Our Younger Versions

Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.

I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.

Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.

Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.

Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.

When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.

I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.

Joan Didion wrote:  “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.

As if I could have managed without her.

Past Loves

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I just read a quote attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Love is something eternal—the  aspect may change, but not the essence.” It reminds me of the way I regard my former romances. Those powerful emotions are still out there—emotions are a form of energy and energy cannot be destroyed—but they exist in my wake. We molt out of necessity, just like other creatures who shed feathers or shells or skin in order to renew themselves.

Now, I am not talking about the sort of love from which we do not emerge, the people we cherish beyond time and reason. Many of us become so deeply involved in our partners that we cannot recover when we lose them. The subtraction stays with us, alters us; for the rest of our years we live with an absence. The grief subsides, allowing us to eat and move about, while the love goes on as if nothing happened. The love will not be denied or replaced. It is a bare fact. We remain alone, not out of faithfulness, but because we lack even the smallest interest in acquiring someone else. We are bound and free at once.

So what happens to the loves we do leave behind, the tears and vows and rages that fueled those erstwhile affairs? What becomes of the rampant need we had for someone who now brings nothing but a shrug?

When I consider my old romances, I picture neither their ruin nor their passion. I see these people in random snapshots that leave me curiously unmoved, aside from faint sympathy for whatever happened to us. Like the rags of the dream, the details fade away and nothing is left but mercy.

I loved these people, loved them to my marrow. Which I guess is why I keep them safe and tidy into eternity. I see them in the order they arrived, set some distance from one another, on the side of a winding highway. I see them as packages wrapped in brown paper and white twine, and each one has a name printed on it— no address of course. They are not going anywhere.

 

 

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#lovewins

My partner and I have been together for three and a half decades. There were no cell phones in the early years of our relationship, and home computers were not yet commonplace. Imagine. No email, no Facebook, no text messages. We kept our eyes on each other.

We were living in Berkeley then, holding part-time jobs, because being separated for eight hours a day was inconceivable. I remember how we used to gaze at each other, in and out of bed, delighting in every gesture and freckle. Time went away, slid out the back door and left us in peace. While the rest of humanity continued somewhere else, we were locked away, immersed in a slow tease of mutual discovery. For approximately three years, until the trifling annoyances of modern living inevitably elbowed in, we were on our honeymoon.

Not an actual honeymoon. Marriage, honeymoons, wedding anniversaries—we were not allowed these celebrations, and, to be fair, we scarcely considered them. You don’t order what’s not on the menu, and we were too busy adoring each other anyway. Some of our friends were having “commitment ceremonies,” but these did not interest us either. We knew we loved each other—what was achieved by announcing it? There was something a little sad, we thought, about gathering in this way, exchanging rings and vows that meant nothing in the real world.

It was only later, when we began paying health insurance premiums and property taxes and school bonds, that we began to understand what we were missing. At the federal level, marriage confers at least 1,138 rights and protections; excluded from marriage we were disallowed these privileges. We could not adopt a child, could not file a joint federal tax return, could not draw one another’s Social Security or pension, could not get legal protection for inheritance rights, could not take dual advantage of a group health plan, could not make emergency medical decisions for each other, could not even be at one another’s bedside should a critical illness arise (same sex partners are not considered “next of kin”). We were registered as domestic partners, but that status was useless when it came to tangible benefits, and in fact only hindered the situation, making our tax preparation (one for the state, one for the federal government) more complicated and expensive. The only thing that domestic partnership actually did was illuminate its own inadequacy.

So there we were, multitudes of same sex couples, paying into a system that barred us from its benefits. Marriage, it was argued, did not belong to same sex couples. It was biblical. It was sacred.

I have always been astonished by the number of people who consider the bible a divine guidebook, who will not accept the fact it was written over a period of many years, by a dubious collection of authors. There is wisdom in its pages, and there is also stunning foolishness and spite. Trolling through this tome, one can probably find passages to justify any sort of bias. To leverage the law on this book, to define marriage in accordance with the bible’s arbitrary edicts, is impolitic and dangerous, a reckless mix of church and state.

The real history of marriage is far from sacred. Marriage was created, about four thousand years ago, as a means of guaranteeing that a man’s children were his biological heirs. In ancient Greece a father handed over his daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring. Hebrew men could take several wives, while married Greek and Roman males were free to satisfy their urges with anyone of either gender. Wives were required to stay home and tend the house; if they failed to produce children their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.

By the eighth century the Catholic church stepped in and the blessings of a priest became a necessary part of the marriage ceremony. The church’s involvement did improve the situation for wives, forbidding divorce as well as infidelity, though wives were still expected to defer to their husbands in all matters.

Not until the Middle Ages did the concept of romantic love begin to alter the arrangement of marriage. Wives won some respect in this evolution, but the idea that a husband owned his wife persisted for centuries. When America was colonized by the Europeans, a husband’s dominance was recognized by a legal doctrine called “coverture,” whereby the bride relinquished her identity and surrendered her name.

The most dramatic change came in 1920 when women won the right to vote and were finally considered full and equal citizens. Women were the first victors in the battle for marriage equality. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage were at last overturned. Now, five decades later, same sex marriage has received the same treatment. Fifty years. That’s a lot of opposition.

I came forward as a lesbian when I was twenty-two years old. The challenges involved, the ridicule I was headed for, did not deter me. This was what I wanted, who I was. My passage had been made a little easier by the gays and lesbians who preceded me, and now it was my turn to help. If we do not live our truths, how can we evolve? Living openly as a lesbian has made me tougher; it has also, conversely, made me softer, more achingly aware of the struggle faced by everyone who lives in an atmosphere of censure.

What surprises me still is the smoldering malice, the amount of time and money people have spent, are still spending, on stopping same sex marriage, as if their own lives are in some way threatened or diminished by it.

In 2004, when Gavin Newsome began allowing same sex marriages to take place in the city and county of San Francisco, my partner and I, anticipating legal backlash, waited. Sure enough, the Supreme Court of CA swiftly halted these marriages and voided the marriage licenses of four thousand same sex couples. In July 2008, a month after the court finally legalized same sex marriage in CA, my partner and I were wed, tearfully, surrounded by close friends and family. At that point we had been together twenty-eight years. It was our sweetest day, our greatest triumph. Our union was not recognized at the federal level, but this was a solid start.

I’ll never forget the night of the 2008 presidential election. We were jubilant, celebrating our first black president—how far we had come!—when someone said, “Prop 8 passed.” We stared at each other. What? It was true. Our rights had been put to a popular vote, and suddenly we were living in a state that left me and my partner, and thousands of other newlyweds, stranded. We still had our marriage licenses, they just didn’t mean anything. Not until Prop Hate, as we called it, was overturned five years later did we regain our legal married status.
We took Prop 8 personally because it was personal, as are all attacks against equality. To see the lengths that people will go to in an effort to deny others their rights, especially rights attached to an institution as benign as marriage, is to encounter hate, at a frightening bedrock level.

Laws of course do not change public opinion, at least not right away, but we’ll never get anywhere without a level playing field. This is where opposites attract, where “them” becomes “us” and “different” becomes “normal.” The biggest benefactors of the nationwide legalization of same sex marriage will be children. In making every household matter equally, in giving all parents the same opportunities, we have bequeathed our children an inestimable gift: the space to come together, the chance to be kind.

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Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA