Book Review: "The Celebrants" by Steven Rowley
As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to celebrity book clubs. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to have one of my books featured, but it’s rare that they showcase a book that interests me. I also don’t read a lot of fiction, which certainly sets me apart from just about anyone. My research, my writing, my interests are centered in nonfiction.So I was surprised to find myself buying the June choice of Jenna’s Book Club on the Today Show, The Celebrants. One of the first descriptions of the book compared it to one of my favorite movies, The Big Chill. I can understand the impulse: a group of college friends are forever shaped by the suicide of one member. But aside from the lack of an obvious musical soundtrack, I think that’s where the similarity ends. If it’s evocative of any movie for me, it’s Peter’s Friends.
And Then There Were Three: S, N and Y
I had a blog post all ready, but then the news popped up in my Facebook feed. News that was both expected and a shock: David Crosby died.
From time to time over the years I’ve written about the experience of grieving a celebrity, someone you’ve admired and loved but never met. Some people are taken aback by the depth of the grief they feel, and that’s understandable. They’re grieving for someone they’ve only known from a distance. So they wonder why they feel that loss so deeply.
The easy answer is that the celebrity represented an important part of your life. Maybe their music was playing while you were in bed with someone you loved. Maybe their TV show was “must see TV” with your Mom. Maybe watching them perform in person was something you shared with your closest friends. All of that could be true for people now grieving David Crosby. But there’s a deeper reason for me.
My 2nd Annual 'Not an End of Year Review'
I looked back at the end of year blog post I wrote last December. It was optimistic, bordering on delusional at times. But then, I had no idea what this year would bring.
A few months ago I decided to put aside my work on turning Fag Hags into an online course. The idea came to me early in the pandemic, and made sense at the time. But as 2022 dragged on, it just felt like a burden. My enthusiasm was gone. I still think it’s a good idea; just not right now.
I applied for a couple of opportunities that I did not get, but at least I tried. I also created a few opportunities that worked well.
Those Were the Days, My Friend
I graduated from Nerinx Hall, a Catholic girls high school in Webster Groves, Missouri, run by the Sisters of Loretto, in 1970. That means my 50th reunion was in 2020. Except COVID-19 had other ideas. That first year, it seemed like a small sacrifice that was disappointing but not tragic. In an effort to support the seniors who had much better reasons to be disappointed - no prom or graduation ceremony - we wrote letters of encouragement to them. Heidi Keibler Stevens wrote about that project in the Chicago Tribune.
Last year, we were beginning to get vaccinated, but the school wasn’t hosting large gatherings, so we put off the reunion another year. At the beginning of this month, we finally met. And a song that came out when we were seniors kept popping into my head:
Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they’d never end.
We’d sing and dance forever and a day.
We’d live the life we choose,
We’d fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (not a typo)
My last book - Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community - took a lot longer to write than I expected. It wasn’t because I had writer’s block, or that my research was hard to compile. I had two major setbacks that I could not have predicted.
I started on the book in earnest in the fall of 2015. The first year of working on it was a whirlwind: interviewing women, doing deep dives into little-known corners of the HIV/AIDS community, revisiting those dark early days of the epidemic. I had so much help, from two small crowdfunding campaigns and incredible leads from friends and strangers alike. People were excited about the book and I hadn’t written a word.
This is Not A Year-End Review of 2021
I’m kind of tired of those year-end review articles and blog posts.
I’ve always considered Labor Day the start of a new year. That’s when school starts, and in the performing arts, when the new season begins. Other than changing calendars and getting ready to do taxes, I guess living on a school year timeline still rules my life. That’s why I decided I wanted to take this opportunity to look forward to 2022, not back to 2021.
One skill I’ve improved the past two years is the willingness to pivot. I’m not perfect at this: there are still times I rage against changing plans. But flexibility is more important than ever, and that’s why I’ve made plans for 2022 (and beyond) that are fairly easy to adapt. What’s in the works, you ask?
