Collide, Spin, Wobble, Steady

You might have noticed, or perhaps not, that my blog posts have become fewer and farther between. They have also been pulled closer to my personal life and less about the world around us. This is not only true of my blog posts, but also Twitter and Facebook.

I am an activist at heart, literally being led by my heart to do what I do and say what I say. Do I expect all the cookies? No, not even *a* cookie. But, for those gathering receipts, you should know I was writing about religious tolerance and diversity back when I had to write letters to editors with a pen and paper. I didn’t do it constantly, and I didn’t do it perfectly. But I have always believed that by pointing out the flaws that exist in our society, even exposing my own flaws, I was helping people understand their part in the harm that resulted from them.

Words mattered because they had power to change people’s hearts. Words could show people of different races, religions, geographical locations, sexual identities, etc. that they are not opposites but similar. Words could show you the humanity of those often seen as a only label.

I believed that about words. And then I didn’t.

On June 4th I released a novella entitled Silencer. It was inspired by a man who set himself on fire to try to change the hearts of the people in the racist town where he had grown up. He had done so almost exactly one year to the date I released the book. I took from that real life tragedy a need to address two issues: racism and mental illness. In Silencer, there was also a corrupt police force.

The following day, on June 5th, the McKinney, Texas Police Department was called to a neighborhood pool just a 20 minute drive from my house. There, a police officer was caught on film throwing a young Black teenage girl to the ground and pressing his knee into her back, then drawing his gun on other Black teens.

Social media lit up and I lit up with it. I was so tired of White people claiming they weren’t racist when I heard, with my own ears, those very people saying racist crap. So, I took to Twitter to lay bare every racist thing I’d heard since we moved to this part of Texas two years ago. That caught the attention of someone working for World Have Your Say, a radio talk show hosted by BBC. He contacted me and asked if I’d like to be interviewed on that Monday’s program.

Initially, I panicked and wanted to throw up. I didn’t want to do the show for these reasons:
1) I am from southern Appalachia with an accent often associated with ignorance.
2) I am not an expert on ANYTHING.
3) I am White and did not want to take the place of Black voices speaking on this issue.

But I finally decided to do the program because:
1) I live in the area near the pool and I have insight to how racism presents itself here.
2) There would be a Black lady on the panel, so I was not the only voice.
3) I was an author with a newly published book dealing with racism. Not doing the show would be saying to myself, “You aren’t serious about your work; you might as well quit writing and get a job at a Dairy Queen or something.”

So I did the show, but I refused (and still refuse) to ever listen to myself on it. I *still* feel all the things I felt about not wanting to do the show. And I was still feeling them a week later when Dylann Roof, a young White racist, shot up an historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He killed nine people.

I talked to my mother the morning after. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs, couldn’t make my body move the way it should, couldn’t not cry. I said to her, among many other things, “I feel like I didn’t do enough. I was silent when I shouldn’t have been. I know I’ve spoken up a lot, but it wasn’t enough. I think we have to do something. We can’t keep thinking it’s just good ol’ boys being good ol’ boys when they say racist things.”

And I could have taken to social media right then and pushed for what was in my heart, because I felt it was FINALLY time for every single White person to examine themselves and realize they were complicit in the murders of those Black church members. In some way, we had all stood by and allowed racism to be part of our culture even when we knew it was wrong.

But then the third strike hit me and rendered me mute. Something I did not expect took place, leaving me feeling so alone and worthless. Most of the people I grew up with, most of the people I knew from the south, began to rally around the Confederate Flag. Soon protecting that flag was all anyone cared about. They cared with fervent hostility and borderline paranoia. In the heat of that melee, nothing I said would have mattered.

What I needed to do to was speak out against systemic racism. What I needed to do in my very core was point out the harm people were doing in a way that would make them want to stop doing it. But no one was listening.

For a while, I simply posted images of beautiful Black faces to my Facebook wall, not only those beautiful physically but also those who had achieved great things. I know my Black friends and those with multiracial families appreciated the gesture, but I don’t know that it had any effect on the overall problem. By that time, I’d already slipped off the ledge.

