Category: Personal

Celebrating 15 years of Performance Activism

Saturday was my birthday. I spent it in Columbia, South Carolina with about 100 students from all over the Southeast for the Eco Reps Conference.

What did I want for my birthday? Just that–time learning and sharing with people passionate about making the world a better.

I cannot think of anything more satisfying than celebrating my birthday doing public art.

My first promo card designed by Tina Encarnacion

As I was about to take the stage Saturday, I realized that it was exactly 15 years before on my birthday in at Holy Trinity Church in Memphis, TN I premiered my play, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. This satire about my time in conversion therapy was the first major step I took into the world of performance activism.

The Homo No Mo poster designed by Christine Bakke and inspired by Roy Steele

Since then I have grown as an artist and an activist. As Kurt Vonnegut told me years ago, “Everyone should practice art, because art enlarges the soul.” My craft as a playwright and actor has improved and the topics I feature in my work has widened.

I met my man, Glen Retief, when I perform this play at the 2008 FGC Gathering

What stands out for me most though is that I have had the privilege and joy to meet so many extraordinary people on the road, some who have become dear friends, comrades, and fellow travelers. I write this filled with joy and gratitude. Thank you for supporting my weird ways on and off stage, and my performance activism.

Thank you for challenging me, shaping the work with me,

and deepening my understanding of the world.

Transfigurations

Now a film, Transfigurations provided me an opportunity to merge art, activism, and scholarship.

Happy 2018 — Remember Who You Are

Susan Govatos Joseph’s Dreams

Today I am working on an essay for a British religious education publication. They asked me to explain my view of Joseph in Genesis as gender non-conforming, and how I suggest religious education instructors teach it to their students.

For me unearthing gender and sexual minorities in the Bible is essential work. These overlooked characters remind me of the many people marginalized in the world today.

Of course some people chose to fly under the radar for good reason. In some places it is perilous to be open about being LGBTQ. Just last month police raided the Queer Kampala Film Festival where my Transfigurations movie along with many others was supposed to screen. I heard reports that no one was injured or arrested. They got out just in time, but this is not the first time LGBTQ people in Uganda have been targeted by authorities.

I am still editing my piece on Joseph and why I think it is important to bring out of the shadows gender outlaws in the bible. I have been mulling over one line I wrote:

We live with mysteries inside of us we come to understand over time, and if we are willing, we sometimes share these with others.

My top nine photos of 2017 on Instagram. Follow me petersontoscano

As I reflect over 2017,  I have been sitting with some of the mysteries inside of me. I wrote a memoir that sits in my documents; I am not sure if I am ready or willing to release it into the wild. Perhaps I am waiting to better understand myself. It is also true that some things are too precious to share publicly.

One goal for 2018 is to screen the performance version of the Transfigurations movie at festivals in North America and beyond. This is different from the version that most people have seen. I will release this version under the title, Transfigurations–Gender Outlaws in the Bible. Description:

A disciple on a pilgrimage spends the night with strangers and tells stories of gender and sexual minorities in the Bibles. As the narrator reveals the many gender non-conforming Bible characters, this one has to decide if a more personal disclosure brings death or life?

In the performance I never appear as myself. I don’t explain my interpretations. Instead it is the story of an unnamed disciple. Woven into the narrative are quotes from the Gospel of Thomas.

It is an interesting Gospel for what is familiar to many of us–sayings that appear in Mark and Matthew–and what is so different. Many of these sayings have to do with identity. Like this one:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].”

The main character quotes from Thomas’ gospel and these sayings serve a thread to the performance version of the film.

Most people will see the lecture version, which makes no reference to Thomas’ gospel. I imagine this is the version that will be most helpful to Christians trying better understand gender and sexual minorities in the Bible. The performance version though is more artistic with a dramatic ending.

As I write this, I am also considering a theme for the year. My friend, the writer Shirley McMillan (who has a new book out, The Unknowns, which I highly recommend) tells me that she sets a theme for the year which serves as an affirmation of sorts.

I have been thinking of what that might be for me. One thought I am toying with is: Remember Who You Are.

