Careful the Tale You Tell

“Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell…”

~From “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim

I come from a family of words.  They were my legacy far more than money or physical characteristics.   My mother and grandmother were writers (poets and journalists), and my grandfather  was a scientist who loved to write long missives, reports, and papers.  They, and my father, also all loved to read the words of others.   When my sisters and I cleared out my parents’ house when they were gone we filled the garage with shelves and boxes of books to sell at the garage sale or donate afterwards.  This was after the family had taken what we wanted (hundreds each).  When I was a child, not only was I read to often and urged to read and write the minute I knew how, but Grandpa used to pay me to read long, dry, scholarly textbooks or memorize state capitals.  He’d take me to lectures at the University of Utah, where he taught (because his only child, my mother had been raised as a mini adult, so he felt his granddaughters deserved no less), then walk me around the campus, expecting me to memorize the labels on the trees and bushes.

The day I watched my mother’s organs fail and her spirit slip from her frail, cancer, diabetes, and heart-disease-ridden body I rushed back to her house and tore through her bedroom in search of her.  I needed her words, for I knew that’s where I’d find her.  My whole life Mama kept a small, neat white notepad or scrap pieces of paper carefully cut to the same size for her lists.   She made the usual “To Do” lists, as well as lists of every possible thing that interested her (and I don’t recall anything that ever DIDN’T interest her).   There were lists of places to travel, things to wear, things to eat, things to cook, things  buy, things to read, things to say, things for her DAUGHTERS to wear, read, do, say, etc..   All have been interesting to read since her death, because they tell a bit about her.  She also kept a diary, but, sadly, it was not the detailed stories one might expect of a professional writer, but, rather, more apt to list how many jars of peaches she canned or if she went to church that day.  The telling, best words, were the ones written on those tiny note papers and slipped randomly between the lists.  There she had titles for future poems, lines for poems or even nearly complete but not-yet-published ones, or sometimes just thoughts and rants on a variety of subjects.   She never had Facebook or Twitter, so she poured her heart into those little notepads.

Before we sold their house I’d grab a box and read Mama’s notepads every time I was in town.   When we finally had to pack up the last remnants, I grabbed the extra boxes of Mama and Grandma’s poetry and Mama’s little notepads.   I’ve yet to finish the sorting , and I really rather dread it, as I can’t bear to dispose of the “less important” word, and thusly pieces of my family.

So I understand that words have power.

Writing always came easily to me, as well, though, unfortunately ,without the ability to be brief that the ladies before me possessed.   I was often saved in classes by being able to whip out a ten-page essay at a moments notice, ‘though admonished a bit in a professional setting when I disliked supplying only “bullets” to my managers.  Early on I learned that my viewpoints and experiences, however, were markedly different from most of those around me.  I got my first lessens in “Things We Don’t Talk About”, and over time more and more of my words, my stories, became contained in essays I wrote in private and showed to no one but the occasional friend.  I learned to pour my feelings into visual Art I created, roles I played, or, best of all, plays I directed.   My words were still there, but filtered through the language of other authors or the mouths of other performers.   Almost no one but other directors realizes the extent of their input.

Sometimes the things I’ve learned not to talk about relate to my religion.  In a college Playwriting class I wrote a One-Act using characters who happened to be Mormon.  Some were “good”, and some…not so much.   I wrote it that way because I grew up in a world where most of the people I met were LDS.  Like most other groups of people, many were excellent human beings and good, nice people.  Some were not.   Those  are the sorts of stories I knew.  And many of them were dang INTERESTING stories.

When the class read through my completed play most liked it.  What broke my heart was the friend whose critique was “What a good play.  Too bad it can never be produced.  Mormons will be offended and non-Mormons won’t be interested in LDS stories.”

In the three decades since that class I have written other plays.  I’ve finished none.   My words made people uncomfortable, so they were never staged.   I teach classes, give talks, do programs, often sharing fairly vulnerable stories, but they are in closed settings, with limited audience.  Still, there has been a cost, with some people turning from me and me losing callings.   But the biggest stories stayed untold.  Some have been funneled into fictionalized versions for possible novels, but they, also are unfinished.

Along the way I learned there were other things “We Don’t Talk About”.   Miscarriage, infertility, family members with mental illness, suicide attempts, physical ailments, bankruptcy, loss.   Myriad facts and stories confided to me or wearing upon my own life that must never, ever, be mentioned in public.  Because they embarrass.  Because they make people sad.  Because they make people afraid.  Because they make people doubt.  Because they make people uncomfortable.   They built up along my spine until my head could barely raise at all.  Stones to carry but never share.  My only lifeline in the drowning floods was to turn these stories into words.  I started to cast them out, like wildflower seeds, not caring whether they took root but just needing to let the wind carry them to possibility.  I started this blog half-heartedly.  I added more personal stories to lessons.  I joined groups on Facebook.

