27 years ago today, I came out of the closet. I was 15. I have written many times about my coming out experience so this year I thought about a different approach. If you haven't read my coming out experience, you can do so here.
27 years ago, I never thought I would be legally married to a man. I never thought I would live in a country where my rights are protected by law. I never thought LGBT+ would be as visible as it is today.
I came out at a time where many gay bars still had blacked out windows.
I have watched our community in that time unite for a March on Washington, fight for marriage equality and human rights around the globe.
I have seen the cracks emerge in our community that threaten us from within: racism, misogyny, trans-phobia, complacency and its own impossible beauty and youth standards.
I once thought that being gay was just one aspect of me, that it didn't matter in the grand scheme of who I am and to an extent that is a true, I don't think I have ever been known just as "gay John."
27 years has taught me that so much of who I am is because I am a gay man. My experience and my sexuality are intrinsically intertwined. My own legal and immigration hurdles have been based on my being a gay man. If I were a straight man, my life would be different, very different.
27 years has taught me how important it is to be counted.
The world today is going backwards and those of us who lived and loved in the pre-marriage equality days understand exactly what this means.
Brunei has introduced death by stoning for homosexuality. Let that sink in. A nation has decided as a whole to actively murder homosexuals or suspected homosexuals.
Chechnya has created concentration and torture camps. Its own leader is imploring parents to kill their own children if they suspect them of being gay.
Malaysia is denying LGBT+ persons even exist..
Brazil elected a President who is instituting reforms to turn the clock back on LGBT and women's' rights. It's own President was elected on a platform that included him admitting he would rather have a dead son than a gay one.
The Trump administration is appointing judges at a pace quicker than the piling indictments; to ensure that evangelical and right wing ideology spreads like a cancer through the judicial system.
The chaos of Brexit has put into doubt what LGBT+ protections the UK would retain in a post EU world. Take for example the protests in Birmingham over LGBT+ inclusive education. Although, well done to Parliament for passing the motion to include it nationwide in England and Wales. Yet, inequalities reigns in Northern Ireland whilst Scotland continues to put the rest of the country to shame with its progressive agenda. A reminder that even in the UK, our equality and rights can change with simply stepping across a border. It is a microcosm of the world we live in.
Scour the news and you will find more and more stories of increasing violence against Trans persons. Homophobic attacks on LGBT+ persons are on the rise throughout the world.
It's a fucking grim picture and it makes me angry.
That said, it is a reminder of why being visible is so important.
It may not feel safe at times. At 42, I shouldn't be worried about passing a group of people and wondering if they are going to scream "Fag" at me or worse. Yet, that is the world I came out in, and that world never went away. I locked myself in a bubble for many years convinced that that world was relegated to the past. It's a good thing I never forgot how to fight.
I stand up today at 42 and I celebrate my Coming Out because I know it will help someone else feel less alone. I know that part of Coming Out is adding to the rich tapestry that is the LGBT+ community. I know that all our stories are woven into the history of oppression and stigma that forged the LGBT+ Civil Rights Movement. I know that that history guides us forward as our struggle for equality continues.
I know that change can only come from standing up and being counted!
I think 2018 for me started in 1998. It was the year that changed my life forever. I was then in Eugene, Oregon in my last year of college. Right now, I am in a coffee shop in Soho, London; a city that was home for eleven years. Today I live on the edge of livery stables in Cornwall, a long way from the street I grew up on in The Bronx, and the many streets I would call “home” during the last twenty years.
My mother died in the early part of 1998 and with her so did my sense of "home."Her death also brought up unresolved/ repressed feelings I had about my dad’s death. He died of HIV in 1986. I started to mourn them both at the same time and it consumed me. My little sister relocated to Florida with my older sister and her husband. The relationship between me and my older sister deteriorated. She would not live to see the end of 1999 adding to an already dark period in our lives. 1998 began a period of wandering both physically and mentally that led me down some nice places and not so nice places, I met some friendly faces and some not so friendly faces. I showed kindness at times and other times contempt.
I graduated from the University of Oregon on time with the help of a close knit group of friends who I am forever indebted to, and some mandatory grief counselling. It was my mother’s wish for me to graduate from college. The least I could do was make sure I did that, even if she wasn’t physically there to see it.
I travelled to Europe for the first time, a continent that would later become home (unbeknownst to me at the time). I technically met my husband David for the first time in London although it would be just under two years later before we would speak properly and get together. That would happen in New York though, not London. In that time between our first meeting and eventual coupling, I would break up with my then long term boyfriend, although we had both checked out of that relationship some time before we called it quits. I would start another relationship in which a friendship that still lasts today was born from, though not without its own twists and turns.
