Friday, January 30, 2015

Can Igloos Be Built with Curbside Snow?

by Jean Roberta

(Shudder.) In the depth of winter, in the middle of Canada, the topic of homelessness is chilling. There aren’t many visibly homeless people in the small city where I live, but is this because enough of them go to local shelters when the temperature is life-threatening, or is it because some of them actually die, and are then removed from public sight? Both these guesses are probably accurate.

My spouse, who works with people who have physical and/or mental disabilities, is occasionally disturbed to see a name she recognizes in the obituaries in the local newspaper. These are the people who fall through the cracks between helping agencies because they don’t clearly meet the criteria of any of them, and who have no relatives willing to help them. In some cases, they escape from “group homes” that feel too much like prisons.

Any able-bodied person can become “disabled” through a sudden catastrophe or the gradual passage of time. Our physical and mental abilities tend to leak away, slowly but surely.

Re the problem of desperate people without material resources, the term “conservative” seems paradoxical here in Canada. We have a tradition of collective action, especially in the agricultural Midwest, where the earliest white settlers (and before them, the aboriginal hunters who passed through) needed to co-operate because there wasn’t really a choice. Rugged individualism simply wouldn’t have worked here: to be alone and stranded was to die. So, technically, a conservative political position might support the institutions that are supposed to ensure that no one gets left out in the cold.

However, that’s not how it works. “Conservative” (as in the ruling Conservative Party, the Tories or the blues) and small-c “conservative” both seem to mean: very similar to the farthest right wing of the Republican Party (the elephant in the room, you might say) to the south of us. So the Conservatives have been defunding and dismantling public institutions since they were voted into office. This includes the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (parallel to the BBC in Britain), which has a history of exposing such trends and trying to conserve Canadian culture.

Our multi-party system (though there are really only three major parties) allows for a party with a minority of public support to get voted in, and dig in their heels. So we have a Conservative Prime Minister already running attack ads against the other two party leaders to defend himself from being ousted in the 2015 election. And meanwhile, he keeps defending slash-and-burn policies re social services, education and the arts, and tax cuts for the rich, on grounds that what doesn’t work very well in the U.S. could work brilliantly in a country where having no shelter can literally mean having no life.

Who likes the Conservatives? The corporate rich and some delusional peasants who identify with them, that's who. Apparently, they think the urban homeless can build their own igloos. I wish.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Too Many Homes or No Homes at All

by Annabeth Leong

The sounds and scents I recognize as home come from a small wooden house in the Ko'olau mountains on the island of Oahu. Chickens which crow not just at sunrise, but seemingly constantly. Clean laundry drying on the line. Pork cooking on the kitchen stove and the smells of beer and marijuana in the garage. The texture of the outdoor sink where I bathed until I was too big to fit inside. The scrape of our enormous dog's chain dragging over concrete. My mother's desperate apologies and denials. My father's soft-spoken mumble, suddenly punctuated by elemental shouting.

Maybe the punch in the gut feeling I get when I think of that place is best described as exile. I can't sleep away from it. I am never, even decades later, quite comfortable or relaxed. I am never sure if I belong. There is the awkward smile I paste on when people, delighted to discover I'm from Hawaii, ask how often I get back. How do I explain to strangers why I can't and won't return to paradise?


The women's shelter carpet smells weird. Bobby McFerrin videos play on the television imploring us not to worry but to be happy. My heart overflows with love for him. He is sweet and adorable, an uncle I wish I had.

Other people's food smells weirder than the carpet. Someone else's mother has made Portugese Bean Soup, and I watch with horror as one of the kids declares he loves the skin and slurps up a big piece like it's a noodle. It dangles over his chin. I know I'm supposed to be polite, but I don't know how.

There is a constant battle for the minds and souls of the children in this place. One kid spends a day with his dad and returns with presents, crowing about the cool things they did together. I know his mother can hear him, and her pain and betrayal pierce me. At the same time, I see the uncertainty in his eyes, the way he glances back and forth between us as if waiting for somebody to tell him which thoughts are right.

Then there's the day the social workers shoo us all into our rooms, make us all hide under our beds. My father is here. He's not supposed to know where this place is, but of course my father is here. He can do anything. As always, I feel the conflict between my hero worship and my fear. I know he's come to take us home. My mother won't go today, but I know she'll go eventually.


At some point, I learn that the way to stop longing for home is to forget that home exists. Escaped from the islands, exiled on the mainland, my skin fades and I change the way I say my name. I know now how to run and keep running.

For a while I run with my mother from city to city. The first escape was not enough. After my father, there are other terrifying men. There is an inexhaustible supply of terrifying men.

One day, I strap on roller blades and skate away from my mother's house. I am 14 and have found a terrifying man of my own. I live with him in a roach-infested house with no heat and plywood over the gaping holes in the kitchen floor. This is not homelessness, I suppose, because there are still walls and a roof. But it is definitely not the uncoiling of the chest that comes when stepping across the threshold of a home. It is not safety or sanctuary. It is not a thing a person can permanently survive.


I am in love with a man who sleeps on a floor that belongs to a terrifying man. He isn't himself terrifying. This is a major improvement for me. Soon, we are sleeping on that floor together, and I discover innocence.

We are both screwed up and wounded, but we have the kind of nothing that feels like a lot. I become friends with other people who have drifted. I hear about the punk house, where there's a guy who puts up all kinds of young people who don't have anywhere else to sleep. That sounds great, like a real public service, until I also hear about the large jar he keeps in his room. His life goal is to fill it with semen. He works on it for hours every day.

I work at a restaurant and so does my boyfriend. We ride our bicycles around town all night long when we don't feel like going back to the crazy house where we sleep on the floor. I don't care where we lie down because he is my home. This is one of the happiest times of my life.


Acquisition becomes admirable to me after a long time of having very little, of spending my life wandering and lost. Wanting a boat and a house with additions seems downright wholesome after picking fleas off my arms and suffering unrelenting back pain from sleeping on floors.

I want a romantic story of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, but that's not what happens when we get a little more. The romance of normalcy is not for us. When we break up, he reminds me that he is the one who held me in his arms while I growled and cried like a crazy person. I spend the next decade trying to prove I am not a crazy person.


There are so many schemes I've learned over the years. I know how to use an old-style coffee maker to fry eggs and cook hot dogs (there's a hot plate hidden in there, and you used to be able to find that kind of coffee maker all the time at yard sales for cheap). I know how to shop for a week at the grocery store with less than twenty dollars, and I know how to fill a backpack with cans of tuna and oranges and get on a bus and head for…somewhere. I know how to go back to college and speak about reforming oneself in ways that make everyone think I'm a nice young woman who is getting her act together. I know how to dress like nothing bad ever happened to me. I know where to go to sell plasma and how to sign up to do drug trials and cognitive science experiments for pay, and I know how to make money online, and that it is never very much at all. I know how to apply for a job and make it clear that they can pay you under the table, that you will do anything, that you will take whatever they give you and you won't complain. I know that it's possible to save an incredible amount of money if you have the right sort of landlord and you just stop paying the rent and wait to get evicted. I know how much I have to give my body to science to get enough money to buy a real bed, one that will finally make the back pain go away.


At some point I start to stammer when people ask where I'm from. Do they want an origin story? My current address? The place I feel most connected to? At some point, exile feels like homelessness. I am fundamentally unmoored. I know about possibilities that not everyone knows. My best friend and most of his friends live within a mile of each other. They have left, but they have always returned. I know there is nothing that's really holding me anywhere in particular.


