So, today I started writing the grandmothers book again. I was thinking of somehow collapsing the two projects, that book and this blog into each other but I have a feeling they are separate. I am only now beginning to feel the spirits of these two women who my mother described brilliantly yesterday as "one who tried to build a concrete castle and another one who tried to blow up all the castles she saw." And writing in their voices, the attempt, feels like the cliché image of the sculptor chiseling a form out of a marble block. There are indistinct shapes visible and then every once in a while a clear vision and I make the right move with the chisel. But mostly it feels like I barely know how to use the instrument and I'm bashing away like a big clod. Kind of like Lenny trying to making a sculpture that George told him about once (before he kills the mice and the woman of course...). I just taught 16 year olds recently - the theatrical techniques I invented with actors in NYC (Fred Backus, Dan Berkey, Renée Bucciarelli and Chris Campbell to be precise) and then refined and brought forward in London with the recently-disbanded Apocryphal Theatre - and when I asked them to make a piece using these techniques, they latched onto the idea of the classroom as their grid, which makes sense, and the story they had all recently read 'Of Mice and Men'...so Steinbeck's tale is on my mind...especially in its interesting journey across the ocean to a multicultural state school in Walthamstow. They all seemed to really like the book, either that or it was just a familiar reference.
But anyway, back to the sculpture...I would feel remiss now just to kind of put down my tools and shrug and say 'ahhh, it's too hard, forget it.' Of course, I also don't want to keep running a car into a wall either, and I'm not sure which analogy - sculptor or idiot driver actually applies here. But the two women are beginning to gain clarity, and I'm afraid putting it down now would get me into some twisted 6 Characters in Search of an Author problem of these shades chasing me, demanding now that I've dragged them down from wherever they were peacefully sleeping, to damn well write their stories.
Now, you may notice I mentioned my mother above as I imagine some of you at this stage may be wondering: doesn't she have family and aren't they Horrified that she's writing all this?!! Well, the short answer is yes and no. Yes I have family, yes they know I'm writing this and no, no one seems particularly horrified. I mean, you gotta understand, we've already lived through all this shit. That's way worse than me nattering on about it. Also my mother and I have both gone through countless hours of recovery and therapy type things to cope with our various traumatic experiences, and now we're somehow able to kind of look at it for what it is. Does that mean we're not affected? No. Does that mean we can handle it? So far, yes.
Will this be the way it is always? I don't know. Did the fear of hurting my mother keep me from writing about any of this stuff - well no not writing but showing this writing to anyone for years and years - yes. Have I realized that this helps no one anymore? Yes.
However, having said that, one of the main reasons I started the grandmothers piece was to avoid a generation that is now still alive and focus on people who are dead and cannot be hurt. But all of this appears to be falling apart as a rationale as it all bleeds into each other and now I've met the Bukoskis and they are still alive so the fear of hurting people still looms. So, I guess I could go the thinly veiled 'fiction' route, but somehow that just seems lame and like trying to dodge a bullet.
There is a kind of fidelity to that much-maligned-in-the-21st-century-idea of the truth that I feel, even when clearly working in fictional terrain with my grandmothers that makes it feel harder and somehow more rigorous. Also, I like to know how other people walk through life, so kind of assume others feel the same way. (In regards to the truth thing, btw, I have a PhD that involves post-structuralist philosophy and have suffered through conferences wherein questions are begun with gems like "We all know there are no universals anymore, but..." so believe me I get the issues, and for all that there is something...maybe we don't have the right word yet, but there is something, at least in our own experience and there are gradations of illusion, delusion, clarity and compassion...another maligned word - compassion - but it has a lot to do with understanding, love and seeing, not in some kind of rosy way either...but it's important this, it just is.)
Which brings me back to the dead people I talk to...which obviously now include my grandmothers but there is a whole other all-singing, all-dancing chorus of gay men that I also want to mention. These are the men who I met, one of whom was quite close and a couple others quite special through step-father number 2, the gay playwright one - David. Hi David! (He's reading this...God help him.)
First there was Walter. Walter was a good friend of David's from Wesleyan University, where I too ended up going to university - long story for later why especially as I swore up and down I never would (moral of the story: never say never...this is why I know as much as I rant and rave about it, one horrible day I will probably end up on Facebook as a punishment for my self-righteous derision of that demonic platform...) - but Walter was a good friend of David's and when everyone was else was still sleeping off the night before when we lived in an apartment behind the Howland's Department store on Willetts Avenue in Waterford, Connecticut, Walter would wake up first and we'd eat English muffins with butter and jelly and chat about the world. Walter had an awful lot of time for an 8 year old. Especially an 8 year old who would ask 'why' to any answer to any question I asked.
