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bigot shouts and siren songs

I’ve told this story to maybe a dozen people, but I haven’t written it yet. There are already waterworks on the other side of your screen, because I cannot look back on any of this without anger, fear, regret, and deep, deep sadness.

It started with road rage on the commute home from work. A guy started to pull out in front of me and I honked. It was as simple as that. It could have ended there.

He followed me and drove erratically. I tried to get away, not to safety, necessarily, but away from him—out of wrath’s reach. But he kept following me, gesturing and swerving. I took myself to what I thought would be a place of safety.

I don’t remember getting out of my car. He is there in front of me. Fists. Shaved head. Gray shirt with red print. He is in my face—our noses inches apart. He looks down my face, my shoulders, and his eyes stop on my breasts. The space between our faces grows just a bit. He’s stepped back. He tells me he thought I was a dude. He calls me faggot. He calls me faggot. He calls me faggot. Faggot. Fucking faggot. You’re a fucking faggot.

I am, in that moment, more gay than I have ever been. I am a name to be shouted. I am a quivering, pathetic puddle of homosexuality, rendered nearly mute by a mixture of fear and anger.

I am, in that moment, the target I never let myself be because I never truly realized I could be.

What follows is week of nightmares and fear-shakes. The word faggot echoing between thoughts. My body like a brick wall tagged with black spray paint: a dirty, faggoty canvas. My Self, a shame slate.

When I breathe, I breathe the word that was thrown at me. I breathe and believe my otherness.

I find a space, vast and dark and cave-like where I can hide. I go there when I’m afraid, when that word thrown at me becomes louder than the rest of my world. My feet fill shame-shoes and I walk into a place filled with people who want to be there just as much as I. We joke, laugh, celebrate each others’ successes, and commiserate over loss. The room is electric and filled with so many songs that they all begin to blend together and in time I fall utterly in lust with their hope-filled lyricism.

I stay as long as I can—because outside, in the parking lot, in my car, on the freeway back home, there are my thoughts, dark, and rancid. Even inside my house, in my bed, head under blankets, dog curled behind my knees, there is the promise of fear. I cannot separate myself from my Self. I cannot separate identity from being. I am Kim the faggot.

Weeks pass before I recognize that this place I thought was warm and safe and inviting is venomous. I have been lured by the Sirens’ call. I have given them all I have, and I have borrowed so I can give them more. I am rendered penniless. Shame stacks itself on top of shame and the burden breaks me.

I sink into my brokenness. I sink into it and see all the undoing that must be done and I am enveloped by impossibility.

And yet. There is this:

Someone once told me I had a dream—that I’d had a dream I was diagnosed with cancer. In the dream I am told by a doctor that I am dying. It’s okay, I tell him. It’s okay, because I am Kim.

The same is true now. Right now, my life is a series of days bookended by nightmares, and it doesn’t feel okay. But I know that it will feel and be okay. Because I am Kim.


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turd chaser or, what i could have been

At twenty you decide it’s time to get away from your life. You join the Navy, with hopes to become a journalist, to travel and write stories and live an exotic life, full of adventure and success.

They—that is the recruiters—tell you all you have to do is ask them—that is, your company commanders—that you want to be a journalist. And your company commanders tell you that they—that is, whomever you meet at the base wherever you get stationed—will help you become one.

It doesn’t work like that, of course, but it’s very easy to believe the lies you’re told in the military, especially when you’re young and know nothing of the way the world works, only that living at home and working at a grocery store is not a fulfilling life. So you get away, follow the trail of lies and find yourself on the other side of the country, safe from your past and scared of your present and completely unsure what you will become.

You are 3,000 miles from home and you will get money for college when your contract is up. Two years is nothing (and it turns out that is the one truth). This will put you on your path—whatever that path might be. They tell you that since you won’t be staying in, since you can’t become the journalist you wanted to be, you need to have a chevron on your arm instead of those three diagonal stripes. You’ll make more money. You’ll get more respect. The two years will be even better. There is a need for hull technicians. It’s easy to become one. Study this book and take a test. You’ll make more money. You’ll get that chevron.

But, the thing is, you don’t care about plumbing or insulation. The book they gave you makes no sense. It’s full of diagrams, mostly cross-sections of pipes. Everyone who sees you reading the book calls you a turd chaser, and you wonder if this is why there is a shortage of hull technicians.

