Ghazal: Psalm

The books and the prophets assure You love all.
Forgive me my crying: come show You love all.

Hate dances with ignorance, love’s shouted down.
It meekly invokes Your promise to love all.

I cling to Your command, two words that form
a vow that is, yet must become, true: love all.

Death comes for all, but vigils only mourn some.
Loose our fear-hardened minds – teach us to love all.

Forgive us our crying, we small, broken ones –
Heartsick, I cry You would reach, through love, all.

(Another ghazal.)

Ghazal: Light

To my monochrome life you radiate new light.
First stumbling, now flying, we dance into light.

I’ll stay, sheet-warmed, beside you, our bed an isle,
our room our soft seclusion of peace-hued light.

I’ll crumble looming mountains to ease your path,
rip curtains off muted stars to lend you light.

We rolled our dice, fingers crossed for perfection.
Tired of waiting, we claimed our overdue light.

Now, pen-clasping, I record my promises
to dance on hand-in-hand through darkness, through light.

(I rarely do poems for yeahwrite but the ghazal was too tempting.)

Keeping Fed

Betty stood on the snow-patched sidewalk, frozen fists clenched in her threadbare coat pockets, frowning at the new church.

Well, it wasn’t new – it was probably older than her Catholic church – but it was new to her. It looked almost as forbidding as the cathedral, despite its smaller size. Its dark, rough-hewn stone brought to mind woebegone Dickens characters, and its hulking square tower cast a cold shadow over the street. She could imagine the interior: dark wooden pews, stone walls bare aside from a cross (empty, not even a crucifix), no incense, no Mary. They would sing dour hymns (which she wouldn’t know) and endure a boring sermon (which she wouldn’t agree with).

And yet it had to be better than mass.

George had left three weeks ago. The first Sunday, she stayed home, making a plan to keep herself and their – her – four kids fed in between bouts of silent sobbing.

The second Sunday, though, they went to mass. She thought she knew what to expect – after all, everyone knew George was gone, and everyone knew Betty wouldn’t be allowed to take communion. She thought she was prepared.

She wasn’t.

She’d sat rigid in the pew, alone – except for Jim, who stayed seated with her in silent protest – staring straight ahead while her other children and everyone else took the elements. The people she’d known all her life never so much as looked at her as they passed by. Even the crucified wooden Christ seemed to avert his gaze. Unworthiness and mortification crushed her.

Thoughts and possibilities raced through her mind on the walk home: they could try the other Catholic church, they could move East, she could go back and give Reverend Stevens a piece of her mind, they could try a Protestant church, she could never try church again…

That one was the most tempting.

Initially Betty suggested they keep going to mass, but the children unanimously refused.

“If they don’t want you, we don’t want them,” was Jim’s declaration.

“Well, you’ve got to go to church somewhere.”

“No, we don’t.”

A small part of Betty agreed with him, but she told them the family would continue going to church and that was that.

She just needed to find a new church first. Easy as pie.

And here she was, reluctant to even step inside. She knew nothing about Protestant teachings – never mind being barred from communion, what if divorced women weren’t even allowed in the building? What if she had to go up in front of everyone and “confess her sins,” like the annulment tribunal had wanted her to do?

What if they find out you voted for McGovern? a voice hissed in her mind. What will they think of you letting the kids listen to Fleetwood Mac? What kind of mother are you? What kind of Christian?

Hasty footsteps brought her out of her darkening thoughts. A woman in a long plaid coat was hurrying down the sidewalk towards her, her young son trotting alongside.

“Tommy, run in and find Daddy,” the woman said, herding him towards the church. She stopped to catch her breath. Betty self-consciously adjusted her plain knitted hat, noting the woman’s faux-fur-trimmed coat and fashionable stacked-heel boots.

“He had an accident on the way here,” the woman explained with a sigh. “I try to get him to go before we leave, but he just refuses!”

“My youngest was like that,” Betty said. “Don’t worry, it won’t last long.”

“Well, thank goodness – my washing machine won’t be able to take much more!” They both laughed, which almost made Betty cry again. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled, let alone laughed.

“Are you waiting for someone?” the woman asked.

“Oh – no, I’m just –”

“First time here?”

The whole story tumbled over itself in her mind as Betty tried to sort out what to say. Finally, she simply said, “Actually, yes.”

“You want to sit with us? We’re usually in the third pew back on the right.”

“Oh! Thank you, I’ll – I’ll just be a minute.”

The woman hurried inside, leaving Betty staring at the front door.