Speaking of mental illness, there have been many times in my life when I struggled with anxiety and depression. At age 42, I’ve come to be very self-aware about what is going on inside my head chemically. I no longer panic because I’m panicking. I no longer become sad because I feel sad. I just wait it out, optimistic that it will pass. Eventually.

I was so sure it would pass that I didn’t even make it an issue. I was sad. Okay. Fine. Life goes on. Right? I put one reluctant foot in front of the other reluctant foot and I did what was necessary around the house. But I gave myself permission to withdraw from social situations as needed, and that included social media. The world would go on without me, and it did.

Now, I am trying to come back, thoughtfully. I have spent many weeks analyzing my own actions over the years and contemplating ways to prevent similar failures. I have come to accept that I am part of the problem, but to also see that I am trying not to be. And if I am trying not to be the problem, then perhaps I have some value among others who are trying not to be the problem, too. I once again believe my voice matters, in a small enough way to break me out of my silence.

So expect to see my name come up more often on WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. Expect that I will once again share my observations and thoughts about the ways we treat each other. Expect that I will try to inspire us both to be better people.

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

Note to Self, On Being an Author

Note to self:

You have always been a writer, from the moment you asked your mother how to spell “I love you”. From the moment you read that poem in fourth grade which made everything make sense in a way nothing else ever had, you wanted to recreate that feeling. Metaphors were magic. You wrote for you, always. You wrote to make sense of the strangeness around you, to find God, to make peace with whatever truth revealed itself.

Eventually, you wanted to write to be published. You wanted to write about truth, but not in a journalistic way. You wanted to create fiction with purpose, to expose truths, to touch people deeply. You knew you wanted this, but not how to get there. You were nobody. You were from a small southern town. You had no education beyond high school. You had won no writing awards. You knew no other authors. You doubted yourself, not your writing.

But, a couple years ago you saw the possibility present itself. You knew you would have time to devote to writing your first novel. You began with shaking hands and a vague idea about how to get started. You were afraid to type the first words. You spent days searching for images to depict your characters, explored maps to decide on setting, and created an outline. When you finally put your fingers to the keys, your story flew onto your screen like music from a flute. It was happening. You couldn’t believe it, but it was finally happening.

Two chapters in, you knew you wouldn’t quit. You knew you wouldn’t walk away halfway through like so many other projects you had started in the past. Writing was different. It felt exhilarating. This was going to happen. One way or another, you were going to be a published author.

You asked yourself, “What do you want?”

You answered yourself, “I just want to write a book, to know I can. I want to publish it, to put it out there in the universe. I want a few readers to read it, just a few. And of those few, I want at least one to love it.”

When you read that now, what do you think? All of those things you wanted have come true. You have published two novels and two novellas. They have been read by many and at least a handful of people have loved them enough to tell you so. Everything you set out to achieve has been accomplished.

You should be so freaking proud of yourself.

So why aren’t you? Why do you now stare at your sales chart, your statistics, your feedback and desperately want something more? Do you even know what more you want? What is it? To be a bestseller? Do you want to be famous?

No. You don’t. You don’t care anything about that. Everything you wanted in the beginning is what you want now, what you already have. Please, recognize this.

I know how excited you get when someone says how much your stories move them. I also know how soon the feeling dies when you take your eyes off your own goals and begin to compare yourself with others. For every person who says they love you, there’s an author with a million readers reminding you, by their existence alone, what success “should” look like, reminding you that you did not set your goals high enough, reminding you that you are still nobody.

But for a nobody you have done so much. And for a nobody, you have created and put things out in the world which others have valued. To them, you are not nobody.

No one else is going to be able to tell you what is enough. If you don’t set that bar, there never will be one. You will always be chasing other people’s dreams and kicking yourself for failing to reach them. You are the only person who can follow your bliss, create your heaven, find peace with what comes of your creations.

Remind yourself of this. Daily.

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We Need Readers of Diverse Books

There has been a cry for diverse books. People, both children and adults, want to see themselves represented in fiction. They want to see people like themselves as heroes, princesses, achievers, and romantic love interests (maybe not all in the same book). Not every hero in real life is a White, cisgender, heterosexual, attractive man without any disabilities. Why should every hero in fiction be that?

