[CBR10 – 6/13] Lies We Tell Ourselves

(Cannonball Read book review #6 – original post @ CBR10)

It’s Juneteenth, AND Pride month, which makes an incredibly appropriate time to review Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. This book was on my radar since it first came out in 2014, but it took a wee bit of time to actually find time to read it. (Seriously, on this site, I know I’m not the only one who’s reading list is longer than the time I’ll ever possibly have to read over the course of my entire life…) What first drew me in was that the book was about desegregation and I knew there was likely going to be a romantic subplot, but I didn’t know at first that it was a lesbian romantic subplot. And not just that, it was a white girl and a black girl falling in love with each. In the south. In 1959. You don’t have to know a whole lot about American history to know this is not going to be a happy story. However, Talley manages to take a difficult and complex story of racism, politics, history, growth, and first love and infuse hope, joy, wonder in it. I already knew I was a fan of Talley’s when I read and reviewed her second book What We Left Behind but this was a very different reading experience.

Format-wise, Lies We Tell Ourselves follows a similar back and forth POV style to What We Left Behind with the story being told from each of the protagonists perspectives. There are also some great internal monologues from all four characters between the two books. But that’s where the similarity ends, I think, because Lies We Tell Ourselves doesn’t give you a moment to breathe from the very beginning. What We Left Behind starts out happy, lighthearted. A dance. A first meeting of the couple. Lies We Tell Ourselves first page opens with the chilling title “Lie #1: There’s no need to be afraid” and the very first sentence is “The white people are waiting for us.”

If that doesn’t shoot you in the heart with dread, I…don’t know what will. I tend to try to put myself in the shoes of characters I read about to understand people from different places, times, cultures, classes, etc better. I thought about what it would be like to walk into a throng of angry people who hate me…just based on what they see and think they know about me. Granted, the one thing I can relate to in that regard is that being a larger person, I’ve been read as lazy, ugly, stupid, pitiful, and disgusting by many people…just based on the way I look and the reason people think I got this way. And while that is NOTHING compared to hundreds of years of institutional racism, and does not mean in any way, shape, or form that I understand what that feels like, it has given me a tiny window of empathy and I try to be a better person with it.

So there I am, in my mind, walking with the ten teenagers into the Jefferson High School and it’s terrifying.

“They’re out there all right,” Chuck says when he comes back. He’s trying to smile, but he just looks frozen. “Somebody sent the welcome committee.”

No one laughs. We can hear the shouting, but the sound is too disjointed for us to make out the words.

We learn from there that the teens have been assisted and coached by the NAACP on this transition. Sarah, the main character on the desegregation side gives us this run down:

My father and Mrs. Mullins and the rest of the NAACP leaders have been coaching us on the rules since the summer, when the court first said the high school baord had to let us into the white school. Rule One: Ignore anything the white people say to you and keep walking. Rule Two: Always sit at the front of the classroom, near the door, so you can make a quick getaway if you need to. And Rule Three: Stay together whenever you possibly can.

I’ve been reading fiction about desegregation, the South during the 20’s – 50’s, slavery, and runaway slaves and I never came across that kind of description before. I knew the kids who were the first to face desegregation were brave, but I never fully grokked what this looked like on a moment by moment basis until this book. And this is only on page three of the book. By page five, these two paragraphs stopped me cold:

Police officers line the school’s sidewalks in front of the boys. They’re watching us, too.

I don’t bother looking back at them. The police aren’t here to help us. Their shiny badges are all that’s stopping them from yelling with the other white people. For all we know they trade in those badges for white sheets at night.

The rest of the chapter is just them getting into school the first morning, and it’s filled with hate, name-calling, intimidation, and it’s unclear if Sarah, her younger sister, and their friends are even going to make it in the building. They do make it in, after an almost mosh-pit incident and chapter/lie #2 is “I’m sure I’m doing the right thing” and the new students try making their way to their classes, worrying about getting detention if they’re late. Sarah rightly wonders “but if we have to deal with shouting crowds every day, won’t we always be late?” Makes dealing with traffic or any of the hundreds of other things that made me late over the years for school and work seem more than a bit insignificant in retrospect.

That first day is marked with students screaming at them to go home, threats to them, spitballs, milk being dumped on her, and pencils being bored into Sarah’s back. But we also get the set up for her closeted lesbianism and her budding crush on Linda, a red-haired student.

My mind is running to scary places. The images come too fast for me to stp them.

I imagine what it would be like if I were alone with the red-haired girl. How it would feel if she smiled at me with her pretty smile, and I smiled back, and-

No. I know better than to think this way.

I can’t take any risks. Especially not at this school. If anyone found out the truth about me it would mean – I don’t even know what it would mean. I only know it would be horrible. It would be a hundred times worse than what happened in the parking lot this morning. A thousand times worse.

As the day progresses, there are more lies. “I don’t care what they think of me,” “I’m not lonely” and “They won’t really hurt me” forever” hit pretty hard. We learn that while Sarah’s father is in the NAACP, Linda’s father is the editor of the Davisburg Gazette. “He’s the one who writes the editorials opposing segregation. He’s also Daddy’s boss.”

Whelp. This story just went from star-crossed to totally fucked in two sentences.

There are bits sprinkled in about how the white people view the black people and one of Linda’s father’s editorials details how “Negro children should be taught only Negro teachers, for our own benefit, because no one else can understand how “uniquely” our brains work” but we don’t fully get the white perspective until a few more chapters in when we switch to Linda’s POV.

That set up was very telling of the privileged mind of someone who’s never had to examine her own biases and privileges. Linda’s first lie is “None of this has anything to do with me.” And the first sentence of her first chapter? “They canceled the prom today.”

Because the prom is CLEARLY the most important consideration at that moment. I swear, I’ve rarely wanted to slap a fictional character so badly as I did when I first read that. However, Talley knows how to skillfully turn that self-centeredness and build layers into the story very quickly. That first sentence was followed with:

Because of the colored people. Everything that happens now is because of the colored people.

If Daddy has to work later at the paper it’s because the integration teachers are making up stories. If I’m behind in English it’s because the NAACP forced the school to close last semester. If I get caught daydreaming in Math its because the colored girl in the front row distracted me.

Well, now. Apparently Linda is also taken with Sarah. But it’s disturbing to get into Linda’s head, even as skillfully as Talley brings us there. Linda theorizes, the first time she’s in a bathroom at school with Sarah, that “touching her probably feels like touching sandpaper.” Also that black people have a certain smell to them that “stink” up places. I think the most incredulous was that some of the white people wanted to know where the black people kept their tails. This kind of literal dehumanizing was clearly spoon fed to these people from birth and they just accepted it as fact. But what I love about this story is that we see and witness Linda as her thoughts change as she falls in love with Sarah.

Y’see, during that first time in the bathroom, Linda and Sarah get into a bit of a spat because Sarah dares to be anything but polite and deferential to Linda. This pisses Linda off to no end. At first, she uses it to justify her narrow world view:

Daddy was right. The Negro students think they’re entitled. They think their own schools – the ones set aside specifically for them – aren’t enough. They think they have to come for our schools, even if it means hundreds of us have to suffer just so a handful of them can be satisfied.

Linda doesn’t see that separate but equal rarely, if ever, actually means equal. She doesn’t see the suffering that black people have endured at the hands of white people for centuries. She can’t see beyond her own small corner of the world. But Sarah is about to change all of that. Because of the first convo in the bathroom, Sarah and Linda (and Linda’s friend Judy) are late to French class and the teacher decides that that means they’ll be grouped together for the French project.

