Lesléa New­man is the author of 60 books includ­ing her most recent book, Octo­ber Mourn­ing: A Song for Matthew Shep­ard. She is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

And you shall lay down, and no man shall ter­ri­fy you….” When­ev­er I stand up in shul on Shab­bat and recite those words from the prayer for peace, I am trans­port­ed back in time to 1998, and across many miles to Laramie, Wyoming.

It was Octo­ber, and I was all set to trav­el out west as the keynote speak­er for Gay Aware­ness Week at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming. My bags were packed, and my speech was writ­ten. Heather’s Mom­my Speaks Out: Homo­pho­bia, Cen­sor­ship, and Fam­i­ly Val­ues” focused on the dif­fi­cul­ties I had in get­ting my book Heather Has Two Mom­mies pub­lished, and how impor­tant it is for every child to see a fam­i­ly like his or hers reflect­ed in a piece of lit­er­a­ture. As a Jew grow­ing up in the 1950’s, I knew what it was like to read books about chil­dren trim­ming the Christ­mas tree and look­ing for the East­er bun­ny. Books like Sam­my Spider’s First Hanukkah and A Mezuzah on the Door had not yet been writ­ten. Grow­ing up with­out see­ing a fam­i­ly like mine in a book or movie or on a TV show made me feel like I didn’t belong. There was no place for me.

As a child, I couldn’t artic­u­late my need to see some­one like myself reflect­ed back at me by the cul­ture at large, let alone do some­thing about it. As an adult, I could write books for chil­dren whose fam­i­lies were con­sid­ered dif­fer­ent” so that they did not feel so alone.

But two days before I was to step on the plane, Jim Osborn, the head of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming’s Les­bian, Gay, Bisex­u­al, and Trans­gen­dered Stu­dent Group called. He told me his friend Matthew Shep­ard, who was also a mem­ber of the LGBT group, had been kid­napped, robbed, beat­en mer­ci­less­ly, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was dis­cov­ered 18 hours lat­er by a bik­er, and was now in the hos­pi­tal, in a coma. Jim knew that Matt being attacked right before Gay Aware­ness Week start­ed was not a coin­ci­dence. I would under­stand it if you want­ed to can­cel your appear­ance,” Jim said to me.

The words that flashed through my mind were: If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Jim seemed to think that any speech I could give would have a heal­ing effect on his com­mu­ni­ty. As a Jew, I take the job of tikkun olam very very seri­ous­ly. So I told Jim that I had every inten­tion of being there.

A few days lat­er, as I gave my speech, my eyes kept wan­der­ing to an emp­ty seat in the front row of the audi­to­ri­um. I pic­tured Matthew Shep­ard sit­ting there. I had seen his pic­ture in the news­pa­per. I knew he had been on the plan­ning com­mit­tee for Gay Aware­ness Week. I knew he had planned on being at my pre­sen­ta­tion. Instead he had died that very morn­ing, killed by two men who hat­ed him mere­ly because he was gay.

I have always felt that the pen is might­i­er than the sword. And so I wrote an essay called Imag­ine” in hon­or of Matthew Shep­ard and have read it aloud to start off every col­lege pre­sen­ta­tion I have giv­en since my trip to Laramie. But I knew there was more that I could do. In the past few years, many young peo­ple who were bul­lied for being per­ceived as being gay had tak­en their own lives. How to stop the bul­ly­ing and the suf­fer­ing? What more could I do? As a pub­lished author, I had a voice that peo­ple lis­tened to. With this gift comes an oblig­a­tion. Tikkun Olam. The respon­si­bil­i­ty of repair­ing the world.

On the tenth anniver­sary of Matthew Shepard’s mur­der, mem­bers of the Tec­ton­ic The­atre project, who had gone out to Laramie right after Matt’s mur­der to con­duct inter­views to cre­ate their the­atre piece, The Laramie Project, returned to inter­view the peo­ple of Laramie once more. On the eleventh anniver­sary of Matt’s death, I attend­ed a per­for­mance of The Laramie Project — Ten Years Lat­er: An Epi­logue. That night I couldn’t sleep. The words of my men­tor, Grace Paley, echoed through my mind: Write what you know you don’t know about what you know. I knew a lot about what had hap­pened to Matthew Shep­ard. I also knew there was a lot that I didn’t know. And so I picked up my pen. Imme­di­ate­ly, a thought entered my brain: use your imag­i­na­tion to cre­ate fic­tion­al mono­logues from the silent wit­ness­es of the crime, like the fence, the moon, the wind, and the stars. That’s crazy, I thought to myself. But then I remem­bered the words of anoth­er of my men­tors, Allen Gins­berg: first thought, best thought. And with that in mind, I let the words flow out of my pen.

I knew that I would nev­er know what hap­pened to Matt that night. He wasn’t around to tell me. And the two men who killed him have recount­ed the events in ways that con­tra­dict­ed each oth­er. Even if I could speak to them, I could not rely upon them to tell the truth. And so, I called upon the silent wit­ness­es of the hate crime to tell me what they knew: the truck Matt was kid­napped in, the fence he was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him com­pa­ny all through the night. I trust­ed my imag­i­na­tion to cre­ate these fic­ti­tious mono­logues, to tell me what I knew I didn’t know. I wrote 67 poems that explore the impact of Matt’s mur­der, but when I came to the end of the nar­ra­tive, I felt some­thing was miss­ing. The book was intend­ed for a teen audi­ence, too young to remem­ber Matt Shep­ard. How to end such a book with­out dev­as­tat­ing my young read­ers?

I knew the only way to find out how to end the book was to return to Laramie. Jim Osborn took me around town, to the bar from which Matt was abduct­ed, to the cour­t­house where his mur­der­ers stood tri­al, and final­ly to the site where Matt had been beat­en and aban­doned. I stood at the fence, and hop­ing G‑d would under­stand, count­ed the ground, the sky, the wind, two hawks that flew over­head, a pile of snow, sev­er­al tufts of grass, and myself as a minyan in order to say Kad­dish for Matthew Shep­ard. I placed a stone from my own gar­den on the fence to show that some­one had been there and that Matt had not been for­got­ten. I sang Oseh Shalom” with tears stream­ing down my cheeks, and when I got on the plane to return home, the last poem of the book came to me. Of course the book had to end with a prayer. A prayer for a bet­ter world. For all of us.

PIL­GRIM­AGE

The land was sold and a new fence now stands
about fifty yards away. Peo­ple still come to pay
their respects. — Jim Osborn, friend of Matthew Shep­ard


I walk to the fence with beau­ty before me
The Lord is my shep­herd, I shall not want

I walk to the fence with beau­ty behind me
Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash

I walk to the fence with beau­ty above me
Om Mani Padme Hum

I walk to the fence with beau­ty below me
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inher­it

I reach the fence sur­round­ed by beau­ty
wail of wind, cry of hawk

I leave the fence sur­round­ed by beau­ty
sigh of sage­brush, hush of stone

OCTO­BER MOURN­ING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEP­ARD. Copy­right © 2012 by Lesléa New­man.
Repro­duced by per­mis­sion of the pub­lish­er, Can­dlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Lesléa New­man is the author of 70 books includ­ing the children’s books, A Sweet Passover; Here Is The World: A Year of Jew­ish Hol­i­days; Mat­zo Ball Moon; A Kiss On The Kep­pie; Run­away Drei­del!; My Name Is Avi­va; and Ket­zel, The Cat Who Com­posed which won the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award and the Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award.