It would be the last time I would physically see many of my university friends for no other reason that life took us all in other directions. It is one of the reasons that I find it difficult to give up social media. Though sadly, some of those I will never see again because they are no longer with us. Their candle extinguished from this world too soon but their light still shining in my memory.
I would also start writing my first novel which would get rejected and I would then spend eight years not writing because I felt that rejection so deep in my soul that it was not the words that were rejected but me. Something that it would take me years to come to terms with and that I am glad I did because without confronting that demon, I wouldn't be writing this today.
I started my first job in publishing with a desire to learn the business because that would make me a better writer. Feel free to laugh at that.
Fast forward twenty years to 2018.
It has been a year of incredible personal loss and medical emergencies in our family amidst the backdrop of a country in chaos and a world on the brink of disaster. Again, I found myself questioning the necessity of life taken too soon and what the fucking point of it is. One thing that helped me though was honouring my father’s memory by creating a fund in his name to aid the Terrence Higgins Trust. A fund which we can build on that will help them promote HIV education, awareness and advocacy. Removing the stigma of HIV is a cause very dear to my heart. I honoured my mother by choosing to raise funds for The Albert Kennedy Trust for my birthday and ending the fundraiser on her birthday. It was my way of saying thank you for accepting me when I came out at 15, for not kicking me out of the house and for protecting me. I am grateful for that as I know so many others haven’t been so fortunate and that is why the work the The Albert Kennedy Trust does is so vital. In terms of the other losses, they are too raw to go into further detail right now. Maybe 2019?
I found myself bed ridden for weeks with a flu which would leave me physically weak for months. Friendships faltered and with it a new sense of understanding what my own needs were from friendship and also what I was able to give and no longer give. A similar thing happened in 1998. The death of my mother made me go from “life of the party” to something darker hidden behind a facade of “everything is fine.”
I threw myself into a self publishing contest whilst in a period of grief and mourning and unleashed Lu's Outing: a novella onto the world. With it came appreciation, a fan base and a bit of money. Lu's Outing was a baptism of fire into the world of self publishing and promotion. It made me fall back on experience gained in my publishing days. I repressed many of those days and with it experience, because I was spent emotionally and physically when I left publishing. I wasn't just spent, I was demoralised. By reopening that door, I found myself realising how much I learned, what I could put to use and what I still needed to learn. I channelled my negative emotions into a positive venture. I think that is called growth.
Lu's Outing also threw my writing plan into chaos. The reception of it was humbling and I not only realised I still had more to say but that those characters still had more adventures to go on. I am nearly finished with the first draft of the second book and have enough material for a third. It meant putting my other projects on hold like my collection of short stories Tangled, which spawned Lu’s Outing. Sometimes that is what life throws at you though. Twenty years ago before my mother died, I had a temporary visa to go to Canada after graduation. My life would be very different now if I had gone. What is that saying about God and making a plan? What I have to remember though with my other projects is that they will have more life in them when I return to them. Time is a writer’s greatest tool when it comes to editing in my opinion.
In just over a week, David and I will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. The anniversary is of our wedding in New York, the city we got together in. New York legalised same sex marriage before the UK. It marked a new path for us after a difficult period for us and some time apart. Boy, life is different from the chaos that was my life in 1998.
I have spent the last few days walking around London. It’s something I love to do more and more with each visit because I no longer live in a city and I am a born and bred urbanite. I love taking in the sounds, the sights and life around me. I have walked down streets and seen the ghosts of my former self, yet they don't haunt me as they once did. They are reminders of how far I have travelled. I have caught up with friends who have seen me through my worst and now at my best, or at least as the person I am now.
The city has changed and grown but so have I. I had to smile when my iPhone played Saint Etienne's London Belongs to Me. I was walking through Leicester Square; a name I couldn't pronounce in 1998 and one I only knew from another Saint Etienne song, He's on the Phone. I remember when I thought that London did belong to me and I belonged to it. But if I am honest, we never belonged to one another but did become a part of one another. London lives within me as does all the places I have lived in the last twenty years.
It took twenty years for the boy I was to find another home and it was only when I learned it wasn't that home wasn’t a place. Home is where my husband and my girls are, and although they have been in Cornwall the last few days whilst I have been here in London, they have been with me as they always are.
I wrote this piece a few years ago when I turned 40. The inspiration came from the few photographs I have of my father, John Daniel Lugo, Sr. On this World AIDS Day 2018, I remember him and the millions who have died from this illness that does not discriminate
All my life I have been told we look alike. That I am the spitting image of you. That we were one and the same. When I was three I had the same wispy dark blonde hair that you had at that age. I saw it in a photo grandma had of you on the sideboard in her dining room. In the photo, your eyes were wide and exploratory. It looked as if you were seeing beyond the camera, the future perhaps.
