Posted in On Writing

“Hey, Have You Read…”

I have been devouring books lately. 

While I always was a reader (save that anomalous period in my twenties), it’s hard to remember a time when I read quite like this. 

Maybe when I’ve been involved in a series; Brian Jacques’ Redwall comes to mind, as do the first five books of a most famous series involving an English wizard student. During my early teenage years, I read everything by Patricia Cornwell that I could get my hands on, about the forensic pathologist whom I hoped to emulate at the time. Prior to that it had been Lurlene McDaniel, the tragic romances of (some terminally) ill teenagers; after that it was Nora Roberts and the approximate six thousand books she’s written, as well as under her pseudonym, JD Robb. By these five authors alone I must have read somewhere between 200-300 books, and that’s not an exaggeration. This is also not to mention the everlasting Babysitter’s ClubBoxcar Children, and Judy Blume volumes that pre-dated any shred of romance or shadow of puberty. OK, so I totally read like this when I was a kid – or at least before college. 

I fell in love with public health reading my assigned incoming freshman book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Paul Farmer remains an inspiration to this day. That’s the last book I remember before schoolwork took over. I had ideas of being an English major on the pre-med track at that time. That first semester I took two heavier reading courses, one mandatory and one for adolescent lit, which introduced me to entire worlds – the ones that stick with me are Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Those books still take up residence in my soul and influence my daily thoughts, that there is something under the surface of everything we see. The next semester, however, I took a class on the American health care system, and that beckoned me on to major and get my degree in public health. Luckily, it meant I got to read a whole bunch of other books – memoirs and sociology alongside the drudgery of biochemistry. I didn’t realize that the accounts of folks living with Downs’ syndrome or paralysis would be some of the last things I would read for a decade.

The dropoff was steep; I struggled with my mental health in my senior year and ended up spending some time on an inpatient psychiatric unit. I can look back now and have compassion for the young woman who was scared and alone, both vulnerable and stubborn. After that, reading was largely missing from my life. It was a combination of the medications (which I definitely needed) and major upheavals in my life: getting married, moving to Buffalo, and knowing almost instantly that it was all a mistake that I couldn’t make right. For the first time, I was watching TV regularly. I’ve seen more CSI, NCIS, and other various cop drama than I care to remember sitting on the couch in my husband’s grandmother’s house. I was still very depressed even if I couldn’t articulate it then. Finally I transferred my EMT card and got a job with the local company on overnights. It took two semesters to finish the few credits I needed to transfer back to actually finish my degree. The year of school days and work nights pushed me to the brink of exhaustion. I’d sometimes pick up one of my Nora Roberts for a bit of comfort, but reading was something, like writing, that had largely disappeared from my life.

Later, in the early days of our relationship, Hawthorne and I didn’t exactly spend our time together turning pages. We talked about it, though, extensively. By the time they left the field to go back to school and I changed companies to be outside the city, we were an official couple. I had a brief window where I’d always have at least one paperback at the ready.

Hawthorne knew I had not been able to indulge in books and reading the way I wanted, the way we talked about doing one sunny day. They wanted me to read more than romance, which I wholeheartedly agreed with, though it has always remained my comfort food. I had felt so stymied that I was intimidated by the sheer number of possibilities of “what to read next.” I will forever be grateful to Hawthorne for gently opening the doors to whole new worlds and drew me back into this beautiful genre I hadn’t begun to explore of creative nonfiction with authors like David Sedaris and Oliver Sacks. They also introduced me (in some cases, re-introduced me) to Hemingway, to Steinbeck, to Jeanette Winterson and Annie Proulx, Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor. As I returned to the written word, I introduced them to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Tracy Kidder. In the four months between Hawthorne starting school and me becoming the quality manager at my ambulance company, I read ten novels, two of which – Bridges of Madison County and East of Eden – are still some of my favorites.

