Monday, November 9, 2009

Possible dreams

I've just finished listening, for the first time in months, to one of those records that will never let me go: Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream (2004), whose oscillation between hope and despair defined an important, though thankfully past, season of my life. God, that was several years ago now, and I am metaphorically in a different place, but oh, dear reader, I am literally in the same one, stuck in this hollow that tests the semantic field of that word, trees newly bare and faces (one by one, as I hiked this afternoon) closed down and cold. Listening to Patty sing about the places she wants out of, places she may even have chosen, is all my little heart can bear on this dark, dark evening.

There was a time when "Useless Desires" was my anthem; it would rattle the speakers in my car. "The weekend edition," Patty would wail, "has this town way overrated," and I would pass the co-op with my windows rolled down and make some poor lady's flax flutter. Tonight, though, I was raised up out of my reading by two songs toward the end of the disc: "Florida," an old favorite, where two girls drive down A1A "into the arms of Florida," and the refrain marvels at how "I still hang around here / And there's nothing to hold me," and, quieter but also more damning, "Mother of God," where the voice in the song admits, "When I was eighteen I moved to Florida / Like everyone sick of the cold does / And I waited on old people waiting to die / I waited on them until I was." That suspense at the stanza's end still makes me shiver. Until I was old? Until I was waiting to die?

I am not, God knows, anywhere near Florida; and I am not waiting to die; and I am not old, although I have a new little crease beneath my left eye that greets me each morning. I am caught between the voices of these songs; caught, too, by the preacher in C. E. Morgan's recent novel _All the Living_, who says, "I know you are despairing, too... What looks like patience tastes like despair."

But there is good news here. Tastes are not permanent. The coffee I've been drinking (which does not taste like despair) will fade on my tongue, if not on my breath, before I've finished writing these few paragraphs. But there is also, thankfully, better news than the fact that everything fades. Without stopping the car, without exactly alleviating the sickness that drives us on and away, there are other folks who show up on the A1A or the 101 (I love these highway palindromes) and share the song, make the trip easier. Sometimes they even, with their words or with their hands, hold us for a while.

I had the chance last week to spend some time with someone whose writing I've loved for a long time, and she was, small miracle, even lovelier in person than in print. As we walked through dead leaves on that grey afternoon, after she had spoken about the hands that held and, holding them, created the books of the past--a particular past, a medieval one, that nonetheless doesn't stop touching ours--it felt as though we could have been heading into the arms of Florida, or Texas, or California. But, wherever we ended up, there would be some hope of holding there: something to get us beyond the romance of patience and its attendant taste of despair.

That hope is what is implicit in the closing couplet of "Mother of God": "I get up every morning with my cup of coffee / And talk to the Mother of God." I do not talk to the Mother of God every morning, although I admire the puzzle of that genitive. (Which comes first? The Mother or the God?) If I talk to someone while I'm making coffee, it is, more often than not, my still-sleeping blue-eyed boy, three thousand miles away, who could only be compared to the Mother of God if I were to borrow Oscar Levant's line about Doris Day. (I knew him before he was a virgin.) Occasionally I talk to my imaginary greyhound, Lucille, who could easily be a remnant of an unwritten Lorrie Moore story. But I talk--this is the point--to someone, real or imagined, whose company is an index, a foretaste, pointing toward a new horizon, beyond but also, magically and mercifully, within the coffee cup. The world expands.

This is the antidote to the taste of despair. (Often, I admit, it tastes a little like wine.) It is prospective but not immaterial. My mom leaves a sweet or silly voicemail; some friends and colleagues, known and unknown to me, take time out of their busy lives to sit around a table with me and talk about something I wrote, words I could never have imagined touching them. Imagine the joy and the panic, the gratitude and the cup crashing to the floor, when the Mother of God talks back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I have rarely been made as angry by a church--or, really, by any institutional body--as I was this morning. This story will not take long to tell.

I'd decided to try our local outpost of the Congregational Church (which already required relinquishing, for a moment, my conviction that if there is no eucharist, there is seriously no fucking point) and I found myself, consequently, in the most bourgeois neighborhood of my little town, one of those neighborhoods whose exclusiveness is broadcast to the world by the serpentine, mostly sidewalk-free streets designed to be navigated only by those in the know. I already hated myself a little (and my town, unsurprisingly, a lot) as I parked my car and headed past the usual array of Subarus up to the door.

I know: it was not an auspicious beginning. But nothing could prepare me for what lay inside.

A phalanx of grey-haired matrons stood guard at the sanctuary doors--nothing out of the ordinary there--and one of them handed me a bulletin. It was, in fact, her companion who swiftly and innocently dealt the fatal blow. As I turned toward the entrance, she turned toward me, and I realized that she was cradling some kind of liturgical object in her hands. At first I couldn't figure out what it was. A chalice? A pitcher of some kind? It wasn't Maundy Thursday. Who, I thought to myself, could have predicted that congregationalists, of all people, would incorporate some kind of physical rite into their worship?

These thoughts were cut short by the woman's gentle, revolting question. "Would you," she asked, "care for some hand sanitizer?" It wasn't, in other words, a chalice that she was brandishing; it was an enormous pump bottle of alcohol-based disinfectant, the exact size and shape of bottles that might appear in the margins of a Larry Sultan photograph.

I politely declined her offer, even as it prompted in me the kind of rage I hadn't felt--righteous, religious rage--since the early days of hitting my head against holy homophobia. Is there anything less Christian, anything further from the Gospel, than disinfecting your hands before entering a church?

I cannot begin to tell you how my hands still tremble as I write this. I understand that Ithaca, my hallowed home, is a community currently swept up in a very clear paranoia, some of it justified, about illness. (It is not incidental that this illness is attributed, in name if not in fact, to animals whose reputation for dirt precedes them.) Still, when I saw the giant bottle of hand sanitizer, I thought--and how could someone at that church not have anticipated this?--of all the things that Christendom, and its complicit and corresponding institutions, has wanted to protect itself from. I thought of the dirty people, the gay people, the people with AIDS, the people too poor or too sick or too depraved to be incorporated into what so often passes for the body of Christ. I thought of how fearful we still are.

Don't touch me. I'd hate to catch whatever you might have. I can imagine nothing worse than your unsanitized hand.

What, I thought, would have happened if churches still commonly exchanged the peace not with a handshake but, instead, with a kiss? What would it take to clean our mouths? Would there be bars of soap to bite, the way there were when I was little and prone (as I am, alas, still) to swearing in front of my parents?

I want to write the kinds of sentences worthy of one of Flannery O'Connor's prophets, but I will turn to Mark 7 instead. This is, many of you will realize, the chapter of Mark's gospel in which Jesus most dramatically transgresses, at times in spite of himself, the purity codes that his opponents are portrayed as upholding. It is the chapter in which the Syrophoenician woman asks him to cast a demon out of her daughter and Jesus calls her a dog, relenting only when she talks back: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (Mk 7.28, NRSV). It is the chapter in which Jesus spits as he heals a deaf man. It is the chapter in which Jesus affirms that "whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile" (Mk 7.18, NRSV). It is the chapter that the church this morning needed to remember; that we could all, Christian or not, stand to remember. Our business in this life, to the extent that we have a business or a task in common, is to resist the temptation to remind others that they aren't clean enough for us, that they remind us of animals, that they eat weird things. Our business in this life--and yes, I am preaching this now--is to talk back.

I walked out of the sanctuary during the announcements, barely five minutes after declining the lubricant-shaped bottle. The pastor was explaining the weekly washing of toys and the various other sanitizing procedures that the church was in the process of undertaking. I bailed. Any religious rite that begins under the sign of mass purification--of affirming not our communal dirt but our communal paranoia about infection--is no rite worth celebrating. A little later in Mark's gospel, merchants are chased out of the temple for less.

I am not prone to visions. Nonetheless, imagine this: at the moment I left the cold, quiet church, a pack of dogs--not a few, not fifty, but hundreds and hundreds of dogs, mutts and tripods and, come to think of it, pigs too, beautiful multi-colored enormous pigs--barged into that stale sanctuary. Border collies herded the screaming children; Saint Bernards pounced upon the matrons, scattering their plastic bottles. Mud was flung everywhere. Fleas--yes, even fleas--abounded. Perhaps some of the terriers were even under the weather; perhaps some of them were sneezing. Bulletins, tossed in the air by panicked faculty wives and mothers, were caught by retrievers and shredded and eaten and, if my vision was true, even pooped out blithely. Pigs squealed and snorted.

I didn't look back. I've learned from Lot's wife to keep on walking when you've left the burning city.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tous les sens

Instead of all the virtuous things I could do on a Sunday morning--getting ready for church, say, or heading outdoors for a hike before the sun really kicks in--I'm listening to a dirty French song. Specifically, I'm listening to Montréal's Ariane Moffatt whisper to her lover, "Je veux faire un puzzle avec ta peau" [I want to make/put together/construct a puzzle with your skin], before proceeding to this chorus: "Je veux t'aimer dans tous les sens." I want to love you in every sense. I'm blown away--or, better yet, disassembled--by the thought of the surface of a body locked, unlocked, and interlocked like so many scraps of scalloped cardboard. Moreover, I love the idea of loving someone, of wanting them and wanting to love them, not just in every direction but in and within each of the body's senses. What would it mean to trace the fissures and seams of a beloved body-puzzle with, for example, your nose? Or with your tongue, but not just your tongue; not even just your taste-buds, as though somehow a sense could be located once and for all in a given place; but in the diffuse--yet overpoweringly concentrated--radiance of sense, of senses, beyond them?