The cry is for authors to write main characters and families which are not stereotypical, and to include a range of characters that reflect the diversity that exists in the real world.

There is also a cry from activists within commonly oppressed groups of people for the authors of these stories to be as diverse as the characters. All authors are not White men, but most who find success in the current system are White men. Do we want White men to tell all the stories about Black mothers, Native heroes, or Autistic experiences? Or would we prefer to have a Native author find success in writing from a Native point of view?

It seems simple if you look at it from a distance. “If Blacks do not like the books that are on the shelves, why don’t they write their own?”

Well, they do. But in most cases, there are not enough personal funds to get those books on library shelves. This is true of most indie-authors. We can write all day, but it takes money to get the word out. Or we can rely on publishers to offer contracts and hope they offer them to those diverse authors. But publishers only care about diversity to a certain point. Ultimately, they have to make money, and they aren’t going to make money if lots of people don’t line up to buy the books they offer.

So it comes down to the demands of readers; and it must go beyond demanding to see yourself in the pages. This is an example of why:

When I wrote my first book series, Winter Seedlings, it was never intended to be a book shelved in the gay fiction section. It was an answer to the call for diverse characters and it was intended to be sold as general fiction. I wrote it for everyone.

But, with two female main characters falling in love with each other, it was easily mis-categorized. I put it in gay fiction, then lesbian fiction. My mind was on the cry from people wanting to see themselves in the pages. I wanted to say to them, “You are in these pages. I’ll put this book in your category so you can find it.”

Winter Seedlings didn’t really belong there, though. I moved it to Women’s Contemporary Fiction, then moved it out after observing how buried it was in erotica (which Winter Seedlings is not). It is currently parked in Coming of Age fiction and Psychological Thrillers.  Truly, it hits a lot of topics.

Unfortunately, sales dwindled outside of the LGBT categories.

I have come to believe that most people buy books with the expectation that they will identify with the main character. It is obvious that a lot of heterosexual people DO NOT WANT under any circumstances to think they can relate to the experiences of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual character.

I have seen similar issues play out with cultural and ethnic diversities. Privileged groups like to see that privilege represented in stories, but not called into question. Even if the main character is unlike them in some way, they can still relate as long as the background noise hums the same as their own background noise. So, many non-Black readers might enjoy reading a story about racism and the harm done to Black communities, even if the hero were Black as long as it stayed compatible with the White narrative. But they would shy away from reading a book written by a Black author with an all Black cast of characters portraying the world around them without a nod to the White narrative. That kind of book would be labeled “African American” and shelved somewhere away from mainstream novels.

Maybe it’s okay to segregate our books that way so readers can “find themselves”. Do you think so?

The trouble is that in order for publishers to invest in minority cultures, the majority of people must be willing to read varying narratives. If not, there will be little money to be made.

This paradox plays out all the time. Authors struggle to find the balance of writing an honest story about an underrepresented culture in a way which will be appealing to a large audience without feeding stereotypes or oppression.

But at the end of the day, the ability to increase the diversity in books lies with the readers, not the authors. We have to believe that it makes us better people to place ourselves in the shoes of others by reading works created by groups we do not identify with. We have to believe the sky is not going to fall if we enjoy a book about two women in love. We have to believe that diverse books are not something created FOR oppressed groups, but for all of us.

As much as I strive to include a broad range of characters in all my books, and attempt to avoid sensationalizing them or making them tokens for consumption, I am still a White author. As much as I try to get right the various POV, I am still coming at the art of writing with my own privilege. I am not the one to speak for anyone but myself, nor do I attempt to do so.

My latest novella, Silencer, deals with racism, but the main idea of the story is how suicidal thoughts can be like a dangerous drug which can both comfort and kill those dealing with depression. I feel I have done justice to the issues of depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, and racism. And though two of the most important characters in the book are Black, this book does not qualify as being outside my demographic because it is mainly about a White woman’s POV.

