Killing You In My Mind: My Early Notebooks

A few years ago, a writer friend and I were briefly obsessed with the reality show Storage Wars, where a colorful cast of junk-shop dealers competed to bid on abandoned storage units. Since they could only glance at the mystery pile of crap before committing to a price, it was anyone’s guess whether they’d find a cache of rare coins, or a locked safe containing a fake severed hand.

To avoid disappointing future rag-pickers on national TV, this month I am purging my off-site storage room, which contains all the papers, books, and knickknacks I’ve hoarded since the 1980s. (At least that’s what I think is in there…I opened up an envelope marked “stock certificates” yesterday to find photos of my dolls’ wedding.)

In the manner of the Great Book Purge of 2014, chronicled on this blog, the storage excavation gives me an opportunity to discover how my beliefs and attitudes have changed, or not, in 30 years. My trajectory is hopefully of interest to someone other than myself, because understanding the psychology of our political or religious opponents is necessary for any bridge-building in these angry times.

Moreover, as an adult with a child of my own, I can look back at my teenage journal entries and see the ways that my elite schools failed me emotionally, even as (or in part because) they held me up as an academic and artistic success story. My junior high and high school for “gifted children” was wonderful at encouraging multiple kinds of academic and artistic intelligence, but also tended to track kids into the one thing they were superior at and keep them there, and make them too responsible for caretaking other students’ jealousy. We received the weird mixed message, “Be the best you can be, but if you’re bullied, it’s your fault for showing off.” (Not unlike my home life with a narcissistic mother, actually, who swung constantly between demanding that I look thin and pretty as a reflection on her class status, and enviously hiding me in ugly clothes like Cinderella.) I reached a point where I simply wouldn’t try anything I wasn’t already good at, even something as small as switching from sanguine chalk to rough black charcoal in figure-drawing class. Harvard provided superlative opportunities for meeting smart and creative people, but the grading and teaching ethos was predominantly about sorting students into winners and losers, rather than teaching everyone at the level they were on. Maybe I can offer future educators some clues for spotting and supporting traumatized overachievers.

Or simply a good laugh at these gems of misanthropy from my early notebooks. Take, for example, the opening of the mid-90s sestina “The Seven Deadly Virtues”:

Patience first, that pale child dressed in rueful
red, in the brute fears of some banal game
struck down, unable to go against the grain
of her virtuous feebleness, to repel
the force of the frustration that forms
the first thing we learn. Those who can prevent

torture never recognize it, nor prevent
us from giving the name Forgiveness to the rueful
realization we’ve missed our chance at revenge…

(That’s not half bad, though the rest of the sestina becomes awfully long-winded as I attempt to hit those end-words.)

Along the same lines, this list from January 1992 may sound detached and philosophical, but I well remember the anguish of wondering why my “good” self diverged so much from the traits that actually helped me stay alive. List #1 is redacted because its length embarrasses me now.

List #1: My Moral Virtues

Loyalty
Compassion
Willingness to be a nonconformist for a good cause
Concern for ethics
Sense of my own and others’ dignity
Maturity/responsibility (no drugs, no casual sex, no self-destructive pleasures except too much snacking)
Artistic integrity

List #2: The Qualities I Like Best About Myself

Intelligence
Deviousness/effective rhetoric
Assertiveness
Ability to resist oppression through manipulation of the oppressor
Self-preservation instinct
Ambition (without betraying or stepping on others)
Sense of personal style

One can almost glimpse Julian peeking out of the closet in that second list, waiting for me to love him more than those deadly virtues. Instead, these notebooks contain the long-lost original drafts of several quirky but over-intellectualized and gloomy short stories, mostly about humiliated fat women or cruel parents. (Autobiographical much??) From the 1993 tale “Pinocchio Died for Your Sins”, I see that I hated Disney’s film then as much as I do now, for the same reason: it punishes children for not avoiding the temptations and deceptions that adults deliberately put in their path.