I started to feel a little bit free.   Tides had turned.  A Mormon ran for president.  A musical about my people won the Tony.   One of the Facebook groups I joined seemed miraculously filled with people who also had complicated, painful, often Mormon, always INTERESTING stories, too.  I learned that maybe, just maybe I COULD talk about some things, tell some stories.  That being different, and asking questions was okay.  After decades of too much swallowing my thoughts, I could form the words.

Then it hit.   People started being excommunicated from my church again for their questions.  Essays were published that admitted some truths but danced circles around others.  And we all started to learn about race and privilege.  The safe place I’d found seemed often a hotbed of accusations and discord.  I wanted to learn.  I read as much background as I could.  I listened to podcasts.  I attended seminars.  I tried to “check my privilege” every time I spoke and to label triggers.  I’ve never wanted to knowingly cause pain to others.   But every day there is more privilege and more triggers.  More things to never, ever mention.  Because we all have some types of privilege and some types of pain.  And we SHOULD be considerate of other people’s pain.  Some is more raw, new, or extreme than others and deserves special limitations.   I want to be kind, broad-minded, an ally where ever possible.

Yet I’m starting to suffocate.  Once again I am swallowing more than I speak.  Just as my stories were starting to find words I am hearing that only certain ones should be allowed.  Don’t get me wrong.  Nothing I’ve said has been really shut down or attacked much.  I haven’t got to my deepest stories yet, and I tend to observe first, so it is the comments I see in various groups, blogs, and threads in reaction to other people’s words that disturb me.  I understand both sides.   I really do.   I may belong to many kinds of privileged classes, but I also know all about being the “other”.   I won’t claim it to be on the level with some, for it has generally not threatened my life.   But I was the bullied child crying in the elementary school bathroom  because I was tall, klutzy, and asthmatic.   In Junior High a back brace was added to my charms.  I had friends, successes, and moments of joy.  Still, I was always the outsider.  When I tried to kill myself at age 30 it was on the night when I realized that I didn’t actually belong with the wonderful gay men who had been my constant companions for many years, not even as much as with the conservative straight LDS friends with whom I’d grown up.  Later in life other personal and health situations “othered me”.  So I do not wish that feeling on anyone.  I also have many things that are triggering to me.   Miscarriage and fertility issues are big for me, able to send knives to my heart in a single instant.  Somewhat related, I also get sensitive about only children and lack of proximity to family.  I found myself crying in a restaurant the other day just because an adorable little boy was having a family birthday party at his table.  It wasn’t even a big crowd.  But suddenly I thought of all the birthdays my now almost-18-yr.-old has had with no relatives to gather and celebrate him other than my husband and myself.   My sister has giant outdoor parties for large numbers of relatives for every birthday.   Crowds appear for every recital or ball game.  My son just had us, except for the times my parents could fly over when he was little, before death and illness took them.  Silly thing.   I LIKED that that child was happy.  I would never want him to not have that just so that I didn’t have to remember and have pain.  But it WAS a trigger. So I understand the trend.

It’s just that the thing that overwhelms me is that we ALL have SO MANY TRIGGERS, and SO MUCH PRIVILEGE.  YES.  We need to work on it, learn about it, and whittle it down.  But as you go through life you lose things and you gain things.  The ones you lose usually hurt, and the ones you gain may give you a privilege over someone.   I’m beginning to be at a loss as to where we draw the line.  It feels like I’ve just finally been told that it’s okay to question authority, my religion, patriarchy, and most social structures—but wait, just make sure you never mention another whole list of “Things We Don’t Talk About”.   Breathe, but not if it’s too close to someone else’s air.   Speak, but only if you have memorized and can use our newly stripped and approved Thesaurus.    Release your words.   Just not all of them.

And I KNOW it isn’t the same as the repression of the past.   That this quieting is even supposed to be for a noble purpose.   It may even sometimes succeed.   But if we look at the root of it, at the beginnings of the old chains, couldn’t the people who forged them have initially claimed the same?  I’m just not sure at what point one kind of theoretical book-burning is much different from another.  Words DO have power, but it isn’t all bad.  Even when the words are wrong.  Even when they cause pain.   That’s not to say it’s OKAY to cause pain ON PURPOSE, but sometimes isn’t empathy and even a call to action purchased at the cost of some pain?   If we don’t ask questions (because maybe we didn’t know the right places to “do our own work” or didn’t even realize there was work to do–through no fault of our own, but just culture and experience), or tell our stories even if they are opposite to someone else’s experiences or triggering to someone, how the hell WILL we ever learn about each other?   I won’t care about what I haven’t seen and heard.

