One night, anticipating a protest on our corner, we made a quick decision to close the store a little early. We had a cracked plate glass window and we worried it could get broken and tear gas could make its way into the store.
I grabbed what was important and headed to my truck. I waited there until my coworkers gathered in the parking lot. The protest didn’t happen.
“Let’s head back inside,” Kris said.
“Hold on,” I replied. I opened my doors and loaded my arms with the things I could grab. It was quite literally the stuff you grab in a fire.
*1 black cat
*1 cat carrier
*1 bag of fancy feast treats, soft in the middle, crunchy on the outside
The end. No cash, no corporate documents.If you wonder how important Spike is to us this is how important he is.Spike was the third black cat to make his way to the front door of Left Bank Books. On December 21, 2018 he passed away. There are details. There are always details. But they aren’t important. It was peaceful for him and unbearable for us.If you worked or shopped at the store, he probably greeted you at the front door. If you were me, he followed you downstairs meowing for his breakfast, lecturing you about being gone.
If you are a dog, you no doubt had a run-in with Spike. He had bottomless contempt for you.
His 13 year career with Left Bank Books included co-hosting hundreds of Author Events and book signings. He only upstaged half of them.
He attended and contributed to every staff meeting and sales rep appointment. He single pawedly upgraded the bookkeeping computer to Windows 10 and created 5 charts from the monthly payment schedule. He had his own Instagram following and was a regular presence on Facebook and Twitter. He had his own staff picks page. His face adorns versions of our logo and store merchandise. There really isn’t a place you can be in the store without being accompanied by his presence.
My desk is his bed, his treat deck, his cuddle pad. My beard is his mother’s tongue. I am surrounded by a mug with his face on it. His medicine is in a tray behind me. His bed is nestled between my filing cabinets. His food tray is steps away and his litter box is within sight. My computer screen is his face.
If you wonder how much he is loved, this is how much.
In his spare time he lived for treats thrown into the air like an injured baby bird where he could seize them from mid air with his claws, sit back on his haunches and eat the crunchy treat from his paw. We spent hours in the used books section playing hide and chase the treat. He spent years trying to trip me on my way to my office in the basement. It was a game we called Death On The Stairs. He almost won.
I could talk about how he was tiny enough to fit into my hand when he was a kitten and how his raspy meow, pink tongue and tiny cat teeth, (one missing on the bottom) were only outcharmed by his expressive eyes. But as Kris said to me as I sobbed at my desk, “Spike is a celebrity.” He had a public and that’s why I’m writing this.
People came in specifically to see him. He really did know you. He remembered you from visit to visit.
Sometimes he seemed like the only soft thing in this city. Sometimes he seemed like the only soft thing in the world.
I hope we did right by him. His life was not on a schedule of convenience or commercial timing. He was beloved in the way only he could be.
I had what I thought was one last conversation with him yesterday. I said I would be looking for him in case he wanted to come back in his next life as a bookstore kitty.
It turns out that wasn’t my last conversation with him. That came in a lull between people visiting in my dimmed office before the vet came this morning. I was a snotty mess. “Are you ready to go?” I asked. “Because I don’t want you to go. I think this is stupid. Don’t you?”
He sat on my lap curled into my belly.
“Don’t you think this is all stupid?”
He sat straight up and looked at me directly in the eyes. I expected his demanding drawled meow. It’s usually how we had conversations about Fancy Feast and debated about his presence on my computer keyboard. He didn’t do that though. He just looked at me, steady and questioning. Or maybe the question was the answer. I wish I knew.
After he died and I carried him to the car I sat at my desk as others shared stories. I was silent. I couldn’t think of what he’d done, only what he’s doing now. And then, in my shoulders and chest I felt the presence of paws kneading into my muscles and in my lungs I felt the silent joy of a curious cat unencumbered by the hard edges of this world.