When I was eight I saw a photo of you at the same age and it stuck with me. Your eyes were different now. They had a sense of a fate already accepted. Auntie Patty told me that when you were seven, you had a dream you would die before your time. After that, something changed in you. Your eyes were dark pools of knowledge that perfectly complimented your now brown hair. My hair colour changed too. My eyes were different now too. They had been since you looked into them as the ambulance pulled away. It was good bye not see you later.
When I was thirteen I saw a photo of you. Grandpa told me we were the same ages in that one as he ruffled my hair in that way that made me tense up. I could see the similarities in our eyes. You had long eyelashes that probably made your sisters jealous. All the girls at school were jealous of mine so I could relate. Your Romanesque nose seemed smaller than mine but I could see what Grandpa meant. You smiled more than I did.
When I was eighteen just before graduation, Mom walked in and looked at me in a way she hadn't before. She leaned against the door frame and said “It's like seeing a ghost. You look more like him every day." I smiled because I didn't know if that was a good thing or not. I had seen a photo of you at 18 and you wore your hair like you were Carlos Santana. My hair was frosted and combed to the side. I couldn't see past that.
When I was twenty three I looked at your wedding photo as I unpacked them from a box. You were the same age as me then. In the corner I noticed my stroller for the first time. I remember feeling guilty that my parents had waited to give me a name. I saw your choices as my burden. You were smiling from ear to ear as if that moment was the summit of your happiness. I knew then that I was born out of love and that conventions mattered very little to you. I knew then that sometimes it was okay to put the milk in before the cereal.
When I was twenty eight I framed a photo of you and me side by side both the same age, twenty eight. I wanted to see if it was still true what they said. Our eyes were similar. Both of us with dark pools of experience looking back at the camera. Your smile still outshone mine but the way our cheeks lifted was almost identical. My skin colour only slightly darker than yours, easily explained by a sun tan. Your hair was slightly longer than mine and you wore a bandanna on your forehead for some reason. My hair was short and manageable. Our similarities were more important than our differences.
On my thirty third birthday, Auntie Patty was at my surprise birthday party. She took one look at me and put her hands on her face. "You look so much like him!" She smiled. I smiled back. I had learned to smile when people commented on how similar we both looked. You were handsome and loved. This meant I was both those things too, right? But there are no photos of you at thirty three. How could I still look like you?
I'm older than you now, nearly forty. My skin is smooth. My eyes are dark with introspection. When I smile my youth is a trick of the light. The crow’s feet and worn hands always give away my real age. The photo of you at three now hangs on the wall in my office at home. All my friends ask if that was me as a child. I used to wonder what you were looking at in that picture. Perhaps you knew then that one day I would be mistaken for you.
This year, I set up a fund in his name for the Terence Higgins Trust. It is open year round for donations and will go to ensure that we continue to fight for a cure and eradicate the ignorance and stigma attached to this disease.
In case I haven't been obvious enough and you haven't heard, I entered the Amazon Storyteller UK 2018 contest with my novella Lu's Outing. So far in a contest with over 10,000 entries, the feedback has been fantastic and I am humbled by the support. As of this morning, it is currently ranked #157 based on average reviews. I am in awe of that.
I love that people are reading a work of mine that struggled to find a “traditional” home. Novella's are near impossible to sell and get representation for in the industry particularly as an “unknown.” This contest provided me with the opportunity to share what I believe is a great story. It was a pleasure to write, and from the reviews, a pleasure to read.
I have only ever felt this strongly about another piece I wrote which took me 20 years to find a home for. “When Night Falls” is a short story that I was determined to have published. I used to joke that if I didn’t find a home for it, I would have to build one for it. It was written to be read which may sound odd to many people, but there is writing that you are not always sure you want to share. You take a chance. Lu's Outing, I knew from the moment I wrote the first sentence was meant to find an audience. The characters exist in other stories I have written and I have started the process of writing another instalment that will have more adventures and insights in to the lives of the characters of Lu’s Outing.
I won't lie though, I was afraid because the platform that presented itself was a self publishing one. I worried about the opinions of my peers, and my friends. The behind the back sneers, the looks of "awww bless his little heart."I was worried about my own bias. I’m a writer, we have the neurosis, anxiety and doubt as an almost default function in our makeup. If you could think of a put down, we’ve already thought of twice as many. I had to push all that to one side and trust in the work. Remind myself of why I wrote it. How I felt writing it. Remember the smile it left on my face when I finished it and the feeling of being on the right track.
I also thought about the people in my life. I am blessed to be surrounded by creative types in all fields. Some have formal/ professional representation and some don't, yet they don't get the sneers that writers do for pursuing the same avenues. If an unsigned band goes into the studio and records an EP or album and plays live gigs, we buy the CD's or downloads. We tell our friends about them. We support them. When an artist paints a picture and sells them out of their home, through a website or a stall in a market, people buy them, they support them. When a performer puts on a show, we go, we support them, and we tell our friends. Yet, if a writer self publishes...tumbleweeds.
