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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Resilience is Here!

Here it is!  I’m so excited about this collection of writing for queer youth, and also excited about the project it benefits.  I always feel like it’s cheating to come all the way here just to give you a brief plug, so I’ll put it on top, and then I’ll tell you a story, so no matter what you are looking for (quick?  elaborate?) you can have it.   Here’s the link to buy the book:  http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18821334, and here’s the link to the info about the book: http://betterbookproject.blogspot.com/.  It’s on sale (10% off) for the next two weeks, so get it hot off the presses and your pocketbook will thank you.  I also hope your brain, heart, soul, skin, etc, will all thank you too.  Certainly the Make it Safer project and all the other authors and the editor and I will thank you!

I really, really hope you like it.  And if you are a teacher or a young person yourself, I would love to hear what you think about it as a gift to young folks, since that is what it is intended to be.  I know the poem I wrote is very grounded, not only in my experience as a teen and young adult (am I still a young adult?  I must be on a similar threshold as when I was about 16 or 17 and started thinking, “Am I an adult now?  I might be.  I’m definitely closer to being an adult than I was… I think I might be an adult!!”), but specifically in the way of engaging with and viewing that world that helped give me some of the resilience I found throughout that time.  My dad always gave me fairy tales, along with interpretation, from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run With the Wolves.  I would sit on his couch, in his basement apartment, and he would sit in his chair, and read to me from the book, and we would talk about it.

I think this is one of many things that gave me the feeling that I could slip on mythic stories like a second skin, and look around and see what I found while wearing them.

And what I found?  Well, I promised you a story.  I’ve been thinking a lot, with the advent of this collection, about myself as a teenager– in what ways I was resilient, in what ways I was queer.  Not necessarily the ordinary ways, I think, if there are ordinary ways to be these things.  I liked boys– and just boys, or at least that’s what I thought.  And I thought about it, carefully.  I thought about the girls in class I found the prettiest, and I compared my feelings for them to feelings for the boys I found the prettiest, and I decided these were qualitatively different, and therefore I was straight.  What’s interesting is that I still find my attractions to different genders qualitatively different, in some ways, from each other– I just no longer think that makes me straight.  Also, through unfortunate happenstance (as I thought then) and/or some kind of internal protective design (as I partially suspect now), I did not really get to test these feelings on the level of flesh and blood.

But then there was the world of story, of books I read and pages I wrote, with absolute erotic attention, whether I was dealing with sex or not.

A trajectory, then, of my queer journey through books and writing.  I’m going to tell you some of my secrets:

The first sex scene I wrote was implied, in a play, between a male human and a fairy woman.

The first explicit scene I wrote was in prose, between a male bird creature and a human woman.  The language of this scene borrowed heavily from A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle, the book to which I lost my readerly virginity.

Somewhere in this time (maybe I was fourteen now, or fifteen?) I discovered two of my intense readerly crushes: Lucius Cornelius Sulla as portrayed in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat.  They were violent, beautiful, rampantly bisexual men.  I was rapt with attention for sex between men.  I thought this might be kind of strange.  I analyzed it.   I did not talk about it.  I thought maybe it was that I could thus imagine what I wanted without being implicated directly, in the flesh, in the act.  I thought there was something queer about it, for sure.

I read more.  Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway.  My economics teacher, who was rumored himself to be gay, and then to be straight, and then to be gay again, out of nebulous unfounded evidence, paused to look at the covers.  He’d read Tales but found it too soap opera-ish.  He wanted to borrow Fur Queen.  I thought to myself: Was he trying to tell me something?  Were we entering in to some kind of agreement of mutual recognition?

I haunted the gay and lesbian section of Borders.  That’s where I got my Tales, and where I looked at all the other books.  I wondered if someone would see me there.  I– this I still find queer and fascinating– I wouldn’t buy Annie on my Mind, though I looked at it, time after time, curious.  There was something about standing in the checkout line with that one that stymied me.

I began writing a saga about Pilate.  Yeah, that Pilate, the one from the Bible.  Most of what I actually wrote centered around his intense adolescent affair with his male tutor, a Greek (duh) fellow named Claudius (not so Greek-sounding, really) who resented his subservient position and eventually betrayed his youthful lover, despite his genuine feelings for the lad.  This was a problem, especially as both of Pilate’s parents were fairly sadistic and nuts, in very different ways.  I sound flippant now– but I’m protecting myself.  I can still feel what it was like to write them tumbling to the library floor.

And somewhere in there, I got out of high school.

