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Did you know that Facebook added 51 gender options last year? – Maria Bello asks me.

No I didn’t – I admit

I am AT LEAST 15 of them. At the very least. – she laughs.

The reason why we’re discussing gender (and other) labels with the woman most of the modern universe remembers from her roles in movies such as The Cooler, Prime Suspect and History of Violence (AND YES, lets face it, Coyote Ugly) is that in 2013 Maria Bello, actress and lifetime journaler, at the time bedridden with a parasite she contracted on one of her trips to Africa, spent just about one hour writing Coming Out as a Modern Family, an essay that would become one of the ten most popular  NY Times Modern Love columns of the decade. It dealt with sexual identity, acceptance, and, of course, love. It was simple and honest and the kind of writing that clearly came naturally to her, no matter how hard she may have fought some of the feelings in it probably over the course of her entire lifetime.

Fast forward two years. It is 2015 and Maria Bello, actress and writer, has Whatever … Love is Love (Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves), a book inspired by that very column and entitled after her son’s reaction to her admitting to him that she is in romantic love with her female best friend, hitting the shelves and kindles near you today. And, of course, there is a book tour, moderated by Modern Love’s editor Daniel Jones underway (she is in NY @ 86th and Lexington’s Barnes & Noble this evening, and in DC on May 4th at Sixth and I).

All of which seems cool and, admittedly, to some (including this writer initially) a little new agey (in that horrible way that new-agey is used AS A LABEL), but the book (small in size and incredibly quick to read) will be a no frills, to-the-point surprise to even the biggest skeptics. Add some basic googling research around these facts and you all of a sudden realize: the book is ALREADY so much more than a book – it is a movement. A loving, questioning, liberating, accepting movement. Maria Bello decided she was free to be a whatever and now, EVERYONE IS A WHATEVER, it seems. And the world may just be a way better place for it.

Clearly, Maria Bello is not wasting any more time now.

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In fact, when she gives me a ring, and I make a joke about us just diving right in, she laughs and says … YES, let’s dive.

She is honest and funny and beaming even over the phone and happy to be in New York and, well, whatever she is clearly very comfortable being it.

On the process of writing a book she says that after reading all the books she could on writing she TRIED, she really tried, to do it consistently: 5 pages a day, stick to a steady routine, that kind of stuff. But she couldn’t. And she would, she laughs at the very thought of it now, torture herself about it. But then days of no productivity would pass and she would write 30 pages at once. Clearly, there is no formula.

Speaking of no formulas, she let the topics in the book (each chapter begins with a AM I….? question from the author to herself, and the reader) come naturally, in no particular order. After her column was published, she says… she was overwhelmed by the amount of modern families that came forward and reached out. She realized that while she certainly didn’t have answers for anyone, some of these people didn’t even have their own questions yet to seek answers for. So the book is set up as a conversation, a fluid concept (much like life and relationships themselves), a starting point. These are her questions, and you should look for yours. Much like her, the book is not that easy to define, it is not a memoir, it is not a self-help book, it is just a book about an idea, a hopefully clear idea, she says.

Bello herself is a great reader. Always has been, always will be. Some of those literary heroes keep popping up in the book – Hemingway, Edna St.Vincent Millay and others – always looking over her, encouraging. So, I have to ask: is there a book that changed things for you, from a sentimental education’s point? She doesn’t skip a beat: Rilke’s “Letters To a Young Poet” is the one book she feels every person in the world should really read. It is, “the first book I read that truly made writing seem the most exciting place to be in.”  It is brimming with thoughts, dense but also very simple, about the complications of sexuality and art and love. This is, in part, where she learned how to lay an idea out clearly.

I ask her – does she feel the book will resonate differently for different ages? The main impetus for writing is was her young son’s wonderfully casual reaction to her telling him, after a lifetime of being romantically involved with men, that she was in love with a woman, a woman who was her platonic best friend for year prior to this realization. She tells me how amazed she is by this new generation, how easy and natural all this is to them. Things are shifting daily and they are growing up with the shift.

But, what she feels is very important is seeing the older generations become more accepting too. The fact that the legal battle for gay marriage is hitting supreme court the day her book comes out (Today!) is not lost on her, and while she mentions how she’s overheard even some of the stauncher opponents of gay marriage say things like “I don’t believe in it but if my Daughter/Son was gay, of course I’d accept them and love them” and she feels that that attitude is part of the shift.

One of the great moments the book is the moment she tells her (Catholic, Polish & Italian) parents about her new love, and they are simply just happy for her to be happy. All those years of worry about acceptance and reactions to labels, and in the end, the people you love and who love you just want you to be happy.

I ask her, was there anything she learned about herself in the process of writing? She doesn’t skip a beat: Oooooh, I learn something new every single day about myself otherwise I GET BORED. And the same happened in the process of writing the book. But one of the big things she did keep coming back to is her Catholic identity, something she grew up with, but felt alienated by at times in her life because the teachings didn’t seem to apply to her and the people she loved. But she feels lucky that she had relationships with many teachers in her life that allowed her to question this and still find a way to belong. And that’s the Catholicism she can identify with, with its values of love and the new Pope’s visions of inclusiveness.

And now… as we our 15 minutes on the phone are expiring (15 minutes, it should be noted is a classic amount of time one is allowed for a phone interview and one tends to make due, but in this case, with these topics, and with Bello as the subject, it seems like 30 seconds – the surface has barely been scratched) – I ask her: What’s next? What is she excited for?
The book, of course, she is very excited about the book. And the book tour (don’t forget: she is in NY @ 86th and Lexington’s Barnes & Noble this evening, and in DC on May 4th at Sixth and I). And for continuing to find ways to tell her and other people’s stories from diverse standpoints.
For all her avoidance of labels, Bello seems to have found her true calling: being an evangelist of (the whatever) self. It is your turn now. Don’t fight it. Get comfortable, finally.
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