This Assignment is So Gay, Plus Also Some Notes on Disease and Mortality and Parents

This post is supposed to be about the really exciting poetry anthology that was just released, in which I have three poems. And it will be. But not in any kind of straight line. We have a bit of a tangle to get through first.

It’s time to start teaching again soon. I’ve been working on my syllabus (in fact, I should be working on my syllabus right now), making sure that my calendar is in order, and generally preparing.

It hasn’t been an easy summer. I had such clear plans for myself this summer, and had begun to get into their rhythm, when both of my parents got serious, frightening health news within a few weeks of each other. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and my mom, breast cancer.

My dad is on some medication that seems to be helping a lot, and my mom has since had surgery and is recovering very well and rapidly. Both diseases are in early stages, and, at least for the present, things look like they are going to be ok for both of them. But still. The experience sent me for a spin, in so many ways.

When I was little, I used to deal with the idea of death, and my parents’ death in particular, by deciding the only way death would be acceptable to me was if I lived to be very old and my parents lived to be extraordinarily old, and we all died on the same day.

Much has changed since then. My parents are no longer together, and I don’t live with either of them anyway. I don’t know, if such an odd situation as I described above came about, if it would be particularly soothing to me. Charlotte and I were at the beach recently with her family, and there was a piece of art on the wall in the master bedroom that said something like, if you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live a day without you. We both agreed that this sentiment seemed a bit odd to us: are you wishing your partner to have a sad last day of life, since you just died? Isn’t it a little creepy to quantify your love and decide who gets to die first based on that?  But death, disease, and vulnerability of those I love, of myself, and of my parents, particularly, whose strength of body I have counted on without even knowing I was doing it, and whose vulnerabilities seem to point in a direct but unreadable line to my waiting, seemingly so healthy flesh– which I know so intimately and yet whose significant eventual weaknesses I do not, cannot know– well, these things still have the power to stymy me completely, to leave me dizzy and disoriented in a landscape of being for which I have no map.

One thing that kept happening, in the maelstrom of my reaction to all this, was that I would think with surprising dread about the school year coming up. “Why am I doing this?” I thought, meaning the program I am in, the classes I will teach, all of it, I guess. “Does it matter to anyone?” It just seemed, I have to tell you, like a lot of stress and work that might not actually be important things to do–for me, or for anybody.

So… I didn’t quit, or anything. I traveled to see my parents. I traveled to see my friends.  I read a bunch: some my disciplined school reading, which I clung to despite my (hopefully temporary) inability to do the kind of organizational work I need at this stage of the game, and some just for desire’s sake– my old childhood standbys, a book for a book club, new books by fiercely loved authors. Finally, I began to work on my syllabus for this coming semester. Ideas for how to structure my teaching popped into my head on the subway and receded as soon as I was in front of the computer. I wrestled. I played. I counted out days– enough time between one assignment and the next? Too much?

When I visited my mom before her surgery, I kept trying to get her to drink more water to prepare for the dehydration that would result. I’ve always been a thirsty person, so I felt this was an example I could easily set, something I actually understood in the wilds of surgical language, paperwork, preparation. “It’s a skill I have,” I said, a bit facetiously,  as we walked into my grandmother’s apartment building. “Being a pain in the neck?” my mom quipped. “Well, I’ve had a good role model,” I replied, and we laughed and laughed, something in the easy teasing breaking through the fear and tension that were pressing in otherwise. Later, I heard her talking on the phone about reality TV, making the exact same complaints I had made in a separate phone call, one she had not heard, to Charlotte. I thought about apples and trees.

When I visited my dad, we went out for dinner and he told me that he is coming to realize that he is not his brain, that the threat to his brain does not have to be a mortal threat to him, himself, in the reality of himself. He doesn’t know exactly what that means yet, but he believes it. And I believe him. He has promised that the cracking of everything you thought you know does not have to be the end of growth or wisdom. And I believe him. He got a big dessert and enjoyed every bite, and then he got lost looking for where we were going next, second guessing himself and wandering too far. I thought about apples and trees some more.

