house, but she was concerned about me and my bedtime schedule. “What is the latest we can arrive?” she asked. I said ten o’clock and she said okay. She hoped to be here soon.

I lashed myself for the next hour, at least, with the thought of them in a hotel room and him in meltdown to a personal Armageddon. Why hadn’t I said they could come at any time? What an idiot. The signs of abuse spun in my head. Margit’s friend in Boston had commented on how angry Baz felt to her. “I wouldn’t want to be around when that anger breaks,” she said. I didn’t know what he had been doing to her or what he might do now. I didn’t want Margit alone with him. I had no way to reach her.

Finally headlights shone in the driveway. They were here, they were getting out, they were in the house. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. She looked so thin, so worn. He kept staring at me. “You don’t look how I expected,” Baz said.

“Really,” I laughed, “How did you expect me to look?”

“Different, I expected you to look different. You don’t look like I imagined.”

Larry stood at the kitchen island preparing food. “What about me?” he inquired. “Am I not as pretty as you expected?”

Margit laughed. That was a good sound to hear, the sound of pleasure in the surprise of the familiar. That sound said, yes, I am here, I made it, and I know I can count on these friends. Baz looked blankly at Larry then back at me.

“You look different than I expected,” he said.

Oookaaay. Somebody said something to distract him. Maybe we told him we had maple sugar candies and real root beer for him. He liked that.

Margit stayed close to Baz, sat in his lap, suggested they eat off the same plate. I studied, she coaxed, Larry hosted. After Baz had eaten dinner and talked with Larry, Margit tilted her head sharply like a bird performing some compulsory mating ritual and looked sideways at him. “So, what do you think?” she asked. “Do you want to stay, or are you going to the bus station?” Her voice sounded strange, simultaneously gentle and shrill, playful in a weary kind of way. He looked at her like she was empty space, then looked at us and not at us. “Yeah, I’ll stay,” he said. He smiled briefly.

Before going up to bed, Margit told me they almost didn’t make it here. The time limit had been just what she needed. They had circled round and round, driven by his indecision—on the highway heading our way, off the highway, on again heading back to the bus station to drop him off. Baz had finally announced dramatically how he loved all humanity and so he must come to our house and apologize—we had been expecting him all day. He had not intended to stay.

The next day, Baz was Mr. Perky, Mr. Happy, Mr. Eager to Get Out and Take a Thousand Pictures of Nature with His New Digital Camera. He and Larry sallied forth to hike a big mountain, one that would take all day to reach, climb, descend, and return home from. Of course I couldn’t hike a mountain, being the sickly cripple that I am, and Margit, of course, had to keep me company. This mildly devious arrangement gave me and Margit hours to talk.

The time went quickly. Mostly Margit sat enveloped by the cushions on our soft red couch. She stretched out her legs and nestled under a blanket. Her thin body disappeared from view so that she presented as boobs, spindly arms, and a head with full, bright hair and a tired face. She looked out the picture window at the young woods on our hillside, at the sky of clouds speeding by, and, beyond them and through them, at the strange difficulty of her life and the decisions she had to make.

When Margit met Baz about four months before they married, their lives seemed to fit naturally together. But nothing of their actual life together was as she had expected. They were struggling to live on his salary of $600 a month. When Margit tried to get work he sabotaged her efforts, and when she didn’t, he criticized her. They had bought a van, and he blamed her for the strain on their finances of this large expense. She was a soft American; she needed so much. Yet he took the van to work every day, while Margit walked and used the two-cent buses, not daring to take the more comfortable ten-centers.

I didn’t say much of what I thought. I listened. I affirmed. I asked questions. I let her talk and cry. Having watched them interact now I could freely confirm her perceptions. But when she said she must not be a very sexual person because she didn’t have much desire to be with him, I put my hand on her knee and said, “Margit, you shouldn’t want to be physically intimate with a person who treats you that way.” She looked surprised . . . then relieved; she nodded silently.

The unspoken question of the day seemed to be: Could she trust herself? The unspoken answer seemed to be: She had to. Though we talked about the possibility of her leaving this marriage, I would not know until the next day what was actually at stake.

Baz took his thousand pictures and more. When the car pulled into the driveway Larry leapt out and strode in to greet us like a man seeking water to sate a great thirst. He told me later Baz had to take pictures and video of everything. “The only thing that saved me,” Larry said, “was that he ran out of battery power for his video camera part way up the mountain. After that I didn’t have to stand in front of the camera and talk for him every fifty feet.”

The next morning Larry rose, went into the kitchen, and started making tea. I heard Margit walk over to him from the couch and ask if I was awake. “Yes,” he said, “go ahead, go in.” She came and climbed into my bed. She pushed her long hair, which had hung forward, behind her shoulders. She showed me her torn pajama shirt. She showed me the red scratches and marks on her neck. She said that Baz had tried to strangle her in the night.

She had cried out for Larry, and her cry had stopped the attack. Larry woke, it turned out, but he didn’t hear his name. He laid in the dark, alert, listening, ready to act. He heard crying or sex; he wasn’t sure which. Neither was grounds for intrusion, so he went back to sleep. I wore earplugs and didn’t hear anything, an anomalous good night’s sleep. Jolted from his violence by the threat of discovery, Baz begged Margit to give him another chance. She finally said yes just to quiet him then told him to go to sleep away from her; she had new power with our proximity. In the morning she sat next to Baz on the couch, pretending to read with him and waiting for Larry.

Now, sitting cross-legged on my bed, she looked fragile, brave. I looked her in the eyes and said, “It’s time for him to go.” She held my eyes and nodded.

Although Baz was in a calm state just then, it seems strange, in retrospect, that we did not phone the police right away. Instead, as I headed to the bathroom, I called into the kitchen in my most natural, method-acting voice, “Larry, could you come help me?” That’s a request he lives by, as much as he lives by the words “I love you.” “Sure,” he said, and followed me in.