Somewhere a dog is barking.

I'm just back from two and a half weeks in Montréal, whose homely streets overflowed with beautiful people, and where I immediately felt, a little uncannily, and despite my lack of skinny jeans, chez moi. I found that city to be a puzzle in itself, its pieces not quite seamlessly proximate, even as I got a kick out of tracing and retracing its sidewalks. (What would it mean to tell a city that you want to love it in every sense?) There was something unexpectedly bracing, for me, about the familiarity of Francophone North America, where the buildings are straight out of the Rust Belt, even as the street signs and so many of the ambient voices at any given moment are in a language that seems neither exactly alien nor, obviously, in any immediate sense my own.

(Can I say, though, how grateful I am for the patience and, even, the kindness I was shown by so many folks in Montréal who listened to and coped with and even, miracle of miracles, occasionally said encouraging things as I fumbled around with French? If part of the Twilight Zone effect of those weeks was waking up each morning in a city that looked--and smelled--a lot like home, another part of it was continually encountering French-speakers who were generous, accommodating even, with the compromises and distortions that accompany all appropriations of a new, or even an old, language.)

I spent much of this spring with Linda Gregg's poems. In one of them, "Maybe Leave-Taking," the speaker describes her fellow passengers on, I believe, a Greek ferry: "All the people / strangers, people I do not know. A truer sense / of being than lovers and friends." One of the things that kept me afloat in Montréal--that island city--was the sense that, in a bilingual place, divided and sutured by competing empires and their aftermath, there is no mother tongue, no authentic, autochthonous language: just idioms cobbled together as places and means of passage, ways of affirming solidarity among strangers. (I would, however, not exclude lovers and friends from this community of "people I do not know.")

While in Montréal, I read Michel Tremblay's _Le coeur découvert_ [The Heart Laid Bare], a novel about, among other things, the families that gays and lesbians make for themselves. The shocking thing was that, in 1986, at least ten years before the big debates surrounding "homoparentalité" in France, Tremblay was already engaging with what it meant to be a gay parent. He also bravely and, I think, delicately--it's a surprisingly light, almost breezy novel--articulates the complicated tissue of relationships that inform even, I would argue, the most traditional lives. None of us, in other words, has a merely biological family. Long before my life was saved, repeatedly, by a series of lesbian godmothers--and in this I'm not unlike Tremblay's protagonist, Jean-Marc--I had, as a kid, at least one "aunt" who was no biological relation to me and whose presence in my life was sustaining. She was and is, it's true, straight and married and an evangelical Christian, but that only goes to show that our notions of queer community need to expand to allow for these things, too. We need to let more people on the boat.

The last thing it occurs to me to say, on a late morning in late summer, is this: To love someone or something in all directions, in all of the senses, is to become exposed to what might derail us. The ferry may not bring us to Montréal (or Mountain View, or wherever we'd like to be); it might dump us off in Ithaca. Not every homecoming will be a glorious one. But to be more alive to the puzzles of those skins that surround us--and I mean leaves and streets too, and the bark of dogs and trees--is to drag some of the strangeness of the boat ride up onto the shore.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pop optimism

It has been over four months since I last wrote anything for this blog, and my apologies to anyone who follows it--does anyone follow it?--for having disappeared, or gently slipped into other modes of visibility, for a while. I returned to Ithaca last night from Italy, where I'd spent ten days reacquainting myself with a country I first encountered (and whose language I first fell in love with) fifteen years and nearly half my life ago. While I was there, I had time to witness firsthand the therapeutic value of a certain strain of pop optimism in the music that would play in heavy rotation on Italian television, specifically on All Music, a channel that suddenly, around 9 in the morning each day, at least in my hotel room, would become All Shopping, purveyor of a miracle (and, who knows, perhaps also musical) product called the Vibratone.

All Music plays, as far as I can tell, about fifteen or twenty different videos, about a third of them by Italian artists. The rest is the usual (although slightly Eurotrashier) stuff you'd expect from Vh1 in the early morning: too many pitch-corrected little girl voices singing about revenge and resistance over big 1980s arrangements. (Thank you, Sweden!) What was fascinating, to my inexperienced ear, was how much less cynical, how downright optimistic, the Italian popular music idiom is, in comparison to ours: where Lady GaGa (who is--does this matter?--Italian-American) sings about her poker face (and I love this song, even as I keep wondering whether it will ever be possible to make a dance anthem about a face incapable of hiding anything), Laura Pausini's new video makes an argument for obviousness as the ground of futurity: "what's there," she sings in possibly the most Heideggerian moment in recent popular songwriting, "is the most evident proof [comunque quel che c'è / è la prova più evidente]."