I don’t know what your beliefs are about life and death. I imagine if you don’t believe animals’ lives are important you wouldn’t have read this far. I think life is a verb, not a circumstance. Alan Watts said, “You are what the universe is doing right now, like a wave is what the ocean is doing.” The universe did something very special on the corner of Euclid and McPherson for the breadth of motion it takes to be a companion to thousands of readers, booksellers, authors, toddlers and masochistic dogs.
We are changed for good, Spike. You are loved, my dear friend. You are loved.
The day after Pride there was a memorial in the Transgender Memorial Garden for Castilla. I didn’t know her, but I had seen her. I don’t know her last name. It was never spoken at the memorial. The many times I heard stories about her I never heard it. Sometimes she lived in the park near my house. Sometimes she accompanied her friends on their first trip to a beauty supply store. Sometimes the police cut holes in her tent. Sometimes she did jobs to make a little cash. Sometimes she lived in the trans flat. Sometimes she was beaten so hard she had to be hospitalized.
When Sayer started things off he talked about the garden. “It was started by Jarek and Miss Leon” he said “and a whole passel of queers.”
Last names don’t mean much amongst a family whose surname is Queer. Legal IDs are more of a hindrance than a help, and they so rarely tell the real story. They so rarely say who we are.
Castilla came here from Guatemala. She was legal. She had done everything she was supposed to do, but when she tried to go home to her mother she was blocked by the government because her documents had been destroyed between shelters, between tents, between meals, between jobs. Lost. And so she was thrown away. Lost.
This isn’t a post about immigration. It’s not a screed about the lack of safe and welcoming shelters for trans people. It’s not about the lack of treatment for addiction and mental illness for people who sleep behind buildings and not in them.
And it’s about *all* of that.
This year’s Pride Festival brought 300,000 people to downtown St. Louis. Entire corporations and the whole roster of politicians and local celebrities were there. It was the first time my niece got to come to the city and go to Pride and she cried watching the parade. She was overwhelmed. She had never seen so many people who were kind toward her queerness. It was life affirming and beautiful. Necessary.
There were, perhaps, 40 people at the memorial garden. Somebody’s Black Lives Matter yard sign blew from the cooler where it was propped against my legs as a late afternoon thunderstorm threatened. Two local clergy persons delivered messages through a borrowed bullhorn from handwritten pages and notes on their phones. Friends told stories. Activists told anger.
Chanting, the chanting I have grown to love, began with three or four and swelled to all of us. “No Justice, No Peace” Call and response. The kind that carries you like a good sermon from a fiery preacher. NO JUSTICE. NO PEACE.
We called to each other like so many other times some of us have called to the world, voices rising above the garden that we planted just for this purpose. And quietly, then mournfully rising to a wail, a fellow family member cried, collapsed and yelled through tears. Crying the pain in a scream that silenced the chant. We stood in silence and let those around them comfort. We held that space. And then the chorus started to sing “We are a gentle, angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.” The storm got loud. The rain started. The perfect coda.
In the end we looked around at each other. Fellow queers we know by first name – even those of us we don’t know well. We hugged told each other we appreciated each other.
In these ways, both fabulous parades and homemade funerals, we’ve got each other. Both are important. After all, Pride was a child born to the Queer family after a long labor of just this kind of grief and anger. This kind of homemade love. But I can’t help but think that if the corporations, politicians and celebrities would show up for Castilla we wouldn’t need a borrowed bullhorn or a fundraiser to save a sister from a pauper’s grave. We need to show up for both.
The trans community will send Castilla back home to her mom, who Sayer had to inform today that her child had died.
In every way the city around us, the state around that, the country around that failed her. We all failed her because this is our watch.
She was a trans woman. She was important even if you’ve never heard of her. She was a human being even if she had no place to go.
Her name was Castilla. She mattered.
A few years ago Kris and I got into an argument. It was one of the very few times we have outright screamed at each other. I don’t remember what it was about. It doesn’t really matter now, but I do remember where I was. I was at the kitchen sink scrubbing pots and pans – good ones – that I had bought her for Christmas. She stormed out of the room and I, in a rare fit of rage, smashed the pot against the counter. It still has a dent. I think about that moment every time that pot is on the stove – the moment when I had hit my limit of contained anger and broke something.
