Sunday, October 09, 2011

Archipelago



In August of 2011, I finally (a year late I might add) graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.

I am the first openly gay graduate of this program. 

My graduation was a complicated journey, and it followed a tour of academic probation, a wandering through the desert of the Office of Disabilities courtesy of complications from closed head injuries, and numerous hospitalizations, experimentation with medications, and horrible side-effects.

I lost weight. I went days without sleep.  I discovered that additional symptoms from numerous head injuries actually had names and long term serious health ramifications, and that while these symptoms were definitely in my head, they were also real and could be tracked via electronic diagnostics. To look at an unbiased chart, where without a doubt you can see yourself stop breathing, see the flat little lines and rapid responses, and the status of a brain in a series of little oxygen crises is not a revelation that easily allows for focus on mundane academic matters. 

In one sense I'd wondered if I was losing my mind.

In another sense, some of that worry was confirmed.

I did finally graduate, but it was nothing short of a miracle.  Yet my being here to write this is also, nothing short of the same. I have seen on these charts and evaluations exactly what my recklessness and fondness for risk has produced in head injuries, impairment, and challenges. 

My graduation did not happen in a vacuum and not without plenty of drama. Indeed, if it could go wrong, it did, and as I tried to overcome all this misfortune, I ran it all to the wire. I spent the last few nights of my final residency finishing missing work, and fighting with corrupted computer files, that to the best of my knowledge, still continue to infect my thesis.

Prior to graduation I defended critical work as well as read from my thesis, which was 75 pages longer than required, and comprised five non-fiction essays.  I'd covered nearly 90 different books during the time I'd been in the program, most of which I consumed via books on tape. I became a big fan of Ivan Doig, Timothy Egan, Gretel Ehrlich, and my mentors Robert Clark and Leslie Leyland Field. 

I have always written non-fiction, but my final quarter, I also penned short fiction, which remains in first draft form. My mentor assured me this was time well wasted yet again pointed to a kitchen sink, and suggested that even in fictional endeavors, sometimes including everything but the kitchen sink leads to distraction and that as always with me, less is more.

Most of what I've written over these last three and a half years, I've had difficulty actually physically seeing on the screen.  Type errors abound in my work and continue to plague me.  In reading earlier drafts, great beginnings plunged into gibberish. Some of my words, in retrospect made no sense, and I can track the quality of writing via the speed of medication I'd been prescribed. At various points during the program i became very disillusioned.

Cataracts formed near the original optical nerve injuries. I have six prescriptions for vision hardware that I did not have prior to the launch of my program. I learned of Cataplexy and Narcolepsy and breathing obstructions, most likely caused by damage to nerves in my brain from windshields, horses, bus roofs, and stupidity.

In February of 2011 a lady in an SUV rammed into the parked sports car I was sitting in. As I sat in the car, afraid to move, I wondered, again, about that pithy saying that God never gives us more than we can handle.  I call this the "more. more. more. I'm so done with more" theology.

In many ways I can not separate my academic journey from my physical one, and this is beyond humbling to me. I've quoted writer Leslie Leyland Field, many times on this blog, and she often writes that her perspective begins and ends, especially in writing, with an eye kept toward what is at stake. If nothing on the page matters, than a readers time is wasted.

The creation of my thesis exhausted me. I felt the story mattered that much. Whatever I penned would be held in the shelves at Seattle Pacific University like, forever. I had to get it right.   

Yet for the first time in my writing life, I was not writing so much about my experiences on the road, although that terrain was covered, again--but I wrote about more universal questions.  Most of which I have no answer for, only hints of what is truly at stake.

I lost one of the most remarkable friends I will ever know to cancer the day before the start of my first class. Teddy Boggs taught me about sustainable friendship, cowboyin', and the gift of being in relationship with the entirety of this experience called living. He lived this more than I can easily put his example into words. Yet he was no writer. He always spoke in the simplest of terms. He was both a common man and a deeply spiritual man.  He'd taught himself to read and built his log home by hand, and he'd allowed me access to his thoughts in a way that at the time I did not fully appreciate. To this day, Teddy surprises me.

A couple years after his passing, some readers in Pend Oreille County contacted me about an earlier piece I'd written about Teddy.  It was entitled "Storming Heaven's Gate" and the essay is still found in the 2005 archives of this blog.  After reading this essay. these readers urged me to return to that original piece, especially should I have any doubt regarding the value and prophetic way this simple man had of being at peace with his universe. 

I revisited that piece, a bit curious and possibly offended that anyone dare assume I'd missed anything. Still as I reread my own words, cataloguing Teddy's sentiments, I realized I'd been so busy writing about him that I'd missed what he was trying to communicate to me.  The "what's at stake" remained a big part of the writing. It is just that I, the author, had totally missed it.

Thus the first piece I penned, as part of the MFA program was dedicated to Teddy's memory. I wrote "Best All Around Cowboy" not just as a tribute, but to try to get my head around all the things I'd learned from Teddy before those memories began to fade. The writing of that piece was a journey into that concrete finality, the stalling of the beating heart, that is best represented by the state of grieving. 

