Friends, I debated posting this, because a) I doubt people on the other side of this debate are really capable of having their minds changed. And b) I am not sure this is the biggest issue affecting race in America right now. However, my friend and fellow author Rebecca Weatherspoon shared an article the other day entitled “Show Up, White America: The Opposite Of Support Is Silence.” It was poignant and it spoke to me. If you read only one blog today, read that one. But if you continue to read this one, know that while my words might not change the world, this is one small way I am showing up.
I grew up in the South. Confederate flags hung over much of my childhood. Cars, backpacks, notebooks, T-shirts, they were everywhere. I was taught that the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression) was about states’ rights and that it dealt a blow to big government. We got a day off of school every year called “Fair Day” on the official school calendar, but all the older teachers still called it Robert E. Lee Day. Some of them would snicker and say, “Oh, but we can’t call it what it really is ‘cause the Yankees don’t get it.” We associated the rebel flag (that’s what we always called it) with the Dukes of Hazzard and Lynard Skynard, free wheeling country people who were real and down to earth. We weren’t racist. We were Southern. You could be one without the other. The flag didn’t mean hate. It meant being proud of where you came from. Other people, outsiders, they just didn’t understand. I get it. I understand all those arguments, all those attachments. I really do. I even believed them.
But I was lied to, or at the very least, not told the whole truth, the bigger truth.
It’s hard to admit that. No one likes to admit they’ve been duped. No one likes to admit they bought into the propaganda machine. No one wants to look around at people they once trusted, agreed with, defended vocally, only to see them for the bigots they are. But we have to. As a Christian, as a mindful human being, I am called to seek light out of darkness. If we are reasonable, educated, thoughtful people, people who want to learn and grow and make the world a better place, we have to be willing to admit we’ve made mistakes, and more importantly, we need to be strong enough, brave enough, loving enough to correct them.
Even if we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they truly never saw the Confederate flag as tied to any racial issues, and I’ve admitted to falling into that group myself, we still can’t condone its continued use.
Things change, the world changes, symbols change and take on new meanings, or sometimes old meanings bubble up to reveal what had been there all along.
Either way, the Confederate flag is not the first symbol to go through this transformation. The swastika used to have another meaning, too. It was used 5,000 years before the rise of Hitler, giving it much more “heritage” than anything American can ever claim. It was a symbol used to represent good fortune or well being. You can still see it in ancient temples. By the early 1900’s, the symbol was as commonplace as yin-yangs or peace signs are today. Children doodled them on their books, Rudyard Kipling signed swastikas beside his autographs as a sign of respect and good will toward his readers. There is a long-standing, bright, and legitimately beautiful tradition behind the swastika. And yet no matter how German my heritage (and my last name is Spangler, so I’m pretty German), no matter how many wonderful meanings are attributed to the symbol, I would never under any circumstances wave a Nazi flag. I think we can all agree that no reasonable people draw them or decorate with them anymore since it became the official symbol of the Nazi party.
See how that works? Good people were faced with the horror of the atrocities committed under that flag, and they realized the old meaning could in no way balance or overcome the violence and hatred done under that symbol. No amount of warm feelings or past heritage could wash the blood out of the Nazi flag. So they were done with it. Good, thoughtful people do not look at the flag of Hitler and say, “You don’t understand the old meaning.” They simply distance themselves from the symbol and all its modern-day implications. The only people who willingly wear or carry a swastika now align themselves with violence, hatred, and everything the Nazi party stood for. It’s still their right to do so, but no reasonable person would argue that calling someone who brands themselves with a swastika an anti-Semite is an unfair assessment.
The Confederate flag is no different. Southerners, or rednecks, or country folks (however they identify) do not have a monopoly on symbolism. Nor do they control history. No matter what your daddy told you the stars and bars meant, it also meant some people were willing to die for the right to hold other people as slaves. No matter what your teacher said the Confederate flag symbolizes, it also symbolizes white supremacy. No matter what your favorite band told you about broadcasting that you’re a rebel, using that flag also broadcasts the fact that some people are willing to kill to protect the idea of a “racially pure” America. Go ahead and mix all that up, hate and heritage, pride and oppression, good vibes and violence. It still doesn’t come out anywhere near even. The bad by far outweighs the good.
Maybe this flag flew over the park you played in as kids. Maybe it flew in your grandparents’ yard. Maybe it hung in your dorm room. Maybe you associate it with your past or with a past version of yourself. If so, I’m sorry for that. I am sorry for you, and I am sorry for me. I am sorry for what we didn’t know then, and for what we thought we knew so well, but as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” Now you know better. Now you know the Confederate flag is the flag that flies over every gathering of the KKK. Now you know it’s the flag flown by white supremacists. Now you know that flag was a rallying point for slaveholders and segregationists. Now you know that flag is carried by men who go into churches and gun down African Americans.
That doesn’t mean everything you held dear is dead or even tainted. Pride and heritage and history and family ties all exist outside of the rebel flag context. I still love so much about the South. I love BBQ and fried chicken and corn bread. I love tea so thick with sugar you almost have to chew it. I love the smell of jasmine and the way magnolia petals blanket the grown in a fragrant sea of white. I love the special brand of hospitality that makes a new place feel at home and the way a slow Southern draw immediately eases tension from my shoulders. I love SEC football. I love the way country music mixes with southern rock. I love baptisms in a river and sun showers at three o’clock every summer day. I love to call every soda a coke. I love to listen to Jimmy Carter talk about just about anything.
There’s a hundred different ways to love the South. There are a million ways to be proud of where you come from, and none of them have to involve the image used to subjugate an entire race of human beings. If you continue to cling to the one symbol of the South used to hurt and oppress, that says nothing new about the flag or the land it once covered, but it says a great deal about you.
If you hear black voices crying out in agony and still turn away in favor of a flag, that makes you racist. If you prioritize a symbol of a dead rebellion over real, living, suffering people, that makes you racist. If you cling to your pride in what used to be or what you used to believe, instead of learning and growing and striving toward healing, that makes you a racist. Maybe it doesn’t make you the kind of racist that shoots up a church, but it make you the kind of racist who values your own comfortable ideas over the hearts and lives of your black brothers and sisters, and that is racism, too. I am sorry if that hurts to hear, but it’s the reality of the choice you are making. You continue to cast your lot with racists organizations, white supremacists hate groups, and grand wizards of the Klan even after being told that’s what you’re doing. If that’s who you want to side with, that’s your American right, but as we used to say in the South, when you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.