Now Linda and Sarah have to figure out how to work together, but not only how, but where. Clearly they can’t be seen anywhere together in the white parts of town and it’s also likely not a good idea for Linda to be going to the black parts of town, either. Judy works in Bailey’s Drugstore in town, which has a back room that they can meet in because no one is in there after 4pm on a school day, so they all three agree to meet there. And that’s where the meat of the story really starts unfolding. I don’t mean to disrespect the desegregation parts at school, but it’s when the girls on by themselves and the mob mentality isn’t allowed to prevail that Judy and Linda can start to see that Sarah isn’t stupid. She’s not ugly. She’s not uppity or “entitled”. They begin to learn about the humanness of each other and that they’re more similar than each had previously thought, especially from Linda’s perspective:

The part about her parents and her church choir was strange to read. I’d never thought about what the colored students do when they’re not in school. Sarah must have a house somewhere. She must do things like help her mother with dinner or iron her clothes for church. The same kinds of things I do.

But this is one of my favorite parts of their conversation, after Linda calls Sarah and “agitator” like it’s wrong:

“The point is, we didn’t force your governor to do anything,” Sarah goes on.

“My governor?” I say. “He’s your governor, too.”

Sarah lifts her chin and looks me straight in the eyes again. “He’s not my anything if he doesn’t treat me the same way he treats you.”

My jaw drops.

“That’s anarchy,” I say quietly. I wait for her to take it back.

Sarah doesn’t even blink. “No, it’s not. If the law is wrong, we have to say the law is wrong.”

Linda freaks out about this and again, uses it to justify her views, calling Sarah a Communist. Sarah says she’s not but Linda counters telling her she’s going to tell her own father about Sarah being a Communist. She thinks she’s going “fix integration.”

Sarah very smartly asks how she plans to do that when Linda’s father doesn’t even know they’re working on a project together.

Linda’s list of chapters/lies for this section are little insights into her own mind:

  • None of this has anything to do with me.
  • I’m exactly who I want to be.
  • I’m sure I’m doing the right thing.
  • If I keep pretending, everything will be all right.
  • She’s wrong.
  • This doesn’t change anything.
  • I hate her.

The story truly unfolds from there and Linda and Sarah grow closer while the tormenting at school gets worse. By the end of that section, though, which is about halfway through the book, things come to a head between Linda and Sarah. And right after, we switch back to Sarah for next quarter of the book. Sarah decides that the best thing to do to combat how she feels about Linda is to ignore Linda and put her energy into dating Ennis, one of the other students integrating with her. As we watch her do this, we also get her internal process of how she doesn’t feel that spark with Ennis that everyone says you’re supposed to have with a boy…that she definitely has with Linda.

It makes an odd juxtaposition to Linda’s musings about her fiancee, Jack, and how the pin he gave her “means I belong to someone” and that “Jack is all I need. He’s more than I deserve” whereas when Sarah starts to think about marriage to someone, possibly Ennis, and having existential crises while theater goers are gossiping around her on date, she thinks:

I envy these women. I bet none of them ever doubted whether they should get married. I’m sure none of them ever had any unnatural feelings.

As she’s trying to puzzle this out, she keeps dating Ennis and she and Linda avoid each other. Until Linda seeks her out to tell her that some of their classmates are planning something terrible for the choir concert tomorrow. Because after initially being told they shouldn’t join any extracurriculars at the white school, Sarah’s incredible vocal talents get her into the school choir. The classmates tried to sabotage Sarah by not having an accompanist for her solo. However, Sarah handles it in her own, graceful way.

After this third section of the book, we suddenly get a change. The last section is called “Amazing Grace” and from there on, we get three chapters, one each from Linda, Sarah, and Sarah’s little sister Ruth. Those chapters are now titled with “truths” instead of lies, to mark the journeys that each of them has taken:

  • Truth #1: (Linda) It’s up to me.
  • Truth #2 (Sarah) None of them can touch me.
  • Epilogue, Truth #3: Ruth We did it.

These last few chapters wrap up decisions that Linda has to make, including whether or not to confront her father, what she was going to do about her fiancee, and, by extension, the rest of her life.

Sarah has to face some of her own demons, too. And some things that have happened to her classmates. One got hit with a baseball bat, one was nearly killed by a band of white boys, and then near the end of school, someone pees on her desk chair and the teacher tries to make her sit in it and won’t listen to why she won’t. The teacher gives a choice to sit or leave, so she leaves and goes right to the principal’s office. That conversation is fascinating as all hell to get into yet another white person’s mind from the time about on how all this looks and should work. But after what could’ve been a very disheartening meeting, Sarah left feeling not angry or sad, but more confident in herself:

I can keep sitting quietly, like a good girl.

Or I can get out the letter that came yesterday and decide for myself what happens next.

The book ends on Ruth’s chapter, “We did it” and we get to see Sarah graduating after a brutally hellish year at Jefferson High School and then a small window into where Sarah will go next. I like that there’s hope in this chapter and in this book. It’s more than I was expecting during a volatile, difficult time. It also seems appropriate that it passes to Ruth, who is the next in line to stay on to fight next year when she attends Jefferson High School in the fall.

Even given all that hope at the end, the thing I hate most about all this, though, is how relevant it all was to the current political climate. Today, in 2018, this was scarily too similar to the rise of Neo-Nazis and white supremacy and it’s horrific and depressing to think we haven’t come all that far in 60 years. There’s still more to fight, more to overcome, more to change, but I’m so glad that there are authors like Talley out there on the front lines helping to make that change happen one reader at a time.

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[CBR10 – 5/13] grl2grl

(Cannonball Read book review #5 – original post @ CBR10)

I’d been wanting to read this compilation of lesbian YA short stores from Julie Anne Peters for a few years, so I was very excited when I discovered a copy in my county library collection. As a fan of Peters for a while, since I love how she draws me into believable worlds of lesbian and trans teen characters with humor, warmth, and great writing, this book didn’t disappoint. In fact, it went beyond my expectations in terms of variety. Without going into spoilers on specific stories, it covers the fear of coming out and going to a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting, breakups, cheating, first love, sexual abuse, trans hate crimes & violence, impossible crushes, religion, classism and the complications of friendship, non-traditional families, less common pronouns, online dating, and so much more.

The first story, Passengers, details a budding crush one teenager, Tam, has on a fellow classmate named Andi. How she’s observed her sitting alone everywhere. “In Art, senior seminar, lunch, on the train.” Tam and Andi are drawn as different from the get go because Tam says if she were alone on the train, she’d “find something to do. Read or work on homework or doodle, fake it, so if [she were] alone it’d look like [she] wanted to be alone.” But Andi doesn’t seem to care. Throughout the story, Tam brings the reader along on her crazy whim to get to know Andi. It seems like Andi confounds Tam. She doesn’t understand the other girl. Andi is a bundle of mystery, and Tam wants to know her better. We get a snapshot of one day where they spend time talking outside in the cold and then go into school library’s “Brittanica Boneyard” where all the library and other supplies go to die. It was nice to read a story that was just…a beginning and like any great author, I so wanted to know what happened the next day.