They’ll find out, the voice whispered. They won’t want you. What church would want you?

The first chords of the organ drifted outside, tones of comfort echoing back to simple childhood and warm Christmases and her children’s baptisms. They would need this, yes – but to her surprise, Betty needed it, too.

She took a deep breath and followed the song inside.

A Sword’s Sacrifice

The court was crowded in honor of the Emperor’s birthday. Mei Min was seated with the other generals, rather than the harem, an honor she would ordinarily have treasured. Today, though, she needed to be near her Five Small Swords, the wives-turned-secret-guards she had been training, because they needed to assassinate someone.

Mei Min and Jia Fen had overheard Duke Zhongshun bragging about his planned coup: he would strike at the party. They didn’t dare tell anyone – they were mere women, and being Imperial wives and secret warriors made their motives especially suspect. The Five Small Swords were the only ones who knew of the impending danger.

But it was too risky to wait for the Duke to strike. He wouldn’t attack personally – he’d have hired an assassin, or bribed guards – but he couldn’t issue orders if he was dead. All six knew the risk of killing a nobleman with such minimal proof, but the life of their Emperor depended on their success; their honor, and their lives, would depend on his mercy.

Mei Min’s gaze darted between the crowd and her Swords. Their smiles were appropriately demure, though slightly strained. Jia Fen caught her eye with the flutter of a fan. Mei Min followed the gesture and spotted the Duke, deep in conversation.

She excused herself from the generals and made her way across the room, avoiding eye contact with the Five Small Swords even though they were watching for her signal. She hadn’t told them this was her ideal outcome: striking alone, and bearing the consequences alone, for their sake.

She slid a dagger from her sleeve as she closed in, each step a prayer for success.

Someone screamed.

Four guards had left their posts and surrounded the Emperor’s dais. Mei Min was too far away to act. She could only watch as five girls rose like vipers from their seats and struck.

They had surprise on their side, but they also had skill that could only be learned from the Guardian of Heaven herself. Mei Min seized the Duke, holding her knife to his throat, forcing him to watch as her secret guard defended their Emperor.

They were efficient: three men were killed and the fourth dropped his sword when the remaining Imperial guard surrounded him. The Emperor rose, his face a stony mask of fury. The frantic crowd quieted.

“Here is the perpetrator, Majesty,” Mei Min called, forcing the Duke forward. “There are many witnesses to his treason, including these humble wives.”

He nodded slowly. She was his fourth wife and one of his most honored generals – he trusted her. Hopefully that trust extended to the consorts who had transformed from meek wives to skilled warriors in the blink of an eye.

But before he could speak, Jia Fen fell to her knees. Deep red bloomed across her pale blue robes. The other girls surrounded her, but she reached past them towards Mei Min. By the time she reached her side, though, her friend’s spirit was gone. Her sightless eyes gazed up at the gilded ceiling.

The Small Swords wept. Even Mei Min, who had seen countless comrades die on the battlefield, felt hot tears in her throat. She hardly noticed the guards dragging the Duke away.

The Emperor was safe. And Mei Min’s worst fear had come true.

“She will be honored,” the Emperor said gravely. “Her sacrifice will be remembered.”

Mei Min remembered Jia Fen’s words, uttered only when too much drink gave her the courage: They will forget us.

“Will she?” The agonized words left her throat unbidden. The crowd murmured, stunned.

She stood and faced the Emperor. “We are but women, Your Majesty – will we really be remembered?”

He folded his arms. “You saved my life, so I will grant you a request. What is it you wish for her?”

“A statue,” she said simply. “The same as you’d give any man who served you so honorably.”

He nodded. “It is granted. ”

Mei Min bowed. “You honor us, your Majesty.”

The court buzzed like a disturbed beehive. The Swords on the dais were silent, though, as guards came to bear Jia Fen’s body from the hall. Mei Min knelt, touching the girl’s hand. Many words came to mind, but none of them seemed fitting – she was a soldier, after all, far more skilled with the sword than the pen.

But the other Swords were watching her, so she made a promise, as much to them as to Jia Fen: “They will remember.”

Faithful Swords

Mei Min lay awake long after the other consorts had gone to sleep. Rain whispered its rhythm on the roof high above, a pleasant sound that reminded her of sleeping in a tent while leading the campaign against the northern rebels. So rather than try to sleep, she reclined with her goblet of wine near the brazier, wrapped in a fur, gazing at the subtly shifting glow of the coals under the bronze and listening to the rain.

