by So Mayer
The first time I saw God I was eight years old.
I am writing this while – holding our breaths – we all watch the Washington-Pyongyang yoyo, waiting for the lightning to strike.
In a dark wood, I had strayed from the path.
It wasn’t exactly a wood, and I was still on the gravel, but the night was dark and tree-filled and I was hopelessly lost and scared, and the wind was in the leaves, in the roaring sky, above me.
I was running – had been running, full tilt, tilting (that is) into hypoxia, a result of the combination of complete and absolute terror, and being born prematurely, with both under-developed lungs and asthma.
So take this story with a pinch of potential brain function impairment.
Not this bit though: we were playing Holocaust.
I was at a Jewish summer camp for two weeks, in a rambling old boarding school somewhere in East Sussex, near Bexhill. The adult supervisors were having a night off, and we had been left in the charge of the teenage counsellors (who, at nineteen, seemed impossibly grown-up and sophisticated to me).
We’d roasted vegetarian sausages and baked potatoes around an immense bonfire in one of the back fields of the school, and been given our share of Jewish ghost stories by its lurid light: the golem of Prague, the dybbuk.
And then it was time to run.
We were (playing, although at eight the distinction is not strict, and anyway how is this play?) Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the counsellors (dressed in black and carrying – I think – rounders bats) were Nazis rounding us up. We were split up into small groups, and told we had to make it back into the school, to a specific classroom where the ghost stories would be finished, to be safe – and the main and side doors were patrolled by other counsellors, who were on the lookout to catch us.
If we were caught… Threat, and a rounders bat, and history, hang in the air.
I’d been separated, in headlong flight, from my group of temporary friends, and found myself with two older campers I didn’t really know. They were maybe fourteen or fifteen, not much younger than the counsellors, but far older than me in that way teenagers are, yet as terrified as we primary school kids had been. A girl and a boy.
We were running past tall hedges overtopped by summer-crowned oak trees with leaves like dark, reaching hands, down a gravel path that the boy thought for sure led to the school. The girl, fleet and tall, was running ahead, whispering fiercely back to us to keep up.
And then she wasn’t.
She was on the ground, pale and still.
Her boyfriend took off to ‘get help’, leaving me – a pre-teen – alone in the dark with an unconscious person. She had run straight into the steel arm that barred the path (which was, of course, the school’s driveway) to cars, and gone down hard, backwards. She was still breathing. She was bleeding. I covered her with my terrible grey coat, which I loved and my mother hated, a factory second from a friend of my parents who was a schmatte merchant (their term).
It was a typical English August, cold and damp and fierce with wind.
It was Warsaw in 1943. It was sixteenth-century Prague. It was York, 1190. It was the Pale, on fire, again and again.
It was timeless, suspended in terror: night, cold words of prayer.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
It’s the first prayer that a Jewish child learns, a credo much like the Lord’s Prayer or the Shahada.
Said daily in synagogue, it is also the prayer that one is supposed to use to call on God in a time of need – which is odd, because it addresses Israel (the global and historical Jewish community), not God.
Words given to the dark, one by one, on short, burning bursts of breath.
My ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents called God Hashem, meaning ‘the Name.’ Even the appellation Adonai, ‘my master,’ was too sacred for them to utter in casual conversation, let alone God’s true name: the tetragrammaton, Yehava [more usually transliterated as Yahweh]. In Jewish legend, the golem, a man of clay, was animated by a paper in his mouth that bore this secret name of God. I’ve come to think of the great ossified colossus of their faith as animated in the same way.
— Leah Vincent, ‘How to Digest Sludge’
I haven’t said the Shema in getting on for three decades. When I wake from recurrent nightmares (in which I am not infrequently Anne Frank, although no-one else knows or believes me), it no longer springs to my tongue, defence against the dark.
But I remember it, with the deep muscle memory of childhood repetition in synagogue and Hebrew school and dark bedrooms. Training – now I look back – for holy war.
