Sethe’s chokeberry tree was in full bloom-winding and twisting its way across her back. The first time I read Morrison’s Beloved my body ached–it was as though a vibration of identification with the violence and abuse welled up from the pit of my stomach and shook me to the foundation. In contrast, Paul D’s gentle touch was unbearably kind, and I sobbed aloud when I read the lines “finally the weight of her breasts were in someone else’s hands”. Never before had I encountered writing which embodied so graphically the numbing scars of abuse and the burden of my own sexuality.
I spent years bearing the ‘weight’ of my own desire, and the abuse inflicted upon me behind my back by oppressive systems which claimed divine authority over my heart, my body, and my mind.
I found myself in a state of significant depression while in seminary. I was a young woman with conflicting emotions and desire, angry that my reproductive organs placed my keen mind within the realm of novelty; my sexuality within the realm of the deviant. I began reading Nietzsche. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche describes a teacher who desired that his teachings be like a tree: where wind and wave and pestilence constantly tested its strength. To have teachings which could bend without breaking showed the strength of the theory. And if the tree indeed broke, then so be it! It was better to find out the theory had a weakness than for it to stand untested. When the teacher’s student hears of the teacher’s desire to be like a tree, the student cries out impetuously, “I believe in what you have to say so strongly, that I will say everything I can against it.” And the teacher laughed and said, “You are the best kind of disciple. Also the most dangerous.”
I found a way to bring back to life the deadened scarred tree limbs which ran across my own psyche: my theology could twist and bend and as long as it didn’t break–it showed strength. I began to nurture that Nietzschean tree. My theology stood test after test–I could please the most left winged feminists, as well as the most radical of the orthodox. I lived in extremes, embracing polar opposites. But after about 10 years of performing these mental gymnastics, I found that much like the North and South poles, these extremes were fun to visit–a feat to visit even–but no one lives there for good reasons as they aren’t habitable. Humans are a temperate bunch, preferring more moderate and livable climates–we need places that are habitable. And I needed a habitable theology.
I began to take seriously the mantra taught to me both by a professor and by my therapist: “Surround yourself with life-giving people in life-giving places.” If the person or circumstance in which I was engaged did not meet the criteria of ‘life-giving’–I removed it from my proximity. I decided to make this a permanent life-style choice: and tattooed the image of a tree of life on my back–so that I’d remember the various trees in my life–all of them framed by life. Intertwined within the roots of this tree are the initials of the therapist and the professor–two women who helped free me up to embrace life.