You fail the test.

After much comforting and reassurance, you find that this is okay. It’s okay to not make more money or gain more respect, because the two years are already going by quickly. You get transferred around the base. You stand guard of your base in your dress blues and a .38 strapped to your waist. During your middle-of-the-night watches, you take the bullets out of the gun and try to stand them on end.

You get transferred to a tugboat that guides ships from harbor to port. You make friends and the three of you sun yourselves on those long moves. You attach a paper cup to a stick and catch jellyfish.

You get transferred to another department and install a database system on a computer and track the work of others. Your superiors flirt with you and you wonder if you’re supposed to ignore or acknowledge them.

After much asking, and much paperwork, you get transferred to public relations and you write articles about shipyard workers and Navy retirees. You escort journalists and television reporters around base. You celebrate your first publication in the eight page newsletter with a bottle of Cold Duck.

This is your service—two years of asking and listening and doing. You’ve worn your uniform and saluted flags and people and have seen nothing of your world except this grungy shipyard town with its bars and tattoo parlors. You are given your papers and you pack up your uniforms and you enter the world.

More than twenty years later, on Veterans Day, you have a paid holiday. You’ve done nothing to earn it, but a day off is wasted if you sit around and do nothing. You cross things off your invisible list of household chores. You unclog the bathroom sink.

You buy a big, red plumber’s wrench. You need no books or diagrams. Unscrew this, and that part of the pipe is disconnected from that part. Look inside. If there’s nothing to keep the water from draining, repeat the process until the pipe is fully disassembled and the obstruction is found.

You find it: a gray, slimy mass. Bits of hair and skin shed and decayed and mixed with drain water. You reassemble pipes, hoping you’re doing it correctly, thinking: you could have learned this long ago. You could have done this for a living, on ships that sailed around the world, bound for exotic places.

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the rubber chicken

How often is the fragility of a rubber chicken considered? They’re bought as novelties, as toys, or, in this case, as a tribute.

But rubber rots and, in time, chicken heads fall off their bodies.

You’ve come to accept this truth. Yours had darkened and flaked, dried and grayed over the years. You left both pieces—head and body—on top of your garbage, hoping the custodians would see it and understand the weight of it all, how you’d ceremoniously taken it from the top shelf of the bookcase in your office, not ready to part with it, but knowing it was time. How you said a quiet goodbye.

You hoped it would be placed gently in the dumpster at the commencement of the funeral you imagined. Were you a child, you’d have buried it in the backyard, next to the graves of hamsters, of birds and turtles you’d found and tried to save.

In the years that it sat in that place, you didn’t think of it as a rubber chicken, nor did you consider its fragility. It was a touchstone, a talisman, a grotesque watchman, keeping you safe. Keeping you close to memories of your grandpa.

You saw it and thought of a cardboard box, stored under stairs, pulled free on weekends or days after school. You thought of abalone shell, skeletal foot, Fruit Fresh can full of broken bits of crayons. Plastic flask, foam sandwich.

You think now of your first rubber chicken and you wish you still had it.

You think of the man who gave it to you. The man who saw you, who saved you. You think of dumpster diving and of pulling spindly pine needles from the grill of the Chevrolet. You think of candy and false teeth in your grandpa’s starched shirt pockets, of fedoras and ties on Sunday, of bean liquor sopped with white bread.

You think of oak trees on summer nights and a song you thought he’d written for you. You think down through the leaves of the old oak tree and it is all decades ago. Recliner with orange corduroy. Strong, warm arms and more love than your parents knew how to give you.

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lifetrip, milemarkers, and passengers brought home

Somewhere along the stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Corvallis, Oregon, there’s a sign marking the 45th Parallel. I crossed that line dozens of times during the two years I lived in Corvallis. It was of no true consequence to me; there’s no reason I would ever need to orient myself with that invisible band that wraps around the Earth.

And yet.

A couple weeks ago, I made that familiar drive for the first time in almost ten years. I knew when to start looking for the sign, and I’ll admit I was proud of myself for not missing it.

This marker situates me not geographically, but within my own lifemap. It’s weighted down with a world of associations. Travels in Oregon are travels through my own writing landscape. Were I to alter the signage I pass on my trip between here and there, travelers would learn that Corvallis is the birthplace of story and character. This is where June and Binky Chastian were conceived. This is where Virgil Beadenbaugh founded his church, where Joe decided to go on without Mattie, where Miss Proserpine was seen.

