What I Owe: Thoughts From A Straight Ally

In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many of my LGBTQ friends and colleagues have expressed the importance of straight allies speaking up, offering support both private and public.

I (and by this ‘I’ mean me – a white, heterosexual, cisgender, married, middle aged woman with children) have been thinking a lot about this – realizing that because I surround myself with relatively like-minded and like-hearted people, the necessity of proclaiming my allegiances has often seemed unnecessary. Nope, say my queer friends. Now is the time. We need you.

13427729_10154158906796063_8991590348178422154_nIt feels too easy to say that ‘love is love’ and that of course we need to respect – through our behaviour and our laws – same-sex partnerships and gender neutral bathrooms. But to me, that implies that somehow we – the majority, the privileged – are granting the LGBTQ community something that has traditionally, rightfully, always been ours. It implies a magnanimity, a self-serving superiority I am not comfortable with. Because, in fact, it is me who owes the LGBTQ community – for a great many reasons.

In my first couple of years of university, I hung out at the edges of my small college’s theatre posse; I was shy, a closeted actress who would later come to understand that most closeted (read: self-conscious and mediocre) thespians are in fact writers. Inspired by M., an outrageous, joyful gay man, and a fixture of the school’s tiny underground pub who often performed monologues in drag at open mic nights, and S. a fierce feminist who did stand-up that imagined what Barbie would be like if she were a Greek-Canadian immigrant lesbian, I wrote a play about – here it comes! – my menstrual cycle! (I know: cringey Women’s Studies cliché. But please, be gentle in your judgments – it was the early 90s, I was 20 years old.) The play was called The Fur Gnome Phenomenon, and it was a two hander that consisted of me and my mischievous fur gnome (pheromone) – a creature who personified all the ways I felt my body’s rhythms and excretions had betrayed me – sparring on stage for 45 minutes. S. directed it. The fur gnome was played by a straight white man initially, and by a gay black man in subsequent performances. We put the show on in the Green Room in Toronto and then, when we were unlucky in our applications to Toronto’s two fringe festivals (successful entries are determined by lottery), in the Sudbury Fringe festival. For those of you not in the know, Sudbury is a town in Northern Ontario built on the nickel mining industry – not exactly a hotbed of progressive politics or ‘avant-garde’ culture. We performed in storefronts in a mall (the theme was theatre in unexpected places) to tiny audiences. What must those audience members have been thinking? What were we thinking? Never mind: I was buoyed and made brave by my compatriots.

Later, when I moved to Quebec to pursue an MA in creative writing, I had some of my best moments at the flat of my Montreal Mama Bears, two large, large-hearted women (a couple) who were studying social work with my roommate. I had not yet learned how to be domestic on my own (I’m still not sure I’ve learned) and I often felt unmoored. They made big pots of soup and gave hugs that felt like home. Guys, there was a lot of hummous. They had real furniture and cable TV. They were comfortable in their bodies. They were wicked – and often hilarious – singers and dancers.

When my social worker roommate moved away, a fellow student – gay, male, American – moved in. C. was lovely, but by that point I was deeply involved with my previous roommate’s former guitar teacher (again, I was young; it was Montreal), and the bulk of our interactions involved comparing notes re: our romantic liaisons. C. had a steady lover, more daring than he, and after a few months, they began frequenting gay clubs and swapping partners, doing things I fought hard to understand. There was something in the pure physicality of his interactions that I felt threatened by. My nice girl sensibilities were offended. I was challenged by his behaviour, and I worried about him. My mind was being pried open; I resisted. Still, I kept listening, and if C. ever noticed how bothered I was by his confessions, he never let on.

Last year, my friend M., the homo in drag from my undergrad theatre days, published a memoir, My Body Is Yours (see below for the rest of the letters in M.’s name).

9781551525778_MyBodyIsYours

I loved this book. In it, Michael details how he spent many of his growing up years trying to be other than what he was – skinny, beautiful (not handsome), gay, the son of an alcoholic father. ‘I lived a great deal of my early childhood feeling like I was alone at the bottom of a deep well, shouting upwards, with nobody to peer over the lip and help.’ As he got older, he drank to cope, then quit drinking at the age of 27, shamed by behaviour that grew out of a night of bingeing. ‘But stripping my life of drinking didn’t eliminate compulsion, it just mutated into a bigger and better foe.’

He began cruising for sex to find human connection and a sense of community – then persisted due to an increasingly unhealthy dependence. There was a time when all of this would have made me squeamish but I trusted Michael’s voice so utterly, was so invested in his path to healing and happiness, that I took even the most graphic and visceral descriptions in my readerly stride. In fact, Michael’s frank accounts of his sexual encounters, the grace and candour with which he describes his feelings, names his OCD and depression, details his troubled relationship with his dying father – all of these conspired to make me feel it might be possible for me to write about my own struggles with mental illness, to face down the taboo thoughts that had haunted me when I was at my worst.

