Sunday, June 26, 2016

one's own

You could put everything I know in a thimble.
What we're taught to be don't resemble
The kings and queens who for thousands of years
Ruled magnificent cities washed away by tears.

-- "African Homeland," The Color Purple*

My friend, in tears "by the fourth second," remembered these words in particular, words of a young woman discovering who she is. Denied self-knowledge in the land of her birth, Nettie locates her self on the terrain of Africa. Seeing her own people as kings and queens, she remembers what she never knew. This is her stage, a room of her own, where limbs can extend and the soul unfold, and where her kingliness has place.

My friend wept at these words. Is she African? No, Asian. She comes here from a different place, and Nettie takes her to a place she has not been. People have come from China to America at different times, in different circumstances and with different hopes, and they inhabit many social locations. Some of their stories are as soaked in American cruelty as the worst stories of the South. I do not know her particular heritage, the things her specific America has concealed; but wherever she goes she will keep learning to be both Chinese and American, and some phrase of this song harmonizes with Nettie's. All of us have to grow up into ourselves, find the place where we can remember what we never knew. It's the roman à clef that we never finish. It's the lark's ascending into her proper, better story.

So I can feel Nettie's coming into her own. Yes. Me too. I can. Who knows? in my present water-logged mode, perhaps I would have been weeping too. How is this possible? For it is possible. If it were not possible we could never talk about justice.

I will never understand The Black Experience as a person of color does. I will never know a woman's life as the woman does. I will never know what it is like to be gay as my gay friends do. What right have I to understand them? How dare I, the whitest and straightest of men, appropriate the experience of these Others to colorize my own novella? The possibility of such empathy is much denied, and much condemned.

But I can, and I must, reach out of my story into yours, if we ever hope to meet. There will be mystery, not only between man and woman but between man and man, woman and woman. There is enigma between and among those of color and the colorless. There is incomprehension between parent and child. There is no perfect knowledge between me and the forty-eight year companion of my life. We do not live together, persons or peoples, by logic. It's poetry that saves us. Across the gaps we fling our similes at each other. We say "This that I have lived through is, I think, in some part like what you have lived through; can you feel the likeness?"

And sometimes we can feel it. It's never perfect. How could it be perfect? what would that mean? But it's what we do.

Though I am straight, I respond emotionally to the pain of gay people. This does not make me a liberator or a hero; just a person who has felt something like another's oppression. The brutality of children marked me with the word "queer," and with the loathing that accrued to that name. A lumbering youth with coke-bottle glasses, who did not know where his hands and feet were, who could not catch a ball or score a basket, who spoke in tones of the literature where he found his true friends, who lacked the ensigns of American boyhood, would be bullied as something other than a boy. In the idiot culture of those days, a "homo" was a failed heterosexual, the boy last picked when choosing sides, someone so hideous that he could only pair off with another reject. It took many years to learn that I am straight, though sometimes unhappy, and still no athlete; but there lingers in me that heartbreak of a boy denied his place. This is not exactly like being gay and having to come out, but it has some connection with it: my gay friend and I both were shamed as defective in our manhoods. I too have wondered where my country is, the place where my soul could unfold. I'm still learning that I am not hideous.

When I was in showbiz I had to make many pictures of myself, and learned that I clean up pretty good. Not hideous.

But there's a part of me that think's it's a trick.

So don't try to take a candid of me. I'll hate it. I promise you.
*Musical based on The Color Purple by Alice Walker, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, book by Marsha Norman.

Monday, June 13, 2016

subway music

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

-- Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"

The older I get the softer.

I sat on the bench, sorry for myself, and waited for the train that would take me to the next client. What a good guy I was, working the holiday. Strange how quiet it was, and the platform empty.

A mom came through the turnstile, with two boys: one about nine years old, talking, talking, very excited, something about robbers and how to foil them, the other boy smaller and quiet but squirmy. To the older boy Mom would say, Oh my, or That's interesting, while she managed the little brother with a nudge, a hand on the shoulder, a grab by the belt. Nothing wrong here. Everything under control. They sat at the other end of my bench.

A subway musician was setting up his keyboard, adjusted a stool, plugged in an amp, flipped a switch, played a few chords, ran a scale and strung an arpeggio, found a pulse. There was something familiar about it, easy, persuasive. My legs were moving. Not dancing, I don't dance. But the balls of my feet touched ground left, right, left with a little bounce, not to be stopped.

The notes snapped into a line. Ain't misbehaving.' And nobody was. The loud boy proclaimed his plan for truth, justice and the American way, as my feet lurched from side to side. Somehow we fit together, that loud boy and I, the little brother squirming over the bench between us.

I thought about Fats Waller and his songs, his blackness and his blueness, his innocence and wickedness. I thought how lucky I was to live in a world that Fats Waller had passed through, so that now on a subway platform I could be moved against my will by his song. So much trouble the world had gone to -- for this.

Then the mom did something genius. She took the squirmy boy by the hand and stood him up. She danced a little two-step with him, and he calmed right down. There we were, all of us together, harmonizing. No words. We weren't even looking at each other.

Our train was coming, but it was all fuzzy and there was something wrong with my specs, and I had to clean them off with my shirt as I entered the car, and before I could put them back on I had to wipe my cheekbones with the butts of my hands. Where did this water come from? What had I done to deserve this? When did I earn such beauty?

But I hadn't earned it, and didn't deserve it. It was a gift.

A message saying . . . though I cannot make it happen, it may happen.

I was raised to get things right; mistakes were shameful; they exposed to the world my laziness and poor character. Leave no stone unturned, says the voice, be sure to check and double-checkforget the easy parts and work the hard parts, there's no excuse for mediocrity, no dessert before you eat your spinach. But the light of the world shines through flaws, gaps and tiny abysses.

I breathe better as I unpin the corset of perfection, drawn so tight long time ago.

As I get older I get looser. As I get older, this kind of thing happens more often. I am permeable. I can't be fixed.