This thought experiment from March 1993 reminds me of child abuse expert Alice Miller’s radical midrash on Genesis in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware:

Anthropologists like to say that God and religion are just projections of things we don’t want to admit are really human creations (e.g. norms and taboos that are merely man-made are called God-made). But what if the reverse is true? What could the reverse of that be? …perhaps that we and the rest of the created cosmos are merely projections of things God doesn’t want to face about Himself.

It’s like Beatrice in [Nathaniel Hawthorne’s] “Rappaccini’s Daughter”–her poison is made to bear sole responsibility for an evil we all share. Did God cause original sin so He could blame us for it? In other words, evil came from God’s character flaws but He made us so we’d bear the blame. I don’t actually believe all this but it’s an interesting concept.

What strikes me about this juvenilia is how fiercely I was attempting to be loyal to myself, in the face of social pressure or ideologies that promised an end to loneliness and guilt…for a price. Equally striking is the consistency of my difficulties with Christian virtue and belief, side by side with my attraction to the tradition. Really, nothing has changed, though at the time I framed my dissent as rational individualism rather than trauma activism or queer theory. My long goodbye to Christian identity in the past 3-5 years has been shaking my confidence in any fixed sense of myself or my perceptions, but it shouldn’t. I was always trying different routes to the same goal.

Such as, for instance, November 1990’s “The Instantaneous Reiter Method for Determining the Direction of One’s Existence,” my fancy-ass name for a list of pros and cons about my possible call to Christian ministry. (Little did I suspect the two most important reasons: “vestments are too hot” and “you will become a pagan in 2014”.) In case you want to try this at home, Step 1 was “Write down all the thoughts and feelings you have about the proposed course of action,” and Step 2, “Analyze the philosophical implications of each part of Step 1.” The upshot was, I was aesthetically drawn to Christianity and comforted by a community where I didn’t have to compete or excel (“It would also be nice to love God,” I confessed), but I couldn’t honestly say that a desire to serve God or other people was paramount.

What I feel in church–am I being religious, or is it just an escape from my problems (psalms that say God will protect the righteous)?…I always loved church before I had any problems [Ed. Note: What, as a zygote??] or before church helped. But is religion the last refuge of a scoundrel, or is what you discover in hardship equally (or more) valid as what you discover by peaceful thought?…It would seem that even if now you know how nice it would be to be looked after, that doesn’t make it any more moral or plausible to accept or expect it.

Guys, this is kind of sad, huh? I was truthful enough to realize that it was codependent caretaking to become a minister in order to get love and protection, but no one in my family, church, or education had taught me that I was entitled to love and protection just because I’m human. Nothing immoral or implausible about that.

It’s strange, in retrospect, that my sense of victimization by greedy and arbitrary educational gatekeepers coexisted with my bootstrapping libertarian philosophy, which led me to write some cringe-worthy student newspaper articles about infantilized, needy, “victim culture” (think of your standard editorial against trigger warnings today). I think I was feeling that I shouldn’t have to abase myself, or reveal my private wounds, in order to receive basic kindness and a fair assessment from others. Not that this makes my arguments less wrong, but it suggests that those most vocally against “safe spaces” may be secretly the ones most in need of them, and in despair of finding them.

I leave you with this politically clairvoyant satire of a college entrance exam, from November 1990. Just think, if I’d remained my creed-wielding, Federalist Society dues-paying self, I could’ve been Betsy DeVos.

Existence Aptitude Test (EAT)
“the test to end tests”

There is a penalty for wrong answers. The Educational Testing Service thinks the difference between right and wrong is important. There is also a penalty for right answers. The Educational Testing Service does not want to foster antisocial elements whose intellectual superiority threatens the self-esteem of others and weakens the social fabric.

Therefore, only work out the problem when you have tried to guess and failed. Remember that the least imaginative guess is most likely to be right.

Good luck.

Part I: General Knowledge

(1) Time
(a) past and time present
Are both perhaps contained in time future.
(b) and tide wait for no man.
(c) is money.
(d)

(2) Space
(a) is curved.
(b) and time are one.
(c) is limited, so act now!
(d) ____________

(3) Death
(a) shall have no dominion.
(b) be not proud.
(c) and taxes are inevitable.
(d) to the Educational Testing Service!

(4) The world
(a) is too much with us, late and soon.
(b) is charged with the grandeur of God.
(c)
(d)

(5) Beauty
(a) is truth, truth beauty. That is all we know, and all we need to know. Stop. Do not complete the rest of this exam. Hand in your paper to the proctor.
(b) and the Beast lived happily ever after.
(c) is in the eye of the beholder.
(d)

(6) God
(a) is dead.
(b) is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
(c) bless [insert country’s name here]
(d) knows.

(7) Energy
(a) =mc squared
(b) can neither be created nor destroyed.
(c)
(d) is eternal delight.

(8) Life
(a) is a bitch and then you die.
(b) is a beach and then you dry.
(c) is a bitch and then you marry one.
(d)

Part II: Literature

(1) Lord of the Flies is about
(a) an entomologist.
(b) the devil.
(c) sadistic teenagers.
(d) Harvard.

(2) The title of Gone With the Wind refers to
(a) Scarlett’s dress when Rhett carries her upstairs.
(b) the gracious and infinitely superior Southern way of life.
(c) Atlanta burning.
(d) Margaret Mitchell’s notes for the lost final chapter of the book, in which Scarlett sues Rhett for alimony and Ashley fulfills his latent homosexuality.

(3) In Moby-Dick, the whale represents
(a) the Holy Grail.
(b) the forces of nature that overpower humanity.
(c) a society dominated by the white male power structure which the disabled and disadvantaged seek to infiltrate or destroy.
(d) Harvard.

(4) Coleridge’s lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure dome decree” suggest
(a) a drug experience.
(b) a world of poetic fantasy.
(c) the Taj Mahal.
(d) Donald Trump.

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Judging Smut

Each spring, when we advertise our humor poetry prize at Winning Writers, and again in the summer when we publish the winners, we can expect a few hot complaints about our openness to sexual explicitness and coarse language. Not all of our archives are NSFW, but yes, you can expect more dick jokes than in the average magazine or website for light verse. This market segmentation is one reason we welcome drunk Santas and copulating mollusks; there aren’t many other outlets for intelligent literary burlesque. But more importantly, bodily functions and the absurdities of desire are not high on the list of things I find offensive. Even the word “smut” implies that sexual topics, and by extension the people who write and publish them, are dirty and tainted. I want to unpack this assumption.

Reinterpreting others’ moral purity judgments as triggers or boundary assertions helps me resist the shame that sometimes gets projected onto my work as a writer and editor. I understand and respect people’s different thresholds for exposure to explicit material. Forcing sexual content on someone can be as much a form of harassment as stigmatizing them with purity rules. I didn’t understand how to navigate these boundaries when I used to workshop my fiction, nor did my instructor appreciate that publicly discussed parameters for the group would be better for the creative process than after-the-fact private scoldings.

The flip side of my responsibility as writer or editor, though, is the public’s responsibility to own their choices. Don’t leave bad reviews on Amazon for TV series because they have gay characters. That’s not an aesthetic judgment, it’s a statement that people with sexual interests unlike yours shouldn’t exist. Don’t send work to a publisher whose taste you don’t respect, but don’t also send them a letter saying you’d be ashamed to be associated with them.

I wish readers and aspiring contest winners would get this hot under the collar about literary offenses that have far more potential for real-world harm than silly anecdotes about tampons. Gratuitous sexualization of female characters in action-adventure tales. Exotic, “othering” portrayals of people of color and non-Western cultures. Fat-shaming and other misuses of physical difference and disability to code fictional characters as villainous or laughable. Poems whose “humor” depends on the undesirability of elderly, fat, or poor people. Stalker-ish and nonconsensual behavior framed as romantic pursuit. Every year, our judges and screeners weed out hundreds of entries to our four contests because of fails like these.

Sex isn’t dirty. Prejudice is.

Poetry from Reena Ribalow’s “The Smoke of Dreams”

I first encountered Reena Ribalow’s accomplished poetry when she won the 2008 prize for traditional verse at Winning Writers. Born in New York City, she makes her home in Israel, and her work is strongly influenced by Jewish tradition. Her first full-length book, The Smoke of Dreams, was published last year by Neopoiesis Press. This stately, melancholy collection of poems is steeped in sensual memories of bittersweet love, be it for a holy city or a forbidden affair. Her roots are planted in Jerusalem, sacred and war-torn, harsh and captivating. Her more personal poems show the same mix of pleasure and pain in romantic relationships. One way or another, history is inescapable. Reena has kindly permitted me to reprint a poem from The Smoke of Dreams here.

Desert Light

Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,”
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
The slant of afternoon in a dim room,
the dazzle after a passing cloud,
a radiance through shifting leaves,
is all that we can bear.

Here people are mad with light,
their nerves raw with it,
their eyes irradiated;
they cannot see right.
Shadows disappear from streets
without dimension,
with nowhere to hide.
Light hunts us down,
relentless as the Law.

Some plants survive, some thrive,
some play dead by noon light,
wakening to moist life
in the seducing dark.

The light of Europe hints,
suggesting immanence.
Civility infuses light:
the safety of umbrellas, of cloudy parks,
of rooms that hold their breath,
gilded with motes of gold;
this is easy, this wears well.

The prophets were born to desert light,
crazed with it, dooming us
to a surfeit of holiness.

We endure, odd growths
on a sun-battered land.
Saints, madmen, artists
offer their strange and mutant fruit.
Eat of it, they plead,
and know in every cell
the terrible truth:
that God is everywhere.

Two Natures Blog Book Tour and E-book Sale

The Novel will be making the rounds of two dozen book review and M/M fan blogs this spring, thanks to Embrace the Rainbow, a blog book tour site specializing in LGBTQ authors. Hat tip to A.M. Leibowitz for the recommendation. To coincide with the tour, the Amazon Kindle and iBooks editions of Two Natures will be on sale for $0.99 from February 20-March 17.

TOUR DATES

My guest posts will cover topics such as fashion inspirations for Two Natures and how to avoid distractions from writing. Hope you’ll join us!

 

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Two Poems from Alan King’s “Point Blank”

My first poetry book recommendation of the year is Alan King’s Point Blank, published in 2016 by Silver Birch Press. A three-time Pushcart nominee, King is a Caribbean-American poet, the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago. His family roots give his poetry a robust and celebratory quality, whether he’s writing about the spices of home cooking, the seductive musical soundtrack of his parents’ marriage, or the father-son dynamic of power struggles and wordless affection. King appreciates women’s sensuality in a way that reminds me of the late great musician Prince, an unashamed desire that has enough reverence in it to avoid objectification. Yet certainly the life of a black man in America is far from idyllic, as King shows in his powerful narrative poems about racist microaggressions and police shakedowns. His relationships with his family and students sustain his life force in an environment that is ready to dehumanize all of them.

Point Blank is a pleasurable read that is also an important document of black American life today. He kindly shares two poems from the collection below. Visit his blog for poetry videos and essays on social issues.

Bound

On the bus in rush hour, he enters
with the brim of his baseball cap
over his left ear, where a snubbed out
Black & Mild sits like an aromatic
marker with its black tip exposed.

You checked the weather today.
Cloudy skies with a chance of rain.
Your boss called you into his office,
talked about the economy and running
a struggling paper, how he’s got to let you go.

Think of it as a paid vacation,
he said. You look up at the guy
with the Yankees cap and phone to his ear.
I’m on my way, babe.

His smile says his destination
is a garden hidden in a labyrinth,
where the sun slides its iridescent tongue
over a tamarind-colored woman,
oiling her skin while she sleeps
among orchids and birds of paradise.

You imagine that garden
on the other side of your front door,
where you’ll open like morning glories
when your wife
descends on you like dew.

****
Freeze

A man sits handcuffed on the curb
while his trunk and back seat are searched.

You watch from across the street,
heading to your car. His woman
was making a Malaysian chicken dish, sent him
to pick up coconut milk and curry.

It’s night. The sound of car tires
on wet street makes you think of paper
torn slow in long strips.

The officers, thorough in their search,
remind you of thieves you once saw.

You couldn’t say what you felt,
watching them take their time,
as if instead of searching for money and CDs
they were detailing the interior.

The man is every WANTED poster
you saw on TV, in the papers,
in post offices.

He is that night years ago.
When you followed your mom to return a rental,
and lost her in traffic, when the red and blue
flashes made you
a cornered cat.

You tense up when that moment
on the street gets just as close. Your keys
in one hand, sorbet and cookies in the other.

At the sight of what flashed in his mirror,
he knew he was tagged in a game older
than Jim Crow. Tonight, the sirens
and police lights say, Get off the street
unless you want trouble, too.

But the wind shoves you down the block,
muscling you back to your car
and to everything you love. You think
of the handcuffed brother
and his woman growing restless,
trying not to worry.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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Poets in Memoriam: Ritvo, Kelly, Perillo

Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day in the Episcopal Calendar, when we honor and commune with our dead. In our tradition, saints are not only the officially canonized heroes of the church, but all members of the community, just as we are “a priesthood of all believers”. This fall, the American poetry community lost several notable figures I’d like to mention on the blog.

Max Ritvo studied under Louise Glück at Yale, taught poetry at Columbia University, and was an editor of Parnassus. His collection Four Reincarnations appeared posthumously from Milkweed Editions. In August, he died at 25 from a rare pediatric cancer, which was the subject of many of his dazzling, edgy poems. Read more about him in his New York Times obituary. I discovered his work in the Iowa Review just days before I learned of his passing. In “Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death”, he wrote:

Sure, I wish my imagination well,
wherever it is. But now

I have sleep to fill. Every night
I dream I have a bucket

and move clear water from a hole
to a clear ocean. A robot’s voice barks

This is sleep. This is sleep.
I’d drink the water, but I’m worried the next

night I’d regret it.
I might need every last drop. Nobody will tell me.

Boston Review in 2015 featured a seven-poem sampler of his work, selected by Lucie Brock-Broido. Here is the beginning of “Afternoon”:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—
and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
My favorite is “Poem to My Litter”, published in The New Yorker this past June. In tones that are tender, sardonic, and melancholy, this poem addresses the laboratory mice that have been engineered to carry his tumors in hopes of finding a cure.

I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,

but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
They don’t know they’re named, of course.

They’re like children you’ve traumatized
and tortured so they won’t let you visit.

I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
Even my suffering is good, in part.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other honors. She passed away last month at the age of 65. When the news broke, my poet friends on Facebook shared many of her sensual, profound poems. I was especially moved by “The Leaving”, from her debut collection, To the Place of Trumpets. It begins, “My father said I could not do it,/but all night I picked the peaches.” Instead of a literal narrative about girl power or individuation, though, the harvest becomes a mythic task that stands in for every occasion when faithfulness to mundane work brought us into transcendence:

I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.

In a similar vein, she wrote in “Blessed is the Field”:

In the late heat the snakeroot and goldenrod run high,
White and gold, the steaming flowers, green and gold,
The acid-bitten leaves….It is good to say first

An invocation. Though the words do not always
Seem to work. Still, one must try. Bow your head.
Cross your arms. Say: Blessed is the day. And the one

Who destroys the day. Blessed is this ring of fire
In which we live….How bitter the burning leaves.
How bitter and sweet.

Lucia Perillo was a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2010 collection Inseminating the Elephant. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, she passed away in October at the age of 58. From the New York Times obituary:

In an interview for The American Poetry Review in 2014, she presented her situation straightforwardly. Asked about battling her disease, she said: “I don’t battle M.S. I relent to its humiliations.” How did she manage not to fall into despair? “I’ve already fallen. This is the voice from the swamp.

The above-cited interview includes the poem “A Revelation”, which begins with the narrator watching prostitutes in Nevada buying their groceries. She concludes:

…If you follow
any one of the apparitions far enough–the
fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves
and liars–you will find that beauty, a
cataclysmic beauty
rising off the face of a burning landscape
just before the appearance of the beast, the
beauty
that is the flower of our dying into another life.
Like a Mobius strip: you go round once
and you come out on the other side.
There is no alpha, no omega,
no beginning and no end.
Only the ceaseless swell
and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.
Watch the way brilliance turns
on darkness. How can any of us be damned.