I’m not actually sure I’ve changed much, and yet I know that I’ve changed a great deal.  I hope you like my secrets, and that you see in them, as I do, both queerness and resilience, which I was only beginning to come into then, and which I am still coming into now.

Now, please go buy the book, and, if you feel like it, leave me a comment with your own secret of resilience or queerness.  It doesn’t matter how old you are or who you actually like to have sex with.  I think maybe we all have them.

It's gonna be even more exciting to hold in your hands and read!

Resilience Galleys for your viewing pleasure

 

 

Queer Vocation, or Violence and Voice

Yesterday, in my Medieval Conversions class, we were discussing the Prioress’ Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this (be warned, Chaucer certainly tells it better): In Asia somewhere, there’s a city where Christians and Jews both live, though in different areas. There is also a Christian school. A little Christian schoolboy hears older children singing a hymn to Mary and is totally transfixed by it. He learns the song by heart, and sings it all the time, including when passing through the Jewish quarter. The Jews hear him, and become outraged, and hire one of their number to kill the boy. The murderer captures the boy, cuts his throat, and throws him in a privy-pit, where everybody in the Jewish quarter goes to empty their bowels. His mother is worried when her son doesn’t return home, and so she goes looking for him, and eventually finds him, lying face up in the pit with his throat cut, and, miraculously, still singing the Virgin’s song. This draws a crowd, and the boy is taken to church, singing all the while, and all the Jews are bound. The boy reveals that a little grain has been placed under his tongue by Mary to keep him singing, and so the abbot removes the grain and the boy dies. All Jews who knew about the murder are punished by being dragged through the streets behind horses and then hanged.

There’s lots going on in this story, and like many Medieval stories, it’s disturbingly steeped in anti-Semitism. That wasn’t always my primary focus when I was thinking about it in class, but it stayed with me like an aching limb as we talked things through. There’s a line early in the tale, about the Christian children at school that describes them all as being “an heep,” and we were laughing a bit at the image of children all piled up in a heap, and then talking about groups in the tale that are treated collectively, which led us to the Jews at the end, being killed “an heep.”

For a minute I smiled, thinking about the heaped up schoolchildren, and then I remembered that I know exactly what Jews being killed “an heep” looks like. And so do you. Those horrible images of the Holocaust, the bodies piled on bodies, the arms, the legs, the heads, the necks, the spines all heaped up together juxtaposed themselves over the words about Jews in these and other writings I have read. They layered in my mind in a visceral, inescapable way, and I rubbed at my head and I thought maybe I should make a huge art exhibition, something that would take up rooms, with images of the Holocaust and words, centuries of words, miles of words, that marked and remarked Jews as worthy of death.

Class ended and I left. I was walking down the street, feeling overwhelmed, and the idea of how hate and violence and revilement can infect culture, or maybe sort of pool around in its hollow places, sitting there like stagnant water, until later—maybe hundreds of years later—they come back again, reconstitute themselves, and erupt in new ways. And people die. And the rhetoric is never really gone, waiting to fork a tongue and come on out again.

It made me feel hopeless, doomed. I reached out in prayer, and then I was struck by the idea that the whole structure of Christianity, which my prayer was surrounded and in some ways constituted by, was contaminated with this anti-Semitic poison.

I was thinking, too, about the Occupy movements, about my involvement with them, about a student strike being called next week at exactly the time of the class I’d just left, a class I enjoy, and for which I am scheduled to do a presentation, next time.

So I said a prayer, anyway, for openness and for learning. I said a prayer opening myself up to learn and to understand what to do.

I continued walking, passing Macy’s on my right, and grumbling internally about their already-present Christmas decorations, even as I wanted on some level to stop and stare at the admittedly thrilling display. I got to a corner where, on two previous occasions, I had seen a tall black man surrounded by posters and signs laid on the ground, with a small semi-circle of people around him, preaching. I’d glanced at one of the posters as I went by, heard a snatch of his words, and interpreted the whole thing as something about which races and nationalities were included and loved by God and which were not. The whole thing was so frightening and disturbing to me that I did not stop and check things out further, so perhaps that is not what he was saying. The images on the posters looked violent, bombs blooming out in red and yellow fire.

He was not there yesterday. But I pictured him there. And then I saw myself, standing at the edge of his crowd, and I heard myself yelling, “THESE WORDS KILL. THESE WORDS KILL.”

The day before yesterday, one of my composition students stayed to conference with me after class. He told me about a video his friend had shown him, of a Jamaican, black, gay man being beaten and then burned to death. I was horrorstruck and rageful, and trying to find an expression of this while still steering him toward a workable research project.

“Obviously,” he said, “beating and burning someone to death is too extreme, I don’t agree with that, but this is their cultural belief—”

“The one leads to the other,” I interrupted him. “They’re not separate, not completely. If you treat lives as worthless in words, someone will come and take those lives away.”

These words kill. The words of hate spoken in our streets, in our subways, in our schools, in our senate. And I was tired–as I walked to my train yesterday I was burning with tiredness—of having the voices of hate being the voices that shout. Of letting people say, we are the saved ones, you are the damned ones. Of letting people scream that God will enjoy burning homosexuals in Hell and walking by quietly. I was tired of hate being loud and love being quiet. I was ready to shout.
I began to think about sex, about my sexuality, and about church, and about God. I have thought about these things many times, but they blazed up new for me yesterday.

I want to tell you this story: I grew up loving God and loving church. I was not bored; I was not disengaged. I loved Jesus, adored him. I loved being Catholic. I enjoyed Mass. I took part in all kinds of ways. This was not a cultural love—not only that. This was not a social, I’m-part-of-this-group love—not only that. This was my love for my God. It was mysterious. It was overwhelming. It was mystical and real and very solidly experiential.

Today, I do not know what to say when people ask me what religion I am. I do not know how to share the joy of my religious experience because of layers of pain and fear that stand between me and the religiosity I so enjoyed when I was younger. Going to church is a strained and conflicted experience, and yet I don’t like the idea of trading in my Catholicism for something else, so I stay home most Sundays. I feel nervous when I think of times when I will be called upon to go to Church, and I feel nervous when I think of staying away. I feel pretty fucking goddamned nervous a lot of the time. So I try not to think about it too much at all.

These changes in my feelings are not because I am a bisexual woman living in a loving, mutual, sexual partnership with another woman, and I somehow recognize my sinfulness and feel divided from God—though there are some who will say that this is why.

I don’t feel this way because I am not strong enough or brave enough, or because I can’t just suck it up and deal with the whole church-stance-on-sexuality thing like a lot of other folks do. I thought this was why for a long time. I thought this was my problem, an individual problem, something I, personally, in my own heart and head and soul, needed to work through.

Yesterday, sitting on the train with the Prioress and the Holocaust and the murdered Jamaican man all together in my mind, I understood that I feel this way because of spiritual violence. I feel this way because of spiritual violence that has been and is being committed against me and against lots of other people, queer and straight, of all colors and races and genders and abilities, in sacred and secular spaces.

I do not feel comfortable and at home in Catholic spaces NOT because I have often heard priests preaching against homosexuality. That only happened once, and I walked out—followed by my girlfriend, my mother, and my octogenarian grandmother. I have heard many other Catholic people be completely warm and accepting of homosexuality—many, many more than I have heard denouncing it or me.

I do not feel comfortable and at home in Catholic spaces because this church that professes to love and mother me would protect that one priest and would not protect me. Because everyone has a right, according to what the church teachers, to denigrate and deny my life, my family, my experience, my love, and my body. And defending those things must be done secretly, quietly, sotto voce, under the radar. I could go to a Catholic church my whole life—but could I stand there and marry the woman I love? Could we stand at the fountain and baptize our children? And if we did—what would happen to the church that let us? Who has the power? Who is supported? You know the answers to these questions. And so do I. And so does every queer person in every congregation, even the most welcoming.

That is enough. I am here to tell you that that is enough to brutalize the spirit. The silence is enough. The secrecy is enough. This kind of atmosphere is antithetical to spiritual growth. It is the exact opposite of love and welcome. There need be no shouting, no dramatics. These words kill in a whisper. These words kill in a roar.

I am hardly the first person to say this. But I want to make it clear. And it is not just about me, and it is not just about sexuality, and it is not just about church. I want you to feel it through my experience, and I want you to look, carefully, at the places where you worship, work, live, sing, play, read, cook, sew—who is there? Who do you know is there? Who is silent there? Who is not present at all? Where are the people of color? Where are the immigrants? Where are the women? Where are the queer people and the gender non-conforming? Where are the poor people? Where are the disabled people? If they are not there, or they are silent—it is up to each of us in positions of privilege to notice, and it is up to us to take the risk and ask why and ask what we can do to make the spaces we are in places where all can be welcome, where all can worship, work, live, sing, play, read, cook, sew…

It is time to be loud. And it is time, for me, and I hope for many who have experienced spiritual violence, to recognize our lives as ones we have been called to. Last night, through all of these swirling experiences that I have tried to recreate for you, I felt a strong sense that intense, joyful, Jesus-loving, religious-little-girl me was not on some separate trajectory from questioning, wounded, angry, men-and-women-and-Jesus loving exiled-Catholic adult me, but rather that my vocation, my call from God, is to be found in these very experiences.

