Strong in the Real Way…

I spent much of the past week revisiting my alma mater, Spalding University’s Brief-Residency MFA in Writing, for homecoming. There were workshops, panels, and lectures, and I started some new essays. It was a fruitful time for me as a writer, but even more important for me as a person.

My favorite part of homecoming had nothing to do with anything scheduled. It was a conversation held in the lobby of the historic Brown Hotel (which the MFA program uses as a “dorm” for residencies) with some dear friends discussing Steven Universe. We debated theories about Steven, Lars, and the gems for a solid hour (which I’m not sharing here to avoid spoilers), and could have gone a lot longer had other responsibilities gotten in the way.

Long after the conversation ended, I found myself still thinking of it. I still am, two days later. What is it about a cartoon with a seemingly silly premise–alien gems and a half human, half gem boy defending Earth from other gems–that has sucked so many of us in? I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can speak for me, and for my two favorite characters, Rose and Pearl.

  • ROSE AND SEXUALITY: While Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother, is long dead by the time the show premiers, her flashback scenes are everything. I remember being younger, not sure what to do with complex feelings of attraction and sexuality, and even less sure where to find answers. All the models for relationships I saw, whether in real life or on television, were either heterosexual or, rarely, stereotypically (male) homosexual. I had no clue what it meant to be attracted to men and women, and it made me feel like an outcast, a freak. I was almost out of high school before I heard the word “bisexual” and it was the most beautiful and scary word. When I was introduced to Steven Universe, it was the “Mr. Greg” episode where Pearl and Greg finally work out their issues over their shared love of Rose. I wept. I can count on one hand how many bisexual characters I’ve seen on television, and can’t name another cartoon character. I wept for me, for the affirmation of seeing a woman attracted to men and women on screen. And I wept for the kids growing up in a world where they can see themselves on television. I wish them much less sorrow and self-hatred than I had

 

  • PEARL AND GROWTH: I love me some Pearl. Hands down, she is my favorite character. She is the perfect representation of how it feels to be different, someone struggling to find love and acceptance and home after what she thought of as home (at Rose’s side) proves to be temporary. Her need to make things appear perfect, to never be satisfied with how anything is going, to beat herself up when things don’t go according to plan, her difficulty in letting go and having fun, her almost pathological need to care for Steven and keep him safe and to be loved by him in return, and her loneliness and grief for Rose–it’s all so perfectly done. Even her appearance, sharp edges where the other gems are more rounded and soft, shows how tense she is. Pearl makes me cry more than any other gem. Her maternal love for Steven is so pure and so good, and her grief, which she tries to hide, is so obvious. There are two episodes where Pearl especially shines for me. The first is “Coach Steven” where she battles jealousy over Steven idolizing Sugilite (the fusion of Amethyst and Garnet) and sings “Strong in the Real Way.”  “And can’t you see that she’s out of control/ And overzealous?/ I’m telling you for your own good,/ And not because I’m-/ I can show you how to be strong…/ In the real way…./And I want to inspire you/ I want to be your rock/ And when I talk/ It lights a fire in you.” It’s the first time Pearl admits to herself feelings of jealousy–even though she doesn’t say the word jealous–and a chink in the armor of her perfection appears. I have a hard time making friends a lot of the time, and I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and awkwardness. I want so badly to be accepted, but I have no idea how to be most of the time. A lifetime of hiding ones true self will do that. In “Coach Steven,” Pearl is me. Or I am Pearl. The second episode, “Last Stop Out of Beach City,” shows Pearl finally letting down her guard, speeding without a license to go to a rock concert with Steven, and daring to talk to a human woman who looks something like Rose. In letting go of her need for perfection, in daring to have fun and relax, she stumbles across the realization that she can perhaps find love again. (And can we talk about how amazing it is to see a blatant same-sex pickup attempt on a cartoon? I had chills!) And she has fun. It took me a long time to be okay with myself. I still struggle with it a lot. But there are times, like long conversations with my husband, or in conversations with friends about Steven Universe, where my guard slips, and I can laugh and forget about feeling inadequate.