I find myself utterly confused, because telling stories has been my world, and all the great literature, plays, operas, or visual art pieces tell stories with conflict.  Many of the best are somewhat dark, dealing with uncomfortable, inappropriate, triggering material.   According to the current lense much of them shouldn’t exist.   Several years ago I had an experience with a  play that I honestly didn’t realize was triggering or a part of rape culture.  Unknowingly I caused pain to someone I cared about, and I then was harmed as well.   I was Directing the musical “The Fantasticks” for the grand opening of a wonderful new performing arts center my Theatre group had won a state grant to build.   It was a great honor, and I fully expected it to set the precedent for continuing quality productions that would draw people to our little town and allow us to fund future productions.   There were problems:building delays, my father’s sickness necessitating a quick trip out of state that interrupted rehearsals, etc.  Still, all expectations were for a successful run.  I’d chosen the script for it’s good music, small cast, minimal set and costuming needs, it’s wonderful theatricality, and it’s theme of being careful what you want, because it isn’t always what you think and sometimes the best things are close to home.  The fact that it accomplished the theme with an abduction, though pretend, and a seduction by an older man didn’t strike me as a problem because it was all in fun and ended well.   I even emphasized some of the darkness in the script.   My small town had few male actor/singers, so when the most talented one I found was a white-haired (though quite handsome) bearded man in his fifties I cast him as El Gallo, to pretend to abduct and romance Luisa (whose character was 16).   And then there was the Rape Ballet.  The scene in which Luisa is abducted by El Gallo and a couple of inept, silly aging actors paid by Luisa and her neighbor/boyfriend’s parents, is called The Rape Ballet.   It is not about what we call rape in this day and age.  The song makes it quite clear that it is referring to the archaic meaning of rape, which is to abduct.  It is a silly, truly amusing song, about the various types of abductions the actors could create for various prices.  At no point in the words of the song or my staging of the kidnapping make any reference to Luisa being actually injured or assaulted.  But the words.   They describe “…such a pretty rape…”.

During our first read-through of the script a couple actors did express concern that people might be bothered by the song, but not from a triggering aspect, just from a sexually-repressed idea that a word now related to sex shouldn’t be spoken in any context.  I really didn’t think it would be a big issue, since the play is over 40 yrs old and has been produced thousands of times throughout the world.  I had initially seen it at BYU so I couldn’t imagine it could be thought controversial.  My first inkling that there was a problem was when my usual accompanist told me she couldn’t be involved with anything to do with that play.  That’s all she told me at the time.  Two months later, just before we were to finally open, after many building and other delays, after rehearsing in a not-yet-heated building, often surrounded by stacks of insulation and building materials, and experiencing myriad other struggles, she started a movement to get us shut down.  It turned out that she had been raped, and though she knew the play and that it was not ABOUT that type of rape, just seeing the ads for it brought her flashbacks.   She felt it was making fun or light of the trauma that she and so many women have suffered by making wordplay with the term rape.

She didn’t succeed in shutting us down.  I wrote a carefully worded warning and apology that we had published in the local paper, explaining the use of the word and the references in the play and expressing our condolences to any who had suffered rape or who had been hurt by our choosing to produce the play.   It opened and had good reviews from those who saw it.   Just not to the size of houses it might have had without the campaign against it, and the finances of the Theatre Company never quite recovered all the way.   I remember during one of the dress rehearsals sitting at the back of the theatre crying, because the show was so good, but it wasn’t going to have many people see it, and we’d had to go through so much.  I wanted to know why I couldn’t have one moment of joy and pride unfettered by worry of finances, willingness in the future for the Board of Directors to let me take chances, and especially the pain I’d unknowingly caused my friend the accompanist.  But then I realized that that’s the deal.   The world is full of, and needs, its opposites.   We can have our moments of joy, but we have to accept the pain that lies next to it.

I still love that play.  I also now realize it should probably never be produced again.  Which is SAD.  Because it has such moments of beauty, and the end result of what it portrays is a very moral one.  But in this day and time the word rape and the images of abduction and control by an older man are too closely tied to rape culture and would trigger far more people than the few who noticed in that tiny town.  I accept that.

I just find myself lost now, as to how many works of Art must be squelched, how many words swallowed.   Tonight I went to see the movie of “Into the Woods”.  I love Stephen Sondheim and much of the cast, and found the production values well done.   My heart was tender not just by the story itself, but because the stage production of that musical was the last show I saw in Salt Lake City before I moved to California.  I was poor, and saving for the move, so my ticket was a gift from two of my best friends as a going away gift.   Both of them are now dead from AIDS, so seeing the movie brought them to mind.   The story itself made me a bit weepy because it deals with death and loss.  Like “The Fantasticks” it is about being careful with your dreams and choices, but it also teaches you to be careful with your words.  It does it in a way that is beautiful–but not pretty.

So I find myself standing in a forest alone once again with my own stories and words.  I do not want them to be knife cuts.  But, see, I’m not sure I want them to be feathers, either.   I am not entirely convinced that complete consensus or perfectly smooth edges are to be valued.  In Acting classes I was told that what’s interesting about the mirror is the crack in it.  I no longer wish to be a perfect object hanging on  a wall.  Perfect mirrors show you no nuance, no new possibilities.   I think we as people, and all of us as society can grow and progress best by  WEARING our scars, and looking at each others’ full on.   TELL me your pain, and let me tell you mine.  Let’s cry TOGETHER.  I may trigger you.  You may trigger me.  Let’s tell each other when it happens, and apologize, and admit it was shitty that any of us had to deal with any of it.  Then tell me about your glory, your moments of joy.   Tell me what breaks you and what mends you.   I want to hear it all.   I want to tell it all.   I want to see your homeland, and taste your food, and try on your clothes.  I don’t want to steal them, and I’ll try to ask first, but they help me to learn, to realize we’re all different, but all OKAY.   I want to breathe air in open meadows, and when I swallow I want it to be food, or sweet water.  Not words.  I want the same for you.   Is there not SOMEWHERE, some high mountain or deep ocean, where my words could be written, my stories told?  Must I be afraid to even secure them in a bottle on some forgotten sea or fold them and bury them deep beneath rocky soil, for fear that they might make the person who could find them uncomfortable.  Must I be forever whispering my words in the deepest forest, alone?