May these poets be blessed in the next world as they have blessed us here. Lux perpetua luceat eis.

Interview About My Poetry at the Book Lover’s Haven

Denise Turney, author of the popular novel Love Pour Over Me, runs Chistell Publishing, an independent press with a special interest in African-American and inspirational books. Her free monthly e-newsletter, the Book Lover’s Haven, features freelance writing jobs, literary conferences and events, and author interviews. Subscribe here. We’ve been connected online for several years because Chistell has periodically offered a free writing contest that we profile at Winning Writers. (The most recent submission period was October 1, 2015-February 28, 2016.)

I was honored to be the featured author for her September newsletter, which was headlined: “Bold Writers! Are Writers Too Scared to Write Authentically?” The newsletters are not archived online but she’s kindly permitted me to reprint my interview below. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the prophetic truth-tellers she lists in the intro. I’ll try to live up to it!

Book Lover’s Haven Interviews Jendi Reiter

Novels, short stories and poetry demand authenticity. Although writers deal with fictional characters, imaginary settings and hard-to-believe plots, to connect with readers, writings need an element of real life. It’s easy when those real life elements are accepted by the majority of society. It’s harder when most people abhor the ways that a story resembles worldly events or experiences that many wish would just disappear. That’s when writing gets hard.
Yet, talent speaks for itself as it happens with James Baldwin, Jodi Picoult, John Irving, Amy Tan, Richard Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Marilou Awiakta and Alice Walker, writers who tackled issues and experiences like racism, mental illness and family dysfunction that most readers may prefer to turn away from. Our feature writer’s talent has opened doors for her. She covers heady topics that, although mirroring what’s going on in the world, make storytelling a challenge.

Keep reading this Book Lover’s Haven issue to learn more about Jendi Reiter, her poetry, short stories and novels. Her writing talent is undeniable.