I don’t know that I was “born this way,” though I also did not experience my sexuality as some conscious, particular choice. I do feel that I was and am called to be who I am, in all my embodied particularity, and that my queerness is part of a holy, mysterious call. And I feel called to be louder about love in the face of hatred, wherever I see it.

I don’t know what that looks like yet. I know we still live in the fog and mud of history and old and new hates are waiting to swallow us whole. But I still believe in a better kind of resurrection, too. And I just wanted to tell you, and ask you to begin, with me, to use your voice and declare a call, declare a welcome, declare a defiance of that which limits and destroys love and life. I just wanted to tell you. I just wanted to begin.

When I was trying to think of what to say, what message of worth I would like to give to oppose the messages of worthlessness I was hearing, I thought about saying “You are essential to the universe. The entire universe needs you to be exactly what it is right now. You are vital to us all.” And then I thought a moment more, and added, “Just like the blades of grass.”

Amen.

Justice, Heat, and Beauty- A Week in Review

Yesterday, I was getting a ride home from my boss, and we heard on the radio some kind of recap/discussion of the rape accusations made by Nafissatou Diallo against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  My boss turned off the radio and spoke about how confusing the case was, how at first he had believed Diallo and now he thought she might have seduced Strauss-Kahn.

I had not been following the case in detail, so I just listened.  Then my boss said, “Sometimes, I don’t know about justice.”

I let out a breath, in a sort of laugh-sigh-surprised noise.

“I sure don’t,” I said.  “I sure don’t know about justice either.”

This past week has been brain-meltingly hot.  The kind of heat during which I walk seven blocks and want to collapse, during which I  hole up in the bedroom where there’s an air conditioner, eating and sleeping and spending all my time in one compressed space.  But I can still feel the heat, coming in at the skin and radiating through me.

I feel so creaturely in the heat.  The parameters of my comfort and my survival narrow.  This window I mostly live in, where my focus is not primarily on my bodily needs, is so easily made to close in on me.

In my Upper Elementary School class, which consists of rising 5th and 6th graders, we move at a break-neck pace: 20 vocabulary words per day, one book per week.  Last week’s book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.  I felt like I needed to do something to supplement the book and teach the Holocaust.  I asked them what they knew.

They knew about Hilter.  They knew about Jews being killed.  They’d heard of some of the other groups singled out.  Homosexuals got a brief titter.  They nodded at figures like six million, twelve million, but seemed strangely unimpressed by what the Danish had done in rescuing nearly all of the more-than 7,000 Danish Jews.  Then, a supplemental reading mentioned the death camps, and I realized that the numbers were just numbers, because of what they didn’t know.

“What are death camps?”

I tried to explain.  They wondered aloud why, if you found yourself in one of these camps, you wouldn’t just defy your captors, simply to hurry death.  They thought a little more and concluded that it is not easy to die.  I told them that some people survived and were still living today.

This shocked them.  They had thought World War Two was maybe 100, 200, even 300 years ago.

The living and the dead were thick in the room, but there was so little time.  I showed them a video talking about one shoe taken off one child who went into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. (http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/educational_footprints.shtml)  A man showed us the back of the shoe, which had been carefully stitched and repaired by some adult hands.  He described what had happened to this little boy as he approached the gas chamber, how the people had been told to tie their shoes together so they could get them again.

“Oh,” one of my students gasped as they showed a staircase leading into the gas chamber, “They actually filmed it?”

I did not tell him his error, because in that one moment he seemed to understand what he was seeing.  The class ended right after the video, and on its horrors I was mostly silent.  Feeling like Virgil in the Inferno, like the Ghost of Christmas Future.  Look and see, look and see.

On one of the hottest days this week, having been shut up in my room for great swaths of distorted time, I decided to take a short walk.   I walked to the small park near my apartment building.  I approached one of the huge trees, feeling drawn.  After a moment of self-consciousness, I put my chest and my cheek up close against its bark.  I stood against the tree, close, silent.

Have you ever hugged a big tree like that?  Put yourself up against it?  I feel the life of that tree in those times, how big it is, how small I am.  How I move and move and flash by quickly, while it might stand and stand and stand.  It is a good feeling all through me.  Slows me down.

