Thursday, June 27, 2013

Poetry Friday: Autobiographia Literaria

I heard Billy Collins read this poem on The Writer's Almanac while driving this morning, and reflected that it was practically perfect.
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

-- Frank O'Hara, from The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. © Vintage Books

Friday, June 21, 2013

Poetry Friday: Next Year

Next year, she says, I think I will be four,
And will I still live here,
she asks, in this house, and with you?
A funny kid thing to say except
she's from the orphanage so it's not funny
entirely, not entire comedy I'd say.
Of course I tell her
you'll live here
with me forever, until you kick me out,
until you pry me from your side
with your stubborn teenage body,
with your young adult scorn,
with your middle aged disgust,
with whatever weapon you try against me.
And even then we will not be parted.
It took a miracle to part the waves.
It would take a greater miracle to drive me from you.

-- Liz Rosenberg, from The Lily Poems, ©Bright Hill Press, 2008

More Poetry Friday at Carol's Corner.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

No Gay Friends

Having reverted rather dramatically to the Catholic faith about ten years ago, I have an interest in conversion narratives (an interest which extends to my professional life, since the book I'm currently writing for a British publisher, one of the reasons for my currently scanty blogging, is about religious conversion in Victorian England). In light of this, I got hold of a book that made a bit of a bump in the Christian press a few months ago, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, the conversion memoir of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a reformed lesbian and erstwhile professor of feminist studies and queer theory. (I like that her name means "rosary"; she is Italian-American and was raised Catholic, but her conversion was into a Reformed, i.e. evangelical Presbyterian, denomination.)

This is not a book review; I'm only a few dozen pages into the book. I have to confess to being slightly put off by its slapdash writing and virtually-nonexistent copyediting (though I suppose a small Christian publisher like Butterfield's doesn't have much of an editing budget), but the book is both more complex and more honest than most conversion narratives I've read. What interests me most, though, is what Butterfield, after her conversion, did with her past. After becoming a Christian, she felt constrained to jettison not only her career, but also her friends, and she writes: "I felt like a vampire -- possessing no reflection in mirrors. I realize now that this is what it means to be washed clean, to be truly made new again. The past really is gone. The shadow of what was remains, but the substance is truly taken away." But is it really?

One of the things that stood out for me in the early pages of Butterfield's book was her description of  hospitality in the gay community.  She describes how "[on] Thursday nights, I had a regular tradition: I made a big dinner and opened my home for anyone in the gay and lesbian community to come and eat and talk about issues and needs." Wow, I thought; it sounds so beautiful. It reminded me of Christ, after the Resurrection, cooking breakfast for his friends on the beach and calling them to come and eat. Why can't we have that? Why can't we do that? Or is such friendship and camaraderie, such openheartedness, the special province of the marginalized and oppressed? I felt myself filled with longing for the community that Butterfield describes -- the community from which (thought I haven't read far enough to ascertain this) I am assuming she later cut herself off completely.

The book jacket states that Butterfield now lives in North Carolina with her husband and children, and I suppose that this kind of fragmentation of a formerly sprawling community into a nuclear family is not only the (hetero-)norm, but also the gold standard for a Christian family, but it made me wonder nevertheless how well such a narrowing and siphoning off of a once outwardly-directed hospitality would work. After many years of commitment not only to a sexual identity, but also to what sounds like sincere friendship and generosity within a community of the like-minded, what would it feel like to become someone else, someone suddenly rootless? Does the new community of believers who are strangers successfully take the place of the old community of hardened sinners who are beloved friends?

And then there's marriage and home life. If you marry young, when you're still becoming who you are, you and your spouse grow together in mutual recognition and come to share a certain language, a particular lexicon of references. But if you marry later, when you are already essentially who you are -- as I have done, and as Butterfield must have done -- I think there's a certain area in which you must always be a stranger to your spouse, and a certain degree to which you will have to attempt to translate the understanding of the world at which you arrived in the past, as if it were in a foreign language. If Butterfield's former friends are now strangers, she must now be engaged in the work of turning strangers, including those in her own home, into friends. Does this work?

The person that I believe myself essentially to be -- a lover of beauty, an associater of the workaday and the pedestrian with transformative aesthetic experience -- seems distant now from the person who performs the actions of my everyday life. When I think about my old life, I feel a sense of profound dislocation from its suchness, which was mainly concerned with finding meaning and beauty in the mundane. Now, perhaps like Butterfield, my life is primarily taken up with attempts to get through the day, to fulfill my commitments, and to make friends of the strangers with whom I live.

It's tempting to make a little joke here about having no gay friends, which was a bon mot in the opera world back when I was in it, and referred mainly to sopranos who chose unflattering audition- or recital-wear: "She clearly has no gay friends," we would say, because, obviously, if she had any, they would have put paid to these unfortunate sartorial decisions.

But when I think about it, it strikes me that I too have made it a practice to jettison people, places, and things when I felt that they had become (to quote the Catholic writer who once asked me to marry him, and later denounced me as a blasphemer and a bad wife, mother, artist, and person) "detrimental to me spiritually," or maybe when I felt they had just grown a little tiresome. So often in my life I've wanted to change, to be different from what I've been, to become somehow better, kinder, purer, and more sincere; and getting rid of personal effects, or dumping my friends, or going to hang out in new places were symbolic gestures that helped me believe I was inching forward in what I thought was a good direction. I left a thrift-store men's cashmere overcoat hanging over a chicken-wire fence once, because I felt it represented a dark time in my life; I gave away the flowing hippie skirts I'd purchased in the hopes that they would encourage a certain man to love me, since they would signal to him that we wanted the same vaguely-conceived alternative lifestyle; I gave a pair of expensive earrings from Tiffany's to my neighbor because of their painful associations; I left boxes and boxes of books in the basement of my building for the taking. And I placed my first wedding ring on one of the side altars at my old parish church a few years after that marriage went awry, and just walked away.

And I received my conversion. And eventually I got married and had a family and then moved away in space as well as in time from the site of my old self and my former understanding. Am I like a vampire? Am I washed clean? I don't know; but I do know that, when I walk through my new neighborhood at twilight, I sometimes wish for my old life. I sometimes wish for one of my old, far-flung friends to be there, one who would understand perfectly the lexicon of this particular darkening cloud, of that particular warm light illuminating a room in a house and pouring onto the grass outside, of the scent of this particular mock-orange tree, and would say, "Oh yes -- that." I do not know yet if Rosaria Champagne Butterfield wishes for these things too. I have to keep reading.