Notes on Portrait of a Marriage

I just finished reading Portrait of a Marriage, about Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicholson, who were poly before there was a word for it. She was something like bi and he was something like gay, but at a time when neither of those identities were recognized and where people had little choice but to marry. But theirs wasn’t a marriage of convenience per se; they loved each other deeply and took care of each other in emotional, intellectual, and domestic ways. Much like Leonard and Virginia Woolf, they had a marriage that was more than a marriage but also maybe less than one.

The whole piece is on Patreon, of course, about 2000 words, but here are a few more excerpts:

. . .

So when I read a book about a couple who were born in 1892 (Vita) and 1886 (Harold) and who spent nearly 50 years together, who lived through two world wars and had two children and numerous love affairs with others, and who managed to do all that during the first half of the last century, I wonder if what my wife and I have is just a regularly anomalous but recurring exception; that two people perhaps find in each other a great love for another person that does not fit the requirements of what people think marriage should be and so change it to suit them.

What I do know is that it makes me sad that others can’t understand it, or feel sorry for us, because when I look at other’s lives I feel the same way I do when I see people so restrictively gendered, and want to take the lens of their eye and shift it a little this way or that so they can see what they can’t see now. I am still sad to see that queer people have become more straight than the other way around because so many queer couples I know assume monogamish, at the very least, as a way of living, but with different sensitivities and restrictions: one couple needs to tell each other about every flirtation or romance or sweaty encounter, and others know that a business trip or some time alone means sometimes a soul finds lovely company and their person doesn’t need to know a thing except for that. I wish straight people were easier about this stuff and so the capacity to be sexual and to be attractive and to be vulnerable and intimate and loving and caring with more than one person an absolute bonus for a marriage instead of a threat.

What a world of love we could live in and instead we put such terrific limitations on someone we love the most in the world. I’m never going to get it, not anymore, not now that I understand what is possible.

 

Video of the Cornell Event

My hair is awesomely blue and this is all new work I’m reading. I start about 17 minutes in but you really should watch Ryka Aoki. After me is Ely Shipley and they are both wonderful poets and people.

(CW: I tell a terrible story about the death of a kitten, so if you don’t want to hear that, it’s at about 20:00, or just skip 1:15 & go to my next piece.)

1st Patreon Goal Met

So the whole Patreon thing is exciting. I wish I’d done this year ago.

I promised that if I got a dozen followers I’d post a short piece on the Art of Aspiration & Resistance I’m working on, a manifesto of sorts, and I did and it’s up.

Here’s an excerpt:

Yet someone thought to take a time lapse of the way the light plays with the stained glass of DC’s National Cathedral. Who did that and why? Who built it and why? What happens to me when I watch, when you do? What happens in our brains, to our eyes? Do the tense lines in our faces relax, do our pets sigh nearby, do our breaths get a little deeper so we can take a minute to think or not to think, depending? What faith once did – provide beauty and aspiration and art and peace – seems to be missing from so many lives. So much faith seems to be about hate these days.

My intention, then, is to dig in, to go back to a time when I didn’t know what to do with this great desire for beauty, when I didn’t even know it was that, to dig into the other great yearnings I’ve learned how to name, for the erotic, for power, for peace, for friendship, for something I hesitate to call communion. Love, meaning, life. Once again I have no choice but to lean on Art, but Art in her most eternal form, the only real response there can ever be to despair.

Because I know how hard I’m fighting that beast and I assume others are too. How do you live with a big sensitive soul in a time when everything seems awash in ignorance and violence, with the one rolling into the other, joining forces and gaining speed? How do we build a culture that says no even as the rest is trying to kill us? And how do we stop it from killing us not just spiritually but actually?

Come join me!

Me on Patreon

It’s high time, and in the light of the loss of Ursula Le Guin, I decided to take this little leap off a cliff by starting an account on Patreon. I can’t let my wife have all the fun, can I?

I haven’t set up goals or rewards yet as I’m curious to hear what all of you would want from me. I *do* plan on doing a video and maybe some audio recordings – cause y’all like my voice – but mostly this will be new and different kinds of writing that I don’t do as much of because my blog is so on the trans/gender tip.