I told Larry what had happened. I told him the plan was to get Baz to pack up his stuff, then they could go out together. They could get breakfast, and Larry could take him to the bus station. We were trying to give Baz an out. Dumb idea. We “should” have called the police. Thankfully, I didn’t think of it. I had been straining every bit of mind-reading I could muster to follow Margit. She led. She was ready to get out. But I don’t think she was ready to bring in the cops, not yet.

But Baz wouldn’t take his out. He pleaded. He whimpered. He said Margit had promised that she would give him another chance. He said he wanted to talk with her.

We live in a small, odd house: two rooms downstairs separated by three steps through a doorway, and two rooms upstairs separated by a hallway, three steps, and something we call “the tunnel.” I inhabit only the first floor, because a flight of stairs is like a mountain to me, or was at that time, especially our stairs. So my bed is about ten feet from the front door. Margit and I held our quiet court upon this bed. And Larry shuttled between the two first-floor rooms—between Baz’s refusal and ours. He left Baz thinking his tactically penitent thoughts upon the couch and reported to us. We looked at each other and shook our heads. Larry went back. Baz said the same things again. Larry came back to us. We cycled, then we said that’s it, don’t ask again; the answer is not going to change.

I felt slightly annoyed that Larry allowed this. Hadn’t he heard what I had said? Baz had tried the strangle Margit. Poor Larry, no tea, no morning vittles, and we expected him to drive the homicidal man away, eat breakfast with him, and drop him off at the bus station, where they would, no doubt, shake hands and say a cordial goodbye. Zippedy doo da, zippety day! My, oh my, what a wonderful day.

While Larry did his earnest best to convey finality to our guest in the living room, Margit went out to the car to retrieve what she needed from their bags. And to confiscate Baz’s knife. Baz heard the door and saw her step towards the car. He moved quickly from the couch, passed within a few feet of me and opened the front door carefully, as if being quiet might help him evade notice. I noticed. We all noticed. He was barefoot, almost tip-toeing. He wore red plaid boxer shorts, and his shoulders curled slightly forward under his white t-shirt as he turned the knob and slipped out the door. For that brief moment I stood watching things go wrong. The first fear rose in me. Larry grabbed his pepper spray from the utility drawer—waking up fast—and followed.

“Larry, excuse me, I’d just like to talk to my wife,” Baz said calmly. Margit moved from the trunk to the back seat, carefully keeping space between herself and her petitioner. Larry watched. “Excuse me, Larry, I just want to speak with Margit alone.”

“Larry, don’t leave,” Margit said, “do not leave.” Larry stood a few feet from the car, his head bowed slightly, his face wary, his hand in his pocket fingering the trigger of the pepper spray. “I’m not leaving,” he said.

“Please, Larry, I’d like to speak with my wife.” Margit opened the front passenger seat door. Baz took the driver’s seat and leaned across to her. He spoke quietly, desperately. I don’t know what he said. Margit finished and returned to the house. Larry remained. We locked the door. Baz sat back in his seat and looked randomly around the yard.

It was late June. The grass was green; the leaves were out. The work of wood peckers sounded from the hillside. Crows wheeled and cawked. Later, when Baz was gone and our home was quiet, when we were all safe and could talk over the strange gravity of what had happened, grey birds, shooed away by the commotion, would return to the weed-fringed gravel driveway to peck at seeds in the shadow of the car.

Larry squatted on the ground by Baz’s side. “You just get dressed, Baz,” he said, “and we’ll go; I’ll take you to the bus station.”

“No, Larry, no; it’s all over.”

“Come on Baz. Come with me. You can go home. You just need to get dressed and we can go.”

“But Margit said last night she would give me another chance. She promised we would go together to her parents’ house. She promised.”

“That’s not going to happen, Baz. Come on, get out of the car. I have your jeans right here. You can get dressed.”

“No. I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost everything. It’s all over.” His right arm supported his weight as he leaned against the steering wheel. Periodically, he would drop his head and collapse forward sounding the horn. Then he would right himself before slumping lethargically against the seatback and staring out through the windshield.

Larry tried and tried. Then he came in. We discussed calling the police. We knew once we invited them to our party we would not be the game masters anymore. And we knew things can go very wrong with cops in charge. But, we agreed, we were already not in control. We needed the assistance of a greater power.

The day before, Larry and Baz had talked up and down the mountain. They had talked about cameras and traffic fatalities and God. Larry said he thought God was as present in the woods as in any church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. He told Baz of Thoreau’s words about the white pine: “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” When Larry returned to the driveway he told Baz that we were ready to call the police if he would not go with him. Baz said he would leave, he would walk off into the woods. “No,” Larry said gently, “If you do that we will still call the police.”

“But Larry, you said God is in the woods, you said so yourself.”

“Yes, Baz, God is in the woods, but God is also here in this car, right now.”

It was time. Larry told the emergency dispatcher what had happened. He said we only wanted Baz to leave. He also said Baz was in a passive state. They didn’t hurry. We waited and watched. Finally, two state troopers in separate patrol cars swung in, each positioned to block our cars from exit. One trooper’s dry cleaning obscured the window of his cruiser’s back seat. We joked that this might account for the delay.

The two officers conferred briefly. “What about this idea of getting him to leave?” one asked the other. “No,” came the answer, “we don’t do that in Vermont. If we find evidence of domestic violence, we have to make an arrest.” The junior officer entered the house.

He was tall and trim, sported a thick mustache and a stiff gray hat with a broad brim all around. How embarrassing, I thought, that hat, like Smokey the Bear playing policeman. “I am wearing a microphone and everything we say is being recorded,” he said. Margit and I held hands. She answered his questions, showed him her neck and the torn collar of her shirt. Then he left to get his camera from the cruiser. As he walked behind Baz, he made eye contact with the other trooper—Larry told us later—and, holding his arms in the air, snapped an imaginary handcuff with his right hand down onto his left wrist.