My characters sat with me along that stretch of freeway in those years. They kept me awake on darkened drives, the volume of their voices drowning out whatever was on the radio. They spoke to me, and begged me to remember to pen what they were telling me. Sometimes their voices were so loud, and filled with such urgency, that I had to pull over and jot down what they’d said. Rest stops became spaces for release. When the words fell on the page, the voices quieted—at least for a few miles.

The miles passed quickly, as they do when you have someone riding along with you. On this most recent trip, I drove alone. No voices. Just a head full of memories. The way autumn sets into to the valley. The way geese glide overhead in familiar form. The way the farms lay fallow. The feeling of getting closer to one home and further from another. Adjusting. Succumbing.

I thought of how I almost lost my characters. How story faded and craft became unimportant. I thought of what kept me in Corvallis in spite of having lost my life. I thought of those who held me up, of nights of drinking and music screaming in my ears. The way the leaves had changed and fallen and I’d missed it all.

I drove past the new and the familiar and into a town that surprisingly felt like home. And, for the two days I was there, I celebrated at a reunion of voices, a gathering of characters who kindly met me in their hometown. Their cadence wrapped around me, warm as the arms of old friends, and when it was time, they piled in the car and, just like old times, kept me company for the journey home, across invisible lines that wrap around an earth I am still a part of.

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the best never

I have dozens of journals, and only a few of them are full of words on every page. Most have twenty or so pages filled with angry or anxious ink that spans from one edge of the page to the other. Fevered scrawls about stories or relationships. Struggles with darkness. The pure and simple beauty that life can be.

And then nothing but a sea of blank. Since I date the journals, the pages remain empty.

When I was at Powell’s a couple weeks ago I bought a stack of my favorite journals—Molskine lined cahier notebooks. I like them for their non-pretentious aesthetic, their cardboard covers, the way they stay open to the right page, the way I can carry thoughts from edge of page to gutter. They’re nondescript, and so there is no pressure to write any more than words. Purely and organically.

Yesterday I was blocked. It wasn’t that words wouldn’t come; it was that I had nothing worth penning. So I looked up prompts and found one writer’s suggestion to make a list of things I’d never do. Rather than trying to crank out a 50,000 word novel or blog every day, I’m filling a notebook with nevers. This is my November project.

Tonight, I wrote only this:

You will never know life without love; your friends are a testament to who and how you are. And though they are few, their love, their ability to see you is the most powerful force there is. It is what keeps you alive.

Writing takes me to a beautiful place. It can be trance-inducing, especially when I am working on a project that requires a lot of time or a maximum word count. Tonight all I needed was to write a simple truth. The rest of the page remains empty, and I plan on leaving it that way.

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with these hands

I’ve always had a slight tremor in my hands, and I’ve always been self-conscious of it. When I was in college my aunt insisted I have my thyroid levels checked because “hands aren’t supposed to shake that much, honey.” But the thing is, for whatever reason, mine are. My hands are shaking hands.

The tremor affects my voice from time to time too. When I’m excited or nervous, or sometimes for no reason at all, my voice breaks or trembles. My voice is a shaking voice.

There’s a name for what I have: essential benign tremor. I liked the name until I found out that my tremor is an essential tremor because doctors and researchers have essentially agreed that they don’t know what causes any of this. (I’m not making this up.)

These shaking hands and this trembling voice don’t bother me too much. The hand tremor is limiting, sure. I’ll never be able to thread a needle in record time, and eating soup in restaurants is not in my best interest. And I’ll admit my frustrations: I can’t do the fine detail work on certain things that I wish I could. But that’s alright. I’m okay focusing on things that don’t require exquisite fine motor skills.

Lately, I’ve been going out more. Being social, meeting new people. In some of these situations, I have the luxury to send a quick message ahead of time, “hey, this is a little awkward, and kind of embarrassing, but I wanted to tell you that I have a tremor. It’s no big deal, but some people see it and think I’m a nervous wreck when I’m not.” Those who get the awkward message before a date, well, they can do what they want with that information. I send it as a courtesy. I send it with the assumption that they will notice and assume something is wrong. I send it because I want them to pay attention to me, not my shaking hands.

Most say nothing.

