Saga of a Lost Sister

After a bad day at work, on the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I began a journey back to the person I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.  I never doubted I would end up at the end of a keyboard someday…once Life stopped getting in the way (Life being things like education, employment, marriage, children, tea drinking).  Life never did stop getting in the way of course, so I simply chose to change my Life.  No, I did  not get rid of my family or job and I certainly did not get rid of the tea.  I just made room.  And I stopped making excuses.

On this blog you will find extracts of my writing, scraps of inspiration, works in progress, reviews, theories and regular status reports on my epic struggle to get my novel to your shelves.


Giant Girl Made of Hair

The following extract is from my work in progress: a YA novel entitled Some Kind of Something which is inspired by my best friend’s first love.   Chapter Three reminds me a lot of how said best friend and I first met.  Happy Birthday to my Len-spiration!

Chapter Three: Giant Girl Made of Hair

Bench near the parking lot of Pioneer Hall. March 25th, 1986

If someone wears headphones—big headphones, proper headphones, the ones that look like cybernetic earmuffs slurping at your skull with spongy musical love, and an insulated cord so long it reaches all the way back to the womb.  If someone sits on their own in the middle of a bench wearing headphones like that, it’s a clear signal that someone wants to be left alone.  Most people understand this.

Althea Ray does not understand.

I have temporarily escaped from the Illinois Youth Orchestra.  The last straw was watching my brother flirt with First Chair Violist Megan who, I think, was flirting with Glowing Jordan of the Flutes.  I’m not sure if Glowing Jordan was flirting with anyone, but it didn’t seem like he was going to be ascending or transforming anytime soon either.

Hate to miss that.   

But I need fresh air and I don’t care if it’s allowed or not.  I’m sitting on a bench outside Pioneer Hall, watching the security lights in the parking lot tremble to life as the sun sinks below the horizon.  I’ve got my headphones on, there’s no one else around and there’s a fresh, crisp spring breeze blowing through my hair.  If anyone asks, I’m waiting to meet my parents before the concert.

The idea of the concert and my parents spoils the peaceful moment.  My pulse starts to race and my everything clenches in anticipation.  I’m not sure which looming crisis scares me more: performing as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra or performing with my brother for our parents as one of the youngest members of the Illinois Youth Orchestra.

The security lights in the parking lot flick on and off like they can’t decide whether they’re meant to be up yet.  Or they’ve woken up ready to party.  A disco strobe parking lot.

Their indecision is not helpful.  My breathing becomes quick and shallow, my throat constricts and I’m about to launch myself off this bench and onto the disco parking lot, when the sound of heavy panting followed by a solid thump makes me jump.  Huge quantities of black hair greet me from an impossible height.


Talking black hair.  Flickering security lights silhouette the sleek head in lightening bursts like something out of a horror film.  I shrink into the collar of my black turtleneck. One hand emerges from the shadow and gives a little wave.  A second hand rests on the shoulder of an enormous purple case which contains either a giant guitar or a small child.

The giant’s hair is everywhere.  Black sheets of it slide from a neatly parted scalp, down the sides of a heart-shaped face, over narrow shoulders, across the purple case/coffin.  She—I assume it’s a she beneath all that hair—realises it’s in her way because one hand pushes it back, revealing a person.  In the dark, with the flashing light behind her, I can’t make out her features, but I think they’re mostly female and human.

‘Hi,’ she repeats.

She smiles tightly down at the part of the bench occupied by Chordelia then raises her black eyebrows as if asking my viola for permission to sit down.  Her full lips widen into a manic, sunbeam smile, all white teeth and infectious cheer.  The sort of smile beauty queens and talk show hosts practice in the mirror.   It’s a: “You’re going to like me and I won’t give up until you do so you might as well face it and make room for me because I can charm you under the table with my teeth tied behind my back” smile.

Fingers still trembling, I pull Chordelia, safe in her case, onto my lap, making room for the hairy giant with the monstrous purple coffin to sit down next to me.

‘Thanks,’ she mouths.  Her long legs vanish beneath the bench.  ‘I felt a bit stupid just standing out here by myself,’ she shouts into my ear.  ‘With this thing,’ she slaps the side of the purple case, possibly as a signal to silence the poor creature trapped inside it.

Why is she out here at all?  And why is she shouting?

‘What are your listening to?’ the giant girl of hair bellows.

Oh.  That’s why.

I forgot about my headphones.  Easy to forget because they aren’t plugged into anything.  The jack is stuffed into the back pocket of my pants.  I don’t wear headphones for entertainment, I wear them for protection. Like armour.  When I wear my headphones, no one tries to talk to me.  (Usually.)  I can pretend not to hear the nasty things people say behind my back and to my face.  My headphones defend me.

