Friday, November 30, 2018

How I'm Still Here by Duane L. Herrmann

Content Warning:  Abuse and Suicidal Thoughts 
Image:  A black and white photo of a little boy wearing a dark shirt with light details.  He has a slight smile.  He is against a plain, white background like an old yearbook photo.
I am dyslexic with ADD and, now PTSD.  The latter I specify as “Domestic” PTSD.  It is not the result of a battlefield experience, except the battlefield was the home in which I grew up.  By the age of two my mother made it clear to me that my existence had ruined her life.  I wanted to end my existence then, but couldn’t figure out how to do that.  By age eleven, I had learned several ways.  I narrowed them down to the least painful and the most assured of success.

I thought it would be ideal to simply go to sleep and never wake up.  I had no way to obtain sleeping pills, so my next thought was gas.  Our house was heated by propane from a tank in the back yard.  The tank was much smaller than the house and our stove was in a very large, open space.  I could not imagine there was enough gas in that tank to fill the entire house.  So, I stayed alive.

I was convinced, by her constant screaming and hyper criticism over minor things (such as the way I shut my lips, swallowed, walked, and even slept), and others such as being forbidden to talk, think independently, or be angry, and all the work I did was wrong, that my mother wanted to erase me.  I mentally and emotionally fought to stay alive.

In school, I could not learn to read.  The letters were confusing and I couldn’t tell the difference between words like:  "on" and "no", "was" and "saw".  The summer after second grade, I walked a mile to the end of our road where a retired school teacher lived.  She taught me phonics.  I thought she was crazy as she held up flash cards with squiggles on them and made outlandish noises with her mouth.  Even more outrageous, she wanted me to make those same sounds to match the squiggles.  I eventually succeeded.  Two years later, in the fifth grade, I read fifty books.  I’ve not stopped.

I’ve wanted to write stories for as long as I can remember.  There was no one for me to play with except my mother, and many times she preferred to read the newspaper.  I wanted to be as important to her as the newspaper.  I began to make stories when I was three or four, but I couldn’t write any down until after I learned to read.  Of course, also during all this time, I was working.

My mother put me to work when I was two and a half and she didn’t want to bother feeding my baby sister.  She gave me that job.  Soon I ran away from home for the first time – nearly half a mile across the pasture that separated our house from Granma’s.  I continued that until well after I’d left home for college.

When my sister could eat solid food, my mother insisted that I help her dress herself.  That remained one of my jobs until I left home for college.  In between, I was given responsibility for all other household jobs.  As more babies were born, I had to care for them, too:  feeding them, changing diapers, etc.  By the summer I was 13, I was left at home with the responsibility to take care of the house, garden and farmyard animals, my two little brothers, and meals for our father, while our mother went out of town for summer school.  It was the happiest, most peaceful summer of my life.  When she came home, Dad put me on a tractor to help him farm.  We farmed several hundred acres of our own plus a few other farms until he was killed several years later.

All this time, school was a sanctuary.  No one screamed at me there, and teachers were grateful that I sat quietly in my seat.  I was nearly the youngest in the class, I didn’t act childish, I couldn’t talk to the other kids (I had been forbidden to talk when I was four), I was simply content to sit.  I struggled to do the work.  Teachers over and over said, I wasn’t trying hard enough.  They had no idea how hard I tried.  No one knew what dyslexia was, nor ADD.  No one knew what a Hell my home life was (more than once I was forced to swallow my vomit and I received a concussion for not washing dishes fast enough).  No one had any idea how many distractions there were in the classroom to claim my attention.  School was a daily, hourly academic and social struggle.  I passed the eighth grade only “provisionally.”

In high school I had two episodes where I lost connection to the physical world.  Walls in my high school moved and changed colors.  I could barely manage to go from class to class.  It took all of my effort to get dressed in the mornings, especially difficult was tying my shoelaces.  One day after I got off the school bus, I collapsed in the circle of pine trees in our front yard.  They whispered me to sleep.  When I woke up, buildings were solid and stable once again.  The next time I began to feel disconnected, I deliberately took a nap in the center of those trees and came back.

That summer, my father was killed and my mother emotionally collapsed inward like a black hole.  The pressure was off me.  The farm equipment was sold and I managed to negotiate my senior year, then left home as decently soon as I could.

I didn’t know I was dyslexic until decades later when my aunt discovered she was, then recognized the signs in my son and myself.  He and I both also have ADD.  I didn’t know about the PTSD until the son of a friend was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.  I was shocked.  Didn’t everyone feel this way?  Apparently not.  Doesn’t everyone’s childhood crowd into their daily life so much so that you are still there and the screaming is still going on?  I guess not.  I thought everyone had to close their eyes while reading to let the letters sort themselves into words.  Nope.

In spite of all this, my urge to write, and my determination to write, have been so strong that I have continued my efforts.  I still can’t spell some certain words, but I have several word books (with certain words underlined) which I keep within reach at all times.  I have continued to try.  I have more failures than successes, but the successes add up.  I now have so much published that I am amazed.  I have a list.  It began with six small publications.  That list is now nearly twenty pages long!!!  Without the list I could not remember what I’ve done.  When I look through it, I am amazed each time!

I haven’t counted the number of items I have published, I did for a while.  Now I only count books, languages and countries.  It amazes me every time.

My  mother died a year ago.  In her last week, as her body rapidly failed, she twice reached her hand out to touch and hold my hand.  That was more affection than she’d ever shown to me.  It was the first time I knew that she cared for me.  When she was bedfast and unable to function, I was able to step aside from my pain and see the life she suffered.  It was generational, starting with the too-early death of her great grandmother.  Loss and pain kept falling on each next generation.  I was simply born into her pain.  Understanding that has helped ease my pain and I am learning new things about myself.

Don’t give up!!!  Don’t let other people stop you!  Keep at it.  You can do it!!!
Biography:  Duane L. Herrmann, internationally published, award-winning poet and historian, has held a variety of teaching and other positions, now  retired. His history and poetry have won awards and are translated into several languages.  His sci-fi novel:  Escape from Earth, has just been published.  His full-length collections of poetry are:  Prairies of Possibilities, Ichnographical:173, and Praise the King of Glory.  His poetry has received the Robert Hayden Poetry Fellowship, inclusion in American Poets of the 1990s, the Map of Kansas Literature (website), Kansas Poets Trail and  others.  His history, By Thy Strengthening Grace, received the Ferguson  Kansas History Book Award in 2007. Collections of short stories and historical articles, and dual language collection of poems, are forthcoming. These accomplishments defy his traumatic childhood embellished by dyslexia, ADD and, now, PTSD.

Friday, November 23, 2018

#HomeboundPhotography Interview with Dov Zeller

How did you become interested in photography?

My mother was a photographer. Not professionally. She was, for a while, a professional visual artist, though. She went to Pratt in the ‘60s and she did etchings, water color, sculpture, all kinds of stuff. And her photographs are wonderful. (I’m pretty sure she developed her own photos, too.)

I don’t know when I was first interested in becoming a photographer, but ever since I can remember I admired other people’s photography. I had a friend in college who was a photographer and developed his own images and I was in awe of the artistry, science, and craft-personship involved. But I found the technical sides of photography, dealing with aperture and shutter speed, etc., daunting. Even changing out film (of analog cameras) was overwhelming to me. So I shied away from taking photos for the most part.

As time went on I continued to be interested in photography and in my thirties I began researching and considering the various ways different photographers described the “elements” of photography. (Lines, shapes, patterns, texture, depth of field, perspective, etc.) I was drawn to a wide array of photos but was particularly fascinated by photographs that made artistic use of depth of field. I didn’t fully understand what depth of field was other than some blurry bits and some in focus bits. I just wanted to take photos in which depth of field was a thing. It took me years to really get a deeper understanding of depth of field and the relationship between aperture size and perspective and depth of field.

How is taking photos as a spoonie different from taking photos before you became one?