I don’t have an answer.  I want to learn.  I want to be civil, and respectful, and kind.   I also need to breathe, and I hope to create and share what I might have to contribute to the world.  Forgive me as you see me gasping a bit in the dark ’til I figure it out.

“…Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white…”

“Careful the Tale you tell.  That is the spell…”

“What can you say that no matter how slight, won’t be misunderstood?…”

“Careful before you say ‘Listen to me'”

~From “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim

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Coffee in the Postum Jar

     I drink coffee.  Not such a big admission, in the scheme of things.  But, you see, I’m a Mormon.  Born, bred, sixth-generation-on-one-side, graduated-from-Seminary, spent-over-six-years-at-BYU Mormon.  Still active, with callings, and for the most part, believing,Mormon.

Yet I drink coffee.

     I could plead that it’s an addiction, that I’ve tried to stop.  That might be a little true.  Yet I broke the addiction during four pregnancies and after a surgery.  I don’t even always like the flavor ( though I must admit that since living in the Northwest, home of more coffee stands than Utah has churches, that has changed somewhat)–I prefer herb tea.   Coffee makes me vaguely sick to my stomach most of the time.

Yet I drink coffee.

     The only thing I can really figure out by way of explanation, is that I do it to prove that I can.  I do it to prove to myself that my identity and my relationship with God is not defined by a beverage.  When I was young I remember hearing a story from an LDS police officer in Utah about how a young prostitute, while being booked, was offered a cup of coffee.  She became highly offended, and said, “Of course not, I’m a Mormon.”   Later, when I sold shoes at ZCMI Dept. Store, I saw several very-religious (in their minds) returned missionaries look down on the few co-workers who smoked, drank, and drank  coffee.   Those same returned missionaries had a habit of changing employee numbers on hold slips and ringing up other people’s sales as their own, so that they’d get the commission.  By the time I left Utah to live in CA I was bitter from the hypocrisies.  Since then I’ve come to realize that we all are imperfect, and I had no more right to judge the hypocrites than the smokers.  So, eventually, I started making my own choices, and worrying less about those around me.  Still, so many of those choices and ideas were kept secret.  I never wanted to cause pain to my sweet, loving, yet somewhat naive father or others I love who might not understand.  The very few years when I dabbled with alcohol were spent mostly  drinking in gay bars where no one, ever, talked about it outside, because most I saw had bigger secrets.  To this day, when with certain family members, I sneak away to bakeries or coffee houses “to check my email on the wi-fi” instead of drinking coffee in front of them.  And I know I have my own hypocrisies when I drink coffee as I prepare my Primary lessons Sunday mornings.

Yet I drink coffee.

     In his play, “The Matchmaker”, Thornton Wilder tells us that “…if a man has no vices, he’s in great danger of making vices out of his virtues, and there’s a spectacle.  We’ve all seen them: men who were monsters of philanthropy and women who were dragons of purity.  We’ve seen people who told the truth, though the Heaven’s fall–and the Heavens fell.  No, no–nurse one vice in your bosom.  Give it the attention it deserves and let your virtues spring up modestly around it.”

     I think I drink coffee to remember that no matter what good things I’ve done, and what “bad” things someone else has done, I am no better than them.   I drink coffee because my mother (my beautiful, eccentric, brilliant mother whom I’ve mourned and maybe only truly known for the thirteen years she’s been gone), used to hide coffee in a Postum jar her whole married life.  And I judged her for it.

     See, I’ve come late to the party of calling myself a feminist, and still cringe a bit at the sound.   Not because I haven’t always believed in equality, tolerance, and freedom to make our own choices, because I have.  I come from a long line of spunky, smart, proud women.  Who also happen to have been Mormon. I didn’t reject the label because it opposed some timid, camp-follower mind-set I’d been raised with, but, rather, the opposite.   My mother and grandmother were “Mo-Fem” long before it was a thing.   Both were poets and journalists, and both worked and stood their own among higher-paid men.  My grandparents had what many today would consider an admirably modern marriage.  They were both highly educated and worked full-time.  Both were prominent in their own fields.  Grandpa was a Geology professor, and at one point State Geologist.  Grandma was Associate Editor of The Relief Society Magazine, and once she retired continued to make an equal income by winning poetry contests throughout the country and publishing in magazines.  However, the  scientist had a fondness for investing in ill-fated financial schemes and breeding exotic cattle and sheep, while the dreamy-eyed writer made sure they kept their house and their daughter was fed.  Early on Grandpa decided his magnanimous gesture of $100  a month towards living expenses was more than adequate.  Grandma made up the difference.  Trouble was, the LDS Church, her employer, considered men to be the providers, and systematically paid women less than their male counterparts.  After all, hers was just “extra”, right?

