Friday, January 28, 2011

The Naked Pregnant Woman in the Yard, Chapter 1

Okay, lovies, here's is the latest, awful installment. I can't believe I'm showing you my rough draft. And I do mean rough friends. Forgive me, but I'm trying to find my way here. It's a struggle. Thank you for loving me, and creating the kind of trust that makes it possible to share my worst writing. Talk to you in few days.


CHAPTER ONE: My Name Is. . .

On the day I was born my father tried to rape my mother. My mother told me this over the phone when I was forty years old. I had called her that day because my first attempt to write a memoir had met with dismal failure, largely because I had no idea how to start the thing. I finally decided the beginning of me would be a fine launching point. All I needed to know was if she remembered the barest facts of my birth day.

Was it balmy that September night? Had the end-of-summer heat left her cranky? Was she bored numb? Or jealous that her sister,Patsy Jo, could still wear cute clothes, while her own small frame could fill a tent she was so swollen with child? I wanted to know if worry about labor and delivery furrowed her brow? How did you feel, Mama? I'd probe like an amateur psychologist.

I can be as melodramatic as a Lifetime movie, but to ask if Daddy sexually assaulted her would have never occurred to me. The truth shattered me.

I imagined how Mama must have looked that day, twenty-seven years old, seven months along in the pregnancy, her belly a not-quite-ripe melon. She was a pretty, yellow woman, with full, cupid's bow lips, and soft, but mournful brown eyes. I picture my father with less generosity, looking older than his years, his pecan shell colored skin glazed in perspiration that reeked of cheap liquor and stale cigarettes.

We tussled, Mama said. Tussled, a soft word that made the brutality of him forcing his pregnant wife to have sex against her will sound like a playful romp between lovers. Her voice dipped when she spoke of it. Even now I wonder if her tell revealed that she bore the kind of shame I know all too well, or had her mama instincts subconsciously tried to shield me from the horror of my father's glaring defects? I didn't ask then, and doubt if I would now.

That is how I came squalling into this world, unfinished, weighing in at a little over three pounds. Mama named me Claudia. I didn't find out until I was nine years old that Claudia means "lame, but intelligent." I may have only been in grade school at the time, but I was nonetheless profoundly disappointed. Could anyone have consulted a baby name book, for heaven's sake? And the fact that it also meant intelligent offered no consolation. It was as if someone tacked that part on to make us Claudias feel better about being saddled with a name that heralded brokeness. Sometimes I think my troubles began right there, at the bestowing of a name.

My friend Sharon Ewell Foster once told me that she believes before we arrive on the planet we make a deal with God. I think of this scene taking place at his heavenly throne, that looks a little like the chair Abraham Lincoln sits in on the Lincoln monument in Washington DC, only God's is more luminous. His radiance is shrouded by gilded clouds against a soft blue sky that has never seen a storm, and I'm right there at his feet, sitting with my legs criss-crossed, my head inclined toward his feet. The love I feel pulling me toward him is an umbilical cord, the golden thread indelibly connecting us.

God lays the sorrows I will face out before me, beginning with my violent arrival, and that dreaded name! Next to it I see myself at fifteen months old, given over to a stranger. She is loving yes, my kindly great aunt, but I never return to my parents. I would mourn the loss of my family of origin, my mother in particular, for the rest of my life, but as a small child, being too young for words, my tiny shoulders would round in sorrow, and stay that way.

If Sharon's theory of life before life is correct, and there are many days I believe it is, I'm the one who signed on to be called lame. Of course, upon arrival in this world I would promptly forget, and find it a bit off-putting that I wasn't called something like Simba, the lioness who kicks everybody's butt. Hear. Me. Roar!

I tried to ditch my name several times. As a teen I dreamed of being Michaela, a lilting musical name. In my twenties I longed for an African name, like Malaika or Ayodele, because I found them exotic, pleasant to the eye, and a more than a little mysterious. Once, when I was twenty-six years old, I had a naming ceremony under the stars. I'd stolen away on a balmy summer night with a friend, a woman who'd seen her own share of name incarnations. Her name was Joy when I met her. It's Orah El now, and I'm certain I missed a few names in between. She was an artist, and had crafted me a beautiful bas relief with my new name, and the image of a proud African woman on it, with a serene face, and her crown of regal locks flowing from her upward tilted head. I see that piece of art now, as my first experience with an icon. Rather than it being a window to heaven, it was a mirror into my soul. Joy and her bas relief proclaimed that I was Seshine, an Egyptian name that reminded me of sunshine when I looked at it. Seshine means, "the lotus flower," for Joy saw that I could bloom in anything, including a heaping pile of dung. Sometimes I wonder if she wasn't some kind of angel, in my life briefly to remind me of the passions--the blood drenched crosses--that I said yes to before I entered into time. Who can really say?