Yeah, working on that…

 

Thinking about Boredom

Who likes being bored? I sure don’t. One would think that in this day and age no one could ever possibly feel bored. There are millions and millions of videos we can stream. Countless blogs and twitter posts. There are chores to do and walks to take. Still I get bored.

According to Wikipedia, “boredom is an emotional or psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in his or her surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious.”

I may have plenty to do, but I am not interested. I like the French word ennui, which takes it to a deeper level, “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” It’s like the mind has no traction. It’s a floating sort of feeling.

Foolish as it may seem I have been putting myself in a situation where I am even more bored. On Sundays I try to stay away from screens–mobile phone, iPad, desktop, laptop, everything. This immediately creates a dilemma for me. Without these devices in my life, I suddenly have to make my own magic happen. I don’t have the Looking Glass to fall into. And no doubt this causes stress and distress.

I wish it weren’t so, but the reality is that these devices shape my life and my time. But once I turn them off something extraordinary happens–I get bored. And in that boredom I begin to seek out other pleasures–reading, chatting on the phone, reorganizing the kitchen cupboard, trying a new recipe. As I do, I become more present in those activities and enjoy them on a different level.

Not that it is always pleasant. Sometimes it is dreadfully boring. But out of that boredom I am finding new outlets and creative endeavors.

What about you? How do you face boredom? What is your relationship like with your devices?

 

2017 Summer Reading List

Ah, summer reading. The longer days with opportunities to read outdoors means I ramp up my reading habits every summer. Since the presidential election, I have also been trying to absorb less from social media and instead dig into good books old, and new.

I’d love to hear about your book recommendations, and what is on your list. I tend to read more than one book at a time with a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Here are some of the things I am currently reading.

Hasanthika Sirisena explores Sri Lanki after the long Civil War. These shorts stories are filled with the living and the dead. The prose sparkles and pops with compelling characters, moving and disturbing images, and flashes of humor.

“With precise and poignant detail Sirisena conjures up an entire and original world in these stories. Through the intimate portrayal of the lives of men and women caught up in Sri Lanka’s turmoil she conveys all the uncertainty, the changing cultures, the terrors, and hopes of our lives.”

—Sheila Kohler, author of Dreaming for Freud

Thanks to Sirisena, I now know what a mantis shrimp is and how terrifying and beautiful it can be, like memories.

Samuel Peterson digs deep into his life as he describes his descent into drug addiction and the weird world of recovery. A trans* man, he expertly meditates on his gender journey and how he navigates it in the intimate world of a residency drug treatment program. In TRUNKY (transgender junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization & Southern Hospitality, Peterson plays with form and language to add depth and sophistication to a story that otherwise could be overwhelming. He brings a fresh eye to the recovery memoir.

Its been almost 17 years since the English translation of Soul Mountain was published. This novel filled with personal reflections on Gao Xingjian’s own life and struggles, toggles back and forth between first and third person narration. The melding of dream and reality along with memory and desire makes me slow down with this novel, taking my time to take it all in. Many themes emerge around the personal, political, and environmental.

“Young man, nature is not frightening, it’s people who are frightening! You just need to get to know nature and it will become friendly. This creature known as man is of course highly intelligent, he’s capable of manufacturing almost anything from rumours to test-tube babies and yet he destroys two to three species every day. This is the absurdity of man.”
Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

My friend and colleague, Rev. Dave Swanson, a Mennonite minister who studied theology at Duke under Willie James Jennings, highly recommended I read Jennings’ new commentary on the Book of Acts. It is part of a series of commentaries written by theologians. I am more of a Bible scholar kinda of guy, so I did not think I would enjoy the preacherly approach to the texts. I have only just started and find Jennings’ commentary to be fresh and scholarly with a strong message to engage in the world and do justice. He may be writing about an ancient text, but he has his eyes firmly set on present reality and struggles.