I am obviously not alone in my Steven Universe obsession, and there are so many other things I could write about why I love it. And I may write about more soon. But the companionship I felt at Spalding, at a place where I nearly always feel safe to be myself, and the excitement at sharing my S.U. enthusiasm with fellow MFAers, was beautiful. Steven Universe, and my Spalding family–they help me to accept myself. They help me to speak my truth. And, most importantly, they help me to be strong–in the real way.

F**k Yeah, Supergirl

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Photo credit: http://metro.co.uk/2016/10/07/supergirl-season-2-spoilers-heres-what-you-can-expect-as-the-show-returns-6177535/

After reading complaints about last night’s Supergirl season finale, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” I find myself inspired to throw in my own two cents. So yeah, spoiler warning, and feminism warning, and such.

 

 

 

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But, Supergirl would NEVER beat Superman, A.K.A. “Masculinity so fragile you can’t handle Supergirl winning on HER OWN SHOW.” Geez. Anyway, yes, the episode opens with Supergirl defeating Superman in a brawl. I have zero problem with this, despite Superman having had more time to absorb yellow sun power, for two reasons. 1. The show spent its first two seasons never showcasing the full extent of Supergirl’s powers. I don’t know if it is from limited CGI budget (because let’s face it, The Flash is totally taking all of CW’s CGI budget this season), or because they want other enemies to appear to be a threat, but Kara Zor-El always felt a bit weaker than she should be. So I took her defeating Superman as finally starting to realize how strong she is. And 2. Later in the episode, Supes tells Kara he could have never committed the sacrifice she did (i.e., he could have never chosen saving the planet over saving Lois, as Kara did when she sacrificed her relationship with Mon-El). So while Superman may technically be physically stronger, he fights from passion, not logic and pure morality, as Kara does, and passion fades every time. Remember, he thought he was fighting Zod, not Kara, and was therefore fighting from anger. It is so refreshing to see a female character written as logical, moral, and strong, when so often women are considered weaker, more emotional, and irrational.

But, but POLITICS. A.K.A. I only want to be entertained, not informed. I’m not going to pretend Kara didn’t go all social justice this season. Honestly, that’s one of the things I love best about this season. Kara is an alien female living in a world that doesn’t seem to like either of these things. Her sister is a lesbian. Her friends are also aliens. Of course politics become involved. In this case, aliens stand in for immigrants, and we all know how unkindly our country is treating immigrants right now. Is it so hard to believe that, in the DC world, aliens would be treated any better? We hate from fear, and what is scarier than strange beings with strange powers? And let’s look at the rise in anti-LGBT sentiment and legislation. Now imagine you’re a government official, living in the shadow of your more famous, powerful sister, struggling to come to terms with your sexuality. For these reasons, I find Alex, Kara’s adoptive sister, so heartwarming and empowering. There is a distinct lack of positive LGBT characters right now (Steven Universe not withstanding!), and a distinct need for those characters. And Alex coming to accept her sexuality, then finally embracing it, and proposing to her girlfriend, mirrors Kara’s journey of coming to accept her powers, then embracing the chance to be a hero, then finally discovering the extent of her strength. They are the perfect sibling pair. Lastly, the last two episodes have heavily featured Cat Grant’s character, a strong media mogul, so it makes perfect sense that politics would come to play. Cat’s character has ALWAYS been girl power RAWR. The last two episodes, “Resist” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” use her character as a media voice to speak out against tyranny. Of course politics come into play. And, all this aside, the best art always reflects the time in which it was created. Supergirl is a product of its time, a very necessary part.

Next season promises to be just as good, with the probable introduction of Reign as the big bad. And I’m sure there will be plenty of political inspiration as well. But regardless, Kara is simply delightful, and I can’t wait to see more of her antics.

