Archive for October 16th, 2017

In The Shelter of Each Other

amywink October 16th, 2017

“It is in the shelter of each other that we live.” Padraig O Tuama

I entered Southwestern University in 1983 and began encountering the world beyond the boundaries of my family and my high school social order. It was the first place I felt in the right place even though it took me a year to settle into the new and the change had been frightening. In so many ways, college is the place where you discover who you are and the gifts you bring to the world and to each other. Even when the discoveries are frightening, the rewards are great. It took me a year to find my sea legs and I almost decided not to return because the tuition seemed too high. But it was the calm and generous blessing of my father, who countered my mother’s anxieties about money (and autobiographical angst, an essay I am likely to write eventually), with a simple phrase “We have enough money. We have enough money to pay for this.” and I went back to Southwestern for my sophomore year.

That year, I encountered two amazing people who would become my life-long friends and companions of mind I desperately needed, and who I remain empathically attuned with this day. Kristi, who remains my gut-check friend, determined to balance my inner demons, and who always shows up (and whose friendship began in English classes our first year together) and the first gay man I deeply loved, Joel. There were other friends who surrounded me as well but these two have always remained very close to my soul and even though we have had some challenging moments (Joel is the only person I have ever slammed the phone down on–when we had phones to slam. But we sorted it all out eventually and we learned an important lesson about friendship, deep love can also mean deep conflict but love wins every time if you let it). Because this was before email, the summers we spent apart were spent in the 19th century practice of letter-writing and both of these were developed in the cognitive intimacy of our epistles (not ironically, this is the same way my friendship with Stacey would continue to develop after she returned home to Chicago and I tried to make way in the world of academe). The letter is a kind of amazing document of the relationship of companionate minds, like the diary is a document of the relationship between its writer and the self she is creating through the writing (She Left Nothing In Particular explores that kind of writing, fyi, and the introduction to my edition of the Embree diaries, Tandem Lives, explores the relationship between the diarist and her eventual outside reader). I still have all those letters I wrote to Kristi and all those letters I wrote to Joel. Both of them still have all of my letters–even though someone has accused us of hoarding, we do not let go of those encounters. They bring us far too much joy.

We also spent a great deal of time talking on the phone and Joel’s time difference (Arizona) and Kristi’s (Alaska) meant I had many long conversations in the late night to wee hours of the morning. I would often know exactly the moment when each of them would call as well. Like I said, we were attuned.

Except, for a while, there was something Joel was hiding really well from me–not so well from others– but it remained hidden from me probably because I wasn’t actually looking for it, and not hidden to others because they were desperately looking for it and thought I should be looking for it too.

The nature of our coupling culture means that a happily single person is, in some ways inherently, perhaps, fundamentally (even frighteningly) wrong. The idea of coupling pushes women into relationships for safety and security, and pushes everyone into relationships for the sake of not being alone. Being happily single also makes people incredibly nervous about their own need for companionship. Many people have told me what I think about marriage without even asking me what I think about marriage. I have, apparently, some very odd thoughts about marriage, unbeknownst to me. Let me say right now, I have no trouble with egalitarian marriage and there is nothing wrong with anyone who prefers to be in the company of a partner. It’s all good.

Of course, I didn’t understand that completely when I was a sophomore in college, because one doesn’t. One has to learn that it is perfectly fine to live to the contrary of a cultural “norm”. One has to learn to brave the wilderness. But I did love Joel and I found in him a wonderful companion who was so delightfully funny and kind and with whom I shared many deeply thoughtful conversations about life in the world. We were both sensitive to nuance and connection, loved reading and theatre. We seemed a perfect match (though honestly, we were so similar in temperament, it would have likely been terrible choice to marry each other, aside from the issue of his sexuality) because God forbid anyone in college remain unmatched. So, with the stupid advice of some, I sort of pursued him–which I was terrible at doing and often had to be done with the help of alcohol (gasp). Note to self and others: if you have to borrow dutch courage to do something it’s probably the wrong thing to do. Authentic connection requires nothing but the willingness to encounter another person outside our perceptions of that person. It is in the exquisite risk “to still our own house so that Spirit can come through, so that we might drop into the vital nature of things, and the risk to then let that beautiful knowing inform our days” (Mark Nepo, The Exquisite Risk).

But my awkward pursuit led to one of the most profound encounters I have ever had and to a fiercely deep love for another human being. As Mark Nepo writes, “the exquisite risk is a doorway . . . that lets us experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is always near. Truth opens it. Love opens it. Humility opens it.” But Joel and I were not yet operating with his truth and his truth was what needed to be told but it was hard to tell. We took a long walk one day, down the road behind the campus (delightfully named One Joint Road for the length of time it took to roll your car slowly down the road while smoking a joint, which I never ever did, by the way. A better name might have been Revelation Road.) I said my peace but he was not yet ready to tell his truth. I told him I’d wait. And in that period of waiting was grace, that promise of Divine kindness, and I was able to still my own house so the Spirit could come through. Whatever happened I was fine. I had told my truth and could wait for his.

I can’t remember exactly how long it took for us to finish the conversation we started on the road (not long, one day, or two) but we had to do it in the dark, not the light of an afternoon walk. We sat in my dorm room’s loft, listening to Sting’s album, Nothing Like the Sun, and Joel had brought a second to support his revelation (a close and mutual friend). He was also a little drunk because he needed to borrow courage from somewhere to make his Truth known. But he took the risk and told me he was gay, which I suppose I already knew in some way. I am not sure what he or his second thought I would actually do–fly apart in a rage? break down in hysterics? Both of those reactions so out of character as to be completely laughable but I think both parties were operating on an idea they had of me, and not an authentic understanding of me.

What I said was, and I hope he remembers this too, “Do you still love me?” and he answered “yes” and through that quiet threshold we walked together.

Mark Nepo writes “the risk that leads to revelation and then courage is, at first a very quiet threshold that we must dare to cross, through which life waits like a hidden secret in the open. This quiet risk somehow reminds us that there is nothing between us, nothing between the oceans and our hearts, between the sands and our eyes, between the infinite sufferings and splendors that make up the breathing world of life on earth. Though often unseen and often unheard, everything living affects everything else. The net is incredibly wide. We are not alone–for all it’s comforts and fears–we are not alone.”

In 2001, when I came home in abject failure (at least as culturally defined) from six long years on a job market designed to defeat you for a place in a system designed to make you selfish, I was blessed by a visit from Joel and his partner, Hernan, and with the presence of three other wonderfully vibrant gay men I knew from college. They gathered me up and took me to lunch where I spent some peaceful and uncomplicated time in their sheltering company. I did not know Hernan but he leaned in to talk to me and asked “what do you do” as if to ask “tell me who you are.” I answered “I don’t know any more. I used to be an English professor.” And he let me be silent about it. I felt in their presence the kind of shelter I had not known in a long time. I was with a group of people who had learned to brave the wilderness and who knew what it was like to rise from a shattering experience and have the courage to begin to live their authentic lives. These beloved children of God carried me, laughing, through the threshold into my new and unknown life.