Later, after we made up about whatever it was we were fighting about, I admitted what I had done, showed her the pot and apologized. There has never been and will never be a time when I would aim a violent gesture toward my wife, but there have been and will be plenty of times I am angry. There will probably be very few where I reach the end of my tether and do the proverbial table flip. In my case, Kris and I have equal power in our relationship. She could very well throw my cell phone in the toilet or something and we would have to work it out. Are either of these scenarios rational and calm? Not really, and truth be told my little fit is embarrassing. But they aren’t violent either.
I share this story to illustrate the difference between violence and property damage, specifically in light of the last few days of protests here in St. Louis and the multiple calls (from mostly white people) for peaceful protest citing Dr. King’s marches – when what we really mean is non-violent protest. I’ll admit I’ve used the term peaceful protest myself, equating peace with the absence of violence. But I was wrong.
Anger is not peaceful. Outrage is not peaceful. Peace has no place in protest – it is the result of successful protest and other long-term work to achieve equality.
Over the last couple of nights, thousands of angry people marched the streets of St. Louis. As I type, another group is protesting again. They are (and I am) outraged at the not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley case.
I’m angry, but I can tell you that the people around me – the black people around me – are pot smashing, cell phone in the toilet angry. The difference is that there is no balance of power in this anger – this centuries old affront to human decency. No miscommunication that gets resolved. It’s injustice that just sits there with no place to go because the people with the power to change it don’t.
And also in the last couple of nights people broke windows and spray painted buildings. Sometimes (and I’ve seen it personally) the breaking of windows is done at the very end of a protest by (many times white) people who just want to break stuff. And sometimes the breaking of windows is end of tether, nowhere to go with your impotent rage property damage. And while it is destructive and dangerous, it is different than hurting people. The violence occurs after that, when the police use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, clubs, shields and vehicles to inflict injury on people armed with rocks, spray paint and nothing to lose. (I’ll add here that even if the window smashing is being done by white boys with mommy issues, the police can easily contain that without gassing a neighborhood.)
I’m a white guy who co-owns a business, so I’ll try to stay in my lane. I won’t pretend to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. I won’t tell anyone how, why or when they should protest – and I won’t tell them to be peaceful. I will hope for non-violence on the part of the police and protesters because violence – injuring or killing – diminishes humanity. Violence is abhorrent.
I’ll be nervous about my bookstore, the staff who works there and the cat who lives there. I’ll support the small businesses around me who have broken windows and I’ll help build a community that cares deeply for its citizens. I’ll support the movement for equality and justice for all because lives are at stake. I’ll march when I can and be a hermit when my mental health demands it.
But I won’t call for peace. No justice, no peace.
The day before the decision was made the decision had already been made. He must have wondered what all the tears were about. He leaned into my leg to comfort me and yelped at his own pain.
The air in the house, the place we cuddled, played and fought, was thick with heartbreak. Outside, the weather had been brutal. High 90’s heat. St. Louis humidity. Oppressive. But on this night, the night before we made the decision we had already made, there was a thunderstorm and after it, a break. A cool evening with puddles and wet smells.
The grief was a live wire short circuiting in my chest and radiating a sharp and sustained jolt down my arms and legs.
“I’ll take a walk,” I said. Kris was worried. Late night alone with my thoughts hasn’t been a good idea in a while, so instead I folded laundry, cried, carried clothes upstairs, lingered.
Kris went to bed and I rambled around the kitchen and let out our other dog, Greta. She leapt down the back stairs and made her way into the hostas.
Bruno couldn’t make it outside on his own but wagged his tail at me anyway and followed me to the bathroom, our usual pre-walk ritual. He stands by the bathroom door and waits for me to finish, put on my shoes and get his leash from the bucket by the door.
The house was quiet and there was nobody there to stop us.