The next story is called Can’t Stop the Feeling and it’s about the utter fear of coming out. Mariah keeps wanting to go to the Gay/Straight Alliance meeting at school, and keeps getting closer to going in. However, she has some pretty abject terror: “The dread and fear of exposing myself to them was nothing compared to telling my friends. Did they even qualify as friends? There wasn’t one of them I could trust, or confide in.” It sucks to be that lonely and I found myself rooting for Mariah to get in that Band Room to be part of the Alliance finally.

After Alex hit me pretty hard for some personal reasons. In this story, Rachael’s friends tell her not to take back her girlfriend after Alex cheated on her, but Rachael is still knee deep in heartbreak and pining for the loss of her first love. So when Alex comes back around, begging Rachael to take her back, Rachael is thrown back into remembering the first time they really made a connection and snuggled on a train ride back from a GSA field trip. It’s funny; the story just before this one was about a character who was afraid to join the GSA, and in this story, Rachael talks about finally getting up the “nerve to join the Gay/Straight Alliance at school.” Then Rachael remembers the first time they made love and we come back to Rach’s friends trying to convince her not to get back together with Alex. This is the first story we get a definitive ending on, in that we know what Rachael does in response to Alex wanting her back, and I understand her choice oh-so-well.

Outside/Inside was a clever way to tell the story of a crush, via the outside and inside of cards that the main character, Logan, wants to send to someone she cares about at the beginning of winter break. It ends with the card’s presentation to the crush and I shook my head at Logan’s feelings. I remember having similar ones when I was in high school. I don’t want to cast spoilers out here, even for a short story, so I’m just gonna leave it by saying that things are likely gonna be complicated when Logan when she gets back from winter break.

On The Floor uses a basketball game and two players who’re on opposing teams to build a sweaty, fast-paced, well played metaphor of lust and sportsmanship. I really liked the short, quick sentences in this story and how the way she wrote it really did make give it the stop-start-screeching halt-quick sprint feeling of both a basketball game and the dynamic tension of a couple.

Stone Cold Butch was a rough one for me as it dealt with sexual abuse and how it’s hard for someone who’s gone through that to connect to another person in a romantic or sexual way. The main character, Cammie, calls herself a stone cold butch. She won’t let anyone do anything for her in that intimate way. She’s shut down. Which is heartbreaking to watch from inside her head when a classmate develops a crush on her and pursues her, even though Cammie verges on cruel.

In Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder, Peters tackles the subject of how abstinence-only sex ed affects queer students. Things like how birth-control wasn’t really a thing for same sex couples because, duh, no risk of pregnancy. Also, when Aimee, the protagonist, asks why should students who were gay wait for marriage when they weren’t allowed to get married and did that mean that they were just never supposed to have sex, I almost threw my fist in the air when reading. Aimee’s teacher gets snarky with her and first tells her she’ll be playing a lot of Solitaire (wtf?! But I can totally see certain teachers I had in school answering that way, and now I’m suddenly glad that I had fairly good NOT abstinence-only sex ed in school) and then later, when Aimee presses her for a real answer, tells her it’s between her and her god. I love the anger that rises in Aimee and also that afterward, in her head, she goes into a rant:

I stormed out after class. My god? My god? What did she know about my god? She probably thought since I was gay, I was godless. Against religion. But I’m not. I have a god. I go to church. My god isn’t her god. My god doesn’t scorn or condemn me. My god is kind and benevolent and accepting. We made a sacred pact. I’d be the best person I could be and God would save me a place in heaven. The real one, where it doesn’t matter who you are or how you look or how you sacrifice your dignity and self-respect most days just to be true to yourself.

The story takes a bit of a twist (to me, at least) from there, introducing an old friend, Peyton, that had dropped Aimee after her parents got divorced and Aimee moved to the wrong side of the tracks and “inner-city housing.” But it was awesome to see Aimee and Peyton reconnect and by the end of the story, with some humor and snark, we get hope for the two girls to be friends again.

Boi deals with an FtM trans character and opens with some fairly explicit talk about children being curious about body parts and how one moment with a cousin was a tip-off for the main character that ze wanted zir own penis. Over a decade later, the same cousin helped Vince get zir first packing penis. Vince’s cousin Kevin were raised by their grandparents. I really liked this story as soon as I started reading it, so the assault that happens to Vince utterly gutted me. Fair warning, this story ends on an incredibly upsetting note and I hate these fictitious boys for what they did to Vince. The damage they did may’ve been fictional, but it’s indicative of the real damage and hate that gets carried out everyday all over the world towards trans people and it’s horrific.

I think TIAD was my least favorite story. I certainly relate to it. It mostly takes place in a chatroom online and I remember what it was like to connect to someone in a chatroom, think that you have something in an LDR, and then to have it all fall apart. This one just felt a little flat to me. However, it is funny that the acronym and it’s meaning has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently wrote a piece about how Tomorrow Is Another Day, so that’s important to remember but this one just didn’t really stick in my brain and I had a hard time connecting to the characters.

Aaaand whereas I couldn’t connect in TIAD, I did nothing by connect with the story and characters in the last story of this compilation, called Two-Part Invention. This was definitely my favorite, but that’s likely due a lot to the fact that it was music-based. Whereas On The Floor was all sweaty sports-filled adrenaline, this was pure lyricism, ripe with music references, and I love how music can be a metaphor for love. This story centered on Kat and her yearly pilgrimages to an elite camp for musical prodigies and the girl, Annika, she’s fallen in love with. There’s a beautiful tension where Kat is trying to bring herself to tell Annika how she feels about her and also trying not to freak out about how Annika has been recently talking about a fellow male prodigy musician named Bryce, throwing a wrench into things for Kat to figure out if Annika might feel the same way. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I was a fan of the ending and think it was the perfect story to end the book on.

Have I mentioned how much I love Julie Anne Peters?

[New Year, New You] – Week 9: Lessons

This week’s writing prompt is one of reflection. Has it really been 9 weeks since I started this? It feels like longer. Well…technically, it has been longer. I started on December 28th. That means it’s been 14.5 weeks. Which makes sense, since I lost about a month to the explosion and resulting dumpster fire from my old job. But we have to keep on keepin’ on, right?

So I picked back up and now I’m mostly on the weekly schedule, give or take a day or two. But still….it feels longer than even that 14.5 weeks. There’s just been so much that’s happened. Said dumpster fire, a break up, heavy conversations and considerations about how I need to move forward with Relationships, starting a new job, starting to write more frequently (six out of seven days this week!), asking for lots of help, working through a  fuckton of fear, changing perceptions about many people I thought I knew, ceasing kink for a while to reassess my foundation and communication, picking it back up slowly, all those resulting conversations, reclaiming my Pagan roots and practicing more, financial and health concerns, a national conversation about SESTA/FOSTA, Stormy Daniels, and the latest chucklefuckery of 45. It’s been a fucking LOT.

What have I learned? That I have to keep going in the direction of the next best step. That incremental change is more than good, it’s necessary. That even though I may want certain things right now or be afraid that I’ll never get them/there, I have to slow down and, as we’re told at work, trust the process.

Oh, if only one of my first therapists could see me now. Richard was the first person I came out to. And I was fucking terrified. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I was being raised by an activist mother who taught me that I could be whatever I wanted, and I knew she’d love me no matter what my sexuality. But I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about being, at the time, a lesbian. And forget trying to tell my dad. That was not something I’d have courage to do until about twenty years later when I handed him an invitation to my poly wedding – to one man (whom I was already legally married to) and one woman. I figured two closets for the price of one invitation, right?