As for me, when I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child, but now I’m an adult. I have learned better lessons. I know better than I did before. I value human life over the vestiges of my past, and I can be secure in who I am without hurting anyone else in the process. I no longer want any part in the Confederate flag, and perhaps more importantly, I’m done getting flea bitten by people who do.
P.S. I have to approve all comments on this blog, so don’t even bother sending in racist ones. I am all for free speech, but you have your own walls, your own facebook accounts, and your own blogs and I have said all I have to say on this subject. If you want to post some argument in favor of the Confederate flag just post them elsewhere. They will not be posted here.
I’d known Paco for about 5 years, but we only saw each other every few months and we rarely had prolonged or deeply personal interactions. We drafted fantasy baseball teams together, we hung out at some of the same parties, we curled together both on the same team and as friendly bonspiel rivals. Paco was not a close friend, and yet in same ways I did consider him a good friend. He was the kind of guy that made you feel happy as soon as you saw him coming. He was the kind of guy that made me shout “Paco’s here!” before he’d even stepped on the ice. He was the kind of guy who could make me laugh even from the other side of the rink. I didn’t even have to hear what he’d said, I could just tell from his facial expression it was hilarious. He had an easy laugh, paired with a comedian’s timing, and a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor.
For a guy I saw maybe 3 or 4 times a year, I feel like we had more inside jokes or catch phrases than people I see every day. He could make me giggle just by drawing out “twenty-four” in a way that sounded more like “twernty-fer.” We could talk about Star Wars or sports or a team of assholes we’d curled against or the letter ñ or anything that amused us that day.
He had a story for every topic. And he was always game to go one more. One more round, one more game, one more drink, one more story. It seems like every time I saw him, he invited me along for a drink, or said I could get in touch any time I was in Buffalo, we could do this or that, or join some sports league or another. And like I said, we weren’t even that close. After watching his facebook page today, it’s clear he made the same kind of offers to everyone he met. He was just that kind of guy. But I never once took him up on it. It was always too late. I was always too busy. I didn’t know him well enough to text him off the cuff. I just never did. And now he’s gone.
At 31 years old, he’s just gone.
There will never be another chance to go get that drink or play that game or do that completely random thing. We’ll never get to confess to each other whether or not we got choked up at the new Star Wars movie. I’m never going to rip on his fringe Mohawk stocking cap, or laugh at his butt crack showing when he’s in the curling lunge. I’m never going to shout “Paco’s here!” again. I’m never going to get to tell him how much I enjoyed chatting with him or how happy it made me to bump into him unexpectedly.
All the clichés are running through my head. Life is short. Tell people you care about them when you have the chance. Take every chance. Live every moment. There’s no guarantee of a next time. It’s the same stuff you hear anytime something like this happens. You hear it all the time, but you know what? My not having anything new to add doesn’t make it any less true.
I am feeling all my regrets today. All the missed opportunities. All the friends gone before I fully understood their worth. All the times I swore I’d do better, only to end prioritizing bedtimes or housework over the chance to make a memory.
I didn’t know Paco well enough to know if he had the same kinds of regrets. He was a human, so he probably did, but I also get the sense that Paco squeezed more joy and all-around awesomeness into 31 years than most people could get out of two lifetimes.
I didn’t do my house chores this afternoon. I didn’t do my work chores either. I picked up my kid from school, got us a chocolate milkshake and some French-fries, and we ate them sitting in the hatchback of our car at driving range. We hit a bucket of balls. We shanked them, we sliced them, and we cheered wildly for the few that went far enough to beat our low expectations. Now we’re having frozen pizza for dinner even though there are fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge.
It doesn’t make a difference. Not really. Paco’s still gone and I will likely go back to freaking out over laundry by next week. There will be more losses and more regrets. But today, just for this day, I did what amused me, and I made a few memories to honor the memory of Paco.
This past Sunday my pastor was out of town, and I was asked to fill in for her. It was a fun morning, and I received so much love and support, not only from my own congregation, but also from friends and family all over the world. I had several people ask to hear my sermon. I even got a few requests to record the whole thing. While that was a bit too much, I did agree to post my thoughts here. Clearly, these words were not meant for a general audience. I was addressing our specific congregation, so if you’re not a person of faith, feel free to stop reading now. Come back another time though, okay?
If you are interested, please feel free to read on, knowing that you are welcomed as part of my community of believers any time and in any way you see fit.
Old Testament Reading: Psalm 127
New Testament Reading: Mark 13 – 16
Sermon Title: Suffer Unto Me the Little Children
This is my first sermon in this church. When Cynthia asked me to preach today, I actually didn’t even flinch. I immediately thought of all the awesome sermons I could give on hot button issues. I wanted to do something hard-hitting. I even started to outline a sermon I tentatively entitled “Angry Jesus.” It was going to be fantastic and witty and well researched, and it would make everyone a little uncomfortable a time or two.
It was going to be so easy and so fun that I was honestly surprised when people started offering me their support and sympathies. What’s the big deal? I am just going to talk to you all, and you’re going to sit there and politely try not to nod off. Compared to teaching Sunday school, this is a breeze. No one is standing on his or her chair, no one has gotten into the scissor drawer and tried to cut anyone else’s hair. No one has even thrown anything…yet. Anyone who thinks that giving this sermon will be harder for me than what I do on any given Sunday has never run a Sunday school class.
And really, why would you? That job is hard and frustrating, and it comes with tons of responsibility. Not only do you have to keep the kids safe and relatively quite and interested enough that they don’t climb the walls, you also have to teach them everything they need to lay the foundation of a life-long relationship with God.
This is the part of sermon where I confess my deep, hidden sin before God and my fellow believers: I didn’t want to teach Sunday school. I don’t love it. I certainly didn’t volunteer for the job.
