The Art of Seeing
by Michael Milton
Used jeeringly, it oozes poison.
As a verb, it indicates that the success of something is spoiled; “Nothing queers a country walk like a heavy rain.”
Or, in one of its most quaint definitions, queer can simply and without any undertone of threat, be used to refer to someone or something as being different or unusual from the perceived norm. “She’s a queer one, Julie Jordan.”
Gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and pansexuals are joined by vast cadres of “odd” heterosexual folk, all grouped under the generously encompassing queer.
I have noted that many of we queer folk tend to live lives divided into two halves. In our early years, we learn to push down the feelings and the words which mark our individual oddity. We choose to live inauthentic lives in order to protect ourselves from humiliation and prejudice.
In our adult years, we take on the task of pulling those hidden feelings and words out into the open so that, at long last, we can begin to experience a more fully integrated life and to finally surrender to living the joy our most authentic self.
The journey towards authenticity is a life-long undertaking. I was reminded of the beginning of my own quest last year upon receiving an email from a college friend.
The e-mail began, “Dear Michael, I hate to be the bearer of such sad news…”
Who wants to continue reading a note that begins with those words?
And though I will reveal what was written a little further in, I wonder if you would first journey with me back in time to when I was in high school, the time when I first began to submerge the words I felt, if uttered, would point to the yellow brick road which ran directly to my own frilly corner of queer-dom.
In high school, I engaged in a dust storm of activities; I maintained a great GPA, was student body president, junior class president, and Latin club president. I was also president of the drama club, performed in school musicals, took piano lessons, had a high grade point average, ran track AND held down two jobs.
And I liked being busy. My idea was if I could stay busy enough, perhaps I could always keep ahead of ever having to articulate the curious feelings I was beginning to store out of sight.
On my first day of college, minus all the whirling enterprises protecting my secret, I felt particularly alone and vulnerable. And that day, standing on a long line under the hot California sun waiting to register for classes, I met a young woman named Cheryl.
After we started dating, Cheryl graced me with a nickname, “Toots.” No one had given me a nickname before, a moniker only she called me by. It felt incredibly intimate. We would occasionally cut school and drive over to the coast and roam the beach. She would execute series of pas de bourees and grand jetes while I belted out Barbra Streisand hits over the tide’s roar. Or, when we felt flush, we would drive up to San Francisco for dinner at our favorite watering hole—the Bali H’ai at the Fairmont Hotel—and order non-alcoholic Mai Tais served with the ubiquitous multi-colored paper umbrellas which Cheryl collected and kept in a glass tumbler on her dorm dresser.
Within the year we were known around campus as a couple. A very busy couple. And for the next three years, we did everything together; we studied together, went to church together, ate at the cafeteria together, sang with chorus together, jogged together. We went to school dances where her ballet training shone through her trim body—Cheryl doing a controlled and elegant frug to Three Dog Night or The Jackson 5 and me strutting my ungainly imitation of Mick Jagger.
But during the summer between our junior and senior year Cheryl called me one day to say she didn’t feel our relationship was going anywhere. She thought she might have been mistaken about me and wondered if maybe we ought to see other people in our senior year.
I panicked. I didn’t want to be single. I wanted us to stay busy together. I stood there next to my avocado colored wall phone, twisting the untwisting the cord around my hand.
“Mike? Are you still there?” she asked.
Finally, I stuttered out, “But…but I thought we were going to get married.”
That was wrong of me to have said. Whatever our future held, marriage had never been a real consideration. Still, in my defense, in that moment, the words I spoke felt real.
Cheryl immediately apologized. She said she didn’t realize my intentions. She said she understood how busy I was getting ready for law school, making money. She suggested we just let things go back to “normal.”
And that would have been fine with me except that later in the summer, I fell unrequitedly for a guy named Charlie. What I had long been hiding began to crack through my placid surface and reveal itself in words.
And for the first time, I had an inkling as to the terrible level of hurt I was causing Cheryl.
So, at the beginning of our senior year, standing beneath purple wisteria and the climbing white roses which vined together across an ancient wooden arbor outside of the chapel on campus, I told her I was gay.
She cried. She was angry. She blamed me. She blamed herself. When I tried to explain that my situation had almost caught me as much by surprise as it had her, she cut me off.
“Were you ever really thinking about marrying me?” she demanded.
I didn’t answer. I was at a loss for words.
From that moment on, we rarely spoke until graduation and not at all afterwards.
So, fast forward to last year. The rest of that email read;
“I hate to be the bearer of sad news, but thought you might want to know. Cheryl passed away last week. She had a stroke two years ago which caused aphasia and for the past year she had been unable to speak. She fought it fiercely and did everything she could to slow the effects. This last year was very tough and she hated life. She was not able to communicate and no longer emailed or called anyone…”
As I get older, I have a growing urge to rectify my many unskilled actions from my past. I wanted to apologize again to Cheryl. I wanted her to know of my life’s extenuating circumstances back while we were together—the destabilizing fear I had disappointing my family, friends, my God and the corrosive need I had to fit in.
I realized I had a kind of aphasia—my own inability to communicate certain feelings– back in high school and in college. There was an inchoate emotional language of shame I stored deep within me. Perhaps you are familiar with some secret place in yourself which you have struggled to keep under wraps?
Queer or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, each of us is on a life-long journey towards reclaiming our authenticity. We may resist kicking and screaming but never doubt that we are always magnetized forward by the lodestone of our most genuine self always calling for recognition.
My advice? Give in to yourself. Join groups. Be seen. Participate. Get therapy. Try out a book club. Join a writing group. Sing in a chorus. Do things that make you nervous. Nervous is good. Being nervous is most always a guarantee you are heading down the right road. Change should feel different, uncomfortable, annoying. It is in the edginess of new activity and new risks, where fires wait to burn away our many layers of deception and deflection.
Why be a pasty facsimile of ourselves when we have the ability to step out of the shadows and shine brightly in life?
And the greatest benefit of consciously undertaking this journey? In the important moments of our lives, we will, with any luck, never be at a loss for words.
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