But when I was sixteen, I had some serious arrested development and bone-level terror. Of myself, the world, the future. Richard was one of the kindest, open people I’d ever met and I felt comfortable with him. Still, I was scared. I think it took about two sessions for me to say the words aloud. And I couldn’t look at him when I did it, because I was so afraid of what I’d see in his eyes. Disgust. Derision.

But there was none of that. There was only warmth and a slight gleam in his eyes. Through more sessions, I think he said he had an idea of what I was trying to get out but wanted me to get there on my own. He was very big on “the process”. Everything was “a process”. It used to make me so mad. When he was about to say that something was “a process” I would glare at him and tell him he better not be about to tell me it’s that fucking p-word. He would chuckle. But now over twenty years later, I’m learning how right he was. You can’t read a book all in one second. Or listen to a song in a second. Things aren’t instantaneous. They take time to plant, cultivate, water, grow, flower. It’s a motherfucking process.

That’s probably the thing I’ve learned all too well over the past few months. That fucking process. And an important part of the process is starting.

One of my favorite books is “The Laws of Spirit: A Tale of Transformation” by Dan Millman. It’s a short book that packs a punch about a guy who goes for a hike in the woods and winds up meeting a mountain sage. She takes him on a journey that’s marked by a few different chapters/laws that have major life lessons as titles. The Law of Action opens with the mountain sage telling the narrator to pick a direction when they come to a spot in the woods where the path diverges in three directions. The narrator points at one path. The sage repeats herself and tells him to pick a path. He points again, saying he chose that path. Getting more irritated, the sage tells him yet again to pick a damn path already fer fuck’s sake. Finally, he gets it and starts walking that path.

This has stuck with me for nearly two decades. Action is a requirement to get things that I want. I have to deal with, talk about, fucking process, and ultimately do. Walk in the direction of my dreams. Y’know, once I figure out what the hell they are for this part of my life.

Song of the week: “Believer” by Imagine Dragons

Singing from heartache from the pain
Taking my message from the veins
Speaking my lesson from the brain
Seeing the beauty through the
Pain
You made me a, you made me a believer, believer
(Pain, pain)
You break me down, you build me up, believer, believer
(Pain)
Oh let the bullets fly, oh let them rain
My life, my love, my drive, it came from
(Pain)
You made me a, you made me a believer, believer

 

 

Advanced Cartography: Rewriting Maps & Navigating Cars, Love, and Polyamory/RA

When I was sixteen, I had to take a test at a local community college. My mom and I were dirt fucking poor – on welfare, food stamps, housing assistance. Her old car was hanging on by a thread…no heat and this was in a bitter fucking winter, one of the windows wouldn’t stay up so we had to pull it up every once in a while, radio was broken.

We tried to make a game of it, though. When it was really cold, like the day I took the test, we would pile blankets across us and pretend like we were going on a sleigh ride. The car died on the road leading into the community college. I got out and pushed it until we got to a hill further in and we coasted into a parking space. Took my test. I passed (somehow with the second highest score in the state) but honestly don’t know how because I was trying not panic, thinking about how we were going to get home with the car, y’know, not working and all. My mom kept trying to reassure me as I went in that she would take care of it. And she did. She called my dad. My dad owned a body shop and helped us fix the car. This might seem like NBD, except they’d been divorced at this point for about ten years and neither were the other’s favorite person. But. We were out of options and my dad did it to help me.

I’ve never had a new car. I’ve never even bought my own used car. The cars I’ve had all were given to me, and I realize how fortunate I am in that. The downside is that they are usually high in mileage, or wrecks that my dad fixed up and gave to me. Most lasted for at least a year or two, with their myriad quirks. One decided it didn’t want to go in reverse anymore. That was a fun challenge, to try to always park in such a way that we didn’t have to back out of anywhere. One had a “police door”, as we called it. (The back door had child locks that apparently decided they wanted to stay on all the time so the door had to be opened from the outside.) Another became possessed and started repeatedly activating the power door locks…while I was driving.

I was also incredibly fortunate to have amazing almost in-laws who then became my in-laws and who gave me their gently loved cars with high mileage. I still have one of those cars. She’s lasted longer with me than that marriage did, ironically.

My cars and I bond. I love them dearly. I remember the one that had the pair of dice by the dashboard light because one of my exes had a penchant for Meat Loaf and an adorable sense of humor. I remember the one that I fell in love with because it was deep green and had curvy lines like a zaftig woman’s body. I love(d) all these cars because they were freedom to me. They got me places I could barely dream about when I was little. Out of bad situations I couldn’t get myself out of when I wasn’t old enough to have a car. They are the place where I feel most comfortable, in some ways…I can have intense discussions, sing, choreograph burlesque routines (from the waist up and in my head, of course), see new places, get to sacred spaces, meet up with people who are important to me, help the people I care about by bringing them places or things. Even to this day, when I think about being without a car, I have to fight multiple panic attacks.

Like I said, though, they all had/have their quirks. Sometimes those quirks are repairs I can’t afford to make but don’t technically have to. For example, a cosmetic dent from a hit and run I didn’t even know happened until I got out of work. Since there’s no one to hold accountable and I didn’t have money for health insurance at the time, let alone cosmetic car repairs, there was no way I could get a new bumper. Also, it wasn’t a safety hazard, so it was low on my and my dad’s priority fix list.

One of the most nerve-wracking things about these cars, though, is taking them through inspection. Because often, with older, high mileage cars, the check engine light was on. Or going off and on. I’ve recently been told by a friend that this is usually just a faulty gas cap and if you make sure it’s secure and tightly sealed, all will be well after a day or two. This wasn’t knowledge I had, though, over the past two decades of driving. Which meant that most of the time, I figured it was something I didn’t have money to fix, so I had to pray that the car held out until another one came along or until my dad was able to have a friend fix it. There were short term fixes we learned for various problems. Or sometimes we would get lucky and the light would go off and we’d race to the inspection station and try to get it through before the light came back on and we flunked before they checked anything.

“Quick, get it in before it starts throwing codes!” was the rallying cry.

Sometimes we got lucky and passed. Usually, when we did, the check engine light came back on a few days later. But it was okay. (“Okay”). The old sticker had already been scraped away and a shiny new sticker put in its place, marking the car as valid. It was the stamp of approval so we didn’t have to worry constantly about the cops pulling us over, regardless of what the light said.

Old, out of date maps

Lately, I’m finding an odd parallel between how I was taught to procure cars and what I learned love was supposed to look like. A high percentage of people I’ve been attracted to share some of these traits from formative relationships in my childhood:

  • work-a-holic
  • obsessive personality
  • presently or previously addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other types of highs
  • charming & charismatic (for my magical friends, glamour for daaaaaayyyyyssss)
  • unpredictable
  • being showered with affection then starved for attention and when/if I can manage to ask for some I’m too greedy or demanding. Or selfish
  • being hurt and told it’s my fault. Or that it didn’t happen. Or having it be ignored
  • being in constant vigilance so often I don’t even realize it’s become a normal state as I deal with one fucked up situation after another because shit just keeps happening
  • low emotional intelligence and communication
  • long periods of unavailability
  • anger issues
  • not seeing or interacting with who I am, just what they see me as and what I can do for them
  • abandonment

Shit, when it’s spelled out like that, it’s not all that attractive. But…they manifest in such intriguing ways. Dancing eyes. Saying all the right things. That work-a-holic thing is “just dedication”. Obsessiveness can be so sweet at first when it’s directed at you. So if you look at these Relationships in a certain way, in the right light, on a good day, after an amazing scene, they look fine. The statuses on social media seem accurate. They’ll pass inspection. To the outside world, the relationship is up and running, doing well. Only the people inside it know the anxiety of the seeing the metaphorical check engine light on, or knowing that the symbolic heat doesn’t work, or that you really wish a particular damn window would stay up, especially when it’s fucking snowing outside. It can get really fucking cold and sad when this happens.