What I can tell you is the night of my naming ceremony, when I returned home, Rafael, who you will learn much more about later, told me I didn't deserve an African name. Just like that I relinquished it to him. I was too afraid of him to keep my own, precious, beautiful, and newly name. I took my rage out on myself, the self Joy so lovingly revealed in her art work. I smashed that bas relief it to bits, wishing I could destroy the life I lived with Raphael so easily. Oh, to have my breath fade to nothing, like the spaces between the broken pieces of my icon. I still regret my violence toward that amazing picture of grace Joy created, and what's worse is that I would continue to hurt my most essential, most authentic self. I'd do it again, and again.

When Rafael decided to relent and give me a name, he called me Kai, which in some West African countries, means, "loveable." But it was me who picked the name, and prayed with everything in it he'd agree to it, and let me believe I was worthy of his affections--that I was worthy of anyone's. Raphael didn't find me loveable at all, but everyone in our life called me Kai, the one who is lovable. This too was a gift of grace, a sliver of hope in the darkest, most dismal time of my life. Sometimes I wonder if that minuscule pinpoint of light kept me alive in that dark, harsh season. It was very hard for me to stay alive those days.
A few years ago, I had my first communion. In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions, one is allowed to take on the name of a patron saint. I choose St. Mary of Egypt as my soul's mother. She was a fifth century harlot, whose life resonated with me for reasons it will take another memoir to explain.

You should have seen me on that glorious day in May, wearing all white, smiling with my whole being. Right there in church I spit upon Satan. Literally, that's part of the rite. I cried my way through the Nicene Creed, tears of joy, without a hint of sorrow on my countenance that day. When Father Leo, a dear Romanian priest so full of love it often spilled out of him in booming laughter, came to the part in the service in which I'd take on my new name, Mary, he looked me in the eye and pronounced me before God and witnesses Claudia Mary. I've been researching on the internet, he said. Claudia is a saint name, too. Now I was stuck with Claudia for life, and it would be a long time before I realized I was Claudia from the very beginning.

You may be wondering why this book doesn't have the name Claudia Mary Burney on it. Suffice it to say, I can be remarkably malcontent, especially when it comes to what to call myself. I just didn't see myself as a Mary, so I asked God if I could call myself Mair, because it just seemed more like me than Mary did. Mair is a variation of the name Mary, kind of like Maria is. He didn't seem to mind. Neither did Saint Mary of Egypt.

I visited Africa once and stayed for almost two weeks in Swaziland, a little country in the Southern part of the continent that's about the size of New Jersey. At a simple mission care point, on a dusty hill, I met a gorgeous little girl of twelve. Her name is Ntondo. In Siswati it means, "person who loves."

Ntondo looked at me, a stranger, having arrived in her country with a group of white people. They were used to seeing the white missionaries. A caramel skinned, African American woman was a novelty. What is your name? she asked me in flawless English.

It's Claudia, I told her. I almost said Mair, but since I'm often confused about what to call myself, I defaulted to the old standby. Ntondo must not have been thrilled with Claudia either. She looked at me, a serious expression on her face. To this day I have no idea why she did it, but she said, From now on, you will be called Ntondo. She gave me her own name. Her last name, too, letting me know I was part of the family. Her choice of a name told me that she could tell I was a person who loves. I'd have changed my name to Ntondo, legally, but it would have confused everybody in my life even more. So I tattooed my African name, not on my skin, but on my heart. I tattooed my little namesake's face on my scarred heart, too, and I still pray for her, the sweet, magnificent child who agreed in heaven to a life full of far more suffering than I would ever see.