The doors to the women’s chamber opened and Jia Fen entered, escorted by guards. The Emperor had desired her that night, and while she’d gone cheerfully enough, Mei Min could see even in the gloom that the girl was crying.

“Jia,” she called softly. The guards bowed themselves out of the room, closing the red lacquered doors behind them. Jia Fen sighed and shuffled towards her, stumbling slightly. Mei Min stretched out one arm and wrapped the girl up in the fur with her. The dim light of the brazier glinted off tear tracks on her cheeks.

“You’re drunk,” Mei Min whispered, surprised.

“The Emperor had much fine wine for us to share,” she said dully. “He kept refilling my cup – how could I refuse?”

Mei Min held her close. The girl’s silk robes were clammy from her passage through the palace. “You couldn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”

Jia Fen was silent for a moment. “Do you ever think about how easily we’re forgotten?”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been many Emperors, whom we remember, but the many Emperor’s wives, and consorts, and concubines, and all the other names they have for us…” She trailed off. “There are forty-three of us just in this palace. And unless we become Empress or bear a boy child who ends up becoming a prince, they will forget us.” She stared stonily at the brazier. “I thought coming here would bring great honor to my family, and I suppose it has, but the honor is not lasting. Not the way it lasts for men.”

Mei Min looked warily over her shoulder, but the room was deserted. “Jia, you should try to sleep.”

“Don’t you think about it?” she whispered. “Men are remembered on their own merits. Women are remembered for producing men.”

“Usually,” Mei Min conceded. “But women are also remembered for producing poems, or paintings. Not as often as the men, of course –”

“I’m a terrible poet and my paintings are not as good as Lingyue’s or Lady Gao’s.” She looked up at Mei Min. “You’ll be remembered. You’re the great General Mei Min, the Faithful Sword, Guardian of Heaven. Your honor will be lasting.”

“Only if I bear a son,” she said grimly. “I may be the Guardian of Heaven, but I’m still a woman and a wife of the Emperor. At the end of the day, no matter how many battles I’ve won, I still only have one purpose.”

Jia Fen glared into the coals. Fresh tears sparkled in her dark eyes. “That isn’t fair,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.

“Is that why you stole those weapons from the armory?” she asked gently. “Because you thought if you, too, could win battles, you would have eternal honor?”

Jia Fen lay silent. Mei Min waited.

“Do you want us to return them?” she asked finally.

Mei Min sighed. She knew she had many admirers among the women in the palace, from the Empress all the way down to the lowest maids. But she’d been shocked to learn, upon her return from the latest battlefront, that a total of five concubines had stolen weapons in hopes of learning to use them as well as their General. She was partly flattered, but mostly terrified for them. She was not sure if she’d be able to protect them, should they be discovered.

And if she asked them to return the weapons, they would, out of respect for her.

But they were skilled – Mei Min had watched their demonstration and couldn’t help but be impressed.

“Not all the poets and painters are remembered,” she said finally. “Only the great ones.”


“So…we must be great. We must be the best.”

Jia’s eyes lit up. “You mean –”

“How much do you really think you’ll learn from watching those boys train?” She dried the girl’s cheeks. “No – from now on, you train with me. And when the Emperor learns of us, he will have no choice but to remember us.”

Candy, Not Cultural Appropriation: Halloween Mindfulness

MIDDLE EASTERNfinal2photos for poster

Two examples of Ohio University’s “Culture Not Costume” posters.

Well, it’s October. Time for the leaves to start changing, the rain to start falling, and pumpkin spice everything to take over our lives.

It’s also time to start thinking about Halloween costumes.

I used to rant about oversexualized women’s costumes, and I still find the options for women’s costumes disappointing (to put it mildly), but recently I’ve become more aware of the piles and piles of racist costumes out there – mostly because, well, people keep wearing them.

I know the options for mass-market costumes are not ideal. I know coming up with a costume to make or closet-shop for yourself is hard. But please, be mindful of what you choose to wear. A costume sends a message, and however innocent your intent might be, the impact could be very different from what you wanted.

We don’t like hearing about people being “offended.” We tell them they should grow a thicker skin, that it’s just a joke, that they’re being too PC, it’s not a big deal, nobody else is upset so why are they, etc etc etc.

We tell them basically whatever we can think of to avoid the truth, which is that we hurt someone and we need to do something about it.

Again, your intent doesn’t matter. (Sorry.) Regardless of whether you mean to cause hurt, you don’t get to dictate whether or not someone else has actually felt hurt. Own up to it. Apologize for it.