The senior officer had ordered Baz to get out of the car. Baz had obeyed. He looked small standing there on the grass, bare-legged, barefoot, clad only in boxers and a white undershirt. There was no question who was in command. But Baz denied attempting to strangle Margit. No, no, he had just grabbed her shirt. While Baz spoke his denial—the trooper noted in his report—his hands demonstrated not shirt grabbing, but strangulation. No, no, he had just grabbed her shirt.

They arrested him. They advised Margit to seek a restraining order in case he was released, told her they might need to talk to her again, and left. Margit phoned her family. After lunch, Larry drove her to the courthouse. With considerable feeling of surreality, Margit requested the restraining order. After returning she said, “It’s hard to believe I just had my husband arrested. Filling out the forms and walking through the building, I kept thinking, ‘At least this is happening to a bunch of writers.’”—meaning herself, me, and Larry.

That evening Larry put Paul Winter’s Canyon Lullaby on the stereo. “Lyrical and haunting,” says, “Canyon Lullaby showcases Winter’s soulful soprano sax within the extraordinary acoustics of the Grand Canyon, among a symphony of wildlife voices.” We came to call it “The Earth Weeps for You.” Margit slumped deeper in her chair and a total collapse looked immanent. Try something else, we said to Larry, something less exactly matching the moment.

Our talk ran over the day, of course. The miracle of it was that Baz himself had helped things go right. He had the chance to avoid arrest, a long chance. But he didn’t take it. It was as if he knew he needed someone else to take charge of him, as if he himself wanted out of his life as it was and knew he couldn’t do it on his own. We wondered aloud what it was like to be in jail. Was he praying? Larry said, “If I was in jail, my prayers would make all the prayers I’d ever prayed before sound like nursery rhymes and bullshit.” The next day we learned Baz had requested a Baha’i prayer book, and I made phone calls to arrange getting one to him. My Baha’i contacts were rather startled that I, an ex-Baha’i, knew of this incarcerated brother-in-faith before they did.

A couple days later, Larry drove Margit to the troopers’ office where she answered more questions. “Well, you see when it happens, you have to—” she said. The officer stopped her, “You mean this wasn’t the only time?” No. “What else did he do?” “Well,” she hesitated, “Once he slapped my face so hard that my nose made strange noises for a long time afterwards . . . Once in the car he punched my arm again and again, and my whole upper arm turned black and every color . . . In a hotel he dragged me across the carpet, giving me large carpet burns on my legs, and threw me against the wall, so that my head slammed hard.”

“That’s horrible,” the officer said. “I am sorry; that shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

That last incident happened on their way home from a three-day visit to the Baha’i World Center in Haifa. As I learned much later, Baz had reprimanded her for something in front of Abdu’l-Baha’s shrine, reminding her where she was. And Margit had stood up to him there. “I don’t care,” she said. “Abdu’l-Baha sees everything you do to me. Abdu'l-Baha knows what you do to me.”

While Margit was in Fland I depended on her parents, especially her mother, for their independent impressions of what was going on. We had a tenuous collaboration supporting Margit. But we reacted very differently to the arrest. They were talking to Baz on the phone. They wanted to get him out of jail. They wanted him to be able to return to the U.S. for school. This is the hardest part of the story for me to write because my frustration and anger of the time has passed, and I feel somewhat protective of them and of Margit’s relationship with them. When Margit told me of the incidents she had described to the officer, I said I thought she needed to tell her parents this, hoping that more details would clarify what was at stake. I said they needed to, at least, think about her future safety, about making sure there was one country where he couldn’t get at her.

“Margit, could you pass me a tissue?” I said, as we talked that evening about what Baz had done to her. “I’m going to blow my nose and try not to throw up.”

More stories came out. He had closely monitored all her activity, locked her out of the house, threatened to abandon her by the side of the road, deprived her of sleep, called her a whore, wildly jerked the steering wheel while she piloted the car on the highway. One way or another she was under attack nearly all the time. If it wasn’t physical violence, it was physical deprivation, verbal assault, blame, or denigration. In those first days after the arrest Margit felt disoriented by being trusted, not criticized, and allowed to care for her own needs. Later in her healing she made a list of things Baz would get angry at her for. Two hundred, many of them contradictory. It’s called crazy-making behavior, and it works.

The violence had escalated in three months from exclusively verbal and emotional to just on the living side of homicide. If they had left our house together, I think he would have killed her. It was really only luck that he didn’t. And Margit’s cry. And a little something in Baz that held back. Instead of releasing her neck when she cried out, he might have clamped down to silence her. Strangulation can cause unconsciousness in as little as seven seconds. I imagine the resulting silence and cessation of struggle would make it much easier to hold on for the end.

Margit stayed with us for a week after the arrest, resting, thinking, waking up from the nightmare, talking with friends and family, and dealing with the legal process. I was not involved in the conversation she and her parents were having about prosecution. Even after the truth had come out I found myself trying to read what was going on from small clues and bits of reported conversation. I started to feel I just wanted her to leave. We knew what this man had done and here we were playing patty-cake with him. If I couldn’t change that I didn’t want to watch it, from the front row, either. I felt trapped and impotent, again. But I didn’t really want her to leave. “I’m going to have to trust Margit,” I decided. “After all this, I can take that risk. I can tell her what I’m feeling.”

So when Margit said to me, after a conversation with her mother, that she wasn’t sure about separating from Baz permanently, that maybe she wouldn’t decide yet, I spoke up.
I can’t remember if I responded right then or later, but I told her that I was feeling really sick. Poor Margit thought the physical strain from all this had been too much for me. There had been rather a lot going on in my place of convalescence. But what was making me feel particularly sick, I explained, was the thought that she might go back to Baz. I said, “There’s nothing for you to work out together. The problem is not between you; it’s in him. He’s not capable of being with you in a healthy relationship, and he is never going to be. That’s how messed up he is.” I think it was a relief to Margit to hear that clarity. Integral to abuse is a mental mind game that undermines the victim’s own judgment and reality sense. A person doesn’t come out of that the instant they are physically safe and free.

Margit was in no condition to transport herself or be alone. And I was exhausted, yes, ready for a simpler domestic scene. A friend flew east and drove with Margit back to her family’s home.

After she left, I removed the pictures of Margit’s wedding from the small album her mother had sent me three months before. While she was in Fland I had stared at those pictures—cutting the cake, putting cake in each other’s mouths, standing face to face holding hands—and tried hard to find some sense of a living connection between these two people. I couldn’t feel it. And now there was no reason to search for it. I took scissors in my fragile hands for the first time in years and cut the images apart, separating their likenesses as their selves had been—all along in truth, and now in fact.

Experimenting with physicalizing my prayer, I placed the images of Margit in a robin’s nest which Larry had brought me from our wood pile. Around it I spread the pictures of her family and small objects symbolic of my hopes. I prayed for Baz too; his pictures had their place, well away from hers. I felt no anger at Baz then, no desire to get him or punish him. But I did want him to be treated as the dangerous person he truly was. Jail in Vermont, in the offender rehabilitation program, with a male Baha’i in the nearby community who was ready to befriend him, was a decent chance for some kind of positive change. The terrible place Baz was in was not jail but his own mind and psyche—not a safe neighborhood.

But I learned from Margit’s mother that Baz was to be offered a plea bargain of one count of trespassing and one count of creating a nuisance, down from felony domestic assault, and to be released on time served. I called Margit and said “If this isn’t what you want, this is your chance to do something.”

Margit said the plea bargain made it sound as if Baz had been dancing in his underwear on the front lawn. But as good as the Vermont law enforcement and criminal justice system was in this situation, they unfortunately leave prosecution choices in domestic violence cases significantly to the victims. Margit wasn’t ready then to prosecute. She wasn’t ready to break away from her parents and say Baz should be in jail. But she wrote a personal statement of rebuke, which was read at his hearing. She said she hoped this conviction would hang on him as a warning to other women.

After the plea bargain went through I didn’t know what would happen to Baz and I didn’t feel I could do anything to help him anymore. I had to let go. I looked at the pictures of him a last time—praying for the unknown ahead in his life and the lives of those whom he might hurt next—and dropped them in my paper recycling bag. He was getting recycled, back out into the world.

I wrote a letter to Margit saying I needed a break from contact with her. I couldn’t pretend to have milder feelings and thoughts about Baz than I did. And the tension of trying felt unbearable to me now. I had used up my willingness to suspend judgment. One evening I asked Larry to leave me alone for a bit. The living room was dark, and I was tired. I placed all remaining images from Margit’s wedding in the robin’s nest and arranged the nest in our wood stove. I spoke my awkward prayers. I lit the match. I let it go.

Baz was released and flew away to Fland—but only after visiting the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette and giving a workshop for volunteers there. He resigned from the National Spiritual Assembly of his country. For a few months he harassed Margit from a distance, then went silent. As a final stroke, he took the independent initiative to retain some of her most personal belongings as mementos for himself. A fucker, right to the end.

I never sent that letter to Margit. She called before I could, and, well, she’s just one of those people I can’t resist. I knew I couldn’t not talk to her. Two months after the arrest she was ready to prosecute, but it was too late. And when she called the prosecutor back and told him, he said he hears that all the time and there was nothing he could do. Margit has been healing beautifully, and we are the best of friends. I am only sorry this narrative tells so little of what she suffered and of her good work to survive and heal.

I would give the National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S., its Office of Community Affairs, and the local spiritual assembly which oversaw Margit’s year of patience a collective A- for their responses. There were problems, but nothing big. The word from the Baha’i national center was “prosecute.” And one member of the NSA apparently had some rather colorful things to say about what he would do if somebody did that to his daughter. It helped, I’m sure, that none of them had a personal connection to Baz.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S. reported the incident to the Universal House of Justice. I don’t know if Baz’s resignation was initiated by him or ordered by them. But we learned in the summer of 2007 that he was on the NSA of Fland again. He probably helped elect the House this year.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

For the anonymous commenter who suggested, "Someone should give Abdul Baha's palm reading."

Click on the images to see them enlarged. The text in the last image is by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram.

I love the idea of a regular Baha'i feature in the International Psychic Gazette.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let the Renaissance Begin

He is, and should for all time be regarded, first and foremost, as the Center and Pivot of Bahá'u'lláh's peerless and all-enfolding Covenant, His most exalted handiwork, the stainless Mirror of His light, the perfect Exemplar of His teachings, the unerring Interpreter of His Word, the embodiment of every Bahá'í ideal, the incarnation of every Bahá'í virtue . . . Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 134.

This photograph of Abdu’l-Baha’s hand, from the book Written in Light, edited by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, was taken before Abdu’l-Baha started allowing himself to be freely documented with cameras.

In 1903, Helen Coles was so insistent that she be allowed to take his picture that at last Abdu’l-Baha relented and said that she could photograph his hand. She did, and the picture was eagerly viewed by a select few of the believers when she returned home. It was termed “the hand that holds the world.” --Written in Light, p. 4.

I still keep a picture of Abdu’l-Baha by my bedside. My reluctance to recycle it or pass it on is part superstition, part loyal affection. I’m not sure he was a great thinker, but I am sure he was a great person, and I still like having him around.

In a discussion-group exchange on sexuality and the Baha’i Faith which has been preserved at Baha’i Library Online, Baha’i scholar R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram said many interesting and insightful things, as he had a habit of doing; I highly recommend the full read (link). Midway through the document he says, “I have copies of hundreds of pages of wonderful pilgrim notes that would be problematic to publish.” He continues,

Abdu'l- Baha was a very physical person and interacted very physically with those around him. He touched, patted, held, stroked hands, arms and shoulders of both men and women while talking with them. He put his arm around people. He stroked their hair. He had a great sense of humor and indulged in horse play when in groups of men, slapping faces and bopping people with his umbrella. (He was also known for his extensive repertoire of dirty jokes in Turkish.)

Judging from the sample summary Jackson gives, those problematic pages would be wonderful to publish. He goes on,

The response of many American women to him was also very physical, indeed could be profoundly sexual. At that time in the US, the epitome of male sexual attraction was a mature, bearded man. There were a large number of sects started in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s by imposing, bearded men who gathered a disproportionately female following. In almost every one, these women were sexually exploited. One of the remarkable things about Abdu'l-Bahá is that there is not the faintest trace of a shred of a hint that he ever took advantage of the way women responded to him. And there certainly would have been no objection on the part of many if he had tried. One of the beliefs of the American Bahá'í community at that time was that there was to be a third Manifestation for this dispensation born in America and there was quite an eagerness to be the mother. . . . Abdu'l-Bahá both accepted the intensity of people's feelings for him and attempted to direct that intensity into suitable channels. Indeed, he even accepted the propriety of intense love relationships between men and women within the faith as long as that love did not lead to illicit sexual activity. (This is documented in both pilgrim notes and tablets. Some of the individuals involved in these couples were married to other people at the time.)

Oh, that sexy Abdu’l-Baha and those horny American women. I sympathize with the women; I might well have had a yen for him myself.

I wish Jackson had lived to write a biography of Abdu’l-Baha and a book on sexuality and the Faith and a whole bunch of other books. He didn’t, damn him. But what he left behind, bless him, is suggestive. The paragraph I have quoted above ends with this observation,

Now, it hardly needs to be said that anything that even comes close to sex is a frontline freakout issue. But, how can we possibly understand Abdu'l-Bahá's relationship with the community, or indeed the issues involved in current interpersonal relations, without looking at such evidence?

I’ve always felt, in a rather vague, unarticulated, possibly indefensible way, that the full benefit of Abdu’l-Baha was not accruing to the community of Baha’is. There was a Baha’i children’s song I knew: “I am a Baha’i, I am a Baha’i, Abdu’l-Baha’s my example.” Every time I sang the song with kids I thought, “In what way do we take Abdu’l-Baha as our example? In what way do we hope these kids will take him as their example?” I’m sure many Baha’is can answer those questions in very personal ways. I’d love to hear those answers. To me, at that time, the words of the song suggested that stories about him ought to have a much greater place in our community life than I experienced. They could be keys to interpreting Baha’ullah’s own writings. They could influence administrative decisions. They could trigger a renaissance of dirty jokes on Mt. Carmel.

I know those stories can’t have the standing of authoritative writings, but surely Abdu’l-Baha’s example was in his living as well as his words. Though he’s not around any more, the stories about him are. That is what we have to tell us what kind of figure he cut in the world. Where is the line between what they can be and what they can’t or shouldn’t be? If I was still a Baha’i, I think I would give more attention to those stories and the possibilities on the right side of the line.

Regardless, the stories about him are enjoyable, and that seems reason enough to grant them generous space.

At the second Baha’i World Congress, in 1992, an elderly American woman who had met Abdu’l-Baha as a child told the story of her encounter. I wrote it up as a short story a couple of years later, fictionalizing a little to put flesh on its bones. Probably a sin in the book of some. Oh well. I rooted the story out of an old file-folder recently and deleted enough extraneous words to make the prose minimally presentable. I still wince a bit when I read it, but here it is. I remembered the story well enough to write it down, but not the name of the teller. Can you tell me whose story this is? I’d love to know.

A Visitor

Elizabeth sat on the stairs in the entry hall picking dirt from under her fingernails. She was grumpy and bored. She kicked the bottom step with her heels and listened to the grandfather clock mark the passage of time. She watched a small spider making its web between the rungs of the railing then mashed it between her fingers and wiped it on her pants.

“Come here and change into a nice dress,” Mrs. Campbell called from upstairs. “A visitor is coming today.”

“I don't want to,” Elizabeth replied, too quietly to be heard on the second floor. Adults were not to be trusted; they didn’t like naughty children. Only Mama and Papa could be trusted.

Suddenly the room felt different, bright. Elizabeth smiled and giggled to herself as if she were being lightly tickled. Through the window she could still see the cloudy dark sky and the drizzle that had thwarted her morning plans for playing in the garden. But inside the house, at least in that room, it was sunny and warm. “Maybe I will change my clothes,” she thought.

Bouncing up the stairs she called, “Mrs. Campbell, I want to wear my very best dress! And I need a pencil and a piece of paper please.”

Mrs. Campbell was waiting with the dress in hand, so glad to get the girl into something presentable that she made no demands as to washing before dressing. Elizabeth took the pencil and paper and scribbled purposefully until the marks seemed complete. Then she descended the stairs to wait.

Almost immediately a knock came at the door. The sunshine is here, she thought. She opened the door and greeted a short elderly man in a long white robe. If she hadn’t been so immediately held by his eyes Elizabeth would have thought he looked quite silly walking around in a nightgown. Age had bleached his full beard and the curly wisps of hair that poked out from under his turban.

Elizabeth handed him the piece of paper covered in scribbles. “This is a prayer for you,” she said.

“Thank you,” he replied as he bent forward to receive the gift.

Just then Papa rushed in from the back of the house to greet the guest himself. Elizabeth felt robbed.

Papa walked him through the living room to the sun porch where Mama lay sleeping, sick with tuberculosis. Elizabeth was not allowed in the room, but she peeked through the tall French doors and watched. The visitor stood by the side of the bed and looked at Mama’s face a long time. He put his left hand firmly on her left hand. Then with his right he touched her forehead. Elizabeth imagined the warmth of his hands. She wished that she herself was ill.

Very slowly he removed his hand from Mama’s face. He stood perfectly still. He closed his eyes and seemed to be saying something, although no sound came from his lips. The room had been stuffy and awful since Mama took ill; it now felt fresh. Elizabeth, who could hardly sit still five minutes was startled when the visitor lifted his face. He looked at Papa and smiled. “She will be fine,” he said.

Papa seemed confused and surprised. The visitor indicated with a nod of his head that he would like to sit in the living room, and Papa graciously led him there, calling to Mrs. Campbell to prepare some tea. As the two men passed Elizabeth standing at the door, the visitor smiled at her, and she knew she was invited too.

The visitor surveyed the room, its fine furnishings, the paintings on the walls, the glass and porcelain vases. “You have a beautiful house, Mr. James,” he said. “I hope someday it is a beautiful home.”

Papa straitened his vest and cleared his throat nervously. Just then Mrs. Campbell entered with the tea tray. She served the two men and turned to leave. The visitor stopped her with a touch on her arm and silently indicated Elizabeth sitting slumped in a chair across the room. She was not usually in the room when Mr. James received guests, and she certainly never took tea with them. But the visitor insisted in his silent way. So Mrs. Campbell took another cup and saucer from the cupboard and poured Miss. Elizabeth some tea.

Elizabeth sat up straight in her chair and received the cup. She tried to sip like an adult. Papa and the visitor began talking in earnest. She didn’t follow their conversation of words. She was wrapped in her own conversation with the visitor. At least they seemed be speaking, she and the man with the white beard, in smiles and glances. “This is a man who likes naughty children,” she thought. Certainly he had come to see her just as much as he had come to see Papa.

The men’s conversation continued for perhaps an hour, but not more. Then Papa walked the visitor to the door. The white-haired man smiled at Elizabeth, and then he was gone.

She sat on the steps for a while remembering the morning. Maybe there were three adults who could be trusted.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mind of the Big Lesson-Plan Maker

Warning: Heavy Irony Ahead

The God of progressive revelation is shockingly inept. He sends Jesus, His messenger and a perfect mirror of His divinity, with instructions exactly appropriate for the needs of humanity at that time and for the next seven or so centuries but neglects to emphasize the importance of getting the message written down. Instead, the guy wanders around the countryside healing people, speaking in riddles, and selecting a fickle, slow-brained, and foolish band of disciples to found his church. Or maybe he didn’t. We don’t really know because, damn it, he apparently only wrote in the sand.

So—if the Baha’i corrections to the Christian story are, in fact, correct—when the Gospel started to be recorded some decades later, everything was already all wrong: Jesus was God, the bread and wine were not just symbols, and Christ’s physical body had risen from the dead. One can almost hear God exclaiming “Jee-zus!” in exasperation as He bangs His glorious brow on the walls of heaven. But, c’mon, He has only Himself to blame. Jesus was, after all, a perfect reflection.

And, really, what could be expected from a God who, the last time around, thought that stoning for any little offense was just what humanity needed and that genocide in the service of land grabbing was progress? Or was all that nasty stuff just human distortion of divine intentions? We, the intractable students, could always be to blame.

But I beg you, oh believers in progressive revelation, don’t edit out as mere corruption of the truth that story of Noah, passed out drunk and naked, so incongruous with his status as unblemished mirror of the Celestial Beauty. God himself has good reason to drown his despair with earthly spirits, so why not one appointed to carry out his plan—so simple, neat, and reasonable, yet ineffectual in a world that will have nothing of tidiness and rationality?

The foundational mistake must have been making the creature in the image of the Creator. We humans do have a way of making things up, telling stories, and creating new stuff. Perhaps Noah had a vision of 2008 in which the failed, corrupted, and lifeless revelation of Jesus, fueled by pesky human ingenuity, would keep sprouting new forms (not all nice) and popping up everywhere like an invasive species, while a small band of intrepid Baha’is, holding their heads high, would chant

The old religions are passé,
Baha’i alone is for today!

as they hold aloft the Kitab-i-Aqdas and march into the bright new tomorrow.

We are in that future now. Entry by troops is happening, but those crazy Africans and South Americans have got it all wrong. They are supposed to be joining Ruhi study groups en masse, not opening a new Pentecostal center every week in Rio and Nairobi.

All this despite the infinite wisdom of the five-, three-, and one-year plans. God should have known, must have known, that even this latest and greatest, hot-off-the-assembly-line dispensation, with its anti-schism super-plus covenant, was doomed to failure when that Shoghi couldn’t even follow simple instructions and write a freakin’ will. The new infallibility protocol is buggy, big-time. Vet your code, man!—I mean, God.

Enough irony, Ms. Leaf. Say what you mean.

Okay. I don’t like the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation any more.

It was the hook that first snagged me for the Faith. But its tidy narrative has little to do with actual religious history. I've been harsh with my ironic take, to make a point, yet I've hardly touched what could be said. And the God implied by that trim tale is to me unbearable. If God has been rolling out revelations like new versions of Windows Operating System for soul and society—well—I think I’ll take the gas pipe, thank you. Ditto if we’ve been failing a very good K-12 curriculum.

Maybe some eloquent Baha’is with good depth perception will define a new way of speaking of progressive revelation that is worthy. Maybe they already have and I just haven’t read any of it. I believe if you’re going to reject something you should reckon with the best of what it can be, not just the worst of what it is. So bring it on.

But I don’t like the view of revelation as communiqué from God, message transmission with varying degrees of noise on the line. I don’t like the neat divide between human and divine implied. And I don’t like being cast in the great tale as corruptor, not creator. The House likes to say that Baha’i institutions will succeed where others have failed because they are ordained by Baha’u’llah, manifestation of God. From God: success, triumph, glory! Made by humans: nice try, doomed to fail.