Why he put up with this is beyond me, and one day he said, laughing, you know in the Army the one question you're not allowed to ask is why? They make you do calisthenics as punishment! This made an impression on me, especially as I also knew that he used to just walk through the obstacle course that they were supposed to tackle before breakfast without engaging in the 'obstacles' and stroll into the dining hall to eat breakfast. No one stopped him from doing this. He was sent to Germany during Vietnam and spent his days as a clerk writing a novel with a Guernica poster in his office. What I learned from Walter is: just do what you want, no one really cares if you're not stupid enough to ask permission first. This was an important lesson. I think we also chatted about philosophy. He was, as my mother always put it, 'my intellectual mentor' but he was a hell of a lot more than that. He was the guy that was always there, someone who provided a kind of rock solid foundation when there was none. He clearly cared about me, and backed up that caring with helpful interventions (such as loaning crucial money when I needed to secure an apartment in NYC and giving me references for schools and an introduction to his then-partner, an artistic director of a theatre company that hired me, etc.) which is why when he really fell down the alcoholic rabbit hole and said horrid things to me a couple times (he was one of the 'you're evil' people), I was devastated.
My family and I did a really clumsy intervention on him right after I was getting sober myself, which he responded to a little. I told him the 'you're evil' story for example, which clearly had an effect. I never saw him drunk after that, and he never said anything horrible to me after that, but he did drink in private and died far too young in his early 50s of pancreatic cancer in 1998.
I had just disbanded another theatre company that year, and remember being very glad I had done so, so I had time to visit him in his apartment in the Village as he quite literally lay dying. When he did die, which happened So fast - he was diagnosed in August and died in October, I thought I would fall off the edge of a cliff. I missed being there when he died because I was at the theatre watching a show I was hating. I wanted to leave at intermission, but I did not out of fear of hurting my friend who was involved and so came back to an answering machine message saying I should call the hospital and then another one saying he had died. I was furious with myself for staying at the theatre and irrationally angry at the people who made the show for 'wasting my fucking time.' I cried so hard, I could not stand up. My then-husband was incredibly supportive during this time, which was good because I could barely function. When we went to the funeral later that week, I had to throw up because I felt so disoriented. I could not eat or even see properly. I only vaguely remember the funeral, it was in Rhode Island, it was late October and the leaves were bright orange. There were those ghoulish Harold Pinter character-type funeral people carrying the casket, that I had seen the night before open and displaying some kind of shrunken head version of Walter's body with rouge. It seemed like a bad joke really. I threw up after that I think. You have to remember as I tell you these things that I cannot drink anymore, so I had nothing to take the edge off this. Zero. It was just pure pain.
There were a few people at the church but not many, which I found intensely depressing. His partner Dan was there of course, and I kept wondering what he was thinking, as Walter had made a last minute re-conversion back to his family's Catholic religion and had last rites and a Catholic service. Dan is secular Jewish so I wondered if he found this strange. Dan was much older than Walter and was in shock as I'm fairly certain he thought the order of their deaths would be reversed. I was in shock too so I think Dan and I basically bumped into each other a lot, not able to really help each other at all, both too helpless with grief. I met Walter's editor who was a lovely woman I latched onto as a mother figure - a depressing habit I've repeated many times in my life. I'm hoping that one's fading away. I think with age it will kind of have to...My husband was there, basically holding me vertical, which was not easy. There was some kind of after-the-funeral food thing at a relative's house. I had never met Walter's relatives, I realized as I sat there unable to move or focus on anyone or anything anyone was saying. I am not sure they were entirely clear about Dan's relationship to Walter, though they knew he had cared for him at the end and was the executor and recipient of his Will. I was the alternate. I think Dan and I were the people closest to him when he died, and neither of us could fathom the Catholic thing. Which given my new family discoveries is interesting in a whole new way.
And I kept having this strange image, perhaps because his funeral was on Halloween or close thereto of him coming out of his grave and trying to drag me in, which is a horrible image of course and one I wish I did not have. I remember the last thing he said to me was "I don't want to leave you." And I think I felt this was part of that. I know that's not what he meant, but there was this strange relationship we had, that was that close. So I do speak to him sometimes, but always with a little fear. I am ashamed of feeling this way but cannot seem to shake it.
On the other hand, he was an Anglophile and I imagine he is very happy I am in London and probably helped me finish my PhD, which was not a given. I had fled an earlier PhD program at Stanford in 1987 - another thing I said I would 'never' do again - see what I mean?? It's doom. I said that about the theatre company thing too...really, it's just too horrible.
But back to Walter, he is one of the firmament, even if an ambiguous part - as ambiguous there as he was not at all ambiguous alive. And the rest of the gay men, oh my there are so many and I don't think I can write about them all right now and do them justice so that will be for another day and in relation to the fact that I think I have a drag queen in me dying to get out...seriously, an over-earnest 47 year old woman with a drag queen heart...there are some friends of mine, especially one Bennett Schneider - drag queen extraordinaire, a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence and one of the loves of my life - who will understand this...but I don't expect anyone else to understand. But the fact is all the gay male friends and lovers of David from the 1970s are dead, every single one and, aside from Walter, all of AIDS. Every. Single. One. Except David, who is alive and doesn't even have HIV. So go figure. He also survived Vietnam. Lucky him.
Those of us who have the gall to live, who don't get killed by our abusers or in war or by modern plagues or our various addictions, what is our duty? Do we have one? Are we to write, wail, make monuments to the dead, what?
I'll leave that question open and do my best to tackle more of this stuff tomorrow.
Thank you everyone who has sent me emails, is following this blog and commenting. You are keeping me going, especially for posts like this one.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.