Religion Dispatches email@example.com is one of my automated email feeds. This morning the superscript read: “Defending Celibacy | Pussy Riot, Interrupted.” I figure that’s the universe talking to me, so I’m going to respond. (Actually, it was two article titles, which you can read for yourself since I’m only using the juxtaposition.) As it happens, the Edge topic that also came automatically was about “disfluency.” http://edge.org/conversation/disfluency The Aussie explainer, Adam Alter, had just enough of an accent to require careful attention to this difficult topic, which is about “metacognition,” that is, the thinking behind or under the actual thought, or the thought that is the feeling of thinking about this subject.
Of course, I DO feel defensive about my celibacy since the surface social explanations are:
1. That I’m a prude.
2. That I don’t get any offers.
3. That I’m frigid.
4. That I’m judgmental.
5. That I’m over-disciplined.
6. That it would do me good to participate in a pussy riot.
7. That I’m the only one in the room who is like this.
When I try to explain that in my twenties, which was the calendrical world’s Sixties, I had a wild, riotous, even legendary erotic life, though it was only with one man, their eyes and attention wander off to memory or movie fantasy, and that’s the end of communication. They don’t want to hear about the care (and good luck) I took in choosing how to end my literary/imaginary sex life with adventures in a physical life. It WAS exotic, it WAS romantic, it was not very secret, and some people found it disgusting -- not because it was outside marriage but because of the age difference between us, which was part of the safety element. There was a time window: it was before HIV-AIDS and there was a blossoming sub-culture that felt there was no such thing as bad sex except in terms of limiting it too much.
All this in the past was much easier for people to understand (though some people -- both sexes -- interpret it as an invitation) than my present cloistered celibacy, and for some of the same reasons. First, they haven’t really done it themselves. Second, they don't get that I do NOT want interference. I don’t want people “straightening up” my house so I can’t find things in the piles of paper, I don’t want my books reshelved in new places, I don’t want my cats to attach to anyone else, I resent any use of my time that is not for my own ends, I don’t want the drain on money that many invitations require in terms of getting there or properly dressing or returning the favor. I don’t want people telling me what to read or insisting on washing my dishes for me without knowing my protocol or . . .
Most of the middle-class educated people who get interested in visiting assume that all my appliances will work, that I will remove cat hair from the chairs, that my doors will have keys, that there is plenty of hot water, that my pantry is stocked with standard things, and so on. Some of the younger suburban ones will walk into the house, go straight to the fridge without asking to look for canned soft drinks or beer and be shocked that there is nothing there except a bit of skim milk. (In summer, peanut butter jars of iced tea.) The older visitors may be shocked by the strength of my coffee and my inability to remember where I put the sugar since I never use it.
That’s not about sex but it’s a way of explaining (maybe) that I don’t pick up the standard memes about intimacy. It’s not the physical or moral side of it, but the assumptions in subtle ways, a kind of disfluency on both sides. What gets me hot and excited is not even on their map, because it’s the intimacy of ideas. When they invite themselves to look through my bookshelves and find some of the publicly censored things there, THEY go into “pussy riot” mode and allow themselves overdisclosure. (Check out Adam’s talk.) To them it’s permission. They assume sharing. They leap to fantasy. Oh, sigh.
Disfluency is part of my counter-phobia, since mysterious, difficult things always attract me. The same perceptions that has white city tourists rolling up their windows and locking the doors when they drive through Browning has me out crossing vacant lots to talk to guys sharing a brown-bagged bottle against an alley fence. I have weak boundaries, which distresses some people. Not every drunk wants some curious female approaching unless they’re bringing money. So I’ve learned to create “rule-based” boundaries which sometimes fail me. I mean, when people ask me to make a boundary (yes, they do), I don’t always understand or remember where to put it. Cloistering is a natural boundary. Like never drinking.
Disfluency is also what contributes to my fascination with the “mysterium” of religion. Sadly, not the boring stuff about budget and housekeeping. My idea of sharing is liturgical, patterned, Alter would say “distanced.”
The meta-experience of learning to read was erotic for me: physical, accessing a new reality. This welcome response remains for difficult reading, but not for the predictable and cozy stuff. Same with movies. Alter suggests disfluency allows departure from reality to new realms of imagination and I don’t think I’m alone, which explains the popularity of sci-fi, though some of the fantasy tropes are beginning to be tiresome. But teaching these days in small towns seems to be intended to reassure everyone that learning is safe, controlled by a workbook that leads the student along to the right answers so everyone has a good grade and parents are pleased by the uniformity. They ought to be alarmed.
How many times do we have to be reminded that it’s the PROCESS, the fishing, the necessity of designing the strategy? No wonder that street kids -- once they have food, shelter, clothing, and health care -- are a lot smarter than the average honor society member.
The actual Religion Dispatches article by Kate Blanchard notes Kathleen Norris’s book “The Cloister Walk” which discusses “‘vowed celibacy’ (along with vows of poverty and obedience) as embodied forms of ‘radical doubt’—a powerful way to question the assumptions of society, to challenge given norms.” Abstention as protest. Norris is a prairie writer, so people often assume that I admire her. I don’t. There’s a lot of difference between a celibate Montana retired non-theist minister and a married South Dakota theist writer who hangs around monasteries. But in the case of celibacy, I’m in agreement, even though she’s talking about Catholic clerical discipline and I’m talking about a personal practice, no vows. The point of discipline is to focus -- which is not the same thing as making boundaries because focus is going toward a center, not forbidding to cross the edge. I guess we both do that.
Self-determined discipline is negotiable, but clerical obedience is not. (Except in practice, as we note among some who find it optional.) My celibacy, like the pussy riot of my youth, is organic, part of who I am in my ordinary routine life. Changing it would mean a change in focus -- not breaking any vows. It would be difficult, but that could make it more interesting. So far, no fantasy suggests a good reason.