“Jennings writes as poet, preacher, and prophet. He takes the reader on a theological tour of Acts, and like a good tour guide, he describes the familiar places thoughtfully. Like the best of tour guides, he also takes the reader to places of importance that are often unnoticed. We are familiar with Paul’s beatings and imprisonment, but Jennings invites us to think theologically about prisons and beatings. We are familiar with the Jewish-Christian struggles in Acts, but Jennings guides us to think more deeply about the Jewish diaspora and the trauma that empire imposes. These visits to neglected places engender new understanding and perspective on the events recounted in Acts. This commentary preaches as faithfully as it teaches.”
—Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director, The Association of Theological Schools

You can read a sample for yourself.

It might sound strange, but David France’s book about activism during the early HIV/AIDS Crisis, is helping me a lot with my current work around climate change. The parallels between these two periods and two seemingly different issues continually amaze me and give me hope and direction. Based on the excellent documentary, How to Survive A Plague reveals LGBTQ young people and professionals suddenly faced with taking on the impossible in the face of a government and society that could care less.

While I never got into the HBO television series, I find George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books a weird, guilty treat. Sometimes I need a plot-driven adventures with dragons and palace intrigue to get my mind off of the growing global warming dragon and the unfolding White House intrigue. I have been delighted with the many female characters in Books 1 and 2 who take on male roles as knights and fighters. Some people have already mentioned the climate change references inserted into the books. Perhaps, but sometimes stupid fun reading is required. I am currently on book two, but no one knows because I read it on my Kindle. Shhhh.

Finally, I have begun reading Fanny Howe’s essays, The Needle’s Eye. My friend, the poet, Karla Kelsey, gave me a copy of it in part because of its references to religious figures but also because it is smart, experimental, and deeply insightful. I am trying to break myself of a bad habit. I wake up and immediately reach for my phone.I check Twitter notifications, Instagram stories, Facebook notifications and messages, and finally email. I am not even awake. I have not had coffee, and already I am working and taking in the drivel and the disturbing stuff that social media constantly spews. Perhaps Howe’s short essays can serve as the source I reach for first before my digital day begins.

“[Fanny Howe’s] experimental tales, mixing poetry and prose, offer little miracles of meaning growing from the darkest detritus of our planet. If there are epiphanies here, they are matches struck in the dark, wonders shining through wounds, intimacies of the banal.”—Richard Kearney, Los Angeles Review of Books

One thing that is missing in my reading list is a book specifically about climate change. I tend to listen to many climate themed podcasts and shorter pieces in magazines and newspapers.

Let me know of your book recommendations. What are you reading these days?

UPDATE May 25, 2017

I have identified a climate themed book to read. The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh.

Here is a description:

Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? In his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land, Ghosh examines our inability—at the level of literature, history, and politics—to grasp the scale and violence of climate change.

Not light reading, but hey, the reality of climate change is a stark and difficult one. Yes, I see there is still hope, but lots to be concerned about. As a climate advocate, I need to remind myself of that on a semi-regular basis. It helps keep me disciplined and focused.

 

A lover of holy fun

Bad News and Good News

I have been thinking of writing a blog post all week, but between other work and feeling unready and uninspired, I have delayed. It has been an odd week with some high points and serious lows. It has been filled with placentas, contracts, and a sudden death that has me still reeling.

The bad news first.

You may have worked with Jane in setting up bookings for me back in 2014 and 2015. I do not have many more words to share about Jane at this point. Her death is still too sudden and I am too raw. We did know how to make each other laugh, and together we did some funny stuff including writing The Lost Gospel of Thaddeus and a series of outrageous tweets in which we covered Holy Fashion Week (a mash-up of Fashion Week and Holy Week.)

Transfigurations DVD

The high points of my week are bittersweet. The DVD for Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible is nearly at the end of production and will ship out next week. Jane loved this play. It was the first of my works she saw back in 2008 soon after I premiered it. Coming from an oppressive religious past, these new readings of the text moved her greatly. In part that is why she wanted to serve as booking manager. She put Transfigurations out  into the world. She also helped me with costumes. I couldn’t wait to send her a copy.

