The Unknown Self

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Room for Surprises, in which I mused about the complex, layered nature of human beings, how a person will always surprise you if you give them the chance. However, in reading it back and comparing it with recent events in my own life, I’m struck by a glaring lacuna—

We are often unknown even to ourselves.

By this I mean that every person has their little shady corners of the soul, and while in that post I focused on how it feels to discover these in the people close to you, even you cannot fully know yourself. There are hidden secrets, talents, desires within you of which you are mostly or completely ignorant—for now. 

How could he not have known what he was capable of feeling for Vivaldo? And the answer drummed at him as relentlessly as the falling rain fell: he had not known because he had not dared to know. There were so many things one did not dare to know. And were they all patiently waiting, like demons in the dark, to spring from hiding, to reveal themselves, on some rainy Sunday morning?

James Baldwin, Another Country

It wasn’t on a rainy Sunday morning that mine sprung from hiding. It was on a beautifully sunny day in mid-June. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but if you want to trace it back to the beginning, that’s when it started—the day a lesbian fell in love with a man.

***

I had always thought I had a pretty good sense of myself. When I was feeling rotten, which I often was, I always knew why. And when I realised I was gay, I didn’t see it as a surprise, really, as strange as that is to say, since I didn’t assume I was straight to begin with. I hadn’t had any sexual or romantic feelings whatsoever, so I just thought of myself as a blank slate. I noticed my attraction to girls as a young teen and while I certainly did agonise over it, I didn’t feel like I had lost touch with myself—rather, I felt like I really knew who I was, which was why it was so hard to stay in the closet.

Coming out felt like a weight was lifted off my chest. And I truly do mean that. I was so surprised at the physicality of it: I felt lighter, looser, like I had lost fifty pounds or been let out of handcuffs. For the next four years, I lived my life as an out lesbian, which in practise didn’t really change much. I didn’t wear rainbows and I never dated, and most times I rarely thought about being gay, which to me was a luxury all in itself. I was never repulsed by men the way other lesbians seemed to be, but then my libido worked in a weird way—I wasn’t so much sexually attracted to a person as I just became aroused and then looked for whoever was around to fill the need.

It started in a dream, the way many things from the subconscious begin their circuitous journey to our waking mind. A dream about sleeping with a man. The only sex dream I’d ever had—at the time I just found it odd. I thought maybe my brain was processing a movie I’d watched earlier or a story a friend told me about a hookup. Maybe it was. But for some reason I couldn’t shake it. I started looking at men on the street, on TV, at work—looking in a way I’d never looked before—and thinking, Could I? Could I want that? And the second half of the question… Could I want that and not even know it?

I won’t be crude. Suffice it to say that after a surprisingly short period of deliberation, I decided the only way to know was to try. So I tried. And… it was okay. And I tried again, with another guy, and it was better. And I tried again and I knew.

This threw me into a crisis. I was living as a lesbian, my family and all my friends knew I was gay, and I was sleeping around with men. One time and I had plausible deniability. Twice and it would start to look weird. More than that and the identity I had assumed for myself was on thin ice, and cracking from the pressure. 

I had no especial attachment to the label of lesbian, except for the fact that for me it was hard-won. I never saw myself as part of “the community,” but now that I faced the possibility of being exiled from it, I felt like I was abandoning the minority and going to join the oppressors. The real question, though, the one that pestered me and kept me up at night, was: How could I not have known?

Here’s where we return to the title of this post. The unknown self. The parts of ourselves that we simply cannot know, either because we are unable or unwilling or just not ready to know them. The demons in the dark, waiting patiently to spring from hiding on some rainy Sunday morning. 

It wasn’t raining, but it was morning, technically, when I met him. Quarter to noon. At this point I knew I wasn’t a lesbian anymore, but I couldn’t settle on a label, and to be honest I was still grieving the loss of the one that I thought had fit me. I had the distinct sensation of being outside the edges of the map. People expect you to be sure of yourself when you come out, for that to be your identity and for it to never change. I felt stupid for being wrong about myself, and confused about how it was possible—had I been a lesbian for those years I had lived as one? Or had I just been a bisexual woman in denial? Not to mention, most people realise they like both men and women after identifying as straight, not after identifying as gay. I felt like an outlier in the way these stories go, the ones about self-discovery and loving who you are.