BLH:  What inspired you to write?
JR:   Books have been fundamental to my experience of the world since I was a small child. “What inspired you to write?” feels almost like asking “What inspired you to talk or walk?” Composing poems and stories is just how I make sense of being alive.
Each of my poetry collections reflects the spiritual, emotional, or political dilemmas I was wrestling with at the time. I don’t want to find “answers” as much as to create a space where all possibilities have room to breathe.
For instance, my latest full-length collection, Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), takes aim at myths that confuse us about the difference between passionate love and abusive control. These myths may come from society’s gender roles, religious dogma, or our own wishful thinking about relationships.
My chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) is the most experimental of my books. Swallow uses fractured language, absurd humor, and collages of found texts to resist the oppressive narrative of psychiatric labels. It was inspired by unethical practices I encountered during my (ultimately successful) seven-year quest to adopt a baby.
BLH:  Tell us about the process that you follow to create poems that pull up a lot of emotion in readers, especially since poetry leaves writers with so little room to connect with readers?
JR:   The scarcity of space is an advantage, I think–the energy bounces faster and harder off the walls as they close in! I mostly write in free verse now, so I take extra care to listen for the difference between poetry and prose in the cadences of my lines. It is an auditory process. Poetry, to me, should sound tighter than prose, with fewer pauses or explanatory transitions between one thought and the next.
Intentionality about line breaks is a big part of that. It’s a pet peeve of mine when breaks in free verse seem random or end on a weak word. The reader is going to hear the “beat” created by that visual break, so it had better come in a spot that makes sense in the musical line.
BLH:  Your poems are powerful. Did you train with a professional poet or take an advanced creative writing course?  Do you recommend that writers receive professional/college writing or communications training? Why?
JR:   Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t, and I neither recommend nor discourage such training. It is a very personal choice. Some writers, like me, are unable to filter out the distraction of other people’s energy when working on first drafts. (I ask for feedback from a trusted writer friend on some of my revisions, but not all.) Others are more extroverted, or not as psychically porous, and thrive on the collective creative ferment of writing in a workshop.
I do recommend that everyone take classes in critical reading of contemporary and classic poetry. The English department at my arts high school (shout out to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights!) taught me everything I know about good technique, other than what I learned through trial and error by actually writing.
BLH:  How did you arrive at the title “Bullies in Love”?
JR:   The title poem was inspired by an episode of the TV show “Glee” where the homophobic high school football player reveals that he’s been bullying the flamboyant young man from the choir because he’s secretly attracted to him. The secretly gay bigot is a common and, in my opinion, problematic twist in many stories about tolerance. It can preserve the dangerous fantasy that we should give our abuser a pass because he really loves us and just doesn’t know how to show it.
BLH:  Please give us a brief synopsis of Bullies in Love.
JR:  This blurb from the back cover says it best:
“Jendi Reiter’s astute observations of the complex nature of love reveal not only its beauty but also its damning consequences. From the child to the adult, the home to the wider world, this collection of affirming yet disturbing tight-knit poetry in various forms kaleidoscopes vivid images, framing the struggle to free oneself from parental and societal expectations from start to finish. These poems span the coming-of-age search for self-respect and love; the ideologies of marketing and religion; teachers’ censorship of children’s literature; and political crimes against sexual minorities.”
-Suzanne Covich, child rights activist and educator, author of When We Remember They Call Us Liars (Fremantle Press, 2012)
BLH:  Where did the idea to include photographs in Bullies in Love come from?
JR:     This was my publisher’s request. His background is in graphic design so he likes to combine art and writing in his titles. I had recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for poetry, so I asked the MCC staff to recommend some visual arts fellows whose work would suit my style and themes. I couldn’t be happier with Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer who agreed to collaborate with me. We share a preoccupation with dark fairy tales and historical representations of womanhood and motherhood. Check out her website at www.tonipepe.com
BLH:  Why you think that poems don’t sell more? They are so powerful.
JR:   Most poetry is published by small presses that have no marketing budget. The average person may feel that poetry is intimidating or old-fashioned, because their education has not included contemporary poetry that feels relevant to their lives. Perhaps the standardized-test-driven modern school is partly to blame for that: poems are ambiguous and complex, harder to summarize (if they’re good!) in a multiple-choice question.
This slippery quality of poetry is also a marketing problem, because how do you give an elevator pitch for what your book is “about”?
BLH:  I recently interviewed another writer who said that, today, there’s more pressure on women to be perfect while juggling more and more. Do you tackle that perception in Barbie at 50? If not, what topics do you tackle in Barbie at 50?
JR:  Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) is my most light-hearted book, but with an edge. The through-line is how girls use make-believe games and fairy tales to imagine what it’s like to grow up-and then the reality that is more complex and bittersweet, yet liberating, as truth always is. I am a Barbie collector and a feminist, two interests that some would say are incompatible, but I believe that instead of scapegoating feminine fantasy, we should create a world where people of all genders can try on roles without being confined to any of them.
BLH:  Please share two to three marketing strategies that work for you in spreading the word about your books and reaching your target audience.
JR:  Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free, low-tech ways to break your poems out of the obscure printed book or journal and spread them in quick, shareable formats. Does this translate into sales? Not always, but it creates satisfying interpersonal connections and a sense of being heard. Think of the poems that have gone viral on social media in recent years, because they voiced people’s hopes for peace after tragedies and injustices in the news. As poets, we may need to measure our success in terms of impact rather than dollars.
Other than readings at local bookstores and libraries, I haven’t done as much as I should to publicize my poetry books. My first novel, Two Natures, is forthcoming in September from Saddle Road Press (http://www.saddleroadpress.com/two-natures.html), so I’ve been giving myself a crash course in marketing this year, guided by Carolyn Howard-Johnson at HowToDoItFrugally.com. I recommend her highly!
BLH:  What advice do you have for a writer who is publishing her/his first non-fiction book, specifically as it regards finding a publisher or printer (if they are self-publishing) and marketing their first book?
JR:  Nonfiction isn’t my specialty, but my advice would be similar: for marketing, check out Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Fauzia Burke, Online Marketing for Busy Authors. I am the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers. Our Useful Resources pages include a page of self-publishing vendors and advice sites that we have vetted for their honesty, expertise, and cost-effectiveness. (https://winningwriters.com/resources)
If you are going to submit your manuscript to a small press publisher, do your research and trust your instincts: Does their website look modern, and is it easy to find information about their books? Do they have any online marketing presence, such as an e-newsletter, active Facebook feed, or Twitter feed? Are they prompt and clear in responding to emails (or phone calls, if that’s your preferred method)?
I love my novel publishers, Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press, because of their stellar transparency, friendliness, and ability to hit deadlines. They’re also great writers–check out their books on their website! Interestingly, I found them because Ruth and I admire each other’s poetry and wrote blurbs for one another’s latest books. This just proves Carolyn’s advice that marketing today is about building your personal brand as an author, not just promoting one book at a time.
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Release Week Reviews for “Two Natures”

