A Dialogue in Good Faith

I haven’t said it here, yet – there are a great many things I’m yet to speak about here on the matter of finding my way back to myself – but I started freelance work this year designing event flyers and administrating the Twilight School website.

The Twilight School, run by Bruno Lettieri (of Rotunda fame, one of the most amazing and generous people that ever lived) is the community outreach project of the Salesian College Sunbury. The Salesian College sponsors something quite unique: an after-hours education service providing classes, guest speakers and other community events, at low-cost, for the Sunbury community. Most of these conversations involve literary personages and community health workers, and the classes run from cooking to writing and gardening to photography. The Twilight School also sponsors the Good Man Project, which is about fostering and developing healthy and open emotional dialogue with, between and among men. Barn Owl Journal is another of Bruno’s pet projects for getting creative writing out into the community, and you can read the current issue here.

(For an event example, you can go and see actor, comedian and writer John Clarke this month for $10 plus drinks, and all you need to do is bring a plate of food for the communal table. We’re talking an evening with a seriously famous, at least in Australia and New Zealand, seriously clever satirist for $10 and however much it costs you to bring a plate of sandwiches or cake. If you’re in Melbourne and this interests you, book now, because places are filling up. If I were living anywhere reasonably close to Sunbury at the moment, I’d go.)

I can’t overstate how important this sort of thing is. The Twilight School is offering and allowing real connection, expression and education in a world where the privileged have an infinite number of avenues in which to communicate yet we are still discouraged from being honest and vulnerable in the company of others.

(When your feminist goddess of a friend is telling you that she’s not sure she should have written about her experiences with depression and anorexia because it’s not appropriate to tell that kind of intimate story, on her own damn website no less, we have a problem with communication.)

I say that I’ll walk over hot coals for Bruno Lettieri, in no small part because he’ll do the same for the people he knows without even blinking twice, but I am also genuinely passionate about what the Twilight School does. It’s hard not to be when the community it serves shows their passion in every article, speech, photo, video and testimonial that comes my way. The Twilight School matters, and it’s a privilege to be part of the mechanism that brings the media of, for and by the community to the community.

But.

It’s a big but, sadly.

My mother, grandparents – my Oma and Opa – and my aunts and uncles are either raised Catholic, lapsed Catholic or practicing Catholic. I’m sure I’ve made snarky comments about my Dutch Catholic family before. I’m sure, at the very least, I’ve made snarky comments about Mum’s endless supply of Catholic guilt! Mum, despite the guilt, was the first daughter to do the unthinkable and not get married in a church, and she continued that trend by not baptising me and my sister, so I’m a godless queer heathen destined to take the fast route to hell. She believes in God but takes issue with the church on accounts not limited to the definition of marriage, which is a reasonable position to be in, and she raised me and my sister on the belief that if we want religion, we’re free to go and find it ourselves.

(I am not as grateful to my parents and their approach to my upbringing as most, but this is something I truly appreciate.)

I went to religious instruction sponsored by the local Presbyterian church throughout primary school – we called it “Jesus studies” and envied our Mormon friend who had a special note and got out of it, because the booklets given out to us were so damn boring – but Easter and Christmas services were always fun. I read the children’s Bible on my bookshelf, although nowhere near as often as the spine-worn-off copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Wizard of Oz. (I was into fantasy young.) I never connected to Christianity – any branch of it – and while the raised-Catholics of my mother’s family went faithfully to Midnight Mass every Christmas, once I became old enough to be acknowledged as adult I stayed at my Oma’s house with the non-religious spouses, played poker and talked smack about anyone not in the room. I said I’m a queer godless heathen, right?

Then, a little before my Opa died, I realised I wasn’t the straight girl I’d been raised to see myself as.

(Not surprisingly, nobody in my family had ever mentioned the possibility of a non-cishet identity. I didn’t know gay people existed until I got to university. I didn’t know trans people existed until I had my own computer and a few forum accounts. All I knew was that I didn’t feel in the ways I was supposed to, and I didn’t know what it was I even did feel.)

While it took me a few years post moment of revelation to actually come out to the family, it was the last nail in the coffin of the unlikely chance that I ever come over to the notion of Christianity as a concept that empowers me. Losing Christian friends and listening to the dialogues of Christians at work turned indifference into fear. Sadly, anyone of organised religion, these days, tends to inspire fear from me until they’ve proven otherwise (although I’ll mention here that Muslims I know either don’t care or keep their beliefs to themselves, unlike too many Christians I’ve met). This is not a good way to begin operations with a person of belief, I admit. I also don’t see how I can react in any other way: the bed is not of my making.

So it is complicated, at best, to be working for the Twilight School, sponsored by the Salesian College.