That’s where my head was. But I met him, and our first date lasted ten hours. When I went to bed that night, I felt so happy I wanted to scream. And now I’m in love with a man, and I suppose that means I’m bisexual, a Kinsey 4 if you want to be technical about it, but I’m not so concerned with labels as I used to be. There was a time when knowing everything about myself seemed like the most important possible thing; like if I could quantify and classify every part of my being, I could really understand who I was.

I know now that that’s not how it works. We all have room for surprises.

The Books of Others

I buy practically all of my books secondhand. There are two reasons for this, the more sensible of which is price. As a poor college student with unsteady employment, I can’t afford to splurge on limited edition hardbacks or new releases—every book I buy, I buy at the cheapest price possible (but never from Amazon) after making sure it isn’t available at my local library.

The second reason I always shop used is a bit more ineffable. It’s because, as a professor and master typesetter I took a class with once said, books have many lives. Setting words down on paper, binding them into a codex, gives them an almost mystical quality, turns them into a promise, makes them seem like they’ll outlive the people who first wrote and printed and read them. And even though books can seem endless and boundless in that way, they’re also inherently temporal. They age, as all things do. They show wear. Spines break. Bindings come unglued. Pages yellow, tear, dog-ear, get stained by mysterious blotches of a substance that always seems to be coffee, and—best of all—are written on.

I think the life of a book is considerably more interesting than other similarly long-lived, oft-handled, and much-loved items, like clothing or jewellery. There are only so many ways a person comes into possession of a pair of pants. But a book? It can be bought, stolen, borrowed and never returned. You can find it abandoned, lying on an empty bus seat. You can receive it as a gift. You can take it from a giveaway bin at the library. You can nick it from a hostel. Well-traveled and sturdy books can pass through many hands during their lives, and there’s something touching about knowing that you’re just one more stop on their journey. I give away most books after I read them, and who knows where they go next?

But sometimes books do bear records from their travels, scars and markings they’ve accumulated along the way, glimpses into their past lives. My favourite incarnation of this is writing.

I can’t adequately describe my joy when I encounter books that bear the scribblings of previous readers. Sometimes, as in this copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country, a simple pencilled underline gets me wondering about the preoccupations and passions of a book’s former steward:

Or take this highlighted section of Blessed Anastácia, a book I had to read for my anthropology class last semester, where author John Burdick mentions that a subject was not impressed by him being an anthropologist, and the reader jots down a wry little remark:

Why did they write that? To make themselves smile during a long studying session? And are they alluding to the fact that they’re an anthropologist, or studying to be one, and that nobody in their life is particularly enthused by this? One can’t help but wonder what kind of person this was, what were their hopes and fears, what they were doing in life, why they were reading this book.

Just a few weeks ago I picked up an intriguing book at a secondhand bookshop, titled Exploring Life and published in 1941. I haven’t read it yet, but it apparently covers everything from improving one’s sense of humour to avoiding disease.

It was also at one point apparently owned by one Ruby Esther Gray, of New York City.

Here’s the address now, in Harlem.

Does she still live there? Or her family? Someone named Ruby Esther Gray died on January 2, 2019, in Mesquite, Texas at the age of 88. Was it the same person who once owned this book and wrote her name in it? If so, how did the book end up at the New Jersey bookstore where I bought it? What did Ruby think of this book?

Or what about the inscription in this obscure book, called The Story of the Mind, with a name (George C. Speuce) and a date (Feb 16th 1899—the day he finished it?) and which has the letters P.S. but no postscript. Did he forget to finish writing? Was he interrupted?

Some of my books even have custom Ex Libris bookplates, like this one inside a book of Mark Twain stories, from the library of Dorothy Kate Chandler. The nautical motif suggests she was fond of ships or sailing.

While someone simply writing their name is the most common thing I’ve found, sometimes you’ll get lucky and find an entire message, written from one person to another, usually when the book was gifted. The best of these can be found at my most favourite subreddit, r/BookInscriotions, and they show that not only do secondhand books carry the names of prior owners but their doodles, thoughts, and reactions to the text as well.

Many times the inscriptions are unbearably personal, and filled with references or inside jokes that the person receiving the gift would surely have understood. But all these years later, devoid of context, we strangers can only guess. What did the book mean for the person who gave it, the person who received it? And how did all these books end up at secondhand stores, separated from their intended recipients, or the people who possessed them and left their mark?