As a reader, I search for books by authors writing about subjects close to their hearts, subjects which reflect their own experiences in life. I find them much more rewarding because they have a believability which goes beyond the typical White-author-looking-in-from-outside kind of fiction. That doesn’t mean that all authors should fill every book with people like themselves. But authors have a point of view which is going to come through no matter how they dress up their main characters. That point of view is going to reflect the culture in which they grew up and surround themselves.

Reading diverse books by diverse authors helps us, as authors, broaden our points of view. Reading books by diverse authors helps ensure those authors can afford to keep sharing their important perspectives. So, I challenge you, and myself, to seek out diverse authors, even more so than diverse characters. Value those perspectives which originate from within a culture. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of discovering that you can, in fact, relate to two boys being in love. That won’t make you gay, but it just might you a better human being.

A Letter to Z

Dear Z,

We live far away from you now, so when I saw your post that you are “doing drag”, I didn’t know exactly what that meant in your life right now. But, I want to write this open letter to you anyway. What I have to say is based on the time you have spent with my family and what little I know of your past. I will admit I don’t know a lot, and I could be wrong with some things I assume. But I hope you read this and see, no matter what, I’m on your side.

My daughter met you when she was forced to switch schools at the very end of her 4th grade year. She was devastated, even though her best friend was switching schools with her. As soon as she met you, the two of you became fast friends. I know from things she has told me that many kids regularly laughed at you for looking like a girl. I know it had been going on since you started Kindergarten and your hair was long. I think you needed a friend like my daughter as much she needed a friend like you.

I met you a week after my daughter switched schools. It was Talent Show Night and you were sitting on the bleachers, waiting your turn to play piano. My first impression of you was that you exuded joy. You were polite, but willing to disregard what people thought of you in order to express your happiness. You were a rebel in the name of laughter. Not only did you have my daughter (usually analytical and reserved) laughing and acting like any other 4th grader, you had my younger daughters enthralled. When you went to play piano, I cried a little, not because of the piece you played, but because I was so happy to have someone like you in the lives of my children.

I suspected then that you would likely come out as gay or trans. You were so feminine, which I know is not always an indicator. I wanted my kids to understand the complexities of sexual and gender identity so they could be supportive if that day ever came. I discussed with my kids often that “It’s okay if people are gay. It’s okay if boys like boys. Some boys are actually girls. Some girls are actually boys. You can’t judge. Etc., etc.” And I would bring this up when my daughter would tell me how other kids were insulting you by calling you gay, or calling you a girl, and how much that hurt you. I didn’t want you to be hurt, but I also didn’t want the insults to resonate with my kids as “gay is bad” or “feminine boys are bad”. Gay is not bad. Being a feminine boy is not bad. Realizing you are really a different gender is not bad.

But my daughter saw these reminders as me saying you were gay, or saying you were a girl, which to her had already been classified as a hurtful and wrong thing to say about someone. She wanted to protect you from any words, well intended or not, which might cause you pain.

I was not surprised when you became her first boyfriend. There were certainly times the two of you bickered and did not get along, and both of you were right that the other one was being unreasonable. But, ultimately, the two of you have never disliked each other. Of all the people in her life, you are probably still the one she admires the most. Why? I don’t know what she would say, but I think it’s because you push her out of her comfort zone; not into breaking rules, but in seeking out personal bliss. For example, not every boy could convince his classroom team to call themselves the Purple Unicorns with absolute disregard for the shit you were likely going to get for it. Yes, people hurt you, but you never compromised your joy… not when your classmates tried to pull you off your cloud, nor when your own family members would try to make you be a normal boy. You were determined to be happy and that’s why we love you so much.

We moved away to Texas soon after you and my daughter began dating. That was halfway through 6th grade. Now you are in 8th grade and we only see you when we come to visit and on social media. Soon after we got here, you and my daughter decided to just be friends because of the distance between you. But when we visit, you become my 5th child. Last summer we went thrift shopping almost every day we were in town. You encouraged my girls to buy brightly colored jeans. I think you bought purple for yourself. You bought women’s clothes which could have been unisex, and even tried on a ruffled blouse. All I really thought about it was, if I had been in high school, I would have bought that ruffled blouse for myself because of Prince. I accept ruffled blouses as a unisex thing. We had a blast and my girls fought over which one would sit beside you in the van and in restaurants.