I clipped on his leash. Just his regular collar. We’re long past the time of the pinch collar on this 100 lb beast. We stepped carefully onto the front porch then down the stairs to the yard. He limped and dragged to the oak tree we planted after the sycamore blew down. He sniffed and peed.
He looked back at me, the question on both our minds – how far will we go?
Slowly we edged to the sidewalk. He picked up a lumbering pace and headed to our ritual path, the route he and i have walked nearly every day for over a decade. His paws splashed in the puddles. We both breathed the clear air. “No rules tonight, my friend,” i said. “We are free and easy. It’s just us, me and you against the world.” And we both believed it.
I read somewhere that grief, at its essence, isn’t so much about death itself but the sharp recognition of a loss of that which you were unaware could be lost. And here in the night air in sharp relief was the beginning of the loss.
Him, injured hungry and alone walking himself to the bookstore to be found by Kris and adopted by us. The howl on the back porch because he was afraid of the dark that first night when we were too afraid to let him inside. His first bath. His surprise when we had his eyes fixed and could see for the first time. His perpetual posture of dismay at finding himself in this ill-fitting dog suit. The toothy smile and bulldog stomp when he was excited for dinner. Him wearing the ugly christmas sweater and felt antlers beside the tree. The weight of him when he crawled on top of me and guarded me from my own soul’s darkness. Every walk, every time – even when he slowed down with age. Even when he lingered at the same blades of grass both going and coming back. The pride in being his companion. The compliments on his beautiful one-of-a-kind self from passers by. The knowledge that the scene of us walking side by side on the sidewalk made Kris happy. His vendetta against the cats. His fear of both thunder and vacuum cleaners. His whole complicated role in our family drama.
The loss will continue to reveal itself.
Our escape that night lasted for a block and I turned us around. He’d walk all night if i asked him to. Even when he couldn’t move his feet anymore, he’d try. And I wanted to keep walking into the darkness with him, free and easy together side by side.
But I love my friend, my companion, my couch partner, my puppy pile mate; and he has given us all of his dog life and would offer more even in this pain, so I don’t ask.
I will not ask one more thing of him.
By the time you read this, I will have cried for days. We will have chosen between suffering and death. I will have sat next to him on the couch, and when he looked at me with those eyes, the left brown, the right a bluish white, I will have told him as i always do on the last block of our walk, “We’re almost there, buddy. We’re almost home.”
When I post this, our sweet, steady friend will be gone. There will be chew bones and beds and reminders of his life here. I will clean it up and pack it away. I will be a live wire of grief, and i won’t promise an end to it.
And still, forever, we are both exquisitely alive exactly then in the dark street, sneaking out after the rain, when there isn’t a future, but we are free now, and just for this moment it is enough.
Mary Oliver‘s Devotions comes out in October 2017, but I’ve been carrying the advance reading copy around with me every day. It’s water-stained. The pages are folded down. Various poems are marked for easy reference. She is in my head.
I’ve visited this forest several times over the past months, marching in each time without the vaguest idea what I needed and crawling out each time with a different message. It’s a watchful woods.
There’s something sacred about the beat up ARC of Devotions. Something that echoes the sacred place I’ve found here, deep in the woods, off the trail – alone. It speaks the same language as this private, peaceful place.
I’ve read the poems to the trees.
It occurred to me that her words are a love affair with just this kind of thing. I had visions of the sounds of them carrying through the branches and across the creek bed, slipping through the spider webs and caressing the tips of the leaves. So today I marched in, still without the vaguest idea of what I needed but with a mission. I chose twenty of my favorite poems from the collection, typed them up and carried them into the woods. I sat in the creek bed and cut the paper, punched the holes, glued the pieces of this tribute together and cut the twine with my pocket knife. And then I looked for the place. If you know anything about wild places, they don’t conform to what you want. They are oblivious to you. I sat on a fallen tree, disappointed and discouraged. How can you pick one patch of an infinite continuum of perfection to make words float?
Of course, as it always is, the answer was right in front of me. There is no patch that is better than another, so right in front of me is where I started.