I like kids, I really do. I am a notorious baby stealer. I like to cuddle them when they are tiny. When they’re older, I like to give them things their parent’s don’t like, teach them things their parents would rather they not know, wind them up and then let them go running wildly back to their parents. I’m everyone’s favorite inappropriate aunt. But that means I’m pretty much the opposite of what most people would consider good Sunday schoolteacher material.
But I grew up in a much more evangelical tradition. My parents taught Sunday school at our Methodist church. I went to a Baptist school and a Nazarene youth group. It made me a mixed up mutt when it comes to religious dogma, but those experiences led me to a deeply held belief that the Holy Spirit is still calling us. I honestly believe God asks us to serve and grow not only in the ways that He needs us to, but also in the ways that we need. So when I got asked to teach Sunday school, I figured this might be one of those calls. God had asked me to work with the youngest members of our church, and therefore God must think we need each other.
Wait? Why am I still talking about Sunday school? Sunday school is not hard-hitting. Sunday school is not a hot button issue. Sunday school is something little old ladies talk about in their quilting circles. This supposed to be my grown up time. The kids are safely tucked back in their classroom. This is my chance to take a break from the repetitive singing of “Kum Bah Yah” and really meditate deeply on the major problems people of my generation are facing right now.
You see, I’m a Millennial. I am among the first born of the biggest generation American has ever had. Those of us born between 1982 and 2000 number even greater than the Baby Boomers, and despite what you hear on the news, we’re not all bad. When you get down to the numbers, Millennials are more like the WWII generation than any group that has come before or since. We are team workers, we are joiners, we are socially and environmentally conscious, and we build intense personal relationships with our families and friends and co-workers. I could go on and on, and I have a master’s degree worth of work to back up my assertions here, but that’s not the sermon I want to give, either. I don’t want to tell you all the ways we are great. I want to tell you the one thing about us that really scares me.
32 percent of Millenials have no religious affiliation, and they’re not looking for one. This trend is not new. It’s been on the rise since the turn of the last century, but for the first time in American history, more than a quarter of a generation has no desire to go to church.
Now please don’t conflate that lack of interest with a lack of exposure. Many of these people grew up going to church. Most of them grew up with religious family members and friends. A Gallup poll from 2014 found that 86% of unaffiliated people believe in God. These same people even understand Jesus’s teachings, with 68% of those same people saying they believe Jesus is divine.
Quick show of hands: How many of you have a close friend or family member who was raised in the church, but no longer attends? How many of you have close friends or family members who say they believe in God or Jesus but don’t want to attend church?
The heart of the problem does not lie with a misunderstanding of God or Jesus. Jesus and God still poll very high, but the church does not.
My generation is not lazy or apathetic when it comes to church. That 30% of people under the age of 30 aren’t even neutral toward the church; they actively don’t care for us.
When the Pew Institute did a massive generational survey in 2012:
- 70% of them said the church was too concerned with money and power,
- 67% said the church is too concerned with rules,
- 67% percent said the church was hypocritical.
Another Pew study asked Millenials, both those affiliated with church and those not affiliated with church, to list the words or phrases that popped into their heads when they thought about church or church groups. These are their top 10 answers: 1) Hates Gays 2) Judgemental 3) Hypocritical 4) Too Political 5) Out of touch with real life 6) Old-fashioned 7) Insensitive to the needs of others 8) Boring 9) Not accepting 10) Confusing
This is not just a simple image problem. This is a substance problem.
My generation knows God, they know Jesus, and they were raised in and around the church. They are our children, our grandchildren, our brothers and sister, nieces and nephews, and I’m sorry to say that we failed them. These young people who know us, who were raised by us, think that we, the collective church we form, are hateful, judgmental, out of touch, and insensitive.
Does that hurt you? Does it upset you to hear? It should upset all of us. It does me. These are my friends, my coworkers, the people who I share my life and experiences with. I am happy they still know God, I am happy most of them still find truth in at least the basic teachings of Christ, but I am devastated that they do not know the love of a congregation like this one. And I feel guilty for being part of the culture that turned them away.
I wish this was the part of the sermon where I tell you three simple steps to brining Millennials back to church. Sadly, it is not. I don’t have three or five or ten simple steps. I don’t think that kind of reconciliation will be simple, I don’t think it will be a linear process, and I don’t think that the process will be the same for everyone.
I think we here at Fredonia Presbyterian Church have started making great strides in that area, and I love that we are continually seeking new ways to actively align the work of our church to the message of Jesus Christ. However, over the last two centuries, the church has gone wrong in a multitude of ways, and it will take at least that many ways of making amends to reverse the damage already done.
Still, do not despair: This sermon is at least two-thirds of the way over and I promise we’ve hit the low point. It’s going to be more positive and more constructive from here on out, because while we do not get a do over with my generation, another generation has already arrived.
That’s the great thing about generations, unless we somehow make the biggest mistake ever, there will always be another generation to come. And from the dawn of time, the promise of each generation has been to do a little better than was done before. Every generation gets to look around, assess where things went wrong, and promise to do better for those who come after them.
I feel that way every time I sit down with the Sunday school kids. I carry the weight of my generation that’s turned from the church. I think about all the reasons they list for not liking this place, and I pray for guidance to show our kids something different.
When someone tells me the church taught them to be ashamed of their flaws, I go in and make a special effort to tell our kids God made them in Her own image and loves them for who they are. When someone tells me they felt judged by hypocrites in church, I remind our kids that everyone has sinned, even me. Especially me. When someone tells me they left church because it’s irrelevant to the struggles in their life, I make an extra effort to ask our kids what’s going on at school, or on their sports teams, and I pray for their concerns using their own words. And when someone tells me they left church because it was boring or mind numbing to be lectured at constantly, I give into my silly, inappropriate aunt side and encourage them to blow bubbles in their juice boxes while talking to them about how much joy Jesus can bring to their lives.
That has been my call as I understand it for the past 8 months, to try to teach them what it really means to be part of a church. And now that we’ve had this talk, it’s your call, too. You thought that earlier bit about the hazards of teaching Sunday school was a tangent, didn’t you? It wasn’t. Starting June 28. Sunday school will recess for the summer. The kids will no longer be leaving the sanctuary after the scripture reading. They’re going to stay in church where all of us, and I do mean all of us, will be charged with teaching them what it means to be part of this congregation on any given Sunday.