So first, thank you to all of those who have supported me thus far in this competition. Your supportive comments and reviews are everything. Those who have reached out and sent me messages have blessed me with a feeling that makes every moment of this competition worthwhile. If you haven’t read it or reviewed it yet the contest ends 31st August 2018 so there is time and you will have my infinite appreciation in addition to a cracking read.
For anyone in doubt as to the process of self publishing, it is time consuming. Hard is not even the word to describe it. I have had a baptism of fire with this competition and it has given me a tremendous amount of respect for those who pursue the self publishing route. This is not for the fainthearted and I feel ashamed for ever doubting how rewarding it can feel and how much respect we should be giving to those who pursue this avenue. I have taken each copy sold and each review written as a personal victory. More on my thoughts about the self publishing route to come after the contest ends.
If you think finding time to write is hard, try doing it when you are balancing promoting your book at all levels in this season which is notoriously difficult for writers to get any work done in. It has taught me new ways of balancing my writing time and cherishing it with a renewed sense of purpose.
A writer friend said to me that even if you don’t win, you have won. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment and I couldn’t do it without the support of all of you.
Lu’s Outing is available on Amazon Worldwide in both kindle and paperback. Click here for various marketplaces.
Completing hubby’s birthday was the 10th anniversary of CK Sunday’s at Halfway. We have only followed CK for less than two years when we began taking regular trips back up to London. In fact, it was one boozy Sunday that we wandered into Halfway to experience CK for the first time. It was CK Sunday that made us both fall in love again with the London scene. They also rekindled our love of all things drag.
In that time we have been so honoured with the welcome we get when we see them; and having a shout out for having travelled up from Cornwall made our day. This though is the essence of their show on a Sunday at Halfway: community.
I challenge you to go see CK on a Sunday and not leave feeling fabulous or at least with a smile on your face. Are they the perfect way to round off the weekend or start the week? The answer is both.
CK are formed of Crystal D’Canter and Kelly Mild who bring you proper sing along magic from musical theatre numbers to Erasure, Bananarama and Kim Wilde. Signature tunes include “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors, “Oom Pah Pah” from Oliver, “I Know Him So Well” from Chess. After seeing CK, you will never listen to “I Want You Back” by Bananarama without hearing Kelly Mild’s addition of “Back! Back! Back!” Nor will you sing along to “I Drove All Night” without adding Crystal D’Canter’s hand on wheel motion.
Their extravaganza was not just a celebration of them but a way to give back to their fans. There were awards and prizes to the hardworking staff at Halfway and to those fans who are there week after week getting their dose of CK. There was a special guest PA by Miss Alex Vileda Anstey, currently performing in the West End production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
I’m an urban boy at heart. Third generation Native New Yorker you don’t meet many of us anymore. I have to admit that the longer we live in the country side, I run the risk of being labelled a provincial queer over urban. Okay that will probably never really happen as you can take the boy out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the boy. What it has done though is made me aware of how much I took the scene for granted when we lived in a city. In Cornwall, we don’t have the same safe spaces that cities have, simple as that. We don’t have scenes to which you can escape to let your hair down, not without travelling hours to Plymouth. None of that matters though at CK Sunday’s because there is a feeling of inclusion, No matter how serious the world is out there, downstairs, you have you are welcomed, you belong and that is something that the world needs more of.
Thank you Crystal and Kelly for a truly incredible anniversary show and for giving us laughter, music, sing –a-longs but most importantly, for providing that space where it doesn’t matter how old you are or who you are, you are always welcomed. We love you girls!
Following on that weekend in London, on Saturday we celebrated hubby’s pre-birthday at Halfway to Heaven by taking two friends to see Rose Garden, a drag performer who has a special place in our hearts from the time we lived in London. I have written about Rose before but what made this show special was that our friend Cass, was a drag virgin and Rose did not disappoint in making her feel part of the show. The thing about drag is not only do the performers need to have a thick skin but so does the audience. If you haven’t seen Rose and are of a delicate demeanour, you’d probably walk out in disgust. Having grown up in Belfast during the 70’s, her jokes can take aim at everything from “The Troubles” to the current state of identification and classification within the LGBTQ community. She did both that Saturday. Rose and I disagreed on the term queer which I prefer but she does not: still after calling me out on it, we all agreed she was a BITCH and it was cemented in unison J. If you head down to her show, you’ll get that joke.
