Mary Oliver – A Devotion


 

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

BLACK OAKS

I’M NOT THE RIVER

MYSTERIES, YES

PRAYING

DO STONES FEEL?

SEVEN WHITE BUTTERFLIES

THE WORLD I LIVE IN

CAN YOU IMAGINE?

AFTER READING LUCRETIUS, I GO TO THE POND

LIFE STORY

PASSING THE UNWORKED FIELD

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE

BLUE IRIS

THE OTHER KINGDOMS

ON MEDITATING, SORT OF

THE OLD POETS OF CHINA

I OWN A HOUSE

INVITATION

About Not Interviewing Roxane Gay


Roxane Gay - Hunger 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.

Every Little Thing -In Search of the American Soul


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:

“Simultaneously
– 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.

​About Birthdays Balance and Being


January 20, 2017

My love built for me a gift of levels and measures – 

some antique, some foreign, some mine.

I can inhabit the precision, the delicate balance, the fragile history of each one. I can feel the hands, calloused and careful, that used these and know my hands were among them.

We all build strong things with fragile tools.

And on this birthday of mine, January 20, 2017, I’ll hang it on my wall to remind me that there is a history of building new things out of lost tools. 

That the measurements and balances still matter – will always matter.

And maybe that will be hopeful enough.

Dearly Beloved


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I was getting my teeth cleaned when Prince died. I can’t be certain of that fact, but by the time I made it back from the outer suburbs of St. Louis to the bookstore and heard the news, enough time had passed that it was conceivable that I was discussing TMJ treatments with the new dental hygienist when he last took a breath.

Or maybe his passing happened earlier in the morning, just before sunrise, when I woke up one of many times wrestling with my cpap machine and rolled over, eyes closed but thoughts circling around and around the Trans Town Hall meeting last night, dissecting the countless ways I could have been cooler, younger, handsomer, smarter talking to the crowd of activists- each exquisite in their vulnerability and power.

Or maybe he had already died as I walked from my truck to the church for the meeting in the rain, first putting on a baseball cap, then taking it off and carrying the umbrella, then wondering if the baseball cap would have made me look less predictable, less depressed, less…just less.  Maybe he had already left the world then.

2012princepurplerainmoviepress051212I don’t remember the first time I heard Little Red Corvette. My musical taste at the time skewed toward Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.  It would have been a few years later, watching Purple Rain on a jumpy video cassette tape on a VCR I rented from the rental place across from the IGA, that I got it- the complicated sex muscling itself through the ruffled collar, purple suit and cape of hair pinned with sheer will into a pose of androgynous masculinity.

Prince was always surrounded by mist, attitude, music and sex in my imagination.  When I sit in my basement bookstore office and reconcile bills, he crafts moody lyrics in a studio somewhere. When I vacuum dog hair off the couch, he parts the curtain on an impromptu concert somewhere unfathomably cool.

So when, in the middle of a discussion about staff management, someone comes up to me and says “Prince is dead,” I don’t believe them.  It’s impossible that the person who changed his name to a symbol could do something as ordinary as die.

And yet here we are. The world is short a little magic now.  We’re left with a little less swagger. A little less sex. A little less… just less.

Damn it.

 

My Bernie-Hillary Struggle


Let’s talk about politics. Specifically this tedious primary race. I have to start in a church nursery circa 1983.  I know, it doesn’t seem to relate, but trust me with a few minutes of your time.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old I asked my mom if I could babysit with her during church.  The nursery at Gospel Baptist* was in a completely different building, a small converted house, that sat adjacent to the church. I didn’t care about watching the little kids, but I didn’t want to sit still on a pew with my dad, so I sat in the baby room with my mom listening to the transistor radio on the changing table. Brother Ray’s* sermon was being broadcast over a local station and we could hear him building momentum through the tinny speakers.  The toddlers in the room next to us had already built a fevered pitch so mom turned up the volume a little.  Just as she did, Brother Ray hit his stride. You could practically see him wiping his face with the handkerchief.  You could hear the calls of AMEN coming from the congregation.

“You can take this to the bank, my friends. This way is God’s way. God’s way is the only way. And all the other ways are the wrong ways!”

“AMEN”

“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “The Catholics and all the rest… the Pentecostals speaking in tongues, they’re all wrong.”

He got quieter. I was familiar with this rhythm.  The slowing and building, each swell outsizing the last.

“And brothers and sisters, I may get into trouble for saying so.  No, no I may!  There are those who won’t want to hear what I’m about to say, but I have to say it. God put the words in my mouth so they must be heard.”

I was riveted. There is no cadence quite like a Southern Baptist Preacher who has a belly full of righteous anger.  It is captivating.

“I’ll say it now and you’ll all be my witness, you here in the pews and you out there listening on the radio.” That was me.  He was talking to me.