I was deeply interested in photography before I became a spoonie, but never felt comfortable investing money in a camera. In my mid-thirties I bought a little point and shoot (before that I only used disposable cameras. Ugh.) and I really enjoyed taking photos with it. I took photos of my pup. Of the ocean, I took close-ups of flowers in an attempt to summon the depth of field I was longing to incorporate into photos. Around this time I also got really into plant identification, and that led to an interest in botanical photography. The more I got into that, the more I wanted a camera that would afford more nuanced compositions—more detail, more control.

Funny to think of how, at that time, I had no idea what caused parts of images to be in focus or out of focus. Now I understand it a bit better. When the aperture is smaller the light that hits the sensor is more focused. With less light bouncing around, more of the image is in focus. As the aperture gets bigger and there is more light bouncing around, you have a broader “circle of confusion,” i.e. more stuff out of focus. But it's not all about aperture. Perspective and distances from and between objects also play a big part.

I’m really into science and love learning about this stuff and it's thanks to my friend and mentor Jae, a wonderful human and photographer, that I started to learn more about the science and technology involved in photography (Jae is a scientist, visual artist, dancer, political thinker and activist.) I love hearing them talk about light--movement, reflection, refraction, etc.

But, I was talking about how my photography has changed since I’ve been sick. Well, for one thing, after being sick and homebound for two years, I took the plunge and bought an exchangeable lens DSLR camera. I’m so glad I finally invested in a camera. Learning about photography and taking photos has brought me so much joy. It has enriched my life in ways I can’t even begin to communicate, though I will try. Not only do I get to enjoy learning new skills, but photography has given me a way to explore my limited surroundings and appreciate to the fullest the little ecosystem in which I am living. I love learning. I love finding value and beauty in my confined space.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten really into macro photography, which gives me more “subject matter” to attend to. Just this morning I was outside taking photos of tiny green flies that were hanging out on the hosta leaves. I am astonished at their beauty and the fantastic technology of their physiology. The colors, iridescence, aerodynamics, and armor. Just, wow. Before I got sick, I had no way to know that I would some day be gushing over the wonder of flies.

I still come up against a lot of challenges. With lighting and finding ways to take a shot that captures the beauty or strangeness or essence of a moment. Or finding a new angle on something I’ve photographed a hundred times. But I appreciate these challenges. It is part of what allows me to keep growing as a photographer despite my limited mobility.

Also, as a homebound person, because subject matter is so limited, I am fascinated by lenses and love to use different lenses to see the world, or at least a particular image, differently. I'm also intrigued by bokeh. Good bokeh is sooooo good. (Bokeh is "visual quality of out of focus areas.")

Has photography helped you connect with the “outside world”?

Yes! In many ways photography has been an instrument of connection with others. Well, for one thing, researching and looking at photographs has been a form of travel for me. And I’ve connected with other photographers who want to talk shop, or just share work. I’m on Twitter and I post photos quite a bit and I love to check out the work of other photographers. And this is the point at which I should mention, I created a hashtag for anyone else who is homebound and who is interested in using it!!! #homeboundphotography. Other hashtags for spoonies/disabled folx to consider using, #spooniephotography #spoonieart #disabledphotographer. And if you create your own photography-related hashtag feel free to @ me on Twitter at @DovZeller

What's a challenge you've had as a spoonie photographer?

Finding subject matter I think has been my biggest challenge. And also learning how to navigate lighting.

What's your favorite thing about taking photos as a spoonie?

Learning. Seeing things more closely and from different angles. Growing to have more appreciation for my surroundings and for spaces I come in contact with. I look at the world differently. I like looking for things of beauty/complexity in the most seemingly mundane places.

I’ve noticed that your photography has a wonderfully observational, contemplative quality about it, as if the richness of elapsed time were somehow etched into the still images. I’m wondering if, and how, becoming and being a spoonie might alter your artistic eye, or perhaps deepen it in some way? 