And if the check engine light isn’t on, there are times when it feels like these relationships are on the verge of throwing “relationship codes” – different sex drives, lack of communication, goals and ideals not lining up, wildly different kink drives, no pick up…play, fixes we can’t afford to make because they live far away and gas is expensive and we all live elaborate lives. So many codes that can spell disaster for trying to pass the test. For trying to convince yourself that you’ve got a little more time. That maybe it will all work itself out and the light will stay out.

And then I read this post by Page Turner.

This paragraph really hit home:

Yes, I drank and actually enjoyed terrible coffee for years without knowing it could be any different. And now I drink coffee that’s rather snobby compared to what I grew up on. But the same thing happened with love. I was just happy to have anybody in my life. I didn’t know what it was like to be really appreciated. To be cherished.

I would love to have a car I don’t have to worry about, but I don’t really know any different. I’ve never had that experience of new, fresh, and smooth. Waiting, saving, and picking exactly what I want. It’s always been what’s available. Buying a new or even used car has so far been entirely outside of my realm of experience.

Likewise, I don’t have a lot of experience with consistently being loved in a way that feels right to me once the NRE has worn off. My current dream is to eventually, when I’m looking again, find more capital-R-Relationships that could maybe turn me into a love snob. For most of my life, and especially the past few years, I have been stunned that anyone wanted to be in a relationship with me at all (capital or not). I’ve gotten into a Relationship or two because people were available and interested, and I was definitely interested, too. But I didn’t think too much about what it all meant and how it all fit…and if it fit at all. If they had the same values. If what we were looking for lined up. And if they loved me the way I wanted and valued me. Because it’s been a hard path to realize that just because someone wants you, doesn’t mean they value you. Or just because someone loves you doesn’t mean that they love you in a way that you want to be loved. Love itself doesn’t make relationships last. Likewise, it’s a hard road to open yourself up to people who might could love and/or care about you in ways you’re realizing you want, because those ways don’t look like ways you’re used to.

Figuring out how to navigate love is confusing as fuck to me

Especially because being without a relationship in polyamory used to make me panic nearly as much as being without a car. How would I get physical touch? Would I ever play or make out again? Would anyone love me again if I’m not already in a Relationship? Like they say it’s easier to get a job when you have a job, it’s easier to find people when you already have them, right? It’s taken me a really long time to realize that much of these thoughts are severely co-dependent. A good friend gave me a copy of “Co-Dependent No More” and even though I’m bristling at some of it, I know that’s because it’s all too familiar and applicable to me and my life. The more I want to throw it across the room, the more I know there are lessons that I need to learn.

There’s a quote in the chapter I just started that says “I’m fiercely independent…as long as I’m in a relationship.” That gut-punched me. I’m terrified to be alone…and yet I’m also craving to live alone for the first time in my life. I’ve run out of bandwidth and spoons for capital-R-Relationships. I finally know that adding a new Relationship isn’t going to fix anything (ask me how many times I had to do it to figure that out… *headdesk*)

As I skew more and more towards relationship anarchy, though, I’m trying to learn how to be in relationships (friendships, chosen and blood family, etc) that are what I create with the other person, not about what society tells me any of it should look like. That I get to ask for what I want instead of trying to fit things into a certain box or taking what’s in front of me, like the cars I was given, because they’re what’s available.

And yes, I do know that relationships aren’t actually cars

Cars are not people. In fact, in the words of a dear friend to me recently, “You are not a car. You are a person.” They were referring to someone I was interested in, who had a propensity for “chasing cars”.

I get it. (Still totally needed to hear it, then, though.)

But.

There’s a similar feeling towards them both given how I learned to view them in my life. And I realize this might not be universal, but it’s what I’ve got. First, I learned a very specific way that getting a car looked. Similarly, I learned early on what love looked like. All the “driving” in between is a combination of amazing, exhilarating, utilitarian, pedestrian, and thrilling. And then, when the paralyzing fear that the relationship’s or car’s life end is coming, I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to pull the plug. Like I said in a recent post, I don’t have a lot of skills built up in breaking up. When I don’t know where my next “car” is coming from and I have no money (or energy) to find another, saying “this is not working. It’s time to stop” feels so…wrong. I never fully learned how to embrace my own autonomy and strength to say, “nope. This ain’t working. I’d rather be alone than deal with this. I will figure it out from here but this sure as hell ain’t gonna continue.” I just…wait for it to just die. Or for something bad enough to happen.

There was one time when I found out a partner cheated on me; I literally packed all my shit and was states away before they got home from work. I had made it clear it was a hard limit and I’d leave if it happened. Hard limit was crossed. I was gone. That equation was so simple.

But what do you do when the equation isn’t simple? When there isn’t a bad person? When you love someone but you don’t want to continue in the way you have been? When you want to try to preserve some parts of what you love about and with that other person and you’re afraid that if you bring up changes you’d like to try, you’ll break everything and lose that person? I know, I know. I can’t control how the other person will react or feel. And that’s where communication comes in. And believe me, I’ve been having some really hard fucking conversations lately. Conversations that felt like it would be easier and less painful to just rip my fucking heart out and throw it out the window. Conversations that made my whole body tense up, even though it might be a good change. Conversations that were a long time coming and hurt like hell but also felt like an immense relief to finally have and come to an agreement.

I’ve broken up with a few people when we both were at the point of “you know, this just isn’t working right now. Let’s go back to being friends. I think that’s better for the foreseeable future.” Sometimes that worked out and sometimes it didn’t.

But one of the things I struggle with is saying all of this:

This isn’t working for me. I deserve and want more. I want to feel valued. Cherished. Desired. Like I’m someone you want to spend time with and make an effort to. I love you, but sometimes love isn’t enough.

Especially since it makes me feel like I’m a failure. If I were better somehow, I could make it work. Just add more duct tape! Adjust your expectations and desires until the little bits you’re getting seem so filling! Hell, if Alanis can feast on scraps, so can you!

Except…after a while, humans can grow accustomed to so many things. Shitty things and  awesome things…we’re remarkably adaptable. But if we keep adjusting our expectations beyond what we actually, really want, we wind up starving, dehydrated, and driving around in a broken down relationship and not wanting to give it up because you feel like you’ll never get another one again.

Seems like a good time for a song cue…

it is enough to have some love
small enough to slip inside the cracks
the pieces don’t fit together so good
with all the breaking and all the gluing back

and i am still not getting what i want
i want to touch the back of your right arm
i wish you could remind me who i was
because every day I’m a little further off

but you are, my love, the astronaut
flying in the face of science
i will gladly stay an afterthought
just bring back some nice reminders

“Astronaut: A Short History of Nearly Nothing” by Amanda Fucking Palmer

And cue the internet supplying me with advice yet again, in the form of this article making a great case for a good reframing…that of reframing what a “failed” relationship is. It’s a little monogamy-centric for me, but much still applies. This part especially:

“…stripping away the success/failure dichotomy and replacing it with an experiential narrative. You lived, you loved, you learned. Now, what did you learn? This perspective has transformed how I date, have sex, and manage my relationships. I encourage you to do the same.