So, here it is. Twenty of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, suspended in a sacred (to me) forest for just a few moments on a day that is like any other in this place, where life and death are the same motion and I am part of the dust and bark.
Top 20 (for now, and in no particular order – ever)
HOW I GO TO THE WOODS
WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
I’M NOT THE RIVER
DO STONES FEEL?
SEVEN WHITE BUTTERFLIES
THE WORLD I LIVE IN
CAN YOU IMAGINE?
AFTER READING LUCRETIUS, I GO TO THE POND
PASSING THE UNWORKED FIELD
I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
THE OTHER KINGDOMS
ON MEDITATING, SORT OF
THE OLD POETS OF CHINA
I OWN A HOUSE
This is not a post is not a story of triumph. There will be no Facebook post with accompanying photo about my interview with Roxane Gay because there will be no interview.
Oh, I was asked. My bookstore is co-hosting the event for her new memoir, Hunger. But like her book, the first book I’ve been able to successfully read beginning to end in 10 months – ok a year, if I’m being completely honest (I tried, Bruce), my story is not one with a neat happy ending. Back in October, I melted down completely, spiraled into a horrid depression, and I haven’t been able to read more than a paragraph or two at a time.
My passion for words shrank to scattered thought, then slowly to short poems, then an article or two. It’s been a nasty little secret until now, so when I got the email asking if I would be “in conversation” with Ms. Gay, I had to read it a few times to actually understand it. Then I thought for a day or two before answering no, citing vague health issues. I told the people around me that it wouldn’t make sense for me, a white guy who only struggles mildly with his weight to discuss such a tender, vulnerable subject with someone who has so clearly been subjected to mildly out of shape white guys’ opinions about her body.
The truth is I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to read in time to be articulate in front of a crowd. I was afraid of being exposed as an illiterate bookseller. A fraud. Of course, I’m not really illiterate, not permanently at least. The strange cognitive twist is that I can still write, but that doesn’t translate to intelligent discussion in front of an audience with someone as formidable as Roxane Gay.
But I regret my “no” answer now, so I’ll express my angst here in a public sort of letter.
Ms. Gay – yours is the very first book I could read, and if I had it to do over again, I would say yes to the interview. Not because I’m an entitled white guy (although an argument could be made that I am) but because I spent 30 years in a female body I couldn’t reconcile before becoming this guy.
I would have loved to ask you about the bold, daring, stare the fear straight in the eyes courage it took to crack your life wide open in the pages of this book. We have a lot in common. We could have talked about binging. We could have talked about sexual assault, about being attacked from within our own bodies. We could have talked about attacking our own bodies. We could have talked about trauma housed in every cell that we want to lose, but cannot set free. We could have talked about being so very alone in our cages – differently shaped cages, yes, but cages. We could have talked about shame. About touch. About both craving it and slapping it away.
We could have talked about bodies, fat bodies, cis female bodies, transgender bodies, black bodies – all of the kinds of bodies that are war zones, that are property put up for public debate and judgement without input from the souls who inhabit those bodies.
We could have talked about taking up space and wishing we could disappear. We could have talked about public space – TSA lines and airplanes, bathroom stalls and swimming pools.
But we won’t, and I’m sorry. Sorry, not as an apology to you (you will be great as always and your book and event are not about me) so much as an expression of deep sorrow and regret that I had the chance to sit on a stage with you and talk freely about the experience of a body at war with itself – regret that I *finally* read something all the way through after months of sheer desperation BECAUSE you talked freely in this book and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t look away from the devastating beauty of it.
We met before, on your tour for Bad Feminist. It was hot. We borrowed the empty space next to the store to accommodate a more people. I built a stage specifically for the event. The air conditioner broke that day. I was the guy with the fan. You, no doubt, do not remember me and that’s ok. I was being invisible that day, too. But I remember you. I saw you. I see you now. And even though we won’t do this conversation in person, I’ll take this small chance to thank you for writing this exquisite book.
So this post ends here. Not quite satisfying. Not triumphant. Not neatly finished. Imperfect and sort of selfish. But hopeful and grateful.