Splicing her own unique brand of jokes with old musical and tv classics from the theme to Laverne and Shirley to Cabaret and Rocky Horror, there is a comfort in knowing that there are performers who are still carrying the tradition of drag as I first encountered it over 25 years ago. Performers, who have paid their dues and have weathered the changing tides of the scene. It is too easy now for many to think that drag is all Drag Race instant celebrity when truth is for a long time, it existed behind blacked out windows where for a few hours you could forget the realities of life out there and laugh, drink and smile in a safe space. Where the success of the show depended on the connection with the audience. Rose keeps that magic alive.
To introduce friends to that experience on a Saturday at Halfway was extra special on a weekend celebrating hubby’s birthday. It was also our first experience seeing Morag McDuff who did manage to get our friend Cass on the stage. She did have the drag baptismal of fire that day. Here is another reason to head down to Halfway on a Saturday in case you aren’t convinced yet. Each time we have ventured down on a Saturday, we are introduced to new acts and this is how fan bases are traditionally created, at a grassroots level.
I was going to post about seeing Ripley’s Like A Sturgeon: Trump Tops at the RVT on March 9th upon my return from London but illness got in the way. Still, there is never a time limit on praise. In that time I was ill, Facbook also brought up a memory from a year ago that made me realise I don’t just want to write about, I need to write about and if you haven’t yet seen Ripley perform, you need to get your arse down to wherever she is on stage next. In fact, the next instalment of Like A Sturgeon: Fake News will be on Friday June 15, 2018 at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Get yourself a ticket here.
The memory that Facebook brought up was a year ago, hubby and I were downstairs at Halfway to Heaven watching Rose Garden when she brought Ripley on stage as her guest. You can read my original posting on that here. I was personally touched when she tweeted it as a reminder to remain defiant in her art. Not everyone needs to get what she does, but she needs to do what she does and if you ask me, in this day and age if you don’t get what she is doing, then you haven’t been paying attention. Wake up people, this is not a drill.
In that time, she has gone from strength to strength with her third instalment of Like A Sturgeon: Top Trumps at the RVT. Those who were in attendance will agree that she set the bar even higher than ever. As she told me, the show was three months in production and the reaction of the audience I hope made her realise how much it was all worth it. We had a friend visiting from New York who was floored by her performance and said to us that he wished performers in the US were doing what she does.
Returning characters like Nicola Sturgeon were present as was Melania, who this time was not the only Trump in attendance. Ripley brought out Donald, Ivanka, and even Byron. With the help of her drag daughter Elle, we were treated to Byron Trump (click here for video), Tiffany Trump and that sneaky Putin. If you go to Ripley’s Facebook page (click here) and see the videos, you will never think of Tatu’s “All the Things She Said” in the same light again.
As with previous shows, Like A Sturgeon was set to Ripley’s own pre-recorded voice, giving us insight into the political villains of the current time. Usually Theresa May and most recently Arlene Foster have been her choice of attack but this time, it was all Trump. Simultaneously scary and hilarious. The portrayals were like the Trump themselves, you are not really sure if what you are seeing is believable or a joke. Their sinister monologues were spliced with sound bites from the likes of Rhianna, Kate Bush, and so many more. A special mention to Bjork as Melania informs us of her own morning ritual in Hyperballad. Not just content with giving us this, the video in the background set to Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” showed “Donald Trump” putting on make-up and women’s clothes was the stuff of YouTube viral dreams. If it were ever released to the public, I am sure that is where it would end up. Trump’s level of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism, etc were given the treatment that would have caused his twitter calloused fingers to whittle down to the bone.
Swooping in at the very end, to give us that stern sensibility that has earned her the post of First Minister of Scotland and of course Mother of Dragons was Nicola Sturgeon. Performing her signature tune of Like A Sturgeon and giving us her wee insight into the state of the world, plus her obligatory dig at Theresa May. Ripley’s Sturgeon leaves us thinking that perhaps she may be the only sane political leader on this wee island of ours.
I still remember as the plane touched down at LaGuardia that Pixie's “Dig for Fire” was playing through my headphones. The flight attendant had asked me to remove them but I put them back on as she walked down the aisle. I doubted and still doubt till this day that my Panasonic CD Player would interfere with the plane’s navigation system. The batteries were held in by tape because I had lost the cover some time back. The music and contrasting vocals of Frank Black and Kim Deal on that track still reminds me of that day. I can still see myself sat by the window of that plane as it landed on that clear day , 19th February 1998.
My mother died on the evening of February 18, 1998.
I was in my senior year of college at University of Oregon in Eugene. She died in The Bronx. I was on the morning flight back East. I know I changed planes somewhere but couldn’t tell you where. I have no recollection of leaving Eugene, of the journey itself but I do remember landing in New York.
Much of that week I can still only recall in moments and even then, it’s as if I see them as if I am watching a film or TV show or something. Even with grief counselling and other forms of therapy, I somehow remain detached from the events of that week.