     Mama was a stringer for the Deseret News, then editor of the newspaper at NSD Clearfield.  After my sisters and I were born, she quit her job to be a SAHM other than seasonal part-time jobs, because she’d felt lonely growing up with no one at home after school.  She kept writing, and published a few articles and many poems, but sporadically.  She loved us dearly, but never adjusted to a life of scrubbing floors and staying in the background.   She spoke often of her “wasted” college degree and lost prestige. I always knew she was angry, and everyone knew her opinions.  In the early days of the ERA, Feminism, and Sonia Johnson, she proclaimed herself a feminist to any who’d listen (and many who would not).  When her embroidery and poems were displayed at a Stake event, labeled only “Sister Anderson”, she raged at the depersonalization and patriarchy.  She went to church most of the time, mostly to please my father (she sometimes stayed home to garden, quoting the phrase about being “nearer God’s heart in a garden”).   She still had callings (mostly Visiting Teaching, where she could observe people’s lovely homes and flowers, or writing the ward paper).  She valued her Temple Marriage, and was happy when my older sister and I were the 3rd generation to attend BYU.  But she was never quiet about her Feminism.  I was a teen around that time.  A tall, asthmatic, Scoliosis-curved, klutzy, artsy teen who felt different from her friends already.  A teen who  mostly wanted her mother to shut up and blend in like all the other nice Mormon mothers.  I was very close to my father, also, and I think I blamed her ( her Feminism) for his never receiving any of the “big” callings  at church.   My friends were children of Bishops and Relief Society Presidents, which in Bountiful, Utah, in the 70’s, was like royalty.  The powers that be never felt my dad had “his wife’s support”.  I understand now about the beauty and importance of all kinds of service.  At  16 or so I just felt the differentness.

     Time passed, and my own experiences with lack of equality and patriarchy occurred.  I was always progressive in unwillingness to accept treating people differently based on sex, race, or sexual orientation.  Even while she was alive I loved and respected my mother’s openness to accept new ideas in those arenas.  Yet the term Feminism was still a label I could not embrace.  I was a Nice Mormon Woman, so even if I disagreed with things I usually only mentioned my ideas to close (like-minded) friends.  While at BYU the Department Head and advisor to my major told my Directing class that he knew most of us, the female students, wouldn’t ever use our major and would be “just wives and mothers”.  I made him bite his tongue as I was the first woman in two advanced courses they developed.  But I did it quietly.  I never told him of my anger.  I just did what I planned on doing, and ignored him.

     My grandmother died during the early  years of the “Feminist Movement”, so she probably never called herself a Feminist, either.  In general she was less confrontational than my mom, so she might have avoided the title, as well.  Her way was to smile and flatter, working between the lines instead of shifting them.  She needed her job, so she accepted the lower pay she received.  When her dear friend, Juanita Brooks, brought her an idea  and notes for a book on Emma Smith, one that differed from the then-popular habit of either idealizing or demonizing her, and suggested Grandma’s better reputation within the Church would make it a better project for her than Ms. Brooks herself, she dove in.  When the Brethren heard of the project, called her in, and suggested it would be best for her, as a Church employee, to abandon the project, she gave in and donated her manuscript.  When she was deemed too old to continue her position, she set herself a strict schedule for entering every poetry contest she could find, and still supported herself until the day she died.

     Knowing of my grandmother’s and mother’s stories, as well as the endless stories of the women before them, myself, my sisters,and my nieces, I still did not consider myself a Feminist.  Wanting equality, tolerance, and respect just made me a rational human being, as far as I was concerned.  Until last December.

