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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Light in Darkness

Yes, all of you hyper-logical types, we get it: New Year’s Day is an arbitrarily chosen re-starting point. I have attempted to kill this buzz myself, but I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary. New Year’s is plenty dull on its own. As with my birthday, I’m left feeling a day older and, having bought into the idea that something major will happen, I end up a little more melacholy than usual once the champagne buzz wears off.

But I like the opportunity for a collective reboot. If I’m going to get my hopes up but feel underwhelmed, it’s nice not to have to do it alone. Last year I broke my own pattern of not making resolutions by resolving not to over-enforce my goal-setting, especially with writing projects. The idea was that I would determine very minimal goals on a daily and weekly basis, and they would be so minimal that I couldn’t help but fulfill them. The short version:

I resolve to treat myself well and hold myself accountable.

The plan was conveniently loosey-goosey. If I failed to follow through, I’d only hurt myself. Honestly, who was going to care if I never wrote? I would berate myself, a few of my writing friends would encourage me, but it’s not as if I had an editor breathing down my neck. To keep writing, what I need more than anything is to strike a balance of nudges and guilt, and that can only be found in the midst of things.

As those of you who know me or have read this blog know, 2011 provided a few significant life-gets-in-the-way events. Some illness. Some death. A wedding. Like the really bad first draft of a real-life novel. All of that was done by mid-October. Looking to December 31 as the end of this year’s story, the denouement has been long. I’ve felt like a Sondheim character searching/waiting for the great lesson.

The gift of the denouement has been a long visit from my mother. She came in early October for the wedding and decided to extend her visit. I swear this is okay with my husband–in fact, he’s the one who’s encouraged it. She didn’t want to go back to her house and experience the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her husband, my father. My sister’s family lives nearby and have been able to take care of her house, so why not? Our hope was that through avoidance the great lesson would sneak up on us, and that is more or less what has happened. We’ve found light in darkness, the true reason for the season.

Her presence hasn’t interrupted my writing. To the contrary: she inspires. The events of the year had already done that, but not in the ways I assumed they would. I ultimately wrote more than I thought I would last January. My writing energy went where I needed it. I had to write through grief as a way of lifting rubble off of me. I wrote posts and poems–new material that has energized me. Even though I wrote for myself, others appreciated what I wrote. Without having any of my work formally published, I experienced what it means to be read.

Progress on revising my novel slowed a bit, but I didn’t stop. Somehow I’m ending this arbitrarily defined year having almost finished the second draft of my novel, and I feel more driven than ever to continue the journey to having it published. More important, I confronted obstacles by writing. My heart broke, so with words I patched it up and continue to alternate between dwelling and moving on. It wasn’t quite a journey to the underworld, but it wasn’t completely not that. And since I’m the one writing this story, I’m going to say I’ve nailed the ending. Once the buzz wears off, I’ll get over myself and begin again.

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MyNaPoWriMo Is Over

As other writers spent November 30 fulfilling their NaNoWriMo obligations of 50,000 words, I have just fulfilled my promise to write a poem a day in November, a.k.a. MyNaPoWriMo. For those keeping score, my friend Devi (whose idea this was in the first place) successfully completed her 30 poems, too. You can read them at Book Writing World.

I planned to write my daily poems rather quickly and continue revising my novel, but I found myself focusing on poetry writing. It was kind of like going back twenty years. Before I wrote anything else, I wrote poetry but have gotten away from it the past few years. I won’t let that happen again.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • I need the breaks from writing prose, and especially from writing/revising a long project.
  • Cranking out a poem a day allowed me to explore other ideas. Creating a (solid draft of a) product by the end of every day helped me understand how I become inspired. I just need a small bit of something, but that something has got to spark or else I can’t sustain even a short writing and revision process.
  • I enjoyed the openendedness of the process, allowing exploration of form as well as content. I could literally see the shape of each poem. Although that’s harder to do with a novel of a few hundred pages, I need to imagine the structure graphically or as a visual metaphor, not just in terms of an outline or other textual system. But I concerned myself with what shape worked best for the poem rather than what some supposed expert would give me permission to do, as I should do with every project no matter the size.
  • Playing with words is why I like to write and revise. With a novel, the wordplay begins to feel like a job. With a new poem each day for a month, the process is more art-for-art’s-sake. I recognize that when I’m revising to the best of my ability, I’m drawing on my skills as a poet.

MyNaPoWriMo was definitely not a vacation from writing-as-work. Many days I felt a great deal of pressure to produce when I just didn’t feel like, and I had to push myself pretty. But because my poems could be as long as they needed to be, I could devote myself to producing something well done instead of churning out a minimum number of lines or words. And that freedom allowed me to find something enjoyable about writing every day.

A real writer writes every day, but if s/he enjoys doing it, that’s even better. Tomorrow, I’m back to work revising my novel, hopefully bringing some renewed joy to that process.