Definitely being a spoonie has made me something of a time-lapse photographer. A kind of documentarian of the mundane, minute and seemingly uninteresting. For example, early this summer I documented the peonies from bulb to bloom to full-flower to dying flowers to really dead flowers (still taking some images of those.) And I catalogue the wildflowers in the little front yard as they come and go. This morning I found night-flowering campion on the lawn. I’ve not seen campion on this lawn before and I haven’t seen it since I used to walk along the bike path (which I haven’t done in over four years now because of illness.) It was wonderful to see this old friend and I took photos of it at dawn before it closed for the day and then as it was closing and then after it closed. I love that this plant opens at night and closes in the morning.

Has your photographic process changed since becoming a spoonie, either mechanically, spiritually, or emotionally? 

Absolutely. All of the above. And I love that you bring up the spiritual aspect of photography. Judaism is a religion in which a lot of rituals revolve around time. My connection to my Jewish spirituality, before I got disabling ME, had to do with singing, observing Shabbat (in my way), separating “sacred” from “mundane” time. Observing holidays. These are all things I can no longer do and my connection to Judaism has changed a lot and in many ways diminished. But spirituality, for me, is also more broadly about contemplation, celebration, acknowledgment, and gratitude. And photography helps me engage in these things. Keeps me connected to the “natural world” though I am so often indoors. Allows me to contemplate and appreciate light, darkness, interesting shapes/patterns, all the flora and fauna that surround me. So between that, and acquiring better photography equipment, and my subsequent growing relationship with macro photography, and the ways I rely on photography to help keep me: intimate with greenery, grounded, feeling “productive”…I would say that counts as a mechanically, spiritually, and emotionally changed.

What do you notice and prioritize in your photos that a non-spoonie might not, and why? 

I notice all the little insects and wildflowers in the tiny front yard. I take pictures of the neighborhood cat Pixie who visits me a lot when I take photos outside. I document sunrises, and sunsets occasionally (though I am usually too tired by the afternoon to take photos.) I take portraits of friends when I can. I wonder sometimes, if I was not so mobility-limited, would I do more landscape and street photography? The truth is, I can only go out for “fun” (non-appointment-related) excursions once every couple of months usually and I almost always choose to go places where I can take photographs of plant life. (Botanical gardens, for example.) That said, on one of these excursions my friend took me for a little drive and I got to take a few “landscape” type photos of a red barn and it was pretty exhilarating.

Why are you drawn to dawn and pre-dawn shoots? What is the appeal of early morning for you as a photographer? 

Well, I wake up about 3AM on a good day. (On the worst days, I go to sleep at ten or eleven and wake up at 1AM and can’t fall back to sleep. But, there are a lot of better days when I go to bed at 7 or 8 and sleep in until 3.) And though I don’t enjoy waking up so early, it’s wonderful to get to see the sun rise. And to notice the vast variations in sky-scape. Though I still don’t fully understand why the colors and cloud formations happen as they do, I appreciate the beauty, and just keeping track, in my small ways, of the patterns and revolutions and angles of light. I tend to be disappointed by a cloudless morning sky these days, because it usually means a boring sunrise.

For more on Dov's photography (and spoonie photography in general) please click here and here
Biography:  Before getting full-blown CFS/ME, Dov Zeller struggled to sit still and often read while walking (in between swimming, biking, and yoga). Now he is an intrepid recliner. Though sick with a devastating chronic illness, he is determined to appreciate the ecosystems he comes into contact with. As it turns out, even a small world is full of endless complexity. He enjoys reading, writing, visiting with friends, listening to audiobooks and classical guitar, and observing birds who drop by the window feeder. Zeller lives in Western Massachusetts, where he moved in order to complete an MFA in fiction at UMass Amherst. He has also lived in San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, NY, and he grew up in eastern Pennsylvania. He has two novels coming out this year.

Friday, November 16, 2018

DESCENT Livestream, #TheHomebodiescollective, Etc.

Tonight, there will be a livestream of a multimedia dance duet titled DESCENT. It stars disabled dancers Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson.  The show begins at 7:30 EST.  You only need to create a livestream account if you wish to comment.  Click here to find out more.

