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A recipe for happiness by Lee Haven

What is it to attend an event that feels an awful lot like coming home? LGBTQ events create something beautiful.

For the first time I’m not quite sure where to start. Usually, I’d start with what a wonderful, fun filled fantastic weekend I had, and I sure did. But I don’t think that would do the enormity and the meaning of this weekend justice. So, I’d like to rewind a bit, please bear with me.

Around this time of year, in 2018, I stumbled into my first LGBT+ book event organized by Robyn Nyx and Brey Willows. My first ever queer event period. After making it all the way from Germany to England, I had no idea what to expect and I don’t think anyone, or anything could have prepared me for what I eventually found at the other end. When I first showed up, I was filled with hopeful anticipation, a good dose of anxiety and more fear than I like to admit to myself, even so many years later. What I found that day was a community, a sense of belonging, and in a sense a family, not one forged by blood, but one of my own choosing that is bound by friendship and respect.

Family is what you create

It goes without saying that I had the most incredible weekend in 2018 and I tried to figure out what made it so special. There were a lot of possible answers in my head, the authors, the readings, the panel discussions, the after party. I tried to make it back to England for various queer book events as often as I could, and they all left me with a similar sense of belonging and a feeling of buoyant happiness. When Covid hit and those events migrated into cyberspace I dutifully got my ticket, stayed up way beyond my normal bedtime and dialled into my first online book event full of anticipation. Even though it was a well thought out event and the organizers had clearly put a lot of thought into the readings and panel discussions, the expected happiness high just didn’t want to make an appearance.

Coming back to last weekend, or more precisely to the beginning of May. In my professional and personal life I still mostly stay and work from home and I like it. Somehow, lockdown made me revel in my hermit tendencies, and by the end of it I thought I wasn’t missing being social at all. In fact, when the dates for Queer the Shelves 2022 first crossed my consciousness, I looked at my work schedule and was relieved that it promised to be a busy week. A busy week would equal a reason not to go, right? Then the realization hit that I had squeezed similar events into far busier schedules pre Covid and I could no longer ignore the unconscious anxiety that was lurking. My partner asked me what made me anxious? I wanted to say Covid but that wasn’t it. I was afraid to be overwhelmed by the presence of people. I’ve struggled all my life with the sense of being overwhelmed by large numbers of people around me, and in a way I’ve managed to desensitize myself to the extent that I can spend at least a couple of hours in a group of people and still stay present in the moment. After two and a half years in a bubble almost void of other people I was honestly afraid I’d lost my capability to cope. But then, would there ever be a better place and time to dip my toes back into the water, so to speak, than an event that would be filled with friends and people that in the past gave me such a sense of safety and belonging? It was time to find my big girl pants and book a ticket and flights for Queer the Shelves, my first in-person event since Covid hit.

Brey Willows and Robyn Nyx having a laugh

When I hit Waterstones Saturday morning, together with my partner AJ, the greeting we received by Brey Willows and Robyn Nyx was as warm and welcome as ever. From the moment I walked through the door it was obvious they had done their best to make the event as safe for us as humanly possible. We showed up early since AJ had volunteered me to help with the recording of audio and video of the weekend. So, after another warm greeting and short catch up with Emma Nichols and Valden Bush, I happily occupied myself with the technical equipment Robyn Nyx had provided for the task. It allowed me to forget that in a very short amount of time the room would be filled with people. There is a lot to say for not having the chance to worry. Well, at least not about the thing that almost had kept me from coming in the first place. My brain was too occupied with how and where to set up the technical equipment. I don’t mind that kind of worry, it’s part of the challenge to do the best job possible and in a way, I thrive on that kind of worry.

By the time I looked up from what I was doing the room had filled with people and there was a quiet anticipation filling the room. And contrary to my initial fear I didn’t want to hide in a dark corner somewhere. I’m sure holding a camera with a clear task at hand helped a lot with that.

The official program started at 10am with a welcome speech by Robyn Nyx and a comedy act by Rosie Wilby called Breakup Monologues. People who know me well know that comedy and I don’t exist in the same universe much less in the same room, even when it is delivered in my native language. Mostly because I fail to see what supposedly is so funny about it. I’ve long since given up even trying this in a language that is not my own. Let’s say I was greatly mistaken. Within a few minutes Rosie had swept me up in her enthralling monologue and I had a really hard time not to laugh out loud with the rest of the room. Believe me I wanted to and it’s harder than you’d think not to when everyone around you is. But laughing is not a very good idea when you are holding a camera set to record, unless you intend to give a potential viewer whiplash later. Let’s just say I found a new appreciation for comedy this weekend. Thank you, Rosie, for teaching me something new about myself. I bought your book and started reading it on the flight home. By trying very hard not to laugh out loud and entertaining half the passengers I must have turned into my seat neighbors very own entertainment by the way she kept side eying me during the flight.

The hilarious Rosie Wilby

The panel discussions started off with Finding Forever – Why We Love HEAs and Romantic Cocktails. No, there wasn’t any alcohol at 11:30am. But an engaging discussion on what makes a compelling romance and why happily ever after is still so important to us. (Lately I’ve noticed myself that I’m more drawn to books with a HEA than usual. I’m not quite sure if my taste in books is changing or if it’s a reaction to the current happenings in the world.)

After lunch or in my case a technical equipment reset, we came back to another round of Rosie’s Breakup Monologues. This time I was smart enough to set the camera recording and take a step back so I could laugh with the rest of the room. Followed by more panel discussions about Magical Muses and Passion Projects. These two discussions I really looked forward to and was something I could relate to.

The Going Dark discussion finished the panel round for Saturday. I take my hat off to the authors who aren’t afraid to take on and discuss social issues in a fictional way in their work. I’m not sure I would be brave enough to do so. The first round of author readings for this weekend concluded the first day of the Queer the Shelves event at Waterstones. Unlike every other year my preoccupation with filming kept me from buying half the books on offer by the end of the first day. In fact, it’s the first time I walked out of the first day of a book event without buying a single book. Don’t worry I still came home with a load of books. Brey took me book shopping before I picked up a camera on Sunday morning.

My new book pile

By 6pm I made it to the New Foresters for the afterparty alongside AJ, after securing part of the filming equipment in our hotel room. I finally got to sit down after what felt like a very long day on my feet. (I know, I know, I wasn’t on my feet the entire time but sitting behind a desk during Covid has caused some of my stamina to take a temporary leave of absence.) The portion of the room that was reserved for us was filled to the brim with people and I was listening to the multiple discussions going on around me when that elusive feeling snuck up on me and tapped me on the shoulder as if it wanted to say, did you miss me? The all-encompassing sense of coming home, of pure happiness.

So, for most of the evening I just wanted to sit and absorb as much of that feeling as I could while I listened to the people around me and made up for my missed lunch break in pizza. It gave me the opportunity to connect with people I hadn’t met before. Exchange different views and maybe make a new friend or two.

I only made it to the first act of the drag performance that showed a lot of promise before general exhaustion caught up with me and demanded that I take myself to bed. A German saying comes to mind: Man soll gehn wenn es am schönsten ist it roughly translates to you should leave when the party is at its best.

Sunday started with a brunch for authors and readers alike. The program aptly called it Author Speed Dating and yes it felt a little like it and it was so much fun! A bunch of random questions for readers to ask the authors. I was even mistaken for being British by Melissa Lenhardt for, my apologies, mispronouncing her last name when it was my turn to ask her what she would cook, if we all came for dinner. Apparently, her choice dish would be a big pot of Texas Chili. (I’m going to take my mistaken nationality as a compliment and just hope my German accent isn’t as terrible as I’ve been led to believe in the past.) There was a lot more fun and plenty of uplifting anecdotes around the speed dating circle such as worst pickup lines, bad hair day interventions and something about durex catalogue colors that I am still puzzling about. Aubergines were offered as an acquired taste, and led to a very sweet anecdote of how Robyn Nyx and Brey Willows got to meet in the very same room we were sitting in.

MA Binfield, Matt Bright, Estela Gonzalez, Ileandra Young, Michelle Grubb, Thom Nana

The Sunday readings or Audibles as the program calls them showed me again how beautiful it can be to listen to an author bring their own characters to life. Even if you have already read the book and loved it to bits. My apologies Brey, but I’m absolutely in love with your version of Jordan and I wish I could get her to sound the same in my head.

Speaking Out was the last panel of the event and it was filled with short stories and poetry that was heartfelt, and touching, and definitely created more than one goosebump moment for me. I will check out more of those in the future for sure.

When we enter an event as a guest it’s mostly up to us how much or how little we chose to engage and pay attention to the things happening around us. Due to recording most of the event I viewed a lot of it through a lens. Depending on someone’s point of view you could say I’ve missed parts of the event. The parts that happened outside the focus of my lens while the camera was running. But I choose to see it as an opportunity to engage all my senses and allowed myself to really focus in on what is happening not only right in front of me but also around me. It’s a stage of hyper awareness that leaves little time to process emotions in the gives situation but also allow me to retain more information about the situation in total. Processing the emotional side of it comes later, like while I’m writing this. But there are small moments where I don’t want to shut out the emotional response to be reviewed later. My partner AJ had her book debut this weekend. As part of it she got to unpack her very first box of her own books. I decided not to capture the moment on camera but leave that task to someone else so I could be fully emotionally present in that moment with her. I’m so proud of you, AJ, I know I didn’t say it in the moment but I am.

This weekend also showed me that I’m maybe a little more of a social creature than I realized myself. When I walked into Waterstones Saturday morning, I found that I’d genuinely missed seeing Brey, Robyn, Emma, and Valden even though we’d been on a writing retreat eight weeks prior. It’s a little scary to think it’ll be roughly another ten month or so before I hopefully get to see them all again in person. For everyone I met this weekend who is an aspiring writer I can only recommend that you consider joining one of the writing retreats run by Global Wordsmiths. They are absolutely fabulous and great in meeting you where you are at with your writing no matter if you are a beginner or more advanced.

At the conclusion of this weekend, I can say with certainty it isn’t one thing that makes such an event an extraordinary experience. Or makes you feel like you are coming home to an old friend. It’s the right combination of all of it. Something however well thought out an event on Zoom just can’t replace. It is the readings, serious and fun as well as the panel discussions that make us laugh, think, or ask critical questions or sometimes raise goose bumps on our skin. But most of all it’s the people in the room. The authors as well as readers that share their private moments and their creative energy with all of us. And last but certainly not least the organizers Robyn Nyx and Brey Willows without whom such a gathering wouldn’t be possible at all and who proved to have an incredible sense of what the right mix is to make the space they created a home I want to come to.

And I hope you feel the same. I hope to see you again next year.

book events, Lee Haven, lesbian writers, lgbtq, lgbtq book festival, literary festival, nottingham, queer the shelves, waterstones

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