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

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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.

1. – An essay I read at the Trans Spectrum Conference, St. Louis 11/6/2015


Today, at the invitation of a good friend, I pulled on my big boy pants and read an excerpt from a book I’m working on in front of a couple hundred people at the Trans Spectrum Conference at University of Missouri at St. Louis.  It felt pretty good to air out some of what I’m doing even if it’s unfinished.  So- I’ll air it out a little more.  Here it is – a random part of a random chapter in what will be a book about a random trans man.

________________________________________

The shoulders of my suit jacket were too small by an inch, and the sleeves hugged my armpits. If I crowded my plate like I usually do, the cuffs of my dress shirt stuck out in a betrayal of the civilized and citified version of me I was trying to give to the book editors sprinkled around the table with me and the others from the bookstore. My knee bounced and I checked the cloth napkin on my lap every few seconds to be sure I wouldn’t have to lean out of my seat to pick it up if it fell. I was sure the suit jacket would pinch off the blood supply to my arms and head leaving me a gasping, purple puddle on the carpeted floor of the exclusive steak house that the executives from Simon & Schuster had selected, and my charade as a dignified small business owner visiting New York City on business would come to an excruciating end.

I kept thinking of my first office job – a call center in Mascoutah, IL where I took phone calls from smokers of Carlton cigarettes who had saved enough upcs to send off for a prize in the Carlton Collection. My job was to make sure the gift they selected from the Carlton Catalog got to them. For the first time in my life, I could sit down to work. I called my girlfriend that first week on the job to tell her I had to stay late, you know, for a business meeting. That job would eventually come to an end not long after I took a phone call from someone holding their finger over the hole in their neck spoke through a voice box to ask how their duffel bag could have gone missing.

The invitation to lunch wasn’t something you could turn down, and when I thought of Steak House, I thought of all you can eat buffets and buttery rolls. My brain still defaulted to the Ponderosa dessert bar with soft serve dispenser even though I knew to expect hushed and meticulous service while seated among confusing silverware.

It was a large table, and I was isolated at the end with stylish and important women flanking me, chatting amongst themselves about important books while I watched to see what size bite and at which interval I should eat.

“Did you grow up in St. Louis?” I looked past the olive oil decanter at the immaculately manicured hand holding the glass of water, no ice. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and said, “I’ve been there once, I think.”

“Oh, no.” I said. I brought the napkin to my mouth and crossed my ankles under my chair. I silently scolded myself for using the napkin before the end of the meal. Nobody else wiped their mouths between bites. “Uh, no.” I continued. “I grew up in a small town in Illinois.” The three women nearest me paused in their conversation and waited. I took a drink of my water.

“Effingham.” I said. “It’s in the middle of Illinois where two interstates and two railroad lines meet.” Heads tilted in polite but tired permission to go on. “So it’s a crossroads.” Sweat trickled down my side, and I knew there would be a lake of sweat marking the back of my shirt. I was grateful for the jacket. “Our high school mascot was a heart.” I continued. “There was even a costume.”

When I give directions to Effingham, I tell people to drive east from St. Louis until you can’t find good music on the radio or cell phone reception. Then you’re there. If I need to reference a visual clue, I used to use the intersections of interstates 57/70. Now I use the hulking metal cross next to I70 on the way into town. I chattered on, trying to fill in the silence.
“Effingham? That sounds like a curse word.” Manicure smiled.

“It is.” I said and leaned for the first time on the back of my chair. We can laugh at this, I thought. We relaxed into conversation about hometowns. Each of these women paused before taking the next small bite of salad and momentarily visited their own memories of home and escape.

“My family is all still there.” I had relaxed too much. Awl and thayr had slipped in where all and there was supposed to be. I stiffened and sat up straighter.

“Oh, so you don’t see them much anymore?” The woman next to me asked. I forced my gaze to meet hers. Her mascara was flawless. Each eyelash was perfectly formed and feathered. I looked in vain for the usual midday clump in the corner or slight smear beneath the eyelid, but I couldn’t find anything to connect her to the girls I watched practicing with Maybeline in the bathroom mirror in junior high. Just flawless beauty with a seductive whisper of empathy.

I pulled at my pant leg under the tablecloth, a reflexive tug to cover up my Hanes work socks with the stretched out heel bunched up over the back of my slip-on shoes. My partner Kris and fellow booksellers were engrossed in debates with their dining companions about the publishing industry and literature, relaxed and easy. They verbally danced around each other in a seemingly choreographed small talk quickstep while I could only manage an adolescent nod from the school dance punch bowl.

I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to keep the waning attention of these women sending half their salads back to be wrapped to go.

“It’s a complicated story.” I began. “I was poor. We were poor. There was no college dream or expectation.” It was so easy to slip into my familiar hero myth where I overcome an early childhood in a trailer on a dirt road to emerge as a college educated bookstore owner.

“And then there was the transition,” I said. “I transitioned from female to male when I was 30.” My attempt at a conversational waltz had become a hurried fireman’s carry to the finish line. “My son was 10 and my partner was 50, so I went through puberty and menopause at the same time – with them.”