Sophie, My Protector

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie was my protector. Not so much physically. At 25 pounds she couldn’t have fended off a mugger or a monster, but she saved me from loneliness, which is one of my greatest fears.

I was lonely for the first year after we moved to Pennsylvania. I couldn’t find a job in the area, and even though I worked part-time online for my former university, I wasn’t making enough money to contribute my fair share, and the limited contact I had with my former colleagues only emphasized how isolated I was. Doug went to work to teach all day and stayed most evenings for rehearsals. I knew no one else.

On fall break, Doug insisted we go dog shopping, their eyes met, and we came home with her. The only reason I was opposed was because I took the responsibility seriously and worried I would screw up as a pet parent the way I felt I was screwing up in general. To a lesser extent, I felt left out of whatever bond Doug and this dog had. Sophie was never as excited as when she reunited with Doug upon his return to the den. Throughout the day, we would look at each other not with hostility, but with confusion. What were we supposed to do while the guy we loved, albeit differently, was out of the house?

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My Wedding Vows

Yesterday, I married my partner of almost 17 years, Doug Powers, in a brief, wonderful ceremony at the Hillcrest Manor in Corning, New York. I have plenty to say about the experience, of course, but for now, I just want to share the vows I made to Doug with all of our friends and family who wanted to be there. We are now the Powers-Black family.

As you know, Doug, I kind of resent this whole exercise of seeking societal approval of our relationship. For nearly seventeen years, we’ve persevered with no government support and little support from civilization’s other structures.

I didn’t need society’s permission to fall in love with you within seconds of meeting you, nor did I need society’s permission to tell you how I felt only two weeks later. When you warned me not to make you choose between your love of theatre and your love of me, I got a life and worked hard to become less smothering. By being with you, I have discovered a more independent and fulfilled version of myself.

So I’m tempted to vow that I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. Society may assume I’ve spent all this time as your very long-term fiancee, just waiting to get started, but you and I know better. However, experience as your husband-all-but-in-name tells me it’s not that easy. We must constantly work at this thing called Us. And, knocking the chip off my shoulder, how can I not acknowledge the support we have received from family and friends? This moment provides us with an opportunity to go public even more than we have, to brag about what we have together, and to risk making our mistakes with others watching.

Despite all we’ve done to push past obstacles, we’ve obeyed societal expectation to avoid “flaunting” our love. As closeted gay kids, we learned to be careful when others were watching. We’ve carried that caution through our first relationships and into the home we’ve made together. Too often, we stop short of saying we love each other or even asking about each other’s day. Although we’ve assumed we can take each other for granted, there’s a gap between us that, however slight it may be, has been an insurmountable emptiness. I promise to dive in and pull you into the emptiness, too, so we come to see it for what it is: openness whose possibilities we determine for ourselves.

I can’t imagine what it would be like not to adore you. I still thrill at the sight of you when I run into you at work, and I’m so relieved when you come home at the end of the day. I’m strong and could make it on my own, but the point of this commitment is that I choose to be with you.

Reading my vows to Doug.

No, I didn't memorize them.

Let’s Enchant This Garden

Once upon a time, I was a mouse. More specifically, I was in sixth grade performing a role in a play. My partner, a close friend, and I recently watched my performance on the surprisingly-not-so-grainy VHS tape my mother has saved since 1981. I, as mouse, discovered some of the world’s wonders as I ventured out for the first time on my own. My large, round pink ears flopped when I hit my spot and exclaimed in my pre-pubescent voice: “An enchanted garden! How lovely!”

The role couldn’t have fit anyone better than it fit me. I wasn’t acting so much as letting others in on my act. I remember loving the warm rush of excitement of being on stage with everyone focused on me. I stood in the spotlight and practiced pretty flawless comic timing. I was just being myself, nelly as the day is long, and for once, and for a very brief time, I wasn’t stopping myself.

From 30 years away, I’m amazed that none of my classmates at that time made fun of me for acting flamboyantly and obliviously gay. Maybe my openness won them over–the “what” of my identity didn’t matter because the “how” was so damn fabulous?

Perhaps. But the what was and is incredibly important to me (though I won’t deny how fabulous I am at it). Which is why I’m surprised to find some of my fellow queers avoiding specifics in their self-declarations. They’re coming out as themselves, but no aspect of their identities is more important than any other.

Hmmm.

The point of Coming Out Day is to do it your own way, so I shouldn’t judge. But…even more important than how one comes out is the what one comes out as. Regardless of the terminology, today is a day to celebrate being queer. If you have no other day when you don’t have to hide or blend in, this is the day to step out and say what makes you you in terms of sexuality and/or gender. This is not a day for veiled language. This is not a day for celebrating metrosexuals.