Scripture is more like a slug to the gut and a whisper in the ear than a set of age-appropriate instructions. And we made it. We have been discovering holiness and creating God for a long, long time. In the last few thousand years we’ve made records of our joy and folly to pass on. Baha’i rhetoric claims the relatively simple provenance of Baha’u’llah’s writings as a great advantage—the message got through this time. And atheist or otherwise debunking rhetoric often cites the humanness of Baha’i or other scriptures to knock them down. Both groups assume the same idea of revelation, only one thinks it is obviously happening and the other thinks it obviously isn’t.

I think scripture, and more broadly religion, is collaboration, human expressions inspired by divine presence. With a lot of foolishness—and worse—mixed in. Scriptures are not trap doors leading away from our own responsibility—God said it, I believe it, that settles it. No, they are testimony; they are invitation.

I know that my view doesn’t sit prettily with Baha’i beliefs about Baha’u’llah and his compositions. Nor with those of Biblical literalists. Nor those of most Muslims concerning the Qur’an. But even if God does send messages through Messengers, then what? The problems of interpretation and response remain. And they depend on whom you believe God is.

I believe that God is not a distant schoolmaster.

God is a small child whose excitement at your return home shows in the rapid action of her knees as her figure bobs up and down. She toddles forward a few slow steps, pauses to set down her toy guitar, then runs as best she can, all enthusiasm. How will you receive her? What great play do you make for her delight?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Positive? Negative?

My college Baha’i club was something of a haven for certain members of the local Baha’i community. One woman had memorized a prayer which she said at every opportunity. It was something like, “O, God, make me so meek and such a nothing that no difficulty perturbs me in the slightest . . .” You know, that sort of thing, though of course in much more elaborate language. The line that got me bad every time was about quelling every rebellious passion. I would sit there in the silence of my rebellious passion and think, “I can’t help it, I hate this prayer.”

From a different person I might have felt it differently. But the combination of those words with that personality, everything so neatly ordered and just so and tied up with perfect reasonableness, rationality and good cheer . . .What was it we used to say in sixth grade? Gag me with a spoon. Life is not neat, or reasonable, nor, if you’re paying attention, does it give cause for never-ending good cheer. And a prayer like that should be handled with care, if at all, as it is the kind of thing that helps keep people (women especially) in very bad places when feelings of rebellion and repulsion and the assertion of self should propel them out. I wondered why I never saw this prayer in print, and it gave me unholy pleasure not much later to discover that it was inauthentic, or at least not authenticated for Abdu’l-Baha or Baha’u’llah.

Now I find that another oft-referenced passage that I have always disliked, for much the same reason, is apparently unauthenticated as well: “Look always at the good and not at the bad. If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, we must look at the ten and forget the one. And if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, we must look at the one and forget the ten.” According to the handy-dandy search tool at TrueSeeker, this appears in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, in the section titled “The Sin-Covering Eye” (p. 82–83). We are told that “Abdu’l-Baha tells us,” but not when and under what conditions Abdu’l-Baha tells us.

A longer text (BC#36) containing this passage can be found at Baha’i Library. That version comes from the personal papers of one Dwight Barstow. If anyone can trace it to any other source, I would love to know. The title given for this longer version is “The Commands of our Blessed Master, Abdu’l-Baha as revealed in tablets and instructions for the beloved in America,” which suggests it is a kind of summary or paraphrased compilation. Not only the title but the text indicates that the writer was not Abdu’l-Baha but an individual Baha’i, as it contains the phrases “our Master has said,” “the Master also said that,” and “our blessed Master said.” My guess is that these are notes of a talk by Abdu’l-Baha, possibly the same talk of which a different version appears in The Promulgation of Universal Peace (pp. 452–453). It was given on December 2, 1912, in New York, and ends, “Be illumined, be spiritual, be divine, be glorious, be quickened of God, be a Baha’i.” I am sure you know the one.

The two texts cover much the same territory and have stylistic similarities, though I greatly prefer the “Consider all men as your equals” of the latter to the “Know that we are less than anyone else” of the former. Each contains passages that are in some sense about seeing only good in others. Both have weak provenance. In any case, my business is not to define the real principle of the Faith by weeding out inauthentic passages and looking at what remains in the context of reason, experience, and the whole body of Baha’i writings. I am interested in examining what is widely believed by Baha’is partly because of these passages. And although these texts don’t, when scrutinized, look very authoritative, the likelihood is that Abdu'l-Baha did say things of this sort. We have similar passages, solidly authentic (I think, but I do start to wonder about everything), such as in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha (p. 169), “One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise,” and a bit down the page, “Thus it is incumbent upon us when we direct our gaze toward other people, to see where they excel, not where they fail.”

It is a principle often signified by the succinct phrase “the sin-covering eye.” At first I thought this phrase must have some prominent place in primary writings, judging from how often I saw it deployed. But p. 169 of Selections is the only place I’ve located where Abdu’l-Baha uses it, and that in the strange context of his story (not found in the Gospels) about Jesus extolling the whiteness of a dead dog’s teeth while others exclaimed how disgusting was its rotting carcass. The term occurs twice in Shoghi Effendi’s searchable writings, once in God Passes By (pp. 164–165), in reference to Baha’u’llah’s response to his brother’s covenant-breaking activity, and once in Directives From the Guardian (pp. 140–142), where he distinguishes between what should be the response of individuals to the failings of others and an Assembly’s appropriate response.

In Baha’i discourse, “the sin-covering eye” is a whole complex of beliefs about what can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be thought, said, or done; about the of nature persons, organizations, and communities; about negative and positive, bad and good, in what sense they coexist and how we should respond to them. It ranges from sophisticated to simple, from individuals to everything. I can’t possibly take on the whole array in one essay so I won’t. Ironically, speaking openly of negatives, faults, or problems is one bad thing for which devotees of the sin-covering eye will often suspend their principle of seeing only the good. The one definitely addressable negative is the addressing of negatives. This knocks my funny bone.