Beside me, the girl made of black hair stretches caramel-coloured hands and shakes out long, slim fingers.  Pianist hands, I think, though it’s probably not a piano inside that purple beast.  Now that my head isn’t picturing horror films, I recognise it as a cello case.  Like Hector’s.  Only purple.

Great.  She’s a giant hairy cellist. 

‘What are you listening to?’ she repeats, louder, closer and slower, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears.   That hair has a mind of its own.  It wants to be free.

‘What?’ I ask breathlessly.  I slide half a headphone to one side, pretend I haven’t heard her, try desperately to think of how to answer, wish she hadn’t asked and wonder if she can tell I’m breathing like a marathon runner on mile twenty.

‘What are you listening to?’ she asks for a third time.

‘Umm…’  My face heats.  I suck at lying.

‘Is it shocking?’ she grins in a voice borrowed from some English Victorian parlour drama.  ‘Or just embarrassing and ridiculous?’  She rolls her the “r” of ridiculous.

‘Both,’ I puff, kind of truthfully.

‘I think I’ve seen you around the practise rooms at school.’

‘Probably,’ I nod, grateful to move on from the topic of what I’m not listening to on my headphones.  ‘I spend a lot of time there.’

‘I’m Althea.’

A caramel hand stretches out from behind the ebony curtain of hair and takes mine. Despite the early spring chill, her hand feels warm.  My cold, shaking fingers hold her too tightly for too long.

Althea doesn’t seem to mind.  She smiles.  Not the beaming beauty queen smile she flashed because she wanted something, but a real smile.  An awkward smile that doesn’t look forced exactly, just off.  Like her smile is still trying to figure out its purpose in the world.

‘Len,’ I mumble.

I try to take my hand back, but she holds onto it for another minute before letting go.  A familiar routine plays out on Althea’s face.  One I’m used to.  If she has noticed me before, hanging around the practise rooms, it’s probably not the first time she’s played this game.

I can almost hear her brain wonder: What are you?

Her eyebrows, black and thick as her hair, knit together.  Her eyes, big, black and almond-shaped, with almost no fold at the lids, study my face.  I wonder if she’s Asian or Indian.  I wonder if it’s OK to ask.  Her eyes drop from my face down to my chest then up to my neck.

Smart girlToo bad.  I’m wearing a turtleneck.

I wait for her to make up her mind.  To take in my square jaw and peachy skin; my long lashes and chiselled cheek bones; my short hair and gentle curls.  I wait for her to put this together with my alto/tenor voice, my long, lanky body, softened by puppy fat but still unformed, and my unhelpful name.  I wait for her to ask.  Like everyone else.

She never does.

‘What you listening to, Lenny?’  Althea doesn’t change her body language one bit.  Not to slide in closer or shift to make room.  Not that she could have.  Most of the available space belongs to her.  ‘Before I interrupted you,’ she adds apologetically.

‘Nothing,’ I confess, but she talks over me.

‘The Vivaldi piece?  That’s a tough one for the violists.’

‘Yeah,’ I respond, answering the second question, avoiding the first.

‘The third movement is kicking my ass,’ she sighs.

‘The embellishments on the first are a bitch,’ I agree, matching her swearing.

‘Don’t you think Vivaldi’s like the angry gym teacher of the string section?’

‘The one who makes us run in place and calls it a rest period?’

‘Yeah,’ laughs Althea.  ‘That one.’  I made her laugh.  Encouraged, I stretch the joke even further.

‘He’s like the bitter coach who thinks he’s pushing us to make us stronger.’

‘Totally,’ she giggles.

‘I hate that guy.’

‘Vivaldi’s a bully.’

‘He was a violinist,’ I shrug.

‘The diva sopranos of the string section,’ she replies.

‘Totally,’ I chuckle.

‘Maybe he wanted revenge for all the hours spent practicing.’

‘Probably,’ I agree.

A dark cloud settles over the conversation.  I wonder how many years she has sacrificed to the gods of music.  As many as I have?  I wonder how good she is.  Better than me?  Better than Hector?

If she turns out to be better than Hector, that would be awesome!

‘Sounds like we have a lot in common, Lenny.’  She places one hand on her purple case and one hand on Chordelia’s, patting them with a grim kind of fondness.

‘Len,’ I correct her.

Then, before I can stop myself, I give away the punchline to my favourite joke.  Just blurt it out.  Like it means nothing.  Like it isn’t my weapon and shield.

‘It’s short for Helen.’

I wait, breath held, for her reaction.  She shrugs.  Like it doesn’t matter.  Boy?  Girl? Vegetable?  Mineral?  It’s almost always the first thing people want to know about me.  But Althea doesn’t seem to care.

Well, this is different…

‘J Althea Ray,’ she proclaims formally, holding her hand out again, this time waiting for me to take it.