You'd think I'd have settled this matter, but no. This is me we're talking about, the girl who changes names to the rhythms of all my life's shifting seasons. And you may wonder why I've spent so much time telling you about my names, rather than telling you that I am a mother, a writer, a Catholic convert and an emerging new monastic urban abbess, as well as a soul friend to many. But those are just facts. But when I say my name is Claudia; it means lame, but intelligent; when I say my name is Mair, a bad girl gone good; when I say I used to be Seshine, a woman child full of sunshine, who flowered in a very shitty life; and I used to be Kai, because despite the fact that I was denied love by a man who should have cherished and protected me, I found a way to find love my damned self, and it's just sad that I had to do it in such a stealthy way. And now I'm Claudia again, lame, but intelligent, and I'm okay with that most days, even though I still prefer Mair. Once I bemoaned my name to a woman I met at a conference, and she told me something I will never forget. She said, if you are lame, you will have to be carried.

So, here I am. My name is Claudia, in God's arms. Sometimes I'm a broken little girl he carries, a lamb on her shepherd's shoulders. Sometimes, I'm a woman, swept into the ravishing embrace of my divine lover. Be I child, or lover, I'm always being carried in his arms, broken, but held. That's who I am. That's what I agreed to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Claudia explains everything.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Good Grief

For the last week I've been asleep. I am not being metaphorical. I've slept a week away with a knot in my stomach, a Ken shaped hole in my heart, and a head full of confusion. The doctor said I had a stomach virus, but I think, in my own way, I was sitting Shiva for my truly dead marriage.

When you sit Shiva you don't go anywhere. Your week of mourning absolves you from duty. You cover the mirror. Personal appearance means nothing in this sacred time. Your brave face can be saved for when you venture back into life. If you grieve well, you may find you aren't just wearing a mask of courage. You earned it, even though it cost a lot.

In traditional Jewish homes you light a tall candle and let it burn. My candle was my wounded soul, grazing the hem of Christ's garment, with the battered fingertips I hurt trying to claw my way out of sorrow. It's over. My marriage is really over, I thought, again and again, as the harsh reality buffetted me. Some people said I'd be relieved once I decided to move forward with the divorce, but I only felt sad, and that ache demanded expression, even if it had to look like a virus.

It's good grief, however, even if I only now realize that I have been indeed, grieving. Grief is necessesary. Eventually I will take off the garments of mourning. I will put my eyeliner and mascara on again. I will slide the frosted pink gloss across my lips, or maybe even the more dramatic maroon. I will clean the house, and put together the dining room table I got from Walmart, even though I swore I'd never buy assemble-it-yourself furniture again. I will create a life, the one I long for. God keeps giving me signs that this new life is Yes! Yes, yes, yes! It won't be easy becoming, but it will be good, because finally, FINALLY! I'm taking responsibility for the care and feeding of my life, which includes my peeps, my desires, my challenges, and my life's work. To hell, literally, with depression and anxiety, and this idea that I cannot do what is basic, fundamental, to live the life of abundance Jesus said he came for me to have. It's time to get up and uncover the mirror, seeing the beautiful stranger looking back at me. Hello, pretty lady, where have you been all my life? It's time to wash, and extinguish my desperation, beginning again. God loves me. I can do more than cling to a hem. I can hug my Beloved.

My friend Shanna sent me this poem, and the subject line for her message was: your full moon. I always loved a full moon, especially when it comes with gifts.

If God is saying yes to me, I'm answering the call with my own yes. And hey, sorry I disappeared for so long. I'll try to do better. Much better.

God Says Yes to Me
By Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Yes backatcha, God.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Is It Possible...

...that ten days have passed since I blogged? I know I have worked a lot. Work can be consumning. Other issues challenge me, too.

I am really experiencing God in new, unpredictable ways. That alone is disorienting. Not only did I start reading The Cloud of Unknowing on my iPad's Kindle App, I also downloaded it from Audible, and listen too it, but dude! Dooooood!!! I haven't scratched the surface of this text. It's DEEP!

There's more. I'm grieving the end of my marriage profoundly, wildly experiencing all the stages of grief. I was particularly good at denial, until my dreams shrieked, "LOOK!" What I see breaks my heart, and of course it calls for deeper reflection. Why did I not see all along? How great my capacity for self-deception is.

