Guest Post: James R. Silvestri’s Unlikely Resilience and Unexpected Affinities

Today, I’m pleased to introduce James R. Silvestri, writing about his own relationship to resilience and his story in the book.  I bet you know where and when you can hear more from him– this Saturday, 3-5 PM, at Word Up Books!

In a lot of ways, I might be considered an unlikely choice for a project associated with resilience, with personal strength and inspirational perseverance.  I am an extremely private person, sometimes painfully so.  Ask me for my opinion on anything, be it my favorite TV show or the traits I look for in a partner, and prepare for a sliding scale of awkward shrugs and stammering.  This is part of the reason I became a writer; it’s a lot easier to express myself through well thought-out printed words and fictional characters then to simply speak what’s on my mind.  It’s always been that way.  For the record, I am no misunderstood teenaged wallflower.  I am 34 years-old.

And yet, the Resilience anthology spoke to a very vibrant, very vocal quadrant of my soul.  When the whole “It Gets Better” campaign started to make waves at the wake of several suicides and violent attacks among LGTB youth, I was skeptical at first.  I knew the intentions of all participants were good and pure, but I thought the message was off.  “It Gets Better” seemed to embrace what my favorite comic strip upstart Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes once referred to as “The Culture of Victimhood.”  In my mind, the campaign encouraged young people in these adverse situations to embrace their roles as victims of the cultural war, to acknowledge their current state of weakness and lean on the required guidance of school authorities and legal guardians, as well as the hope that if you hang in there and try to stay alive, things will magically fix themselves.  There was no talk of fighting back, of demanding self-respect, of creating a multi-step plan that would actually make one’s life better.  It all seemed so passive, so defeatist, this “It Gets Better” business.

But then, I came to realize a few things:

1) Young people, particularly those who grow up in small communities or ghettoized inner city neighborhoods, usually don’t have a model to work with.  When you’re gay or transgendered or any sort of ostracized minority, you usually don’t have access to this Great Life Plan that will drag you through and past the muck.  So, suddenly, “Just Get Through Today, Then Tomorrow, Then The Next Day” suddenly seems like a more valid plan of action.

2) Sometimes, a young person who has just had enough of the torture, the name-calling, the abuse and the cyber-gossip and what have you, will in fact take action.  Columbine taught many of us this lesson in 1999, and Chardon gave us a refresher course in 2012.  Adolescence is a time of extreme emotion, and extreme emotions can lead to extreme actions, be it suicide or murder.  So once again, telling someone in this situation to chill out, take stock and keep hope sounds like a pretty wise plan of action.

3) And really, who the hell am I kidding?  I was a fucking mess when I was a teenager.  I barely spoke a dozen words during my four years in an all-boys Catholic school.  The only way I survived was to make myself invisible, and the few times I was forced into human interaction, some sort of teasing or nastiness was directed towards me.  Nobody can stay invisible forever, not even me.

And you know what?  If my 34 year-old self could go back and time and meet my 15 year-old self, you’re damn right that I would tell Mini-Me that It Gets Better.  Because it does–it did.  Yes, I am still a socially awkward oaf, but in the adult world I live in now, it’s okay to be that.   In fact, in a era where people can’t seem to shut the hell up, it’s actually a sort of commodity that I actually possess the ability to listen, to assess.  And on occasion, I can even break through that shell.  For a few hours a day, I in fact must do this professionally as an English teacher.  Lecturing has become a new way to harness my nervous energy and my over-arching quest for connection, and I am much better off for it.