Rather than focusing on doing everything right, it’s better and more rewarding to view each new person in your life as an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect.”

Letting the right ones in

Basically, I’m learning. And unlearning…at the same time. Trying to unravel decades of behavior and messages in a few months. Having hard convos and doing my best to be honest and to listen to the people I trust. I’m incredibly fortunate to have some amazing people in my life to have awesome conversations with about sexuality, sex, art, gender, kink, politics, and life, who encourage my creativity and who open up to my encouragement, who want to play with and make out and have sex with me, who cuddle me and let me cuddle them, who challenge me and demonstrate healthier ways to love on a regular basis. And who show me all the many ways to love and care about someone. That love and/or caring doesn’t have to be reserved for capital-R-Relationships. That it doesn’t have to look like the fucked up ways I learned it looked like growing up.

It’s funny; last year, my friend Deb crafted a limited edition essential oil blend for Valentine’s Day called “Let the Right One In”, based on the Morrissey song of the same name. I did what I almost never do…I bought it scent unsmelled. I just felt…compelled to. When it arrived, I adored it in the bottle and even more on me. I’ve worn it sporadically though out the last year. It’s always interesting to see who likes the scent on me and who doesn’t. Generally, I’ve found the people who like it are the “right” ones that I’ve been cultivating more fulfilling relationships with and the ones who don’t like it on me…well, those relationships aren’t doing so well right now or have already ended. The poly/RA person in me wishes that it wasn’t a singular subject in the song, but such is life. I sing it and pluralize “one” like below:

Let the right one[s] in
Let the old dreams die
Let the wrong ones go
They cannot
They cannot
They cannot do what you want them to do
Oh…

In closing, I find this Kimchi Cuddles comic that just came up in my “On this day” FB feed yesterday to also be remarkably appropriate:

KimchiCuddles-TikvaWolf-572

AFOG (Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth): Various Types of Breakups and Valid Reasons/Feelings

There’s rarely a Poly.Land post that doesn’t resonate with me, at least on some level. Sometimes I want to be Page Turner in another life. But Tuesday’s post about What People Get Wrong When They Talk About Partner Selection hit me directly in the feels.

Maybe it’s because I just went through a breakup. Like two days ago. Maybe it’s that the concept of “this just isn’t working for me” is one I’ve struggled with for the nearly two decades I’ve been polyamorous as a valid breakup reason, both for Relationships-with-a-capital-R and also their lowercase counterparts. Maybe it’s because “this doesn’t work for me” or “I’m not comfortable with this” has, quite literally, cost me relationships and jobs.

As I mentioned in my comment on that aforementioned post (the one that was originally posted to Fetlife and cross-posted to the link above), I agreed with Page in that about cultural scripts oversimplify breakups. Further, I said:

And also, they don’t encourage breaking up in amicable ways. There has to be a bad person, or a bad enough situation. “This just isn’t working for me anymore” isn’t considered valid, generally. We’re taught that you should fight for relationships, stay in them and work it out, especially in monogamous ones, especially when you’re on the relationship escalator. I’ve been unlearning a lot of that over the last few years. Kimchi Cuddles has helped a bunch. Tikva Wolf, the artist, has had some amazing strips about how sometimes relationships can last 5 minutes and be life changing. That instead of forever being a goal, shifting to “for as long as it’s good and healthy for all involved”.

This isn’t something I grew up learning. You were supposed to persevere. Fight for love. Tolerate abusive family members because they’re family. Stay on the relationship escalator until you get to the top (white picket fence with 2.5 children, a minivan, a McMansion you can’t afford…y’know…”happy”). Discovering polyamory revolutionized most of that for me, but there are still some holdovers and lacking skill sets.

For instance, I have no real breakup skills. Completely missed putting points into that skill set. Dumped a shit-ton into “giving to the point of exhaustion and complete depletion”. Burned a bunch on “I’m gonna ignore all the warning signs that I should get out”. And don’t let’s forget the buckets of points that went into empathy and “feeling all the damn things all the damn time”. I’ve stayed in relationships waaaaaaayyyy after it’s clearlys not working (at least for me), and usually to the point where it seems to not be working for anyone involved. And yet, sometimes, I/we’ve stayed longer. Since I think in song lyrics a lot of the time, “Louder Than Words” from the musical tick….Tick….BOOM! springs to mind:

Why do we stay with lovers
Who we know, down deep
Just aren’t right?
Why would we rather
Put ourselves through hell
Than sleep alone at night?

Seriously, why? One reason is the cultural scripts Page talked about. Another could be that it simply sucks to lose someone you love, even if it isn’t working. I mean, I could feel the breakup I just went through coming from a mile away (hell, if we’re honest, about two hundred miles away, but who’s counting, right?), and yet it didn’t stop my heart from breaking, me from crying, nor me from reaching for a a glass (or, um, a bottle) of St. Germain to dull the edges a little that first night. It didn’t help that work was a complete shitshow that day, as well, and the breakup happened at work. Cause that added a swell level of suck to the day.

But for some reason, beyond how much it sucks to lose someone, we’re still not supposed to leave unless there’s a “good enough Reason-with-a-capital-R”. And it has to pass muster for those around you. “It wasn’t working” is too vague for people. Not valid enough.

Related side story: a few years ago, a family member died. This person was a pedophile. Another family member called me and demanded to know when I would be there to help start making arrangements with them. That day, I decided not to go. (I was also slated to be flying out in a day or so to another family member’s wedding.) And it wasn’t that I chose one family member over another. It was that I could not make myself celebrate the life of a person who was going to be heralded as a hero. This person tore my family apart. Hurt people I love very dearly. Made me feel uncomfortable on multiple occasions but we weren’t supposed to talk about that. This situation/person was one of the biggest secrets in my family for years. Keeping up appearances was more important than actually dealing with shit.

So I took a deep breath and told my family member that I wouldn’t be coming for the funeral. They asked why. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Their response?

“That’s not a real reason. I want a grown up, real reason.”

I had nothing left after that. At the time, I didn’t know how else to say it and was gutted; how I felt simply didn’t matter. So I kept repeating myself, and they did, too. We wound up in a stupid, crazy loop along the lines of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. My reason was simply not valid. My discomfort was not valid. At the very least, it was not allowed to trump their pain in their time of need.

I was effectively disowned at that point. That person said they never wanted to speak to me again and two and a half years later, still have not (save for a bizarre FB photo that came at about 1am right after I had just finished a semi-interrogation scene at a kink convention. But that’s a story for another time).

My mind made an easy, awful conclusion: they chose the memory of a pedophile over a relationship with me, someone alive and hurting, as well. I felt disposable. Passed over for a pedophile. I didn’t matter. It threw me back to my childhood when there were many other instances where it didn’t matter how I felt:

  • when I was thrown into cars with drunk people driving to “get them home safely”
  • being taken down to bars and businesses at 2am to try and convince a family member to come home
  • getting phone calls from family members who said they wanted to see me and couldn’t explain why they weren’t able to nor why they suddenly disappeared
  • people I cared about ghosting me without any phone calls or reasons

When the adults were talking, whatever they said went. Even when it’s wrong. Even when it hurts. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. It’s not that big a deal. Stop being so dramatic.

