Valerie’s Letter

One of the things I find very hard about ice skating (and yes, that adventure continues and continues to be very hard) is how much it interacts with the very human desire to be seen. I do not mean all my goals that currently feel wildly unreasonable of doing this with any grace or passing any tests, or fantasizing about being decent enough to enter an adult competition one day.

I mean the thing where I feel like I am — in the name of good boundaries — keeping a thousand secrets. Some of them are about being the scared girl, or the ugly girl, or the girl who walks with authority and has a body that looks like it can do things, except that it can’t, not yet, and I’m afraid maybe not ever.

The secrets are also about other things, wounds that should’t matter anymore: Getting kicked out of skating at age six for being too scared. That summer with the crayfish. An Outward Bound incident in fifth grade. And the absolute horror show of the required yearly gymnastics trimester at school (when you spend every gym class frightened and mocked, and then have to get up on stage to accept the “most improved in physical education” award every single year because that’s the private school version of a good, southern fuck-you cake, it stays with you).

But those things do matter. Insidiously. They’re why sometimes I offer to quit before someone else asks me to. They’re why I question what the hell it is I am doing with my life. And it’s why bad days on the ice can reduce me to tears.

I’ve been crying a lot lately. But that’s not just skating. In fact, that’s mostly not skating. It’s 2018 and the terrible confluence of trying to be a person who is doing something that’s super hard for them and trying to be a person in a world with a lot of unpersoning in it.

A lot of the time, I don’t feel very real, which is the little bit dangerous legacy of all those stories of being that kid in school, you know, the one that always seemed like a rat that had slipped into the wrong nest and was treated accordingly. Increasingly, however, I am also aware that none of this was my imagination — I’m not at all real to many others. Because I’m Jewish or queer or female or political or from my beautiful supposedly accursed city and on and on and on. And that’s wildly dangerous. I mean, that’s how people get shot. That’s what we all learned this week — again — right?

It is getting worse, it is getting closer, and it is right here.

Unpersoning makes me think of fascism, and unpersoning makes me think of Valerie, and this weird yearly obligation I’ve somehow acquired to write about her every Fifth of November. In the past, because it meant something to friends with similar but more private struggles than my own. In the present, because shit’s gone and gotten scary. It’s always been that way for some of us, but now the whole goddamn concept of the U.S., or maybe just democracy in general, is a frog in a pot on a not-as-slow-as-you-think boil.

I fell in love with Valerie’s letter, not just because of what it says, but because of its cadence. Because the prose, when spoken, feels like the way I move when I am seen. My grace and sorrow are weapons. They are wrath. And pleading. And joy.

So that’s the challenge this year: Read Valerie’s letter aloud. To yourself. To someone else. Lock yourself in a bathroom stall in the office and whisper it like a prayer. Because Valerie’s letter is about the determination to be seen, to never be unpersoned — not by anyone else and not by yourself with the wounds they gave you.

And for the love of that one inch, vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

 

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Another day of almost doing the thing

It’s Sukkot at present, and I’m given to understand that many Jewish schools are closed, thus explaining the presence of about 40 young ultra-Orthodox girls and a few of their much younger brothers at the rink today. I’m an easier crier, and these girls in their tights and dresses and sweaters, helping each other stumble across the ice as wordless, lyrical music played brought me close.

They watched me as I got ready, hoping maybe that I was any good, what with my own skates and the tight leggings. I don’t know if they saw Jewishness in my features and, if they did, if it mattered to them. But despite being secular and from a mixed home, I was moved to be so entirely amongst people at least somewhat like me.

The ice was soup because it was abruptly 82 out, and the rink is under a bubble on a roof. I could have done more if I hadn’t been so unnerved by puddles, but maybe I am always looking for something to be unnerved by. I think on Sunday when my instructor offers to help me to get to our section of the ice for class, I should tell him I think I should try to do it myself.

I do better when someone is metaphorically holding my hand and telling me I can do this and am allowed to do this. Subsequently, I have a lots of thoughts — that would be more comfortable in any other week in America’s national life — about the notion of the ordeal and my need to be good and, also, how easy it is to be generous with people instead of cruel, even when you’re pushing them.