I feel like I'm being overhauled. I can't sleep, or concentrate. Yet, despite my sorrow, I'm not as organically depressed as usual in the winter. Vitamin D and that light box works! So, being in some ways more awake and alert than ever, the hard work of building a life without Ken looms ahead, and I've got to step over a lot of debris to get there. I keepmtrying to get back here to you. Life keeps tripping me up, but I'm here now. I'm sorry a out all my mess.

Another good thing happened, after a prophetic blast from my brt Mari Lynn, I gave myself permission to write badly. It would seem God wishes me to write the memoir. Mari said stopmtrying to be cute, and name it The Naked Pregnant Woman in the Yard, and go ahead and deal with the domestic violence I've endured, and what I learned that broken, beaten, vulnerable women need to hear. So, I wrote last night, a whopping thousand words. This is miraculous, since the most I've been able to eek out for months has been eighty-three words (other than my inconsistent morning pages). It's really very crappy. Thanks, Anne Lamott, for
letting me know that's okay. I wrote in a very conversational style, as if I was sitting on my red sofa chatting with a friend. It really sucks, but it's a start, which beats the heck out of a stall. So, without further ado...

By Claudia Mair Burney


The Naked Pregnant Woman in the Yard? Now there's a title for a book. What's worse is I didn't use it choose it purely as a devise to pique your curiosity. I happen to be her: the naked... well, you know.
Wow. Did you see that? I didn't want to say the lady was, no is, me. I've been almost twenty years removed from those colorless, lost years, yet it's still hard to own my experiences during that stormy time. Even now I feel the inner scars from those days, imprinted on my soul like brands of shame. The scars don't burn or ache anymore, although at times they go numb. Most of the time I barely notice the unsightly lumps of unfortunate history I bear in my body. Time and a good God have done a lot of healing in me. I'm not whole, but I'm heartily grateful.
May I be completely honest? The truth is I never wanted to write this book. That doesn't mean I didn't tell this story more times than I can count. It would slip out in whispers during late night chats with intimate friends, or unintentionally shoot out of my mouth at lunch, landing like a bit of food on my coworkers, who politely hide their discomfort.
I blogged some of my story once, a spontaneous response to a triggered memory. I had been watching some talk show on television. The subject was domestic violence. I don't even know what was said to break the dam and release the flood of tears that poured out of me for hours. I only know one moment, like the studio audience, I was hissing and booing an abuser, and the next I back in that yard, alone, bewildered, and unspeakably vulnerable. I cried for hour, and then all over my keyboard, but I wrote. I had to.
Turns out that blog post, and a few other of my most painful stories, ended up in a manuscript one of my best friends and truest soul sisters, Mari Lynn Griffith, was shopping to a publisher. Her agent, Wendy Lawton read the early draft of SistahFaith. Later I met her at an awards banquet, and she told me what an honor it was the meet the naked pregnant woman in the yard. She had a visceral response as she read my story, she said. I was mortified, but once you've been thrown outside a few times with nary a stitch of clothing, your tolerance for embarrassing moments grows exponentially.
According to Mari, others who read my story, or heard it from her when she did interviews promoting the book, wanted to know how I fared in life after such a wounding incident. More poking and prodding from God and others to write a memoir followed. It was time to tell my story. All of it. So here I am.
That brings me to you, dear reader. At the risk of sounding like a tele-evangelist, I don't think you're reading this by accident. Perhaps you've found yourself in a situation in which you too have been tossed out on the wrong side of love, without a cloak of goodness to cover you. You wonder how you got there, and even more, how you can escape with some scrap of dignity leftover to build a new life with. Maybe you've been beaten. Repeatedly. Perhaps, as it was in my own tragic circumstances, all signs point to your inevitable death at your beloved's hands. You aren't the deer staring at the headlights. Baby, you're the one who can smell the rubber from the tires because they're about to roll over you. But for the life of you, quite literally, you can't figure out how urgent the matter is, and how you must get up and go. Now!
Maybe you think you're not that bad off. The assaults to your person aren't the physical kind. Perhaps the person you love the most in the world has changed your name to bitch, and made it their job to tell you exactly what breed you are. I've been stupid bitch, crazy bitch, and was fat bitch for a very long time. And yes, I know I just said the "b" word three times, which will shock some. But perhaps not you, because you've been called out of your name so often you've lost count. Not that it doesn't cut. It does, every single time, even the times you don't that you're bleeding.
Please allow me to apologize in advance. I wanted the writing here to be gorgeous and evocative: Toni Morrison meets Annie Dillard, with a little Anne Lamott thrown in to break the tension. Every time I sat down at my computer to write that way the words would flee, leaving me stupefied and blinking at a blank Word document. I couldn't even come up with a title. Mari Lynn finally snapped me out of my stupor. "It's called The Naked Pregnant Woman in the Yard, because that's what you are!" She's right. Mari Lynn is always right when it comes to book titles. And, she knows me well, me and my hard stories.
So if you don't mind that this memoir is not going to be a staggering work of literary genius, please keep reading. There's a lot I need to tell you, and it won't be easy. That's why I'm going to try to keep my words as naked of pretense as I found myself that day on a strange front lawn so long ago.
Everything you'll read here is true, but I'm going to change names and locations, timelines, and even the details of some events to protect the man who, ironically, did little to protect me. I suppose if you worked hard enough you could figure out who he is. Why bother? Rafael has reaped the harvest from the seeds he's sown.
What I'm going to share emerges from among my most painful memories. In some cases God granted me the mercy of forgetfulness. Other memories have been blunted, or erased by chronic depression which, over time, impairs all of one's cognitive functions. What I can promise you is that I will write with stark naked honesty to the best of my ability. Think of this as you would any good story, be it fairytale, novel, or fledgling spiritual memoir, it doesn't have to be factual to be full of truth.
With that said, sit back and relax as if you were in my living room, sitting on the red sofa, now worn and pilled. I'll begin with a little backstory. You should at least know who exactly who you're talking to before you see me with my clothes off.