Some people are meticulous with their books and shudder in horror at the thought of writing in them. Others read with a pencil in hand to underline passages of note and jot down thoughts in the margins. I don’t annotate books, but when giving one as a gift I’ll often write a personalised inscription for the recipient on the flyleaf to make it a bit more special. And I’d be lying if I said that every time I did that I didn’t think about where the book might end up, who might see this message, what they might think, whose hands this book might fall into in its next life. And it feels profound, to know that even my message is just one more scribble, just one more scratching on a cave wall, one more enigmatic marking on something that will outlive my interaction with it.

In New Mexico, there’s a large sandstone cliff overlooking a desert oasis. It sits on an ancient trail, and has served as a rest stop for centuries of travellers. Naturally, these travellers began to carve their names into the rock, as long ago as the 1600s, along with their destinations, dates, points of origin, and sometimes even short remarks. Books are a respite for so many of us. And so is it any wonder that, like those travellers, we perceive our own transience and wish to make some little inscription on the wall of our refuge? I think, when it comes down to it, most of human civilisation is just a convoluted way of making our mark on that stone wall, of writing our name on the flyleaf. Our strongest urge seems to be to say: we were here. We passed through here once. We were here.

Statue of Liberty

One of my fondest memories is of the time my father took my brother and I to the Statue of Liberty. It wasn’t a special occasion, not a holiday trip or anyone’s birthday, as far as I know it was just something my dad decided to do. I don’t remember when it was, but I was young, probably nine or ten, which would put it around 2009. It was warm but not stiflingly hot, and for some reason I feel like it must’ve been June. We spent the day in Manhattan, visited the butterfly exhibit at the Natural History Museum where the butterflies land right on you and it’s humid and the air is sugary thick with the flapping of so many small wings. We had lunch at a sci-fi-themed restaurant with a UFO elevator which delighted my brother and I, and we ate toasted cinnamon cashews in paper cones from a vendor on the street and took a red boat to Liberty Island in the afternoon just before the monument closed.

My dad had tickets; I don’t remember anyone else coming up with us. The staircase was dim and narrow and we climbed up to the crown, the highest you could go at the time, and looked out at the harbor. It was sparkling, rippling like a sheet in the summer wind, and boats left tracks in the water that faded. High-rise buildings with blue-glass windows were lit up gold with the late afternoon sun, and the people walking around below looked impossibly small, and my dad grabbed the pole in the middle of the tiny observation room and shook it and the whole thing shook, and I shriek-laughed with delight. We ate huge dollar slices of hot pizza and walked back through what felt like miles of breeze-tunnels formed by the tall buildings lining the sidewalk as the sun was going down and the air was turning blue. I fell asleep on the way home, as I am wont to do in moving cars, lulled to sleep by the low rumble of the wheels on the highway and the streetlight beams slanting in at intervals through the indigo night.

I don’t think of this memory often. It makes me uneasy now. I don’t know what to do with it, can’t quite get a handle on it, what it means in the context of the rest of my life.

See, the tough thing about this Manhattan day trip is that it contradicts with the prevailing narrative of my childhood. My parents were divorced; my brother and I saw our father every Wednesday and every other weekend. And everything we loved, everything we cared about and had fun doing was at our mother’s house. Going to our father’s felt like a strange and uncomfortable interruption of our real lives to stay in a house that wasn’t ours, at the mercy of an incomprehensible and capricious man and his wretched wife who never seemed to want us around anyway, and besides were mostly busy raising their new triplets. Our time there got worse and worse until practically the only things we did with our father were chores.

The memory of that day has since been crowded out by innumerable others. My father screaming at my brother after he found a cigarette butt at the bottom of the driveway and was convinced his twelve-year-old son was smoking. Waking us up at 6AM and forcing us to get haircuts, tears stinging my eyes as he made the stylist straighten my curly hair. Long drives without a single word. His gift to me for my fourteenth birthday, tickets to Six Flags after I had said that I hated roller coasters. Screaming at me to clean up my vomit when he forced me to eat peas. Sneaking down to my room to read during Thanksgiving dinner. A solemn conversation after I came out to him in which he told me not to tell my stepmother or anyone else in the family. The way my tears blurred the view of the street as I stared out the window just last year while he was lecturing me about the unemployability of my choice of major. The shock of learning that he’d moved without telling us, six months before, and thrown out all our things.

I don’t speak to my father anymore. I decided, finally, that him having one foot in my life was more painful than him being completely out of it, that he just constantly made me feel terrible. I had spent so long trying to reach out and keep a relationship going that finally cutting it off this year felt like a relief, a gift to myself.