The book was nominated for a LAMBDA Literary Award (which recognizes the best of LGBTQ writing) and on my Facebook feed, Michael commented that he was ‘gay-famous’. ‘Gaymous’, another friend quipped. But why only gaymous, I wonder. This is a book that resonated with me so deeply – as a human who has lost a father and suffered from depression and OCD. And as a person who has been confronted with her own precepts about what it means to be a sexual being in the world. What the book did – and what all worthwhile books should do – is underline the importance of listening to each other’s stories, of celebrating our commonalities, but also of learning to live with the initial discomfort that may come from encountering difference.

cookie_thumb16 I went to the Toronto launch of My Body Is Yours with my sister, S. and another M. friend. Michael hosted the launch in drag, as Miss Cookie LaWhore; I hadn’t seen him in decades. ‘You look exactly the same!’ he exclaimed when he saw me. Maybe. (It is hard to disagree with a beautiful man wearing fantastic false eyelashes.) cookie_thumb11But I’m not the same. And that has a large part to do with M. and the other LGBTQ folk who have touched my life through the years.

I am now the mother of two girls, aged 4 and 7. The oldest likes wearing her hair short because it’s a pain to brush, but lately I can tell she feels pressure to look like the other long-haired girls in her class. The youngest has insisted, from the time she could talk, that she’s ‘not a boy or a girl, [she’s] an Eleanor!’ She likes trucks and Spiderman t-shirts and has been known to run around the house yelling, ‘I am the darkness! I will destroy you!’ Both kids have come home at various points with some pretty rigid ideas about what it ‘should’ mean to be a boy or a girl. My experience with feminists, LGBTQ peeps, and non-gender-conformists has given me both the strength and compassion to counter these notions.

I also work as a high school teacher. When I was in high school, in the late 1980s, a man was killed in Toronto’s High Park, beaten to death by a bunch of teenaged boys. My boyfriend at the time had a connection to the crime; he used to go to visit the mother of one of murderers – she was a family friend – while her son was in jail (I told a fictionalized version of this story in my collection Mad Hope). This personal link to a horrific news story has always haunted me, mostly because the incident, when it happened, was shrouded in such secrecy. My friends and I knew, on some level, that the man in the park was gay; it was suggested, although never openly, that there was something sordid in his reasons for being in the park in the first place. The murder was never, ever discussed in the classroom; if we knew anything about the circumstances surrounding it, we were to keep these details to ourselves, swallow them in hushed hallway conversations.

A few years ago, two students in my grade 12 English class were involved in a physical altercation. One had been bullying the other for being openly gay. The gay student (who had been kicked out of his house) had punched the bully in the face. The administrators invited PFLAG (an organization originally started in the US by a mother who insisted on supporting her gay son publicly) into my classroom to talk about what it means to grow up LGBTQ, to face heartbreaking adversity for simply being true to oneself. Talking about things doesn’t make them perfect. It makes them imperfect and difficult; the atmosphere in the room was uncomfortable, the bully unrepentant. But what a relief that the problem had been dragged out of the shadows, that an injustice had been acknowledged! Things are not as bad as they once were; things could be so much better.

When my husband and I became parents, he was suddenly faced with some of his own father’s missteps – his dad left when he was very young, was unreliable, absent. It is never easy when a parent rejects a child; it reverberates down through the years. We were forced to wrestle with notions of not only parental responsibility but also the demands that come with our society’s accepted view of the ‘masculine’. As partners and parents, our notions of gender roles within heterosexual relationships have changed over the years, but there are still expectations that hang around like drunken party guests; they interrupt at the wrong time then awkwardly refuse to leave the house. We enact patterns that are unhelpful, fall into models that should be obsolete. We’re working on it. Many people would like to position queer families as a threat to stability and contentment, but for me, the very presence of families that look and act and function differently is an invitation to envision happier, more equitable alternatives.

LGBTQ people – their art, their actions, their presence, their out-ness, have given me the courage to name and strengthen my convictions about gender and sexuality and activism and expression. I stand with the LGBTQ community because they have been victims, treated unjustly, with terrible ignorance, prejudice, and violence. And they deserve to walk freely in parks, kiss on street corners and dance in night clubs. But I stand with them also because they are role models and leaders. They have suffered so that I may grow and change. And for that, I owe them. Big time.

Peace,

HB

Photo on 2016-06-19 at 9.48 PM

Finding Voice

Heart in Cheese Bread (accidental composition by Eleanor Checketts)

Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.