But maybe I don't know that after all. Back in the wooden house in the islands after twenty years away, opening the refrigerator and finding food my father cooked before he died and discovering that it still smells good, I recognize the sounds and shapes of the space around me. I sleep in his old bed and discover that it's squalid, patchy and fallen in. Bugs crawl over the quilt while I sleep and buzz through the light fixture. They are coming into the house from small holes at the back of the closet floor. But none of that matters because I really sleep. Something that's been tight in my chest for decades uncoils.

I might have wanted to declare myself homeless, but home can't be denied because I'm in it. I fantasize wildly about returning here now that it is safe at last. This is the land that knows my blood. This is the place where people look like me, where there are people who can tell stories about what I was like as a child, where I can go to breakfast and everything available on the menu is something I want to eat. This is where people's voices sound right, where the music is familiar, where I move like I belong.

But I can't stay, even though the bakery down the street is hiring. There is a partner in Rhode Island, waiting for my return. There are the ways I only half remember the things I'm supposed to know, and on top of that the ways no one expects me to remember anything at all. There is a life I don't want to share with my relatives, who are the kind to go through one's mail. I imagine receiving my copies of Best Bondage Erotica and being asked what the hell book is that. "You're not a slut," my aunt comments approvingly, but I know that if she knew the truth she would think that I am.

I get on the plane to fly back to the mainland. I am leaving a home. I am choosing a home. I'm not sure if I have too many homes or no homes at all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


by Daddy X


One day, back in the 70s, I was sitting at a bar in downtown San Francisco. I off-handedly mentioned that I’d noticed a lot more whackos on the street lately. Somebody said, “Reagan closed all the mental hospitals.” Ronnie boy was then governor of California. While the statement was not completely true, not everything one hears in a bar is. Point being that the state released a huge percentage of compromised patients.

Next door was the entrance to the Stanford, a transient hotel that actually took up most of the upper floors on that side of the street. I also worked on that block. A side alley under the hotel windows was constantly strewn with little balloon carcasses, the way heroin came packaged back then. Theory being that a dealer could keep the stash in his mouth and swallow it if the police showed up.  

The hotel was never much to talk about. It always attracted the forgotten layers of society: late-stage alcoholics, drug addicts, dealers, con artists, pimps and prostitutes. Those of marginal IQ and tenuous mental state found a home there. Gullible travelers from the east coast wound up pissed-off after responding to some tabloid ad for the prestigious Stanford Hotel in “dynamic downtown SF”. Wondering, even before they’d left home, why it was so much cheaper than the nearby Ritz-Carlton. As time went on, the street became much worse very quickly. Reagan had “saved” the state money, but now we as a society had to deal with the attendant issues on the street.

This worked so well that the country voted him president several years later, ushering in our current era of anger, hatred, fear and general disgust with what America has become.

I usually put 1980 as the beginning of the groundswell of anti-American thought.

During the Great Depression, we, as a country, learned a lot. We learned that wild speculation was dangerous in a capitalist system. Even the 19th century philosopher Tocqueville, who loved capitalism, understood and elaborated on the need for strict, efficient regulation to avoid disaster. We learned that lesson the hard way back in the thirties and it was an important one. The ensuing Roosevelt years produced effective economic regulatory protections to avoid future drastic downturns. Those of us lucky enough to come of age in succeeding years didn’t have to worry about an economic depression ever happening again.

Destructive movements, accelerating since 1980, have forged a systemic effort to chip away at those quite efficient rules and regs:

First, they deregulated the Savings and Loan organizations, allowing investment in previously illegal instruments. We all know what happened. Lots of money was squandered and lost. That proved so promising (not) they soon deregulated banks.

Chip, chip, chip the regs away. Greed in the moment—worry about tomorrow some other time—is now the current thrust of the economic system. No one can afford to gamble a life’s savings. Those who can afford to risk big bucks can and do make money, while we struggle to earn a quarter of a percent on our savings accounts. Banks don’t really want to do the business they were designed for,  offering all citizens a safe, conservative vehicle for their savings while making a steady, conservative profit for shareholders. Hand-in hand. Instead, they take our money and invest wildly,  (hit some, miss some!) endangering everyone, returning nothing, recouping their losses with low interest rates for us. Retirees, who thought they’d prepared responsibly for their later years, expecting at least three percent return on their savings, are now receiving a mere 1/12 of what they’d counted on.

And I’m talking about people with money to save. What happens when people can’t afford to save? We don’t always plan efficiently. We make bad investments. What if someone’s sick, out of work or on the pavement? According to politicians like Ron Paul … well, fuck ‘em. Again, the common citizen will have to deal with the collateral damage.

For every billionaire created during this time of avarice and greed—for everyone who advances from the middle to upper economic levels—there are hundreds who have become much poorer. Some, who lived paycheck to paycheck before, are now in our shelters and on the street. Again: works for those making money.

Of course we’ve always had indigent people in our country, but “homeless” didn’t become a household word until Reagan became president. He used the same basic advisory team as he had while governor of California. I fully understand that Reagan didn’t create this tragedy. He didn’t have the brains. If one person could ever be considered for that distinction, it would be Grover fucking Norquist. With his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”. (If you don’t know what the pledge was/is, look Norquist up). Those same and rapidly devolving like-minded team of advisors, advocating the same policies (on steroids) a generation later, were proactive in leading a trusting country to near disaster in 2008.

We hear from radicals, calling themselves conservative, that redistribution of wealth is not to be tolerated. But one of the biggest transfers of wealth … upward … occurred in 2008, with nary a peep but with a squeal: When the banks thought they just might NOT be ‘too big to fail’. That year produced the greatest redistribution of wealth ever, as ordinary homeowners lost their biggest investment while the government stampeded to bail out the very banks that had driven us into the mire.

Reagan is famous for his absurd ‘trickle down’ theory. Money doesn’t trickle down. It percolates up. Poor people spend what money they have. Money, placed at the bottom, ends up at the top. In the process, funds flow upward through mechanic shops, hairdressing parlors, supermarkets, bus and other public services, creating jobs across the board and the ability for everyone to share the wealth. For instance, how many bills do you pay each month to those who have less than you? What percentage of your monthly expenditures goes to those with more money than you? The very rich don’t spend all they have like the rest of us; they don't put money back into the system at anywhere near the rate at which they accumulate it, so it just keeps making more for them.

As I said before, it wasn’t all Reagan’s fault. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t have devised this Machiavellian absurdity that’s endangering American viability. He was a dupe, easily lead by his handlers.

Just a note or two to illustrate what this means:

According to a recent Huffington Post article, since 2008, there’s been a 65% increase in homeless children in New York City to more than 77, 000. In Queens alone the total has increased by 90%. This number applies only to kids attending public schools, so the actual number is likely much higher.

The Koch brothers have pledged $889,000,000 to the 2016 “conservative” Presidential election.

And to end on a non-sequitor:

Reagan (the prick) died the same week as Ray Charles. In doing so, he robbed attention from, and respect for, a national treasure who had overcome unthinkable obstacles to become a world-renowned figure.  Ray Charles provided joy and hope to everyone he or his music came in contact with. Where’s the justice?


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Not all those who wander are lost"

What is the significance of a home?
image from Wikimedia
The word conjures image of warmth, family and safety in the mind of a healthy person who was brought up in a happy home.

For others...the word "home" is not so happy.

Thus, voluntary homelessness.

One source estimates that two million kids run away from home annually in
image from Wikimedia
the US. They're mostly girls, average age 16.

Not hard to guess the reason those girls leave.

The loss of a home is disorienting, frightening, Home is at the core of us.

A few years ago, a friend of mine went through a bad patch. He had a relationship that was, on his side, deep and true, one he thought would last forever. But when it ended, he had lost his home. His distress was so great that he landed in the hospital.

In 2006, I lost my marriage and my home. My ex made it impossible to stay, telling me, "You fucking bitch...I hope you eat shit and die."