My brother and I have settled on a vision of our childhood that’s wholly miserable, but we both know that wasn’t really the case. We did hate it at our dad’s house, and our stepmom was a cruel harpy, and the food was scant and terrible, and there were incomprehensible and unspoken rules that we were bound by without understanding why. But painting it as uniformly horrible is just a way to cope with the difficult fact that it wasn’t, that there were these inscrutable bright spots, like the day in Manhattan, or when our father started watching Doctor Who with us, or when he brought us to the apple orchard every year or took us deep-sea fishing. He drove forty minutes to buy me a replacement T-shirt after I got puked on by a kid at my cousin’s birthday party. How to make sense of a man who oscillated between these extremes? Who could be so cruel but also so caring? It’s more than a child’s mind can handle; I don’t even really understand it now. I wish I could say whether the good stuff or the bad stuff was the norm, which was the exception and which was the rule, but even now it’s hard to say, it all sticks in my mind so vividly, no top or bottom in sight.

I don’t know if my father stopped loving us, or maybe he just forgot how, but for one day in June he remembered, and he took us to see the Statue of Liberty. And even though it makes me sad and uncomfortable to think about in the context of everything that happened after, and even before, I’m grateful to him for that one perfect day. People are more complex than we can bear to think about. And for all the other memories he gave me, I can’t deny that he gave me that one too, that one day where I really believed that he loved us and could treat us right. But then it was easy to believe anything standing at the top of the Statue of Liberty and looking down at the New York Harbor, where the water looked like rippling silver and the people looked like ants.

My sister called at 3AM
Just last December
She told me how you’d died at last, at last
And that morning at the racetrack was one thing I remembered

I turned it over in my mind
Like a living Chinese finger trap
Seaweed and Indiana sawgrass
Pale green things, pale green things

The Mountain Goats

Hello Again

It’s been a while.

I could give a hundred reasons to explain why I’ve been away, why I’ve neglected this blog for so long, but nobody reads this anyway so I won’t give any. I will only say that I’m back.

The past two years have been terrible to me, and I haven’t actually stopped writing: I just channeled my energies into a separate (and much more confessional) blog, called The Young Depressive, to avoid this one being tainted by the dark emotions I was feeling at the time. But I’m doing better now, better than I can remember having felt in a long time.

There’s been a lot of talk of a “new normal” stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic amidst which we (at least in the godforsaken country where I reside) are currently living. But even before the pandemic I had arrived at a new normal of my own, and had to reconcile what that meant. I take pills now, two every night before bed, one an antidepressant and one a migraine preventative. I have a regular sleep schedule and I rarely stay up past midnight. I eat when I’m hungry and not just when I’m bored. I always have a few creative projects in various media—knitting, writing, podcasts—on the burner.

Two years ago, when I checked myself into the hospital to keep myself from committing suicide, I could never have dreamed of getting here. Here being, of course, a pretty normal-seeming state of affairs for anyone who’s never struggled with their mental health. There is a sort of permanence in depression in that it makes you believe that what you’re feeling now is what you will always, always be feeling, and nothing will ever, ever change it so it’s best to just stop trying. That’s just a nasty mental trick it uses to keep you resigned—but you can’t see that through the fog and the sadness.

So I had to teach myself things I realised I had never learned. How to balance school and social life, how to make new friends, how to manage stress, how to sleep, how to eat. I felt like a baby learning to walk, falling, failing, getting back up and falling again. And I arrived here: at the new normal. It feels odd here, clearer but less secure, and while you may be more sure of yourself you’re less sure of everything else, because you’ve seen how quickly it can change, with what frightening speed it can go downhill, from a dorm room to a hospital bed, from a party to a quarantine. The new normal is where you get up once you’ve fallen, it is the ground firm once more beneath your uncertain feet. It is the place you never thought you would get to or perhaps the place you never wanted to be. But regardless, here is where you are. The new normal. Act II. Fade to black, scene change. Curtain down, applause, then drawn back up. You’ve passed through, and what did you expect? For things to remain the same?

A Dorm of One’s Own

I moved into college recently, into a small single dorm. There’s a bookcase and a desk and a dresser and a bed with burgundy covers. In one windowsill there are four little succulents and in the other there’s lavender and rosemary, and there’s a glossy rubber plant on my desk, small living things going about their business. I’ve clipped off two bunches of lavender and they’re hanging off my lamp to dry, tied with bits of scrap yarn.

