Unfinished conversations: Still unable to address my mother, two years later

In memory of Mary Jane Ellis
1934-2016

I have accepted an offer on my house and, if all goes well, I will be moving. Knowing that I’ll be looking to purchase a much smaller space, there is, after twenty-four years here, an urgent need to reduce the collected detritus and all the unwanted belongings that have accumulated over time. Two children, a dissolved marriage, and my own double-folded existence have left a mass—no, make that a mess—of stuff to sort through and clear out.

One evening I uncovered a shoebox of cards and letters tucked into the most unlikely cupboard in the basement. I brought it upstairs and sat down to sort through the contents. Anniversary cards celebrating a marriage that ended seventeen years ago; longer than that if you count the painful years of unravelling that preceded the formal separation. Birthday cards addressed To a Beautiful Daughter. And letters. From friends. From my mother. From another time and life. Some I kept, others I tossed into the recycling box. I opened none of them. It seems one cannot bury the self, but one can put it aside—until a later date.

My mother’s death, two years ago today, opened a raw vein, exposed a deep insecurity that I believed I had moved beyond. As a result, my faint efforts to articulate my loss have continued to come up against an impenetrable wall  of guilt and shame. That box of old cards and letters troubles old wounds. Likewise, yesterday’s the discovery of nearly two decades of prayer journals uncovered in  a container stored at my brother’s place compounds the pain. When I suggested that the journals be burnt, unopened, my other brother admitted he had read some and that her prayers had been focused on our father—no surprise there—and me. It seems I had been her pressing concern. Me. The daughter who failed her. The daughter who could not be a woman.

I have always insisted, to myself at least, that my mother was my one and only unconditional support through the years of my transition and beyond. That when she died, I lost the one person who really believed in me. But, in truth, we never got the chance to properly address the impact of the shift in our relationship. We always talked around the subject.

In the last month of her life, when I was finally beginning to try to confront the extent of the loneliness and grief my own tangled life journey has caused me—when I needed more than ever for her to assure me I was a good person and that she still loved me—she was already slipping away. As her lungs became constricted within her shrinking frame, her energy and cognitive abilities declined rapidly. We thought she needed rest, a break from our father. We didn’t know she was on her way out.

On July 6, 2016, one day after my dad was in a serious accident that would ultimately claim his life, my mother was rushed into the city with critically low oxygen levels. She ended up in ICU in one hospital while her husband lay unconscious on the stroke unit of another. I saw her the next day, and although disoriented, she was hungry and joking with the nurses. One day later she was barely responsive. The respirator was not helping as we’d hoped. On the third day, Saturday July 9, I received a call from the hospital. A family member was needed. Both of my brothers were out of town, so my daughter and I went down. Ginny was twenty-three at the time and had been very close to her grandmother. We spoke to the doctor and agreed that the respirator should be removed, but requested that we wait until my brothers could be there—one was a few hours away, the other six.

So Ginny and I kept vigil. Held her hands. Told her we loved her. My son was too distressed to come. When my brothers and their wives arrived, the respirator was removed and we kept her company through her final hours. Eleven days later, our father would follow her. Throughout those troubled weeks, I sat many hours by my parents’ bedsides. To my brothers though, whatever I do, whatever I have done, is never enough. I am the oldest and the odd one out. Always wrong. But as they’ve been supported by their wives and extended families, I’ve been alone with two adult children, the three of us shocked and bereft.

It has been a long two years now. My mother’s absence still sits heavy—an empty space inside me. I cannot address her yet. I have no words. I’d like to think she would be proud that I am writing, but she never wanted to read anything I wrote. It might have been too painful. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write my grief now. We were, it seemed, so close. We spoke on the phone every week, shared our hopes and concerns. But what of what was left unsaid?

And what of the daughter she lost, the one in the cards and letters in the shoebox, did she mourn her? She saw me happy, for a while at least, in this new masculine form. If I could trust that she remembered that person, her unexpected son, in her last hours, could I move on and begin the grief process?

Or am I still mourning a lost self too?

Voices from the margins: Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

There seems to be considerable debate these days about where the line should be drawn between the literary license to imagine and the appropriation of  voices of those of different genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and racial identities. What was once considered acceptable is now questioned. And, although race is often considered a boundary to be respected or only be crossed with exceptional care, in a highly stratified cultures, class or caste or ethnic heritage may also come in to play. The concern is that the dominant voice will not only be given more attention, but that others risk being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures.

I recently abandoned a book that, despite some very witty and engaging writing, seemed to be freely exploiting mental illness, poverty and family dysfunction as justification for a smart-assed narrator with all the warmth of a sociopath. Anyone who has been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide will know it is no laughing matter. The charm quickly fizzled and turned to distaste for me. Apparently the poor and mentally ill are still fair game for slapstick humour and humiliation.

However, it is entirely different when the humour, social commentary or complex stories are owned from within a community, told by its members. That is, I would argue, the importance of supporting and encouraging contributions to literature, theatre, film and the arts from marginal voices.

Cue Mundo Cruel, a series of short, sharp stories that take you into the heart of a small community peopled with eccentric, mostly queer characters—a world that Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón knows well. It is his own:

Santurce, Puerto Rico, once known as Cangrejos, meaning Crabs, but no longer. Santurce. Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you can get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework.
.                       —from the “The Vampire of Moca”

A striking array of voices and personalities pass through the stories in this slender collection, and their lives are often disturbing, filled with misfortune, dark humour and an uncanny resilience. Most of the pieces are first person narratives, often presented as monologues or one-sided conversations, and, in one instance, as a series of increasingly desperate notes  without a reply. The opening piece “The Chosen One” will challenge a few readers with its precocious young narrator, gleefully recounting his very early initiation into sexual activity with boys and men, experiences bound, as he sees it, to his “special” role within the church. Crude, unnerving, and funny this is in its way a backhanded satire on the degree of sexual abuse that can and does occur. But our young narrator refuses to see himself as the victim. His story sets the stage for the hustlers and the heartache that re-emerges in later stories, but it is not typical. Truth be told there is no “typical” here at all.

What is remarkable about this collection is the variety—each story is different in style and tone. Negrón channels a wide range of characters with compassion and affection, even those who espouse homophobic and xenophobic views, allowing each to demonstrate his or her own narrowness or generosity. The one-side conversations and observed dialogues are particularly effective in this regard, allowing us to eavesdrop, without further comment. The infectious, campy energy of “La Edwin” offers a perfect example:

Ahá! . . . Listen, changing the subject, did La Edwin call you? . . . Yes, Edwin. The one who thinks she’s a man. Honey, the one from the support group . . . That’s weird because that little queen is calling everybody . . . Yeah, her, that’s the one . . . Oh I didn’t know they called her that. You’re bad, girl, bad, bad . . . Well she called me last night, drr-unk out of her mind . . . Saying that he felt all alone, that for him it was difficult to deal with all this shit, meaning gayness . . . I let her go on . . . So she could get it out of her system. Wait a second, I’m getting another call . . . Aló, aló. Aló, aló. How weird, they hung up . . . The thing is, a man left her . . . Yeah, girl, she got involved with one of those lefty fupistas who plant bombs and want the ROTC out of the university . . . Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re going to liberate themselves sexually.

It’s a fun little romp, but the story it tells about queer identity and sexual insecurity is serious.

Most of the stories in Mundo Cruel are quite short, or rather, as long as they need to be. None feel like they are dragged out too far, preferring to offer snapshots of life in this marginalized community. As is typical, some are stronger than others. Likely each reader will have their own favourites. For me it is the sad, but beautiful, story, “The Garden”. Set in the late 1980s, it is the account of a love affair between a young man and his older lover who is dying of AIDS. Nestito’s boyfriend, Willie, shares a house with his sister Sharon who has a longstanding, secret love affair of her own. Together the three of them make an odd, but happy family. As Willie nears the end of his life they plan a party. Another indication of Negrón’s versatility, this is by far the tenderest, most heart-wrenching piece in the collection:

I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked into his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.

Only 91 pages long, Mundo Cruel offers a wonderful introduction to a skilled, sensitive storyteller and the strange, sometimes dark little corner of the world he knows and clearly loves.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and published by Seven Stories, I read this book as part of the Spanish/Portuguese Literature  Month (and, to be fair, the tail end of Pride as well).

Of secrets and sacrifices: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

The end of June is upon us and I have managed to get through Pride month with a minimal amount of stress and anxiety. In my city the official celebrations are not held until late August, but there is plenty of Pride around all the same. I have written before about my general sense of disconnect from the LGBTQ community, and the rejection and isolation I’ve experienced over the years. But to be honest, I look at Pride with some measure of envy. I wonder what it would feel like to be able to celebrate myself for who I am and not wish, after all these years, that my life had been different.

There is, in many a queer life, an inability to negotiate the public and the private, the secret and the shared, in a fluid wholistic way. Sacrifice becomes an element of existence in the world.

Time, place, and cultural considerations have long had an impact on queer lives lived. Set in Calcutta and California, Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is the kind of LGBTQ story that resonates with me, even if my own experience is very different. A queer life dominated by a need to hide and a failure to find release and connection the way one longs for is not simply a story of the past. This novel speaks to the choices we make in our attempts to salvage some normalcy when what we need or long for is denied or feared to be impossible—a reality that reaches beyond the constraints of culture or questions of sexuality or gender identity.

This warm and richly woven tale examines the shifting dynamics within a traditional Bengali family as values slowly change in response to influences from inside and outside India. Roy, a writer and journalist from Calcutta, who lived in the US for twenty years before returning to his native city, draws on his own experiences growing up in a protected, comfortable family as well as the challenges and freedoms afforded by moving to America, in this multi-faceted exploration of the conflicts between identity, honesty, and obligation.

Central to the story is Romola who, having agreed to a marriage negotiated by eager family members, finds herself in small town Illinois with Avinash Mitra, a quiet young man she hardly knows. When a letter from India arrives one day, the homesick bride tears it open without checking carefully and finds herself holding a letter from her husband’s lover who had hoped that they would be able to build a life for themselves in the US, away from the prohibitions of Indian society. This man, Sumit, wonders why Avinash did not wait. Romola, unable to begin to process the information, tucks the letter away. She does not confront her husband. His secret remains with him, her awareness of his secret remains with her. Years later, after his father’s death, their son, Amit, finds the second page of the letter and assumes he has uncovered a piece of his mother’s hidden past. Secrets multiply.

Moving back and forth in time, this novel traces the childhood and youth of both Avinash and Romola, their years together as a family back in Calcutta where they raise their child in a multi-generational household, and Amit’s eventual settlement in San Francisco where he marries an American woman and becomes a father himself. A fine example of classic, emotionally balanced storytelling, each chapter adds to a network of secrets, large and small, creating a rich and bittersweet tapestry. Roy resists the temptation to break open the fragile restraints that bind his main characters, and although not entirely without hope, there is a deep sadness at the heart of Don’t Let Him Know. For Romola this is often expressed in a degree of repressed bitterness, making her, at times, less than likeable. Avinash, by contrast, withdraws. He often appears to fade into the sidelines, something that anyone who has lived for a significant amount of time closeted or otherwise invisible will recognize. His first attempt, later in life, to connect with other gay men finds him awkwardly out of synch and results in an episode that is by turns humiliating, exciting, and potentially dangerous. As a reader, I longed to know him more, yet I admire Roy’s decision to tell this story, this way.

Many LGBTQ people exist in spaces defined by loss and longing.

There is more at play here, of course. Questions of class, race, tradition, and family honour also arise, but, as with the central conflict, these issues are woven into the texture of the story. Finally, this is a novel rich in sensual detail—light, scents, and sounds. Places, from the streets of Calcutta to suburban America neighbourhoods, are skillfully evoked. My recent stay in Calcutta enhanced my appreciation of that setting in particular, with the many small features I recognized adding an extra dimension to my enjoyment of this book. A more “conventional” read for me, perhaps, it turned out to be a perfect choice for Pride month,

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is published by Bloomsbury.

Continuing the conversation: Four years of roughghosts

The neighbourhood I live in runs across the top of a steep embankment carpeted with tall Douglas fir trees. Long before the city expanded this far west, the Bow Bank Quarry, one of fifteen quarries operating in the Calgary area prior to the First World War, mined a seam of sandstone along this ridge. Remains of the mining operation and the small settlement that housed the stonemasons who worked at the nearby brick factory and their families can still be seen today. But the only formal recognition of Brickburn is the sign that stands alongside the railway tracks.

I’ve been walking the pathways through this storied region for decades. Now only a short distance upstream from the downtown core, a precious wildness has reclaimed the embankment. To hike the challenging Douglas Fir Trail is to slip into a space that feels and smells like being in the mountains, in the middle of this city that sits where the foothills of the Rockies give way to open prairies. One can lose oneself in the beauty of the forest, but echoes of the past are ever present—in the rocks and trees, in the spirits of the Indigenous peoples who traversed the land and rivers for millennia, and in the traces of the settlers whose early industrial efforts transformed the river valley for better or not.

At one time, years ago, I sketched a few notes for a possible story about the years of mining and brick manufacturing in this location, or rather, about the rough ghosts that abandoned communities harbour. The thoughts I hastily gathered in a notebook were later uncovered by chance when I was searching for a title for what was an undefined blog effort. And thus, four years ago today, roughghosts was born.