I left the guest room where I'd been living for three months and found refuge in a family member's home. A couple months later I packed a few bags and hit the road. 

Planning to never return, I flew to London. As the plane descended and the green fields of England came into view, I cried. I thought I had found my home; England has always felt that way to me.

my flat in Thailand
However, life takes many twists and turns. My path during the following six months took me not only to England, but to Italy and southeast Asia, where I sought to heal, and then to plan.

During that time, I found solace. I distinctly remember awakening one December morning in Thailand and looking forward to my day. For the first time in mamy months, life seemed preferable to the alternative.

Home can be anywhere. 
Under a freeway bridge. 
In a tiny cold-water flat in Chiang Mai. 
Even back in California.

Home really is where the heart is, or rather, where we find peace. And if peace is not in the heart, we are homeless forever.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Home Is…Where the Heart Is? Where You Hang Your Hat? Or What You’ve Lost.

Sacchi Green

Home can be where you live, or where you came from; a roof over your head, or, most important in the legal sense, a mailing address. Home can be the land that refugees leave behind, or the refuge, if any, they find in a new land. Home can be where you want to be, or a place you can’t stand to go back to. Home can be where you feel you fit in best, like a career soldier who thinks of his army as home, or an ex-soldier who has been through so much that he can’t handle being anywhere but a self-built camp in the woods. In the seventies there were Vietnam veterans camping in the wilderness around the Quabbin Reservoir near where I live, and even now, at least in summer, there are woodlots around the edges of towns and along rivers where some ex-soldiers hang out, on the indistinct border between homelessness and choice. The presence of a large VA hospital nearby may or may not be a draw to this area.

Homelessness has been a human problem for what seems like forever, or at least since our ancestors had any firm concept of “home.” Since the earliest recorded times families and by extension communities were traditionally assumed to be responsible for all their members, and to be cast out required a major breach of law or tradition. Sometimes, even then, there must have been individuals who would rather risk death alone than stay with families who grudged them the support society expected.

When I think about what home means, and homelessness, I’m old- fashioned enough to think of Robert Frost’s poem,  “The Death of the Hired Man,” even though its most well-known line has become a bit of a cliché. An old farm worker returns to the place he’d worked longest and found the most kindness. He’d left that farm one haying time, when he was needed most, lured by an illusion of higher wages. Mary, the farm wife, takes him in when he returns, saying he’s come home to die, but her husband Warren is reluctant. The old man is no kin of theirs, and had abandoned them when they most needed him. He says,

“’Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’”

Mary counters,

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Homelessness has many facets, many layers, many causes. Having no place to go where they have to take you in is one cause, and so, sometimes, is feeling that being taken in only because they “have to” would be worse than being homeless. Silas, the hired hand, had family he wouldn’t go to. Mary says,

“’Silas is what he is—we wouldn’t mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good
As anyone. Worthless though he is,
He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.’”

It’s a stretch to make a comparison, I know, but these days kids kicked out of their homes for being gay, or running away because of abuse, are sometimes homeless because the price of staying home is too high. Denying who they are in order not to “shame” their families, or putting up with abuse, is more than they can bear. With older people who seem to have chosen homelessness even when families might take them in, the reasons are harder to generalize, and mental illness or addiction are often factors, but the line between mental illness and a drive to be independent of the restrictions of family and a settled home is a hard one to draw.

The clearest cause of homelessness is, of course, poverty, and the more economic inequality there is in a society the more poverty and homelessness we see—or try not to see. Now and then, in some places, constructive efforts are made to combat homelessness; Salt Lake City has built groups of very small houses for the homeless and finds that the expense is less than providing emergency services for those without homes. Too many cities, though, are concerned more with pushing the homeless out of sight than helping them.

What can be done? More opportunities for employment would help many, but some would still be left behind, without marketable skills, or too old to be attractive to employers who could use their skills. (Warning: A bit of a riff here about age, homelessness, and women. Women, even those without children, are more likely than men to go to shelters, partly because they feel even less safe than men out on their own at night, for good reason. And women are more likely than men to turn to sex work for economic support—there’s certainly a larger market for them—but even that resource depends on youth and attractiveness. Older “bag ladies” might well be raped for entertainment, but they wouldn’t get paid for sex.)

Back to what to do about homelessness. From my perspective, electing politicians who favor job production and infrastructure repair and a “social contract” that includes responsibility for the poor and afflicted over ever-higher corporate profits would be a positive step. On a local level, possibly more successful in non-urban or merely semi-urban areas, towns can get together with groups of individuals to provide help and shelter. Where I live there are active groups in several towns called “survival centers” that offer food and clothing and other kinds of help funded by contributions, and almost but-not-quite-enough shelters run by church and non-church groups. There are also meal-providers like soup kitchens (a major one here is called Manna) and outfits like our local Food Bank that organizes contributions from local chain grocery stores and runs a farm operation as well, supplying food to the soup kitchens and survival centers. We as individuals can support these efforts, even if it doesn’t seem like enough. (Another aside about women; I’ve heard that the greatest lack in contributions of goods to these organizations is tampons and menstrual pads. Desperately poor women can’t afford them, they don’t like to talk about them, and it doesn’t occur to folks to donate them.)

We can give what we can afford to those who ask for help on the streets, even when we can’t be sure what they’ll use it for. (When I owned a store I used to give gloves and scarves in cold weather to those begging in front of my business, and money now and then, but, I admit, sometimes as a bribe to get them to move to another location for while. A couple of the guys really distressed some of my employees by commenting loudly on the girls’ admittedly quite noticeable physical attributes. I also admit with a certain feeling of guilt that I refused to give to a regular street person who smoked cigarettes continually. Who am I to judge what someone needs most? But in this case I did know that she wasn’t exactly homeless.)

I wish I had better answers. I wish someone had better answers.  Giving the homeless small, economical homes as Salt Lake City does seems like one good idea, if it could only catch on, but some would still be left behind. There would still be those, usually men, possibly addicts or PTSD victims, listed in police reports with addresses like “the streets of Northampton” or “the streets of Amherst.” Or like the lesbian couple I knew several years ago who lived through the summer in a tent and came to my store to charge their cell phones. One was clearly disabled and got disability checks, which, as far as I could tell, was what they both lived on, that and what the other, more dominant one, stole. They almost made it into the town’s limited public housing—I put in a good word for them with the chairman of the housing commission—but the deal was blown when the dominant one was caught stealing, and they lit out for Florida. I was glad to hear from the disabled one just this year on Facebook; she has good public housing now in Rhode island, while the other one will be in prison in Florida for a long, long time. I’m not judging the latter—I haven’t walked in her shoes, as they say, and as far as I know she only stole small items like incense sticks from me—but I’m glad to know that at least neither of them will be on the streets right now as a major blizzard bears down on New England.

Which brings me to the point where I don’t stop wondering what we can do about homelessness, but I do turn to battening down the home I’m so lucky to have in preparation for the possibility of being stuck without power or drivable roads for several days in very cold weather. And I count my blessings.


Friday, January 23, 2015


Spencer Dryden


It's cold here in the frozen tundra, too cold to live on the streets, so homelessness disappears into the shadows for six months out of the year.

I don't have a good little story to post with a homeless theme to demonstrate my sensitivity. If anything, I am insensitive to the subject, but aren't we all, really. As a good liberal, my knee jerk reaction is to demand that we take some money from the one percenters and give it to the zero percenters. I'm very generous with other people's money. I jump up higher on the soap box over the issue of homeless veterans. It seems that if we have trillions to spend on wars without end, we could carve out a few billion to better serve those who served us. Hell it's only a couple of B-2 bombers were talking about. Neither argument is working and neither are our safety nets. Maybe that's why we become insensitive, it's too frightening to think about...there but for the grace of God...

