Jizoo Boodah

Lil’ Monkey’s most favorite talisman at the moment is the Jizo Bodhisattva. She has a hard time with the mouthful “bodhisattva,” and has settled on the misnomer “Buddha”; “Jizo” itself comes out more like “Jizoo.” [Update: “bodhisattva” is now approximated by “bodhi’s office.”] Jizoo Boodah has a swing to it, though, and for this reason, plus Monkey’s being 1.75 yrs. old, we let her pronunciation stand.

I was given this beautiful statuette from my Mother Out-Law (hereafter MOL), following a meditation retreat she’d done at Great Vow Monestary in far northwestern Oregon. Jizo means lots of things to lots of people—for Wikipedeophiles, their entry focuses on its pan-Asian, pan-Buddhist range of meanings; for bibliophiles, Jan Cozen Bays’ Jizo Bodhisattva was the volume my MOL recommended to me. The thumbnail sketch accompanying the statuette reads:

Jizo figures are placed at crossroads in Japan to guide those who travel in both the spiritual and physical realms. Jizo has special significance to pregnant women and to those whose children have died. Jizo is usually portrayed as a child-monk, often carrying a pilgrim’s ringed staff which jingles to warn animals of his approach and prevent mutual harm. Jizo also carries the wish-fulfilling jewel of the Dharma whose light banishes all fear.

The occasion for this gift was the one-year anniversary of my nephew’s death. (It will be another decade entirely before I can write those two words—nephew and death—in sequence without an involuntary, huge, intake of breath.) Jizo rests on my meditation altar, alongside an old brass Buddah statue that my Christian missionary great-grandmother brought back from China around the turn of the last century (ironic! and true!); a picture of my mother taken by me with my first Brownie camera, circa 1975; a shark keychain my nephew Erik gave me after his Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Hawai’i; and a small, well-worn piece of the Western or al-Buraq Wall that an old therapist gave me, from her year in Jerusalem.

The E-Z, on-the-ground access of my meditation altar means that the objects on it often find themselves relocated to other spots around the house by the Lil’ Monkey, a neat exersise for me in non-attachment.

The death of a loved one, in stark contrast, is a sprawling, untidy exersise in non-attachment. It possesses the gentleness of a swimming pool bully holding your head underwater while the lifeguard isn’t looking, keeping you down just long enough to rattle the living daylights out of you, but not enough to actually cause you to expire.

Am still working on both lessons, small and large, and expect to for the duration.

The Jizo, talisman of the crossroads, is an apt symbol for my own parenthood, which is marked phenomenally by the crossroads of life and death (and, much more modestly, by the crossroads of biological and nonbiological, female and male parenthood). When Erik was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, on the eve of my beloved’s third trimester, we were a galaxy away from recognizing, much less accepting, what was very, very, very likely to come. But when my oldest and dearest friend’s partner was killed on our daughter’s six-week birthday—the day we were to have a Welcome to the World party for her—it simply became impossible to not see. Life/death life/death beginning/ending happiness/sorrow blessing/curse bliss/despondancy here/gone tick/tock tick/tock.

When my little one walks around with Jizoo Boodah, when she wraps it lovingly in a blanket of dinner napkins and puts it to sleep in her crib, I worry that it’s a sign that she’ll go early, too. I mean, why would she attach so strongly to it? It’s shiny and hard. Then again, when she walks around with nothing whatsoever in her hands I worry that she’ll go early. My job: to massage this worry so deeply into my tissues that it transforms itself, leaving as its only trace a radiant sheen of gratitude on the surface.

Who’s the daddy?

Like most lesbian parents, I think a lot about fatherhood. I think about fatherhood, and about masculinity, not just around the occasion of Father’s Day, but all the time. I think about what my own father has offered me, distinct from what my mother has; I think about what his father gave him, and what he didn’t.