On the way home, newly attentive to trees, I noticed the thin, young trees that line my street.  Someone had stripped a big chunk of bark off of one of these trees.  Over the next few days, I saw this on at least four.  It has to be deliberate.  I can’t imagine why.  I put my hands on the trees and wish my hands were bark to cover them again, to heal them.

In the midst of this week, I worked a shift at Word Up, and began reading Endgame by Derrick Jensen. (http://www.derrickjensen.org/)  Jensen is a radical environmentalist who describes the society and culture and world we live in in terms so poetic and resonant that my secret suspicions, long harbored and often not quite voiced, come out to meet him, murmuring, “yes, I know.”  He thinks that the whole world around us is incredibly real and beautiful and holy.  He also thinks that civilization will, if not destroyed itself, destroy all people, plants, animals, and the planet we all live on.  It is quite something, to go from an articulation of destructiveness that I do see all around me, to this position about civilization itself, as a whole, being irredeemable.  That is so frightening I do not want to ignore it, but so extreme I do not want to swallow it too easily.

I thought about the word sustainable, so popular a term these days.  Then I thought about its opposite, what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  It hadn’t occurred to me before.  I imagined, briefly, where I would be, if New York City ceased to function.  If the faucet gave no water and the food stopped coming and the order broke down.

I thought about that person, standing there and telling the other people on the way to the gas chambers, “Tie your shoes together.  You’ll want to find your own shoes again.”  This person knew, of course, that they were sending the others to their deaths.  What did it feel like to say this?

Today I walked home, touching the trees, putting my hand on their bare places.

On Sunday, Charlotte and I went down to City Hall to watch some of the first same-sex couples get married in this state.  (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/portraits-of-gay-couples-just-married-in-new-york) There was a small crowd of cheering, happy people.  Everyone waited for couples to emerge.  For the first time, in this public, governmental place, people were erring on the side of queerness.  That is, if you were a City Hall employee, wandering out with your same-gender buddy for lunch in the sweltering heat, you were liable to get cheered and applauded as new spouses.

It was way more dazzlingly great than I anticipated.  Being “other” as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship is something I’ve thought about, written about, but I didn’t realize, until it happened, what it would mean to me to be in a place, a public, open, official place, and know that the people around were more likely to misread Charlotte and me as “married” than as “friends.”

There was one protesting man standing on the sidelines, in a T-shirt that said “Jesus Saves Us From Hell.”  There were marvelously polyvalent clergy with golden stoles and headpieces and accessories.  On their stoles I caught glimpses of crosses, Stars of David, other signs I couldn’t quite make out.  There were two African-American men playing the violin and the cello, playing the wedding march, again and again.

And the people stepped out, old and young and middle aged, in dresses and suits and shorts and skirts and jeans.  They were many colors, many sizes.  Some came surrounded by family and some just two by two.  They looked surprised, stepping out into this receiving line of strangers.  Getting approval just for being as they were, something that so often garners the opposite.

I thought about the end of the world, and the terrors of the world, and how very, very close evil lies.  How entwined it is with the good.  I can make my friend a meal with all the love in my heart, to nourish and support a person I love, and perhaps that food was harvested by someone practically living as a slave.  Perhaps that food came from an animal that had lived an abused and stunted life.  And yet, the food is there.  The love is there.  It nourishes.

All life from death, all death from life, and yet we are not by this exempted from responsibility.

So quickly we move through this world.  So hard to know where to place our trust.  So dangerous to be silent, to be paralyzed by fear, not to choose.  So many trees and animals and people that will suffer–whatever we do–that go today, in suffering, to death.

And yet when it rains after days of heat, I turn my face up and rejoice.  I put my hands on the stripped bark of the trees, the small trees I could not press my chest against.  And when I see the green of the leaves at the top of these trees, I love the green that I see.  And when Charlotte curls against me, I do not have to wait for the man in the shirt about hell to take off his shirt and smile.

I sure don’t know about justice.  And it may be the world is burning like my brain has been burning.  There is a famine in Somalia, violence again in Darfur, people shot in Norway, people shot here.  And I feel my fingers tremble– fine motor skills have never been my forte, and it seems these repairs need such delicacy and strength.

I sure don’t know about justice.  But I know I walk in beauty.  Despite it all, because of it all.  Now I walk in fucking beauty.