I worry my hand will be too clammy or slightly shaky but, to my surprise, it feels steady.  The pulsing terror at my throat is gone.  Like magic.

‘Helen R Timothy.’   Her hand feels deliciously warm.

‘Timothy?’ she repeats, incredulous.  ‘As in Hector Timothy?’

‘Yeah.’  I take my hand away and pull Chordelia to my chest.  The spell is broken.  She’s going to be another Hector fan, I just—

‘But he’s such an asshole.’

The world stops spinning for a moment.  Did she really just call my brother an asshole?  Wonderful Hector?  Genius Hector?  Hector that everyone loves?

‘Umm…’ I mumble, completely wrong-footed in the best way.  Like stepping off a high dive and falling into a pool of cotton candy rainbow clouds.

‘Sorry,’ she backtracks, ‘no offense, but your brother is kind of a—

‘Dick,’ I finish for her enthusiastically.  ‘Yeah.  He totally is.’

And in that moment, I know.  The instant she calls my golden brother an asshole, I know this is someone special and magical and important.

‘What’s the J stand for?’ I ask, struggling to tone down my sense of wonder.

‘If we’re still friends a year from now,’ she grins mischievously, ‘I’ll tell you.’

One year later, she will.

A Little Respect

I think I needed it more than they did.  Not for me exactly, but for the ones who came before: the friends who struggled and suffered in so many ways; the heroes who made it possible; the haters who finally, reluctantly, dragged their asses to the band wagon.  Of course, it didn’t go as planned.  Does it ever?

It’s Pride Month and I didn’t want Pride Month to go by without marking it with the ones who matter: my students.  Because I remember how it was and, as much as things have changed, I’m not so naïve to think the battle has been won.

When my daughter came out to me, I was gutted.  Not in an “Oh my god my kid is queer,” hand wringing sort of way, but because she was so blasé about it.  There was no tearful conversation over hot chocolate that went late into the night.  It was just: ‘You know, mum.  Most of my friends are pan.’  Later, I had to look up what that means.

Obviously, I am delighted that she and her friends have that freedom.  Even more delighted that my friends—the parents of her friends—have barely batted an eyelash.  I’m still a little bitter at being denied the opportunity to bake rainbow cupcakes for an official Coming Out Party, but I’ll get over it.

One girl in my form came out as Pan over the summer and another has spoken openly about her girlfriend to me and others.  And they are not alone.  There’s at least one lad in Year 10 who is out and a trans kid in Year 9 who was the topic of a Staff Meeting.  The Deputy Head wanted to make sure we call him by his new name and informed us of the arrangements in place for him.

All this fills me with a kind of joy that, as their teacher/colleague, I can’t express properly because it might get me fired.  I want to hug them and kiss them through tears and tell them how proud I am and overwhelmed by the world they are shaping for us all.  I want to dance with them to Erasure.

On the other hand, I had a stern conversation early this year with two others in my form for queer bullying.  The battle is far from over.  Which brings me to Pride Month.

Last week, I decided to mark Pride with the students in my form.  I wanted them to understand the origins of Pride and to appreciate the monumental progress which has taken place in a relatively short period of time.  After a lunchtime spent sifting through options, I showed them Tyler Oakley’s Chosen Family: Stories of Queen Resilience.  The queer girls cheered when they saw the rainbow and the word “queer” in the title, though their attention drifted as Tyler Oakley investigated the history of The Stonewall Riots and interviewed a bunch of old queers.

I wanted to scream.  Don’t you get it?  Two generation ago, you would’ve been arrested for partying with your friends!  A generation ago, you wouldn’t have dared come out.  A generation ago, you would’ve had the shit beat out of you.  Your parents would have disowned you and their friends would have sympathised with them.  My friend’s mother brought a priest to their house to perform an exorcism when he came out.  People died.  So many people died.  And your attention is drifting!

How dare you?

‘It wasn’t that long ago,’ I explained, ‘that police raided gay bars—

‘That were ages ago,’ interrupted Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend.

‘—for no other reason than they were gay,’ I finished.

‘Half a lifetime ago,’ added Pan Girl.

‘That’s not that long,’ I protested.  ‘It took women two thousand years to get the vote.  It took blacks in American three hundred years to get from enslavement to the presidency.  Never take your liberty for granted.’

‘And anyway, if the Stonewall Riots were in June,’ continued Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend.  ‘So why do we celebrate Pride in August?’

‘We don’t.  York Pride was last week and Harrogate Pride is this weekend.’

‘Yeah, but London Pride—

‘Is in the first week of July so it doesn’t clash with Wimbledon,’ I argued, guessing wildly.

Girl Who Talks Openly About Her Girlfriend shrugged and the bell rang and the moment I invested so much in died.  This is how it is to teach teenagers.  I want to grab her and shake her until she gets it.  Again, this would get me fired.  I also want to hug her, cry on her shoulder and tell her how grateful I am that she lives in a better world.  Not a perfect one, but better.