I’ve mentioned before that this blog was created on a whim, about three weeks before months of increasingly unstable behaviour escalated into full blown mania, essentially ending in a nightmare that would cost me my career. I crawled home wounded, relieved to be away from what had become a very toxic, dysfunctional workplace, but suddenly found myself alone in the world. I had loved my job, it was my life. I was angry and hurt that things had been allowed to come apart so completely. I had worked in a disability field, was open about my own disability, but no one understood how desperately ill I had become and what that really meant. Cut off from all resources, I was left unsupported and isolated. I didn’t even have proper mental health care to turn to. Nor did I have any friends. No partner. My parents were aged and far away.

In the end, starting this blog when I knew it was the last thing I had time for, turned out to be the thing that kept me going in those early months following my breakdown and beyond that, through further challenges I could never have anticipated, including my own very-close-to-death experience, the sudden loss of both of my parents, a friend’s suicide, and a period of intense depression. It also gave me a forum to write. About mental health, about anxiety and loneliness, about sexuality and gender, and of course, about books. And it is the latter, that ultimately opened my world.

 In the past four years I moved from occasional musing about books I read, to writing critical reviews and creative essays for publication, and, most recently to editing for 3:AM Magazine. I have made friends around the world, and have travelled—something I thought I would never have a chance to do—visiting South Africa, Australia, and India. Had I not lost my job, I likely would have not moved beyond the idle musings and I would have continued to hide the truth of my personal history.

From the time I was a child, the one thing I really wanted to do was write; I was always bursting with ideas. But in adulthood, I found that stories began to elude me. I have stacks of notebooks filled with rough sketches that never moved past the vaguest of outlines. With each year, creative writing became a more desperately difficult act. I was losing a sense of self to anchor my writing. In searching for characters I was hoping to find myself. Yet what I ultimately came to appreciate was the truth that if I was going to feel whole, I would have to be able to live in the world in the gender I’d always sensed inside. But rather than freeing up my stories, transition threatened to bury them for good. As I devoted myself to a new reality as a single male parent, building a new career out of nothing, I quickly learned that my mis-gendered past—the first forty years of my life—could only be addressed in the most neutral terms. Being out as a differently gendered person was not an option. I had no supports within a LGBTQ community which, as it existed at the time, was alien and unwelcoming to me. So my stories, now that I’d started to understand them, had no audience.

Being freed from a closeted work existence has given me a voice, even if only a portion of my writing and my blog address queer issues. Meanwhile, in the real world, being “out” has proved to be an uneasy reality for me to navigate. My people, I know, are book people. Gender, sexuality, age or location are all secondary.

Roughghosts—as a blog and a Twitter handle—has served as my introduction to the world as a reader and a writer, under my real name. I still struggle with loneliness and depression, I’ve continued to face a tremendous amount of loss and challenge, and I grieve the years and opportunities I missed in this long queer journey of life. But this space has become an important outlet. It is a space to write about books, poetry, travels, and to offer the odd tortured reflection about the messy business of living. Literature will, I hope, continue to be the core focus of this blog.

Thank you to everyone—friends, fellow readers and writers, translators, and publishers—who have entertained my meanderings thus far. I’ve really come to love my blog, as place to talk about books, and a ground to explore writing ideas. It is one space that truly feels like home.

Losing my story (or my capacity to tell it)

For the longest time I have entertained a writing project. Memoirish, I described it. I put time and money aside to facilitate this activity. I’ve been going through the money, but have little to show for my time. It has been more than a year since I’ve written anything serious of a personal nature beyond a few small prose pieces or random blog posts. I’ve written about writing and not writing and all manner of writerly insecurity. I regularly hear from people who, much to my surprise, enjoy what I do write, appreciate what I share. Yesterday, after submitting an overdue review, for better or worse, I told myself that I must finally get serious about trying to pull together a more significant effort.

Yet, I woke up today fearing that I can no longer tell my story. The only story I have to tell and I cannot share it. The cost is too great.I don’t know how others do it. Detail their personal lives, their vulnerabilities, their victories. Perhaps there is a part of ego that has no filter, a point of pride that longs to disclose. But that’s not me. In real life, I’ve come to understand that my existence can only begin to affect some measure of authenticity if I refrain from attempting to have full expression of all that I am. All that I have been. It’s one thing to write. I have published a few raw and honest pieces that have been well received, that can be searched online, and I am happy with each one. And here at home, for the past three years, I have been more intentionally out and involved in LGBTQ and affirming spaces in a way I never dared before. However, more often than not, I’m left feeling defeated. It’s all okay, it seems, until I try to have my voice heard. My history validated. My pain respected.

I would to dream that writing could heal the loss and grief I carry. Yet, too much loss and too little gain makes for a story no one would want to read. Life stories are supposed to show recovery, strength, hope. But that’s wishful thinking. Real life itself just goes on. I am afraid that attempting to write now would only reveal the anger and despair that I can’t get past.