A year after his death I published it here in 2009 as a tribute to this great man and ultimately, because it had already been published, I did not elect to include it in my thesis.

To write in a conservative Christian fellowship, where the presence of mystery is often feared.  Sexual Orientation is among the most mysterious intersections of faith, reason and science. I would argue even beauty.  Some of my fellow students found my presence in the program deeply challenging to their faith.  Each and every quarter but my final one, I encountered someone who would question my salvation, worried well that I might be hell bound, and that my unrepentant acceptance of my sexual orientation equaled my ultimate destination landing in hell. In their eyes, no grace awaited me post my final breath. They did not reach out to me in hatred.  They did so because they loved me.

These were very tough conversations. 

Often in the middle of nowhere, in the space of the broadest western skies, in that quiet where the dull whine of tires meeting pavement is defined as white line fever, is where I still revisit these conversations. The words of these exchanges continue to play out again and again and they still haunt me. Not because I worry that I am forsaken by Christ, but rather that so much attention is focused on my shortcoming-- to the exclusion of other human shortcomings in general.  I have spent my entire life in Christendom trying not to be so offensive, and the effect of that practise meant that I was no longer writing in the first person, but writing via a sort of committee of competing firing squads.

Mentor Robert Clark, exasperated and empowered as he is, expended no shortage of energy trying to exorcise this censorship of self from my writing. Yet right up to the end, prior to my final reading I was sitting there a nervous mess, second guessing my right, my worth, and my ability to tell my own damn story.

 Indeed the month of my graduation four friends would tell me they'd recently tested HIV positive.  

I have lost so many friends to HIV/AIDS, cancer, and addiction that I still can't find enough wall space to post their pictures in my home. I find unnerving that many in the church not only disregard the value lives lost to HIV/AIDS lives, but the pain of that loss to me is diminished by the reason they are gone.

And so I stood, and I read of just what that loss felt like. To me.

I told my story, using an excerpt from an essay I'd been working on called Defensible Space.

It was among the toughest public readings I've ever done. I did not settle on this excerpt until the day before my reading, and as I practised reading, many times, I had to start over because it was so intense and difficult to revisit those memories. I wept. Holed up in a music room, my eyes swelled, and I mourned. I suppose I was trying to get through it so that maybe I could get over it. But I wonder, if I ever will.

I did not make it once through those practise readings without sobbing  I learn this is how I have learned to battle grief; by mostly writing about things that are not at stake for me. I realized my first year into the program that I'd embraced cowardice. 

Even on the day of the reading, I continued to have second thoughts and at one point, I even excerpted another passage focusing on my volunteer work at the syringe exchange. Sure it was passionate enough.  But it wasn't as much my story as much as it was a reaction to the stories of other people. 

My gut told me to go with that first passage.  And so, eventually I did.

I made it through the reading, and even as a couple times I began to choke up, I did not fall into a mess of weeping, and instead I tried to recall the faces of my friends, when they were healthy and they looked forward in all the portraits I have of them, embracing a vision of a bright future awaiting them.  I kept thinking to stem the tears that all the loss I've experienced is just the beginning of a representation; a collection of potential that will never be realized. That the enormity of this loss-- it is what is at stake. It was about me. But it wasn't just about me.  Even now I feel as if I am just a narrator.

 This loss is the direct result of HIV/AIDS. It matters. 
This human story I know, of truckers and ranchers and activists, all these people who are now gone, is a story that is uniquely mine to tell. Only I can do it justice. Write on. Read on. Carry on.

I had an audience that day. Now it is just my voice. Alone, again.

That August day I read as if my life depended on getting that story out there.  And it still does.

The people in the audience that day, faculty, fellow students, all of them, are very special people to me.  My life has changed, dramatically as a result of knowing them.  I have learned courage.  I have learned to be a bit more fearless. And I have learned, that nearly 25 years after I first learned about HIV/AIDS silence still equals death. Even for a writer.

But I have also learned that fearlessness means a good writer is even more gentle on their readers. That a reader's trust, attention, and time is the greatest gift a writer can know. That grace can often overcome many things, but that it is easier to find commonality through shared experience than via a bully pulpit.

And that this is indeed a very tricky balancing act. For all of us.

My classmates. March 2011.

The folks above represent my home room.

The folks below represent my graduating class.

In August of 2011, I was published along with this group of great writers.  Some of these folks have written for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, others are just beginning their journey on that solitary trek toward a wondrous destination of getting their story down on paper, or creating that mysterious and beautiful world writing empowers.  We are poets, essayists and fiction writers. 

To  commemorate our graduation, we published an anthology, with a forward by Brett Lott.  In each offering, something wonderful is at stake--heart.

Our book unveiling in Santa Fe.  My graduating class. Read their work in Archipelago.


You can order Archipelago here:

1 comment:

brotherdoc said...

Dear Tim, congratulations on completing your degree and for being such a great writer (with or w/o a degree) and human being (ditto). This essay is very touching. Although I have a house full of books already I am inclined to buy the anthology if just for your piece in it. I can imagine the kinds of pressures you felt from your classmates and so admire your patience (I think the biblical word is forbearance) and tenacity. God bless.

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