A Friendship to Build or Burn

It was 1990. My BFF and I had reached that point in every long-term friendship where paths separate and each of us wonders if they’ll ever again converge. She was into things I wasn’t. I was into things she wasn’t.

She was dating a friend of my boyfriend. They hung out together at parties, parties I wasn’t invited to because I wasn’t into the things that happened there. My boyfriend saw her about as often as he saw me, yet she and I rarely saw each other. I was mad at her for being in that circle. I wanted things to be like they were the year before when we watched movies together and complained because no one invited us anywhere. But just like the time in 8th grade when we ran the mile together, she found a way to move ahead and I decided I didn’t care about winning that race anyway.

So it was 1990. My boyfriend at the time said to me, “She slept with the guy that raped you.”

I cried. That’s what happened first, anyway. This information made no sense to me. My heart broke because I could only see it two ways. Either she slept with that guy because he did to her what he did to me, or she slept with him because I had her all wrong and everything I had gone through and shared with her meant nothing to her.

But as I cried, my boyfriend said, “I know you’re upset, but she just isn’t a good person. When she found out I knew about it, she told me not to tell you. She said if I ever told you, then she would tell you I had smoked pot.”

I stopped crying. Despite being notoriously emotional, I was still an observer at heart. It was so unlike my BFF to do what he was saying she did. But it was not unlike my boyfriend to smoke pot.

The next day I made a point to visit my BFF, whom I had not spoken to in weeks. I drove to her house and asked if she wanted to go to Arby’s for curly fries and a cup of cheddar. While we drove down the four lane, I said, “So, did you sleep with T___?”

She scrunched up her face in repulsion and said, “What the hell?” like I’d just slapped her with a warted frog. “No!”

“I didn’t think so,” I said. “So, tell me about my boyfriend smoking pot.”

She laughed, “Yeah, I see him over at _____ all the time and he lies to you about it. I told him I was going to tell you and he said you’d never believe me.”

That confirmed what I suspected. I let the subject drop. We had fun that day. I imagine I was happier than the outing itself warranted, because I was aware of just how close our friendship came to dying but didn’t.

What if I had believed him? What if I had never asked her point blank if what I had heard was true? That happened 26 years ago and in that time she and I have been through the best and worst times of our lives together. We went through new loves and breakups and marriages and even pregnancies together. I could have lost it all if I had never confronted her back then.

People sometimes do desperate things when they think something they’ve done will ruin a relationship. My boyfriend thought I’d leave him for smoking pot. I didn’t. But I did eventually leave him for being a liar and the type of person who would pour salt in my wounds for his own benefit. Everyone has a different moral compass. Sometimes people believe all it takes is a little white lie to set things right. But that white lie, the stone that can roll out of control down the hill, is not what breaks up other people’s friendships. The nail in the coffin is our own silence, not asking, and not communicating our concerns. If I had not been willing to doubt the accusations, ask and listen to the very person I suspected to have hurt me; I would have lost her for good and would still believe her to be something she never was.

Our lives are full of relationships built and burned on what other people say. Hold the match until you’re sure.

 

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Make Room for Disagreement

All my heroes are problematic.

All my enemies are loved by someone.

I struggle to know who the villains are. Activism, at least the successful kind, almost always requires a villain be named. We define ourselves and we label the opposite “evil”. I see this in politics on the right and left. I see this in conversations about poverty, disability, race, education, gender, status, location, and diet. If we come to a conclusion about what is “right”, we no longer feel a need to listen to anyone with a different opinion.

I don’t share (as in literally click the share button) a lot of other people’s disgruntled posts, blogs, or commentary. The usual reason is that, even if I agree with it 90%, there  are moments when the opposing view is misrepresented. If we can make the opposing view seem really, really, really terrible then we have an easier time convincing people to agree with us. And doing this is not a calculated plot by manipulative people. This exaggeration of the “bad” guy is internal. We do it subconsciously because it simplifies right vs. wrong. We feel comfortable knowing we’re on the right side, so the broader the line between the two, the easier we will rest in self-righteousness.

You know, sometimes people really want to uplift the downtrodden. But they also want to throw some punches just to be punching. It’s easier to lash out when you have dehumanized an entire swath of people you’ve never met based on a single label.

Vilifying others is effective, both mentally and socially. But it is a foolish thing to rely on. It prevents us from reaching consensus, growing individually and collectively, and it discourages others from critical thinking.

