We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re critiquing each other’s work. So came the second full day of the retreat, enshrouded in mist once again and with a chilly breeze that made me glad I’d chosen a sweater vest for the morning. Thank goodness I discovered how to command hot water out of my shower, because a second event of freezing liquid was just not going to work for me. I woke up at 6:30 and went through my new French press coffee routine, then groomed myself.
I’d read two more stories last night and done my best to provide guidance without dissection. I tucked a small notebook into my pocket so that I could jot down the authors and titles of recommended reading (I’d missed two or three references on Monday). I chatted with people in the dining hall over steaming bowls of creamed wheat and not-so-fresh squeezed orange juice. One of my colleagues was dog-tired and held her head in her hands. And before I knew it, she was crying.
I’ve been in this place of sudden compassion before, and it has always involved a decision between sitting quietly so as to let them have their emotions, or filling up the space partway to offer a hinge they can swing from if they want to. So I told a very short story to express empathy in an indirect way, and she thanked me and then got up. Sometimes I wonder if spending so many decades divorced from my feelings hasn’t made me more able to connect to people now, because I refuse to pretend humans are strictly rational. I’m making up for lost processing time.
Soon enough I wandered away from the cafeteria, sitting outside at a cold plastic table with pen in hand, making more notes on a piece from a fellow fiction writer. I have a bit of quiet time most weekday mornings because my office doesn’t get busy until the mid-afternoon, but it’s not the same kind of work. Of course. One is responding to emails and one is attempting to relax enough to get words streaming through my fingers. I’ve been feeling a little conflicted—I have so few opportunities to talk to other writers in person, but I have precious little writing time. So I’ve been tackling each in blocks. Just reading has been fantastic; I need to forge more reading moments in my regular existence, and I’m thrilled to be collecting a list of recommendations from such well read individuals.
I went to a discussion on writing transgender characters after I’d spent enough time at the table. As happens in such presentations, we quickly descended into the labyrinth of inadequate language to describe gender identity’s categories. Less commonplace, however, was the commitment of the people in the room to move past the snarls, so we fought until we came out the other side, mostly. LGBT is nothing if not a contested coalition space.
Dinner was uneventful—food on this campus is bland and forgettable. I found myself in another conversation about literature, energized again by the glut of thoughts from my co-collaborators. And then it was time to watch United in Anger, a documentary about the early days of ACT UP in New York City. Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman collected thousands of hours of footage from the early protests against the FDA, the NYC mayor’s office, Social Security and St. Patrick’s Cathedral (I’m looking at you, Cardinal O’Connor). It made me remember my time in ACT UP Syracuse, just after coming out at 20, making friends with the upstate Radical Faeries, who took me in like a foster child, and who I mourned as many of them wasted away and then died. I listened to the quiet question and answer after the film finished, appreciating the sad reflection and gripping my fists that we could someday build another successful movement for civil rights.
I dragged myself up to my room, finishing my reading and zoning out until I was asleep. I woke up this morning with the bedsheets in a knot. As a fellow writer here posted online, “Each night, I appreciate fitted sheets more.” Hear, hear.