So, what do you think, lovies?


Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Year of Unknowing

Every year, just before the new year, like many of my spiritual friends I seek God for a guiding word to accompany me on the journey. To be honest, I hadn't thought much about it this holiday season, as my shifting family life, work and--Lordy mercy!--seasonal affective disorder crowded my brain. Despite my dismal lack of focus I've had occasions to surf the net, especially in my post iPad life. Oh, how easy it is to consume web content now. And when I'm groovin' the ginormous in cyberspace, I don't think about the writer's block that's been ailing me. I was reading Chrstine Valters Paintners blog recently, and came across a thoughtful post about letting a word choose you, when suddenly the word "unknowing" seized me by the shoulders, compelling me to look it right in the face. "You've gotta be kidding, God," was my inward response.

I have to admit, unknowing sounds a little more ominous than peace, joy, or my personal favorite, love. It requires radical trust from go. Actually, it demands crazy trust long before you pack a bag and roll out with it. Now that think about it, unknowing whispers like a kind soul mama, "Baby, you don't need nothin' for this journey." But you know me, Mair needs a little hand holding, or at least a reliable guide for this trip that promises to be a trip. My companion will be Paraclete Press' THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING. I love, love, love their contemporary English translations, this one edited by Bernard Bangley.

I have read only a short compilation of passages from the Cloud, and that was years ago. I don't remember much, so essentially I'll be starting over. A little research today, via Wiki, revealed this:

"The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection, but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts, except the love of God, under a "cloud of forgetting", and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart."

Friends, if the idea of a cloud of unknowing sounds a little unsettling, that cloud of forgetting sounds pretty incredible. Last night, before I toasted in the new year, I said goodbye to 2010. It was one hell of a year that felt marked by more failure and fear than triumphant victories--though there were a few (Xavier University LA's Institute for Black Catholic Studies!). I'm not sad to see such a hard year go. I've lost my beloved. If I didn't see the failure of my marriage coming, the Lord did, and this call to unknowing sounds to me like an invitation to a rendezvous.

Tonight, as I consider contemplative prayer, which I assume is the heart of THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, I'm thinking not so much of stripping all thoughts away, but rather offering them to my good Lover as if they were a gift. I imagine myself lying supine, like the Shulamite woman in the Song of Songs, dark and lovely, with a lover enraptured enough to lie all night between my breast. And I will embrace my Jesus, my house--not just my body, but my mental faculties--all stilled, as St. John of the Cross wrote so beautifully about in his luminous poem, The Dark Night. This, to me, is contemplative prayer.

The year of Unknowing? Bring it on!

In Love,