The three women leaned closer in. They glanced at each other and subtly,-so subtly that I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t look for it every time I come out to someone- looked for the woman hidden away inside my male body.

I knew I had won back the room. I had told my story. I had condensed it down to its minor heroics and scandal and had caricaturized the mundane. We all agreed that I could never have survived there in that town, as if smallness is sinister and population multiplies intelligence.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s only the part that makes me look strong for running away. It’s not the part that calls me back there every month or so, sometimes less, to weedy backyards and broke down swing sets, empty streets and a full Wal-Mart, no-time-for-bullshit-stares and an extra paper plate in case you do show up.

And I keep showing up.

Alongside the oiled roads in the summertime, foxtails grow in the ditches between the road and the soybean fields. There are no cars, and the sound of an oiled bicycle chain rides with you next to that ditch and those foxtails, and the smell of a hog farm heats in the sun, and a bee sting on your ankle aches under a dirty sweat. There is the big sky and a lone tree waving from the field so far away you’re not sure you see it at all.

That tree, a beacon wrinkling in the waves of heat between you and it, calls you in and makes you set out across that field, uncertain if time stops at the edge of it. And you don’t know if it’s your future forming itself or your past folding back in on you, swallowing you whole under the swell. You just lay down your bicycle and start walking toward the tree.

Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag


Well, this is problematic.  I don’t have anything against Ariel Schrag, per say like I do Norah Vincent (the reasons for which I could describe at length). Schrag is a talented writer.  Adam opens with a crushingly awkward and awesome scene where Adam, the 17-year-old protagonist tries to make out with a pretty girl in her bedroom while she IMs her other friends.  It sucked me in, I’ll admit.  When I picked the Advance Reading Copy off of a pile in my hallway to break my reading slump, I thought I was in for a light young adult novel – and it is, really – teenage protagonist, absent adults, adventure to new city, first-time sex.  Plus the blurb on the front was written by none other than Alison Bechdel, I mean holy crap, I love pretty much everything she’s done.

Synopsis:  Adam, socially awkward, 17 year old virgin moves to New York to live with his older (lesbian) sister Casey for the summer.  While there, he and his sister become involved with a group of friends – lesbian, bi and trans.  Adam is mostly on the periphery of the group, following them to clubs and parties, until he meets Gillian, a 22 year old lesbian, who mistakes him for a transman and starts dating him based on that assumption.

The story started out ok.  I even thought Schrag had broken into my head and lifted some of the awkward thoughts and panic attacks out of it and committed them to paper as she followed Adam through his social interactions.  And make no mistake, I remained sympathetic to Adam for pretty much the whole book.

Even as the story progressed, I found myself laughing at the posturing and posing of the 20-something scene in NYC, especially the Marriage Equality March scene where Schrag deftly and humorously illustrates the complicated and sometimes contradictory allegiances within the LGBT community.

Where this went off the rails for me is where Gillian, who is a 22 year old lesbian with more world and relationship experience than both Adam and Casey combined, mistakes a 17 year old high-school student for a 22 year old transgender man – not just once when she’s drunk at a party, but for a sustained relationship.  Why?  Because this pokes at a very sore spot for me as a transman.

Do sparse facial hair, acne and social awkwardness define trans for Schrag?  What about obsession with sex and body image? How about emotional immaturity and desperation for inclusion?  Because those are the only things about Adam’s character that Schrag draws upon to make her case that he is a passable transman.  The other transmen in the story are one-dimensional stereotypes obsessed with their bodies and masculinity who casually hook up with women like Casey and then break their hearts.  (Then, of course the confused woman (Casey) realizes she’s really into butch women and abandons the idea of transmen altogether.)

This premise is insulting to all involved.  In real life, Gillian would have figured out she was dating a teenage boy who had never even kissed a girl immediately.  Transmen have the unique experience of being socialized as girls.  Adam once sneaked his best friend to a place where they could watch his sister have sex with her girlfriend.  I sincerely doubt that same person could pull off even one day in the company of a group of people including other (real) transmen.

During the course of their relationship, Adam crams like he would for an exam so that he can pass as a transman.  He memorizes testosterone doses, surgeries, doctors, research and the shorthand lingo we use in online forums. He recites them in his head as one would before the big test, and throws out the bits of intelligence he’s gathered at strategic places so he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.

In other words, rote memorization without the experience – which is what Schrag’s treatment of the trans experience reads like.

Even still, the story held my interest for the day and a half it took for me to read the book.  And then the end of the story happened.

SPOILER ALERT

Gillian finds out Adam isn’t trans, is ok with it, decides she wants to date a 17 year old boy, then loses interest and begins a relationship with a cis gender man.

Sooo, what I’m hearing is that relationships with transmen (or people one thinks are trans) are only useful to clarify someone’s sexuality so that they can pursue a (real) relationship with the butch woman or cis gender man of their dreams.  So glad we can be of service. You’ll pardon me if I don’t let my partner of 12 years in on that secret.

I finished this book thinking, “Why can’t I find more good stories about trans people written by trans people?”  I suppose I should get to work.