Because I remember how hard it was for people I loved to live life in the closet.  I remember how painful it was for them to come out and how terrible it is when they decide not to—to permanently live the lie.  I remember families rejecting them.  I remember beautiful people dying of a disease that became the butt of every joke for a decade.

I worry that everyone else has forgotten.  There has been so much progress so quickly: gay marriage legislation; more adoption equality; a community that has exploded as one famous person after another comes out and new ones step forward in a rainbow spotlight.  It’s easy to forget and grow complacent.  Until the Supreme Court rules in favour of a baking bigot.

As the various people in the video say, we must do what we can to honour those who came before.  The ones who put their bodies on the line so that we can have the freedoms we have today.  They risked their lives—many lost their lives.  To forget would be a true tragedy.

My students might not get it yet, but I do.  Bless those drag queens of yesterday.  May their heels not break on rough roads tomorrow.

Some Kind of Something

Today would have been Alan’s 48th birthday.  Even now, more than twelve years after his death, I find it hard to clearly articulate what he meant to me.  The phrase “force of nature” may be over-used, but it is not inaccurate.  If anything, it feels like an understatement.  Alan wasn’t a force of nature for me, he was a source of magic.  Kind, funny, brilliant, talented, adventurous with a touch of mad scientist and a pinch of jack ass.

He introduced real joy into my life.  Later, he introduced love into the life of my best friend.  It was not a storybook romance, but it is a love story that deserves to be told.

My latest novel in progress is based on the true love story of Alan and Brian.  I have changed not only their names, but also the sexes of two characters (I prefer to write about the experiences of women and girls).  What follows is the first chapter of this novel in which Alan appears as he was in life, not just in his fictional guise of Althea.

Happy Birthday, Alan.

Chapter One: Some Kind of Something

Iowa Youth Orchestra Invitational. March 25th, 1985

The boy in the flute section keeps glowing at me.  I should be concentrating on the second viola line of Copland but there he is: just beyond the conductor’s wildly gesticulating arms, directly in my line of sight, glowing.  Boys playing flute are rare, but glowing, flute playing boys?  Unreal.  Very distracting.

His golden blonde hair, styled in that asymmetrical way that makes even the most boring person look instantly cool and rebellious, falls across the right side of his angular face in a perfectly imperfect wave.  His eyes could be any colour.  I decide on golden brown.  It fits his colour scheme.  So does his cream-coloured dress shirt and bow tie worn with, of all things, stonewashed, tight-rolled jeans.

Supernatural and a snappy dresser, I remark to myself, awed on so many levels.

The glow begins at the back of his head, like a saint’s halo.  From there, it trickles in a waterfall of light over the rest of him—even casting a faint shimmer over the people around him.  It’s not quite golden sunshine and not quite silvery moonlight.  Soonslight?  Munline? I need better words.

Long, slender fingers dance across his flute.  I wonder if he’s any good.  Everyone here is at least a little bit good if not brilliant.  I decide he is a prodigy; born with otherworldly musical talent.  He’s definitely some kind of something.  A child of Orpheus.  Or Apollo.  A godlike parent might explain his glow.

Am I really the only one who can see this?  I peel my eyes away from him to peek at the people around me.  No one else stares, goggled-eyed or open-mouthed at this boy.  It makes no sense.  There’s an angel glowing in the flute section, people.  Get your eyes off your music stands and just look!

No one looks.  Except me.  I look plenty.  I try not to stare.  I try to stop the strange thoughts and images galloping through my brain, which include swapping his dress shirt for a toga and his flute for a lyre.  I turn my attention back to Copland (where it belongs), but The Boy in the Flute Section keeps on glowing.

Sometimes, my imagination doesn’t so much run away with me as gallop wildly ahead while I cling desperately to the saddle of sense.  This is one of those times.  I decide not to fight it—to just bask in his glow and imagine the possibilities.  Elf?  Druid?  They were good at music.  Angel?  Nymph?   Were there male nymphs?

The girl on my right kicks me.

‘Lenny,’ First Chair Viola Megan growls under her breath.  ‘What is your problem?’

‘Huh?’ I grunt, disoriented; the glow from the boy in the flute section still pulsing at the corner of my eye.

‘You missed the embellishments on the bridge,’ hisses Megan.

‘I did?’

‘What is up with you?’ she whispers through her teeth.

‘I can’t help it,’ I protest, flustered into honesty.  ‘That guy in the flute section keep glowing at me.’

Megan’s eyebrows crumple under her streaked hair of indeterminate colour, bangs backcombed to the ceiling.  She looks from me to the glowing flutist and back again with a confused expression.