My story in Resilience is called “What Happened to Mona Shalesky?”, and like all of my published works, it’s fiction.  I am not a small-town lesbian waitress, nor am I a drifter transman.  Although I’ve come to meet a few people in this life who are undergoing various stages of transgenderism, it is not a condition I can immediately relate to.  While almost everything else about my life feels murky and (at worst) lost at sea, my gender identity has been pretty secure.  So, naturally, I am gravitated towards people and stories about this type of journey.  While I don’t identify with the specifics, I can relate to the universal truth that life can be difficult, and people will not always understand what you’re going through.  And while it does in fact Get Better, it never Gets Perfect.  That’s what keeps life interesting.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

Since now I’m sure you would love to know what happened to Mona Shalesky, mosey on over to the buy link for Resilience: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18926125

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Guest Post: Emma Eden Ramos on Endurance, Resilience, and the Search for (Literary) Selfhood

My guest today is Emma Eden Ramos, here with a story of her own journeys through adolescence and literature, and the queer resilience that can arise out of both of these strange categories.  She’ll be reading at Word Up this Saturday, from 3-5 PM!

Adolescence is, for many of us, a time of pain, endurance and discovery. Pain, not only because our bodies and psyches are changing–our emotions in a constant state of flux– but because we are surrounded by others who are experiencing the same turbulent transformations. So much of adolescence is about being able not only to handle our own inner battles but to endure the fallout of others’.  When I look back on my own high school experience, I feel proud to have survived. My peers were cruel. I was called freak, ugly, bitch, loser. The most painful, however, was in the middle of my freshman year of high school when a boy I’d been friends with in middle school told the entire grade that I was a lesbian. At that time (2002), even in New York City, being labeled “gay” in some high schools could be dodgy. In my case it was like walking around with an “A” pinned to my shirt. People stopped talking to me, sent me cruel messages on AIM, badgered me with prying questions — “Are you a lesbian? Huh? Huh? Can’t you just tell us?”– In the end, I had to find a new high school. It wasn’t, at least for me, the accusation itself that was so hurtful. What I struggled with most was that other people were labeling me at a time when I was unable to label myself. This was my period of self-discovery, and it was being taken away from me.

Fast forward to the spring of 2009 when I am, thankfully, a good six years past my early high school days. While studying Psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, I decide to balance out my required Statistics course with a class in Contemporary Literature. I’d always been a voracious reader, but there were certain genres I had yet to discover. Well, by the end of that semester, I was left feeling both awakened and jipped. Andrew Holleran, Sarah Waters, Leslie Feinberg, Shamim Sarif, how had I managed to miss these authors, and during those years of relentless questioning and insecurity?

The novels we read in the Gay and Lesbian Literature course at Marymount inspired me to write my first story, “Where the Children Play.” As a teen I’d read about Cathy and Heathcliff (Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). But characters such as Kitty and Nancy (Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet) or Maurice and Alec (E.M. Forrester’ Maurice) had eluded my radar. I wanted to write a modern coming-of-age story in which the teen protagonist is able to overcome the convictions of his family and society.

“Where the Children Play” isn’t just a story about self-discovery. It’s a story about tolerance and even acceptance. Adolescence, for everyone, is a time of both struggle and revelation. To make it through these trying years, one must have endurance. The process of enduring the journey toward self-respect and awareness requires resilience, especially for those whose preferences and lifestyles aren’t yet respected by society at large. With the recent number of teen suicides, it is clear that society has some serious growing up to do. In the meantime, young people need to know, whether it’s through the literature they read, the television they watch, or the music they listen to, that there are many of us who have come through on the other side. But it takes endurance. Endurance and resilience.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

Emma’s website is here: http://emmaedenramos.weebly.com/.  Please go visit her, and, if you want even more lovely writing, here’s the link to purchase Resilience: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18926125

Guest Post: Bill Elenbark on Running, Writing, and Resilience

Today I’m pleased to welcome fellow Resilience writer Bill Elenbark, with his thoughts on the piece he wrote for the book and his writing-journey through coming out.  Come see him and the rest of us at Word Up this Saturday from 3-5 PM!  Here’s Bill’s story:

My first class in graduate school for writing required a multi-genre piece featuring pictures or music or poetry interspersed with prose and I chose to write a story about my running career, such as it was at the time, inspired by a piece in Runners’ World and thinking that I had a story to tell about the way I hated running despite being an athlete all my life but how I came to love the sport after multiple knee injuries derailed all my other athletic involvements.  At the time I wrote this story, a band called Wolf Parade had a song called “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” on their debut album and I thought that could be the backdrop for this story, the multi-genre interspersing of the lyrics of the song with the story of my first 5K race and my knee pain and how I’d gone from hate to love of the sport of running.  The song featured references to the singer’s father, though, which proved difficult to incorporate into my story, particularly since my father wasn’t a runner himself and our relationship through sports was often contentious.  I wasn’t prepared to reveal so much in my first class back in college and I certainly wasn’t ready to talk about my sexuality, not to strangers, so I largely glossed over the difficulties between my father and myself growing up and I didn’t mention that I was gay.  The story focused mainly on running and was adequate enough to garner praise from my professor.  But it felt incomplete.

A year later in a fiction class, I wanted to share a novel that I was working on at the time, a semi-autobiographical screed that really wasn’t very good but was highly personal, about a not-so-young man who’d hidden his sexuality all his life and the difficulties he’d faced in his quest to stay hidden.  I knew if I shared an excerpt of the novel the parallels between the narrator and the author would be easily seen and these strangers in school would know some of my truth, a truth at the time that remained largely hidden.  But the writing was too important to me not to share it, to have someone else read it – finally – and not some edited version like the runner story that failed to show any real truth.

On the day that my story was being work-shopped, another student’s work was shared, and by odd coincidence or some stroke of fate, his story also dealt with gay characters, gay high school students who were trying to stay hidden.  I freaked a bit when I read his story – cursing my luck that someone else would have the same theme – but I was comforted to know that I wouldn’t be alone.  It’s always tougher to believe you’re all alone.

When we got to class, the professor made a comment about the night having a “theme” and a few students laughed, uncomfortable laughs, while I sank down in my seat.  The other student’s story went first in the workshop and although I thought it was pretty good, the professor had some harsh words about the way he’d tried to trick the reader, the way he’d hidden the reveal that the characters were both male in an obvious way with neutral pronouns and choice phrases that she felt were cheap and unnecessary, a common device that needed to be removed to elevate his writing.  Then we took a break and while half the students left the room and I tried to brace for an evaluation of my story – fearing the worst – the professor called the other student up to her desk and asked him flat-out if he was gay.

I felt my head spin around and my eyes dart to hers – I couldn’t believe what she asked him.  And I wanted to hear his answer.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not be gay.  But he told her he wasn’t.  And she told him she didn’t think so, not with the way he was writing the characters, and that she has some close gay friends who would probably be a little offended by a straight male writing this way about these characters.  I don’t know what she meant exactly but she turned to me, still hiding in my seat, and said those fateful words no one had dared asked me straight out before:  “Bill – are you gay?”

I nodded.  She asked if his story offended me and I said it hadn’t and I’m not entirely certain why it would but he left the room and she maybe smiled at me but I tried not to look at her, or at anyone, for I’d just been outed for the first time in my life.  And it scared the shit out of me.

The class returned to hear my story.  We had to read the opening page or two and then the other students gave their opinions followed by the professor’s opinion while the author remained silent, not responding to any criticism but merely taking notes and taking it all in.  I don’t remember the other students’ comments, but none were really negative, and I don’t remember the professor’s comments, but hers were rather positive but I do remember the end of the class, this fear that I had, that all these strangers suddenly knew something about me that many of my closest friends still didn’t know.  I grabbed my bag and I waited, I didn’t want to walk out with any others, I needed to be alone.  But I didn’t time it right – the professor stopped me for a quick chat about nothing – and I ended up walking out with the other student whose story was read and another kid in the class, also male.  They complained about the professor and I joined in but they both said they liked my story and left it at that.  Then I think we talked about the Phillies.  They didn’t mention my sexuality, it didn’t matter to them.  And for the first time in my life, I started to realize maybe it didn’t have to matter so much to me.  I finished the rest of the semester without any comments from anyone about my sexuality and a semester later, a girl from that class befriended me and eventually shared her sexuality – coming out to me at a restaurant on campus, one of the first people she’d ever told.  She was a lot younger than me and assumed I’d been through all the horror of coming-out but we ended up becoming friends and going through it together.  Which never would have happened if I hadn’t shared that story in fiction class.