Before You Write Your Story, Make Sure You're Not Alone
Since at least 2013, when my first books were published, people have asked me how to go about writing their own book. They’ve asked about publishing, they’ve asked about writing groups, they’ve asked about how to get the courage to write. Many of them want to write a memoir based on their experiences in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
For a long time, I would offer unabashed encouragement and suggestions for how to proceed. I let them know I would answer any questions they had along the way. Some of them took me up on that offer; not all of them followed my advice. That’s okay. The important thing was that they were telling their stories.
When the COVID pandemic began, I joined online writing groups of long-term survivors in the HIV/AIDS community. Some were already published authors; many had never been published. A few of them were considering going that route, but others were mainly interested in recording their feelings and experiences during what quickly became their second pandemic.
Grieving Friends During a Pandemic
When I first started working on the Friend Grief series, I Googled ‘grieving the death of a friend’. I went past the normal first page of responses, to check out the first hundred. Many of the responses dealt with how to support a friend who’s grieving; important, but not what I was looking for. In the end, there were less than ten that actually addressed the experience of grieving the death of a friend. There were more that addressed grieving the death of a pet.
My writing has always been a niche. People have written memoirs about the death of a friend, but other than a textbook, my books were pretty unusual.
Last fall, when I was deciding whether to rework that series, I took a hard look at what was going on around me. Early in the pandemic, people had urged me to add a book to the series, one about losing friends to COVID. I resisted: as far as I was concerned, the series was finished. And frankly, early on, the stories I heard were just too similar to warrant a book.
By September, that changed.
Warning: Grief Anniversary Ahead
This time it wasn’t Facebook Memories that reminded me. It was my friend, Ken.
A year ago, the world was experiencing a devastating and profound change. Our way of life was about to be altered in ways no one could have predicted. A year ago today, I arrived in New York City for the beginning of a four-week East Coast trip. I had book signings scheduled in several cities. I had an advocacy conference to attend in Washington. I had lunch and dinner dates set with friends, along with book-related meetings to discuss future events.
When I left Chicago, I told my husband I wasn’t sure when I would be back. It depended on how serious all of this turned out to be. My trip lasted only six days. And though I ate indoors in NYC several times, when I got back I refused to eat inside a restaurant. In fact, I’ve only done that once in the past year. The anxiety I felt in that almost deserted restaurant wasn’t worth it.
Making Plans for 2021: A Leap of Faith
The bottom line was that I wanted to diversify my writing and writing business. I didn't want to be overly dependent on any one activity, whether it was public events or book sales. And that meant I had to learn new skills and upgrade the ones I already had.
The Pandemic Had a Soundtrack
The audio version of my book - Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community - came out in October. I've heard nothing but praise for the narrator, Donna Allen, which makes me very happy. While I was working on the marketing plan, music kept popping into my head. That's not unusual. A lot of people listen to music while they work. These were more like earworms: songs that played endlessly in my head whether I liked it or not.
The music sparked an idea, which apparently former President Barack Obama has stolen for his own book (I'm kidding, really I am). I decided to create a playlist of songs that evoke the first 15 years of the AIDS epidemic, from 1981-1996, the years without effective treatment or hope. Unfortunately, most of the songs I remembered were just, well, depressing. Creating that kind of list no longer seemed like a good idea.
So I turned to the women who inspire me, women whose stories I shared in my book. What songs instantly remind them of that time: of people, places or events? It didn't take long for a response.
Remembering Absent Friends
Yesterday was Halloween, when children and adults dress in costume, many as ghosts and skeletons. We sit in cemeteries at night, waiting for ghostly apparitions, or maybe just the Great Pumpkin.
Today is All Saints’ Day, when we remember the saints and their importance in church tradition.
Tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, when we reflect on the lives of those we loved.
Day of the Dead.
Guy Fawkes Day.
Lots of loss for one week, isn’t it?