I have taught them the Lord’s prayer, the Doxology, and several hymns. We have ordered special children’s bulletins for them to read and color during the sermon. I have explained where the offering goes and why the confession of sins matters, but ultimately it will be up to all of YOU to teach them they are valued and welcomed and loved in this space.
It will not be easy for them at first, and it may, at times, be even harder for you. They will squirm, they will giggle, they will drop things and crawl under the pews to get them. They will whisper to one another, and they will appear to pay no attention to anyone in front of or around them. They will likely not remember what the sermon was about. They will not remember the songs we sang and they most certainly will not remember the things we tell them about appropriate behavior from one week to the next, but I promise you this: They will remember how they felt. They will remember how they were treated. They will remember the difference between a stern look and a gentle hand on their shoulder. They will remember the difference between a sharp word and loving guidance.
There have been times when the church as whole, and maybe even us as individuals, have been everything those unaffiliated individuals think we are. We have been judgmental and hypocritical and too caught up in money and power. We have been boring and out of touch and insensitive to the most sensitive hearts and minds among us. And because of that we have lost a large portion of my generation for good. But we have a second chance to do better.
There is a new generation among us now, and they will be in the pews beside us this summer. I am asking you now to please take some time to let the gravity of that sink in. Every single time you interact with these kids over those 10 weeks, you are being called to secure the future of the church of Jesus Christ . You are being called to be the hands and voice of God to them in God’s own house. I hope each and every one of us will open our hearts to the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we can accept this call with joy, understanding, and a great deal of patience.
I figured that title would get your attention. After my last blog was shared over 3,000 times, I’ve been a little worried I had to follow up with something catchy, something profound, something to make all 3,000 of you buy my latest book, Heart Of The Game. I thought and thought and thought but came up with nothing.
You see, most of the time I’m not that poignant. I’m just a boi who likes stories. I like characters. I like romance. Long before I ever had any intention of writing novels, I loved to read them. One summer in middle school I found The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Did you know she (yes, she was also a woman writing as man) was 15 when she started writing the book? Well she spoke to me as a teen. I loved that book so much I carried around with me. I had a paperback copy that fit in my back pocket, and I carried it around the neighborhood and would just sit down and read little snippets. Part of a page got ripped out at one point. The spine cracked, the cover got bent, but I loved that book so much I didn’t want to be outside its world for too long, so I kept it close at all times.
I’ve always been that way with my books. I disappear into them. I sink in so deep I forget what time it is, what season it is, what city I’m in. When they end, I mourn them. I often have “memories” that I never really experienced except from the point of view of some exquisitely drawn character. I’ve seen so clearly places I’ve never actually visited, and I suffer scars that never felt a wound. I don’t read books; I inhabit them. I love my books like a child loves a stuffed animal, and if stories work like Velveteen Rabbits, I have loved more than a few sets of characters into full existence.
Yesterday, I choose to return to one of those old favorites, a classic. In honor of Katherine V. Forrest’s birthday, I picked up Curious Wine again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book since college, but it’s one I just sink into like an exhausted person might fall into a feather bed. From the opening pages, from the first glorious appearance of Lane Christianson, I am a swoony puddle of romantic mush. “Your looking is like touching.”
Suddenly the boisterous, playful baseball boi is big ole girl longing for candlelight and a bubble bath. And I am in touch enough with my feminine side to give it what it asks for.
I posted that photo and immediately got a comment saying “If you drop that book in the water, you are dead to me.” It was from my editor Lynda Sandoval, and she quickly added a “just kidding.” And she was just kidding. I’ve been to her house. I’ve seen the books everywhere! But the comment still got me thinking about the idea that some books are just too precious to risk getting wet or bent or dirty. I get that as a way of honoring them, of holding them up as the precious treasure they are, but for me a good book isn’t like a piece of jewelry or fine china. A good book is much more like a beautiful woman, something to touched, explored, held close no matter where you are. To enshrine a set a books high on some shelf like a showpiece seems somehow akin to having Halle Berry and not taking her to bed for fear you might muss up her hair.
It’s fine that people collect books, that they save them and protect them and get obsessive about keep them pristine, but at the same time, please don’t feel the need to do so for my sake. Not with my books. That’s not how I’d like my books to be cherished.
I don’t want to write the book you give a prominent place in your bookcase. I want to write the book that stays on your bedside table for so long someone uses it as a coaster.
I want to write the book you bend the spine on because you stayed up reading so late you just set it beside you in bed and ended up rolling over on it.
I don’t want to write the book you never bend or dog ear the pages of. I want you to fold down the pages and star the margins of passages you want to go back and read again later.
I don’t want to write the book you make people wash their hands before they touch. I want to write the book you get Cheetos on because you can’t put down it down long enough to eat a real meal.
I want to write the book you get sand and sunscreen on because you took it to the beach and got so absorbed in it the tide snuck up on you.
I don’t want my titles to be collected for collector’s sake. I don’t dare hope to achieve the longevity and beloved status that Katherine Forrest has. I don’t expect to ever write a book on par with Curious Wine, but if some time down the road, someone who isn’t even born yet finds a copy of Heart Of The Game and thinks they’ve stumbled onto a lesbian romance classic, I hope they won’t be afraid to go ahead and take it into the bubble bath with them.
There’d be no better compliment to me than if readers let my characters into their hearts do deeply they couldn’t help getting them a little wet or dirty in the process.
So the news the last few weeks has been kind of bad. Between the bigot who blasted my family on Facebook and trans kids being bullied to death and Indiana going bat shit crazy, it’s easy to get caught up in our national back swing. Never mind that rapid social progress is always followed by conservative blowback. Never mind that any seasoned activist will tell you it’s always two steps forward and one step back. Never mind that for every crazy politician spouting hate there’s two more moving closer to full inclusion. It still hurts.
I’ve been out for fourteen years. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I still feel the burn of shame in my cheeks when I hear a pastor rail against my family. My stomach clenches when I have to explain to my son why he’s not a boy scout. My shoulders still tighten in anticipation every time someone I don’t know asks me what kind of books I write. It’s not that I think these people are right. It’s not that I’ve bought into the bigotry. It’s not that I lack the courage of my convictions. It’s the opposite. It still hurts because it’s personal.
