Saturday, October 16, 2010

True Loves

If the sensory world – the world we see, smell, hear, touch and taste – is a wondrous story, and each element of that story-world the equivalent of a word, then the first word I fell in love with was water.

It wasn’t the word itself – my infatuation predated my vocabulary – it was the tangible liquid I encountered in creeks, swimming pools, hoses, spigots, the Atlantic Ocean, even bathtubs. In subsequent years I’d fall for tulips, deer, moths, clouds, trees, wind, waves, snow, fields, mountains, geckos… but the first love and, therefore, a defining love, was water.

The way my love manifested itself was simple: I wanted to be in it. Where there was water, my body wandered. I walked in the creek behind my childhood home, noticing how the light played below the surface of the water, how it created moving splotches that sparkled on the silt. I observed but did not understand the phenomenon of refraction when I saw that my leg seemed to shift at the ankle, precisely where it entered the water, as though I were a puzzle that didn’t fit quite right. We had no swimming pool, but I begged neighbors to let me swim in theirs, unashamed of my need, willing to use big eyes and a winsome smile to get my way. I later became embarrassed of my desire, but I learned to swim at 5 and needed – yes, needed – to be submerged. I needed to be not just in the water, but under the water. I wanted to be a fish. I wanted gills and fins. I wanted to live beneath the surface of the sea.

I learned that if the world is a wondrous story, and if an element of that story is the word love, and if desire is a component of love, then a component of desire is unrequitedness.

I would never be a fish. I would never be able to filter oxygen from water, I’d never have a two-chambered heart, never spend my days swimming rather than walking. I would not make a home in a coral reef, would never learn to look up at the light from my perch below the surface. But I’d learn to hold my breath for long minutes, scaring my mother when I’d dart under the ocean waves and surface, too long after, yards from where I’d submerged. I’d learn to dive from a dead stand, or from a ledge, or from my father’s shoulders -- from any solid plane. I’d spend hours in any body of water I could – a pond, a pool, a last-resort tub. Each summer weekend my family would go to the beach, a sandy strip of Jersey shore that felt like home, and I’d enter the water in the morning and exit at sunset. I’d cut my feet on crab shells and have my calf stung by a jellyfish; I’d swallow sea water and I’d tumble in the surf of more than one dangerous undertow. Twice I’d be pulled from the depths, seconds from succumbing to a fantasy of deep-sea life. I remember being held, at 6, in the arms of an uncle while my aunt tried to rinse the weight of sand and seaweed from my hair after I’d been thrashed by the undercurrent. I couldn’t hold my own head up; it was heavy with sand-laden dreadlocks, my swimsuit bulging with pockets of scratchy sand. It was like the sea had tried to claim me; it was like part of me was left behind.

The physical world is a wondrous story, and part of that story is loss. Loneliness is a recurrent theme; loneliness and loss are currents, like desire, like love. Fins filter what we need to breathe; lungs work in conjunction with the heart; dividing lines blur; water erodes even rock to smoothness.

*

Autumn leaves.

Yes, it does. It arrives full of sophisticated glamour and giddy flamboyance, it makes an entrance, it demands attention. Autumn feels, year after year, like I’ve found my soul mate. Year after year I pledge my undying affection, and every time, every time, my heart gets broken.

An unambitious elementary school art teacher introduced me to the art of preserving autumn leaves. We never learned about perspective or the color wheel or the difference between a shade and a tone. But we did iron leaves. All it took was one sheet of waxed paper, which we called “wax paper,” shiny side up. An assortment of colorful leaves –usually maple, some oak, some cherry – was arranged on top, followed by another layer of paper. It was important that the waxy side touched the leaves – the shiny side of the paper had to be facing in, the duller side facing out. Once it was all just right – a wax paper and leaf sandwich – a single page of newsprint was laid across the top, and then a warm iron run over the newspaper. This melted the wax and preserved the leaves. The effect was a somewhat duller version of a stained glass window, but to my kindergarten self it was high art and I never tired of creating the simple compositions. The process engaged me physically, emotionally and even intellectually or, I guess, as intellectually as a 5-year old can be engaged. I was enamored of the idea of preservation, of saving something that might otherwise be lost. For me, the process was absolute – I thought that my pile of art projects would be stored with the care a Smithsonian curator might store rare dinosaur bones. That they ended up on my mother’s refrigerator or, at best, in her hope chest, was sufficient to my understanding of permanence. Those translucent panes of art were forever. They were my first attempts to unite nature and art by my own hand, and they became, in a way, another version of submersion: immersion. Rapture was possible via art. I was five, but I was a poet.

