I Contain Multitudes. Call Me “They.”

Hi, Jeff.

First, I have to say that I’ve always admired your weirdness. Yes, you’re an odd one. To wit: dyeing your hair orange before going to a gathering with 30,000 teenagers. I could never pull off colored hair, but friends just looked at you and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Pastor Jeff.” And at 6’4” you would have been visible in a crowd to all your church kids—clever.

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Seymour

Now, on to that last text message about your child: Seymour doesn’t identify as male or female and chooses to not be called daughter rather child and instead of her rather to be called they. I would love to see a blog post on non-gender word usage in a world that is stuck in binary. I struggle a bit but I am learning to honor Seymour’s name and using they as a way of referring to them not her.

I have a bunch of ideas, Jeff, but none of them are about gender-specific language. I hadn’t finished reading your text before a couple of lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass interrupted:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I confess I also had a sneak preview of your message. Folks in the congregation I’m serving reported about a year ago that their granddaughter altered her name and asked to be referred to as they. So, your child isn’t alone.

For the record, I say that Seymour and Whitman are right. When son Micah was a teenager, he railed against posers. Goth, emo, metal: apparently all groups had posers, kids who were wearing the clothes and moshing the mosh, but not bearing the genuine tribe brand on their souls. Every time we passed some lonely kid on a street corner and Micah gave his critique, I kept my eyes on the road and endured. How could I explain that only the rarest of human beings isn’t a poser? Don’t each of us contain multitudes—compelling personas asking to apply our makeup and fill out our wardrobe?

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Well done, Jeff, but I can still make out your whitewalls.

Gray-hairs like us say, “Oh, Seymour is just trying to find, uh, herself.” Just. As if their search isn’t epic, and as if ours is complete. Seymour is going through a phase, all right, and so are we, brother. It lasts from cradle to grave. You went with orange. My clerical shirts are migrating to the back of the rack—the collar doesn’t mean what it used to. You and I are actually playing it safe, keeping our spiritual boats close to shore.

But your child is—or are?—frying Jonah’s whale. When Seymour says, “Call me they,” they are fussing with not only personal identity, but also with what it means to be human. Your Child-Formerly-Known-as-Anna’s project is Applied Whitman. And picking your own name, that’s a move of biblical proportions. Parents name their children, but Yahweh gets the final say.

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The face of those who force God’s hand–whatever that means. Teach me new words. I’m listening.

So has Seymour forced God’s hand? I’m crazy enough to consider them faithful. As for you, wife Sue, son Isaac, and anybody who cares about Seymour, we ought to speak a brave language, adopt a compassionate grammar–and not complain. Love that won’t receive the beloveds’ new vocabulary and speak awkward sentences as if they’re really songs isn’t love at all.

Just to check, I sent you this text message: “So Seymour is good with my posting this?” You answered, “They are indeed.” I love you for your answer, Jeff. You tell me you’re “learning to honor Seymour’s name.” Let’s all keep learning. What we say will sound like poetry.

Your brother,

John

Blogger’s Note: for photo credits, contact me at my email address, JohnColemanObl@gmail.com.

A Letter to My Elderly Dog

Hi, Watson,

Of course you can’t read, but I’m writing this letter for myself. So please sit still and pretend to listen.

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Time to get up. Ugh! I’ll cover your eyes, pal. We’ll rest for another minute.

When you stood at my side of the bed this morning and sighed, I knew what you were saying: “It hurts for me to hop up on the bed.” That’s why I hold open the blankets and wait. When you’re ready to try, it means curling up beside me is worth the extra ache in those bum legs of yours. And I know, even if you don’t, that you won’t be able to jump much longer. I thought about getting a futon but figured the longer you have to work, the longer you’ll be around.

I sure do love you, old buddy. I love that every time I climb the steps and lie down for a nap, you hobble up with me. Your nails clicking as you scrape them across each step reminds me that eventually you won’t be able to make it to the second floor. Your mother doesn’t know this yet, but when you’re grounded, I’ll lobby for moving our room to the first floor and getting a bed that’s Watson friendly. You’ve had a place in our sleep for around ten years; I won’t abandon you to the cold floor as you near the end.

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You were even cuter than this pup when you landed on our stoop. We thought maybe you were pure black lab until the scruff sprouted on your chin. (Credit: Michael Kloth / Corbis)

Actually, you’ve had a place in our sleep from your first night in the Coleman house. Downstairs in the puppy crate, you yipped and howled, so I did something ridiculous. Knowing you weren’t house broken, I still picked you up, brought you upstairs, and settled you in bed between your mother and me. Guess what? It was as if the winter world you were rescued from had disappeared, and you were at peace. I kept expecting to wake up soaked in pee, but all night you slept between us, a black fur ball of relief. Dry. Safe. Home. Love.

You’ve been a gift to me, Watson. Sure, you have some annoying habits. If a squirrel squeaks on the boulevard, your alarm bark is like a funhouse scare–way out of proportion to the threat! For reasons I’ve never figured out, you take five seconds to decide if you want a treat from the table. I hold out a chunk of steak gristle, and you sniff and stare with suspicion. This is in violation of the Code of Dog Behavior, but you are gentle, which is good. You are the only dog I’ve ever seen who wanders when he craps. Cleaning up the backyard means sleuthing down a couple dozen micro-turds rather than spotting five or six robust piles from yards away. (Since your mom covers scooping detail, catching sight of you doing a pooping pirouette is more funny than upsetting.)

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Always a place for you on the bed, old friend. I promise.

Finally, and increasingly, when we’re napping you point your bum toward my face and crack nasties. You know, the barber no longer needs to trim my eyebrows. They’re all gone. Damn, Watty. But you’re around eighty, so I can make allowances. Besides, farts in the animal kingdom aren’t frowned upon. Neither is indiscriminate humping, though you are rarely so inclined. Thanks, pal.

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Breakfast soon, Watty. Thanks for waiting.

You probably have a couple years left, but who knows? I suspect you understand in your wordless spirit how grateful I am for you: how you lick my hand and face in the morning; how you wait for me to finish praying before going down for breakfast; how you used to love running with me so much you’d press on even when your nails bled from dragging across the pavement; how you lay down beside me when I’m writing at the dining room table–just to be close, I guess.

Silly people argue about whether dogs have souls. Walt Whitman once wrote about your kind:

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;

Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;

Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;

Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.

As far as I know, Watson, you don’t commit my sins: take too much to heart, nurse grudges, insult others, and fall short of love in a thousand other ways. You, on the other hand, seem motivated entirely by love–when you’re not scheming to get extra Milk Bones. But I’m in no position to call you a glutton.

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I love you, Watson.

Between the two of us, my old napping partner, I bet you have the bigger soul. None of us knows what eternity looks like, and as I said, you probably have some good time left. But hear this in your dog heart: I pray that we both have a place at the Final Table, that we can look into the face of Perfect Love and eat our share, and when the meal is over, we can climb stairs to the bedroom on strong legs. I pray there’s space in Forever for me to rest my face against your gentle head, put a hand on your paw, and nap away an endless afternoon.

Love,

Papa

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.