Better yet, be mindful about your actions and avoid causing hurt in the first place.

Here are some great pieces about Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation, which will say it better than I ever could:

“Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween. Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

A full archive on why not to wear a Native American costume. A few reasons: Native Americans still exist (they are not fictional characters), 1 in 3 Native American women suffer rape, and in Canada, indigenous women are over four times more likely to be murdered than other women.

Experts break down the excuses often used to defend a racist costume.

A flowchart to determine whether your costume is racist!

“It is possible for White people to dress as characters of color, or as celebrities of color – but if the only thing that makes the character/celebrity distinctive to you is their skin color? I’d rethink your reasons behind the costume and try to be a bit more creative.”

Tea and Swords

“How is it?”

“Still a bit hot.”

The girl’s face fell. Mei Min concealed a sigh. She’d been away long enough on the battlefield that she had forgotten the delicacies of courtly conversation.

She had also forgotten how most of the Emperor’s younger consorts worshiped her. This one, Jia Fen, had won the honor of bringing Mei Min her first proper cup of tea in eight months. She had brought the tea set over with trembling hands, set down the gilded tray with reverence usually reserved for the Emperor himself, and poured a cup of aromatic liquid. Mei Min felt herself relax simply watching it, though the hot bath she’d just had – also the first in eight months – contributed significantly.

With a low bow, the girl – the Emperor’s thirtieth consort? Thirty-first? – presented the cup of tea, which Mei Min accepted gratefully. There had been what could be loosely described as tea on the campaign, but nothing compared to a cup of tea savored on a silk couch in a beautiful room behind fortified walls.

It tasted like home.

And, like home, it was not quite comfortable.

She smiled reassuringly at the younger woman. “It warms my soul. Thank you.”

Jia Fen sat down slowly at her feet. Mei Min took another cautious sip. The tea scalded the tip of her tongue and she winced. Unfortunately, the girl noticed.

“Forgive me, Honored Lady – ”

Mei Min waved her off. “I am still sore from the ride home.” It was mostly true – she was also sore from wielding a sword, sleeping on hard ground, and taking a few more blows than she would have liked.

“You were missed here,” Jia Fen said, perking up. “Lady Linyi had her baby – a boy. And two more courtesans stole swords from the armory, claiming you’ve inspired them to fight for their Emperor.”

Mei Min choked on the tea, scalding her throat. “Two more?”

Jia Fen feigned shock. “You are not delighted about the birth of a prince?”

“More delighted than I am about two more girls putting their lives in danger!”

“They know how to fight,” Jia Fen said defensively. “They observe the training grounds daily, pretending they’re sweet on the officers. And…”

She looked around, checking to make sure no one else was in earshot. Mei Min thought about warning her that it was the Imperial Palace and someone was always listening, but she was too tired, and besides, Jia Fen caused little enough trouble that there was no need to worry.

But much could change in eight months…

“They practice,” Jia Fen whispered, smiling. “With calligraphy brushes, lampstands, anything they can find.”

“And they aren’t caught?” Mei Min’s combat prowess was discovered soon after she came to the Palace. At first, when she was only one of four, the Emperor viewed it as an amusing curiosity. Soon enough, though, she was one of sixteen and leading armies, a general in her own right. Now she was one of forty-three, and highly honored.

One warrior wife was advantageous; two, or more, could be seen as embarrassing. Or a threat.

“They have a lookout. Don’t you approve?” Jia Fen looked up at her with such childish hope that Mei Min could only sigh. Besides, how many times had she been told at that age that her talents were unfeminine at best, demonic at worst? And she had always believed that a woman with the desire and talent to fight should be allowed to do so.

“I do approve, but I wish they would speak to me about this. I may be able to protect them. Who are they? And who is their lookout?”

Jia Fen busied herself pouring her own cup of tea. Min Mei raised her eyebrows. “You?”

She took a demure sip. “Is the tea to your satisfaction, Honored Lady?”

Something else occurred to her. “And – the armory? Only the royal family have access…”

The girl dipped her head. “Your wisdom is surpassed only by your skill with the blade.”

Mei Min took a slow sip of tea. So distracted was she by the news of this small army of women forming within the palace walls that she barely even tasted it.

Jia Fen looked at her anxiously. “The tea? Is it…”

Mei Min smiled and took another sip. It was a very comfortable temperature. “I am very pleased with it. You must serve me again sometime.”

Jia Fen smiled and dipped her head again. “It would be my honor.”