I feel a great kinship with Amanda Fucking Palmer’s songs, but this one from “Ampersand” is ingrained in my heart:

I have wasted years of my life
Agonizing about the fires
It started when I thought that to be strong you must be flame retardant
And now to dress the wounds calls into question
How authentic they are
There is always someone criticizing me
“She just likes playing hospital”

It’s no wonder I have a hard time simply saying, “no, actually. This isn’t working for me. This needs to end now.” Hell, I even have a difficult time saying, “this is fucked up. I won’t/can’t do this anymore.”

And the hardest yet: “I deserve to be treated better than this.”

It took me way too long to leave one job where I was saying to myself on almost a daily basis “this is all so fucked up and broken. I’m not able to change/fix/improve anything anymore. I need to stop. This isn’t working for me.” Similarly, the relationship/aforementioned breakup seemed to not be working for either of us for a while, but it took a bit to actually call it. (Fittingly, just about a week after I started writing a song entitled “Call It.”)

This sucks. I want to learn more about how to level up my breakup skills. That sounds terrible, but in reality, I think it’s a great skill to have. If anyone’s got any suggestions, please feel free to drop them in the comments.

I like what Kimchi Cuddles has said about it, and this strip has helped my mentality about letting R/relationships progress or transition as they need to:

KimchiCuddles-672

I will say that I’m grateful that when my now former partner said they didn’t have many spoons for Relationships that require attention right now because of stuff in their own life, I didn’t just say “DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME. I DON’T NEED ANY ATTENTION. THAT’LL KEEP US TOGETHER, RIGHT? BECAUSE STAYING TOGETHER IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, RIGHT?!?”

No. I honored what they were saying and agreed that transitioning to friends was for the best for me, too. Because I do need some attention. And me saying I didn’t just to hang onto the Relationship wasn’t going to help either of us. I’ve had enough bitterness in my life to last for eons, so I ain’t got the time nor energy for holding tight to things that aren’t working anymore. I have needs.

One of them is a higher level of attention than I was getting. Another is to figure out my damn life. Still others include healing from leaving an incredibly stressful and toxic job, re-evaluating the last twenty years of my life, figuring out how to make amends, and getting my health in order. I had already decided at the end of January that I was going through a personal evolution and as such, ain’t got time to be dating.

Also, I also have barely any energy left to sustain fairly decent romantic relationships. The past year drained and damaged me more than I realized. I’m still assessing it all and trying to figure out how to heal. Only thing I know right now is that I need to focus on creativity, my health, blood and chosen family, mourning/grief, and moving on. It’s actually part of my treatment plan in therapy now to evaluate current Relationships-with-a-capital-R and ending the ones that are no longer working for me. AND for the foreseeable future not seeking out new Relationships to fill the void that will leave. To instead focus on creativity and cultivating a strong support network of relationships. Because how I feel and what I need is fucking valid and it’s about time I believed that as much as I believe that what other people feel/need is valid.

So, here’s to Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

[CBR10 – Review 3/13] What We Left Behind

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

(Cannonball Read book review #3 – original post @ CBR10)

Sometimes, a random internet search leads you to some awesome places. One night two weeks ago, I was in the library. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to read, so I did a search for Southern Lesbian fiction. There were no new Rita Mae Brown books (that weren’t fox or cat related) and most of titles the query returned, the library didn’t have. (I know, shocking that a fairly conservation, Northern NJ, small-town library wasn’t overflowing with Southern Lesbian lit, right?) However, they did have one title: “What We Left Behind” by Robin Talley. I recognized the author’s name from another title that came up on the list that I had added to my reading list last year: “Lies We Tell Ourselves”. Unfortunately, the library didn’t have that one. I picked up “What We Left Behind” and read the dust jacket description:

Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college – Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU – they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.

The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upper classmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

Wait, I’m sorry. On a Southern Lesbian fiction search, I wound up with a YA novel with a genderqueer character? JACKPOT! I identify as nonbinary and prefer ze/zir pronouns and this has been a journey for me. It’s hard to find characters in mainstream fiction that have any of the thoughts I have so finding this felt like an amazing present. I immediately checked it out, went home, and started reading.

Talley had me hooked right from the first chapter, where she starts with how Toni and Gretchen met, from Toni’s perspective. The books’ “chapters” (it doesn’t have traditional, numerical chapters) are mostly divided into Toni’s first person POV and Gretchen’s first person POV. Though the story primarily takes place in present day throughout Toni and Gretchen’s freshman year in their respective colleges, it also takes a few dips back in time to important foundation points in their relationship in high school. The first chapter flips back and forth between Toni and Gretchen’s POV of their first meeting.

Toni fell for Gretchen at the Homecoming dance just after winning a major victory at their private, all girls school. Toni identifies as genderqueer at this point in the book, and was threatening to sue the school to be able to wear pants as part of the uniform instead of the mandated skirts. The school has allowed Toni to do this so we meet Toni showing up at Homecoming in “spiffy new grey-and-black-striped pants, a bright blue shirt, shiny black shoes, black-and-white-striped suspenders, and a black top hat.” Gretchen, we learn, is barefoot with blue toenails at the dance, which for a DC private school, was unheard of. Toni swooned. I swooned, too, thinking about Gretchen laughing on the dance floor, barefoot and carefree.

From there, it’s adorable and first love-y. The second chapter, though, is where shit starts to get real. Toni talks about how she and Gretchen are about to leave for college, and how close they’ll be, both being in Boston and all. I had to reread the dust jacket…no, it definitely said Gretchen was going to NYU….ooooooohhh. Gretchen lied to Toni. She originally got into BU and was waitlisted for NYU, but then NYU notified her that they would accept her off the waitlist. And she did it, mailed in the acceptance and the deposit, all without telling Toni. Until the night before they left. Ruh-roh!

Cue the Trouble In Paradise music!

So, that’s not a fun way to go off to college, but they manage to work it out. Kinda. Toni swallows the feels, and they embark on their separate collegiate journeys. Gretchen meets and befriends Carroll, a gay freshman from rural NJ who is looking to lose his V card. Her roommate is a goth chick named Samantha from the South. They don’t really hit it off right away because Gretchen bonds quickly with Carroll and spends all her time with him.

Toni, on the other hand, joins the UBA (Harvard’s Undergradutate BGLTQIA Association) and meets a group of people mostly on the trans spectrum like Toni, but a few years older and further along in their journey. It’s the first time that Toni has found people to talk to about all the questions running through Toni’s mind.

I’m trying to honor Toni’s pronoun choices by not referring to Toni as a she. Throughout the book, though, as Toni questions their identity, Toni’s pronouns change. One thing I really liked about this process was that the author was fairly smooth about bringing me into Toni’s head while this was happening. At various points, Toni tried not to use any gendered language to refer to people, then tries to use gender nuetral terms like “they/them” and “ze/hir”. Gretchen also has adapted to do this to honor Toni and usually winds up calling Toni “Toni” or “T” instead of using gendered language. But thing is, she is afraid to ask questions about what it all means and how it’s all affecting Toni. Mostly, when Toni has talked about these things, Gretchen has just smiled and nodded and was supportive, which is AWESOME for a partner to be, but she also isn’t really sure how to make sense of it all and doesn’t really talk about it much. Can anyone else sense the impending doom on this freshman ldr?