*

What happens when you mix water and autumn leaves? The leaves become saturated or, to say it more simply, their colors explode. During October, the wooden steps leading to our front door are strewn with leaves. On a crisp fall day, the leaves are yellow, orange, red. Still-green leaves are in the mix as well, and sometimes a precocious leaf or two is already brown. When a breeze blows, the brown ones skitter across the stairs like crabs. Close up, most of the leaves are mottled; one color fades into the next, much the way an apple isn’t uniformly red or green but some appealing blend of colors. The leaves are dappled, they’re veined, they’re dead. When they cover the lawn in great drifts, there’s something both baptismal and shroud-like about them. Baptismal, I think, because they beg to be entered, they beckon a body to jump into them, to lie down in them, to be surrounded by a halo of color. Shroud-like because they can feel just as somber as they do festive. Fallen leaves are one of the great metaphors of death. Autumn, we learn in grade school, is the prelude to winter, one segues into the next, and in the catechism of elementary symbolism, neither season leaves much room for kicking up one’s heels. Maybe that’s why we find a pile of leaves irresistible though – it’s temptation, pure and simple. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light and all that. Autumn leaves are seductive and for a little while each year they make my few acres of the world more beautiful.

When it rains on those leaves, their colors don’t change, but they become more vivid. It’s like being inside the Wizard of Oz when the film changes to Technicolor from sepia-toned black and white. The leaves seem more dimensional, revitalized. It’s a little like they are coming back to life.

*

If under some imaginary cosmic regime I were allowed only three great love affairs during my immersion in this wondrous story called the world, I’d start with water, move on to fallen leaves, and end with the calls of geese. Their calls fill me with longing in a way that no other sound or sight ever has. What I long for is not clear; I don’t analyze the feeling nor wish it away nor encourage it. The calls of the geese in their sloppy V formations each fall, each spring, sound funny to some. Sometimes they sound like a pack of barking dogs, sometimes they sound too literal: there are a bunch of big, fat, awkward birds squawking in the sky. But usually, for me, when they’re making their trek from north to south, south to north, criss-crossing right over my house in the woods, sometimes ten or twenty groups a day, usually, then, they seem to speak to me in an inexplicable language, a vocabulary that I understand not intellectually but in my blood, in my bones. Do I want to leave with them? I do. Do I want to fly? I do. Do I want to navigate by unknown means to unknown places? What do those calls say to me, how can I explain why they move me so? I don’t know. I am drawn to the depths of the sea and the heights of the sky. That sounds extravagant, overly dramatic… but I am extravagant and dramatic about the things I love.

No love, perhaps, is ever quite requited enough. Maybe that’s what it’s all about: to see how far we can love, how deep, how much, how often, how long. To push it. To see what we can endure when the love returned is not exactly the love we had in mind. To learn how to persevere when our love is not returned at all.

The tide goes out, the geese depart, autumn leaves.

And the tide rises, the geese return, spring pings its way into buds and blossoms. It’s like the world’s story cannot be contained, sometimes. Like when you walk out of the water on a summer day and feel the sting of salt tightening your skin. Break out of your body, break out of your body…

Some things can’t be contained. Some puzzles take a lifetime.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five


The first time I kissed a girl I was in college. I was pretty na├»ve for even a freshman; there had been no openly gay kids in high school and, in the late 70’s, there were considerably fewer representations of the “gay lifestyle” in popular culture. I had thought, for the first 18 years of my life, that I was straight. I liked boys, I’d had plenty of crushes, had fallen in love in that particularly passionate way that teenagers do. The guy I loved in high school was a little older than me, smoked cigarettes, had long blond hair that he always had to brush out of his eyes. We got into most of the kinds of trouble that teenagers tend to get into. I had no inkling – not a spark, not a sign, not a clue – that my attraction to boys would morph into an attraction to girls.

But so it did, and even then I was slow to catch on. I thought it was just this one girl, this one summer, thought it was just a phase… But then there was a second girl. And a third. And to my surprise I eventually realized that I was a girl who liked girls.