To the man who railed against queers on my uncle’s Facebook wall and then said he wasn’t talking about anyone personally, yes, yes you were. To the governor of Indiana who says he wasn’t motivated by a desire to hurt anyone specifically, yes, yes you were. To people who say, “that’s so gay,” then say they didn’t mean “gay,” yes, yes you did. Your pretending like you didn’t mean anything personal doesn’t change the fact that those things are personal. We are people. I am a person. My wife is a person. My son is a person. My uncle is a person. Our church members are people. Your words, your laws, your discrimination are all personal to each and every person who is gay, or questioning, or loves someone who is gay or questioning. We are real people with real feelings (and real dollars to spend) and real families to care for. Every hurtful thing you say about gays and lesbians is about real people.
But you know what? The responses are personal, too. From my uncle, Mr. Blue-collar-union-electrician and all his blue-collar union friends who verbally beat down the Facebook bigot, they are real people, too. The CEOs who pulled their companies out of Indiana, they are people. The people who pull their own kids from scouting, or create alternative activities that our family is welcome to join, those are real people too. The students who march and hold candles for trans kids they never met, they are people. The straight man who read Heart of the Game because he likes books about baseball, lesbian characters or not, he’s a real person. The women at my church who clipped out an article about my book in the local paper, they are people. They are good people. Honorable people. Loving people. They aren’t gay, or necessarily liberal, or highly educated. They don’t live in trendy neighborhoods or always know the pc terms. But they are people who take our feelings, our rights, our lives seriously. They take issues that aren’t their own and they make them personal.
That’s why we’re going to win this fight, why we’re already winning it. To us, the big tent collective of not only queers but also anyone who’s ever loved a queer, this time it really is personal.
I know I owe you a blog, and I want to write it, really I do, but some crazy lesbian romance writers have descended on my house! Maybe you recognize them:
Yes, that’s Melissa Brayden on the left and Georgia Beers on the right. So now there’s wineries to be toured, food to be consumed, mischief to be made, and selfies to be taken. But in the midst of all that, Heart Of The Game became available in the Kindle store yesterday. I know I have told you all several times you can get the Kindle compatible ebook directly from Bold Strokes Books, but I’ve also heard from a lot of you who like to shop the Kindle store. If you’re in the latter group, now’s your chance. You can get your copy of Heart Of The Game right here, right now! I sure hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think.
In the meantime I’m going to get back to those selfies.
I am proud and seriously excited to announce that Heart Of The Game is now available in from Bold Strokes Books! This is my eighth book, and it never gets any less thrilling (or nerve-wracking) to know that the characters I have poured my heart into for over a year are now in your very capable hands.
The book actually went live last Friday, ahead of schedule, and I want to thank everyone who’s dropped me a line saying they already got their copy. If you have gotten yours yet, don’t fear. Just go on over to the website, where you can buy it in print or download it in epub (iPad), Mobi (Kindle), or PDF (all the things) format.
I know I am biased, but I think the timing of this release couldn’t be better. For most of us in the United States (and parts of Europe) harsh winter weather has dragged on for entirely too long. We are all ready for the smell of fresh cut grass, warming rays of sunlight, and yes, a little bit of baseball. And we’re in luck because Spring Training games started yesterday, and the hope of a new season, a fresh start, and even an early taste of summer is in the air. All those things are also in Heart Of The Game, along with a sweet romance that also happens to offer you a good look at a new season, a fresh start, and an early taste of summer.
If you’re not sold yet (why? why? I ask you) I hope you’ll do me a favor and at least go check out the full first chapter excerpt of the book on the Bold Strokes website, because even if you don’t end up falling in love with Duke and Molly the way I did, it would sure make me happy if you at least got to meet them for a little while.
And once again, thank you to everyone who has already bought the book. I appreciate it greatly, and now I start the long, nervous process of pacing the floor, wringing my hands, and waiting to hear what you think of my new baby!
We are (less than) one week from the official release of Heart Of The Game! I cannot wait! Can you feel the excitement radiating from me through the interwebs? Or is that just static electricity from the winter weather? Either way, spring is coming (someday), and so is baseball, and so is the latest lesbian romance novel from yours truly. You can pre-order Heart Of The Game now right here. And if you aren’t sure yet about wanting to buy it (why not?), you can read on below where I share with you the first scene of the book (after the pre-game, which I shared last week).
This is the opening scene of the present-day part of the book, and our whole cast of major players are here for your introduction. I sure hope you like them!
Top Of The First
You Can’t Win ’em All if You Don’t Win he First One
Sarah Duke stood in the first row of the stands with nothing but a low green wall separating her from edge of the field. She could have easily stepped over if she’d had to, but she didn’t. Instead she ran her fingers slowly over the press pass hanging from a lanyard around her neck. The little badge was her ticket to virtually any part of Busch Stadium. The small, laminated index card granted her access to even the field itself during batting practice. A thrill coursed up her spine as the security guard swung the gate open wide. She nodded gratefully in his direction, but the emotions clogging her throat prevented her from actually saying “thank you.”
Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the doorway. Her foot hovered only a second on the rising cloud of old memories before landing firmly on the clay of the warning track. She stepped slowly forward until she was almost directly behind home plate, enjoying the crunch of the dry ground beneath her feet. Then looking down, she kicked up a little cloud of burnt orange dust simply because she liked the way it settled across the toes of her shiny black shoes. It didn’t matter that she’d polished them earlier that morning. Nothing ever looked as good as it did with a thin sheen of ballpark on it.
She playfully scuffed up another little cloud of dirt, then glanced over her shoulder, still half expecting someone to scoop her up and carry her away, but no one paid her any attention. Not security, not the trainers or the grounds crew working at the edge of the field, not even the players gathered around the batting cage. Everyone was right where they were expected to be, diligently performing the task they’d been assigned, playing their part in this magnificent play, and now she was one of them. It might have taken twenty-six years from that first game with her father, but she’d earned her spot on this field. No matter what anyone else said or thought, she belonged here.