Once again, I’m sharing information on a unique festival taking place the first week of November in Scotland: To Absent Friends.
Scotland has a tradition of storytelling, especially at this time of the year....
When Friend Grief Hits Home
Betsy Ebeling was a suburban Chicago woman whose death was noted because of who her best friend was: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Though the obituary made clear that she was loved and admired by everyone who met her, the friendship that began in 6th grade was the one that defined her in the public eye.
A few hours after this story broke, while I was making dinner, my phone chimed with an incoming text message. It was from one of my oldest and dearest friends. The text was about his health and was not good news.
The details are not...
Friend Grief and Pride
This year was a special one: the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Some call it a riot, though there’s some debate about whether the resistance to yet another police raid at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 fit that definition. But it was momentous.
It was a time when being arrested in a raid at a gay bar meant not only legal hassles, but the likely prospect of your name being reported in the local paper the following day. And since you were most certainly closeted at the time, that publicity could get you fired, evicted or worse.
The LGBT community has come a long way, so there was a lot to celebrate at Pride parades around the world last...
Time to Carry On a Friend's Work
I had a blog post ready for this week. Well, not quite ready, but it was getting there. Then on Tuesday, a post popped up in my Facebook newsfeed:
A man of great heart, deep conviction, and scalding wit has been taken from us. Veteran AIDS activist and ACT UP New York member Andrew Velez died today (May 14) in a Manhattan hospice. He was 80.
It stopped me cold (partly because I had no idea he was anywhere near 80). I knew Andy had had some serious health challenges last year, though I didn’t think much of it. The community was rallying around...
Another Celebrity Friend Dies
When David Bowie and Prince died, the tributes went on for months. People shared their favorite songs and what the music meant to them. Some even changed their avatars, in honor. I suppose that was understandable: Bowie and Prince were superstars, well-known around the world, with long, ground-breaking careers. So it surprised me this week when the death of a lesser star provoked almost equally strong sentiments.
Peter Tork was part of a 1966 phenomenon: The Monkees....
Today I'm 8
Thanks to that sometimes annoying, sometimes entertaining feature, I was reminded that my first blog post was eight years ago today.
I’d just returned from my first writing conference in New York. I’d spent a little over a year starting the research for what would become the Friend Grief series. I was in a writing group that was helping me observe and listen and be a better writer. But I’d never been to a writing conference before.
My only social media experience was a couple years on Facebook, and that was pretty much 100% social. Pre-conference, we’d been asked to life-tweet during our sessions. Tweet? You mean on Twitter? Yikes. On the way there, I signed up for...
Grieving a Friend After Another Midterm Election
Twelve years ago today was a midterm election. The Democrats won both houses of Congress, as well as a majority of governorships and state legislatures. It was also the day my friend, Delle, died.
I knew it could happen any time. Her brother Gregory had emailed me that he was writing her obituary. She’d said her goodbyes and was surrounded by those she loved. Those who loved her comprised a much larger group, one too large to fit into her lakeside condo or even the ballroom of any downtown hotel.
I turned off my computer earlier than usual that evening, eager to watch the election returns, needing the distraction. So it was the next morning when I...
To Absent Friends
The first hospice was founded in a suburb of London in 1967. Bernard Crettaz hosted the first “Death Café” in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 2004, but the idea took off when Jon Underwood held one in his London home. In his words, the purpose is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. I’ve hosted several myself in the Chicago area and can attest to the power of releasing the stigma of talking about death.
I’m not sure where I first heard someone offer “to absent friends” as a toast. It might’ve been one of those 1960s WWII...
Remembering the Dead, One Name at a Time
I moved on to a newspaper interview with a woman who helped make her son’s panel. She remarked that every panel, every name, represented not just someone who died from AIDS, but all the people who loved them. That’s true of other memorials.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also in Washington, was controversial when the design was first unveiled. A 21 year old woman, Maya Lin, daughter of...