So far, in fact, only one person has acknowledged my message. Rather than talking about why my hands shake, we talked about why people feel a need to announce their differences. We talked about the reasons and ways in which we explain our tics or tremors. And the more we talked about it, the more I realized that my shaking, my trembling, my spilled soup: these are my things. They should be used as a barometer of nothing—not of how I feel about your presence or my performance. They are not indicators of nervousness or fear or anxiety. They are not indicators of calm or distress. They’re simply indicators of my own-ness.

If I could walk into a room of strangers, carrying only myself, all of my Self, I would bring this tremor and tremble. I would bring shaking hands out of pockets and make my voice carry loudly so everyone could hear me—even if it cracks and breaks.

And, truly, this is what I do when I teach. I move into a room, introduce myself, and launch into a discussion on something I know quite a bit about. I speak clearly and assuredly. My voice breaks and my hands tremble and I go on.

I bring myself into a room, without having sent a message, without having felt a need to tell anyone about the ways my hands move or my voice sounds. I come to do the thing I do best: teach others how to communicate, how to use words clearly and effectively, how to use their voices without fear or hesitation or self-censorship.

I’m nixing the courtesy message next time. I’m going to bring myself into the room just as if I were teaching—no warning, no preparation: just my tics, my trembles, and me.

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you can take what’s left

I’ve been going to estate sales a lot lately. Mostly, I’m looking to expand my tool collection and you can find some pretty good tools for cheap at estate sales. On occasion, I find something else—stereo speakers, antiques, odds and ends that I’ll use in future projects. Lately, though, I’ve been going for more selfish reasons. Estate sales are like walking through a photo album or a diary. You get a sense of who a person was by seeing what tangible items they’ve left behind.

I’ve happened upon sales that were organized by people who are paid to come in to a person’s house, go through all of their belongings, lay them out neatly, appraise and price each item left in the house. The company works with (or for) the family who’s suffered a loss and is ready to let go of their relative’s belongings. A lifetime gets liquidated over the course of a weekend. Strangers come in and rifle through boxes of jewelry, closets filled with clothes, furniture, tools, knick-knacks, kitchen ware. Everything a home has. At the last sale I went to, the kitchen sink and toilet had been placed in the yard and marked with price tags.

It disgusts and intrigues me.

I’ve learned not to go into the bathrooms or the master bedrooms. That’s where the end of life resides. Walkers, bedside commodes, medical equipment—the last things in the house to be used or touched. The bed a person might have died in. It’s all too sad. And it feels like an invasion of privacy. I imagine the suffering the person might have gone through in that room. I imagine how the family might have gathered around the bed. I imagine the person being carried out of that room, away from the last four walls they ever saw.

I tell myself stories as I walk through the houses of strangers I’ll never ever encounter. I look for signs of children, grandchildren. In these rooms family dinners and Christmas trees. Visitors walked through the front door into a house once filled with love. There was a day the owners moved in. They picked out furniture and replaced it over time. They received crystal and as was an anniversary gift. It’s all so very idyllic, this house—this life—that strangers are now wandering through.

I’ve been to hoarders’ houses and considered what happened in their lives that made them start hoarding. Here was the sight of mental illness, abandonment, addiction. Behind boxes of old albums or collectables, the walls drip with sadness.

There are sales where I can put aside all my imaginings and get bits of truth, usually from the person’s relatives who are running the show. I’ve felt honored to hear these stories, to learn about the people who once lived here. Objects become memories, and the people selling them allow me a glimpse into their past, or into their relationship with the now deceased. And they seem happy, almost eager, to share.

These sales are sites of lives once lived, and when I have the opportunity to talk to someone about the person who lived in the house, the object I’m buying becomes more valuable. I surround myself with stories in every way I can, and knowing that the book on the shelf next to me once belonged to someone who cared very deeply for that author makes it even more special.

Objects are important to me. I infuse meaning and memory into much of what I own. I surround myself with life and love and intellect. Bringing home something from a sale, finding a place for it in my house, is like bringing home a souvenir from another life.

All this leaves me wondering what I will leave behind. I look around and consider how much of this stuff I’ll have when I die. Of all I have, what could hold meaning or value for someone else? What could be passed on, brought into another home, whether purchased as a good deal, or as a memento of a visit? What would someone want as a reminder of that time they were welcomed into my home, allowed to walk around and touch all that I owned, to take their pick of the objects that mattered to me?