I remember that before I got home on Feb 18th and was told to phone back East as my mother had been taken to hospital that it was a beautiful day for February. I cycled home from work as it wasn’t raining that day. Eugene winters can be very wet and miserable so that day I just remember feeling at peace and enjoying the light. When the weather was nice in Eugene, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I often thought those hills around the town were like a protective barrier; keeping us sheltered from the world outside though sometimes it felt like it was keeping us prisoner. That day I felt safe.
Things I do remember are the friends who were with me in my apartment in the Eugene Manor as I waited for update after update. I remember speaking to my best friend in New York and asking her to visit my mother in the hospital. She talked her way in by pretending to be her niece. I remember my best friend and roommate held me as I collapsed when the phone call came that she had died.
I remember crying in Eugene. I don't remember crying in New York until I had a moment alone in the funeral home with my mother's body. Even then, I am assuming I did cry. I must have. It looked nothing like her in the coffin which made the whole moment surreal until I looked at her hands. Her hands bore the marks of the life she lived. She was never afraid to get her hands dirty or pop open the hood of a car and see what was wrong with it. They were hardened but had an olive tinge that made them look soft. She was always using hand lotion to make them feel as soft as possible. I inherited that from her. In my house, I am never far from moisturiser. It was then in that closed room that I realised how important it is to look at hands. Hands tell the truth, they never lie.
That week I was "home," I remember arguing with my older sister Elisa about the funeral preparations, whether it should be in English or Spanish. Elisa was a mess. She had been shopping for her wedding dress when my mother was rushed to the hospital. My sister lived in Miami and like me, would never see our mother alive again. What’s that saying about God and making a plan?
I remember trying and failing to be there for my little sister Kasandra. She was only 13. I wish I had been able to show more to her because I was 9 when my own father died. Now, as adults we have an incredible bond but back then we were just kids. Kids who had just lost their mother.
I remember we couldn’t locate my brother Joe. We hadn’t seen him for a few years.
I remember the neighbourhood took up a collection to be able to give my mother a proper burial because our family couldn't afford it. People talk about poverty levels and yet where I grew up, there were no statistics that covered how we lived. We lived by helping one another. It wasn’t charity. It was how we did things.
Friends and family I hadn't seen for years came to pay their respects. I welcomed friends and was rude to my mother's family who never looked for her in life. I remember asking them "why look for her now?" I’ll never be able to take that back.
Father Quinn at Our Lady of Mercy presided over the church service but only after we agreed to confession in order for us to be able to take Communion. "It would look bad" if the family didn't take communion." I remember picturing my mother rolling her eyes and trying not to laugh in his office. She used to joke that if she stepped into a church that the stain glass would explode. I also remembered how important it was to her for her body to be taken to Mass before being buried. She feared wandering for eternity like she believed my father did because he wasn’t taken to Mass. It’s why we light a candle for him each year, so he can find his way. I remember at the time thinking that perhaps her light would finally illuminate his path and that even if he never made it to Heaven, if they found each other then at least they would be in paradise.
She was buried in New Jersey which is the resting ground of many New Yorkers both in life and death. My dad is also buried there. At the cemetery, I forgot the words to The Lord's Prayer which was embarrassing and shameful as "head of the family." That was a role that was thrust upon me because someone had to” keep it together.” Elisa accused me of "being cold" and not caring because I wasn't crying. It’s hard to organise things with tears in your eyes.
I remember United Airlines lost my luggage on the flight home. I didn't get it back for two days. I remember looking at pictures of my mother when I got back home and for the first time seeing how beautiful she was. I had always joked she was a handsome woman but in reality, she was a beautiful woman hardened by the life she was born into and the life she led. Ronnie Spector once said that The Ronette’s look was inspired by the Puerto Rican girls in Spanish Harlem at the time. That was my mother. She was a teenager fresh off the plane from Puerto Rico. She had lacquered hair piled high in a bun on top of her head, black eyeliner in the corners of her eyes and wore skirts that “good girls” in Puerto Rico were not allowed to wear. She was on a different island now and Mirta Luz became just Mirta or “Murrta” as non-Spanish speakers would pronounce it.
I remember flipping through those photographs while listening to music by powerful singers to get over the lump in my throat and open the floodgates. Singers like Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Andrea Boccelli and Felipe Rodriguez, my mother’s favourite Bolero singer.
Most of all, I remember that when I went back to Eugene, life moved along without much input from me.