I've been following and contributing over at The Good Man Project for the last few months. One of the themes there is "the disposability of men". Who is more disposable than the homeless? The face of homelessness is a single male, they make up around 75% of the long term homeless. Why more men? Complications abound as you search for answers. Some say it's because women end up with the children and there are more programs supporting women and children than there are for single, childless men.  A second explanation is that men are less likely to ask for help. Blame the victim. That'll work. But when you factor in the mental illness and substance abuse, the argument is clouded. People with mental illness and addictions often can't ask for anything aside from another hit. 

Inevitably, the conversation turns to sex and the fur starts flying. Do women avoid homelessness through sex trade?  Men's rights advocates square off against feminists, the issue quickly becomes more heat than light and the humanity of the problem disappears. Recently I saw a very touching article that addressed the humanity. Rather than speak about things I don't know, here's a link. to a woman's story about her homeless father. Maybe if we could reconnect with the humanity of the victims, we'd be more sensitive and proactive.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Maybe I Shouldn't...

by Giselle Renarde

Sometimes I have thoughts I probably shouldn't share.

Sometimes I have thoughts I keep to myself because other people would probably think I was a terrible human being if I fessed up.

Here's one:

A few years ago, I started thinking about homelessness among LGBT youths.  Statistics are pretty staggering, though don't ask me to cite them because I've got a mind like a sieve.  But you've probably seen these stats about the percentage of homeless youths who identify are queer, genderqueer, questioning, trans, gay, bi, lesbian.  It's a big chunk.

Then I started thinking about who, here in Toronto, provides shelter and assistance to young people who've been kicked out or left their homes. There are a lot of shelters in this city, but the go-to one that everyone knows about is a Catholic organization.

Now we come to the part I thought maybe I shouldn't say out loud, for fear of sounding anti-Christian or anti-Catholic or whatever.  I don't want to come off as a total jerkass.  That said, the Catholic church hasn't exactly been friendly to the LGBT population.

So if the biggest youth shelter in my city is a Catholic organization and a huge percentage of homeless youths identify across the LGBTQ spectrum... isn't that problematic?  Is it just me?

Last year I discovered that, no, it's not just me! Other people have these thoughts too! The article I read on this topic wasn't Canadian--wasn't even North American.  It was an article from Australia, voicing EXACTLY the same concerns I had! I am not alone! What's more, this appears to be a global phenomenon.

I wish I'd bookmarked the article I read, but I'm not that organized. I think it appeared on a gay news site, but I could be wrong. The reporter interviewed staff from Catholic shelters to ask whether they truly felt they could provide a safe and supportive environment to LGBT youths. Of course they could. "What a question! We never tell our clients they'll burn in hell for their wrong-headed groin sins! Never!" (<=these are not direct quotes, or even accurate paraphrasings)

And maybe some shelter workers can do that. Don't ask me! Anything's possible!

I have worked in the shelter system, though. As with any job, a big part of how well or poorly you do it depends on who you are as an individual. But, no matter who you are and what you believe, you're working within a framework. If your institution works within a religious framework with a long tradition of gay hate, is it ever really possible to provide responsible care to queer youths?

Here's a solid example, in case you think I'm just picking on the Catholic church because they chased my grandfather's Jehovah's Witness family out of Quebec (no hard feelings, honest! He converted to atheism shortly thereafter, so we're cool):

A bunch of really amazing high school students here in Ontario organized a bake sale at their school. They sold rainbow chip cupcakes and lots of other rainbow-themed goodies, and they raised money for a very deserving charity that serves LGBT youths.  All-round amazing! Good job, students!

But wait... story's not done... because these students attended a Catholic high school... and when the school's principal or a superintendent (can't remember which--sorry) got wind of this, they wouldn't allow the students to donate the money they'd raised to a gay charity. A Catholic board could not support an LGBT charity. Not even when the initiative was coming from inside the school. Not allowed.

I could give you other concrete examples of Ontario's Catholic school boards preventing students from showing support to the LGBT population, even among their own ranks. I could give you examples of boards attempting (with incredible determination) to alter legislation so they could legally prevent students from forming gay-straight alliances in schools (and failing, btw--it helps that our provincial premier is a lesbian). But if I got into the nitty gritty of all these instances, I'd bore you to tears OR make you as angry as I am, and I don't want you to be sad and angry.  You're not here to read about Ontario politics.

But it gives you an idea about working within a framework. Even if you're the most queer-friendly person in the world, is it ever truly possible to honour LGBT individuals from inside a religious organization that dishonours us so frequently and so loudly? 

You tell me.


Giselle Renarde is a queer Canadian, avid volunteer, and contributor to more than 100 short story anthologies. She's written plenty of juicy books, including Anonymous, Nanny State, and Seven Kisses. Her words have been published by Cleis Press, Simon and Schuster, and Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Adonais: A Homeless Story

                 "No more let life divide
                       what death can join together"

                                  From "Adonais"
                                   Percy Shelley

After two years I awoke from my vegetative state. By awake I mean simply that awareness returned, unsought. Thoughts. A disembodied thought, rootless, homeless, without voice, without self, floating on the wind of some ether. Poorly formed. But not innocent either. A mind without flesh, adrift and vagrant is the loneliest thing in the Universe.

I didn't open my eyes. I don’t think. No, I'm sure, because I did not know I had eyes. I did not move. I did not cry. I lay as I was, as I had been for two years and as I would remain after. An inert log. How had they kept me alive? This act of faith, like attending an altar of compassion, with some everlasting memorial flame that must be kept lit? Not letting the vegetable man die because it was unethical, not because he was a feeling creature, but simply because he continued to breathe on his own even though his brain was silent. Why did they keep me alive?

I didn't open my eyes because I did not know I should. And when realization came, I could not. They were open by themselves. Light entered but I did not know light as a fish does not know water. What are eyes? I simply felt myself. My unbound, untethered presence. And then I did not. There was not death just as there is not sleep. There is here. Then there is not here. Then there is here.

There was that point where I began, where I felt, yes, here I am. I kept that feeling grasped tight, did not let go and so brought the curse of existence on myself unbroken for the next year. Like a toy balloon snagging itself in a tree branch and believing it might stay and experience itself as a balloon in this new way in the wind, trying to recapture the feeling of having its string once held in the fist of a child.

With being came not pain, but the realization of inertia. I had a body, yes, fingers and toes, yes. But move I could not. I was a prisoner in my flesh, each limb heavy as coffin-board, with only my thoughts as the boundaries to show myself I existed. The form of my being had lost all fixed boundaries and without boundaries we are lost. First came weight, the weight of bone and blood. Then the light in my eyes, as I said. Then sounds, at first unintelligible, then with the effort of making sense, of trying to understand my tiny, tiny, nut shell of a world.

Did my body love me? Does a spirit hope that there is a kindness to the body it clings to not to simply waste away and abandon it to wander the earth as a ghost? You can't call it dignity. The body knows nothing of dignity and death is a natural act. Natural acts may be filled with swooning pleasure or hellish pain, but never with dignity.

And so I lay in my bed, in a room whose walls I could not view or take in except as some person would come in and turn me over or change my diapers. There's your dignity for you. Why did they keep me alive? Would I have done that for another human being? Turned over on my side, I saw one wall. Turned over on my other side I saw another wall, yet could not blink my eyes to tell anyone that a soul now looked out of them.

Someone came in the room, someone whose voice I should know. I heard the steps, saw the face of another human being above mine, peering down at me, an aging woman who knew me. I knew that she knew me, and knew of me because she said in a soft voice "I wish you would just die."

And she was gone.

