Books Are My Friends

My book on New Nonfiction Shelf at Warren Library, Warren, NJ

My book sitting pretty on the New Nonfiction shelf at Warren Library, Warren, NJ

Books Are My Friends

“We cherish books even if unread; their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.”—Alfred Edward Newton

I surround myself with books

—some sorted by subject

alphabetized on bookshelves

some planted on my bedside table

or teetering in piles on the floor—

all waiting for my undivided attention

to make me cry or laugh

slow to anger or scared to death

most of them are eager to convey

a full range of emotions

and, most of all, to be memorable

 

I take them or leave them

depending on my momentary fancy

just having them in my midst calms me:

a lifetime of stimulation

a fortress against the onset of boredom

a sanctuary to keep my mind sharp

 

woe to anyone who claims

“you have too many” or

“just more clutter in your life” or

“that one is too old” or

“you haven’t touched that one in ages”

 

I have chosen each one in a thoughtful manner

I handle each with care

I do not carelessly lend them to others

I fret when they wander away

 

when spineless humans abandon me

I find refuge in books

life may crush me

but books nourish and protect me

from unplanned admissions

to a local psychiatric institution

[Poem by Vivian Fransen first published in The Writers Circle Journal Volume 1 2012]

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On the Radio

I’m delighted to share some good news: I was the featured guest on the hour-long Mental Health Matters, a local program co-hosted by Tracy Ecclesine Ivie and Larry Cartwright on Monday, March 5, 2018.

Grab your favorite beverage and relax as you listen to this lively conversation. Or give a listen during your exercise workout. Note: The first 3:30 minutes and last 6 minutes are news, a weather report, announcements, and commercials. The program begins at 3:30 minutes, and I start talking at 6:30 minutes. Here’s the link:

http://www.hunterdonchamberradio.com/Radio_Shows/Mental_Health_Matters/Mental_Health_Matters-2018-03-05_07.mp3

Special thanks to the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce for its support over the years of this award-winning Mental Health Matters program!

This experience was another “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” opportunity to apply what Anne Lamott says to my approach for spreading the word:

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

Vivian and book March 2018

Yes, I color coordinate with my book cover by wearing sunshine yellow.
Photo by Gemini Universal LLC, March 2018.

 

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My Favorite Memoirs

Books are my friends, and I spend a great deal of time reading and rereading those books that open my mind and heart to the experiences of others. I embrace the line from the movie Shadowlands: “We read to know that we are not alone.” Such stories can teach me, move me, and have a memorable, life-changing impact on me. So it may come as no surprise that I’ve developed a lifelong habit of reading books, especially well-crafted memoirs.

Here are some of my favorite memoirs that inspired me to find the courage to write my own love story (in alphabetical order by author’s last name because that’s how I was trained to organize books on a shelf when working in a bookstore):

  • Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs, Carolyn Briggswho traces her steps from her early years of struggle to finding meaning and direction as a young woman, wife, and mother fully committed to all things spiritual. She also wrote the screenplay for the movie version starring Vera Farmiga (yes, the same actress who starred as Norma Bates in TV’s Bates Motel). I’m so honored Carolyn Briggs wrote a blurb for my memoir!
  • Telling Secrets: A Memoir by Frederick Buechner, who amazes me with his insights about truthtelling and moving beyond the “don’t tell, don’t trust, don’t  feel” mindset [see my FRED Talk blog posting].
  • Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso, who writes so beautifully about such disturbing subject matter, namely, on “how completely a pedophile enchants his victim and binds her to him.”
  • Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, who helps me Lucy Grealy   understand the true meaning of living with a distorted self-image and learning to embrace what others reject.
  • The Kiss: A Memoir by Kathryn Harrison, whose breathtaking honesty about the affair with her father, an ex-theologian, breaks ground as a masterpiece.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, who gives writing advice and reveals so much about his own life journey. Tip: Listen to the audio version read by Stephen King himself, if you’re lucky enough to find it (try your local library).
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, who helps the reader find passion, meaning, and truth in one’s life and one’s writing.
  • Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore, whose first line in the book is the mostJudith Moore compelling line of dialogue/hook I’ve ever read: “You’re too fat to [f-word].” Ouch! [Note: Unlike my book, this author lets the curse words and profanity flow freely.]
  • Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce by Stacy Morrison, whose tell-it-like-it-is story Stacy Morrisonsets the scene in her first pages: While she’s standing at the sink washing a bunch of arugula, her husband announces, “I’m done….I’m done with all of this.”
  • Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield, whose love story Rob Sheffieldhas a soundtrack and shows the power of music in grieving a devastating loss.
  • Stitches: A Memoir by David Small, whose intense graphic memoir using both words and images captures his descent during adolescence and his recovery. Tip: Read in one sitting at first reading (takes about an hour), then reread and reread and reread to truly appreciate the artwork.
  • The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls, whose powerful story started me on the path to becoming a memoir junkie. Here’s the photo that documents the thrill of meeting Jeannette Walls on a book tour. I told her I use her memoir as a litmus test: If anyone I give her book to as a gift doesn’t “get it,” I don’t bother telling that person about my own story.
Vivi and Jeanette W

