01 December 2009
01 November 2009
Ever wish you could rewrite the past? At a friend’s urging I tried this re-righting exercise: “Recall a painful life episode and retell it with an alternate, positive outcome. Include the presence of a supportive, powerful character.” I chose to examine my real-life memories of a high school bully I’ll call Mack.
* * *
I riffle through the tumble of books, notes and papers and pull out what I need for the next three classes: advanced biology, college math and English. Almost there now, almost there. I’ll breathe easy once I reach Mrs. Bush’s classroom. I swing the locker door shut. A hand lands on my shoulder, a piece of lead in my gut.
Mack shoves me against the beige lockers. A silver handle stabs at my back. “Where you going in such a hurry.”
It is not a question.
He jabs a hand under my chin, jerks my head up and back against cold steel.
Mack is not the biggest boy in our class, nor the meanest. But for four years he has loomed large in my school life; for nine months out of every twelve I have let him make my weekdays hell. He seeks me out, baits me, calls me names, teases me, pushes me around, gets in my face. And I let him. I play the good boy, turn the other cheek, pray for his soul to burn in hell.
What does Mack see in my countenance that gives him license to treat me with such disdain? What do I see in his that stops me from standing up for myself? These are questions I won’t ask until years later.
“Where do you get your clothes.” Again, it is not a question. “Fetla’s.” Mack spits out the name of the discount surplus store in Valparaiso, our county seat. “I bet your mom bought that shirt at Fetla’s.” He fingers my shirt collar. “Why do you wear clothes like that anyway. If I had clothes like that, I wouldn’t wear them to school.”
I keep my mouth shut. Long ago I learned there’s no reasoning with him. He steps in close, pushes my chin up again, my head back, presses his chest to mine. “I asked you a question, pud.”
“Mack, please. I have to get to class.”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Anything is the wrong thing to say. His chest swells. “Didn’t you hear me, faggot? I asked you a question. You’re not smart enough to—”
“Oh, no you don’t!”
Everything happens at once. One second Mack is on me, over me, the next he’s not even touching me. A loud shout. An “oof.” His body slams into the lockers to my right.
“I’ve had enough of you, Mack.”
It’s Frank Stassek who last year, even as a sophomore, played varsity basketball. Next year he’ll help our school capture the conference triple crown and whup big city Valparaiso—a first-ever feat. In this corner of basketball-crazed Indiana, in this small school where grades K through 12 gather under one roof, jocks are gods.
Blinking, Mack looks up into the face of an angry god.
“You leave this guy alone, hear me? Keep your paws to yourself. I don’t want to see you touching him again.”
Curly ringlets of dark hair frame Frank’s deep brown eyes and gorgeous face. Although I hate sports, I attend every home basketball game I can to watch Frank’s thighs pound the length of the court, his muscled arms pull down yet another rebound, his chest heave under the blue and white jersey marked with a large number 20.
It’s my chest that’s heaving at the moment. Frank takes my arm, pulls me forward. He slips an arm around my shoulder. “C’mon. Mrs. Bush will be looking for us. You don’t want to be late for class, do you?”
It is not a question. It is an answer to prayer.
* * *
In “real life,” neither Frank nor I ever came to my rescue. But in retelling this story, I catch a glimpse of the Frank who lives inside me. Maybe I will call on his power next time I need his protection.
This essay appeared in the November issue of The Letter.
01 October 2009
01 September 2009
01 August 2009
From experience, my husband Dave and I know the perfect vacation is the one we’re planning to take next. The one that’s still a bit up in the air, destination fuzzy, dates wide open, details sketchy. That’s when a vacation is absolutely perfect. Once the dates are nailed down, once the packing list is drawn up, once there are bills to pre-pay and animals to be seen to in our absence, already a vacation starts to feel a little less than ideal.
We prefer to keep our plans a bit open-ended. Make room for serendipity. Leave time to stop at roadside attractions, follow the sign pointing left: “antiques, five miles” or right, “historical marker, one mile.”
Last week we were at last ready for vacation. We scheduled a week and a day off work, would head west to Kansas. We would venture into the unknown by attending a men’s gathering billed as “an experiment in community building.” No appointed leader, daily decisions made by group consensus. We’d registered for three of the twelve days. If we liked it, perhaps we’d stay six. Or maybe we’d head south, visit family members in Missouri.
We were ready to start loading the car when I wrenched my lower back. I felt as if a large needle pierced my spine. Whenever I moved, it jabbed further in. I pull my back about once every other year. I have visited my more than my share of chiropractors, medical doctors and physical therapists. I’ve learned the best treatment for me involves a week of lying flat on my back. I headed for bed. I lay very still. Refused to drink. I didn’t want to have to get up to pee.
Dave and I switched plans. We would stay home. He would nurse me whilst I nursed my back. I had anticipated a relaxing vacation, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.
I told Dave I knew what awaited me: at first I would taking enjoy long naps, reading books, writing letters, listening to NPR, taking it easy, but by day four I’d be ready to climb the walls. He circumvented this outcome on day three. He brought a portable DVD player to my bedside along with Terrence McNally’s Angels in America, an hours-long HBO miniseries. He and I have twice seen the two-part stage play. I bought copies of the scripts. But we had never watched the DVD.