The Bearable(?) Loneliness of Writing

I’m sitting in Panera, having finally decided to force myself to sit down and write. It’s busy here–college students studying, friends chattering, nurses and medical professionals from the nearby hospital enjoying a lunch break. The busyness seems to complement the t-shirt I threw on after last night’s shift, a black background with white outlines of Castiel and Dean from Supernatural and the phrase “you are not alone.” The shirt supported a mental health charity, not that I need a reason to support Supernatural actors of course, but I love knowing that I can give to others while spoiling myself. I love that little piece of connection.

But in the midst of all the bustle, I realized something. I miss connection. I am lonely. It feels weird to say so, because I am never really alone. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense but a literal one. Other than a few spare hours here and there, I spend nearly all of my time away from work with my husband. Often, that time is shared with some of our six American nieces and nephews, a rough-and-tumble bunch that I love more than life itself, or spent skyping with my sister and four (five any day now) Irish nephews. It is a busy, hectic, full existence, and I love it.

However, I find myself missing my writing tribe more and more. I had a near-perfect undergraduate experience at Indiana University Southeast, then went straight into Spalding’s MFA in Writing program. I didn’t realize how much I counted on deadlines and assignments and fellow writers until I graduated and had to try to strike out on my own. And I have to realize now that I am just not as good on my own.

But I am learning. And finding my way into staying a tribe member without the attachments of coursework. I had lunch with a local writing friend a couple weeks ago, and am meeting another later today. I have an ongoing group chat with a group of fellow writers and amazing women, and they sustain me.

The biggest lesson in all of this is, as important as my tribe is, I have to learn to strike out on my own, too. I have to somehow hold myself accountable, and somehow keep writing and submitting and revising even though no one is holding me to a due date. And, I have to let go of my perfectionism and celebrate even small steps. Like writing a blog post, or drafting a chapter, or sending someone feedback. Or even just reading.

One step at a time.

In which I meet one of my literary heroes

I worry a lot that I am becoming jaded with the writing process. Since graduating from my MFA program, writing feels like a chore. Part of that is because Spalding is full of magic, part is because of all the stuff going on in the world, and a big part is because I am off my medication for ADD. All this means that sitting down and trying to concentrate is like herding cats, only herding cats sounds like a lot more fun.

This all changed a couple weeks ago, when a friend and I made the three hour trek to Purdue University in Indiana to hear Margaret Atwood speak. I have loved her writing ever since first reading The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, and each subsequent book has made me even more in awe of her gift. Of course, most of her books are hard to read right now (The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy don’t seem as much like fantasy now that women’s bodies, the environment, and freedom from corporate control seem in more danger every time I turn on the news), but I still love them.

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I admit to some nervousness, not just because I would be breathing the same oxygen as MARGARET ATWOOD, but out of fear that she would be different than I had imagined. Writers are human, of course, and have their flaws (I have countless!), but there have been situations where previous idols turned out to be quite problematic. Some (unnamed) examples: a male memoirist/poet was lecherous and skeezy in person, and a feminist writer made some terribly transphobic remarks. So I had some concerns; I didn’t think my heart could take Ms. Atwood becoming problematic.

I needn’t have worried. She stood on stage and spoke as if she owned the place, reading from some poems and a novel, all unpublished, all needing to be published as of yesterday, and answered questions with grace, respect, and humor. She was delightful. And she was inspiring.

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I came home with ideas and plans buzzing around in my brain. A few days ago, I sat down and jotted out a chapter for what I hope will become my first novel about a subject too close to my heart and life for me to write nonfiction about.

I am no longer jaded. I still can’t concentrate, but I rekindled my love for writing. We need our heroes. I’m just glad mine live up to the title.

“15 Rounds”: Winner of The Offbeat’s CNF Contest!

So I’m really excited about this one! My lyric essay “15 Rounds” won The Offbeat’s 2016 Creative Nonfiction Competition. The essay is structured as a round (inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool”) and combines several threads (meditations on the number 15, memories of myself at 15, and the 15 minute rounds we do at work). It is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written, and I am so honored that The Offbeat selected me as their winner.