So many people are afraid of “seeming” a way if they engage in discussion. We are afraid to point out one flawed part of an otherwise perfect idea for fear we will be labeled the “bad guy” or one of “them”. We put people on pedestals because their outrage is so passionate and persistent. We become convinced that, yes, finally this issue has no gray area. It is clearly black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, pick a side and block the other, it’s time for war. Then no one is allowed to question these people on high. Discussion dies. It becomes an arena where we shout “amen” and “yes” and if someone in the room dares to demonstrate doubt about *anything*, we punch them in the face.

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating just because you wouldn’t hurt a fly. But, people in groups do things people as individuals would not. People representing social righteousness and/or religion behave a little differently than people representing only themselves. The internet has made it very easy for us to form these groups, and the formula for becoming a prominent spokesperson in them is pretty simple for anyone to follow.

I engage in this behavior sometimes. I am flawed. I see that I have done the exact thing I am complaining about now. But every day I do it less. I realize that the people that have been in my life longest have not been there because they agree with my activism. They have been there all this time because despite our very different opinions, we see the good in each other. We see the other person’s heart first and filter their ideas through what we know of their heart. I want to surround myself with more people like this, and give less credibility by default to people only wanting an echo. Maybe that means my circle gets smaller. I’m okay with that. Actually, it may be exactly what I need.

What You Owe Me

Sycamore Seed in Child's HandYou owe me
Nothing.

You do not even owe me understanding
That I mean this.

You owe me
Nothing.

How can I believe you
If you are indebted to me?

How can I trust your words
If you are obligated to say them?

How can I feel
Close to you,
If you owe me
Performances?

The world is yours.
Your thoughts are yours.
I will not reach in
To you,
Or ask you to reach in
For me.

When you do so freely,
That is love,
Because I know
You know

We owe each other
Nothing.

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

An Author’s Friends, Real and Imaginary

Writing fiction is such a solitary act. The stories we write about are inside of us. We become close to the characters we create. We glimpse very private moments of their lives. But at the end of the day when we put our laptops away they disappear. They do not chat with us over coffee. They do not call us to inquire about our child’s archery tournament. Did she score high? For all the intimacy we feel with the characters we create, for all the care we take in how we treat them, they feel nothing at all for us.

Most of us write in a quiet room. But some of us will venture out to restaurants, cafes, or parks. We will sit in the middle of other people living life and observe them, jot notes about their mannerisms, be inspired to add twists to the plot we are orchestrating. When we go to these places, we go with a cloak of invisibility. We want to see, not be seen. The real world is much like our characters, we try to understand it; it will never try to understand us.

When we finish writing our books, real people will read them. They will connect with our characters, laugh with them, care for them. They will most likely remember the names of the characters but will less likely remember the name of their creator.

And we are fine with this. We, as author, choose this. It is a sign of success that we are lost to the reader and all that exists is the story itself.

Even though living such a solitary existence is good for the author, it is not always good for the person inside that title. The people around us can do more than just inspire our story. If we let them, they can inspire us personally. They may encourage us to keep going when we want to quit. They may bring us back down from unreasonable heights. They may remind us to laugh. They may validate our experiences by sharing their own similar tales.

Not every town has enough authors to fill up the local hot spot for drinks and camaraderie. Even if it did, many authors are introverts and wouldn’t attend. So, mostly we’re alone.

Social media becomes our water cooler. Twitter is a virtual space we enter for real human interaction. Comments on our blog and facebook posts also serve as reminders that there are real people outside of our writer-haven who really want to connect with us. They see us. We are not invisible.

Not all authors have these struggles. Some are naturally extroverted (I haven’t met one, but I’m sure they exist). Some authors do not struggle with the effects of isolation. And, sadly, some authors aren’t authors at all, but pay ghostwriters to do the work and hope to make lots of money. It’s hard to tell the difference these days.

Though I can not spot all the frauds, I can certainly spot the legitimate authors I encounter on social media. They are talking about their work, their way of working, or the industry. They discuss these topics in real time and blend in moments of daily life. They come to the water-cooler that is social media in need of interaction just as much as they come in need sales, maybe more so.

The point of this blog post is to tell you, authors, that I see you. I value your presence here in the virtual world. In a space cluttered with spam and manipulation, it is because you show up in real time that I believe in you. You demonstrate all the signs of true authors in an industry full of phonies. Many of you have made me excited to read and support your work by simply tweeting about life as it happens. But a few have even proven to be my friends. Thank you.

