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

Seaweed on Gress Beach

Okay. It is not couth to open a blog by saying, ‘I am, like, such a bad blogger.’ Just like it is inadvisable to begin a speech or a reading or an argument with a self-conscious disclaimer. Nevertheless. Here I be. I have not written for a donkey’s age – has it been lack of will? Sort of. A dearth of time? Yeah, that too. An overwhelm of… life? Yep. Never mind. I’m here now.

I’m here – on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, where I’m living (temporarily) with my husband and two daughters. We have extended family here, which was part of the impetus for the move. But also, the place is infectious (in the way of laughter, not disease) and previous visits convinced us we needed to spend more time getting to know the Hebridean way.

We arrived in January and toughed it out through the darkness and the gales, and are now reveling in the sweet air and endless skies of spring on the island. There are lambs everywhere. Sometimes the lambs do that thing you read about in books – they gambol!

As part of my stay I have had the pleasure of teaching a group of keen and good-humoured writers at An Lanntair, the fabulous, multi-faceted arts centre in Stornoway. One of my students, and a new pal and half marathon training buddy (gack!) wrote about the class on her wonderful blog Hebrides Writer. I have also had to opportunity to connect with some fine writers at Catch 23, a warm and welcoming drop-in centre for those living with mental illness.

Living in the country has made me very good at shouting at dogs and noticing the way moss pokes its way up through fence posts. I have always been good at spotting birds; now that spring is here it seems they are forever trembling and soaring at the edge of my vision. Winter forced a slow-down; I started knitting and sinking into the warmth at the peat fireside. I am writing, but perhaps more importantly, reading with a less cluttered mind. I love the way my children take to the outdoors. They play on the beach and in the croft with both abandon and childlike care, collecting and building and taking off after movement and colour. I am drinking a lot of tea.

Also trying to be looser and more forgiving of myself and the world. My friend Kerry Clare wrote about this in a recent blog post: ‘In Praise of Messy Blogging‘.(I also have a guest post — an update to my M Word essay – featured there.) One of my hesitations around blogging has always been that I have difficulty teasing different strands of my life away from each other – they are all so gloriously and complicatedly tangled. How to write about one thing and not the other? Maybe stop trying.

(Oh, and also – how could I forget? – at the beginning of my stay here I got to collaborate on an illustrated story with the LA-based collage artist India Brookover through the nifty folks at 7 x 7.

 

She passed me an image through the glory of the internet and I passed her back some text — and so on… We had time and word limits, but were otherwise free to follow our whims and weirdnesses. We were working with a 12 hour time difference; she was in a big American city, I was on a remote Scottish island. We have never met. It was such fun; I miss it!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

HB and KK at UT!

Winter keeps on keepin’ on around these parts, despite some deceptively sunny skies.  But I’m really looking forward to coming out of hibernation in April with a reading and q & a at the University of Toronto with my pal and writing compadre, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer.  Please come and see us if you have the time and inclination.  We would both be so happy to see you.  The reading is on Wednesday April 3, at 6:30 pm.  It’s in the Jackman Humanities Building, 170 Saint George Street, in Room 100 (Ground Floor).  And admission is free!

 

That Much of a Pirate: Deborah Eisenberg and Me

Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor.  I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form.  I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment.  She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind.  She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes.  How could I write anything that would even come close?  I couldn’t.  I was paralyzed by awe.  But the problem remained; I still wanted to write.  So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness.  I wanted to be transported AND to learn.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes.  The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja.  Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character.  The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:

It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.

Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.

I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me.  And I’m that much of a pirate.  But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books.  How could I have missed these?  (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.)  I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night.  Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways.  These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us.  Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself.  These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise.  If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out.  You can start with these incredible stories.  I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

The Princess Who Got Ate By A Shark

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what fairy stories mean to me and what they might mean to my 3 1/2 year old girl as she grows.  I remember when she first learned to use the word ‘once’ and the particular magic of that word (although ‘please’ is also pretty nice as magic words go).  And then yesterday she told me this story:

 

Once upon a time there was a princess who got ate by a shark.  And then a good mermaid saved her and the bad mermaid didn’t get burned in the fire.  The end.

 

And then I picked up AS Byatt’s wonderful The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and read this from ‘The Story of the Eldest Princess’:

 

‘You are a born storyteller,’ said the old lady.  ‘You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.  And the special wisdom to recognise that you are under a curse — which is also a blessing — which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up.  There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodman, but insisted on finding out for themselves.  And maybe they would have been wise and they would have been foolish:  that is their story.  But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can’t, and live quietly without striving to change the world.  We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.’

 

And I thought, I think we’ll be okay.  Maybe not happily ever after, but definitely okay.  Happy Easter to you and all the creatures!