Harry Potter and the One Who Didn’t Want to Read Him

In case you haven’t guessed, this blog is not just going to be me talking endlessly about my writing, but will also feature me talking endlessly about other things that interest me, and, hopefully, you.  I will happily take requests!  Today, I wanted to put in my $0.02 to the gigantically rich bank of ideas and thoughts about Harry Potter, since I watched the last movie of the series on Sunday.

When the series first came out and became so wildly popular, I was a little irritated, and for awhile resisted reading the books.  It was like the whole world suddenly discovered reading and magic and fantasy, which was great, but seemed to think that it was a new, revelatory experience that had never existed before, which was decidedly untrue.  I confess, I was jealous on behalf of my childhood favorites, the series I had adored and devoured and re-read again and again. My understanding of magic and mystery was Narnian from the first; my young wizards were those given me by Diane Duane; my vision of a fantastical world layered on our own, and the moral questions in the layers, owed a great deal to Madeleine L’Engle.  Even after I read the Harry Potter books that were out at the time (1-4, I think), I was not totally convinced that this was something novel and revolutionary.

And I’m still not, actually.  But I am convinced that it’s something special and delightful.  I came to love the stories and the characters, and to love even more the sense of collective story-sharing that is possible when so many people care about the same tales.  That, to me, is maybe the most exciting part.  And it happens some through talent and good story-telling, and some through luck, and some just through sheer momentum.  When the 6th book came out, I happened to be in the midst of one of the most communal times of my life thus far: living with lots and lots of people in a very small apartment and doing theater , and whenever anyone would finish the book, she would be pulled aside with the others who had finished to privately conference.  Who, among book lovers, doesn’t want to talk about a book like it’s the most urgent, exciting news around?

At that point, I was hooked, and I insisted on buying the 7th book right when it came out, the weekend of my cousin’s wedding, and reading it all the way back to Boston, as I traveled on the train.  A late convert, perhaps, but a convert.

The story of Harry and me wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my feelings about fanfiction.  I learned that fanfiction existed when I read a snippet of a Harry/Draco fic in, of all things, Esquire magazine.  I thought it was hilarious… and I was totally disdainful.  People who couldn’t be bothered to make up their own stories, I thought, silly, adolescent parasites and scavengers.

Let that be a lesson: Be careful of anything for which you feel an excited, animated contempt.  It is often, in some ways, attraction.  Be careful, if you are a writer, of calling anyone a scavenger too loudly, for everyone who writes is a scavenger, everyone who writes takes cold meat and drags it around the desert, hoping for a dragon to come along and give you a blast so you can enjoy it cooked.  And if the dragon never comes, you’ll probably end up trying it raw.

That is to say, I wrote a fanfic.  I heard that my dear friend Maddie had a taste for Harry/Draco fics.  And I thought I would write one for her birthday.

A year and a half-ish later, I had what is still the longest complete thing I’ve written, in which I got to play and twist and justify and world-build to my heart’s content, while trying not to contradict a thing, psychologically, that had been offered up by J.K. Rowling at that point.  I didn’t care so much about the factual details, though I stuck as closely to those as I could, but the psychological ones… these were a perfect game, a marvelous treat.  How could I get characters to do the strange and impossible things I wanted them to do without making them totally different at the center than Rowling had?  I tried.  I think in some ways, I succeeded.  And I got to play, knowing this work would never be published, and I think I’m a better writer because of these games.  I guess fanfiction isn’t quite what I thought it was…

So that’s a gift that Harry and friends have given me.  And, oh, did I say that fic I wrote was about Harry and Draco?  Because, um, yes, but really… it was the Redemption of Snape.

I adore Snape.  I adore Alan Rickman.  When I see Alan Rickman playing Snape, my heart actually does this funny flutter in my chest.  I love seeing him, hearing him, and I loved having the chance to believe in him while everyone argued.  There’s not much more I can say about that without simply sounding ridiculous, but what I do want to say is that a strength of these stories is their belief in redemption paired up with many different thoughts about how people find it, achieve it, try for it, don’t try for it, etc.  Snape is perhaps the most obvious example, but it’s all over the place, in the “good” characters and the “bad” ones, and this complexity in character building and in what makes a person a hero or a villain is one of my favorite things, whenever it occurs, in any story.  And isn’t it fascinating to watch Snape and Dumbledore, Snape, who would sacrifice anything for one person, and Dumbledore, who would sacrifice any person–himself included, Snape included, Harry included– to what he believed to be right and true and essential? So interesting.