Expect pieces more like this and this and this, and maybe some fiction, maybe excerpts from the two novels I have written but never quite finished, and maybe some of a fairy tale I keep kicking around, and maybe anything I’m writing that doesn’t as easily cleave to the HB brand.

Thank you in advance. It means everything to me to have people in my life who want to read what I write and who want to support me while I do.

Ursula K.

Ursula K. Le Guin died yesterday at the age of 88.

I don’t even know how to begin to process this news.

For me, she was more than Bowie or Prince – but no need to compare, either.

In Left Hand she taught us all about relational, relative gender by inventing characters who become sexed  as a result of the person they were with, so the male King of a kingdom had, in a previous relationship, given birth to her own children.

She taught me everything we all already know about trees but have failed to imagine. In Direction of the Road, she writes as an oak tree :

If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.

And in Earthsea she taught us about power and ethics and how to live despite everything.

She taught us what it means to only ever be a ‘bad man’ because we are women; that is, she uses the ‘bad man’ idea to explain that we are all of us people, but some of us are automatically bad at being what we are supposed to be because of gender and its caste.

She also told a senior editor at Harcourt that he’d created an anthology of new writing that was more like a locker room and so didn’t blurb it. 

Her clarity of mind – that bright, steady, lamp of intellect she yielded alternately like a laser or a search light – made so much visible that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Such a huge loss, such an inspiration, influence, mentor-from-a-distance; she taught me how to hold my head up as a woman who writes and that has been invaluable.

#metoo Read Up

Let me get out of the way that I’m one of those horrid feminists who not only works with men but who works to bring men into feminist movement. In addition to men of course being part of the problem, by act or omission, they also desperately need freeing from gender. We all do.

I’ve been wishing lately, in the midst of all of the articles and op-eds about sexual assault, that women all over the world might just publish the direct messages, chats, conversations in women’s groups, and transcripts of phone calls that have been happening for months now, the ones that start “shit this week has been triggering” and “okay the Ansari story is exactly it” and the like. But we won’t. We shouldn’t have to.

Because it’s all already out there, as Lindy West just pointed out in the NYT. So many things, so many. We have been talking amongst ourselves lately for months but we’ve also been talking about this amongst ourselves for decades (and before that, we were pointedly not discussing it but trying to keep other women away from those men, when we knew them). Women recommend these books to each other all the time and give them to each other as presents sometimes to say #metoo to teach other but also to say #yesallwomen but rarely do we give them to the men in our lives.

I suspect that most of my closest male friends have not read one book that’s explicitly feminist, and I’m what some might call a humorless feminist, so the men I’m close to are generally of the more enlightened variety. But even among them, I suspect there are very few who have read any of the books on that list or any other books by women and about women.

So guys, READ UP, would you? Almost any woman you know would be happy* to recommend one and most would even be happy to discuss it with you, but with one giant caveat:

You Can’t Be a Jerk About It.

Here’s How: (6 Easy Steps! A Listicle! Learn things about women while investing almost no time!)

  1. Read to understand, not to disagree. No looking for the holes in the arguments.
  2. Read it as if you were a woman. That is, try to imagine you were assigned one at birth and raised one or transitioned or whatever version of woman  you can imagine yourself being most easily.
  3. Try to remember that most of the is lit is written by white women and reflects all of the privilege and self-selection that implies.
  4. don’t think about your sister/wife/girlfriend/mother/daughter because your relationship with them is likely already stepped in a fuckton of male privilege you probably don’t recognize. That is, you already think of them as women, which is really the root of the whole damn problem.
  5. Tell a woman who might be willing to talk to you about it that you’re ignorant af but really want to understand how you could have grown up in a culture where you failed to notice that more than half the population is scared to say no, or hi, or to speak to men they don’t know or to men they do know except when they’re drunk or angry or men they thought they knew and trusted only to find out how wrong they were.
  6. Also, don’t discuss it. Highlight things that confuse or perplex you and ask her to explain them. Don’t talk. Listen. Quietly. Without objection.
  7. When you’re done, start over with a new book and maybe with a new woman (dependent on how likely you followed the previous 6 instructions).