Oh - these were the words of a goddess. Words of a revelation. Someone who knew me, the keeper of my flame all this time. And with this face, and these words like a curse born of heart weariness, things came back to me. That was my mother who had just wished me dead.

Within the living tomb of my attended body my thoughts became more and more alive. It had been a disease. So the body was intact. No broken bones, only a body with the lines permanently down. In my room a radio was on a hip-hop station and hours passed in this solitary confinement. I cannot tell you how much I began to hate Beyonce.

I have climbed mountains. I have broken bones. I was not born to be fed from a tube or shit in a diaper. In this state of mind without body I became desperate for death. And when death would not come, oblivion. And when oblivion would not come, desperate to move. To give a sign of life. To move a finger. My eyes. My tongue. Anything. The dignity of owning my flesh. I became obsessed with the thought that if I could move something, anything at all they would know I was alive.

Light and dark passed. Women came and went, outside my vision, always women, their hands on me, yet not filling me with longing, but only to turn me over, to undo the indignity of natural acts of defecation and piss and the occasional bed sore. In the beginning I did not feel their hands only their presence. The very first sign that something was possible was the afternoon I felt a hand touch the skin of my inner thigh as a diaper was removed. I had not felt human touch or any touch but for an instant touch had returned and vanished.

But the mind does not stop. Even when it is entombed, it does not stop. My thoughts were constant. I wanted to silence them, I wanted oblivion, but it was never given to me. Only the monkey yammer of thoughts. And then something happened. Something I should have expected. The next best thing.

I left my body.

Or at least that's how I explain it. I had thought, hoped, death had come to me, as a relief for the keepers of my flame as much as for me, to end the drudgery of my nurses and the grief of my mother. But it was not exactly death.

It began with an electric tingle from the top of my head which grew to my feet and I felt it like a strong bar of heat transfixing my body. I wanted it to be death, easeful death; to mentally position myself to let whatever was happening happen and not get in the way of it, like a man trying to go back to sleep in the middle of the night. The tingling continued and began to morph into serious pain and I prayed that this would be the thing at last breaking my delicate bindings forever.

And then I was a bird.

Of all things. Why a bird?

I was only flying, moving my wings, holding my wings in the wind, my eyes moving constantly, thinking as a bird thinks in the constant rushing fugue of the moment, without past or future, feeling without thinking. Carried on the wind, primitive.

And then I was back in my prison-flesh. The nurse turned me over, pulled down the diaper, check my tubes, washed me.

Washed me. I felt the cold water down there like a revelation. I could feel her hand moving over my thighs, my balls, my ass, washing me down. I wanted to move my tongue. I wanted to weep with shame, gasp out my gratitude and my apology for her having to deal with my nastiness down there which in fact I could clearly smell. But oh - the feeling of cold and wet and movement, the rough rasp of the cloth washing me, the sting of the sores on my ass, oh, these sensations were better than prayer.

I saw my new nurse, the one washing down my ass, for the first time when she leaned over my face and peered into my dead eyes and held an eye dropper over them Some kind of burning water fell into my vision and her face swam under the wet and blur. I wanted to blink, to move my eyes, to give something back. I felt the water run from my eyes and for a moment enjoyed the memory of my tears. When her face swam and blurred and was gone I longed for her face. Felt an agony of longing to see a female face. She moved me onto the flat of my back which made it harder to breath. I stared at the ceiling and examined the familiar constellation of cracks there and waited for her to appear again like an angel and she did not. I felt myself began to drift into pieces of awareness floating in the air like ice.

She left. She turned out the lights. I floated. I floated trying with all my might, with all my mind, to move my tongue. And could not.

I don't know how it was decided, anymore than how it was decided I would previously inhabit a bird, but I flew through the murk. Trees. Branches, the smell of wood smoke, moving, the moon behind clouds, shining, a house, two stories, looming, and then myself approaching. Somehow the house seemed to be shaking like jelly. And then it was me that was shaking.

On the bed. On my back, looking up at the ceiling of a bedroom with my legs out and my arms out and sensations between my legs. Pressure rhythmically pressing down on my belly, whap whap whap, umph umph umph, and then a man, a man is here and I'm looking past his bobbing, bony shoulder, a little bored, at the cracks in a ceiling. My breasts sway, his breath in my face smelling of Doritos, eyes squinched shut with the feverish intensity of his labors, the hair of his belly brushing up against my belly as drops of sweat fall down onto me from his neck. Umph umph umph. His hairy thighs moving slow between mine, yet I don't feel him. Its not my cup of tea, what's happening, but I long to feel something, anything. He trembles, rises up on his hands pressing harder into my groin, arches his back, tenses and sighs. Well, okay, if you must. Above him his ceiling has a crack shaped like the number seven. My room, I remember now, has a cracked shaped like a man with a cane.

And then, with that fatal remembrance, I'm back.

I sleep. I wake. I wake thinking of the man, thinking of the woman. I think of the woman looking up and wishing I were that man trying to hard to pork her. Was it real? Still, I long to move.

Thinking of the man, wishing I could be him, I feel a thick pressure below I can't quite recognize. But it feels nice. Its different to feel something down there.

Lights on, steps, a woman humming. Nurse - oh nurse! Touch me. Touch me, please touch me, see me, please see me. The face appears over me, a new nurse I think. She holds the eye dropper over my eyes, ice cold drops fall, stinging as they hit, burning, wanting to blink them away. Tears running down the sides of my face into my ears.

"Hey there, handsome," she says cheerfully like a waitress in a diner bringing me coffee. "How we feeling this morning - whoa. What's that?"

She touches the pressure. Runs her hand over and I feel her hand, and for the first time, in endless time I feel it. From here in Hell, I feel pleasure.

She leans over, looks into my face, close enough that I feel the breath of her nostrils on my lips. "What's gotten into you this morning, honey?" she says. "Can you hear me?"

I struggle. Oh I struggle. With my soul, like Jacob wrestling with the angel of God, I wrestle with my tongue, my eyes, I can't even tremble. But by God, from Hell's heart - I have a boner.

"Can you hear me?" she says sternly, almost shouting.

I try to move my tongue. I think my eyes move, I don't know.

"I know about you," she said. "I was studying in school a while back about folks like you. Locked In Syndrome. That's what they call it. Syndrome is the medical practitioner's professional term for 'What the Fuck?' Okay? It's anything we don't know."

The bed sags under me, I can feel it. I can feel that. She's leaning her weight on it, getting in close. Her voice close to my ear. "You're alive down there. You know, sometimes a corpse will get a boner from blood gathering? But you're not a corpse. Not yet. What are you? What's going on in there? Can you blink your eyes?"

I try.

I try I try I try.

I'm in Hell. This is Hell. That's the difference between Hell and Purgatory. It's not Hell until you try to fight it. Hell is where you push back.

She's sitting on the bed. I can't see her, but I'm pulled in by her gravity. Shifting my bones. Her hand brushes me down there where I can't see. Gives the pressure a sweet little squeeze.

"Yup," she says.

Her hand touches my cheek. She's thinking.

"Um-hmn," she says.

I think I blinked my eyes. I'm not sure.

"There's someone in there," she says. "You just need a reason to come out. Something to shake you up. Maybe a cold bath?"

She begins undressing me. I sigh with defeat. But the pressure continues. When my last piece of clothing drops on the floor, the undressing sounds continue.

"Let's shake things up a bit," she says. "Give them something to talk about." Her voice is trembling.

The bed creaks. The bed sags. Knee on the left of me. Knee on the right of me. Pinkness above. My eyes are still full of whatever medicine she put on them. I want to see and I can't.

I want to see what's on going on. I want it so bad.

I want it so bad I blink.