Books

Wanted for You

Her arms were empty, so she carried whatever I asked her to.
She was walking away already, so she walked wherever I asked her to.
What I wanted, I claimed to have, because it was so close.
What’s the difference between knowing and being?
The smallest straw.

Both of my boots landed with the heels in the mud.
I never struggled. I just pulled them out.
Never losing sight of what promises lit the horizon.
We all wanted it. But, I wanted it more.
Hold the applause.

There was no time to read with his hands in my hair.
What’s the difference between to and from?
She isn’t even in the room.
But, she must know it because I know it.
Can’t you feel it, too?

The pilots didn’t look down as she didn’t look up.
I stood above her in the park, “Look up at me, now.”
I took her photograph in my shadow.
The flash reflected.
Can’t you see it, here?

Certain of the direction, our boots in sync.
There was never a doubt, not even a question,
That I loved you, love you always.
And he must love you like I love you or he doesn’t love you at all.
How can this be enough for you?

Her arms were heavy with my dream, her head full of my wishes.
The pilots flew by her, thinking her green eyes so much prettier than blue.
It was as if there had always been enough to eat,
Shelter and bread and socks and shoes.
Can you believe this?

I slipped the dress over her head and smoothed the wrinkles.
I said, “You are what I know you are, don’t be afraid.”
But, she wasn’t and she was, but she had nowhere to be.
No planes to catch.
No boots to clean.

I helped.
Without asking.
I changed the world.
For me.
I am sorry.
Too late.

Sexuality Isn’t a Soda

I got an email from a very dear friend this morning. I will share it with you, and then my reply. She said:

I don’t know if you’ll agree with me and I’m not asking you to but, you are welcome to comment. I would like to hear your opinion. We both have our own opinions and we respect each other!

I was watching a Ricky Martin video that he did with Oprah Winfrey. Sexual orientation is a big question in today’s society. I believe people aren’t born one way or another but, they grown up to make the decision. I believe it is a choice. You can choose to have a Coke or a Pepsi. See, I think it is a choice. I think you can tell a child the things he or she needs to grow up strong and independent. And I think you can show them the things they will need to exceed. Ultimately, it is the person’s decision what they will be. Don’t you see it that way? 

My response to her was more patient than I would give most people because I care a lot about her. Here is how I replied:

Here is the litmus test…. could you love and have sex with a woman and enjoy it?
I mean, you can drink a Pepsi or a Coke, right? So, could you fall in love with a woman, have sex with her, marry her, and have what you have with X____… only you “prefer” not to do that? Or, is it that you COULD NOT love and have sex with a woman?

If your theory is correct, then most gay people would have been raised outside of a church. They would grow up in families who approved of being gay, families which did not teach them not to be gay.

Do you already see that your theory is failing these tests? Because many gay people are beaten by their parents when their parents suspect they are gay. There are gay people who were told from the earliest signs that they did not fit in, that they could only do things stereotypical for their gender. Boys were beaten for wanting their nails painted, or even for hugging their friend in a way that was too loving.

Yet, people are still gay. Why do they choose that, if it is a choice?

Sexuality is not a choice. Who we love is not a choice. Who we marry, is a choice to a certain extent…meaning, you like boys, but chose X____. Gays do not get that choice, but they should. Take a moment to consider the idea of being gay outside of the context of sex. Because relationships are not about sex, at least not the ones that last until someone proposes marriage.

If you really, truly, want to know if it is a choice…find out what gay people have to say about it. You really can’t form an opinion about gays if you haven’t actually talked to any about it. They are all over the place, do some research.

And I have to divulge that the novel I am writing centers around the relationship between two girls, how they help each other recover from two different types of abuse. One of them can not seem to break free from it. But, these girls love each other… yes, “like that”. I didn’t write it to sensationalize the gay issue. Actually, I hope that it helps in de-sensationalizing the gay issue. This book is not about “being gay”. It’s about surviving self-hatred.

In real life, my friends C____ and M____ have been living together for 18 years, but they are not allowed to marry each other. Still, their love for each other and the strength of their relationship is far greater than what you or I experience with our own marriages. I don’t mean that to sound bad to us. I am only saying that they are inspiring as a couple, and they make me want to be a better person to my own spouse.

Even if it was a choice, and it isn’t, I truly believe they are meant to be together.

I hope this helps you understand my point of view.

I wanted to share this publicly, because this question plays out in the storyline of my novel. Why do we love the person we love? Where do we fit in? How do we survive a journey through self-loathing without love?

One day, I hope to hand my book to her. I hope she will read it and understand that love is complex and essential and nothing at all like a soda.