I love my little room. The fact that it’s little is one of the things I love about it. I’m like one of those furry burrowing creatures who poke their heads out of the holes they dig; I like small rooms—too big and I feel exposed, and the room feels too empty, like the space I take up isn’t significant, like I could disappear and no one would know.

But in little rooms your mark is everywhere, and every detail is important because there’s less area to take in. I’m in the slope of the ceiling, the angle of my lamp, the skeins of yarn on my dresser, the tidy clutter of my bookcase, where teakettles and yarn and boxes of tampons rub shoulders with the books it was intended to hold. You step into my room and you know who I am, and if you look closely enough you can also see who I want to be, and the parts of myself I try my best to hide.

Whenever I leave my room, I like to pull out my chair a bit, leave some space between it and the desk. It has the feeling of someone who was seated at the desk and just left, and might return at any moment, or like the chair is waiting for me to sit in it when I return. A pushed-in chair feels final, and if there’s any feeling I want to avoid in a room I inhabit, it’s finality. Bedrooms are where all the loose ends are gathered and where they rest, waiting patiently to be picked up and sewn into something fantastic or swept into a corner to quietly fray. I want my room to feel like I’m in the process of living in it—not just that I slept there last night and probably will tonight, but that my absence makes it feel expectant, interrupted. A room is not an art exhibit. It shouldn’t be pristine. It should feel like a life—messy, unique, confused, confident, comfortable, frenzied.

The fact of you should be in every detail, everything you touch, the way you arrange things based not on aesthetics but by what feels natural when your hands grab them in the dark, or in the hurried morning half-light. A bedroom is, above all, a testament that you exist. That you are living. That you are here.

girlfriend/Girlfriend: The Muddy Waters of Sexuality

I wish I had a gaydar. I wish gaydar existed. But I don’t, and it doesn’t; at least, this is the conclusion I have reached through various interactions with friends and lovers all across the sexual spectrum.

The first thing you realise when you’re a young gay person looking for love is that the odds are against you. Homosexuality (and bisexuality) isn’t something you can see, the way you can see someone’s height or the colour of their skin. And years of repression and persecution have taught some people to hide it pretty well, even when they don’t mean to. Add the difficulty of determining someone’s sexuality to the number of LGB people in the population—estimates vary from as low as 4% to close to 10%, but it is definitely somewhere in between—and it’s easy to get disheartened.

Shortly after I came out, I started finally letting myself feel all those puberty feelings that most people experience much earlier on. I, very suddenly and intensely, became interested in dating, or maybe just sex (I vacillated between these depending on the circumstances). So I looked around me and the first thing I thought was, Where are all the lesbians?

On a sociological level, various people have analysed the phenomenon of the “hidden lesbian,” why there are so few of us. But I wasn’t interested in the sociology. I was interested in what I could see and hear and touch—what I wanted was a way to know a woman was into women. I wanted a secret handshake, or a verbal quirk, or a hairstyle, anything that could tip me off.

But don’t those exist? you may be thinking. Cropped hair, snapbacks, flannel, nose piercings, half sleeves, Timberlands—those are lesbian stuff! Sure they are. But they’re also straight girl stuff. And only specific types of lesbians wear this stuff. I don’t, and I’m generally not attracted to the super-butch lesbians who are “obvious”—so where does that leave me?

Grasping at straws.

We gays are often good at reading facial expressions, at piecing apart people’s words and outfits and personalities to try to figure out what team they play for. We get a lot of practise—is that guy smiling at me because he thinks I’m cute, or because he knows I think he’s cute, or…? Is that girl touching my arm because she’s interested in me, or because she’s a touchy sort of person, or…? Is that person speaking so fiercely about LGBT rights because they’re LGBT themselves, or because they’re a passionate ally, or…? We live in the “…or?”s. We don’t want to make a fool of ourselves by asking out a straight person, and we definitely don’t want to make them uncomfortable. But we also don’t want to miss someone who could be perfect for us and is hiding right under our noses, flying under the radar we so desperately want to believe we possess. There are no meet-cutes where we are: there is luck and there are hunches, and we’d rather hedge our bets with the hunches than hit on everyone we’re attracted to without knowing if there’s even a shot they might like us back. We’re not proud of these little microanalyses we do, couched as they are in stereotypes and guesswork and “vibes.” But they’re all we’ve got if we want to meet someone in our day-to-day lives, outside the desolate gauntlet of gay online dating. But lately, the waters have been getting muddier.