I have a faith. It’s clearer to me when I’m not struggling in the deep mires of depression, but it exists, and it’s a mechanism through which I’m trying to labour to some kind of acceptance of the cards I’ve been dealt. It’s not a faith that deals in gods, but it acknowledges something bigger and greater than ourselves, which I think is a requirement for most human beings. It’s easier to accept our hand when we can make some kind of sense from it, and mechanisms like gods, faith and destiny allow us to give logic, sense and comprehension to the course of our lives. If faith allows us to survive, I’m all for it.

I call this thing bigger and greater than me the universe, although in the piece I’m about to link, I use the word “God” (as a matter of language that best communicates meaning for the audience in question).

I believe that gods exist. I believe that humans invent gods and therefore they exist, something a la Jung and the collective unconscious. This is probably the wrong way of believing in gods, but it’s my way, and that’s all that matters. I will also never campaign for the eradication of religion, and I’m uncomfortable with queer politics that target religion as the cause of all our ills (especially because that doesn’t acknowledge the damage science has done and is doing to us, or the non-religious homophobes and transphobes that very much exist). If religion helps one find community and understanding, that’s a good thing. I’ve seen religion bring out the best in people: my grandparents, who had little, gave what they could to others, even if only their service, through their church. Sure, religion has caused a great many wars, but too many other reasons have sparked wars, conflicts and invasions for the association to be meaningful.

Humans, with or without religion, are wondrously able to choose, based on narrow precepts, who is and isn’t a part of any given community, and without thought or question preach hate to anyone who isn’t part of their chosen community. This is sociological fact: we choose and exclude. You see it in the school ground, at work, in global politics. Organised religion codifies and enables this, but it isn’t the cause, and targeting religion, in my opinion, does nothing to address this.

The fact is, though, that large sects of organised religion, even if not on the individual level, treat me as less than human.

The fact is that Christians, in particular, have caused me the most harm.

The fact is that when Bruno asks me to republish pieces on or write pieces for the Twilight School website, I’m having to weigh up my safety versus my creative authenticity.

I’ve spent weeks, months, pondering my options. Build a new website where the word “queer” looms less large? Omit a few words? Tell Bruno that I don’t want to see my work posted to a website I enjoy working on for a community I admire and respect, even though he does me an honour by asking?

The truth is, though, that I put everything I am into my work. I believe in story. I believe in wearing my heart on my sleeve. I am alive, today, because last year, when my depression was at its absolute worst, I looked at my bookshelf, realised that there just aren’t any spec fiction books about pansexual, non-binary (and autistic, but I didn’t know that, then) protagonists with mental illnesses and chronic pain/physical disability (and difficult histories), and wept. There aren’t any books about people like me being heroes in stories that aren’t primarily about sexuality, gender and disability. (Too often we see the “Mary-Sue” complaint: give a character too many issues and they’re supposedly not realistic, but I am all these things and I’m sitting right here!) I might get one or the other, here and there, but there aren’t even many of those in books where these things are not the plot. I cried, but I looked at the (philosophically) empty spaces on my bookshelf, and I knew that to get what I want, I had to go and write it myself.

I had to hold on to the hope that, one day, I’d get better enough that I could.

I didn’t commit suicide, despite my plan, despite my intent, despite the feeling that I was so broken there was nobody left to help me, despite the crushing loneliness, despite my despair, despite my feelings of utter uselessness, for a dream that demands my vulnerability, visibility and honesty.

I am alive today because I want creativity that validates and celebrates the person I am.

I cannot omit words, even if I send frantic emails to friends asking for their opinion, even if I toss the consequences back and forth in my head, even if I’m so anxious about just being visibly me I’ve reached the most ridiculous epitome of insecurity.

I will not.

So I wrote One Little Word, a piece that outs me to a community I both admire and fear.

Writing it was catharsis. I got to express, on paper, the anxiety and terror plaguing me. Submitting it, even knowing that Bruno Lettieri is one of the most awesome people I know and very likely to say yes, was absolutely sickening. I spent twenty-four hours frantically checking my email. Having Bruno ring me and tell me to go ahead and publish it on the website, with not a word changed, was amazing … for about thirty seconds. Then, of course, came the process of having to put it up on the website (do I say the word “queer” in the meta description? Do I select the good pride/love image I have as the featured image? Is it better if I sort of sneak the audience up into the revelation?) and the anxiety of knowing that it was going to go up and any reactions will be out of my control.

I don’t know, as of writing this, what the reaction will be.

I just know that this is the best expression of my faith, and I am, despite absolute terror and uncertainty, trying to claw myself back to a place where I can be the creative I need to be.

God, the universe, whoever, made me me for a reason.

I pray, though, to the universe, to the Christian God, to Allah, to the Muses, to anybody, that these people I love and respect are in fact the kind, caring community I feel it to be.

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