When asked what I consider to be the scariest film I’ve ever seen, I always answer Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, 2006). Religious instruction is the apocalypse it so desperately wants to take place, and children are, mercilessly, its victims.
spaces (and discourses) claiming to be feminist should be spaces where the autonomy, consent and dignity of all people are upheld and respected… every place that children enter should be a place where they are respected as people.
- Caitlin McGregor, ‘Kids are Gross’: On Feminists and Agency
What would it mean for us to believe the stories that children tell?
What does it mean that, from the perspective of 39, with this memory seared into my consciousness, I’m not even sure that I believe myself.
That night, when God came toward me out of the darkness, or of the darkness, what I saw was light: bright silver, slender, a blazing gap in the world that resolved itself into the helmed figure of Joan of Arc.
I have never, until now, told anyone that I’d seen God in the person of a French teenage girl/warrior/witch.
But I remember it.
I don’t remember what happened to the girl who ran into the pole (although I remember her being alive and fine in the days that followed), or what happened to my coat, or how I got back into the school. I remember crouching under a desk in the desiccated classroom where I heard a version of the story of Rabbi Judah Loew and his golem.
I don’t remember the story, but I remember the stone-mouth sensation of holding a word silent in my mouth, as the golem was said to do.
In the middle of the night, sometime between 3rd and 4th August 1981, I cried out.
I was three and very almost a half, and I had gone to the toilet, more or less in my sleep. And now I was stuck.
I cried out, and my mother didn’t come. She was (although I hadn’t quite understood this) in hospital, giving birth to brother one (of two).
There is no heroic end to this story: God did not answer my prayer, and nor did I. I did not learn resilience, or self-sufficiency, or even some elementary physics (leverage, gravity). I cried out, and my father came for me.
When Will Shagsberd says that ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,’ he comes close to the truth (sorry Wills, no cigar).
There are no gods.
There are only the wanton boys within us all. Terrified by their want – by the fact that they, too, have cried out in need – they set out to destroy ([that which reminds them of that want in] themselves).
Shevek saw that he had touching in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Shevek is an anarchist, returned to the planet that his revolutionary ancestors left, from the hardscrabble moon where he lives in a society of (and requiring, in order to function on minimal resources) full gender equality. The men he’s talking to are capitalists and socialists and scientists, both conservative and liberal, and they share a gendered belief system with flavour of the week, Google engineer and MRA James Damore (how truly surprising that Julian Assange immediately popped up to offer him a job).
How the men in The Dispossessed (and the alt.right) fear that fury that they have made by caging her within themselves. How much they want her to emerge and – sword between her couture-swathed shoulder blades – punish them, deliciously.
My favourite story about a god, who is also a female-embodied warrior with a complex gender identity, is this.
…when still a little girl, sitting upon her father’s knees, [Artemis] spoke in this childish way to her father: ‘Gimme virginity, Daddy, to preserve forever, and to be called by many names, so that Phoebus may not rival me. And gimme arrows and bows… and [let me] be a light-bearer and… hitch up my tunic with a fringed border as far as my knees, so that I may kill wild beasts… Gimme all the mountains, and any city, whichever you wish. For it is rare when Artemis will go down to a town. I’ll dwell in the mountains.’
— Callimachus, ‘Hymn to Artemis’, translated by Susan A. Stephens
This is no Diana Prince.
Hitching her tunic (a non-gendered garment) to her knees, Artemis refuses the grown-up pudicity of ankle-skimming classical Athenian women’s dress. It’s a tomboy call resonates still.
Stephens’ cheeky use of ‘gimme’ for Callimachus’ slangy δος is not incidental. What Artemis gives, especially to young women, is shelter. Her ‘virginity’ is something other than (more than) what we think of: it is to not be defined (as women otherwise were) by the sexual. It is ασυλον (from which: asyulm), inviolability. It is not a cage, but its opposite.
Way back in ghost (q.v.), I suggested that poltergeists might be our adult selves who, having survived, stepping back through time to both give evidence and bear witness to (and for) our younger selves.