It’s interesting to me, how often people mistake cruelty for exactitude. Certainly, I have.

But not here. Strangers chatted with me and offered help and encouragement yet again today. More than anything, people in this whole ice skating thing have been kind to me. I’ve done a lot of very challenging things in my life, that were hard and orderly and lonely, and quite appropriately involved coaching and training and self-discipline and all the brutality those things can entail. I tend to be fond of it. I am, after all, quite brutal with myself by nature.

But while I will accept that during those other endeavors — at 16 and at 36 (we won’t discus my 20s because, mostly, you wouldn’t understand) — I was not really able to accept kindness, I must also note that there was also much less on offer. And there was, frankly, no reason for it. You can make someone push themselves far beyond what they think is possible by telling them they are good just as readily — and maybe more so — than by being cold, or telling them they don’t.

It’s hard to explain how grateful I am at the warmth I find on the ice… and how much I wonder if this is tragic. Shouldn’t there have always been more kindness along the way?

Yeah, so this theme of agency keeps coming up….

So I achieved new stuff on Sunday. I have forward swizzles now and think I might even be able to figure out the backwards ones on my own on Wednesday. Maybe.

Meanwhile, I still haven’t fallen… intentionally or otherwise.

But I find myself exhausted, less from the work than from existing in 2018. So that, combined with skating successes don’t necessarily make me  a terribly poetic writer.

However, on the theme of this year and exhaustion —

So here’s why I really like skating other than that it’s fun and feels good:

  • My fears are treated as reasonable or at least meriting reasonable discussion on terms I actively agree to.
  • My bravery is noted and respected and is for an actual thing I chose.
  • I am given the opportunity to work hard and that is actually acknowledged.
  • I am treated like a competent person who will get there.
  • My body is regarded as a tool, but one exclusively for my own use.
  • My happiness matters.

How much of the rest of 2018 feels like this?

Yeah, exactly.

The problem with fear

My mother and I had a conversation about fear earlier this week. She said sometimes fear is good. And sure, that’s true. Gut instinct is often fear-based and can save your life. But fear can also be arbitrary, induced by others unnecessarily, or chemical. If you’re like me and you have anxiety and witchily good gut instincts both, it can be very hard to figure out what to do with fear.

There were also all those times I was told not to climb on the playground lest I “bust my head open.”

Learning to skate is really hard physical work. For me, it’s also really hard mental work.

And today, I am so tired.

But that’s because I was awesome.

I went to the rink where I take lessons for their public skate. It was pleasantly unpopulated, and I managed to go from marching around the ice and trying to be less frightened to actual proper skating. Only for like 20 feet at a time, because then I’d get nervous or almost die via toe pick (seriously, I know I’ll be glad for it later, but it’s freaking me out) or get frowny at water puddles on the ice (the rink is on a rooftop under a bubble, and there are sometimes these spots on warmer days).

I did seven laps, which is more than I’ve done at any one time and my heart racing terror thing only happened very briefly once towards the end of the session when I was really tired. I didn’t want to get off the ice. I was so happy. And I’m hoping I can go again on Saturday (different rink) and actually show my instructor this progress on Sunday. I get so jangly sometimes though.

So that’s it. I did the thing today. You can do the thing too. It probably won’t even kill you. No matter what people have said.

 

 

The summer with the crayfish

There’s a story I’ve told before, that I’ve been thinking of a lot lately.

The summer after fifth grade, I went to sleepover camp for the first and only time, and I did not know how to swim. The counselors tried everything to get me to put my whole face in the water without holding onto the wall. Nothing worked. And the less it worked and the more punitive it became, the less I was on board with the whole thing. I remember, very clearly, two grown men — or what seemed grown to me, they were probably twenty which isn’t really grown at all — grabbing my arms and trying to force me under the water in the shallow part of the lake as other campers and counselors watched from the dock.