It was an amazing way to build a relationship, on a bedrock of literature shared and mostly enjoyed. We had some failed trials, sure; I liked Lolita, but haven’t yet tried any Dostoyevsky; they never did get through more than a couple chapters of Nora Robert, and I liked more real science than they ever did. As for the myriad of sociological authors they left behind on our shelves? There’s only a few on my TBR: Proust, Foucault, Shelton.  

As I began to read more and more reports for work, I turned less to the shelves again, but never so hard as to forget their importance in my life. Even now I still have a tendency to absolutely inhale the volumes of Nora Roberts, gulping down chapter after quick chapter whenever I stumble across a new one. My mother used to buy me two of her books a year – one for my Easter basket, and one for Christmas. They never lasted a day. Now I willingly go on anticipated binges; I wait a while, cleansing my palate of formulaic cis-het, white, vanilla romance. Then I will frustrate myself trying to navigate the connection between the Kindle app and my library app to blow through four or five that have come out during my fast. I carry the Kindle to the kitchen to get fresh coffee, to the back door to let the dog out, and forget to feed myself (don’t worry, Lucy cannot be forgotten). At the end, I raise my head, utterly dazed and disoriented. It takes a couple hours for the headache to fade and my vision to clear, and few days for my neck to get back to the correct angle from being so intently bent towards the screen. (I’m rolling my shoulder out and correcting my posture now just thinking about it.)

After Oscar’s death, then Hawthorne’s, I have turned back to words. Writing them, reading them, watching my tears soak into the ink. I pushed myself through Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking and thumbed the dog-eared pages of my favorite romances. When I began starting to piece my new life that I’d been given back together, I filled my shelves to bursting (they were already quite full) with self-help books with titles like Girl, Wash Your Face and You’re Not Lost. They had some good lines; there’s plenty of marginalia to go back to, but over self-help books just weren’t that helpful. 

I began reading again, deliberately, in 2021. That year I started nine books and finished five. One of them, Too Like the Lightning, remains unfinished – not because it isn’t amazing, but because I rarely have the time to devote to being totally immersed into a world so different than mine. Ada Palmer’s glorious stories demand of me a minimum of two uninterrupted hours to make any progress. 

In 2022, I made daily reading a habit I wanted to keep (with wavering success) and set a goal of 26 books for the year. Counting a 500-page novel draft from a friend, I hit the goal with an eclectic mix of gay romance, mainstream fiction, Brene Brown recommendations, and nonfiction books about the death of the body. There was the beta-read novel for a friend, two audiobooks, and at least 5 Nora Roberts on my Kindle. 

My goal for 2023 was 30 books. I planned on pacing it out, but then someone gave me TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea.

Since then, I have had an insatiable need to stare into the pages, my eyes racing over the text, and never feeling like it’s enough. I feel greedy, possessive; I gather these volumes to me, unable to wait for the paperback versions, needing to feel the weight in my hands. The scent of new books, old books, the dust and the ink all further whet my appetite for them. I long to be in bookstores with infinite money and infinite time, and have visited three different libraries already this year.

On my little retreat in Provincetown; I brought several books that I had started or wanted to read, a mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction books on writing. To no one’s utter shock and disbelief, it turns out that when I have stretches of time to myself, I still will find a comfy spot and dive into a book until something interrupts me. I finished two books I had begun prior to the retreat, and read two more completed, and started a fifth. (I also may have visited every bookstore in town and purchased an additional ten titles but that’s not the point. In fact, I should be commended that it was only ten, especially since one of them was a used bookstore.)

I thought, okay, this is a little vacation fluke. I can’t keep up this pace. I’ll fall back into my old ways and struggle to get ten minutes of reading, my little goal, in per day. 

Turns out I was only partially right – I couldn’t keep up that pace, but holy crap, I am still reading more than I have in years. I’ve finished, what, three more books since returning? In three weeks? I am two books ahead of my goal per Goodreads. 