Don't get me wrong. This is an enormous ballad, and by every standard a colossal piece of crap, but I love it. Just as I love--to be honest, not quite as much as I love--Gianna Nannini's "Attimo," where the only out lesbian in Italian music promises, again in a future tense that we seem less eager to use, "In just a moment / I'll hold you [In un attimo / io ti stringerò]," just before asserting, with equal conviction, "Within just a moment / I'll lose you [Dentro a un attimo / io ti perderò]." (The chorus swells into a giant affirmation of this hope and this ambivalence: "Don't go away / before it hurts / Don't go away / without my life [Non te ne andare / prima che faccia male / Non te ne andare / Senza la mia vita].") At the risk of sounding every bit as sentimental as what I'm describing, I love the way these songs promise, and how Nannini's in particular acknowledges the risk of promising--and abiding with--something. (It also helps that the chorus of "Attimo" sounds a lot like Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window.")

What does this all amount to? Just the sense--fostered in part, I imagine, by jet-lag--that there's a place for promising in popular music, a place for acknowledging that hide and seek isn't the only game in town. Sometimes what's out there is the most compelling proof, the easiest thing to build a future on. To sing about a future isn't to claim to know what that future will hold; it is, nonetheless, to be committed to the idea of a future, to the idea of something or someone to hold on to. God knows that in the intervening "attimo" everything could change, but songs like these encourage us to place our bets on something, to come down on the side of holding or losing. I, for one, am determined to hold.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Today I have been grumpy, and I have also been thinking about my grumpiness. (Why, for example, do I want to take every loud child in every Silicon Valley coffeehouse and throw them all, one by one, methodically out the window? I don't want them to hit the ground, obviously; I want an angel ex machina to catch them first; but I would very much enjoy the sense of hurling them, possibly by the ankle, into the air.) My boyfriend observed, an hour or so ago, that I'm quick to say that I hate particular places or people; and that these statements occur as frequently on one coast as on the other. (I attempted to defend myself, poorly, by adding that I am also quick to express my love of particular places or people: this German bakery, for example, whose apple cake is currently stretching the boundaries of my stomach into, I'd say, my ribcage.) But what is it that prompts the quick dismissal, the sudden flare of anger at one's surroundings?

Here is my tentative answer. I, like so many of us, have multiple homes: not in the sense of owning property, thank God, but in the sense of having many emotional and geographic centers in my life. And many homes frequently threaten to feel like no home at all: no place that feels, once and for all, like the definitive place, the place of places. This is generally not a problem, or one, at best, that lingers under the surface of larger problems. But, after five weeks of living away from the place I'd usually call home, in another place I have also occasionally called home, this homelessness (or, wait, shouldn't it be homefulness?) cuts a couple of ways: the California suburbs have attracted my passionate attachment and disaffection again, even as my sense of never ultimately being at home anywhere has increased with the weeks spent wandering these long, wide, sun-saturated streets.

There are a couple of things worth remembering, I try to tell myself, in the midst of the low-level anxiety that accompanies the extended experience of living somewhere you feel at once drawn to and repulsed by. First: it is a quintessentially Christian predicament to be at once continually displaced and essentially at home everywhere. (Whether this is consoling depends, I guess, on how you feel about Christianity.) Second: as exhausting as it can be to have your rhythms challenged by someone or someplace else's, it is also refreshing to be reminded that those rhythms can change. It's like discovering that you've been carrying around muscle groups whose flexibility has remained untapped; and then, all of a sudden, you stretch for some reason, or maybe you duck to escape something--a bird, a baseball--and they're right there, holding you up or out or down, sustaining you and taking you by surprise.

This is what homefulness would name: the abundance of places that call out to us, challenging our sense of ourselves not with the threat (or the promise) of the exotic but, instead, with the familiar, asking us to come to terms with the people we once were, or the people we continue to be for our loved ones as well as our frequently unloved neighbors. Homefulness would articulate some of the excitement (but also the weariness) that attends most of our experiences of the holidays: not, however, as an occasional event but as a daily fact of life. It's a blessing to have so many homes; to imagine San Antonio Road, flanked with olive trees, descending into the wintry landscape of upstate New York, or winding through the Hoosier National Forest; but this continuity also means never quite escaping the multiple, not always congruent demands that these places make on us, the demands of families and friends, saying, here, stay a while, make yourself at home. It is impossible to be entirely at home, under these circumstances, but there is no denying that there are far worse invitations; and making oneself at home is always also to adjust oneself to someone else's surroundings, to acknowledge, implicitly at least, that my home is also yours, or at least unthinkable without you.