Another development with Transfigurations is that I have an official distributor. Very Very soon people can begin to order it through a new imprint of Barclay Press. MeetinghouseXYZ will distribute the DVD. They are based out in Oregon and will sell it both retail and wholesale. It will also appear on Amazon and other platforms. I will also have it with me on the road starting next month.

The Holy Cheeky Afterbirth

Also, arriving TODAY are 1000 copies of The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus, the bizarre and beautiful comic book I created with Joey Hartmann-Dow. I have yet to figure out how I want to distribute it. It is still in its infancy, and I feel I must carry it around with me and not let it out of my hands yet.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc

Tonight I will head to the Campus Theater in nearby Lewisburg, PA to watch the silent film classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. There will be a live orchestra and chorus accompanying the film. The final cut of the film was thought to be lost forever until the 1980s when it was found in the closet of an asylum in Denmark. So glad Joan has come out of the closet.

This passionate Joan, hounded by religious zealots,  is played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a stage actress who the director of the film first saw cast in a comic play. She portrays the pain and conflict of Joan deeply and tenderly. Falconetti decided to never do another film again after this one. It was only her second film. She preferred the stage, perhaps because she could use her voice and be in contact with the audience.

I am certain this production tonight is something my friend Jane would love to see with all of the pomp and circumstance of the orchestra in the old refurbished theater. Joan, who feels called by God, not only to fight the English, but to do it dressed as a man, refuses to wear women’s clothing all the way up to the dramatic fiery end. Jane, an out, proud lesbian, and a fierce supporter of gender non-binary and transgender youth, would approve of Joan’s passion.

 

 

Happy 2016! Goals & Guidelines for a New Year

After a cross-country train trip with my man, Glen, I am back in my little study in Sunbury, PA.  Shockingly I will be home for two solid months before I head out for a spring tour of New England.

IMG_3257

Early morning in Maricopa, AZ after a night on the train, my man Glen keeps warm.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Why disappoint myself? Still there is something about that new year marker that helps me regroup and rethink life and work. On New Years Day I wrote a long letter to myself both reflecting on 2015 and looking ahead to 2016. Wow, so many people have encouraged me in my work as a queer activist and communicator, especially with the new climate change work.

I created some goals and guidelines for myself in the new year.

One huge frustration I have with myself is that I get so little done in the afternoon. I poop out after 1 pm and don’t revive until 5 pm. Then I berate myself for being a lazy slug. After decades of living with myself, I know when I am beat.

A guideline for 2016 is that when I wake up early in the morning to work, I can take the afternoon off to read, watch TV, YouTube, Vine, shop, whatever. Then after dinner I can work for two or three hours (when Glen is usually working prepping for his classes the next day.)

Some goals for 2016 are to blog more regularly, continue my Climate Stew podcast (maybe once a month because of another podcast project I will be part of but cannot announce yet), and eat more of a vegan diet. Oh, and read more for pleasure. Just goals. NOT resolutions.

IMG_3258That’s it. Why disappoint myself? Still I am feeling ambition about 2016. I have projects to complete including a film version of Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. I have the funding in place, the script almost done, and a film crew on order.

I am also ready to finalize The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus illustrated story I have been working on with Joey Hartman-Dow from Us and We Art. It may sound like a weird story, but it is surprisingly tender and sensitive (and weird too.) If you want a sneak peek, sign-up for my newsletter (see form below.)

It is also time I finish my third draft of a memoir, Waking Up from a Biblically Induced Coma. I feel like I need to tie up these loose ends as I take on more queer climate activism.

And you? What goals, guidelines, and hopes do you have for 2016? And how can I support you? Oh, yeah, that is another important goal I have for 2016. So many people have been encouraging to me and supporting me in my work, and I choose to get more involved and be more encouraging of other people in theirs.

Happy New Years!

The Peterson Newsletter




 

Featured image from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AR

How Does My Garden Grow? Some Patio Porn

Garden time is here in my lovely little spot in Central PA. Although I live in a small city with little land, I do a ton of gardening in pots and containers. This actually helps reduce pests. With the aid of composting worms busily eating all of our veggie scraps and shredded bills, I have some of the best fertilizer in the world.

