Finding the Words

It's the day after Christmas. I should be packing up the Christmas Crazy that exploded in my house. I should be doing laundry and trying to get back to the "normal" that the holidays inevitably hijacks. But I'm not doing those things. My girls had a cousins' sleepover at their Gammy and Poppy's house last night, so I am relishing this gift of quiet on a post-Christmas morning to catch up on my reading for 2014. Like the crazed book-loving librarian that I am, I always set a reading goal for myself on Goodreads. I didn't reach my goal last year (I hang my head in shame), so I am determined to reach it--114 books in 2014--this year. (Yes, I'm reading a plethora of picture books to reach this goal. Don't judge me.)

But there's a book (not a picture one) that called my name this morning from deep within my to-read pile. It's a book that I've been trying it finish for the past two months. I've picked it up, read a few poems, and put it back because honestly, my heart just couldn't take it.

The book is October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman.

Yes, THAT Matthew Shepard. 

This heartbreaking, beautiful book is a collection of sixty-eight poems that tell the story of that tragic day in Laramie, Wyoming, and the harrowing aftermath. The poems reflect different points of view of what happened--the fence, the bartender, the deer that kept watch beside him, and even Matthew himself. 

Sometimes I can read books and mark them off on my Goodreads challenge, holding my thoughts about them in my head and heart--just a little private book chat with myself. But there are books that beg me to put my thoughts into words to share with others. I call these "Required Reading for all of Humanity"--books that I can't just hold for myself. I feel this yank in my soul that says, "People need to read this book. This book could change a heart. This book could save a life." 

This is one of those books. 

So here I am--staring at my Christmas tree--struggling to find the words to share about this book. As a word person, this feeling of fogginess--searching for the right words in this haze of emotion-- unsettles me. Because a few hours ago when I finished October Mourning and wiped the tears away, feeling COMPELLED to share this book with humanity, I thought the words would surge out of me. But they aren't now. I've got nothing. 

Maybe I should just abandon this post and move on to doing the millions of things that I could and should be doing today. But I think that would be disrespectful to the memory of Matthew Shepard. That's such the easy-out. I think I'm struggling with these words because at the root of them is a deep uneasiness. It's me wrestling with my own truth. 

When these horrific events happened in 1998, I remember hearing about them, but I didn't stop to absorb the impact. I remember hearing about the story and thinking, "Oh, that's just awful," and then going about my life--my first year of teaching, planning my wedding. But while I read this beautiful book, guilt grabbed at my heart. I kept thinking to myself, Why didn't you know about all this? Why didn't you pay more attention? Maybe that's why I had to keep putting it down--not just because it's a tough, emotional read, but because I felt so guilty for not caring more about Mathew Shepard's story when it was actually happening. In real life. 

This actually happened. That's what gets me. And it could happen again because there is still so much hatred and fear and prejudice in this world. 

No one can deny this fact. 

The truth is that the Gay Rights' Movement didn't settle into my heart until my adult life when I started to really listen to the conversations of my gay friends and students and develop relationships with them.  That's when their struggles and their stories became more than head knowledge to me. Then I started reading books that dealt with LGBT issues, and that's when my head and heart clicked together; that's when there was a connection. It wasn't just something I knew about, but it was something that I felt. I started to notice words thrown around with nonchalance out in the world and in my classroom --"that's so gay" "don't be a fag"--and I noticed the sting--the mark they made on those I love and care about. And something in me said, "This is not okay." 

When I got to this passage at the end of the book, my head and heart felt that click of recognition again. Connected. 

I guess this post is my meager attempt at "doing something." Even though Matthew was killed sixteen years ago, we would be liars if we thought that the world is a much better place for gay people--really for all people. There is still much work to be done. For all of us. 

And it starts with me. It starts from within. It's a heart-check. That's why I urge you to read this book. 

It can be your "do something." 

Books are the way to connect our heads to our hearts. Books are the way to connect us to our common humanity. Because when this connection happens, we realize that we really aren't that different after all. 
We all want the same things--friendship, acceptance, validation, peace, love. 

Why do we make this so hard? 


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