Only six months later, you have posted a photo of yourself in make-up and declared that you are “doing drag”. My daughter says a friend told her you wore a dress to school. I can not say, because I haven’t spoken to you about it, whether or not you consider yourself trans. I can not say for sure if you are identifying as female. I can not say for sure if you are straight or gay. I can say, with 100% certainty, that I do not care. We all love you the same, maybe even more for knowing you are still refusing to hide your light.

But I have concerns I want to share with you because I do see you as my 5th child. So everything I say through the rest of this letter, feel free to roll your eyes at me like my kids would.

You are beautiful, naturally. If you love to wear make-up and see it as a way of expressing yourself, you should go for it. Put on glittery purple eyeshadow and huge peacock eyelashes and we will go anywhere you want to go. There is nothing you could put on to express yourself which would ever make us see you any differently than we already do. But, I need for you to know you are beautiful without it, too. What makes you beautiful is the glow you have when you laugh. You have to know that the world can see it, and the world can love you for it, and it’s enough.

Being in the LGBT community does not mean you have to sexualize your appearance. (Roll your eyes at me, but listen). I know that for grown-ups, “doing drag” can venture into some pretty inappropriate stuff for a just-turned-teen. It may be easy for you to fall into the same trap that young girls fall into, this belief that no one will every want you unless they want you “like that”.  I don’t want you to ever think you have to dress a certain way or do certain things to be accepted by whatever gender you wish to attract. You have NEVER been the kind of kid to conform, and I hope you never do. People are going to love you, many people, because of the light you exude. It is enough. Say that with me, “The light within me is enough.”

Don’t let people take advantage of you. I worry about you, Z. I am so happy you are defining yourself and trying on different ways of being in the world. But I worry predators will see you as easy prey because you are so new in the LGBT world and you have expressed doubts about whether or not you will ever be loved. Please, please, please, know that you are loved! Don’t rush into things. Believe with all your heart that someone will want you, just to be in your presence, without you ever needing to sacrifice anything for them. The person who is going to love you for who you are with or without all the glitter is probably out there right now, but too shy to say so. Please, don’t rush into anything. Be wary of anyone who is over-complimentary, boisterous, or demanding. Be wary of anyone more than 3 years older than you. Just be wary in general because we love you and don’t want anyone to hurt you.

Even if you are stuck between identifying as a boy or girl, you are not less of a human. You aren’t an inferior boy. You aren’t an inferior girl. You never will be. You are amazing no mater what. Do not settle for less on the premise that you are flawed. You certainly are not perfect. I’ve had to call you down just like I call down my girls for little things here and there. We all make mistakes, we all have strengths and weaknesses. But none of that makes us more or less human. You can be flawed and beautiful. You can be flawed and loved. You should never be around people who try to justify hurting you based on your being “not like other boys/girls”. Get those people out of your life and make room for one of many people who will want to treat you right.

And one last thing, please keep your promise to do my girls’ make-up when we visit again in March. Show them all the tricks you have learned because I am completely ignorant about all things cosmetics. They want to learn and I think it would be fun. Maybe after you teach them, they can teach me. I will pay you by taking you thrift shopping and you can buy all the brightly colored jeans, ruffly blouses, dresses, or whatever you want.

Our lives are better with you in it. We love you.

-The Towes

Love and Listen, on the topic of Nature vs. Nurture

I’m not an expert on dividing and labeling things as caused by ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’. But, I have four kids. And what I believed about the nature vs. nurture argument has steadily changed with every new addition.

Let me quickly give you a glimpse into my personality as it relates to motherhood. When I was in elementary school in the 80’s, I loved my Adopted Dolls. I pretended to teach them to read. When I was in middle school, I still played with them. When I was in high school, I started clipping news articles about raising children and child psychology. This all means that: parenting mattered to me. I wanted to do it “correctly” so that my future children could reach their highest potential. I loved them way before they were born and I had no intentions of letting them down.