Jeannette Walls and Vivian Fransen meet on one of Jeannette’s book tours. What a thrill!

Yes, my story may seem quite tame compared to these memoirs. I invite you to take any of these memoirs for a test drive—if you dare. Some memoirs take as much courage to read as they do to write.

 

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FRED Talk

Among the many Presbyterians who have roamed the earth and made our world a better place along the way, we have two Freds I admire and respect enormously:

(1) Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: An ordained Presbyterian minister who never had his own church but had a different calling: to do something about children’s television. And he sure did! Take a stroll down memory lane with this ~1-minute video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eInUUfyqa5o

(2) Frederick Buechner (pronounced “BEEK-ner”): An ordained Presbyterian minister who never had his own church but had a different calling: to be a teacher and writer of fiction and nonfiction books, essays, and sermons. He did it all in a big way!

Let me introduce you to Frederick Buechner talking about tears in this ~1-minute video clip (1992): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1RLZGtDtrc

See what I mean? He writes: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.” I take these words to heart.

Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner

I highly recommend this book!

My decision to write my own memoir was inspired by reading Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets: A Memoir (Harper Collins, 1991). He tells us we all have secrets, “which are both very telling and very important to tell.” He makes the case that “secrets kept buried can cause harm.”

Anyone who knows firsthand that “unspeakable things happen” in your life may also discover taking the “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” approach can lead to some serious trouble down the road. Again, that’s what happened to me.

Fred Rogers, who I’ve read considered Frederick Buechner one of his favorite writers, is quoted as saying: “You know how when you find somebody who you know is in touch with the truth, how you want to be in the presence of that person?”

Precisely! That’s why I’m drawn to read Frederick Buechner’s body of work. He writes in an extraordinary, thought-provoking manner. His words speak volumes to me when he writes: “you cannot go it alone.” I’m proud to declare myself an enthusiastic fan of his work and gladly join the ranks of those who call themselves “Buechnerds.” I invite you to visit frederickbuechner.com today and take any of his books for a test drive soon.

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Remembering Barbara Jordan

When you spend time in the presence of someone with such clarity of purpose, your own longing for clarity grows stronger.

For me, that someone was the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936–1996).

Barbara Jordan and me, May 1993

In May 1993 I was on assignment to attend a meeting in Austin, Texas. My task as a communications officer working with a national health care foundation was to absorb every talking point and nuance, collect soundbites, and serve as a rapporteur to capture highlights from the discussion at an Advisory Council meeting chaired by Barbara Jordan. For me, this was the best of times in my career and the worst of times in my personal life.

Barbara Jordan had impeccable credentials as a lawyer, a teacher, a scholar, a champion of civil rights, and an elected leader whose distinguished political career spanned several decades.

When Barbara Jordan spoke with her distinctive broadcast-quality flair, everyone listened.

I was blown away by her eloquent and powerful voice. As I wrote in Chapter 22 of my book:

The strength of her convictions and quality of her mind—her voice combined with the power of her in-your-face charisma—inspired action. When she rubbed her hands together and said, “I’m sitting here all lathered up about this idea,” I could feel her energy.

Now when I gaze at this photograph taken during my brief interaction with her, I look beyond my anorexic body—protruding bones and striated skin—and recall the strength of her hands clasping mine. I carried this photograph in my briefcase everywhere I went for several years so I could take it out whenever I needed the reminder to “be strong.”