“They are CULTS that’s what they are. The only way to heaven is through Jesus, through giving yourself to his will by repenting your sins and giving your life to Jesus, the son of God right here in this church! And I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this on the air and they might take me off the air but I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE.  I TELL YOU, I WILL NEVER APOLOGIZE!”

His voice boomed through the speakers.  I looked out the window to the church to see if armies of other religions had surrounded us.  I worried that the radio feed would be cut for his proclamation, that the heathens would try to silence him.  I was ready to defend.  Let them come.  We had the might of right on our side!

But the heathens never came.  We went to Wendy’s for burgers after the service like usual.  Still, that explosive bad boy/good boy fire stuck with me. I was intoxicated.

I didn’t stay with the church. Mom & dad got divorced and I’m queerer than they’d like, plus the higher power I serve now is bigger than a jealous god. Gospel Baptist probably wouldn’t have me back anyway. But good god, I love fiery passion.  I love the underdog. I love righteous anger. I love holding back the masses to preserve the sacred.  (I am a bookseller, you know.) But I also know about messiahs and how they almost always disappoint you.

And that brings me to this year’s primary race for the Presidency.  Specifically the Democratic primary.

It’s easy to point to a guy like Trump and recognize his self-proclaimed deification as ridiculous and dangerous. Cruz draws from the same pool as Brother Ray. That’s familiar and easy. But Clinton and Sanders?  They’re from the side of the aisle that fights over issues – not personalities.  Progressives are about secular politics, about civil rights, about rational thought and science. Right?

And here we are, supporters of both candidates,  loading our Facebook walls with 40 year old photos of arrests as evidence of civil rights involvement, un-vetted accusations of corruption, memes featuring the other candidate as false and untrustworthy-  bitter arguments among the faithful about which messiah is going to take us to the promised land.

The Clinton camp calls Sanders supporters Bernie Bros or Bernie Bots and condescend based on age and class. Sanders supporters practically paint flames and horns on Clinton, painting her as the embodiment of the establishment, the whole problem with the world.  The entirety of the Democratic base is in a competition to be the surrounded tribe whose underprivileged leader is righteous and holy and we are all convinced, CONVINCED that our choice is the only one. That all others are wrong.

And this brings me back to the church nursery in 1983.  When Brother Ray shouted into the microphone that he WOULD NOT APOLOGIZE for calling all other religions illegitimate cults he had the zealot’s rage of a David spitting in a Goliath’s eye.  It was Gospel Baptist Church of Effingham against literally everybody else in the world.  To quote from the  Tinker Tailor Solder Spy movie, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” To protect himself from that doubt, he had painted himself into a corner where his religion could not survive if others did and other religions could not survive if his did. There was no room for growth. No room to bring anyone in, just to call everyone out.  Incidentally, a few years later we discovered that Brother Ray had been cheating on his wife with the church secretary and he left in disgrace.

Sooner or later, one candidate will win enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee, and now I fear that each candidate’s supporters have painted themselves into the same corner.  I think that one or the other candidate could end all of it all at once if instead of vilifying anyone or naming their endorsements they just answered a question about a past bad vote or bad position on an issue like this, “I’m sorry.  I apologize for not being where I needed to be on that issue, but I am being the best I can be now and learning every day.  I am not a messiah, but a public servant.  I am a human being who learns from my mistakes and will do my best to represent you.”

The antidote to the overblown narcissism and bellicose rhetoric is humility.  Simple as that.  Real leaders listen. Revolutions succeed because the revolutionaries love each other as much as their cause.

I’ll vote for one or the other.  It’s none of your business who.  But I will say a Clinton-Sanders or Sanders-Clinton ticket would be unstoppable if the supporters of both candidates would stop burning the bridge between them.

*I changed the name of the church and preacher.  Exposing that church and his family would pretty much negate the growth and humility I ask for here.

In the Forever That You Are Gone


A poem I wrote for Transgender Remembrance Day 2015

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In the forever that you are gone
No secrets will pass your lips
Your hand will not find mine and we will not share a joke.

In the empty sudden silence without your voice
I won’t wonder how to interrupt your story
I won’t not want to hear it again

You won’t have a point of view
Your favorites will become mundane
There will be no surprises.

You will not see what happened because you were here
And what is lost because you are not.

My foot will find your absence and I will fall into it
You will not catch me.

You will not soothe me
I will find no comfort in you.

In the forever that you are gone
I will know you by the balance of my hand on the steering wheel
The glance at a passing stranger
The drawing of the shade in the night
The yawning expanse of my reach to you

Layers of time will bury you
Generations of dust will gather you to the earth
The sky will swallow you whole

I will carry you into forever in the breath that I take to say your name.