A few weeks ago, I was driving home from St Ives. I took the coastal road which I love doing when I have things on my mind. It’s a windy bit of road through a beautiful and desolate landscape with the Atlantic on one side. It is dotted with crumbling mining stacks and houses few and far between. Possibly the largest place on that road between St Ives and Pendeen is Zennor. On a sunny day, I put the top down, my sunglasses on and I feel free. I can easily get up to 60 mph on those roads in my little Mazda if there is no one else on it. She drives like she was made for them. I was listening to a mix CD I had made who knows how many years ago and “Dig for Fire” came on.
I had to pull over to the side of the road and cry. I could have skipped the song but I didn’t. I was back on that plane, touching down at LaGuardia. Images of the funeral flashed like bulbs. I remembered that I was wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses that day.
I cried because my sister Elisa would probably still be alive if our mother had lived. I cried because as of now she has missed 20 years of our lives. She never got to meet all her grandchildren. She never got to see the amazing woman and mother my sister Kasandra has become. She never got to say goodbye to my brother Joe or see the man he has become. She never got to see us now as a family. She never got to meet my husband or see my life as it is now.
I cried because 20 years on, I still miss her and that is okay. I don’t ever want to not miss her.
It probably seems a little odd writing an end of year piece this early in December but there are two reasons for this. First, I tend to consider the start of my year as my birthday rather than the traditional calendar year. My birthday is when I set my goals for the next year. I write them down in a carefully chosen birthday card to open the following year. This year as I read my goals, the one that eluded me was publication, but more on that in a moment. As my birthday was three weeks ago, this is a belated wrap up. The second is, from tonight I am away for about 10 days on a well needed holiday with hubby in Gran Canaria but not before a stop in London for my annual consultant appointments. Then there is Christmas so chances are I won't have time to update my Soundboard till just before New Years.
Explanations aside, let's begin.
I struggled this year ego wise. Every single piece of writing I sent out was rejected. It just wasn't my year. In 2016, I had some fantastic results and I rode that high. 2017 well, I wouldn't say that the rejections broke me, but they bruised my ego. This of course is not necessarily a bad thing when I think about it.
As I looked back at those rejections though, there was something that stood out from previous years' rejections. I actually got feedback 9 out of 10 times and encouragements to resubmit. It is too easy to get caught up on the stigma of rejection and not see that they were not so much a full rejection as a "hey, you're on the right track but perhaps try this." You can write till the end of days and not know where you are going wrong because you haven't had any feedback. That can be crushing when you are finally ready to send out your work and the only feedback you receive is a "Thank you for submitting but..." This year I did stop and take notice of what my peers were saying. That is growth and growth should never be underestimated or taken for granted.
I guess what I am saying is that sometimes the rejection is not so much a rejection but a guiding light towards a new finish line.
The other noticeable difference in 2017 is how my "recovery" time from being rejected was shorter. In previous years, a rejection would mean at least a few days of "what is wrong with me?" Reaching for chocolate or entering my silent mode and wanting to throw something at anyone who dared to say something encouraging when I was in the depths of my own despair. This year, I time boxed my rejection, I still reached for chocolate (91% cocoa, just a small square though because that's healthier) but I made sure I got back in my chair and continued writing. In fact, in spite of nearly 4 months of not being able to write regularly because of both hubby and my health issues; I actually produced more words this year than I have done in previous years. This is also means I have more editing than I have ever been faced with but you can't move forward without the words. It's part of the process and as I look back on 2017, I realise that the process has been something that I have felt each step of the way.
As I mentioned earlier, 2017 health wise was not a brilliant one. Hubby broke his wrist and needed ear surgery for an ongoing condition which meant he needed to be taken care of. For an independent man like him, it wasn't easy and it really brought home how much we work as a team.
I was faced with a serious question of mortality that I had to answer, resulting in lifestyle changes that have gotten easier with each day. I quit smoking over 6 months ago. I smoked for 25 years just to put that into perspective. This has been interesting writing wise in terms of re-reading some of my own work because cigarettes feature in my writing quite a bit and I won't deny that the cravings still rise up when I read those passages but rather than change them, I decided to confront them. Also, I had to start eating better and taking exercise. Rather than join a gym, I bought a treadmill and an exercise bike. I have found that the treadmill has been a great way to work out problems I encounter when writing or just problem solving in general. Honestly, it is the single best piece of exercise equipment ever invented in my opinion. As hard as the initial changes were, I have embraced them now and okay I admit it, I see and feel the benefits.
Too often we focus on the things we haven't done and don't give ourselves props for the things we have done. I like to think of it as the "invisible cage" in our minds. Each thing we haven't done becomes a bar surrounding the space where our accomplishments live. Believe me 2017 was getting me down with the list of things I didn't do which is why I needed to look at things from a different perspective. The journey rather than the destination.
I had hoped to have my collection of short stories published by now. Instead, though, the time I took from not looking at them has proven invaluable to the editing process and I am enjoying reacquainting myself with the characters and the stories again. I also want to finish so I can move forward with other projects. I'm ready to bring this baby home.