Some years ago a friend of mine took to describing Larry, my husband, whom she had met only a few times, as very honest. This is what Larry was to her, honest. “He’s really honest. I think he’s very honest.” She was, I think, fulfilling her idea of her Baha’i duty to identify good qualities in this particular other and hold them up. And while I think it is essentially true that Larry is honest, it is not, as the phrase goes, who he is. And so long as she holds onto that as who-he-is, she will know nothing of the real wilderness that is his particular person.

Ignoring the bad and focusing on the good, if taken up simplistically, thus mutilates people in one’s imagination. Persons become collections of qualities that are distinct, separable, and evaluable as good or bad. Whatever is deemed to be bad is ignored, and whatever is deemed to be good is taken as the whole. I don’t doubt that there is something sick in us that wants to fondle what we take as other people’s faults, missteps and wrongdoings, or even to become obsessed with trying to correct them, rather than attending to the order of our own homes. But people are not collections of good and bad qualities; who we are is not divisible, and what is awry in us affects all of who we are in complex ways. If in other human beings you reject and ignore what you deem to be faults, you don’t get something wonderful to affirm, you get a dissected carcass of personhood in your imagination. And you may get a significant danger in your life.

If Baha’i children are raised to see only the positive in others and to perceive faults only in themselves, how then are they, on coming of age, to be equipped to investigate the character of another and to choose someone to spend their life with? It’s like being expected to do calculus when you’ve been banned from doing arithmetic. Inability to see the negative sets people up for victimhood. What’s to stop a Baha’i child from getting in the car of a stranger who offers them a ride? The person is being friendly, right? Why look at negatives? How will her good Baha’i parents protect her from abusers who would gain their own trust through good qualities—favors, kindness, openness? And if a young woman is taught to see only the uprightness, good service, and generosity of the young men she looks upon with interest, what are the chances that she will be skilled in perceiving how one who returns her interest uses these to mask his duplicity, ambition, self-righteousness, and violence?

Selectively seeing the faults of others is like saying, “You suck and I don’t.” But selectively not seeing the faults of others is like saying, “Please use me.” Hands go up, objections are made: The Baha’i Faith does not condone abuse. It is for justice and for the punishment of abuse. People should not allow themselves to be abused.

Yes, but how? There seems to me an assumption in this line of thinking that you can get rid of something and keep it at the same time—ditch your cake and eat it too. An assumption that you can not see the faults in others, yet be able to do just that when it really matters. But abuse is complex; recognizing it is far from automatic. And it isn’t separable from lesser sins like manipulation and lying. Where is the line between what can be perceived and discussed, and what shouldn’t? And if the sin-covering eye is not meant to overlook real wrongs, if ignoring the “bad qualities” only means not freaking out when your spouse doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste, then what are we talking about, anyway? Are breaches of etiquette sins?

Shoghi Effendi wrote,

There is a tendency to mix up the functions of the Administration and try to apply it in individual relationships, which is abortive . . . But individuals towards each other are governed by love, unity, forgiveness and a sin-covering eye. Once the friends grasp this they will get along much better . . . (Directives from the Guardian, pp. 41–42)

But LSAs, NSAs, and the Universal House of Justice cannot handle everybody’s problems, difficulties, and faults. There are too few of them and too many of us; there always will be. And besides, how are assembly members to be skilled in doing this if before they’re on the assembly they’re not allowed to think, converse, and make decisions about the bad stuff? Everybody has need of perceiving more than just the nicenesses in others in making decisions as parents, citizens, supervisors, landlords, tenants, patients, teachers, just about every role a person can occupy. Hell, merely in opening the front door to a stranger who has knocked, one needs to be alert to more than the pretty whiteness of his teeth.

The idea that all critical thought about actual people can be left to assemblies is frankly dumb. And writing an over-long essay to point this out seems dumb too. Like, duh. Yet I’ve seen the trouble these ideas can make. And I think every religious community should look honestly at the ways its culture, ideals, scripture, and ways of functioning can enable abuse.

But I’m not saying it’s OK to talk however, whenever, whatever. I don’t believe that. Talking needlessly about what’s wrong with other people is probably one of the more recurrent sins of my life. I can remember being in middle school and talking with a friend during a sleepover about everyone we knew, picking them apart for pleasure. When we’d done with one we’d think of another. I think the game was driven more by me than by her. I remember saying, “Who next? What about so-and-so?” and having simultaneously a hovering awareness, slightly outside the moment, that something was not right in me. I think after that I never engaged again in this practice overtly as a form of entertainment. I’m still figuring out, though, the more subtle and not-so-subtle ways I err in my thought and speech about others.

But I thank Baha’u’llah, Jesus, the boogie man, maybe even the tooth fairy—certainly my own desire to be a whole healthy person in good relationships—that I never really succeeded in implementing this “Baha’i ideal” of the sin-covering eye, that never sees the “faults” of others. Life is just way too hard, way too dangerous for that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Minus the Facial Hair

It's winter in Vermont.

It's what you call beautiful.

Out every window . . .



living room,

and from the driveway.

On cold insomniac nights the wind rushes through the clear cut across our road to howl in the trees on our hillside, while I shuffle about the 55 degree house unable to build a fire (we heat with wood), unwilling to wake Larry. Every time I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror I think that I, in my new wool hat, remind myself of someone. Suddenly, after a few nights of wondering, I know who it is, and pulling out my Basic Baha’i Dictionary I find the image.

Yes . . . in that new hat, Ms. Leaf bears a suspicious resemblance to Baha'i calligrapher Mishkin-Qalam.

At least, it seemed that way at 3:00 am.

(A real post is coming soon, probably.)

(I think I can. I think I can.)