I am also a big fan of purslane. Lots of people think of this as just a weed, but it is one of the most nutritious foods in the world! I put it in salads, stir fry, soups, and in an Italian twist to the Mexican classic of purslane and eggs. I also have an amazing mint and lavender crop this year. I will have some folks over soon and will make a lavender lemonade and a potato salad with mint and purslane.

Are you a gardener? What do you grow? What would you like to grow? What should I grow?

 

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Road Journal–well rail journal

At 8.05 am I was supposed to board Amtrak’s California Zephyr at Denver’s Union Station, but because of fright traffic, switch signal issues (aka freight traffic), and possibly weather (10 inches here today), the train is delayed 5 hours. While I pull into Grand Junction too late for my tech rehersal, I am not bothered by the delay. It gives me a relaxed morning and a chance to sit with you and write this post. So there.

This is the last week of my three week Colorado Tour. Yesterday I attended Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver yesterday to hang with my Quaker folk. After the hour-long meeting for worship (the first 40 minutes were blissfully silent), we had pot luck (which in Colorado may mean something different, but in this case was mostly vegetarian soup and casseroles.

This is my birthday week (50 baby!) so I am thinking of the year ahead, adventures and all the friends I’ll see old and new. But how are you? How is 2015 for you so far? What excites you and gives you hope today?

Peterson circa 1971

Peterson circa 1971

My Weird Christmas Tree — Happy Holidays

Ah the former Archbishop of Canterbury I purchased at the 2008 Lambeth Conference now perched on my tree.

I’m not really that big into the holidays. I’m cultivating my Grinch side. But last year I bought the husband a tree from Target with 500 hundred sparkly balls and a bunch of lights. Being from South Africa, Glen loves the old holiday traditions in a colder, darker climate where they make a little more sense. On the longest night of the year, it felt right to fill the house with candles and lights. Most people who put up a tree like to add their own individual touches; traditions form through the years. We have mostly normal looking ornaments and sparkly balls, and then… Well see for yourself.

photo 3

The Afterbirth of Jesus by Christine Bakke-O’Neil

photo 2

A campy angel purchased in Mexico City

photo 4

The Tree and Brandon Bitner

 

Unplugged. The joys of a screen-free day

I have a friend, Karla Kelsey, who is an excellent poet and an even more excellent human being (which almost makes her super human.) Her latest publication, A Conjoined Book, serves as a mediation on a river, relating to another, and a deep connection with self and the earth.

At the beginning of the fall semester she and I agreed to maintain internet-free Sundays, in essence living with most of the technologies available to us in 1991. We did agree to allow cell phones and texting (not a feature of 1991), but with data off. While I was home before my tour, I faithfully kept my Sundays free of the Internet, but on tour it was not so easy (and I was lonely.) Now I am home again and have resumed the practice.

In fact, yesterday I spent the whole day with the smart-ass phone turned off and hidden in the top drawer of my desk. I also hid the iPad. I moved to the side the wireless keyboard for my desk computer and its place stood my mom’s old 1940’s Royal manual typewriter. I produced two letters and a long journey entry that I click clacked away at without auto-correct, spell-check, or even white-out (anyone remember that gunk?)

I admit it; I am addicted to the Internet and to screens. Even when I have no reason to log on, I find myself returning to it over and over. And I love it. It is a fun, distracting, stimulating, engrossing, mindless, mindful source of information and mirth. But it is a tyrant always pulling, tugging, demanding, “Look at me! Look at what I can do.”

That damn smart-ass phone is like Frodo’s one ring that rules them all, always calling to me, emitting a signal, luring me to take it out and slip into another world, one that both connects me and disconnects me.

But yesterday was pure bliss. I cooked. I cleaned. I read. I listened to music, like really listened, not just as background music. I browsed an old cocktail book and sampled a few. Shoot I even worked in the garden cleaning the brown, dry remains of my summer bounty. It was so delightful and freeing, that I believe I will extend Internet-free Sunday to include Saturday this week. I know!

So who wants to join Karla and me this week for Internet-Free Sunday?