‘He’s not glaring at you, Lenny,’ she snaps.  ‘Get over yourself.’

‘Not glaring, glo—’ I begin to correct her, then give up.  ‘Whatever,’ I sigh.

I wipe sweaty hands on my wide-whale corduroy pants; dig my nails into the grooves of the fabric to root myself back into the real world.  Back to Copland.  Thank goodness this is only a rehearsal.  I turn my body toward Megan, away from the woodwinds, positioning Chordelia carefully to block my view of the glowing boy.

Megan gives a superior sniff, straightens her spine and tosses her hair, which might have been an impressive gesture if her hair wasn’t sprayed into immobility.  I’m sure I hear her mumble ‘children,’ under her breath.

Not a children, Megan, I want to retort.  I’m thirteen.  Almost.

Since Megan is seventeen, this would not impress her.  And she isn’t totally wrong.  I am one of the youngest people here at The Iowa Youth Orchestra Invitational.  Youth Orchestra is usually reserved for older kids—the sixteen to eighteen crowd.  This isn’t a rule, more like a tradition and a practicality.  No one younger than sixteen has the skills or experience to earn a place.

But there were a few of us who do.  I am one of three middle school kids here with the big, scary high schoolers, performing in the not exactly famous but not totally unknown Pioneer Music Hall of Griffin College in my hometown of Stella, Iowa.  Woodwinds to the right of me.  Cellos to the left.  Chordelia on my shoulder.  Somewhere in the cello section, my older brother Hector bows like he’s declaring war on music and pretends I don’t exist.

Chordelia is the reason I’m here.  I named my first viola Chord-elia when I was nine.  I thought it was the coolest, smartest name in the world.  Lots of kids play cello, lots of kids play violin, but not many play viola.  We are a rare breed.  A string between.  There simply aren’t enough of us to fill the Youth Orchestra viola section, which is why I am here, standing out like a sore, sticky with childishness, thumb.

How old is glowing flute boy?  I wonder idly as I wait for my part to come up in the Copland piece.  He looks tall (though it is impossible to tell since he’s sitting down), but his face looks boyish.  My eyes flick back to him, peering down Chordelia’s fingerboard.

Yep.  Still glowing.

Maybe he’s a changeling.  Part fairy, part human.  Changelings are meant to be beautiful and talented and—

‘His name’s Jordan,’ interrupts a sharp voice from my left.  I freeze—embarrassed that someone has not only caught me staring but correctly identified who I am staring at.  ‘He’s kind of a dickhead,’ the voice adds.

What?  Impossible!  He’s not a dickhead, he’s an angel.

I want to turn and confront the voice, but don’t dare.  It belongs to a cellist.  Not my brother (thank goodness), but I tend to lump all cellists with him under the title of “Evil Forces in the World.”

I shake my shoulders, casting off the evil cellist’s irritating remarks, and concentrate on the music.  When morning rehearsal breaks for lunch, I pack up Chordelia and march from Pioneer Hall to the adjoining greenroom without meeting anyone’s eyes.  The bags and jackets belonging to the members of the Iowa Youth Orchestra hang in a series of huge closets which stretch across the back of the greenroom.  I open the one labelled with a laminated rectangle of white cardboard reading: “String Section”.

The next thing I do isn’t planned.  It’s automatic.  Unconscious.  Old habit.  My free hand reaches though the layers of coats and bags to probe the back of the closet.  I knock. Wait.  Press my palm against the solid wood surface.  Wait again.

‘Looking for lampposts?’ chuckles a sharp voice over my shoulder.  It’s the evil cellist who’s not my brother again.

‘Superstitious,’ I murmur, embarrassed at getting caught.

Still not looking the cellist in the eye, I deposit Chordelia on the top shelf, grab my brown paper lunch bag, bury my face in my turtleneck and find a quiet place in corner of the greenroom to eat.  I would rather go outside for lunch, even if the weather is a bit chilly.  I know just where I would go too: The Faulconer Garden.  It’s just around the corner from Pioneer Hall, small and secret.  No one else in the Iowa Youth Orchestra would know about it since most of them are from out of town.

But I don’t think we’re allowed to leave, so I slide down the wall to the floor for a practise room picnic.  The peanut butter and honey sandwich I made that morning has somehow bent in half.  I smooth it out and try to keep my eye contact focused on my lunch.  If I look up, someone might take it as an invitation and I am in no mood to invite.  Hector sits in the centre of a circle of older kids who all know each other from previous Youth Orchestra events.  I hear him holding court in the middle of the room; impressing everyone.  They just love him.

Until Glowing Jordan of the Flutes walks through the door.  Half the room, even Hector, turns to stare at him the same way I did.  He doesn’t shine like he did in the hall, but the fluorescent lighting in the greenroom make everyone look washed out.  I was right about him being tall.