She freezes. Holding her breath. Looking down. "Son of a bitch," she whispers.

I can see. I blinked.

She leans over me. She is nude. There is a nude woman hovering over me. Middle aged. Slight wrinkles in the bare decolletage. Her matronly breasts, skinny thing, dangling down, dark nipples to either side of my face.

"Do that again, handsome."

I try. I try to open my mouth. All I want in the whole world is to speak. I try to move my lips, I just can't locate them in space.

"Let's do this," she says. "Let's give you something to look at."

Hands and knees, she crawls up, up and over, knees touching my rib cage, then crossing to each side of my shoulder, positioning herself above me.

An aroma. Salty, sweet and carnal. Shadow covering me like a blanket, her torso over my face.

I want to see. More than life, more than anything, more than existence, I want to see this woman.

Rich pubic hair. The shadow of slender belly drawing out of my vision. Her vagina. Bare. Open. Natural. An act of nature with no dignity, like me, pure and brazenly itself. A woman's pink, glistening vagina is hovering just above my eyes, descending. Lowering. Brushing. The lips brushing my lips. Tasting her. Taste. Lifting a little. Teasing. Taste - please! Give me taste! Give me!

"C'mon, baby," she whispers. "I know you can hear me."

Her vaginal lips touching mine. If I could only. . . If I could . . . Must. . .

My lips part. My tongue reaches out, touches, tastes, this woman.

Oh woman. Oh, what woman is.

I shake. I move. The spell broken by love's most special kiss.

"Thank you," I hear myself say.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Homeless Sweet Home

This had to be the worst job of his career. Stuck here, outside, in the cold and the rain...could it get any worse? He hunkered down, remembering to keep his distance from the other men, scattered around, several yards away. They were so damned territorial...mustn't infringe upon the other guys' space...or the women's. Jeez, they were rougher than the guys sometimes. Only yesterday, some old bitch had backhanded him when he'd stopped to pick up a piece of crap that had fallen out of her cart.

"Thief!" she'd shrieked even though he'd been trying to give it back to her, whatever the hell it was, something soft and slimy, totally gross.

Now here he was, five days in, squatting under one of the bridges that spanned the San Diego River. It had been raining for the last two days, just to add to his misery. God knows, they needed the rain, and a lot more of it. But why now, for chrissakes? He stuck a hand into the pocket of his ragged coat and pulled out the burger he'd begged for outside McDonald's. The two young girls, secretaries from the local financial building most likely, had looked at him with more disgust than pity. One of them had thrust her wrapped sandwich into his hand with a breathy, "Ew", before teetering on too high heels back inside to replace her lost lunch. When this was over he'd have to seek her out and thank her properly for her sweet charity.

As he bit down into the greasy bun he was alerted to the clamor of raised voices from deeper in the dark tunnel. Nothing unusual from the sounds of it. Very few of the homeless he'd encountered were into camaraderie. Typically they were loners, and anyone getting in their way or treading on what they perceived to be their territory would be screamed at or even beaten up, if anyone had the strength to be that aggressive. Even living with the threat of the recent murders didn't seem to make these people band together -- for a safety in numbers kind of thing. His attention was distracted from the ruckus at the sight of a tall, slender figure heading his way. Even in the half light cast by the lamps on the street above them,  he recognized him.

"Are you nuts?" was his greeting.

The man knelt in front of him. "It's been five days...five nights. I have needs, so do you."

"I repeat, are you nuts? Look at me. I'm filthy, I haven't even washed my hands and face for two days, and you're saying we have needs. To do what? And look at you, you're soaked to the skin. You'll get a chill. Go home, Simon."

"Just let me hold you. I am cold, you can warm me up."

"Go home and get warm."

Simon ignored the instruction and pulled him into an embrace. "Just hold me."

He felt the need then, the arousal as he inhaled his lover's clean scent. Their lips met in a long searing kiss. The noise from deeper under the bridge grew louder, a scream rent the humid air.

"What's that?" Simon whispered.

A scraping sound nearby had him lurching to his feet and pushing Simon off to the side. He saw the glint of a knife blade and a shadowy figure lunging at him. He grabbed his assailant's wrist, his police training surging to the fore as they grappled. The man grunted with pain, the knife falling from his almost paralyzed hand.

More shouts and screams, the pounding and splashing of feet and Simon was tugging at his arm. "They're yelling about a flash flood!" They were surrounded by a terrified stampeding crowd of tattered men and women, some still clutching at their few but prized possessions. A wall of water followed them. He joined the stampede, one hand clasping Simon's firmly, the other he used to drag the would be murderer behind him. They reached the river bank in time to witness the frothing water swirl by them carrying tree branches and ragged bundles in its wake.

He rummaged in his coat's deep pockets for his handcuffs and cellphone. Simon stood beside him, shivering, as he cuffed his attacker then called for a squad car.

"Glad you came?" he asked as he and Simon watched the murder suspect being marched away by uniformed officers.

'Yeah." Simon linked their arms. "I get to do a good deed tonight. Take a homeless man home."

Monday, January 19, 2015


For G.T.

Sleet was the worst. He huddled under the awning of the shuttered refreshment kiosk, shivering as a gray veil swallowed the skeleton trees across the lake. It wouldn't take more than ten minutes for sleet to soak through his sweatshirt and the two sweaters he wore underneath. Then the wet clothing would freeze against his skin. The icy slush pooled at the curbs would leak into his battered shoes on his way back. Bally was a top brand, but the miles he had walked in the last six months had worn through the soles. Besides, even the best leather was never any good in winter weather.

He remembered his down ski parka – Columbia! – how toasty warm he had felt as he swooped down the black diamond trails up at Killington. Gone, like so many other things. If he had only realized what was happening, he might have planned a bit, held on to what was really important. It has happened so gradually, though. Plus it had violated all that he had believed and trusted. It had been inconceivable that he would find himself in this situation: jobless, homeless, broke and alone. On Christmas Eve, yet.

He had a Harvard MBA, for God's sake. Who would have thought that his plum product manager position at a top hi-tech, his BMW, his four bedroom colonial, his wife, his kids, his life, could all melt away like snow on a steam-tunnel manhole?

In the distance, the clock in City Hall tower struck three. Two and a half more hours and he could return to the shelter. He clenched his hands inside the canvas work gloves he had found discarded on trash pickup day last week, trying to reduce the surface area. His fingers were already numb. His feet were blocks of ice too. He had to get inside, somewhere. The temperature dropped as dusk approached.

He had two quarters and a dime hidden under his layers of rags, but he had already had his coffee today. He had made it last for two hours, while the Burger King staff glared at his bedraggled form slumped in the corner. Tough. He was a paying customer.

Cloud-colored ice skinned the lake where he used to take his daughter canoeing. Not strong enough yet for skating. He could start walking across. He knew the surface would crack long before he reached the boathouse on the opposite shore. It would be so easy. The lake was deeper than you'd expect.

The ice would freeze over his entry point. They wouldn't find him, not for days or even weeks. No one visited the park in the winter. That's why he came. The cops didn't hassle him here and he didn't have to suffer the looks of pity and disgust he got on the street.

Easy, yes. So tempting. Everything else was so difficult now, a daily struggle to survive. Why should he bother? Who, after all, would care?

He'd thought he was so clever, hiding his affairs, but his wife eventually lost patience. She took the kids out west, leaving him with the huge, empty house and an equally enormous alimony payment. Then came the downsizing—hell, how many “personnel reduction strategies” had he helped to plan? The bottom dropped out of real estate, but the mortgage had to be paid. No one, he discovered, wanted to hire a manager in his fifties, no matter how stellar his credentials.