Angels in America won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, it traces the stories of several characters whose stories overlap and intermingle. They must wrestle with ageless themes such as the problem of pain, betrayal, death, forgiveness, politics, religion, sex, love and hope. Some of its scenes have rumbled in my mind ever since the first time I saw it on stage. When tempted to sidestep difficult questions, I often recall the Mormon mother’s response when Harper who asks if the covered wagon ride west was difficult. “You ain’t stupid. So don’t ask stupid. Ask something for real.” When loss lays me low, when I feel sad and bereft, I recall the Mormon mother’s description of how people change: God rips you open with a jagged thumbnail, pulls out your guts, musses them all around, piles them back in. It’s up to you to stitch up the torn flesh. These are not comforting images, yet I find hope in knowing others have felt the way I do, faced similar challenges, survived, fashioned art of pain and loss.
Dave and I watched the DVD together—all six hours—nearly straight through. Then I watched it again. Then I read through the script of the stage play as I watched the screen adaptation, noted where lines had been cut, scenes shifted around.
The story’s main characters include a young man living with AIDS, his Jewish lover, a big-city lawyer dying of AIDS, a closeted young law clerk and his wife. In the troubled relationship between these latter two, Joe and Harper, I hear echoes of my previous marriage. All through the piece I hear the very human drama of life—harrowing, heavenly, poignant beyond words, laugh-out-loud funny, sobering. The action centers in New York with side trips to Antarctica and heaven.
I lost count of how many times I watched Angels in America during our vacation. As long as it kept speaking to me I kept listening. I'm like that. I can eat the same food for nearly a week. I have more than once downed an entire pecan pie at a sitting. Recently I compiled a CD of Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah, sung by 17 different artists. I play it when Dave is not around.
I replayed the Angels DVD time and again, some scenes even more times than that. Especially the one in which the hunky law clerk strips naked on a cold windy beach. The camera focuses on his face and bare chest as he begins to undress. Then it cuts to a back view as he pulls off his temple undergarments revealing his bare back, buttocks, thighs and calves. I played this scene at regular speed, in slow-motion and in stop-action. Twice a day I masturbated to the sight of that gorgeous man on screen. Spent, I'd let the DVD play on, watch through to the end of the movie, then start in again from the beginning.
I quoted lines from the movie in casual conversation with Dave. "Even in New York in the 80s, that is strange," I'd say, and "Respect the delicate ecology of your delusions." Sometimes we quoted lines to each other. I'd thank him for bringing me yet another meal in bed with, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" and he'd reply (per the script), "Well, that's a stupid thing to do." We'd both laugh.
Angels wove itself into my dreams. I found myself wandering a heaven that looked very much as its depicted in the movie. I talked to angels, wrestled with issues far beyond my ken.
For much of our vacation, Angels became the lens through which I looked at the world. I read from Emerson's Essays and connected what he has to say with what Louis yammers on about on page such and such. I read a Mary Oliver poem and thought, "That's what Mother Pitt expresses when she, Prior, Louis and Belize are talking at Bethesda Fountain." I pondered my life in terms of the play, thought about the people on my "to forgive" list. Can I forgive them before I die? Before they die? I wondered if, like one of the supporting characters, I could take my hate and condense it to a pinpoint of light up in the night sky. What color of light would it emit?
Angels brings up all sorts of questions for me. What does it mean that humans have wrestled with many of the same themes for millennia? Or have we? And what is it to look back at the 80s through the eyes of Angels from the perspective of 2009? Do I know how it all turns out? Many of these characters would be my age now. How will they have grown? What will be their thinking now?
Do all stories end happily? No, of course not. Does this one? Will mine? And what is a truly happy ending? Is there truly an ending?
The main character in Angels goes to heaven and talks with the heavenly messengers. They encourage him to stay. He refuses heaven, returns to earth saying (in my paraphrase), “I can’t help it. I want more life. It’s not enough, it is so not enough, and yet we humans we keep hoping beyond hope, beyond all the body can bear, when hope should be gone, still we say, 'More life.' It’s in our nature."
More life. That's what I was after when I came out, when I stepped into the death of my known self, launched into the unknown, the unknowable. Some part of me was saying, still says, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me." Some part of me has long been wrestling with the angels.
More life. That's one translation of the Hebrew word that is also rendered as "blessing." Our vacation afforded my an unlooked for opportunity to wrestle with angels. To look at the world through different eyes. And I come away feeling blessed.
This essay remains unpublished.
14 July 2009
01 July 2009
22 June 2009
When first I see him, my breathing goes shallow and quick. My pulse revs. My hands turn rubbery.
I’m on MySpace or Facebook and I’ve just seen his photo. It's no bigger than a postage stamp but its impact on me is billboard-sized—one of those roadside signs with a picture so arresting it causes traffic accidents.
I click on the word “profile” beside his name. Nothing. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing. Clicklicklicklicklick. Nothing. I am a stranger to social networking sites. Several eternities pass before I learn I must create an account if I want to view his profile. Fine. Sign me up.