A couple years later, still in grad school (with a full-time job it took a long time for my writing degree) I decided to revise “You a Runner” for a memoir class my last semester at school.  All my friends knew about me by then – at least the ones at school and many of the ones from outside – and I decided to truly tell the story of my athletic career and its relation to my father and how our relationship was strained for so long until the moment I came out to him, and from then on we never fought again.  This was the story I wanted to tell, the story that mattered to me, the one about a difficult childhood and adolescence steeped in sports and my father’s belligerent coaching, the one in which I could never be myself, where I could only survive by staying hidden, but when I finally gathered the courage, after years and years of waiting, the act of being true to myself changed the love my father had for me in a positive way and for everyone else, it didn’t really matter, it didn’t have to mean everything.  So it does get better.  Sometimes it takes a long time.  In my life it took a hell of a long time.  But it does get better.  And at some point you forget why it all seemed to matter so much.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

For more from Bill Elenbark, check out his website here: www.vaguespace.net.   And if you can’t come to the reading, you can still get Resilience here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18926125

Guest Post by Maddie: Pain and Sex

Here is my first guest blog post!  My dear friend Maddie has written this essay in response to our conversations and my earlier post about sex and secrets and self-definition.  I think it’s really awesome and fascinating.  I hope you enjoy, and are inspired to join our conversation!  Just leave me a comment if you want to write.  And even if you don’t want to write, leave Maddie a comment about her story.  And don’t forget to order Resilience— that’s a conversation, too.  http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18821334

Pain and Sex

Growing up in a household of academics, and strongly suspecting I would become the same thing, I rebelled in the only non-destructive way I knew how: I read A LOT of romance novels. I graduated from teen romances to adult romances at 14 and at the height of my addiction (ages 16-20) I was probably reading 12 romance novels a month, possibly more. I was fascinated by sex, mainly because I was sure I was never going to have it, at least not in high school. In reality I wasn’t ready for it and subconsciously knew it, I think. Vicariously living through fictional romantic relationships was safer than trying to discover sex on my own at that time. Plus, I was terrified of getting pregnant.

So by the time I started having sex, at the age of 23, I was well versed in the modern woman’s sexual mantra that sex is fun and sex should never hurt emotionally or physically, except for maybe the first time. Well, reciting isn’t the same as knowing, at all. The first part of the mantra is easy;  sex IS fun; I have always found sex to be fun. However, I’ve found that the not hurting part is a lot harder to follow.

I’m not going to get into the sexual emotional baggage I had. My story is pretty common, pretty harmless, and has a happy ending. The guys who I had less than perfect intimate relationships with are not bad guys, we just didn’t work as more than friends. I’ve worked through that baggage a long time ago and if it ever pops up, I can always talk about it to them frankly. Now I’m engaged to a man who has never hurt me like that and who I can also talk to about this if I ever need to.
Surprisingly, the more insidious and disguised hurt was the physical pain. See, I had always assumed that since I had fun having sex, then sex didn’t hurt, because who likes things that hurt? Not me! Who is capable of massive self-delusion? Me!
The problem is that  no one ever told me that physically painful sex was possible with a partner you love. When people talk about sex hurting, it’s either emotional pain, which I got rid of around the age of 25, or physical pain because you were forced. In all my years of health class, girl talk, reading romance novels and listening to Lovelines (the call-in radio show about sex, drugs, and other young people stuff) not once did I ever hear of any woman without a history of  violent sexual encounters having painful sex. Or if I did, I never connected it to me.

The problem is, no one ever told me what painful sex with a partner you love and trust feels like. Well for me, it feels like initial resistance and pain, like every time is the first time. Like the first time, it gets better after a while, but I need to initially distract myself from the tightness and the feeling of raw friction. Lube helped a little bit, but not much. When I write it out, it seems ludicrous that I ignored this for three years, but I had no idea that this was not normal.