The crack of a bat drew her attention long enough to confirm the ball would land safely away from her, but, like a child, her focus wandered quickly to the next amazing detail. Stepping forward a few paces to the side of the batting cage and into foul territory, she crouched down between the dugout and the back stop pretending to eye the pitcher or the batter. Then, hiding another smile, she bent low and ran her fingers through the short grass. She relished the prick of the soft blades against her palms and wondered if there was any scent in the world more invigorating than freshly cut Kentucky bluegrass.
Behind her, the crowd filed into beautiful Busch Stadium. She could hear them now, their jubilant, anticipatory sounds filtering in through her sense of awe as they all clamored to get a better view of last batters to warm up. Those masses she’d waded through so many times were to her back now, and every person in the crowd would love to be in her shoes. The glee was almost too much to contain. She snatched up a single blade of grass, then, standing, released her grip and watched the grass flutter to the ground. She wanted to do it again, but press pass or not, she shouldn’t play around out there so close to such an important game.
Shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun, she turned and took in the mammoth stands of the stadium rising red and gray until she had to tilt her head back so far she almost toppled over. Expected attendance for the Cardinals’ home opener was over forty-two thousand people, teeming mobs of fans decked out in a sea of red and white. Already, hordes of young, and young at heart, stacked five or six deep around the wall closest to the dugout, each one jostling for a better position. They held hats and balls, trading cards and jerseys, in their outstretched arms as they called to the players still warming up. An autograph wasn’t likely forthcoming at this stage, since the players were as keyed up as the kids, but she didn’t blame the fans for trying anyway. She’d been covering the club every day for the last four weeks of spring training, and she still got the urge to ask for an autograph when one of her favorites brushed past on his way to the clubhouse. Of course, it wouldn’t do much for her credibility as a serious sports journalist to ask an interviewee to scrawl his name across her notebook, but she still thought about it occasionally.
Members of the grounds crew bustled around her as they began to clear the field. The final players and coaches had cleared out, and the crew was hauling away the batting cages. She recognized her cue to leave. Glancing at her note pad once more, she confirmed again that she already had everything she needed. She’d been at the park for six hours already. She’d submitted her pre-game comments half an hour ago, and they were likely already up on the website. The clubhouse and players were now off-limits to the media as everyone entered their final warm-ups. She had nothing left to do until she started her in-game Twitter feed once the Cardinals took the field. Maybe she’d comment on the Opening Day ceremonies, but even those wouldn’t officially begin for another thirty minutes. Eschewing her formal seat in the press box for the excitement down below, she decided to spend a few minutes being a spectator.
She flashed her badge, and once more the security guard swung the gate open wide. Ambling into the stands, she threaded her way through the crowd of boys around the dugout. Their numbers had dwindled significantly with the end of batting practice, but a handful of enthusiastic holdouts remained. They leaned on the rail and called out, “Hey, mister! Hey, mister!” at the batboy or the trainer or the security guard, anything to get a leg up on the competition. She admired their commitment. They all went after what they wanted, ceaseless in their efforts.
All except one of them.
A few feet back, a lone child sat in the seat closest to the dugout, but didn’t seem to pay any attention to the scrum gathered there. He was dressed like the rest of them in his white jersey and blue jeans. His red baseball cap and round glasses shaded his face, nearly covering the smattering of freckles across his nose. He chewed lightly on the end of his pencil while he balanced a notebook on his knees, a steady look of concentration creasing his otherwise youthful features. Why wasn’t he clamoring to be noticed like the others? He didn’t even glance in their direction when their noise level rose at the sight of a player entering the dugout. Instead his eagle-eyed focus remained centered on the outfield, or perhaps something just beyond.
She scooted closer and scanned the direction he was watching. There were no players in the outfield. Had something on the Jumbotron caught his eye? No, he wasn’t looking up quite that high. Was it the fans over the outfield wall? Curiosity got the better of her. She crept closer and bent down behind him, trying to match his line of sight. Maybe it was her reporter’s instincts, or maybe she was nosy, but she had to find out what could hold a little boy’s focus in such a chaotic environment.
His shoulders tensed and he turned slowly, suspiciously to look up at her, his little brow furrowed. “Am I in your seat?”
“No.” She straightened quickly and stepped back, embarrassed to have been caught trying to scoop a child. “You’re fine.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, uncertainly. “I can move.”
“No, really.” She laughed nervously as she realized how creepy she probably seemed to him. “I’m sorry. I should get back to work.”
His eyes widened in sudden recognition. “You’re Sarah Duke.”
“Yes, I am.” She squared her shoulders, inordinately pleased at having been recognized publicly for the first time and surprised that it came from a kid. Some of the players didn’t even know her yet, and she’d covered them for weeks. Of course some of them ignored her on purpose either because she was new or a woman, but her response remained the same in both cases. Hard work, dedication, and raw skill had answered every question ever raised about her over the years. It would prove the naysayers wrong here, too. This boy didn’t seem to require any convincing, though.
“I read your column on MajorLeagues.com this morning,” the boy said with a seriousness exceeding his age.
“Yeah? What did you think?”
“I think Molina is going to have a good year, too. Maybe MVP kind of stuff.”
She chuckled. “Glad we’re on the same page.”
“It’s bad luck to have to start against Cary Pistas, though, with the wind blowing in from right field.”
Duke glanced out to the outfield wall. While the flags on the third base side were barely stirring, the ones on the right side of the field were blowing harder, directly back toward the pitcher’s mound.
“Huh. You’re right, and it’s chilly, too, which will deaden the ball.”
He nodded thoughtfully, then flipped open his notebook and scratched a few marks in the top corner.
She peeked over his shoulder to see him add “game time temp” to an already elaborate heading with the date, start time, and opposing team. All things she’d already made note of on her own tablet.
“That’s not an autograph book.” She stated the now obvious.
“No, it’s my game notes.”
“Then you better add starting pitchers, too,” she said, amused once again by his seriousness. “When you review it next time the Pirates come to town, you’ll remember who started each game.”
“Thanks.” A sparkle of light shone in his dark eyes beneath lenses a little too big for his face. “Do you think Ben Cooper will have his good stuff today?”
She considered the question and then glanced at her watch. “You know, now actually might be a good time to get some inside info. Maybe I should head out to the bullpen and do some scouting.”