I will always remember the warmth and robust spirit of Barbara Jordan. She touched my life. I celebrate her ability to inspire people like me who were stumbling in life to wake up to the possibilities and move forward.

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Reaching Out to Clergy

Sooner or later, someone like me—who finds out he or she is married to a person with unresolved sexual orientation issues—will show up at your door, asking for prayer and guidance.

How have you developed empathy for the so-called straight spouse? Formal training or was it an on-the-job “thrown into the lion’s den” experience? What resources do you have handy to help in such situations?

I was brought up in the tradition that when something serious happens—something personal, private, and overwhelming such as a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, a family member dies unexpectedly, a marriage is in trouble—it’s time to slam on the brakes, stop everything, and make a beeline to one’s clergyperson. It’s a matter of talking to someone who can be trusted, someone who will listen, someone who may not have all the answers but will offer a prayer and guidance for the next step. That would be you!

That’s why I recently mailed a postcard to clergy who may have an open mind and an open heart to my love story.

I was so bold (and even controversial?) to take it a step further and encourage clergy to consider asking a couple before they make their marriage vows this question:

“Do you have any unresolved questions about your sexual orientation? Have you talked about this with your partner?”

I welcome candid reactions to my suggestion. Good idea? Bad idea? Too uncomfortable? Distasteful? Not clear enough? Rewording needed? It’s worth a try?

As I wrote in my epilogue:

I would love to encourage any clergyperson who performs wedding ceremonies to  include some discussion of sexual orientation as part of the premarital counseling process….It may or may not have made a difference when Victor and I met with our pastor as an idealistic, lovestruck couple at 22 years of age. But such a question just might open the door as a conversation starter and serve as a point of reference for further conversations with a caring and competent clergyperson.

A note about my book: No profanity and no curse words, but it does have alcohol use, adults behaving badly (including me!), and a couple of sex scenes.

Most important, I give thanks for all those precious clergy who can indeed check the box:

□ “I have respect and empathy for the straight spouse.”

I welcome opportunities to serve as a panelist alongside caring clergy to explore what we all can do to make the church a place of emotional support—more so than gossip—when people have disruptions in their personal life as well as visit as a guest author for book club discussions.

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What Happens Next?

In my wildest dreams I would dare to hope readers would respond to my love story in meaningful ways. But I’m overwhelmed with these initial responses from readers:
• “I literally cannot put this book down.”
• “I’m devouring your book.”
• “This book makes me stop and think, and stop and think, and stop and think.”

Furthermore, I must confess I had no idea what impact publishing my book would have on me. It turns out the thrill of holding one’s own book never fades. I wake up in the morning and say to myself, “My book is done.” I crawl into bed at night and give thanks that “my book is done.” But then another thrill takes hold: People are actually reading my book! My cup runneth over with gratitude.

So now I’m fired up to ride the roller coaster of book promotion—prepared for tight turns, steep slopes, and sometimes upside-down loops:
• My first speaking gig was by invitation of the Gay Activist Alliance of Morris County (GAAMC). We made history together: I was the first straight spouse (technically I’m a former straight spouse) to speak to this group (“at least in the past decade”). We had a lively discussion, excerpts captured on a 15-minute video available to all GAAMC members via Facebook.
• My first Indie Author Day at Springfield Public Library in Springfield, NJ, was such fun! The library rolled out the red carpet for six local authors to celebrate their books. Library volunteer Amefika Gray of Renewed Media LLC produced a 1-minute video of this event.

• My first book fair, River Reads, in Stockton, NJ, featured ~45 authors (too many to count). I met dozens of people, spreading the word about my book. Lesson yet to be learned: Sell more books than I buy. I showed enormous self-control to only buy a couple of books that day. Book fairs are like candy stores for me; I want to buy almost everything I see!
• I served as moderator for a Self-Published Authors’ Panel Discussion at the 2017 Women Who Write Conference in Madison, NJ. Many relevant questions were posed to the panel of five authors by an engaging audience—women of all ages and all walks of life.

So far it’s clear to me: We all need to speak the truth and live our truth along the way.

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