His sigh hung in a white cloud before him. He had pawned his Rolex early on, but he guessed that about ten minutes had passed since the clock chimes. He closed his eyes, unutterably weary, longing for his cot in the shelter. It was hard to sleep there in the dorm, with the bums raving around him all night, but right now he would have given anything to be able to collapse onto the thin mattress and pull the rough blanket around his ears.

“Good afternoon, sir.”

He started, the youthful voice pulling him from his drowsy stupor.

“Ah—um—good afternoon.” She was a beacon of color in the monochrome landscape, with pink cheeks, copper curls and a long, holly-green coat. A matching green ribbon held her fiery hair away from her face. She was young, certainly no more than twenty, with a freshness that made her seem old-fashioned. That coat reminded him of one his mother used to wear in the fifties, shaped like the letter A with those funny sleeves—raglan sleeves, they were called. He felt irrationally pleased that he could remember. His mother's coat had been a sober brown, though. This woman's garment was so bright it made him blink.

She stepped closer, out of the sleet, joining him under the overhang. “Wintery weather,” she commented, smiling up at him. Her eyes were the same startling hue as her coat. Her lips formed a perfect bow. Even in the chill air, he caught a hint of her scent, cool and fresh like evergreens in snow.

He was suddenly aware of his own funky smell, his ragged clothing and his three days of stubble. He searched the girl's face for the inevitable sympathy or scorn. He found neither. Instead, inexplicably, he recognized desire.

His cock stirred inside his sweatpants. Was it possible? Exhausted and underfed, he hadn't been horny in months.

She took his hand in her own small, bare fingers. “I know someplace warmer. Come with me.”

She drew him along the slippery path that circled the lake. Needles of sleet pricked his cheeks. His sweatshirt grew wetter with each step. In her cashmere coat and patent-leather boots, the woman seemed not to notice the weather.

Another spot of color grew before them. A Japanese-style bridge, rust-red, arched over the narrowest point in the hourglass-shaped lake. The trail crossed the bridge. He had never noticed the stairway leading down the bank. There was a ledge underneath, bordering the water, making a snug private space. He had to crouch down to follow her inside. The bridge swept upward, just over their heads.

“We're out of the wind here,” she told him, her voice like bells. “Let's sit down.” She slipped the coat off her shoulders and spread it over the dry stone.

He couldn't believe his eyes. Under the festive-hued coat, she was naked. Her skin was a creamy peach tone. The buds tipping her sweet, small breasts were a deeper rose. A ginger tangle at the apex of her thighs hid her sex. She looked like an innocent angel. Her smile as she reached for his zipper, though, hinted of lascivious delights.

“Wait—I can't...” His erection thickened by the second as she worked at his jeans but his shame was stronger than his lust. “Please, I haven't had a shower in a week. I smell...”

“I don't care,” she murmured, peeling the denim away from his hips and starting work on the sweatpants underneath. “I like the way you smell.” She gripped his rod. Her flesh was hot against his chilled skin.

“But why...?” His protests grew weaker as she pumped her hand up and down his length. “Who...?”

She stopped him with a peppermint flavored kiss. “Because I want you. Now. I can't wait.” He surrendered, sinking back onto the soft wool, entwined in her arms.

After that, there was nothing but glorious warmth, luscious wetness, tightness coiling in his groin and then expanding into utter relief. I must be dreaming, he thought, as she wrapped her thighs around his waist and drew him deeper. Maybe I'm dying.

He didn't care. She offered him her fire and he accepted her gift. He forgot everything except her satin skin, her cushioned hollows, her scent of fir trees by the ocean. There was no past, no future, only an eternal present.

They drifted together, passion cresting and receding and peaking again, lost in the ancient rhythms of the flesh. Finally, even their bodies melted away. All that remained was joy.

The chimes woke him, five strokes that reached him through some kind of fog. Darkness had fallen. Shadows filled the cozy nook under the bridge. Even in the gloom, though, he could tell that he was alone.

His limp, sticky cock hung outside his pants. As he noticed, he realized how cold he was, not just his penis but his whole body.

A dream. Still, shreds of joy clung to him. A dream like that was far better than waking life. Perhaps he could recreate the dream tonight, in his dormitory bed. He closed his eyes, summoning her emerald eyes and plump lips. Yes. He would not forget.

He needed to hurry, though. The shelter opened in a half hour and beds were allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. He zipped up and then pressed against the ledge to lever himself onto his hands and knees.

He felt the plush softness of cashmere beneath his palms.

It was too dark to see, but he knew it was her coat. But if she had left her coat here, did that mean that she was wandering naked in the park in these frigid temperatures? Was she crazier than the old coots at the shelter?

I've got to find her, he thought, gathering the warm garment in his arms and crawling out from under the bridge. She’ll freeze.

The sleet has stopped. The December air was a knife in his lungs, clean and sharp. He peered into the darkness, seeking the slight, pale form of a nude woman.

A cluster of stars was born. To his right, twinkling points of brightness twined through the tree branches. Another tree leaped into light down the path. One by one the black winter skeletons transformed into fairytale shapes as the city turned on the holiday decorations.

Finally, surrounded by glory, he understood. He swung the coat over his shoulders and wrapped himself in its warm, pine-scented folds. Another gift, to remind him how precious life is. Even his life.

He headed for the street, humming an old carol under his breath. He had only twenty minutes to get to the shelter, but he wasn't worried. It would be easy.

Friday, January 16, 2015

False Advertising

by Jean Roberta

Hypocrisy, to use a broad term, makes me almost too angry to speak, or to write. This is a problem when I need to explain why I’m angry. To write an explanation that might look logical to a reader, I have to be calm enough to defend my case. And if I’m calm, by definition, I’m not angry in the moment. It’s a Catch-22.

Okay, then, here is a list of topics that have made me angry in the past, and will definitely rouse my ire in the future, because they haven’t gone away.

1) The false promises of “romance,” both as a kind of euphemism for a long tradition of unequal sexual relationships between men and women, and as the definition of a genre of fiction. As I said here on the Grip in 2011, I’m not comfortable in the realm of traditional Romance for the same reasons I wasn’t comfortable in a number of dating relationships (e.g. with my high school boyfriend who dumped me after I won a writing award, with the biker who raped me the first time I said “no,” with the man who snorted every time I mentioned my plan to become a teacher, with several men who turned out to be married after we had sex). Marriage made me even more uncomfortable, especially since my husband believed that marriage vows simply erased his private promise to treat me like an equal, which was my condition for accepting his proposal in the first place. As he pointed out, he wasn’t willing to be “henpecked” by a proponent of “women’s lib.” What would the other men of his community think of him if it was obvious that he couldn’t even control his own wife?

Calling all these relationships “abusive” would suggest that what happened in them was outside the heterosexual norm in which men love, respect and protect women from harm while willingly providing luxurious material support.

On what planet have most men offered all this to women who have responded with true love that has nothing to do with fear?

I believe that mutual respect in heterosexual relationships is possible and that it does exist, though not in large supply. I’m just afraid that writing about this type of “romance” would involve going so far beyond the clichés that the story wouldn’t be recognized as “romantic” by fans of the genre.

So, to sum up, it’s unlikely that I will ever become a success by switching to Romance, where (I’ve been told) the money and the fans are.

2) Conservative neo-fascism. The policies of the current government of Canada are very friendly to corporations, including those that would gladly destroy the natural environment. Canada still has a fairly vast “wilderness,” but it’s full of natural resources that can be sold for profit, and the Canadian tradition of a social safety net for all citizens is being eroded faster than the prairie topsoil. All this in the name of freedom.