But Dumbledore leads me to my real complaint about the series.  I have criticisms and things about parts of the writing I like and parts I don’t, etc.  But I have one serious complaint and it is this: if Dumbledore is gay, the story should say that he’s gay.  It deals simply and honestly with all the romantic affections of all the straight people in the story, and should do the same with Dumbledore.  Not saying it, simply, honestly, as a reference to who he was in love with in the past (because we can all see that in the backstory, right?), does say that gay relationships are qualitatively different than straight relationships, that they have to be handled carefully and tiptoed around, that there is something about the simple fact of them that cannot be stated plainly to children.  And I think that is a disturbing thing for this series to do, in both the books and the movies.  I was hoping it would be rectified in this last movie, but in fact the whole movie seemed to be bizarrely freaked out about men even touching each other (no hug for Harry and Ron?  Really?), so my serious complaint about the whole story stands.  And I think the reason I want to mention it is this: if you see yourself as an ally of queer people, and the quality of your alliance is such that you never mention their queerness, even when it would totally come up in a straight context, or the fact of queer relationships is something you consistently avoid mentioning– think again, and please try again.  A stronger stance is needed, especially from powerful story-tellers.

Now, lastly, in watching this movie, I was totally struck by the visual and thematic parallels to England’s experience of World War II.  I saw it in a number of places, and I’m not really qualified to draw it out, but I would love to see someone read through the whole series, books and movies, and think about how World War II is weaving in and out of the story.  I think it would be a really worthwhile reading, not to look at the books and movies as simple allegory, but more as ways of processing and responding to that national experience.

All right, this is totally long and totally disjointed, which I guess is what happens when I sit to write and am hot and tired and want to simply put down a bunch of thoughts.  I hope some Harry-Potter-interested folks enjoyed the ride.

All in all, I am delighted I gave in, and read and saw and experienced these stories after all.  It has, in fact, been magical.

Love and Fear on Book Release Eve

Hello, faithful readers. I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with what to write about today, something interesting about The Clown and the Magician on the eve of its release, something that isn’t boring or repetitive (since most of my posts so far have revolved around this book), something that maybe is basically a disguise for how scared and excited I am about the whole thing.

But to hell with that. I write to tell the truth, so I’ll tell you the truth. I’m scared. And excited. Like so many things in life, it’s all love and fear, fear and love. Perhaps uncoincidentally (is that not a word? The text editor here thinks not-a-word, but has nothing to offer me instead), love and fear pretty much describes how I feel about writing. And relating to other people. And making business phone calls. And doing the dishes, at least in this 100ish degree weather.

Thankfully, the love wins at least a little more than half of the time, except perhaps in the case of the dishes, which makes sense, because the love doesn’t really exist in the case of the dishes, except maybe in love for Charlotte, and not wanting her to have to do dishes all the time by herself forever, and love for not having really moldy dishes all around and love for drinking things out of clean glasses.

I guess these two things really are everywhere.

So, because confession is good for the soul (remember that part where I write about Catholicism and stuff? I was such a religious & spiritual kid, but I NEVER liked Confession. Resented the whole idea and was freaked out about it. I have been to Confession exactly twice in my life– but I do think telling the truth is good for the soul), here is my confession. These are the things I fear about my book that’s coming out tomorrow, and these are the things I love about it.

Fear 1. I’m scared that no one will buy it.

Fear 2. I’m scared that everyone will hate it.

(I’m pretty sure that Fear 1 and Fear 2 are the standard fears that every writer has about every piece of writing put before the public in any way ever… but there you go.)

Fear 3. I’m scared that people will think the book is silly or weird because it’s a romance or won’t pay attention to the story for that reason. And that I’m being foolish by putting my real, honest-to-God, one-shot-only name on it, because when I write a picture book or something, someone, somewhere will freak out.

Fear 4. Here’s where we get serious. I’m scared because I am writing a character of a different racial background than mine– and his race matters at some points in the story. I feel really strongly about doing this. There are way too many books with only white people in them. But I also feel like I’m gonna screw it up. Funny, isn’t it? I am not worried about screwing up writing men or gay men or gay men having sex–the only kind of sex I cannot conceivably experience in my own body at all–or people substantially older than me, or people in professions I know nothing about, but race… yes. Race scares me. And I also get that that’s my racial crap inheritance. I don’t get most of the racial crap that the world has to give, but this, this fear of trying, this fear of what others might see or say in or about what I write, or of hurting someone with it… it’s got the sharp, nasty, double-edged sword end of white-girl-ness written all over it. Not that it’s wrong to be afraid, but the way I’m afraid– it carries a temptation to back out and leave race alone. And that’s just what I shouldn’t do, whether this little book works on these grounds or not. I think.