I keep a new picture on my phone screen to remind me that “what you are not changing, you are choosing.” I have been trying to get off my phone for a while. It’s hard. I like the distraction, the immediate dopamine hit, and I’ve also discovered a particular animal sanctuary whom I’m a little obsessed with. But man, I do not want to be staring at that little screen as long as I do. I’ve set limits on apps – 30 minutes on Facebook, 60 on games;  but I can easily make excuses to not follow the self-set rule. I find ways to circumvent it, opening things to read in my browser instead of Facebook, subtracting the Maps and Facetime minutes. Bad mental health days see the times spike; good days, where I hike or create or connect with live people, those days see the times drop. So, too, the days I spend reading – and that’s what I want. 

I want to live a life where I do read voraciously, where I am spending my energies in saturating experiences like books or travel or laughing with friends. I want to be caught up in my life as I get in the lives of characters, to be focused and mindful of the story and my place in it. I want to think of seas as cerulean and feel my heart pound for fumbling first kisses. I want to remember the hum of magic just under the surface and the feeling that we are never really alone in the woods. I want to find the worms when I dig my hands into the earth, brush dandelion seeds from my daughter’s hair, and show her the world beyond these screens. It’s not easy to get away from all the distraction, but oh, it’s so worth it. 

This was long and rambling. Thank you for reading. I hope you keep reading, anything you stumble across. Blogs and books and cereal boxes and bottles of shampoo in the shower. It is thrilling to me that my words can be part of your reading journey. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized

Me, Myself, I

I’ve been talking to myself for years. Out loud, in my head, for as long as I can remember. Truth is, I can’t really tell silence apart from my thoughts when I’m alone.

I remember when social media discovered that not everyone has an internal monologue and how shocking it was (I was surprised, were you surprised? I was very surprised). I have no idea what it is like to live and not have a constant radio in my brain, peppered with dad jokes, movie quotes, and song lyrics, like hurdles for the racing of my thoughts. Even now, I can hear the words as they want to be written down. It’s so hard to keep up, even though I know I have good typing speed. The red lines indicating misspellings are new obstacles that must be corrected and cleared before I can go on. Unless I am taking minutes and need to keep up with others, there is no way for me to not edit as I write. It takes far more energy to fight that urge than it does to simply roll with it, hit delete with my pinky a few times, and correct the spelling. Does it screw up the flow of the radio? Not really, because I’m watching the screen and if I spell something like “F-I-H-G-T,” and don’t correct it, that’s when my brain stumbles trying to figure out how the hell to say that – out loud, inside my brain, where no one else can hear it. 

This is something I have wondered about with telepathy, or the burgeoning technology that allows those who cannot speak to be able to communicate brainwaves. Do they have an internal monologue? What gets transmitted? Is it all the static, the rushing thoughts, a high-speed monorail constantly switching tracks? Or does it have to be delivered, a thought like writing, like “this is what I want to say?” Either way, unless I lose the ability to speak and write (one of my greatest fears), count me out. I don’t want to have to share this with anyone; not for their sake, but mine. Usually. 

I started reading Oliver Sacks close to ten years ago. Between us, Hawthorne and I collected and read a dozen of his titles. As a person with migraines, and with close proximity to other ways the brain can betray the body, it was fascinating. I recognized some of the stories – patients I had taken in the ambulance and the things that they had said. Some of the diagnoses with more rare characteristics I know I’ve seen on hospital drama shows. The self-care movements of late, with emphasis on how we speak to ourselves, make me want to reread those titles. (Should I add them to my GoodReads list? TBR pile? Change their spot on the bookshelf? Does it count to my year goal if I re-read something? The train rushes on without answers.)

In listening to folks like Brene Brown and KC Davis, as well as in therapy sessions and with certain friends, I accept the challenge of looking inward. I think of all the different “me’s” there are: my inner child striving for perfection, my alter-ego struggling to come to the surface. I think who I try to focus on most are more time-based than psychological, though – past, future, and present me. 

How do I take care of me today?