I was a bit obsessive.

Before my oldest daughter was born almost 13 years ago, I stimulated her brain in the womb. And then she was born and every single time she did a wrong thing, I was right there to correct it. Her entire ability to function among other humans rested entirely in my hands. If I did not guide her along the good path, she would later fall in with the riffraff and be ruined. (Even though, at the time, I did not believe there were “bad people”, but I wasn’t about to let my daughter fall in with “people whose parents don’t care about them.”) Every move she made, I was watching her. And she as a toddler had better have made decisions like the all-knowing 30 year old woman I was at the time.

So, I find it hard to be too angry at mothers I see doing this same shit to their kids. And they brag about it. They say things like, “[2 year old] ran to the door with his toothbrush and I popped his butt and said, ‘toothbrushes go in the bathroom’.”

Because if a toothbrush leaves the bathroom, she had failed as a parent. I wish I could see them now.

When my second and third daughters were born, I realized that my first baby was not THE BABY. All the advice I had doled out over her short little life amounted to a pile of poo. But, I still continued to put my foot down with her, like the time she walked into the bedroom with a plate of chicken nuggets. They were sliding around and I could just see them falling onto the floor at any minute. That was bad. So, so very bad! And I still continued to get frustrated at my inability to mold her into a 2 year old adult, so much so that sometimes I threw things and screamed and looked like a monster.  They day she laughed at me at the peak of my rage was the day I stopped thinking rage was a solution.

That child, my oldest, I learn so much from her.

But, I had more revelations as my younger girls began to talk. I allowed them to disagree with me. We argued. We debated. I asked for their input. And I learned very quickly just how complex and different they were. I treasured these differences. One of my girls is sensitive, yet strong willed. Another wants so much to be accepted, but loves to be shocking. There is not a single parenting plan that would work for all three of my girls, other than this: “Love and Listen”.

I was proud of how far I had come as a mother. I still screwed up sometimes. And don’t think my girls didn’t point it out when it happened.

So, when my son was born, I didn’t worry so much. I thought, “He will tell me what he needs if I just love and listen.”

But, there was a problem with that.

We didn’t know it until he was 15 months old, but my son was autistic.

So, when he was a baby, if he turned his head to stop nursing, I assumed he was full.

If he didn’t ask for juice while I was at work on Saturdays, my husband assumed he wasn’t thirsty.

He could go long periods of time with a dirty diaper because he was contentedly playing with his magnetic letters and made no indication anything was wrong.

Once, I walked past the living room and saw him standing in his chair by the widow with blood on his hand and more pouring out of his mouth. He had fallen and his tooth cut through his skin, but he wasn’t crying at all.

His ability to express his needs at that time was nonexistent.

My listening skills were failing me, and I had to learn a whole new way of listening to a child who could not communicate.

Humans… You… hello, reader, you… are complex. Why do you do what you do? Why do the things that make you happy make you happy? Why are you afraid of the things you fear?

Of course, my failures and successes have shaped my children’s outlook. The way they see the world is very much related to how they see their parents. But, what we are able to actually do with that feedback about the outside world has so much do with what we were born with inside of us.

This all relates to how I view most political discourse. Sure, there are a lot of people who believe that you can go get a switch and take it to the behinds of every person that has done wrong and suddenly the world will be a better place. Right? Someone needs to spank those damn kids. Teach them right from wrong. Keep them on the “good” path, which is “my” path, because I’ve been on this path my whole life and I am so, so good.

It means nothing. That kid is going to sit down and laugh at you because they have something inside of them that you aren’t hearing.

That person that you disagree with is going to sit down and laugh at you because they have something inside of them that you aren’t hearing.

You are sitting down and laughing at them because you have something inside of you that they aren’t hearing.

I can’t tell you where to draw the line between nature and nurture. But, I assure you that nature matters. It matters in parenting and it matters in our friendships. It matters in how we view people who do things we can’t believe anyone would do. Nature does not excuse hurting people or doing truly bad things. But often, it is in the name of Nurture that most harm is done.
Love and Listen.