Father’s Day is an important day in my family, certainly, because my partner and I both love and are deeply indebted to our fathers. After all, it was my Pops who taught me how to dance, how to banter, how to charm the ladies — and how to be an optimist. But when we celebrate our own generation, Father’s Day is important for different reasons than you’d find in a two-parent, hetero one. Fathers are always present, even in their absence, and more so for us who, by eschewing men as significant others, raise a few more eyebrows — or hackles — than do straight single mothers by choice.

Lesbian families are walking paternity questions, in a way. We ask each other “Who’s the daddy?” all the time, though it’s usually more like “Who’s the donor?” We ask because the answer to the who question entails a big how answer, and how we got to our parenthood is a big deal for most of us. When others who aren’t queer ask me the paternity questions (usually with the graciousness that accompanies questions that are, after all, good-naturedly voyeruistic) I, for one, answer with the cheery, practiced diplomacy of a museum docent. And with no resentment. I get it that that’s what I am at this point in the history of the American family: docent to the early 21st century lesbian wing of it, and it behooves me to enlighten everyone who shares my child’s world.

Father’s Day is important to my partner and me because we couldn’t have done this alone, couldn’t have graduated from “relationship” (the two of us) to “family” (the three of us and counting) if it weren’t for the generosity of a man we know and now most certainly love. So on Father’s Day we thank him — but not for being the father of our kid; he’s plenty occupied with his own two delightful daughters. We thank him, rather, for enabling me to do so. Be the father of our kid, that is. Because in our family, on Father’s Day, we celebrate me.

Oh, I share some paternity with our donor. His “fatherhood” is strictly biological, though, and while its impact is life-long, in the genetic memory of our child, the work he put into it was relatively modest. My “fatherhood” of our child is strictly social, invisible to the state until petitioned for as a would-be “second parent,” and marginally visible to many even afterwards. But it is the result of an accretion of daily work on my part, ever-changing and, I pray, lasting my entire life. The older our daughter gets, the more I’ll learn about what my sort of lesbian fatherhood means, to me and to her. Right now, it’s not so complicated.

Right now, I’m simpy “Baba,” a term or diminutive for father borrowed from at least a half-dozen other languages. When my partner and I read with her, we randomly alternate between Baba and Papa when we name what’s written as the father (though, blessedly, Grace Lin has a written and illustrated a series of books depicting a Chinese American family that uses the Chinese word “Baba” for the Dad; needless to say we have ’em all). Precocious little monkey that she is, our daughter will soon be able to notice that “Daddy” is what’s written in most books, not Baba. At that point we’ll have choice number one, of the dozens and dozens we’ll face in the Baba vs. Papa pantheon. We could simply stop checking out books from the library and only buy our own, which we’d mug on the way home from the bookstore and hastily graffiti with “Baba” all over the “Dad” parts. As time and circumstances permit, we might even keep a packet of those little electronic labeller printouts handy. Armed with scores of pre-printed “Babas,” we could affix the proper term neatly on any printed surface, whenever needed.

But who knows how much we’ll really need it? I’ve found that kids are far less derailed than we grown-ups are by the inter-gendered truths that they experience. At least the kids who know me all understand that Baba means “parent midway between Mother and Father.” I overheard my youngest nephew correct his dad when he heard him referring to the child of the two lesbian parents across the street. His dad said something to the effect of Norrie having “two moms,” to which Clayton immediately demured, “No, Daddy; Norrie has a Mama and a Baba.” Which happens to be true; Norrie calls Angela “Baba.” My brother-in-law smiled right away and said, “You’re right, Clayton. I stand corrected.”