I was ten and wearing a one-piece navy blue bathing suit with metallic puffy hearts on it, but I danced, and I was strong. I locked my legs, and they could not push me under. Which was good, as I was in fear for my life. Not from the water at that point. But from them. One remarked to the other how strong I was, how embarrassing this had become for them, and they let me go. I knelt in the horrible silt and crayfish bottom and then, with something like spite, swam away. On the dock, people applauded, and I hauled myself out of the water in a vengeful fury at their pity.

In retrospect, I suspect that was the summer my best friend and I began to grow apart, although neither of us would notice until years later. But I was feral and embarrassing and the swimming incident which has so stuck with me was one of many indignities of that season.

I’ve been thinking of it because of skating, obviously. But also because of politics. Christine Blasey Ford has just come forward as the woman accusing Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape, and various corners of the Internet apparently don’t get how such an incident could have stayed with her and be the subject of trauma for so long, such that she mentioned it in counseling in 2012.

But trauma and resultant PTSD, of course, is funny. You don’t necessarily get it from the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. You don’t even necessarily get it from the worst thing that ever happened to you. It just comes sometimes to some people from some things. (And because on the Internet it needs saying: I absolutely believe Blasey Ford about both her accusation and her personal history and choices around dealing with and sharing the event.)

I have more horrifying stories than the swimming incident, but I don’t really have any closer to my core, that come up as a sort of language that threads through my life, my abilities, my worth, and my sense of self. My contempt for external brutality; my reliance on internal brutality. It is not a traumatic story to recount despite its murky nature. I mean, I did learn to swim because of it, which makes it hard to know what to do with the tale. But if you ask me what I am — about my nature and my wrath — maybe I’ll tell you about that summer and the crayfish if I tell you anything at all.

Today I went to skating — after trying and mostly failing to practice falling in my own bedroom last night before bed — quite afraid that we’d spend the whole lesson on the falling situation. And that I’d have to tell my kind and clever instructor about the cray fish, about how him trying to help me to fall probably wouldn’t work because I have this thing where I hold on for dear life.

But the path was different today.Instead, I practiced marching (and at the end of the lesson got across the ice by myself) and rocking horses and kneeling on the ice so that I could then learn, at least, how to get back up. Some of that I used the wall to practice getting down. Some, I braced on my instructors arms. And it was fine. I didn’t have to explain anything other than my tenacity as I got closer to being able to do this frustratingly impossible for me thing.

One day I’ll swim away. And this time, I won’t even have to be mad about it.

Can I just number these ice skating things? Am I really going to have to think of a snazzy title every time?

One of the problems with wanting to do something and wanting to do it well… and then wanting to write about it, is that I’m a much better writer of personal narrative when things aren’t going well.

Which means I probably should have written about skating yesterday, when I couldn’t find my balance, felt like I couldn’t get any purchase on the ice, and just didn’t feel like I was in a friendly space. You can tell me all day long everyone is focused on their own crap, and that’s true, but there are people who look at beginners as nuisances and people who look at beginners as the future. And often, especially when you do everything you can to stay out of the way and not disrupt other people’s skating spaces, it’s not hard to tell which people you are dealing with. And it’s harder, not to sit there and feel like a fool as you watch coaches with business cards approach and flatter and neg advanced skaters into their business clutches.

Not that I should be one of those people yet; not that I envied the socially awkward moment that then ensued for my observation. But being chosen is always to me, a very dark thing, a sense of being towed down into the underworld. Even when it’s winning. Look, I was in a play about Hades and Persephone when I was in second grade and never really recovered. I played a horse on his chariot, and that, let me tell you, felt like the opposite of being chosen

But today, thankfully, was one of the good days in skating. I did feel like my blades were gripping the ice (different rink), I was with a friend (less embarrassing in a “what does she think she is doing?” way), and we made friends (I may be an introvert, but I’m a gregarious one; the story in my head is always about the people who find me).

A couple in their 60s approached us to offer assistance and advice. They wound up helping me try to get swizzles, and practicing balance, and going around the ice with the man in a Killian hold, just to see what it felt like. Things like that are kind. They can feel like pity, especially when your brain is messed up in the way my brain can be, but this was just kind. I want to skate, therefore it is reasonable that I am learning to skate, and of course I will obviously eventually figure it out. Also, they had a great personal story, but it’s not mine to tell in this forum.