“15 Rounds” is in Volume 17, Fall 2016, and can be ordered here:  http://offbeat.msu.edu/purchase/

And, even if you’re not interested in my essay, check out the magazine anyway. It’s a wonderfully quirky, brilliant collection of some phenomenal writing (mine doesn’t come close to some of the pieces there!)

 

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The Great Work Begins…

(Sorry in advance for the political post)

It has been forever since I’ve updated, I know. I would offer excuses, but they don’t matter. Here’s what does matter: not posting is no longer an option.

I spent a great deal of last year in a haze–a good haze: finishing my MFA, getting married, spending time with my sister and four beautiful nephews while they were visiting from Ireland, and a bad haze: volunteering for campaigns that didn’t succeed, reeling from disbelief as someone was elected to the highest office with no experience and no willingness to learn–and the haze meant that I wasn’t writing. Not only was I not blogging, but I wasn’t creating ANYTHING. Not sending out my memoir. Not revising or writing new pieces for my essay collection about living as a bisexual liberal feminist in a red state. Not working on a novel about addiction. Nothing. Nada.

Then the inauguration happened. Then the executive orders began, and the nominations for deplorable people in ill-fitted positions. And I was still reeling. Then the discrediting of the media, labeling outlets such as CNN(!) as fake news, and calling lies “Alternative facts.” I did my part, I thought–I made signs, I marched, I rallied.

But then I remembered a quote from Angels in America:

“We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Silence is no longer an option. I cannot allow my writing to die a secret death, no more than I can allow others to silence it. When the media is silenced, it will be up to the rest of us to speak out, to share information. And it works–a potential LGBTQ discriminatory executive order was not signed. Many of my more conservative friends and family members are speaking out.

And I am writing. I am creating. This is my task in the great work. And I am beginning.

It could have been any of us…

The day after Orlando hit the newswaves, my heart is still shattered. I left the house last night to go to work, and today to go get food, and every time, I found myself looking over my shoulder, wondering. Wondering if the guy in the car next to me harbors the same rage, the same hate toward the LGBTQIA community as the shooter. If his car is loaded down with the same arsenal as the guy heading toward PRIDE in Los Angeles. If I am safe, or if I am about to be the next victim.

49 people died in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. At least 50 are injured. And I keep reading, in the midst of all the love and support (which has been beautiful) that people think the victims deserved it, that being gay should be punishable by death, that they should have been armed (never mind that there were at least three armed people there, and couldn’t get to the shooter), that what else can you expect for being at a gay bar? What they don’t realize is that gay bars are about more than drinking or partying. They are about community, about safety.

When I was younger, I found safety and sanctity in Louisville’s gay nightclub scene. I was struggling with my own identity and sexuality, not sure how to express my bisexuality, not sure how to come out, where to find love. In the gay bars, I didn’t need to worry about being told I was a sinner for hitting on someone. I didn’t have to fear physical retaliation. Not that it was just about finding partners and romance–in gay bars, I was not alone. I was not gross, or an oddity. I could talk to other women who had the same doubts and fears of being found unfeminine or gross, or hit on by straight men who confused “bisexual” with “easy.” I could talk to men who were burdened with being labeled not masculine enough. I met women who had been raped by men determined to teach them what sex should be about. I met men who had been raped by other men to teach them that they didn’t actually like it. And I met people who had felt ashamed of who they were, who were desperate for community and acceptance, like I was.

For many LGBTQIA Floridians, Pulse was the same sanctuary as the gay bars of my youth were for me. And in the aftermath, I keep thinking this, over and over: It could have been me. I could have been on vacation there and decided to go out. The shooter could have been a Kentuckian instead. He could inspire others. And so we need to come together. We need to make sure we keep our brethren safe. We need to keep our loved ones safe. We need to not blame this on ideology or mental illness or anything. We need to not turn it into a debate over whose candidate could have prevented it, or if immigrants are to blame (the shooter was an American-born citizen, btw.) We need to embrace each other, our allies and ourselves. And we need to listen, to really hear the voices who are suffering under homophobic agendas and laws, and we need to understand that they are people. That we are people. And we deserve to have the same rights and the same safety as everyone else.