I have not fallen far, in many ways. I am so far, in others. I am not far in ways I cannot see, ways that are beyond the potential of body to fail, to suffer, to falter, ways that are about the spirit and the mind and the things that make me laugh.

So I came back from this, and I came back to my syllabus. (I know– we keep lurching back and forth, but this is how it has felt, so disjointed and everything so pressing). I was going through the mountains of paper my previous students had left me, and I found their words evaluating the course for me, bright, slippery, coated in salt and spice and drips of honey. One said a story we read pulled him in “like a fish.” One said she knew that one paper she wrote was her best, even though she didn’t get her best grade on it. Many said they loved our discussions best, getting to talk about things that mattered to them. I loved our discussions best, too. I always do. One said he fell asleep in them sometimes because they were boring, but admitted that maybe this would have improved if he had said something himself. They lied to me, I’m sure, occasionally, but they also told the truth. And the truth, in the balance, was that it seemed like we’d done something worth doing. That it was better, for at least a handful of them, to have taken this course than it would have been if they had not taken it.

I began to get excited about teaching again.

We lurch through these semesters, while our outside lives fray and tatter and come together and fall apart. We do it together. I think it’s hard to understand how fully we do it together, until you have been on both sides of the classroom, slipping the mantle of anxious authority on and off your shoulders, hoping for magic, for alchemy, for honesty, for connection, for five minutes together in which you all seem to want to be there, in which everyone is learning, although it’s rarely whatever the lesson plan had laid out for the day.

So there’s this anthology, and it’s full of all queer-teacher-poets, talking about teaching and queerness. And the premise, I think, is that what we say as queer teachers is significant precisely because of our identities, of the way we are situated in the world, even if we are not talking about sexuality at all. And the premise is also that teaching is something worth singing about, worth twisting words into beauty about. Worth the time it takes to do, and also worth the time it takes to write and read about.

And I realize, writing this, that this woven-together feeling that the book values and emphasizes, the idea that my queerness matters to my teaching and my teaching to my queerness, even if they seem separate– this is why I couldn’t just write a post that said, hey, y’all, I’m in a book! Or even something that was just about teaching and/or queerness, but rather I had to talk to you about what has really been going on.

I think in some ways that’s what this book celebrates. The “really” about all of us, and the way it may feel like a detraction, something that takes us away from the work we should be doing, something that distracts– when honestly, it is what makes us teachers. The “really” of our lives, beautiful, ugly, wicked, confusing, secret, thrilling– that’s the magic word. That’s what erupts in the classroom, every now and then, in the middle of the plodding and the oversleeping and the where-the-hell-is-the-worksheet-I-printed-out and the oh-the-paper-is-due-TODAY?, and suddenly we are somewhere holy. Suddenly we are somewhere true.

Here’s the link to the book’s website: http://www.thisassignmentissogay.com/home, and here’s the link to buy it from the publisher: http://siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com/product/this-assignment-is-so-gay-lgbtiq-poets-on-the-art-of-teaching

I hope you enjoy– this post, the book, your families, your lives, the remainder of the summer and the start of the school year. Thanks for reading!

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.

The Clown and the Magician- Another Great Review!

Well, today is my first day of orientation for the PhD program in English that I am about to start.  So, naturally, I was relieving my nerves by seeing if anyone else had reviewed The Clown and the Magician.

And someone had!  Here, and glowingly: http://mmgoodbookreviews.wordpress.com/tag/rebecca-lynne-fullan/.  Thanks, Portia!  I am delighted to learn that there are gems falling from my literary tree.  I’ll try to keep ’em coming.

Also, I know everyone is eagerly awaiting the exclusive interview with Charlotte Rahn-Lee about her upcoming release (upcoming as in tomorrow!), Royal Quarry.  Fear not!  The interview is progressing apace, and shall be posted here just as soon as we both have a minute to breathe.

Actually, taking a minute to breathe sounds like a good idea.  Want to join me?   I’m gonna close my eyes… breathe in deeply… and let it out.

There.  We’re conspiring.

(I got to explain conspiracy to my Upper Elementary school students on our last class day.  I talked about how if you’re working on a secret plot you have to lean in so closely that you’re breathing the same air.)