His shoulders slumped slightly, and a frown pulled at his smooth face. “Yeah, okay. Thank you for talking to me.”
He looked like a sad little puppy who’d been told to sit and stay. She wanted to pat him on his head. Instead, she arched an eyebrow questioningly. “You wouldn’t want to put a few notes in your book, would you?”
He hopped up eagerly. “I could come, too?”
“Well, it’s too late to go down on the field, but I know a good place out of the way where we could peek into the bullpen and make our own assessment of warm-ups if you want.”
“Yes ma’am.” He jumped up and grabbed his things eagerly, his excitement magnifying hers. She remembered being that age and loving the game so very much, but not being seen as part of it, or even worthy of having an opinion on the subject yet. She would’ve loved to talk baseball with anyone who would listen, much less someone who had inside information. Okay, maybe she was showing off a little bit, too, but she’d finally earned her dream job, with the access every kid craves. Who could blame her for wanting to flaunt that to someone who could appreciate it? She indicated a direction and happily loped on alongside the boy as he moved excitedly toward the end of their section.
She was about to steer him into the tunnel under the stadium when a voice sent her skidding to a stop.
“Joseph Landon Grettano, freeze right there.”
And freeze they did. The hair on her arms stood on end and the muscles in her neck tensed instantly as if a cold blast of artic wind had raked across her back. The boy whirled around, and his profuse apologies starting to flow immediately.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to run off. I got excited. It won’t happen again. You can trust me to sit closer on my own. I promise. I just, I met Sarah Duke.”
Way to throw me under the bus, kid. She turned around slowly to see a young woman raise her hand, cutting the boy off mid-sentence.
Her sun-kissed skin stood out against her white jersey, a bold contrast to the dark hair flowing freely down her back. Her stunning brown eyes smoldered, making her look older than she probably was. The curly-haired child perched on her hip didn’t do anything to highlight her youthful features either. Still, in another place, a beach, or a bar, she might have passed for a co-ed if not for the expression on her face, which couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than that of an angry mother.
The boy, Joseph Landon Grettano apparently, shifted quietly from one foot to the other as he awaited his sentencing.
“I trusted you, and you broke my trust. It’s time for you to come back with us until you can prove yourself to me again.”
“Yes ma’am,” he mumbled, hanging his head.
Duke felt guilty for getting him in trouble. She hadn’t thought her offer through, but how could she know he wasn’t supposed to run around the stadium? It wasn’t her fault he didn’t ask his mom first.
She quietly slid back, hoping to fade, unnoticed into the crowd.
“And you,” the woman said, slowly, deliberately turning her focus. “Who do you think you are?”
“Um,” she glanced down at her press pass, suddenly unsure of the answer to that question, “I’m Sarah Duke. I’m a sportswriter.”
“A sportswriter who lures little boys into dark tunnels?”
“No. I mean, yeah, but”—that sounded horrible—“not like that.”
“Seriously? You try to abscond with my child without telling me, then lead him into the underbelly of a sports stadium to some place I don’t have access to and cannot see.” She waved her free arm so wildly it flipped her hair over her shoulder dramatically. “And all you can say for yourself is, it’s ‘not like that’?”
“Uh, well.” She squirmed much the same way the boy had. Could anyone in the world stand a mother’s scolding when they knew she was right? “Look, I’m sorry. He was sitting alone and—”
“He was not alone,” she snapped. “I was ten rows back, and I had my eye on him the whole time.”
“Okay, fine. I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know anyone one was watching him so you thought you could take him?” She shifted the younger child to her other hip while giving Duke a moment to realize how bad that sounded. “I should call the police on you.”
That was just what she needed on Opening Day. “I said I’m sorry.”
“When it comes to my kids, sorry doesn’t cut it. What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking, obviously.” She shrugged. “I’m a massive moron who wanted to do something nice for a kid who seemed, I don’t know, smarter, or more together, or just better than the rest.”
The women’s expression softened, so Duke plowed on. “He asked me some intelligent questions about pitching, so I wanted to show him where the pitchers warmed up. Clearly that was stupid of me.”
“No.” The woman sighed exasperatedly. “That was nice of you. You were stupid not to think he had a mother somewhere who would worry herself sick if he disappeared. You were stupid to think it would be okay for a stranger to take a nine-year-old boy into a tunnel at a sports stadium. You were stupid to—”
“‘Stupid’s bad word,” the child on her hip said around the two fingers in his mouth.
“You’re right, honey.” She paused to kiss him on the forehead, and for one second, her entire being transformed. The tension in her face relaxed. Every line softened as she closed her eyes and pressed her lips tenderly to his smooth skin. Then, as if exhaling all her anger, she blew out a heavy breath and asked, “Sarah Duke, do you have children?”
“No,” she said quickly.
“Then you have no idea what it feels like.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked, captivated by the change in the beautiful woman before her.
The woman raised her eyes, deep, dark eyes awash with fear. “Like I watched you pick up my heart and carry it into a place it might not return from.”
Duke thought she’d been sorry before. She’d certainly felt sorry while getting yelled at, but now with her stomach clenched and her breath caught in her throat, she understood true remorse. “I am so sorry.”
“Fine.” She sounded exasperated and tired.
“Does this mean we can go now?” The older boy asked in a tone that suggested he already knew the answer.
“No,” his mother said. “You’re still ballpark grounded. You’re not to leave my side. Got it?”
The kid looked absolutely crestfallen but managed to mumble, “Yes ma’am.”
“It’s hot dog time?” the younger boy asked, clearly immune to the trouble his brother was in.
“Not until the third inning, honey.” His mom handled the non sequitur gently before she turned back to Duke. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Yes ma’am,” she replied, then waited, unsure of what she should do. Had she been dismissed? Should she apologize once more? Offer to make it up to them somehow? Or run? Clearly getting out of there was the best option. Something about the woman’s disapproval and her son’s disappointment constricted Duke’s chest. “Okay, then I guess I’ll go. Really, I’m very sorry, to both of you.”
The woman said nothing. She didn’t even acknowledge her retreat. She’d clearly returned her focus to her family, leaving Duke on the outside of the circle.