Ok, there’s the fear. Now to the love.

Love 1. I love the parents we see in this story. I love May, Jake’s stepmother. I love having a butch woman of color in the background of a male-male romance. Butch women belong in more stories! I love Bernard’s father… I feel like saying that gives too much away, maybe, but I do. I just love his absolute emotional clumsiness, and the fact that he totally messes up most of the times he opens his mouth, but that’s not the end of his story or his efforts.

Love 2. I love the themes of connection and integrity running through this story. I love the connection thing because that’s really what a good romance should be about, but it happens in so many interesting places in this story. I love the bitchy, dying woman in the nursing home who connects with Comet and the deer in the zoo that Bernard and Jake connect with for a moment. I love that this theme emerged on its own terms, because I think its really the flip side of the problem with Send in the Clowns and its stifling of individuality. It’s not just individual uniqueness that is taken away in a situation like that, it’s the potential to connect, and I think most of the characters we meet in this story, on or off stage, are trying so hard to connect in all these different, small ways, with Bernard and Jake’s struggle for connection right in the center.

Love 3. I love the weird, playful sex they have. I don’t want to give anything away, but… I love the whimsical sex.

Love 4. This is probably a predictable love, or one you would hope a writer of a romance would have, but I love Bernard and Jake. I love how real and present they became in this story, to me and to each other. I love how they are both amazingly graceful, in very different ways. I love, love, love Bernard’s commitment to clowning and his relationship to his clown character and the memory of his mentor. I love how sexy and physically precise Jake is–makes him a good magician, and also is a very fun thing to see through Bernard’s eyes. I love Jake’s dignity and refusal to be condescended to (I totally feel the same way whenever someone condescends to me, so that’s a me thing in him). I love the way they talk to each other.

So there you have it. My true confessions, mostly-hopefully lacking bravado on the one hand or false modesty on the other. My cards are on the table, but I can still do a trick with them… Wanna see?

http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=2441

Release Date for The Clown and the Magician: July 13th!!

I just found out that the release date for The Clown and the Magician is set for this coming Wednesday, July 13th!  Sooner than I’d realized!  I mostly just wanted to let the brand-new-but-faithful readers of this blog know the news right away. 🙂

I feel like maybe there are many actions I am supposed to be taking about this, and perhaps there are, but as someone very new to the business end of writing (is that like the business end of a pencil or a knife?), I don’t really know what they are.

Instead, I will regale you over the next few days with tales about this novella!  It’s a bit startling to me that this is happening at all… I originally intended this story to just be a quick, light-ish, fun, short thing… which it is to some extent, but it also grew and grew, and got a few unexpected wrinkles and themes thrown in, and now it’s a whole novella.

I actually started writing The Clown and the Magician for one of Dreamspinner Press’ calls for submission to an anthology about men in uniform.  Now, of all the anthologies they were planning this year, that is probably the one I would have, from an objective, musing, looking-at-the-list sort of distance, thought of myself as least likely to write for. I have nothing against men in uniform, but it didn’t trigger my imagination the way some of the other things on the list did.  But for whatever reason, that very fact made me turn it over in my mind a bit, trying to think of something different to do with this theme, something I could have fun with…

That’s when I thought of using costumes instead of uniforms, and the idea of a clown and magician came into my head, and, apparently, stayed in my head.

The next thing I knew, it was not short, it was not quick, and it was a little less light-ish, though thankfully it stayed fun.  When I submitted it for the anthology, Dreamspinner suggested that I expand it instead, since it was close to their novella length anyway.  So I did, and we were off to the races.

There’s the conception story for The Clown and the Magician!  Now I will come up with other interesting things to tell you about it in its release week, so stay tuned.  Also, if you would be so kind, and if you are curious, please tell me what you would actually like to know about this bookling.  Want character profiles?  More about the writing process?  Stuff that gave me trouble?  Surprises I encountered in writing?  Want to know about the sex, and why I like writing about gay men?  Want to know about researching clowning and magic tricks?

Ask me, and I’ll tell you!  Don’t ask me, and I’ll tell you anyway, but I might not pick the things you most want to hear, so… your fate is in your own hands now.  And the fate of my book will shortly be in your hands, too!  Yikes!  Excited author keeps writing because she is excited, but has nothing more to say at the moment!

🙂  Thanks for reading!  Enjoy your Sunday.

 

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