Past me, I can give her therapy. I pay the fee and let her lead for the 50 minutes. It is her time, to bring up whatever she needs. Parents, relationships, pain, grief. She usually tries to save the good memories for me, or just share them with friends who aren’t paid for their service. She is gracious and if she doesn’t want to use it, she gives it back to present me. 

Future me, I can give her action. I can get that thing done instead of waiting til tomorrow; I can unload the clean dishwasher, prep the coffeemaker, charge the devices. Future me is often harried and forgetful, trying to get out the door with a dog barking in the crate and a toddler insisting her shoes be on the wrong feet. It’s not that she’s not grateful, she just doesn’t usually remember to say it.

Present me. What can I do for present me? I’m still learning. I’m learning to slow down, to let present me breathe. To enjoy the moments as they’re revealed, miniscule packages wrapped in grace. I relax my shoulders, unclench my jaw.

Present me has it tough. She has to deal with the negative self-talk I still fall into (though my most common nickname for myself, dumbass, comes out less and less these days). She gets caught up in the shit; being touched-out, exhausted, and unable to do anything of substance past toddler bedtime. A mere mortal, my wife used to call me, when I wouldn’t accomplish ridiculous amounts of things on an arbitrary list. Fuck that noise. 

All of these gifts – the therapy, the action, the grace – come at costs that I’m willing to pay, if not always able. Sometimes I screw up. I rushed through watering my plants this week, a chore I always enjoy. I usually stop to stroke the leaves, and yes, talk to each plant. They get compliments and wonder, apologies if needed (add to the list: repotting some of these plants. Who can help with the old hoya? What size pot do I need for the new succulents? Why is aloe such damn challenge for me to keep alive? How much food do the violets need? The tracks are singing.) This week I was distracted with a sick kiddo and wanted to get it done. When she is sick, she’s much more snuggly, and it’s easy to let myself rest with her like that. 

If future me gets action, she also gets accountability. That’s a gift, wrapped and waiting patiently, for present me to get there, the satisfaction of checking it off a list or the time and energy saved from it already being done. 

If past me gets therapy, she also gets space. She is not shoved into corners to let everything inside build and build and build; she gets the space to release that. Another gift to present me, the cleanse of release. 

And if present me gets presence in this bonkers and beautiful life, what more could she want?

There’s a quote that has been lodged in my head, paraphrased and uncited. The part that sticks with me is where it says something to the effect of, if we were to be fully present when we did something as simple as grocery shopping, we would be utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of the colors of the produce, the smells from the bakery, the choices before us. Not that I want to spend more time in the grocery store, but I get it. The moments when I put my phone down and pay attention to the moment – good and bad, the snuggles and the puking, the books and the bills – fill my cup. Those moments, the ones saturated in color or scent or light, the ones where I feel my connection to whatever earth I’m standing on, it’s those that I can give myself over and over again.  

And if my mind whispers along the tracks of calling myself spoiled, well, it’ll find something else soon enough. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the view; after all, we’re all just passing through. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Safety First, or, As American as Violence

Today I discovered that the FBI released a public service announcement and website on how to attempt to survive a mass shooting. The FBI. The biggest law enforcement agency this country. It’s not even new; it was released three years ago, and just happened to hit my feed today.

Run. Fight. Hide.

If this messaging sounds familiar, there’s a reason for it. 

American politics and policies have long put the onus on the victim to protect and defend themselves. It didn’t start with active shooter drills in elementary schools. Gay folks in the armed forces were taught that they could avoid sexuality-based violence if they kept their mouth shut. Women have been taught for decades how to avoid getting sexually assaulted. Black families have taught their children how to interact with cops so they don’t end up jailed or killed. 

Systemic issues should not place the burden of safety on the individual. And yet, here we are. 

This country was built on the blood and bodies of innocents. The colonizers didn’t see indigenous people as people. Still don’t. 

This country was built on the backs and by the hands of people stolen from their homes and enslaved across oceans. The slavetraders didn’t see black people as people. Still don’t.