Lyrical Impulse, Naima Coster interviews Stacey D’Erasmo, August 1, 2014

I have been meaning to write something here for a long time, but as always seems to be the case, never have enough consecutive moments to gather my scattered wits to actually string the right words together.  But I want to try.  Because this summer is proving to be very different from the last, which led me into some sad and scary times.  And because, well, because attention must be paid!  Bills must be paid too; but attention – to art, to nature, to friendships, and to the way life keeps rolling and sliding and catapulting onwards – paying attention satisfies a different kind of debt.

It has occurred to me lately that so much of feeling well and empowered has to do with finding voice.  And this seems silly, because – of course!  But having a voice and finding an authentic voice in which to speak and sing and write are very different things.  And that we can lose our own voice, or lose access to it, for periods of time, however short or long, seems counterintuitive and unfair.  But, sister, it happens.

Maybe this is why when we hear an authentic voice, when we dare to be authentic – we get that shiver of recognition, that zing of potential and truth and strength.  So here, in no particular order are some people and things and experiences that have helped me to celebrate voice lately:

1.  I’m taking singing lessons.  I love singing.  I went to a Baptist church camp, because my parents, apparently slipshod atheists, liked the fact that it was cheap and situated on beautiful Beausoleil Island.  My dad loved singing too, mostly Scottish folk songs and rousing labour anthems.  So I know a lot of songs about Jesus and the blood of the lamb and a few songs about picket lines and some songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie.  I am also a pretty good whistler.  But I have never taken myself very seriously as a singer.  I am trying to change that.

2.  Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.  Ooh boy, this is a book that made me want to puke with sadness and recognition – and that is an endorsement.  The novel is about sisters – one trying to convince the other to live, despite the fact that her mental illness is causing her unbearable anguish.  It hit pretty close to home for me.  But it is also lovely and funny and fierce and true.  I wrote the writer a note to say as much – because we should thank the truth tellers in the world whenever we can!  One thing I loved about the novel was that the characters – who are experiencing such horrible heartache – do not shy away from the words, ‘I love you’ and the author is not afraid of what some might deem sentimentality, but I deem emotional courage.  Here is a great interview with Toews where she gives advice for writing:  ‘Ignore all advice about writing!  Leave your blood on every page!  Every page!’  AMPS is a gut-wrenching, beautiful read because Toews is such a gutsy writer.  And by that I mean that it feels like she has torn out some of her most vital organs and smacked them down for the world to see.  Sounds grim and gory, right?  But her voice is also hilarious – wry and self-deprecating and witty and warm and wise (What? What?  You think I overdo the alliteration?).  Read the book, y’all.

3.  My husband has taught himself to play the ukulele.  And he’s really good.

4.  I got to teach a group of adults about creative writing this summer.  They were all such smart, accomplished people, and I wondered, at the outset, what I might have to show them.  What I forgot was that giving yourself license to create is really hard (perhaps especially if you have spent many years becoming an expert or authority in another field) and having someone give you that permission is pretty powerful.  It was such a rush to see my students discover that sitting down to write is not the province of garret dwellers or lone madwomen or lauded salt ‘n’ peppah haired (mostly male) Authors – that everyone has a story, or maybe everyone has pretty much the same stories, but we all have different ways of telling them.  And that is what makes the telling/writing a worthwhile enterprise.

5.  Neko Case.  Because she’s another truth teller and because she wins the prize for long-ass, ballsy album title:  The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You.  And the lines below from ‘Where Did I Leave That Fire?’ (so plaintive and powerful when she sings) which pretty much sum up how it felt for me to find myself lost in my own brain’s chemical swampland.

I saw my shadow looking lost/Checking its pockets for some lost receipt/Where did I leave that fire?/Where did I leave that fire?

6.  Pippi Longstocking.  In June I did an event at Parentbooks in celebration of The M Word, where I got to talk about mothers in children’s books.  I chose Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren because we learn in the first couple of pages that her mother is dead and looking down from the clouds at her wayward, fantastically strange and weirdly competent daughter.  Who is more interesting, more prone to accident and awesome antics?  Pippi, or her clean, law-abiding, next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika?

Tommy would never think of biting his nails, and he always did exactly what his mother told him to do.  Annika never fussed when she didn’t get her own way, and she always looked so pretty in her little well-ironed cotton dresses; she took the greatest care not to get them dirty.

(I wonder:  Who is ironing those dresses?)  Pippi, on the other hand, sails with her father on the high seas, makes her own clothes, straps scrub brushes on her feet to mop the floor, has a pet monkey, puts bullies in their place, and is so strong she can lift her horse down — one-handed — from the porch.  Proof that sometimes a writer needs to get the mother out of the way for her protagonist to thrive.  And, for a parent, proof that sometimes the mother needs to get herself out of the way for the child to forge her own way.