We’re in the final weeks before the release of my next novel, Heart Of The Game! Today I’m going to give you the first sneak peak of the book. It’s the prologue, so there’s no real set up needed, but by way of introduction, I will say I’m pretty proud of this piece. If you like it, too, why not head on over and pre-order yourself a copy?
The crowd pushed around her, a mass of denim and skin blocking the sun and even, at times, the air. Tall trunks of legs rose past her line of sight, a solid forest uprooted, flowing and shifting like a river and carrying her along. Everyone towered impossibly high and swift around her, a legion of giants, but such is the worldview of every four-year-old. With her small hand engulfed securely by her father’s, she found nothing disconcerting about her inability to see beyond the blue jeans in front of her. She allowed herself to be pulled along in his wake, content for once to be part of this stream of people with him for once. She even looked like him now, almost. Her overalls were only a shade lighter than his pants, and they covered her legs the same way even if they did come up higher and have silver buckles. They also said “Oshkosh.” She liked that word. Her mother had said it when she pointed to the blue label. Her father didn’t have a blue label, but he wore a red shirt like hers. Red like a fire truck, red like a crayon, red like the little bird on her hat. It wasn’t her hat, though. It was Aidan’s, but Aidan was sick, so she got to wear it.
She also got his ticket. “Ticket.” She said the word loudly enough to be heard by her own ears, then float away on the sea of moving trunks behind her. She liked word as much as she liked the slip of paper protruding from her tight fist. She’d seen it at home but hadn’t been allowed to touch it until they’d come into this cavernous hallway. Once in the dim night and the forest of knees, her father had handed it to her. She sensed its importance without understanding its purpose and silently hoped to prove herself worthy of this thing, this ticket.
She felt more than saw their path change. There was a pause, then a step to the left, a few more steps forward, then over. Soon they were near a wall, close enough she could have touched it, but she didn’t. She followed only the denim knees she recognized as his as they turned down another smaller hall. This one wasn’t as crowded. Light slipped in among the legs ahead, and the gray slab walls on either side offered shelter from the pushing, grinding river of bodies. Her father slowed, allowing the tension in their joined arms to slacken, and she scooted up even with him. Gradually the layers of legs before her stepped away, each one leaving more slivers of sunlight for her eyes to adjust to until finally the last of the legs stepped away, revealing the most beautiful sight her young eyes had ever seen.
The enormity of the view seeped in slowly, like the gentle warmth of the setting sun against her cheeks. The path before her descended steeply to a low wall, separating this plain of cold, gray concrete from a vast open field of colors more vibrant than anything she had in her box of crayons. The dirt was a rich shade of orange, but not like an actual orange, burnt, crumbled, and cut through with stark, bold white lines. They offered a dry contrast to the lush green of the grass, which stood bright and deep, rippling into patterns. Rows crossed one another in the faintest shades, lighter or darker, like those left by her mother’s vacuum across their living room carpet. If someone had vacuumed the field, it must have been God. Surely no person could have done something so big and so perfect. Even though the concept of the divine hovered foggy and uncertain in her mind, she knew God lived in the stained glass and tall pipe organ of her church, and she knew instinctively He lived here, too.
Men, or rather, big boys occupied the field. They dotted the richly colored grass, the brilliant white of their clothes signaling to her they were part of the field, or maybe the field belonged to them. They ran about, back and forth, or swung bats. Some of them simply sat in the grass, arms and legs outstretched, bending and straightening languidly. They were playing. The formality of gods blended with the youthfulness of children to draw her closer.
A group of younger children brushed passed her, their hands clutching cotton candy, popcorn, snow cones, but her eyes remained locked on something more compelling than any petty treat. The men on the field had birds on their shirts, red birds, bright and definitive against the white, the same little bird she had on her hat. She drew steadily nearer now, slowly but purposefully inching closer, over the lip of each stair. She’d let go of her father’s hand, but still felt anchored, as if tethered to him. He had brought her here. He wore the red bird, so did those boys in white, and so did she. Her mind made connections loosely, rapidly, freely, but her feet moved to a rhythm set to a reason she could only sense.
She stepped to level ground, the last of the gray concrete beneath her feet, before the low wall, and saw her opening. A little door, a small gate, towering bodies of men shifted all around, but they were dull and faded compared to the sharp pull beyond. She strode with an unnamable confidence now, threading her way nimbly around obstacles too big to pay her any mind. Her foot struck out, both of its own accord and of her deepest wish, then hovered, suspended over the burnt orange clay. Inches from Eden, she halted, then was whisked backward and upward as her father scooped her swiftly into his arms.
“You scared me to death, Sarah. Don’t ever wander off like that again.” The harshness of his words was undercut by both relief and exasperation as he carried her slowly back up the muted gray stairs.
She struggled against his hold, squirming around to see the field over his shoulder, her face scraping against the dark stubble of his beard. “I want to be out there, Daddy.”
“So does everybody else who’s ever picked up a baseball,” he snapped, then sighed. “We all want to be out there, but we’re not allowed.”
“Then why are those boys out there?” She pointed to the players.
He turned slowly toward the direction indicated by her outstretched hand. He stared at the men on the field, his blue eyes seemingly focused on something bigger or farther away than the players in his line of sight. He didn’t speak, and she waited, captivated by the pensiveness in his gaze, the sag of his shoulders, the slight crook at the corners of his lips. He’d always been a giant in her eyes, but for a moment he changed in a way a mythical creature may be timeless, or boundless. They stood, transfixed for what felt like a long time before he sighed heavily. His shoulders dropped and the deep creases along his mouth returned as he turned back to her and said, “Some of those boys are blessed, some of them work harder than all the others along the way. Most of them are both. Either way, they earned the right to go on that field. The rest of us are just lucky to be able to see them play.”
He set her down on the stadium seat, then with a smile even a child could tell was fake asked if she’d like a hot dog.
She ignored the question and tried to focus on the feeling slipping away. “Blessed,” she repeated as she stood on her bright red chair and looked out once more on the field, the colors, the boys, and their play. She didn’t know if she was blessed, but she did understand hard work. If that was what she needed to do to get closer to that game, then that was what she’d do. Somehow those men with the bird on their shirts had earned their spot in this place. She turned to her dad one more time and said, “Someday I’m going to earn it, too.”