This country was built on the unseen labor of women and fertile wombs. The patriarchs didn’t see women as people. Still don’t. 

This country was birthed from violence, and begets, and begets, and begets. 

“It could never happen here.” It could. It has. It does. It will.

Four years ago, I was in the minority (along with my public health friends) who were aware that this country was not prepared for a pandemic. You can’t shoot a virus, so I guess there wasn’t much funding. 

Twenty years ago, I didn’t live with the weight that any day, in any public or semi-public place, I could be a victim of a mass shooting. Columbine was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation tragedy. So was the Oklahoma City Bombing. So was 9/11. 

It has been going on so long I don’t even want to say that it isn’t normal. Because now, it is. 

In my line of work, we like to use simple visual tools to convey big ideas (stay with me here). The one that comes to mind is from OSHA, the organization responsible for ensuring occupational safety. Here it the hierarchy of controls, courtesy of Wikipedia: 

Can you see where we are on the chart? Where marginalized folks have been for generations? 

We are at the personal protective equipment level. 

The hazard has not been removed. It will not be. 

The hazard has not been replaced. It will not be. 

People have not been isolated from the hazard. They won’t be. 

The way people operate their day-to-day lives has changed, it can be argued; but not for safety, not on a societal scale. 

We are at the point of the triangle, where the individual must accept that no one in power is going to do fuck-all for them, and it is their own responsibility to survive the violent actions of other individuals. 

I’m not saying it’s not an important video and message to get out; I’m not saying it won’t save lives. It will. My point is, even though it shouldn’t have to, there are not enough people with enough money and enough power who can eke out a single fuck to give.

I don’t have a solution. Well, I have some ideas, but they keep getting squashed in the hallowed halls of the government. Call this a rant, call this screaming into the void. The video tonight just made it crystal clear that, for some time now, I’ve understood that on any day, it could happen here. And you know what bothers me about that, is how matter-of-fucking-fact it was. Just like, oh, might rain on Thursday. Might cause traffic problems. Might get shot while doing the grocery shopping this week. 

And it’s coming out like this, rage pouring through my fingers, as I sit here knowing my daughter is sleeping soundly having no goddamn idea about this yet in the next room. It breaks my heart and strengthens my resolve that I know all too soon, she, too, will learn that she might be next. 

Check out the video if you have the bandwidth. My daughter will learn how to stop the bleed. How to run, hide, and fight. 

May that she, and you, only ever know the fear of it happening and not the reality. 

Posted in Uncategorized

En Queer Air

I just came back from my second solo writing retreat. I started last year and decided it was going to be an annual thing, but both trips have been so beneficial for me, I really want to make it twice a year.

When I started writing this, I was mostly packed. I had my laptop and notebook out; that was it. The dishes were done, the linens collected and cute retro fridge emptied. All my bags were by the front door. 

I did not want to leave Provincetown. 

I had been twice before; the first trip with my ex-husband and his boyfriend, my memory was almost nonexistent. I don’t remember anything but walking alone while they held hands and walked ahead of me. The second time, with my wife and my cousins, was much better; still a little hazy in the rearview (and likely a beer or two), and close to ten years ago. My memories are blurred on the edges, photographs taken with too much joy and laughter to be in focus. I remembered the color on the streets, in the sky, on the people. 

From the moment I first walked downtown, I could tell it hadn’t changed. I mean, sure, I didn’t remember the exact art galleries or the placement of most of the boutique shops, and there certainly weren’t at least four recreational cannabis retailers. We hadn’t left the main drag then, and weed had still been illegal.  

Staying there solo for a whole weekend has been sating the craving in my soul for community, for being queer and creative, for the space to read and to write to my heart’s abandon. 

Queer spaces are few and far between in the real world, and when I’m out and about and it’s not Pride, the absence is noticeable. I feel it in my bones, a whisper the arises with every step on pavement. You are not safe here, not really. You are not the same, and different is dangerous.