     I had been introduced at one point to the writings of Joanna Brooks by a beautiful young woman I taught in Primary as a child, then later directed in community theatre.  She had recently come out as a lesbian, and had found peace and acceptance among Ms. Brooks’ followers.  Soon after I happened to see Ms.Brooks on the Jon Stewart show, and was impressed  with what she had to say.  I read her book and started following her FB page.  For some reason or another she never accepted my friend request, so I could never comment, which was frustrating, but I enjoyed the window on women’s issues within the LDS Church.  Through her page I learned about the “Wear Pants to Church Day”.  At the time I was teaching Relief Society.  I’d been teaching for two years, and it was my favorite calling.  Though I usually didn’t correct people in daily life if they made false assumptions about my ideas, and I would never use a lesson to spread any doubts I might have, I did expand upon any lesson that touched in any way upon love, charity, tolerance, pride, etc..  I told stories of the diverse people and situations I’ve experienced.  For many, I was their favorite teacher.  They constantly asked when it would be my week again, and their eyes lit as I moved to the front when it was.  I had shared things that were personal and possibly unorthodox in the past, so when it seemed related to the lesson and appropriate, I got a strong inspiration to take it further.   I encouraged the women to be more accepting and inclusive with those different from themselves.  I told them how, as a single woman after college, I had felt so out of place and unwanted in my parent’s ward that I’d felt more accepted and loved dancing at gay bars with my gay friends.  Then I told them how I’d felt so isolated that the time came when I tried to take my own life, and four of those friends saved me.  Three of them are now dead of AIDS, a disease that flourished because people closed their eyes and wouldn’t help those they felt were less than themselves.  I told of the time I spent volunteering with an AIDS service organization, and the other good men I watched die.  After that lesson I was showered with love.  A few women were a little shocked, and told me it made them uncomfortable to think about those things.  Even they, though, engaged in deep, wonderful conversation with me, about how Christ never told us we were supposed to be comfortable.  I went home on an incredible high.   I felt SO much hope for women, the Church, and myself.  I heard  about the “Pants Day” soon thereafter.  It scared me, because December 15th would be my next turn to teach. It was also my 55th birthday.   I was scared at the thought of wearing pants to teach a lesson at church.  When I realized I was more afraid of wearing pants than I’d been to describe my suicide attempt, I realized I had to do it.  I started planning just how I’d explain it to the women–how I’d not overturn the planned lesson, but I’d introduce the idea of welcoming all and not judging people on superficialities in the beginning.  I printed out pictures of women with tattoos, piercings, scant clothing, and burkas.  Then I printed photos of sweet-faced, conservative serial killers.  I planned to ask who they would welcome if they showed up at church (trick answer–everyone).  I was ready.

     Two weeks later I was called in to visit with the 1st Counselor.  I received a different calling.  No, I would not be needed to give the next lesson, even though it was only 2 weeks away.  They had it covered.  I didn’t wear pants December 15th.  It was the coward’s way, but I couldn’t face being there.  I spent my birthday at the seaside.  My mouth was closed once more.

      After awhile with just an assignment of collecting data on who’s done their Visiting Teaching, I was given a Primary class to co-teach.  I guess they figured I couldn’t do much harm with five year olds.   Still, among those children is a tall, blond girl who wears a long black cape when it’s cold. It’s a hand-me-down, but she ROCKS it.  She holds her head high, observes everything, and gives her own spin, no matter if it isn’t always agreeable.  The first time I met her she made sure to mention her Heavenly Mother, and has many times since.   For her, the other beautiful girls in the class, my nieces, and all the lovely actresses I’ve watched grow and develop, I can speak.  For them, and for my wonderful, complicated mother I miss SO much, I can allow the label Feminist.

     And yes, I drink coffee. 

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OneTouch of the Unicorn –or Confessions of a One-Time Fag-Hag

I entered their world a tourist. It was by accident mostly, but finding myself in such a foreign land I thought to look around a bit, maybe rub shoulders with the natives. Try the food. Enjoy the costumes. Buy a T-shirt.
A decade later as life moved me to other kingdoms, I left as a sister, with the best friends of my life forever in my heart.

1.
The easy answer to why I spent so many years as what is not-so-kindly often referred to as a “Fag-hag” is simply the fact that the fields of Theatre, art, and Retail, where my life has been spent ,are not exactly known for large numbers of straight men. As in most realities, the truth is far more complicated… For women conflicted about issues like sexuality and religion, who want to test waters but fear swimming, nothing’s safer or more fun than hanging out with gay men. For women who like their independence and marry late there’s no better friend than a gay man. They can be your date to dinners, movies, and the theatre, yet also give you advice about clothes and men. For anyone with secrets, like nice Mormon girls who don’t ever want to disappoint their fathers by letting them know they’re drinking, there’s no better place to hide than a gay bar, at least one in Salt Lake City, in the ’80’s. It’s amazing how freeing that can be. No matter what you do there, no one you run into will ever, ever, mention it in public. Because most of them have secrets bigger than yours. There exists an unspoken agreement of silence…which I found irresistable. I didn’t even want to do anything even slightly shocking by most of the world’s standards.

To be continued…

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My Favorite

     It’s amazing how quickly we do irrevocable, long-reaching things.   An instant, a word—something we do with little thought to bring a smile or affect a momentary situation.   When I did it I had no plan at all.   I don’t even remember knowing I was going to say it.  It was only later that I realized the gift and maybe greater, curse, I’d bestowed .     Later still my words explained those my mother’d given me…

     My niece has two perfect little girls, ages 3 and 5.   I only get to see them during two or three visits back home each year.    But I love children…and my sweet niece knows that not only do I adore hers because of my deep bond with her and their own innate cuteness, but because of the ache I carry from all the babies I lost.   Girls, especially, feed my hunger since I have a wonderful son.   So she has always made sure I’ve had opportunities to be around her daughters.   Some good fortune has caused them to remember and like me each time we are together.