It could have been me. It could have been any of us.

 

Always Keep Fighting, But Also, Love Yourself First

I know it’s been awhile since my last post–I was taking some time to finish my memoir, which is being sent out to publishers as I write (ack!), gearing up to graduate in June (ack again!), and planning my upcoming July wedding (double ack!), so time has been limited.

But, being busy isn’t the only reason. I’ve also been struggling, a lot, with my own issues. I have a slew of alphabetic diagnoses (PTSD, ADD, and GAD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from domestic abuse, Attention Deficit Disorder from birth, I guess!, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder), and sometimes keeping up with everything, or anything, is hard. I hit some snafus with my health insurance, so I was off my ADD medication for a couple months, so even getting through a day without falling apart was hard. I think sometimes people assume ADD means just being flighty, but that isn’t the case. It means that everything is a distraction, a roadblock to completing a goal, whether that goal is writing a blog post, editing an essay, or just washing some dishes. It means day-to-day life is exhausting, because willing my brain to focus on anything other than a video game or a chapter in a YA novel (thank goodness for YA on my ADD days!) wears me out. And then you add anxiety, which means that any failure to focus is magnified a thousandfold, and my PTSD, which means that I assume that messing up will result in my fiancee hating me (thank goodness he is a good, patient man, or I would not be getting married), and it gets hard.

I’m not writing this for pity, or for attention, though. Well, not for attention for me. I am adding a new section to my blog called “Pop Culture Matters,” and this is the first post there. I started watching Supernatural a few months back, after the urging of my fiancee and my dear friend Shannon, and fell in love with the storylines, even the more outlandish ones, and the characters. I mean, Charlie (played by Felicia Day) is everything I want to be! But, more importantly, I fell in love with the actors. Not romantic love, of course–sadly, haha!–but the kind of love you find when a group of celebrities uses their fame for good.

That brings me to Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam Winchester and who I first discovered as my least favorite Rory guy on the Gilmore Girls. Anyway, I have been following one of his campaigns, #AlwaysKeepFighting, even before I started watching Supernatural. When you are diagnosed with mental illness, sometimes every day feels like a losing battle. I’ve lost some dear friends to their own battles, and I miss them every day. Padalecki’s message of always keep fighting, to not give in to even the worst pain, has been a life saver. We expect celebrities to be perfect. We put them on a pedestal and make them our idols. But by admitting his own struggles with mental illness, he has provided a guidepost to fans who may otherwise feel alone. (And two other actors, Jensen Ackles and Mischa Collins, just rolled out the #youarenotalone campaign, which I will discuss in a later post).

Yesterday, on the one year anniversary of #AlwaysKeepFighting, Padalecki rolled out a new campaign in a live chat on his facebook page:#LoveYourselfFirst Video. I missed the live chat, but watched the video a few minutes ago, and had a long, necessary cry. When living with mental illness, especially on bad days where all you can do is keep fighting to not give in, it is easy to hate yourself, to think you are defective or wrong or damaged. What is so hard, and what we need to be reminded of, is that even in our worst days, we are worthy of love. Even when we feel our most alone, we must remember to love ourselves first.

I struggle with this. I hate my ADD a lot. I hate that I can’t focus, and that when I’m not on my meds, small tasks feel impossible. I hate the anxiety that makes me feel like a failure, the inner voice that says “this is not good enough.” I hate the PTSD that makes me feel damaged, dirty, and unworthy of love. But those, while a part of me, are not ME. I also work in mental health, and know that when our lives are centered around helping and protecting others, it is easy to neglect our own self-care.

I needed to see the video above. I needed the reminder to care for myself. To love myself, or at least try to, before trying to love others. Self-care is important.

And, to any of you out there fighting, I love you as well.