 #TheHomebodiesCollective is a new hashtag for people who are at least somewhat housebound or bedbound to connect and share.  There is a conversation for artists and writers (click here) where people can talk shop, find someone to collaborate with, and more.

The next #CripLit Twitter Chat will occur on Sunday at 7:00 PM (EST).  The topic will be Mental Health and Writing.  More information can be found by clicking here.
A couple notes:

After today's post, guest posts will run automatically on each Friday until everything I have scheduled appears.  There might be a few weeks in December or January where nothing updates.  Or a guest editor may temporarily come on.  It depends.

Also, this blog is slowly starting to expand to include more forms of art on a regular basis (beyond literature).  This space will always be for writers.  But, opening it to other arts is something I see as a natural progression.  I welcome your feedback as always.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Representation in Jacqueline Carey's Starless (Spoilers)

Khai is a blooded, young warrior assigned at birth to be the soul-twin and protector (The Shadow) to princess Zariya.  There has never been a princess assigned a Shadow.  And these two are keys in a prophecy to save the world from a dark and terrible god.

The premise is fairly simple and quite familiar, but the execution isn't just highly enjoyable, it is more than the description promises.

Not the least of which is because of Zariya.  A fierce sixteen-year-old princess, Zariya is the king's favorite child, and is a cripple.  She faces gods, travels seas, and stares down death.  She does it on horseback, in slings, and through the use of her dual canes.  She has a couple moments of self-pity because there are promises of a cure that never materializes, but she navigates the world with a sharp mind and an elemental gift.  And she is physically desired (although nothing explicit or "devotee-like").

I held my breath every time the book spoke of a "cure".  I was positive this would be a book that forced it onto our heroine.  Too many books make the snide claim that crips can't save the world.  Well, not this one!  Sure, Zariya is just one part in the prophecy, but she plays a big one and does it well.

Khai is a Shadow unlike any before.  Born in a girl's body, Khai is made an honorary boy for the purposes of training, though Khai isn't told about their birth sex until nearing puberty.  Ultimately, Khai realizes they are both male and female.  They are one of the best fighters in the world and are loyal.

While I didn't always enjoy the way the world around Khai tried to force them into a female role, I'm sure it rings true to certain people.  The story is told through Khai's perspective.

The world is also populated with humans and mythical beings in a myriad of colors.  Zariya and Khai both have brown skin.

Of course, representation means nothing if it isn't done well.  It becomes intensely diminished if the story isn't entertaining.  Good thing I found Starless a compelling and worthwhile read.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Our Next Possible Project and Other Considerations

As I ready myself for surgery, I think a lot about this space.  Will I have enough content to keep it going?  Does it even matter if I put this space on hold for three months?  What's next?

I need submissions to keep the blog going in my absence.  Please submit.  Interview a fellow writing cripple.  Send your art and describe your process.  Write a book review.  Tell us what ableist trends you see in publishing.  Wax poetic about your favorite neurodivergent journalists.  The cut-off date for submissions will have to be November 15th.

I often toy with opening the blog to flash fiction and poetry.  I'm hesitant because I don't want this to become a literary magazine, though I think an occasional piece would be a lovely change.  What does everyone think?
2019 will mark the launch of our Youtube channel, some type of online writers' retreat, or classes on demand (feedback and thoughts are needed).  There will be no cost (ever) to utilize or participate in anything connected to H.U.P.  Because I live on SSI, I know how difficult it is to afford events and education to further one's craft.  Because I live on SSI, I can't afford elaborate websites or to pay instructors and contributors what they're worth.  I also can't apply for grants or do crowdfunding.

I spend a decent chunk of time trying to find ways around the "money issue" for everything I want to give this community.  I rely on volunteers and those who don't mind giving their labor away for a three-dollar pittance.  All I can say to everyone who helps with this space is:  Thank you.  Thank you for every word you've written for me, for each ounce of energy you've spent towards the vision I have for us all.
Around a month after I come back, we will be taking mentor applications for our program!  If you are (or know) a disabled/neurodivergent writer who would fit as a mentor, keep early February in mind.  There will be at least one mentor needed for promising teens.