This is not to say that there have not been many positives in recent years. I’ve a network of good friends across the globe. I’ve travelled to some amazing places. I still love writing—reviewing, interviewing, and editing. I am producing work that I am truly proud of. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. But I think I have reached the limit of what I want to explore on a deeply personal level in writing.

Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Some transmythologies are better left uncontested. And some lives are more coherently lived by keeping the closet doors at least partially closed.

This weekend I realized that, in no uncertain terms, it is one thing to be “accepted” as long as you don’t talk about yourself, or your life, in any way that others do not want to hear. This simple truth has finally extinguished my intention to continue this memoirish fantasy.

I wish I was a poet.

Sometimes I think poetry offers the only hope that one could touch the truth but keep the self intact.

Reflections on the challenge of writing the self, and a link to my essay at RIC Journal

I was lonely child and adolescent. I lived in a rural area, outside a small, but growing, city. There were no children my age in my neighbourhood, and although I had two younger brothers, I spent countless hours alone. A misfit of sorts, I found comfort in the world of words, spending hours reading and writing stories and poems. It was a way of imagining myself elsewhere, fashioning a time or place that I might fit into. However, as I neared my late teens, I became increasingly aware of an inability to inhabit, in reality or in my imagination, the kind of person I wanted to be.

If I couldn’t find my own voice, how could I grant a voice to characters?

So I stopped writing, hopeful that with a little more experience, I would have more to draw from. Gather stories to build on. Live a little first.

But I had no idea how strange and complicated my life would become, so monstrous, too untidy to reduce to words. Ultimately I found my way out of one fiction—the one I was living trying to be the gendered person I was born—and constructed another fiction around myself so that I could exit with some semblance of an ordinary, coherent history.

And then, when my re-orchestrated life was blown apart a few years ago, I was determined that I could no longer afford to hide. Nor could I continue to put off writing. But by then, the only story I had to tell was not the stuff of fantasy or imagination. It was my own. Raw and simple.

For a while I clung to the idea that the only way I could talk about myself was to create a character to carry the weight, bare the secrets, share the pain I was not prepared to own. But every word I wrote circled right back to me. And sounded forced, hollow, and false.

It took me a while to come to a level of comfort with the idea of writing work that I still often refer to as memoirish. I consider everything I write—no matter what form it takes at the end—to be nonfiction because it originates from my experience. But if asked, I simply say I write essay/memoir. I write of the self. On the one hand, I am always afforded a subject. But on the other, it is the most dangerous, difficult, and draining form of writing to do well. Boundaries are critical. The challenge is to touch on the essential and temper the detail.

Because all of my work comes back, in the end, to a lifetime disconnect between body and identity that has shifted but never resolved, I tread a very fine line indeed.

Two days ago, my most recent personal essay was published at RIC Journal. It is a meditation on photography, the body, Barthes, and grief. I wrote it in January for a specific publication and panicked. It was too raw. I didn’t know if it was finished or meant to go further. The thought that it might be part of something larger terrified me. So I put it away.

A few months ago, with my renewed intention to work once again toward a larger memoir project, I pulled it out. With a little distance, I saw it as is complete if rather unclassifiable. Now it is out in the world, another step forward in the ongoing process of writing myself into being.

This piece had no title when I sent it to Saudamini Deo at RIC Journal. As it is presented the first line of the epigraph—my favourite quote from Barthes’ Mourning Diary—has become the title. And it feels perfect.

My essay, “I am either lacerated or ill at ease,” with my own original photographs, can be found here.

I have no pride: A sombre reflection

I have no pride.

It’s Pride Week here. For me it’s the worst week of the year. An opened wound. I wake with chest pains, panic attacks. Always the same. No. The more I try to get involved the worse I feel.

I have been out for nearly twenty years, but I always feel out of place and alone during Pride.

And each year is more difficult. I have no pride.

I used to believe that it would get better. Then I believed that it didn’t matter. But it hasn’t gotten better. And it does matter.

Things have changed. I have changed.

Yet I’m not sure if the cost has not been too high.

I no longer know where I belong, my body and I.

 

Remember, Body

Body, remember not just how much you were loved,

not just the beds where you have lain,

but also those longings that so openly

glistened for you in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice—and some

chance obstacle arose and thwarted them.

Now that it’s all finally in the past.

it almost seems as if you gave yourself to

those longings, too—remember how

they glistened, in the eyes that looked at you,

how they trembled in the voice, for you;

            remember, body.

                              –C.P. Cavafy (tr. Daniel Mendelsohn)