He is something for sure. 

Tonight, I decide, thoughtfully chewing my sandwich, I will find my diary and make a note of him.  Glowing Flute Boy Jordan will be my Exhibit: C or possibly Exhibit E.  I’m not sure which letter I’m on anymore in my quest to prove that magic still exists.

Magic isn’t drawn very often to Stella, Iowa.  Why would it be?  It’s a nothing little town in the middle of a cornfield.  Hardly a place for elves or ogres or dragons.  I make my observations and my notes, but I know that if I really want to explore the magic traces that remain, I’ll have to go further afield someday.

But that boy in the flute section.  I think, mind drifting back into the present.  He’s some kind of something. 

I’m so absorbed in my lunch and my theory, I don’t notice the girl staring at me.  She’ll remind me of this later and I will pay for it.  I don’t know it yet, but she will be my Exhibit: F, G, H…  Exhibit: Rest of the Alphabet.

She is Althea Ray.  And she is definitely some kind of something.

They come for the artists first

shepard-greaterthanfear-copy-768x1024Like many people across the world, the words of Pastor Martin Neimoller have been foremost in my mind these days.  Set on permanent repeat actually.  A bass chorus chanting under my daily conversations and routines ever since Trump assumed occupation of The White House, and particularly in light of Holocaust Memorial Day.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a communist.

I am assuming you are familiar with the poem and its chilling reminder of how dictatorships begin and where they end.  If not, I advise you to commit it to memory and keep its message close to your heart in these troubled time.

But this morning I realised something important: the poem is wrong.  They—the big, faceless (well, no longer faceless, actually), all powerful, fascist THEY do not come for activists first.  They come for the artists.  Upon realising this, I felt stupid for never seeing it before.

As a second generation Drama teacher, actor, writer, singer and advocate of the arts, I have always known that The Arts frequently go unacknowledged and under-appreciated.  In my student days at an American High School, I raged about the fact that The Speech Team I competed and regularly won for never received the same sort of recognition given to the football team who regularly lost.  Out amazing, talented, hardworking Music Department had to sell candy bars every year just to afford the basics of uniforms, instruments and travel expenses.  I never once saw the sports teams having to do this.  It enraged me.

Thirty years later, as a teacher of The Arts, little has changed.  Arts programs are always the first to go.  Artists accept this.  We hate it but we accept it.  We are not viewed as essential or important or necessary to the world, no matter how deeply we know in our hearts that we are.

But this morning I woke up and realised I had it all wrong.  Not only are we essential—of COURSE we are essential—but those in power know we are.  The Big, Bad They knows exactly just how essential and powerful and necessary artists are and that’s why The Fascist They is terrified of artists.  That is why artists become targets, and not just for budget cuts.

Who did terrorists attack not once but twice, in 2011 and 2015?  Charlie Hebdo.  A magazine.  Why was Charlie Hebdo targeted?  Because of art.  According to inside sources, Trump plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Corporate Broadcasting.  Even before assuming office, Trump began a Twitter war with the artists of Saturday Night Live and Hamilton and, of course, with the press.

In the seventeenth century, Cromwell shut down the theatres.  Before him, the medieval church did the same.  Both Cromwell and the Church he despised believed the arts were sinful and dangerous.  In the cast of the latter, this did not apply when the arts were used to glorify their version of God.  Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain—all suppressed the arts through censorship and media control.  It’s practically step three of The Dictator’s Handbook: control the artists.  If you can’t control them, shut them up.


Because The Big Bad They knows artists have power.  Possibly more power than the military or the agitators of the opposition.  Art stays.  Art expresses.  Art hits us in the head and the heart.  Art makes us laugh at the people who want to scare us.  Art changes everything.

jimmy_c_anne_frank_street_art_berlin_10081In English classes, I teach about the importance of art in World War One propaganda.  How poetry and poster art rallied the reluctant to the cause.  A century later, poetry is all that remains of Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and August Stramm.  Anne Frank never meant to use her diary to change public understanding of The Holocaust, but it did.  She showed the world what it lost through the experiences of one little Jewish girl and her family.

And what did we see in the streets last week across the Globe?  Wave after wave of art in the form of protest signs.  The craft of knitting on display, topping the heads of the mob in fabulous pink.  And music: glorious, noisy chants and song.  Poetry from the podium.  Angry art on the march.

Hitler knew about the power of The Arts.  He was an artist himself and he used art to manipulate the image of Jews.  Music too became an important rallying cry for German Nationalism.

But The Art must be controlled.  It must serve The Them.  It cannot be allowed to flourish.

So what?

My history teacher was forever asking us: So What?  Why is this important?  Why do we need to know this?

