A few weeks ago, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a day. I stopped for about twelve hours between night buses to see the sights, including a beautiful, vibrant mosque near the center of town. I did some online research on dress protocol beforehand: cover your skin, wear something on your head, take your shoes off. Nothing unexpected. I had a scarf and a maxi skirt in my backpack for this purpose. I was happy to be respectful, and excited for a new experience. I arrived at the mosque, circled around to the front, and . . . walked away. I felt nervous, suddenly, and upset.
My mama allows it could've been rape
and it might've, you know, unsettled her mind.
Grandma, who's lived with us since grandpa died,
declares she's just a little whore,
probably with some low-ranking Roman,
who's trying to hide her dirty skirts behind blasphemy.
Either way, my mama says, I should watch and remember
how easy a girl becomes trash and has to leave town,
probably for good,
and you can bet her little bastard won't be around
to take care of her when she's old.
With vivid emotional clarity, I can remember standing helplessly before the chalkboard, crying in front the entire fourth grade class as I struggled to overcome the enigma of a long division problem. Any student would've been humiliated, but one reason I found it so hurtful as a boy was because a woman was making me cry. As a boy who was just learning the chauvinistic norms of my school, somewhere deep inside I knew it was especially embarrassing when a woman made you cry.
We spent many years of our marriage and raised our sons in a church that sought to form men into manly Christian leaders and women into submissive followers. Thankfully, we realized that model didn’t make sense for our marriage or for our sons.
Words are my gift to my son, a gift many men do not grow up with. Instead, they are taught that emotions are silly or effeminate and should therefore be ignored (or at least restrained). These men now struggle with anger and health issues that don’t seem to have any clear causes.
No one ever warned us that we might have a child whose response to every disappointment would be perpetually set to Defcon One. We had one laid-back, happy son, and we thought we understood what little boys needed and how they behaved. Boys, we were always told, are resilient. They don’t express themselves verbally. Not only did Jon seem to feel every slight and stumble at a magnification of ten, he had absolutely no problem letting the world know about it. It was embarrassing.