So between Gretchen lying about which school she was going to, and the lack of communication, and striving to never fight and be the “perfect” couple, their relationship derails over the course of the first semester. They had originally promised to see each other every weekend, but that gets pushed back and back as they each adapt to college and their new schedules and friends. Each chapter starts with where we are in the timeline, including the notation of how long they’ve been apart.

Both teens spend a lot of time mooning over each other and also questioning labels. Some reviews I read about this book in the last few days are pretty harsh about how selfish Toni is during this process, but…thing is…I get it. I’m 40 years old and have only in the last few years begun to ask some of these questions that I realized I’d pushed down when I was in my teens. As I’ve said to a friend recently, I don’t think I’m actually transgendered, but I don’t fully indentify as female, either. I don’t really like the gender binary thing. And there’s a lot to think about an unpack in there, once you start looking around at how gendered everything is. I mean, I even found “manly” candles and wet wipes. Because really, those needed some gendered tagging. Anyway, I won’t rant here about gender spectrum; there’s more to my journey, but if you’re curious, check out my blog.

Basically, Toni’s constant questioning and trying to make sense of things was very familiar. Identity isn’t always an easy thing to figure out, especially once you realize it can actually change over time. It was all actually pretty refreshing coming from some of the other trans YA books I’ve read where the characters just know and the meat of the story is every else’s reactions to them and what it’s like to transition. Toni, on the other hand, isn’t sure of anything. This seems to have made them annoying and selfish in some reviewers eyes, but to me, it was nice to find someone really spell out a lot of the questions that can come with this type of personal journey of identity.

From there, there are many differences. I am not a freshman in a big university. I’m not having experiences like drunken hookup sex that ruins a friendship for the first time (thankfully I’ve never had that happen) or contending with the pressure of writing papers and lining up internships while trying to maintain an ldr. And I’ve learned enough about relationships to know that you actually have to TALK about the things that are bothering you, or the questions you have. Gretchen is so afraid of sounding stupid to ask some of the questions she has of Toni and Toni thinks that Gretchen can’t possibly understand or really want to talk it out, so they wind up spending months mostly avoiding the topic with each other.

Toni does manage to get some stuff out, and winds up coming out to her very image-obsessed mother on a whim. That was an interesting scene. It felt pretty forced and rushed, though. I would’ve rathered a longer book to get into some of the fallout and character growth towards the end, but it all wrapped pretty quickly. We go from being with Gretch and Toni throughout their first semester and the last chapter is them having been apart for 8 months and talking to each other for the first time. It feels like they might get back together, but the book ends before that can happen, so if you’re someone who really wants to have that clear happy ending, this might not be for you.

All that being said, it is a cute romance, and it’s entirely refreshing to have gender be a discussion and not just an assumed binary. Oh, and one of the secondary characters also decides to get into an open relationship, so my polyamorous heart was happy with that. Plus, there’s a goodly bit of diversity amongst the secondary characters who are trans, lesbian, gay, bi, Korean, and black. Some support groups for people who care about trans people were mentioned, which is also awesome. I wish there was a little more in the story about being actively genderfluid and not having to pick one or the other but besides that, I thought it was a really sweet and realistic coming of age love story and I’m really glad YA fiction now has this representation. Also, I can’t wait to read more by Robin Talley.

[CBR10 – Review 2/13] The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

(Cannonball Read book review #2 – original post @ CBR10)

When I first saw this book in Borders, I was intrigued by the cover and when I read about a Mormon gal on her own in the Big Apple, I was even further intrigued. Given that I just name-dropped Borders, that’ll give you an idea of how long ago it was that I picked it up. Pretty sure it was around 2010. But something made me keep it through a move from New Jersey to Mississippi, then back to New Jersey. Then to Memphis. Then BACK to New Jersey a second time. Finally, after seven years, I started reading it in December of 2017 and finished it last week.

One thing I appreciated about the format was that while each chapter was a part of a chronological progression in the author Elna Baker’s life, they were also bite-sized. I could finish one chapter while waiting for an appointment, in the bathroom (it can be really hard to find books that are good for bathroom reading), or before bed.

As for the subject matter of the book, it was an interesting read for me because it was so far outside of my realm of experience. I’m a solo eclectic Pagan and the closest I’ve come to Mormon culture is seeing The Book of Mormon on tour in Memphis, knowing that some of favorite dancers/choreographers are Mormon, and when I was really young and just discovering polyamory, my then boyfriend and new girlfriend came out to our best friend by saying that we were “Mormon”, referencing the churches known stance on having multiple wives. So…not the most well-rounded understanding of the religion.

Baker’s voice drew me into her narrative and I learned a lot reading this book. I didn’t know about the “Magic Underwear” (Temple Garments, or special underwear that male and female Mormons wear as “symbolic and/or literal protection from the evils of the world”), the strong push towards marriage (specifically within the Mormon faith and in a Mormon church) and family being the ultimate goal of life, and I had no idea about the single’s dances (designed to foster the goal of marriage and family). I have had other friend’s who had conflict within their family because they were dating people outside their faith, but none of the actual Mormon faith. I also tend to gravitate towards friends and chosen family who are either in moderate religions, atheist/agnostic, or born-again Pagans like myself who left behind the faith of their youth and, as such, have to deal with varied levels black sheep status in their family. You could say that I’m not exactly a conformist. So this book was very interesting because Elna Baker is very dedicated to being Mormon and upholding her faith as well as she possibly can. And going to school in NYC as she’s coming of age as an adult with her own life definitely challenges that.

Some of the best parts, for me, were realizing that she used to be a plus-sized woman and through the course of the book lost a lot of weight. She talks honestly and hilariously about how she became a bitch and didn’t know until way later that how she lost so much weight successfully might’ve had something to do with prescription speed. Her observations of what the world is like as a plus-sized woman looking for love in all the right places and then what it was like after she lost weight was incredibly interesting. People treated her differently. She experienced female rivalry for a desirable guy in her local Mormon group, or ward.

I admired her spirit when faced with new adventures, from her family moving to different countries when she was younger to getting new jobs and putting herself “out there” (or saying “yes” to things, sometimes in hilariously questionable ways which lead to her inadvertently becoming a “serial convention crasher”.) Or selling high priced baby dolls to snobby, racist people. Or making out with celebrities. Or becoming a stand up comic. Or deciding to have plastic surgery to alter her body after her weight loss.

Elna Baker faced all these new adventures with an interesting mixture of devout and devious, though it was a little odd and hard to believe that someone in their twenties had such a lack of skill and knowledge in something like kissing. She’s frustratingly naive in some ways, but if the reader is frustrated, it’s also because Elna herself is also personally irked by her own lack of experience and knowledge. I had to remind myself that not everyone has sex-positive and educated friends who are sex workers, consent advocates and teachers, sex educators, burlesque performers, swingers, polyamorous people, asexuals. Not everyone worked for and taught at kink conventions like I did. Also, the world and the internet was a different place ten years ago when this book was written. But I admire her strong convictions but her ability to also explore the world and possibly question her faith a time or two, but come back to it even stronger.

The book is also peppered with her charming, hand written lists of what she believes as she goes on this journey, the guys she’s kissed, a fun Venn diagram of how to kiss, and a chart of “Advancements in Cloning vs. Elna’s Sex Life”.

By the end, her adventures have taken her to Zambia in search of the Atheist That Got Away, which was an interesting trip. Overall, the whole book is an interesting trip through one funny, intelligent Mormon woman’s 20’s. I really enjoyed Baker’s account of her life, her experiences, and all those regional Mormon singles dances.