During the time I was ignoring this, I was conflicted and it affected both my sex life and my sexuality to some extent. My willingness to have sex decreased more and more until I just didn’t want to face the pain. It got harder and harder to ignore the fact that I had to literally grin and bear it for at least the first few minutes, if not the whole thing. I wasn’t even lying back and thinking of England, I was focused on the pain because I didn’t understand it. I was so confused because I had never thought of myself as someone who hated sex. I was the girl who read everything she could about sex! I really enjoyed sex; I wanted to have more sex, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was never in the mood when my boyfriend suggested it. I was never in the mood ever. He started to get very frustrated with me and hurt because he felt like I was refusing him every time he tried to have sex with me. While this is a slight exaggeration, it’s not that far from the truth. The worst part is that I didn’t share with him why I was pulling away because I didn’t know why. I knew sex hurt, but I didn’t realize exactly how it was affecting my sexuality. I really didn’t connect the fact that physical pain was keeping me from wanting to have sex.

All this changed two months ago when I read a blog post by a woman who suffered from pelvic floor pain. She described exactly what I was experiencing, how she preferred to cuddle with her fiancé. How her fiancé was loving but hurt by her shunning of sex. How she doggedly went from doctor to doctor and pain specialist to pain specialist until someone diagnosed her with pelvic floor pain, a condition that makes it difficult for you to relax your pelvic floor. She said that she learned some relaxing exercises and did some PT and now sex does not hurt!

WHAT A REVELATION! I read this and I suddenly knew that this was what was happening to me. Suddenly, I had a name and I had a compatriot. I could face what was happening to me now. The next day, I broke down in tears and told my roommate all about it in our shared office and then went home and told my boyfriend. The next time he initiated sex, I didn’t turn him away; I focused on relaxing my pelvic muscles instead. Much to my surprise, it worked! Sex felt better than it had in a long while. I then went to the gynecologist and told her my symptoms. We made a few changes to my birth control and the type of lube, but nothing drastic. This pain is no longer something that just happens to me, I am now in control, something I haven’t felt for a long time.

However, I cannot overstate how much making these little tweaks has affected me psychologically.  As for my sexuality, my identity and understanding of myself as a sexual person, it has taken a blow, but is recovering. The fact that I am now in control of my symptoms and pain has given me back most of that confidence and joy that I lost. The fear of pain still hits me sometimes and it makes me hesitate, but not for long. I am back to confidently defining myself as someone who does like sex, even if my boyfriend is not totally convinced (he might be, I don’t know, I haven’t asked him.) Maybe this hesitance with never go away and maybe (probably) I can make that work for me, but at least I’m not mysteriously stalled anymore. At least I can keep redefining myself in ways that make sense.

Standing Up at World Pulse

I got an email the other day from World Pulse, which is this news site created for and by women and allies of women all over the world. I don’t know all that much about the site yet; I recently signed up to receive emails from it after reading about it in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. The email was about a writing contest they were having, for very short autobiographical writing on the topic Standing Up. Part of the contest involves self-publishing the work for consideration on their site, which I have now done, so I wanted to share what I wrote with all of you.

Here’s the link to what I wrote: http://www.worldpulse.com/node/39234. Check it out and let me know what you think, there or here. I am endlessly fascinated by the interactions with other people that happen on the subway, and this experience I had seemed well-suited to the topic.

If you’d like to write a 400-word autobiographical piece on Standing Up, too, check out the call for submissions here: www.worldpulse.com/pulsewire/programs/mystory.

I’d also love to hear about other people’s experiences on the subway or bus, or any kind of public transportation where all kinds of people are thrown together and sharing a small space. I really think it offers a unique community of strangers… which sounds like I love the subway all the time; I don’t, and I get annoyed by it like anybody else. But still… where else do you find people of all classes (well, maybe not often the very very rich), races, genders, levels of sanity, moods, desires, etc., suddenly thrown together for however many minutes in a little box? Anyway, if you have a story to tell about that, leave it in the comments. I’m sure there are a lot of interesting ones out there.