I know I exist a lot easier, safer, than a lot of folks in my community. I am protected by my femme invisibility in a way many queer and trans* folx are not; I am protected by the privilege with which I was raised, and shows on my skin. Were I to stop saying the words “wife,” “queer,” “Mexican,” almost no one would look at me and be any the wiser. There is safety in the layers of privilege and protection. Still, I know how many “other” boxes I check, and I know the risks of being “other.”

But here, there is a lightness to my step, a shedding of the fear that inherently ripples through a regular day, a tiny rock stuck in my shoe. Here, I feel I am queer until proven straight. Here, when I walk into a bookstore full of pro-choice and pro-woman and sex positivity rally posters, and I cry, those tears are understood. The woman behind the counter has to ring me up twice after we get to talking and the transaction times out. She offers me the dyke discount, and I take it, walking away with pins and canon I hadn’t previously known. She shared her publication, and invites me to call her when mine is available. 

Here, the veil of threat that hangs over all strange men is gone. I am not leered at, by anyone. Children aren’t pulled away from anyone passing; the only up-and-down looks come from the drag queens who read you in the street the hour before the performance. Here people dress in clothes from the head shop, from the boutiques, the thrift stores and tourist shops, all mingled together. The colors of the town and streets and signs aren’t diminished by the rainbow flags; rather, if anything, the kaleidoscope of the town overshadows the six classic stripes.

I take my time; I walk everywhere possible in Converse and Docs, my skirt flouncing as I step on and off curbs. The goal of this weekend is to rest, read, hike, and write: my favorite ways to make myself a priority. Happy birthday to me, I’m going to enjoy it. This is the first time in five years I have actually felt like celebrating.

My last night there, I walked the mile from my AirBnB to the restaurant at 7pm when dusk was just stealing over, before the coyotes came out. I had two drinks and walked back in my dress at 9:30pm, alert, but not afraid of walking past emptying bars and through residential neighborhoods. 

There is safety in numbers, and the ubiquitous presence of queer and trans* folk was a balm over my fight-or-flight response, still healing after Hawthorne’s death. There is so much hatred in the news, so many people in my community endangered by the insidious poison spewing forth from other states; this gay-ass heart feels constantly bruised. Being in one of the oldest historically queer communities in the US takes the weight off my heart. I drink here because I’m safe, because even at a table alone, I am held. 

The second layer of ease is the sheer artistry I am surrounded with, created by hands and by nature. My first morning, I hiked the causeway at low tide, marveling at the curves the water carved into the sand, the glittering remains of seagulls’ feasts, the grace of the cormorants as they dove. My last morning here happened to be World Book Day, and I celebrated by finishing my 3rd and 4th books of the weekend. I took one to the woods and read poetry out loud, speaking the words into the wind and hearing the trees sigh in appreciation. 

On the map I can see the acreage protected by conservation; in the streets I see the bursting expression of beauty and love in everything from the tiniest sparkle of glitter to the towering sculpture of a snarling griffon. It’s in the flowers planted in tiny gardens, the colors on the houses jam-packed into neighborhoods with streets too narrow to pass on. It is in the library, open til 8pm on weeknights, in the plate glass windows of a hundred galleries, in the crystals embedded into stone walls. It is in the queens’ makeup, and the wrinkled smile of the woman who greets us at the establishment. It is in the voice of an unknown language that sings and reminds me, this is where I belong. Somewhere I can lay down the daily weight of danger, of not belonging, and be enfolded in the loving arms of a place so steeped in creativity, community, and a not-so-subtle “fuck you” to everyone who thinks any of us are less than. 

I didn’t want to leave, and already I yearn to go back. This time, I’ll remember so much more: the causeway and the hills, the way the sand blew across the highway, the comingled scents of lobster and taffy, the sea and pitch pines.

When I did finally leave, watching the rain begin in the rearview, I left with sand in my shoes, zero leftover cake, ten new books. This time, I leave with crystalline memories with the soundtrack of the sea, and a promise that I won’t stay away so long again.