3) Leftist righteousness and barely-hidden agendas. After I escaped from my jealous, alcoholic husband in the late 1970s, I stayed out of leftist organizations for so many years that I came to think of myself as more-or-less apolitical, even though I feel strongly about political issues. I could hardly join the local Coalition Against Racism when my African husband was a pillar of that group – and I knew he was carrying out his earlier threat to me that if I left him, he would tell the whole world I was a nympho slut with a habit of constantly picking up random men. He also ran for president of the student union at the local university when I was a graduate student there. From time to time, I met his supporters, who assured me that he was a “radical.” I couldn’t see any advantage in telling them what I knew.

Since then, I have met other self-defined leftists who have announced that they are opposed to Violence, Poverty, and Injustice, and are fighting to bring about world peace, yet too many are anything but peaceful. Or honest.

And “feminism” no longer seems to be (if it ever was) the motivating theory that launched a movement for the rights of all women. I have been a volunteer counsellor on the local sexual assault phone line for 25 years because this seems like necessary work, but I stay away from cliques of the Politically Correct. I’ve been excluded or attacked too many times for being “bourgeois” (I have an academic job), white, and more committed to my own survival (and that of my nearest and dearest) than to “The Movement.”

My younger stepson has become known to his friends for his occasional misanthropic, pessimistic rants. As he sometimes puts it, “I hate people. They’ll stab you in the back.” (“People” apparently excludes his family, including me, and a few trusted friends.) I can’t honestly tell him he’s wrong.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How I Got Angry

by Annabeth Leong

About halfway through writing Untouched, I realized that my hero, Eli, had become my villain. I don't mean villain in the cutesy antihero sense, where he's still the appealing center of the story. I mean he had become the obstacle to my protagonist's happiness and I hated him for it.

When I planned the book, I knew I didn't want a happily ever after ending for Eli and Celia (my protagonist). I wanted to explore the sort of relationship that needs to come to an end but teaches both people a lot in the process—the sort of relationship that a person talks about later with a wistful sigh, followed by a shudder of relief.

But at first I had an idealized vision of Eli. When I imagined the goodbye at the end, I thought Celia would tearfully admit that she just couldn't give him what he needed. I pictured her slinking off in hopes that she might someday learn to love, feeling grateful for the little bit she'd experienced with Eli.

I'm really glad that's not the book I ended up writing. About a third of the way through, I got in touch with Celia's anger—and therefore my own.

The thing is, Eli and Celia have a deal. They're both looking for a relationship outside the mainstream, and up front they agree to certain terms. Eli says he wants a companion and voyeur, a woman who wants to savor his conquests alongside him. He wants to be free to fuck as many women as he wants, and he's certain that monogamy isn't for him. Celia wants to express herself sexually with a companion with no pressure to touch or be touched. She wants to masturbate with an audience, and she's happy about the idea of watching him with other people.

I remember the day I wrote the scene where they make that deal. That sweet, exhilarating feeling of falling in love coursed through my veins and rubbed off on me by association. I went for a walk and sun poured down on me. I remember cherry blossoms floating through the air, though I'm pretty sure that didn't really happen.

But you probably see where this is going. The center of Untouched is the archetype of the doomed deal. The moment Celia thinks she's found happiness is the moment Eli changes the terms. He tells her that he needs to touch her after all. And Celia gets angry:
She flailed for more words, afraid now that if she let him speak he would say the unthinkable. But it was impossible that falling in love with her could make him want to say that. He fucking knew better.

Celia said, "I know my limitations, so it's never made sense to be possessive. I don't want to doom you to celibacy, Eli. I like that I'm part of what you want—maybe even the most important part, that's sort of nice—but I don't have to be everything. I don't have to try to do things that I can't do."

"Celia..." Eli broke off and hid his face in the comforter. "Celia..."

She felt a pang of deep regret. "Eli, please. Don't fucking say it."

"I have to."

She wrenched herself out of bed. The world was shattering around her. "God damn it, Eli. This is the center of fucking everything. You can't ask me for..."

He lifted his head. His eyes were as wide and frightened as a small child's. In that moment, the smooth, self-possessed man that she had known and fallen for seemed to have disappeared. His jaw trembled, and she sensed he was near tears. "Celia, I need to touch you. Please. Even a little. Even on the tips of your fingertips or your knee or anywhere that you can take it. Can you give that to me? Please."

She crossed her arms under her breasts. Tears glittered in her eyes, but they felt hard. She wanted to throw them at him like so many daggers. "Fuck you, Eli. Fuck you."

Before I actually wrote Untouched, I described Eli with a lot of sympathy. Celia's very patient lover was trying to explore how to help her tolerate touch.

Then the book woke me into a different reality. Why should Eli be the one to set the terms and change them when he wants? Celia was perfectly clear up front about what she could and couldn't do. Who the hell did he think he was? He thought love gave him a right to make these demands of her? How could that sort of violation possibly be the fruit of love?

The more I wrote, the angrier I got. Because it was damned uncomfortable as a writer to deny this man. Celia eventually holds the line (though she spends a while trying to bend herself to his wishes), and I was scared to death of letting her. I was sure my publisher would force me to change my ending (but Sweetmeats Press is fabulous, and Joe did not). I pictured reviewers complaining about Celia being an unreasonable bitch to this charismatic man who loves her and just wants a little touch. Celia had plenty of conflict, and she shared it with me—more truly than for anything else I've written, I struggled alongside her.

I'm ashamed to admit how hard it was for me to see my own main character's point of view—one that claims ownership of her own body and sexuality. As I started to understand her, I got mad at Eli, mad at myself, mad at the people in my life who've made me feel like my own needs and desires are things I should get over. And there have been so very many people who prodded and coerced and insisted and belittled. Or outright abused me and my trust. Many people have talked about the intensity of Untouched, but that's because Celia's sexuality is under siege. As I wrote that, I realized that this sprang from my own sense of being besieged.

I started writing erotica because I was interested in talking honestly about sex. How embarrassing that after five years of thinking I was doing that, after being featured in Best [Insert Sex Act Here] who knows how many times, this book showed me how closed off I've been to the true things about myself.

I've written here before that I think women are taught to perform sex, not to claim it and experience it for themselves. For so much of my life, I saw sex acts from the other person's perspective—how was I making them feel? I saw my whole sexual imagination and consciousness from outside, too, as a thing to be judged and controlled. Over the last several years, I've confronted a lot of my own taboos and explored in my life and in my writing what I actually like.

It was only by writing Celia, though, that I really got out of the passenger seat and into the driver's seat. It was that character that made me really see what it's like to be at the center of one's own sex life, and writing her was an act of defiance.

And now that my anger has been unleashed, I'm not the same writer or person.

It's hard for me to talk about Untouched, because the things I had to say were best said in the book, but writing it had a major effect on my actual sex life and I'm still dealing with the fallout. I found out a lot of truth, and I discovered a lot of rage, and I can't go on as I was before.

As a writer, I flailed a lot after finishing this book. I've always included subversive elements in my work, but I want to find a way to stop apologizing for what I have to say. And I'm angry at the distortions caused by common expectations in the industry. I was never a fan of straight rich white "alpha males," but oh my god now I really want to burn that down.

I don't want our corner of the literary world to be defanged and fitted neatly into the mainstream. I remember Best American Erotica 1996, which I wrote about in my first post for the Grip, and how shocking and uncomfortable—and vital—it was. I don't want to be reduced to toothless blog tours in which I'm counseled not to alienate readers by saying controversial things. Marketing and I have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, but now I'm feeling especially concerned about letting market values infect and corrupt my work.

So, this is what anger is for. It makes it impossible for me to put up with what I'm supposed to put up with and gives me the strength to step into uncomfortable territory. I've had a tough six months, but I'm damned proud of Untouched, and I think I owe it to myself and my readers to continue pursuing authenticity, without compromise and without retreat.