I’m pretty sure my son voted for Trump. I can’t bring myself to ask him directly, but I’m relatively sure his opinion hadn’t changed between the beer I had with him to celebrate his birthday in September and the election in November. I don’t know what he thinks of things now either – whether he regrets his vote or not. For an anti-racist, progressive transgender man such as myself, this is a gut check.
He looks at politicians with a raised eyebrow and barely contained eye-roll. He doesn’t see much honor or honesty among any of our elected officials in any capacity, and I think I may have taught him that.
We’ve spent hours over the course of his life talking about things that matter -love, honor, truthfulness, dreams, the future, critical thinking. Those are the conversations you get when you’re distilling a week’s worth of parenting into a weekend visit or dinner at Olga’s Kitchen in the mall. There’s no time for idle chatter before the inevitable drop-off at the end of the visit. Then that’s followed by the drive home with grief and regret that you didn’t get to everything. Every. Little. Thing. Because every little thing is what I missed.
As he got older, his reality parted from mine. He didn’t go to college even though he is smart enough. He couldn’t justify the debt without the guarantee of a salary that would pay for the student loans. What he did instead was follow his other parent into metal working (which is kind of bad ass anyway). He’s had a few good jobs, but a few jobs isn’t what he really wanted. It’s not what anybody really wants. But he’s a responsible, caring, funny and thoughtful man – a certain kind of happiness finds that kind of person no matter what they do for a living, and I am proud of him.
During our shared birthday beer we argued over policies and debated about candidates. We talked about schools and banks and business. We fundamentally agreed on mostly everything. He is a smart, engaged voter.
And we still came to different conclusions.
Every time I hear my friends – many of whom I respect, many of whom I have stood beside during protests, parades, marches, educational talks and author events – say they’ve blocked out everyone who voted for Trump I am gut checked.
This is a time like no other. The structure of our government is in peril. I can barely keep up with the daily onslaught of regressive, destructive mandates from a racist sociopath who surrounds himself with other racist sociopaths. I mourn because it’s evident that our country has elected a functionally illiterate celebrity to silence the press and mock and dismantle our government like it’s a reality tv show.
My social media feeds are electrified with outrage, fear and calls for resistance. There are pleas to contact representatives, calls to action, marches unlike any other in history – a collective scream and chest clutch that reaches around the globe.
And I still love my son. I think he mistook entertainment and manipulation for truth telling. I think he was conned. But I still love him, and I won’t give up the precious hours I have with him (that are now fewer and fewer) talking about things that don’t matter. And I won’t give up any time with him that I can get.
Yesterday I posted on Facebook:
– Watching a screaming man being taken away to a psych ward in leg shackles for squatting in an apartment,
– getting news of DeVos’ confirmation on the phone i took out to film in case of a violent turn of events, and
-calming a dog terrified of loud sounds
is too much for me to process at the moment. Layers of processing there.
I will say this though –
When park rangers and teachers are dissidents, we have clear and indisputable evidence of a sick society.”
My good friend Alfred replied:
“Or a society that is beginning to know where to turn to find its healing …”
This stuck with me. Another gut check. I’ll advocate. I’ll call my senators. I’ll resist. I’ll fight fascism like my life depends on it – it does.
But what it comes down to every time is the brave trust we have in each other, one on one, to take care of each other. The heroes of this story won’t be our congress or lawyers. They never have been. We are.
We have to turn to each other once again, make and keep small promises, teach the truth even if it’s dangerous, speak even if it’s softly, listen even if it’s hard – even if it hurts – and argue about the things that still matter.
But above all, if we’re going to be the heroes of our own American story, we must take leadership from others who have fought oppression for generations and learn this lesson –
Our institutions won’t save us. We the people are the only ones capable of saving ourselves. Each of us, one by one, two by two, must choose to be brave enough to keep the fabric of our common dream intact. We must fight each other like hell and choose to love each other anyway.
I think I’ll call my kid now.