This is how you learn things, guys, by learning things. Read books written by women in whatever genre you prefer: it’s all in there, in one form or another, in one book or another.

You might even find a new favorite writer. (Really. I actually like some male writers, no kidding, but only if I can relate to their lives.) (OK, that’s a joke. I like a lot of writers I have absolutely nothing in common with. That’s kind of the whole point of reading, to understand other people’s lives and so live in the world with compassion.)

Start now, please.

*Okay, I’m only kidding. Don’t ask a woman to volunteer for this bullshit. Find one who is willing to work with you and PAY HER to educate your ignorant ass.  

Baby and Bathwater

There is a tendency, I think, for those of us whose goal is creating a world that is a little more self aware of sexism, racism, transphobia, and the rest, to dismiss writers and artists based on a single opinion, utterance, work of art, song, etc.

  • Is all of Kate Bornstein’s work necessarily discredited because she defended the use of the T word?
  • Is all of Dan Savage’s work for shit because of his denial of bisexual existence and/or his transphobia? 
  • Is there any delicacy in recognizing that there was a moment in time in which being “trans amorous” was a radical and trans-positive position? 

I think about this stuff because a lot of what I’ve written over the years could be interpreted as transphobic now, or, at the very least, problematic. Some of it was at the time, too. I am not, nor have I ever been, a ‘respect your elders’ sort of person, but I’m also pretty turned off by the complete lack of historical context some seem to exist in, as if fine-tuned arguments about the nature of transphobia haven’t been happening all along: As if we didn’t debate ‘transgender’ vs ‘transgendered’. As if no one has ever called themselves a transvestite proudly. As if…

To some degree, it’s one of the reasons I feel myself not wanting to write another book about anything trans related; for starters, I think it was useful for a cis feminist liminally trans type like myself to do the work that I did at the time, but now? I think transness is in good hands for the most part, although I’m happy to pipe in when and where it’s needed.

But mostly I feel myself stymied by the idea that anything I might put into the public sphere now would be so roundly shot down on a technicality that it’s really just not worth the effort. I prefer hanging out in this tiny corner of the internet doing my thing, being read by folks who appreciate what I do, and talking to people one on one who might need some help finding resources or the like.

I’m tired of people who have opinions but who don’t do anything or create anything or legislate anything. I feel more much occupied by the work and much less interested in the debate.

Maybe it’s an older vs. younger activist sort of thing and I’m officially middle-aged, but from here on in I feel like I’m going to be asking a lot more questions of critics far and wide: well, what have you done? Who have you helped? Have you created, or tried creating, anything of lasting value? In a sense it’s an age-old problem: This doesn’t satisfy, says the critic; So what have you got? says the artist.

And out goes the bathwater, baby and all.

Help for Grammar Nerds: AP Stylebook Adds “They” as Singular Pronoun

The headline along is enough to make some grammar nerds fidget nervously: AP Stylebook Embraces ‘They’ as Singular, Gender-Neutral Pronoun.

I was watching some grammar nerds – and yes, I count myself as one – discuss the difficulty of this.

Two points: (1) You already do this all the time: “I wonder who left their phone behind. I bet they’ll really want it back.” You know the phone doesn’t belong to a group, and if you don’t know this person’s gender, ‘they’ is an easy default. Someone objected that there is a difference in spoken (informal) verses written (formal) writing, to which I can only reply: either respecting people’s identities is important enough to change some grammar rules or it isn’t. I think it is.

(2) The real issue, I’ll insist, is whether or not you actually respect and acknowledge the multiply- or non-gendered as REAL. If you’re having trouble calling a single person by the pronouns “they”, it may be because you don’t actually believe in their gender identity as multiple or not gendered or non binary.

In which case, that’s the thing to work on. Once you respect multiply or non gendered people as legit identities, “they” as a singular pronoun is pretty obviously the most pragmatic solution to the English language’s lack of a gender neutral singular pronoun.