More great reviews have come in since Two Natures debuted last week. I’m honored when readers say that I did justice to the real-life experience of gay men and their loved ones during the AIDS crisis. When other people make an emotional connection with characters who previously existed only in my mind, something magical happens, like the scene in the play Peter Pan when the collective strength of the audience’s chant “I do believe in fairies!” brings Tinkerbell to life.

On Goodreads, reviewer Nocturnalux gave thoughtful attention to the book’s literary devices and philosophical dichotomies:

The story of Julian, a young fashion photographer trying to make it in the fast and furious 90’s New York environment, is not simply the vehicle through which gay rights, religious issues, the AIDS epidemic, family breakdown and queer identity are addressed: by immersing the reader fully into its well developed world, the novel conveys all this and so much in an organic manner.

This immersive quality is achieved in part thanks to a very apt usage of the first person narrative. As a photographer Julian employs highly image saturated language to frame his experiences, in a most literal sense. Visual intense descriptions punctuate the story and is the lenses through which the storytelling process happens. But these also serve to show a sense of alienation from the actual world, a pressing anxiety that haunts Julian.

The narrator’s repressive, traditional Christian upbringing also factors in his means of expression, with many biblical references strewed very liberally throughout the entire novel, to the point of the title, as it has already been mentioned. The biblical imagery covers a gamut of tones, from lyrical, pensive and musing to snarky and highly cynical…

Two Natures is in all respects very honest. It does not shy from being graphic, painful, at times horrifying, often moving, all without caring for niceties. The comprehensive scope of the endeavor has its own artistic vision, both in-universe- Julian strives to capture some form of beauty- and at a structural level as the novel is almost flawless in how it harnesses highly personal moments to turn into literature.

Ultimately, Two Natures questions the very notion of ‘either/or’ system: perhaps there is a way of sublimating truth into beauty, or vice-verse, and reach an integrated way of feeling in which one can be true to oneself and still find actual love. There are no guarantees but the mere possibility is enough.

Meredith King at the M/M review blog Diverse Reader provided an enthusiastic release day review and promo post. Leave a blog comment or tweet about the giveaway for a chance to win a free e-book review copy.

Talk about a debut novel that grabs you, bleeds you, and makes you cry until you’re raw. It’s one of those books that when it ends you realize you stopped breathing. This is not an easy read. The subject matter is very heavy and the author really thrusts you into the gritty.

Many of us remember the early 90’s and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus.  This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you’re getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.

This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely.

Gay novelist Hans M. Hirschi belongs to the same generation as Julian and me. His positive response to the book was very meaningful. Hirschi is a literary writer with crossover appeal to the M/M romance market, as I hope to be. His books have romantic subplots where love generally prevails, but also tackle serious issues such as bereavement, child abuse and trafficking, spirituality, and the obstacles faced by nontraditional families. I recommend his novel The Opera House, which is so far the only book I’ve read that reflects my experience with mental health stigma as a prospective adoptive parent. Some highlights from his review:

First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described…

…Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.

As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.

Who knows, perhaps writing can change reality, after all? Readers, if you see Julian walking around New York sometime, give him a big kiss from me. He saved my life.

“Taking Down the Pear Tree” Wins New Letters Prize for Fiction

It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!

In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.

 

          Taking Down the Pear Tree

 

You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.

Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.

Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.

****

It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.

After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.

You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.

All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.

****

There is a room that is blue and green.

There is a room whose door is always closed.

****

You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.

****

It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.

You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.

You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.

You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.

****