Because we have to keep making art. It is an essential part of the resistance.  Keep arting, keep acting, keep writing.  Keep expressing your truth and sharing it with the world.  That last part is essential: share it with the world.  If you are not an artist yourself, become a supporter of The Arts. Go to galleries, concerts, theatres.  We need art more than ever now.

Fascists fear art, so we who wish to resist have an obligation to be their worst nightmare.womens-march-on-washington

Join The Mockingjay Fellowship Army: A YA Geek’s Survival Guide for the Wars to Come

Fiction-all art in fact-holds a mirror up to reality.  That mirror may be painfully accurate or distorted by fantasy, but either way that mirror reflects truths of humanity.  It is where we find comfort and discomfort, the world as it is or as we wish it to be, a place of refuge and a place of strength. 

Like billions of people across the world, I am struggling to come to terms with the events which played out in America this week.  Before you turn away in boredom or disgust (though I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy if you did, for the internet is dark and full of terrors at this time), I urge you to place the results of the election into a wider context.  This is not just about Trump’s election.  It’s more about what his election says about our world.

We are entering into a period of “Interesting Times” and must brace ourselves for what is to come.  You have studied the events of the twentieth century I am sure, though it is unlikely that your high school history teacher was anywhere near as brilliant as mine (thank you, Mr Walters).  A clear grasp of the events which led to first World War I and then World War II is essential knowledge for us all at this time, so if you were not paying attention in class, go back and look over your notes again.  Better yet, photocopy the notes your Hermione Granger-type friend took and study those.

Taken in isolation at the time, not one of the key moments looked as if it could lead to the global horrors that followed.  Together they did.  It happened.  And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are slow learners.  Every clock has a pendulum swinging back and forth-that is the nature of time. So, get ready.  The pendulum is about to go about as far to the right as it is able.

Read the news.  Look around you.  Pay attention.  Open your eyes, ears and mind to the new reality.  It ain’t pretty.  We are only days into the New Trump Order and already race hate, misogyny and homophobia are running rampant.  The Death Eaters are gearing up for a march toward Mordor.

Fortunately, we keen readers of YA Genre Fiction are uniquely prepared for just such a state of affairs.  All those delightful hours losing ourselves in the dystopian world of Panem, cheering on Dumbledore’s Army and following the terrifying journeys of The Fellowship are about to pay off.  These brilliant authors, these beloved characters and these rich tales of heroism were preparing us all along for difficult days.

The following is a survival guide for the wars to come.  I wish you good fortune.  I wish us all wisdom and fortitude to make it through.

thai-protesters-with-three-finger-salute-imitate-katnissRule Number One: Know the Real Enemy

When Katniss was in her second Arena, she did not know who to trust.  Haymitch’s words echoed in her head: “Remember who the real enemy is.”  The real enemy is probably not the person next to you who voted for Trump or whose parents voted for Trump.  The real enemy at the moment is the same enemy who always rears is ugly head at times like these: that three-headed hydra of Fear, Ignorance and Greed.

Ask yourself why did the middle of America vote for Trump in large numbers?   Why did working class voters in Britain vote for Brexit?  It’s too easy to say because they were stupid.  Ignorance is not the same as Stupidity.  Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and understanding, not a lack of brain power.  And it is easy to be ignorant when the popular press is all you read and it is telling you that immigrants took your jobs (sound familiar?  Daily Prophet anyone?).  The Greed and Ignorance heads of the hydra working together.

The greatest con being pulled right now is that immigrants are to blame for the economic and employment difficulties happening in the UK and the US.  But the real enemy is the greed of the wealthy business owners who moved their manufacturing to cheaper countries, bleeding the working class of their own countries dry.  These same greedy, wealthy business tycoons are also influencing or, in the case of Trump, running the governments which are convincing the people that immigrants are to blame.

Know the enemy.


Rule Number Two: Keep Your Friends Close.8cclhly

Frodo would not have made it to Mt Doom without Sam by his side.  Harry Potter needed Hermione and Ron.  Buffy needed her Scooby Gang. We won’t make it through this alone.

Make sure, however, that these friends are true friends.  Like-minded individuals who see the truth as you do and are determined to fight against it rather than give in to the popular opinion.  Prepare to be in the minority to start with.  You and your friends may be targeted.  Stick together.  Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville had Harry’s back when everyone thought he was lying about You Know Who.

Be that army.  



Rule Number Three: Stay True to Yourself

Lucy Pevensie, hero of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is one of my favourite characters because she stuck by her truth even when her entire family thought she was a deluded liar.  She knew that she had gone through a wardrobe into a magical land to have tea with a talking fawn and no one could tell her otherwise.  She didn’t back down and question herself.  Popular opinion did not sway her.

If you can see the hate and lies swarming around you and you know it is wrong, stick by your truth.  Don’t compromise your principles just because everyone else thinks you’re crazy or stupid.  Bigotry is wrong no matter what.  Persecuting someone based on race or religion, gender or sexual orientation is just plain wrong and you know it is.