I’ve been pretty lucky over the last 30 years. Nobody ever physically hurt me, nobody singled me out for bullying. Sure, once I was walking near Syracuse University, happily smitten and holding my girlfriend’s hand, and someone yelled out “faggot!” And there was a brief period of time where I’d get anonymous phone calls from someone who would hiss the word fag! and hang up. A woman I once considered a friend told me she didn’t mind that I was gay, but she probably wouldn’t let me babysit her kids. All of those were difficult experiences – upsetting, rattle-me-to-the-core experiences – but overall, I was spared the merciless taunting and harassment that so many kids and teenagers endure.

This contemporary version of harassment puzzles me a bit, in part because I teach in a college and I’ve witnessed attitudes change radically in the last decade or so. Students today are often very supportive of their gay and lesbian classmates. This is true in many high schools as well. Young people are, in general, more educated about homosexuality, more open, and more accepting.

At the same time, it’s almost impossible to walk down the halls of any middle school, high school or even college and not hear someone use the word “gay” in what is considered, often, a joking manner. “That’s so gay.” “You’re gay, dude.” “Quit it; that’s gay.”

If I asked anyone using the word in the above manner what they meant by it, here’s what they’d say: it has nothing to do with being gay. It’s just the way we talk. We’re just kidding around. Everybody says it.

I believe them.

I also believe that they should stop using the word in that way. Why?

Because it carries within it an insult. The insult might be subtle, it might be meant as a joke, it might even be said with affection, but gay – used in this way – equals less. Less cool, less important, less macho, less desirable, less accepted, less good, less normal. Less than everyone who’s not called gay. Just less.

And guess what? We hear you. We – all of us who are gay, whether happily so, or confusedly so, or newly so, or proudly so, or enduringly so – we hear you. We hear you mock us, laugh at us, trivialize us, intimidate us, bully us, demean us… we hear you. Even when you don’t know we’re listening. Even when you don’t know we’re gay. Even when you’d swear up and down that you didn’t mean anything by it. We hear you.

And, to be blunt, it hurts.

The words you think are funny – just stupid, meaningless jokes – are hurtful. We – your sisters and brothers, your cousins, your classmates, your neighbors and colleagues, your coworkers – get our feelings hurt just like you do and sometimes, for some of us, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a 13-year-old boy and teased relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a lonely 15-year-old girl who’s harassed relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re an 18-year-old boy who’s videotaped and mocked for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

And so what, right? Everyone gets their feelings hurt, everyone has to learn to toughen up, everyone has to navigate a whole architecture of social constructs and social pressures and social cues and isn’t that what growing up is? Don’t we all have to deal with situations like this, where someone makes fun of us and we have to figure out how to get through it?

I guess so. Sure. Okay, yeah, lots of us go through it.

But for a significant number of gay and lesbian kids and teenagers and young adults, the difference is that they see no end to their struggle. They can’t imagine that it will get better. Plenty of adults, after all, are homophobic. It’s not uncommon to hear an adult mutter “faggot” or “homo” or to warn their kids that they better not turn out to be gay when they grow up. How can these kids imagine that it’ll get better, when grown-ups seem just as bad, or worse, than their peers? The adult world, in their eyes, doesn’t appear too promising.

I don’t know if I could have withstood being mocked or harassed or teased or bullied. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have. I’m pretty sure I would have become withdrawn and depressed and maybe even suicidal. I know I wouldn’t have been able to talk to my parents about it. Whether I could have confided in a friend or not, I don’t know. I don’t remember everything about my 14-year- old self, or my 18-year-old self, or even my 25-year-old self. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t resilient enough to endure what some kids endure these days.

It seems like it takes a tragedy to wake people up. We have to hit bottom before we can find ways to improve. Well, five teenagers are dead this fall, all suicides, all gay. That seems like the bottom to me.

I don’t think it’s enough to reassure a depressed or frightened kid that it will get better. I believe it will – I know it will – and I love the campaign that celebrities have begun to support gay youth by telling their own stories and affirming that it does, indeed, get better. We have to do more than that though. We have to change our ways.

So I wonder… How hard would it be to start changing on the level of language? Would it hurt anyone to stop using the word “gay” in a derogatory or joking manner? Would it hurt anyone to stop calling people fags or queer? Would anyone’s life be diminished by taking that one baby step?

I’d appreciate it, from the bottom of my heart, if you could try.