Being reasonable for wanting things is always a peculiar sensation for me. Because I rarely want anything reasonably, but also because my reasonable wantings have been met so often with derision. How do you just exist as a beginner — and as a person — when you’re trapped between those truths? I couldn’t possibly tell you.

Tomorrow, I have my learn to skate lesson. At the end of last week I had hoped to make a breakthrough this week, as I had felt on the cusp of being able to skate (instead of march) properly or at least sure I could march onto the rink tomorrow properly to get to my lesson group. That’s probably not going to happen yet. But I won’t be as bad as I was at the beginning of last Sunday. So I’ll take it.

Here we go again….

Hi, for those new here, I’m a romance and SFF writer who started her career writing about pop-culture and how it makes her feel. I do that particular thing a lot less than I used to, in part because of the success I’ve had with my fiction, and in part because of how female-type people on the Internet are treated when they write about pop-culture and/or their personal feelings. This site has languished as I’ve made that transition — and those boundaries.

In some ways, this is a shame (I have a lot of feelings about the operatic nature of The Assassination of Gianni Versace and what it says about queer life (and also Italian families!) that I’ve never written about, for example). In other ways, it’s freed me up to write about all sorts of things well beyond my own emotions and frustrations (which is basically what women who write personal essay generally get underpaid to pontificate about).

But now I’m back, and I have a new thing to write about. Mostly because I need to. What it will inform anyone else of or entertain them in regard to, I frankly have no damn idea.

Back in January, Erin and I were working on our novel The Opposite of Drowning (2019), and I made the mistake of sending her an Instagram clip posted by Baz Luhrmann of some random Canadian ice dancers performing to Moulin Rouge. If you followed the 2018 Olympics at all, you know, of course, that these ice dancers weren’t random, but were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Erin and I found them incredibly distracting. And we procrastinated on The Opposite of Drowning by writing — and publishing — a whole other novel. After the Gold is a romance about a pair that wins Olympic gold and then has to figure out what to do about the rest of their lives. We assumed the project was merely us being self-indulgent. But it got more pre-orders than anything we’d ever written before. Even our award-winning royal romance. And then I, as the marketing brains behind this operation, told people that if we sold more than 250 copies before release day, Erin and I would learn to skate.

We did.

And now here we — and I guess you, dear reader — are.

For the last two months I’ve been going skating with friends on the weekends. This has meant dragging myself around the wall, anxiety attacks, and that time my partner fell down and fractured her ankle on her very first occasion on the ice. Despite all of this, I love it and would actually really like to be good at this thing (I have a long history of embarking on difficult and difficult for me endeavors and finally, eventually, getting pretty decent at those things — including fencing, horseback riding, and general aviation.) A few days ago, frustrated with rentals, I bought a pair of really expensive Riedell’s that fit amazingly and make me very happy.

Today, I had my first Learn to Skate lesson in which my main achievements were not crying and learning to march across the ice. This actually meant I was able to get on the ice during a public session without my friends and try to practice something correct I’d been taught. So I did that. Five whole laps before I decided my body and my mind needed a break.

In kindergarten (I was five, and the youngest of the class), Mrs. Nabokov (yes, that was really her name; no, I have no idea of any relation) called my mother to kick me out of ice skating lessons because I was too scared. Which, honestly, considering my parents wouldn’t let me climb jungle gyms in playground because I would “break my head open” should surprise no one.

Today, all I can think about is my fear that I’ll get kicked out of lessons again, because aside from those small achievements, I was too scared to do the thing you kinda have to do on day one, which is learn to fall. I just couldn’t make myself do it, and I don’t know how I ever am.

So welcome to my blog, which is, as it ever was, about my pop culture obsessions. Now they just come with knives strapped to my feet. I’m going to write about this in public because I enjoy doing so, because it is a way in which I defuse my fear, and because it is a tool that helps me stay stubborn. Because the situation is this: I love this thing that I am both very bad at (totally okay) and super afraid of (way less than useful).

Consider this a training journal, although maybe one less about ice skating and more about someone just trying to be alive.