In fact, Clayton, who is six, asked just a few weeks ago what will we do for Father’s Day. I got to beta test my Father’s Day spiel. Here we are in front of the dirama, here I am with arm extended, palm up, in the direction of the display. “Well, Clayton,” I said, “in our family we celebrate Baba’s Day on Father’s Day. In fact,” I hazarded, getting a little carried away with myself, “it’s internationally celebrated as Baba’s Day, for parents like me.” I paused to consider the impact of yet another, fairly typical bald-faced exaggeration, as he gave me that sweet, open, “Really?” look. “Okay, well, not yet. But one day maybe. And for now, at least in our family.” And that’s true. One family at a time, one year at a time. Nearly a hundred years ago, in Spokane, Washington, that’s how Father’s Day began. I’m patient.

Saint Joan

Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1863)

En route to the opera the other night, I saw a car whose bumper sticker read “Question Gender.” It was doubly apropos, since at that moment the beloved and I were, in our own car, talking with two friends about their son, now five years old, who questions gender daily: he has for years identified as either a girl, or as a boy who’d rather be a girl, preferring to wear girls’ clothes and asking to be addressed by a girl’s name both at home and at school. And, as it happened, we four were off to see Tchaikovsky’s rarely-produced The Maid of Orleans, a.k.a. Jeanne D’Arc, the only opera in the Western canon celebrating a sword-brandishing, dauphin-saving, cross-dressing farm gal.

I was looking forward to seeing this she-ro glorified on stage, knowing no more than the basic historic plot-line and the one well-known aria from the opera. Imagine my surprise when, after the half-time, the plot of the opera takes a severe southerly turn and Joan falls for the turncoat Duke of Burgundy. “The Duke of Burgundy?!” you ask, in horror, as you lunge to your keyboard to Google “Joan of Arc.” To which I must answer, Yes. It is he. In Tchaikovsky’s opera (for which, quite unfortunately, Tchaikovsky broke tradition and actually wrote the libretto as well) Joan falls for the Duke, on sight, on the battlefield, and she just can’t bring herself to behead him, as she knows she should. (Initially I thought she was just having a fit of pacifism and had suspended my condemnation, but no; the plot moves inexorably toward unrequitable love and away from unvanquishable heroism.)

Spoiler warning: I will now give away how the opera ends. Joan dies, burned at the stake—ah, but you knew that. What you didn’t know (unless you know the Tchaikovsky opera) is that she dies NOT for refusing to renounce that she received her marching orders directly from God his/her bad self, nor was it for refusing to take off the men’s duds she’d been sporting, the better to do God’s will out and about on the battlefiled (and, notes the scholarship[opens PDF], the better to foil sexual assault both there and in the English prison in which she lived out her last year). No, she burns to death for being unwilling to deny she’s unpure, and we are very clearly given to believe it’s her love of Burgundy, and we’re not talking the wine here, that impurifies her. I spent the last act with my mouth agape.

The aestheticized burning death of St. Joan at the end (marked by a quantity of stage smoke better suited to a Broadway production), felt particularly abominable, given what this historical figure actually died for. It couldn’t help but evoke for me the medival burning executions of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of accused witches, whose real crimes, alongside paganism, holistic healing, and irritating their neighbors, most certainly included revolutionary gender role insurgency.

It also made me think back to our friends’ son, and the consequences people have paid for transgressing gendered boundaries. I wondered what he’ll have in store for him (it matters not whither he goes with his gender), nearly seven centuries after Joan swung a broadswoard. We have a fairly rich palette of resources with which to understand and support kids like him, including, god love ‘em, a Wikikpedia entry on “genderqueer.” Still, it is heterodoxical at the least, heretical at the most, to disentangle the biological sex you’re born with from the male/female gender roles conventionally assigned to that sex. And my hunch is it’s a bigger deal adbicating male privilege, going M>F, than it is hijacking it, going F>M. But I only have my experience as a gentle-manly lesbo to go by. Brandon Teena would have a lot more to say on the matter than me, as would Gwen Araujo. They speak volumes, posthumously, and I have to believe their deaths, like Joan’s, will change the lives of those to follow.

To all of us, in the here & now and in the hereafter, I sez Go it, sister, and let the devil take the hindmost.