     The oldest girl, whom I’ll call Angelette (my nickname for her), is quieter, more restrained, a watcher and a planner.   Rather like her mother, and in some ways, me.   For the first year or two of her life she DIDN’T smile at me or hug me, whereas her impulsive, passionate sister (unless she’s in a bad temper, which comes and goes  as quickly as her smiles) has thrown herself into my arms with kisses for as long as I can remember.    Angelette is now the first to approach me, words jumbling over themselves and leading me away by the hand to ensure my attention.  She guards me, making sure I notice her before her sister can rush in.  This year during the holidays her young, tween-age aunt confided to me that Angelette told her her mother doesn’t love her.   I know that isn’t true.  I remember when her mom, my niece, first had her, and the enormous joy she’s always had over this splendid child.   Despite lack of funds due to single-motherhood without regular child-support, she pays huge fees for Angelette to attend a private school.   She is constantly careful about providing educational, stimulating books and healthy foods.   Angelette neither notices nor cares.   She only sees that her mother is sterner and expects more from her and gives more quick smiles and kisses to the baby.  All in all, a common scenario, and something she may understand and get past as she gets older.

     I don’t know if my niece really has a favorite child, or if it even matters, since love is not really a quantitative thing.   Having love is vital, but exact amounts and types—not so much.    Our hearts are large organs, with puzzle-like pockets of different shapes and sizes.   Having one pocket filled in no way lessens the room available for more.  So, though the younger sister may inspire more quick affection from people she meets and occasionally her grandmother and mother on the surface, Angelette is very well loved.    Her charms, though slower to warm, are loyal and lasting.  I completely adore her.

       One afternoon her mother,grandmother ,and the tweenage aunt had just arrived at my father’s, where I’d been watching the girls, and I could see Angelette looking sad and jealous as her sister ran into their grandma’s arms, chattering and laughing.   Suddenly no one was noticing Angelette at all, and her shoulders and face sagged.   I whisked her into my arms just then, kissed her hard, and whispered the words to her.  The words, the dangerous words…   “You’re my favorite girl.”

      It wasn’t true.  I , too, am charmed by her little sister (not more than her,but not noticeably less) and even at that moment was surrounded by three others of my potential “favorite girls”: her Mom (whom I’d held and tended when she was born to my then-so-young baby sister), the tweenage aunt, and  the grandma (my sweet “little” sister).  I love them all.  But I DO love her with an ache that’s fierce, and I recognized the forgotten look on her face.   Her need was SO alive, though quiet and wary.   The words were out.   No one else heard me, but instantly her face, shoulders and entire being lifted.   Glowing, she slipped from my arms to lean near the tweenage aunt, whispering.   With all her 10-year-old wisdom, the aunt gave me a knowing smile.   It was done.   Angelette’s mood was raised and I’d earned from a child already loving and devoted whenever in my presence what is probably life-long devotion.   Because I know.   You never forget being the favorite.  Not the glory and not the burden…

      You see, I was a favorite child.   My mother told it to me all my life—in secret, where my sisters wouldn’t hear.   It might even have been true.  She liked my hair color and the fact that I was good in school and at Art, then Drama.   Until that moment I never had reason to doubt her words.    I lived my first 30 years, and probably much of the next decade before she died, as well, around what I thought was that knowledge.   I tried new things, secure in the warm confidence her favor granted me.   Stopped my tears with her reassurances that those who hurt me were “just jealous”.   Became frozen with fear I’d let her down if I wasn’t perfect—nice, smart, “okay”.   Shredded myself with guilt that I wasn’t deserving—that I’d somehow damaged my sisters by accepting my status.   Accepted less in tangible favors and more in rules and demands because she was probably just making it up to them…

     Perhaps I should have suspected earlier that there were flaws in my logic.   At a particularly dark point in my life, when I was feeling overwhelmed with what I saw as the insurmountable expectations the world seemed to have for me and confused about what I truly wanted for myself, I lashed out at my mother in anger.    I railed at her for “making me” think I had to be perfect, and her version of it rather than mine.   For making me give up so many things to please her.   She was completely perplexed.   Shaking her head, and holding me close, she told me she never asked  for any of it.  All she wanted was for me to be happy.   I calmed, but it was her voice from my childhood I remembered and believed.  Not until that moment with Angelette did I suspect that maybe I was her “favorite” because I needed to be.   My older sister was widely and unapologetically known to be my grandmother’s favorite because she was the first grandchild, and had spent most of her childhood and teens in hospitals, casts, and braces.   My younger sister was the “wild child”, often in trouble, but with such gorgeous long-lashed brown eyes and pleasant demeanor that she was guaranteed attention.    I was quiet, tall,clutzy, asthmatic and frequently bullied.  Smart, talented, and pretty by most standards, yes, but frequently lonely and sad.   Perhaps the first time Mama called me her favorite she might have just wanted to make me smile, let me know that someone loved me no matter what.   Once said, she was bound.   You can’t “unfavorite” someone without crushing them.   Ever.