Gods don’t seem much different to me, although they work inversely: a child, terrified by their vulnerability, imagines the adult they will become.
Vengeful, it seems. All-powerful, with that saccharine soupçon of mercy that is another form of absolute sway, in always demanding abject gratitude.
We get the gods that, culturally, we deserve, and so Eurowestern HPCC scares itself with a white male thunderer made in its impotent wish-fear image.
What stepped out of the darkness, to me, as Jeanne la Pucelle, leader of the French resistance, condemned to death (as Marina Warner argues in Alone of All Her Sex, reading court transcripts) for her Artemisian sartorial, physical and intellectual gender transgression?
No longer silenced or bestialized. Although she was imprisoned, she remained eloquent and self-confident until the end, whether talking to her judges or her confessor.
Jeanne is neither #ThisGirlCan nor patriarchy’s erotic fantasy of revenge. She is ασυλον. A figure of possibility, unossifying.
In a moment of deep fear – fear for my life, for another’s life – perhaps what I found (rushing wind; fitful moonlight) was, conversely, freedom.
Not perversely: I wasn’t getting off on the thrill of the drama, or wallowing in an operatic death wish. I cried out because, in feeling this specific, utterly embodied, identifiable and immediate fear, I was strangely set free from (and simultaneously aware of) the constant, unnameable dread I had lived as my everyday. Because here I was kneeling by irrefutable evidence of the violence that fear could do, of what domination drove people to. Breathless, yes, but I could bear witness.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One – and the Lord didn’t do shit to stop this.
I owe him no allegiance. His existence is no longer a philosophical issue, it’s moot. It (and he) matters not a jot, not a tittle.
What matters here is this: wind, this night, this body. This girl, these girls. This ground, of everything.
We have expended so much of our human energy on making gods, and then making those gods’ wars, inside, as much as outside, us. And then on fighting the gods we created, denying them, destroying them. And telling all three of those stories – creating, fighting, destroying – as heroic narratives.
What could we do, other-wise, wise to other possibilities, with that energy? People love Sara Ahmed’s phrase FEMINIST KILLJOY, and it does look good on a glittery necklace (thank you, Jenny), but they don’t often listen for what may not fit on the necklace, but comes next:
Killing joy as a world-making project.
By which I do not mean ‘be a god.’ If we unmake the gods, we need to unmake them in ourselves, most of all.
What would it look like, as a human, to take part in the slow project of making a world? It would look (re-reading The Dispossessed) like hard fucking never-ending work. I’ve spent eighteen months trying to make – recycle, salvage, filter, detoxify, live in the ruins of (waste q.v.) – one single human self, and that’s been hard enough.
But then I remember: we are already working all the time, expending everything we are just to uphold the toxic apocalyptic godhead. Working in and being worked by our (EuroWestern) culture/s, our institutions, even our language (remember also that in English a man is a penis is a weapon). No wonder we are all so tired all the time.
Time to stop. To rest (q.v.), to believe there is the rest – the more that has to be possible. To fall to our knees and be. Vulnerable, inviolable: there is no contradiction.
When I stopped running, when I fell into the classic pose of supplication (not a Jewish one, but I’d read my Greek myths and knew how to Thetis it when necessary), when I let myself cry out, give sound to my need and fear, it was not God who came to me.
It was a girl (archaic sense: child of any gender) like me.
They bore no lightning because they were the lightning.
They had no destruction to offer, nor any resurrection. No promise to make, no sacrifice to take. Nothing but to bear witness, with me, to injury and to fear, and – despite them, within them – to our continued existence, in relation to each other, in the face of violence and domination.
Persistence, a fact of being. In the world, breath by ragged breath. We were. We are.
So Mayer is a writer, bookseller and organiser. Their most recent book is A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula, 2020), and their work has appeared in On Relationships (3ofCups, 2020), At the Pond (Daunt, 2019) and Spells (Ignota, 2018), among others. They work with Burley Fisher Books, queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes, and campaigners Raising Films. @Such_Mayer