I have a real soft spot for the spy genre. This year I decided to try my hand at a spy story which I entered in Ploughshare's Short Story Contest. Though I did not win, I did push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer. That story has now developed into an idea I am pursuing which bring together my interest in Latin American politics, espionage and Post-Colonial studies.
I wrote a draft of a ghost story which lead me down a research trail that brings in my local surroundings here in Cornwall and love of the supernatural. Once again, I stepped out of my comfort zone and it felt great. That story I am planning on entering into the Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition end of January 2018. Fingers crossed.
I started to engage more as a writer on this blog and created my own social media page which is something I have wanted to do for ages but was nervous about because it is so easy to get lost in social media. Thing is, it has given me a whole new appreciation of how positive social media can be.
Continuing with social media, I have started to pull back from reading the news comments on articles. This is that space where compassion goes to die. It was really having a negative effect on my mental state and by taking a step away, I have been able to keep my head above water current events wise. This process is a work in progress though and I think it will always be. I'm a writer, I will always want to know what is behind door number 2. I guess I just need to remember to open it with caution.
I explored Flash Fiction properly this year. Even submitting some as well. This is a format I have struggled with and still find hard to get my head around in terms of writing, but I faced my fear, put my big boy pants on and did it. Ladies and Gentlemen, once again, I think this is called growth.
So I didn't get published in 2017, this doesn't mean my year was wasted. In fact, it was incredibly productive even with all the hurdles in my path.
Watch out 2018, I'm geared up!
Recently, I've been tired. Washed out to be precise. It's not just a physical exhaustion from looking after hubby as he recovers from multiple surgeries (nicely by the way, thank you for asking). Taking on all of the day to day running of the house plus caring makes me realise how much our relationship is dependent on both of us doing our part. That's actually a wonderful thing to realise and I appreciate it more and more now that he is on the mend.
That said, that only a part of the exhaustion.
There is also a collective mental exhaustion from news headlines and the barrage of comments from a population that lacks compassion as much as they lack basic spelling and grammar. That again, is only part of the feeling of the exhaustion that has followed me around. After all, the headlines are the headlines, how one chooses to deal with them is more important and in my case, that is forcing myself (and failing at times) to not look at the comments section of an article.
On top of those two things in life, there is also my old friend doubt who has returned as I near completion on my collection of short stories entitled Tangled.
A few months ago I was set to get on with the publication of Tangled. This collection has been years in the making and the pursuit of it as a self published book has been part of the decision making from the onset. It is in part, motivated by the fact that short story collection by newly established writers are notoriously hard to sell to agents and publishers, but also when I returned to writing after a doubt induced hiatus and a complete life change. It was a goal I set myself to ensure that I never forget how important it is to make an opportunity instead of just looking for one (though if any opportunities in the form of agents or publishers are out there, I'm listening. Just saying).
Regular readers will remember that a few months ago, life interceded and so creative pursuits had to be put on hold and with it, the seeds of doubt were sown. Doubt in any person can be debilitating. Doubt in an artist can play at every and any insecurity you have ever had about yourself and your craft. You doubt what you have produced and what you have yet to produce. You even have a absurd thoughts like, the reason the cat is sitting on that draft is because she knows its shit and wants you to know that she knows.
It was during one of my regular "shut the fuck up" moments that I signed up for an online course through One Story. As often when these courses present themselves, not only is the material good to give you the kick in the bum you need but by being in an artistic forum with like minded people, you remember that you are not alone in this process. There are others out there struggling to be heard and wondering if anyone is listening.
A fellow classmate reached out after having read my website including my story "When Night Falls." That story is a reminder of how determined, or stubborn I can be when I put my mind to something. It is a story that continually got rejected but I never gave up on it; 21 years after I first put pen to paper, the kind folks at Litro Magazine #TuesdayTales published it. He had also read an article I wrote about Finding Your Tribe for The Review Review. It seems that reading that article inspired him to reach out to me and a couple of other people for feedback on his story.
To that person, I would like to say a big thank you.
Thank you for reminding me at a time when I was feeling doubtful and vulnerable that what I have written is of importance. Thank you for giving me the kick that I needed to get back to work. Thank you for reminding me that my words speak for themselves and that doubt is a part of this process. That to give in would be to deny yourself and others the connection that art produces.
Through art, we extend a hand into the void and hope that someone will take it. Thank you for that reminder.
Thank you also for sending me your story which is well written, enjoyable and will find its publication home because I can tell you believe in your words; and now I do too. Belief in your words is crucial to seeking a home for your writing. Belief in your words is essential to your writing.
Thank you for that reminder.
John Lugo-Trebble considers this more of a space to engage personal reflections and memories with connections to music and film.