     And I DO love Angelette.   Forever.  So she’ll be my favorite as long as I live.   No matter what that does to either of us.   Or how many other favorites I whisper to as the years go by…

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Staging

     As I sat at my favorite corner table by the window over-looking the harbour, a young woman stood looking out, a haunted, nervous look on her face.   She was dressed in the off-beat, un-matched style of the local college students.   Her coat was purple, short bright-patterned skirt over leggings and flowered rubber boots.   Hair straight, with a maroon-tinted sheen.   After a moment her companion came up the stairs and they both sat down.   The other woman was a little older, wearing more common-place jeans and winter hat and parka.   For awhile they ate and chatted.   I read my book and didn’t notice their conversation.   At some point the girl was standing again, staring out, and I heard her friend tell her “We could go…”.   They gathered their trash, and went downstairs.   I returned to my reading.

     A little later I’d looked up to scan the water for birds or seals and noticed the two women walking along the pier.   The younger one kept her head down, looking even more haunted than before.   The older carried a basket over her arm.  “Oh,”  I thought, “they’re going to feed the birds.”   They walked on toward the bench at the corner of the boardwalk, and I noticed the woman was waving her arms rhythmically around the girl, shaking something in her hand.   As they reached the corner, the girl lifted her arms out to the side.  By then I could see the woman was smoking something from which she inhaled, then blew in the girl’s face, as she waved the object she carried in the smoke and made ritualized motions over purple-girl’s head and in an outline around her arms and body.    They ended with a sort of chant.   I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a healing, blessing, prayer, or spell, but at the conclusion of the chant the girl appeared hypnotized, gazing even more fixedly at the water and beginning to move in an almost robot-like fashion.

     At that moment I suddenly flashed on an image of her climbing onto the bench, then the railing, then jumping.   Shaking myself with a laugh, I realized it was an image from some book or movie, and not what would happen.

        Just then she stepped onto the bench.    In a single, resigned motion. My heart raced.  I almost leapt from my seat, ready to scream or run down the stairs and out onto the pier.   The second woman climbed up.   I held my breath.   They stood together, looking out.

     Then helped each other down and walked away.  

     The younger woman no longer looking haunted, but actually chatting with energy and even joy.

     Once again I find myself creating characters and scenarios from the people I observe and not always remembering that I’m in “real” life and not staging one of my plays…

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Written Bullets

     I should probably warn you all right now that this blog is quite likely to be meandering, eclectic, and most certainly wordy.   It’s what comes most naturally to me, and in this one pocket of the world I choose to be self-indulgent.  I will write on many topics, some ordinary real-life events, some fiction, and maybe even recipes.   This is a crazy-quilt patchwork or a puzzle—something which hopefully will have a certain, at least occasional, beauty once mixed together but not in a conventional, linear arrangement.   My mother and grandmother were professional writers: journalists and poets.   They taught me to love words, but unfortunately the editing gene that allowed them to make their points so perfectly with only a few words skipped me.   I adore adjectives and descriptions, often employing them in ridiculously extravagant run-on sentences.   In most situations I try to rein such instincts in.   Here I don’t wish to.  

     One year, when the departments I managed at the department store where I worked had experienced high turn-over in staff for totally random reasons, I went into rather over-long descriptions on the self-review I turned in.   Our raises were based partly upon turn-over rates, and I knew my boss didn’t know some of the situations involved.   His response was to beg me to please, in the future, only put short bullet-points on all future reports.   Frustrated though it made me, I complied.   By the time I left that job I was expert at bullets.   I even sort of understood why they’re appropriate or even necessary in certain situations.   I’ve actually used them by choice on resumes, programs, and other papers where quick impact is more important than true understanding.

     But I hate bullets.  

    Because the adjectives, the descriptions are not just pretty window-dressing.   They MATTER.   If you wreck your car or lose a parent or win the lottery, whether or not the sun was shining, or you were up all night the night before, or you were on vacation in Thailand when it happened MAKES A DIFFERENCE.   Sometimes all the difference.   So here I won’t do bullets.

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Sunbreaks

(Originally written 12/14/10 but what seems to define  what I’m mostly feeling and wanting to express just now.)

   As I sat in my gloom, my internal torrents previously echoed by the wind and rain that raged outside, suddenly there was a sunbreak.  I’d thought the term, used by local weathermen, silly, but in that moment no other word applied.   There was no real clearing of the sky  as storm clouds drifted by, such as those with which I’d been raised.   It was truly a break–an aberration.   And as such, all the more glorious.  For an instant the droplets ceased, the wind stilled, and bright sunshine asserted itself to the ground.  Not a pale peek of sunlight, as you’d expect on a rainy day, but clear and strong.   I laughed with the incongruity.   I wanted to run outside, throw my arms in the air, and spin like a child.   It felt like hearing a sound or sighting a helicopter high overhead must feel to one marooned on an island, crashed on a mountaintop, or surviving a massacre.  I wanted to shout to the heavens: “We’re still here, God!  We’re alive.   Come find us.”

     Within minutes the rain and gusts returned.   Yet still, the tiniest spark of hope and energy survived.   I could make it.   I’d be saved.

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