I make up a first and last name, try to enter my real firstname.lastname@example.org address. It goes in and through as email@example.com. Fine. I’ll rename the company if I have to. Just let me see his profile. Let me see if there’s anything more to see.
He’s posted seven photos of himself. Two show a sandy-haired young man in a red argyle sweater, blue-gray eyes, slight smile. His hair is still curly, I see. His face still mingles considered seriousness with an earnest eager-to-please look. In one photo he leans against a tree. In another he looks directly into the camera. The caption: “Yah, my high school graduation pictures. I look like a dork.” In the other photos he holds a guitar. Stands on a backyard stage, in front of a microphone. Caption: “I play in a Christian rock band.”
My son plays in a rock band! I had no idea.
Four years after his mother and I separated, a few days after he turned 10, he terminated contact with me. “Dad, I don’t want to see or talk to you. Don’t think that anyone else has influenced me to make this decision. I came up with it on my own.”
Except for the two photos of him my mother has sitting out, I’d hardly know what he looks like nowadays. I could easily pass him on the street, not recognize him. These seven photos are the heart’s feast.
They've nourished me for four years now.
This past week I make another of my periodic visits to Facebook. I poke around, find a teeny photo of another of my three sons. He looks to have grown tall, lost weight. He’s dressed all in black—black fedora, too—with a red tie and white boutonniere, hands in pockets, stands beside a young woman, hair piled atop her head, red dress, plunging neckline. His senior prom photo? I can only surmise.
It’s been four years since I saw him and his twin brother. Just before they turned 14 they met with a judge, asked that visitation with me be terminated. I arrived at their mother’s home to pick them up for their birthday party, found the restraining order taped to the door.
Some days it sucks being a homosexual father in rural Indiana.
I look at this small photo, let sadness wash over me. I keep learning to acknowledge, accept and feel my feelings. No sense running from them. No use trying to hide. Buried, they only rot to rise like zombies unbidden and at inopportune times.
Instead, I open myself to my emotions, open wider yet to let them wash over, through, past. Sadness keeps coming, sometimes like waves pounding the coast. I imagine myself as a rock, deeply rooted in living earth. Waves of sorrow, rage and fear may wash over it, but the rock remains.
My feelings are not me. No emotion, no judge, no other person can determine who I am at core.
This essay appeared in The Letter mid-month online issue, June 2009.
01 May 2009
But someone or something is.
I open the coop door, find the hanging feeder swinging back and forth. Some creature has just been digging in it, and it warn’t no chicken. My eyes widen; my heart thumps.
I shine the flashlight all around. Nothing out of place. No signs of struggle. Chickens all present, all okay. What could it be?
A few years back, same summer cancer was eating its way through my dad’s body, some predator raided our coop almost nightly. Chickens disappeared one by one. Or, as with a newly hatched brood of chicks, a dozen at a time. My husband Dave and I didn’t know what was after them, or what action to take.
We doubled the height of the barnyard fence to eight feet. Next day, another chicken gone.
We barred the doorway with chicken wire. Next day, two chickens gone.
We sealed the coop doors tight. Next day, all present and accounted for. Day after that, another chicken gone.
Whatever it was—snake, opossum, raccoon, weasel, mink, marten, fox, coyote, wolf, mountain lion, grizzly bear, Big Foot, Loch Ness monster—it was voracious. It was canny. Fearsome. Stealthy. Smarter than we were.
It upped the ante, started making daylight raids. We foiled its attacks only after enclosing our flock in a high-security fence. We dug a trench, started the chicken wire barricade a foot below ground to discourage digging underneath it, then fenced the sides and up over the top as well. At last the chicken population stabilized.
We never did identify the perpetrator.
Has it now come back? I watch the feeder swinging to and fro. What creature breached our security? A human?
The answer pokes out from under a nest box. I spot the scaly tail of an opossum. The beast must have crept in the other day when I left the gate open, let the chickens roam the lawn.
Next day Dave chases the opossum out using a shovel as shield, the end of a rake handle as motivation. I cheer him on from behind the coop door. Our foe snarls, hisses, bites, leaves. All is quiet for a few days. Then I find the feeder swinging back and forth again. Just our luck, I tell Dave. We’re being haunted by a were’possum with supernatural powers of translocation.
Dave thinks to check the maximum security fence, finds a hole big enough for a horde of were-opossums to tromp through.
I fix the fence. No more nighttime visitors.
Yet I’m grateful they showed up in the first place. They gave me a wake-up call, set me thinking about my inner life, put me on the lookout for trespassers. Suddenly (or maybe not), there they were, coming out of the woodwork. What, translocating? Strangers, friends, family, institutionalized religion, former employer tromping willy-nilly over personal boundaries I thought were secure, draining my resources.
I reminded myself that I am only one person, can do only so much. I examined my inner fences, patched the holes, said No.
Out of the coop, ’possum.
Life is like this. Exquisitely coherent. The ’possum in my outer life prompts me to look inside for something similar. What do I notice? What is happening there? How am I feeling about it? What would I like to have happen? How might I feel then? What will I do now?
Out of awareness, change.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in The Letter, May 2009