The world is our garden, too. Take root, queers and allies. Bring on the enchantment, openly and vigorously. How fucking lovely!

Dream On

A week ago, a friend wrote to tell me she dreamed of my dog, Sophie, who recently died. She dreamed she was walking Sophie and that dogs from the neighborhood surrounded them. She reported the incident to a local official, concerned that the dogs would somehow be in danger. The official told her to talk to her neighbors and solve the problem together. Back on the street, the dogs had vanished. When she set Sophie down, Sophie ran away across a beach and into a city.

My friend asked me what it meant. If there’s an intended message from The Universe, I don’t know what it is. But I’m jealous that she’s having dreams of Sophie and I’m not. Supposedly we all dream, but I almost never remember mine.

Her dream makes me think of something that actually happened. Shortly after we adopted Sophie, my parents visited. Sophie barked at my father for a day and a half until Dad offered her a Triscuit. That simple gesture won Sophie’s trust. Whether she was easy to win over or had been demanding some kind of payment from him, who knows. Once while Dad had her outside, she ran into the corn field behind our house. We lived about a quarter of a mile from a highway, so I worried not just that she would get lost but that she would get run over.

I’ve forgotten the details, but Doug tells me he was inside and heard me yell her name and saw me run after her. All I remember is feeling relieved that she stopped, that she came back home. I couldn’t have taken the pain of responsibility if she’d gotten hurt or disappeared. Even though Dad was with her, I’d trusted him, so it would have been my fault.

I do have a brief, apparently false memory of my father running after her, disappearing into the stalks of corn. Not only did he not run after her, but the corn would have been harvested by the time they visited, which was around Thanksgiving, so there would have been nothing to block my view. Considering Dad died just before Sophie, I’ve probably rewritten the scene to connect them. They’ve both run off, and this time they haven’t come back. I’m impatiently waiting for something I know isn’t going to happen. I’m feeling responsible for something I didn’t do. I’m feeling abandoned when neither of them would have done anything to hurt me.

Knowing they’re together would comfort me if I could believe it’s true. I’m open to the possibility, and maybe my friend’s dream is a faint sign. But where the hell are my dreams? My dead loved ones never come to me. I’m as open to their visits as I could consciously be, and still there’s no pixie dust sprinkled in my dreams, no irreverent voices from Beyond telling me they can see me peeing. No sublimity, no ridiculousness. Just absence.

I’m assuming their presence in dreams would fill the emptiness I feel when I remember them in waking moments. “They’re always with you” is a nice idea, but in day-to-day life, it’s kind of a bunch of crap. A colleague noticed Sophie’s photo as we ended a meeting in my office. I explained that she recently died. His response? “She has the sweetest face.” His observation happened in the present tense, tempting me to avoid talking about her in the past tense, which I do to acknowledge reality. It’s the same with my father. It’s the same with friends who died on me nearly 20 years ago.

If I love you, I don’t let go. I want to have you around in present tense again. I want to feel some confusion about which moments are happening now or even real. Every now and then, I want to take a staycation from reality without plunging headlong into psychosis, and I want you to be there. I don’t do faith, but I’m faithful. I’m like a dog that way, waiting on the front porch for you.

Rock me like a hurricane. Or, better yet, don’t.

As Hurricane Irene weakens, disappointment spreads through social media that the storm was not more powerful and destructive. These same folks are accusing journalists and government officials of hyping the storm to win high ratings and improve their reputations.

I’m guessing the accusers do not know the few people who were killed by Irene. Apparently they haven’t even lost power, since they are able to post their whinings on Twitter and Facebook. To them, “Better safe than sorry” is probably just a tired cliché that leaves them “bored.” They want to be entertained. If the storm doesn’t do it, they’ll complain about the ineffectiveness of government and nature.

Less than a week ago, after an unusually strong earthquake rumbled through the eastern United States, the response was similar. The consensus is that it didn’t really do anything. No major damage occurred in highly populated areas, and soon a photo of  “devastation” went viral: a set of white lawn chairs, one of which is lying on its side. Worth a giggle to many, perhaps, but probably not to the people who weren’t so lucky, whose chimneys came apart or whose windshields were smashed by falling debris.

Jokes are fine, but I’m disappointed by how many citizens of the world seem incapable of realizing that things happen beyond their apartments or city blocks. If damage doesn’t happen to them or to people they know, they believe an event was “overhyped,” and they search for some dastardly reason their fun was spoiled. They feel no gratitude that, had a worse-case scenario happened, they wouldn’t have been left to wave for from their rooftops and get blamed for not having the resources to save themselves.

In case it does any good, let me take this opportunity to say to The Universe that I would be happy to feel underwhelmed by any potential disasters that may be in store for my region and/or life. Please go to great lengths to underwhelm me. And thanks, Dear Universe, for taking time to read my blog.

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