Even Katniss risks losing herself first to the Capitol’s blackmailing demands that she quell the rebellion by becoming their pawn, then by her own demons which threaten her sanity. “To thy ownself be true.”  See, your English teacher is right.  Shakespeare is relevant.

Know your truth. 


dumbledores_armyRule Number Four: Don’t Give in to The Dark Side

They may have cookies, but those cookies are poison.  Another of my favourite childhood books (which you should read if you haven’t yet) is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy.  In the second book, The Kestrel, hero Theo joins a rebellion for all the right reasons, but soon becomes a monster who nearly kills the woman he loves.  Seriously.  Go read these books.

The Dark Side is a bit of theme with YA Genre Fiction.  Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Frodo, Katniss-they all face the choice of becoming the very thing they despise.  In the end, they all choose the light.

By all means join the resistance.  Go to rallies.  Organise walk outs.  Protest to the rooftops.  But keep a clear set of guiding principles in mind.  When in doubt, think on this: do you really want your good cause to be won through bad actions?

Don’t give in. 


Rule Number Five: Take Time for Joy

I believe, as do many others, that we are in for some hard times head.  The way might be dark and difficult, full of hard choices and ugly events.  But even in the midst of all this, take time to be happy.  Dance  at a wedding with your little sister.  Fall in love with your best friend’s little sister.  Celebrate birthdays even when the vampires are assembling a doomsday monster.  Play sports, eat great food, take lots of selfies to mark these precious moments spent with those you love.  Otherwise, what are you fighting for?

Live for joy. 

A New Mantra is Born

Flash Fiction is not my forte.  I struggle to get my ideas out in less than 500,000 words much less 500.  The following is an account of something marvelous which happened during my run this morning.  Hints of American Election subtext are totally intentional.  As always feedback is appreciated as I will probably try to submit this somewhere soon.  Enjoy.


This girl can.  No.  This woman can.  This large and out of breath and middle-aged woman can.  Can.  Can.  Can.

I match the rhythm of my running mantra to the beat of my new, electric orange trainers.  ‘All running shoes should be orange,’ proclaimed the gentleman who sold them to me.  But amidst the woodland trail of my local park, the neon orange reminds me of hunting jackets, prison fatigues and pumpkins.

I am not a pum14963401_10154660846558659_7698905646507313732_npkin.  Not a pumpkin. Pump.  KinPump.  Kin.  Pump.  Kin.

A new mantra is born.

My pumpkin/hunter/prison trainers percuss happily as I dodge patches of damp leaves carpeting the path.  The azure, autumn sky provides a perfect canvas for the gold-capped, russet-coated trees overhead.  A perfect day to run.

Struggling up a steep hill, I pass a man jogging opposite, his pace made easy by the downward slope currently giving me difficulty.  I look forward to this later leg of my run, though he doesn’t appear to be enjoying it.  His feet fall swiftly, rather lazily, assisted by gravity, but his face looks grim, irritable, dissatisfied.

Perhaps he needs orange trainers, I giggle inwardly.

Just below the crest of the hill, silhouetted against the blue/gold/russet skyscape, stands an elderly woman; her white hair escaping beneath the blue hood of the puffy coat she wears to defend against October’s chill.  In each hand, she grips a walking stick—not a pair of orthopaedic crutches, nor the smartly polished accessories I’ve seen older woman in town wield like status symbols.  These are walking sticks of action forged from space-age metal, sporting rubber grips and wicked tips, purchased with Everest in mind.

She calls out to me and I shift aside my right headphone, the better to hear her.

‘Did you see that man running past?’  She nods down in the direction of the dissatisfied jogger.

‘Yes,’ I pant, looking back with her, though neither of us can see the man in question who is long gone.

‘He ran behind me so quietly for an age,’ explains the white-haired, blue-hooded woman of action.  ‘Finally, he passed me so close.  I said to him: “you’re lucky you didn’t get this in the shin”.’

She lifts then waves the right-hand Everest stick in a threatening manner.  The space-age metal tip catches a spark of bright sun.  I step back involuntarily.

‘You’re a dangerous woman,’ I chuckle.

‘I am!’ she agrees, matching my chuckle then raising it to a victorious cackle.

‘Good for you,’ I beam encouragingly.

‘We should all be,’ she proclaims with a mischievous grin.

‘Too right,’ I add perfunctorily, running in place.  I’m enjoying our conversation, but I don’t want to lose my momentum so near the top.

My dangerous companion must be eager to enjoy her downhill lap, however.  Deftly manoeuvring her sticks, she strides down the path with surprising speed and agility.  I turn and run on.

I am a dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  I am dangerous.   

A new running mantra is born.