7.  The Old School Concert series at South in Milford.  I have some friends who up and sold their house in the city to buy and live in an abandoned school in the country.  A school.  Not a school house, all one-room and quaint, a one-storey, 1960s sprawler of a school.  They are renting part of it out to tourists, and the rest they are using as a backdrop for some of their long held fantasies.  Last week, they held the first in a series of concerts in their gym.  It was like a cross between a grade eight dance and a town hall meeting and a basement bar show.   Jenny Whitely and her husband Joey Wright played many of their wonderful originals – and a gorgeous cover of this song by Jesse Winchester, which is all about how our vulnerability is our strength.  Right on.

8.  My youngest daughter says No all the time.  When I ask her if No is her favourite word, she says No.  This is intensely annoying but I admire her endurance and consistency.

Oh, summer time.  When a person who usually spends a lot of time in a (real) school has time to think about such things.

 

 

 

 

Omnibus Heart

Here is an art (heart) piece by M.  I love that it contains other smaller hearts and a piece of pirate gold!  And that it is hanging out next to Joan Didion in her cool shades.  Haven’t written for a long time — too overwhelmed by parenting and teaching and also a recent (and lovely) visit to lakeland around Waterloo, as part of their tribute to the book Lakeland by Alan Casey, this year’s One Book, One Community pick.  I had a wonderful time; I got to visit Edna Staebler’s cottage and read with poet and recent Edna winner Jeffery Donaldson, plus spend time with Kim Jernigan (outgoing editor of The New Quarterly and one of my favourite people).

So — scattered sensibilities and now summertime brain.  Plus this blogging thing is not a habit yet; I have moments where my thoughts cohere into brilliant combinations, really super sentences.  Then something happens — say, a park visit, a phone call, a craving for coffee — and the sentence flees.  I can see the back of it from my brain’s small window — a flash of eloquence, a well placed semi-colon rounding a faraway corner.  Then, gone.  So this is my attempt to rectify my delinquence in posting.  It might be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion for my book club.  I loved The Year of Magical Thinking but haven’t yet mustered the courage to crack Blue Nights (too sad for me in my current exhaustion and thin, thin skin) so was really looking forward to her earlier work (some of which I’d already read) and was not disappointed.  I was definitely less compelled by the journalistic pieces, which often felt high brow tabloid-esque — but this, I know, is less a matter of quality than a function of the time and place they were written.  I can (and do!) acknowledge how ground-breaking this work must have been when it first emerged.  But I was more drawn to those personal pieces — really rigorous self-examinations — that felt like they existed outside of time.  I wonder if this is because I can more easily trust a narrator passing judgment on herself than on others…  One of my favourite essays was ‘On Going Home’, a perfect little riff on how it feels to revisit your childhood home as an adult, the weariness a person feels whilst wandering the rooms of her past.  Here’s an example of how succinctly Didion captures moments that trouble a consciousness, that engender questions and also a kind of philosophical paralysis:

That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am at home.  Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room.  I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed.  A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen.  A letter of rejection from The Nation, and aerial photograph of the site for a shopping centre my father did not build in 1954.  Three teacups hand-painted with cabbage roses and signed “E.M.,” my grandmother’s initials.  There is no final solution for letters of rejection from The Nation and teacups hand-painted in 1900.  Nor is there any answer to snapshots of one’s grandfather as a young man on skis, surveying around Donner Pass in the year 1910.  I smooth out the snapshot and look into his face, and do and do not see my own.  I close the drawer, and have another cup of coffee with my mother.  We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.

Fantastic, right?

Mad Hope sighting at my local!  Hooray independent — books, bookstores, publishers, thought!

Also, I am reading next Wednesday at the Brockton Writing Series, at Full o’ Beans Coffee Shop, right here in my ‘hood.  Would love to see you there!

 

 

Mad Hope reviewed in Quill and Quire

There’s a voyeuristic quality to Heather Birrell’s stories.  The Toronto author seems to have mastered the art of writing about universal themes and subjects — marriage, family, motherhood, death, sex — in a manner both familiar and unsettling.  Her prose is dense with detail yet fluid, carrying the reader into the inner workings of her characters’ carefully constructed lives.  That’s where the sense of peeping comes into play: these people are so wonderfully accurate, so blatantly human, that to bear witness to their hurts and despairs, ecstasies and triumphs, elicits the same discomfort one feels overhearing the neighbours having an afternoon romp or catching a friend giving her child a smack on the bum in a moment of anger or frustration.  Birrell peels back the layers of civility to expose the dark and messy bits we all hide, but she does so with such finesse that we are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the intimacy of it all.

— Dory Cerny

Read the rest of the review in the May issue of Quill & Quire, on newsstands now.