I live in a time and place that is more accepting of sexual minorities than ever. This means that while gay people can be more open about their sexualities, straight people can too. Let me clarify: with the increased acceptance of gays, many straight people are more comfortable opening up about their own same-sex curiosities or leanings. Guys are more likely to remark upon a handsome actor, for example, without people automatically thinking they’re gay. And straight girls, I have always maintained, are much more “lesbian” that actual lesbians—straight girls in my area hold hands and hug and touch each other’s butts way more often than gay girls do. Maybe it’s because, among straight people, there’s no fear that a gay person might secretly be into all this intimacy and homoeroticism. Better to get playfully handsy with friends you know won’t take it seriously than with gay friends you’re worried might get the wrong idea. And you know what? I’m on board with straight people feeling less pressured be rigidly STRAIGHT. People should be comfortable, and should experiment, and should appreciate that fewer people are 100% hetero (or homo) than you’d think. But, while this is all well and good, the fact remains that it sends out all sorts of false signals to those of us searching for a same-sex romantic partner.

Which brings me to the title of my post. A month or two ago, I was talking to a woman about a movie that came out recently, and she said, “Oh yeah, my girlfriend and I saw that the other day.” I couldn’t help but wonder—did she mean girlfriend? Or Girlfriend? In most cases it’s easy to understand when a straight woman casually refers to her close friends as girlfriends—”one of my girlfriends” or “my girlfriend from college” or even “my girlfriend Jessica” or something—but here I had no idea. Was this girl gay? Did she have a Girlfriend with a capital G? Or was she just someone who tossed the word around? I wanted to know because I don’t know any lesbians or bisexual girls in my school; but I couldn’t ask. That would be awkward, and if she were straight she might be embarrassed that I’d gotten the wrong idea, and besides, it didn’t really matter, anyway.

This new time of freedom of sexual orientation, of being more comfortable with fluidity and curiosity, is wonderful. And it upends the careful pseudoscience of observation, guesswork, and prayer that gay people have used to try to spot others like us. It’s easy to say, “Well, why does it matter if you can’t tell? People are people! We’re all the same!” But this is a viewpoint that comes from living a life where 95% of the population of the opposite sex has the bare potential to be attracted to you. In reality the available dating pool is much smaller—some are in relationships, some are mean, some aren’t looking for what you’re looking for, some just aren’t your type, and on and on—but imagine how much smaller that pool is for those of us whose “bare minimum” is around 5% of our gender. Weed out the ones in all the above situations and it’s no wonder we’re so desperate for a sign, a signal, anything! Even the old stereotypical standbys are no longer trustworthy (if ever they were)—boys and girls can dress more androgynously with the slow dismantling of rigid gender roles. It’s normal, now, for guys to wear fitted floral print, for girls to wear boxy buttondowns. I love all of this, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some small selfish part of me wishes straight people could stop pulling these sexual bait-and-switches and acting so darn fluid and homoromantic.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do but cling to my old system of blind guessing and furtive hints and accept the increased amount of false positives. The ironic truth is that the more gay people become an accepted part of the general population, the harder it is for us to find each other—the underground that once connected us dissolves with disuse. We can step out into the light now, but how can we recognise each other when we’re so used to the shadows?

Washing Dishes at Midnight

My neighbour is doing dishes at midnight. I can see the light above his kitchen sink through the window that looks out into the street. If you laid it all end to end, how much of our lives are spent like this, quietly performing our everyday tasks? So many evenings spent doing dishes, so many chores, so many hours spent in meetings or at lectures. The necessity of it all. The tedium. The mechanisms that make our lives run: somebody’s got to do them. It’s all well and good to want to travel the world, to live fearlessly and brilliantly and explode like a firecracker and all that exciting literary stuff—but before every great achievement and leap comes the thousand little boring moments spent making it happen. At the end of the day there are still essays to write before getting the degree, there are still hours to work to pay for the the trip. There are still dirty dishes in the sink.

Ivy

I went to a summer day camp for three or four years in a row as a kid, from the time I was eight or nine till I was twelve. It was called Camp Sacajawea, though usually we affectionately called it Camp Sac.

There was a white house out front where the staff hung out, and a big red crafts barn with a high vaulted roof and a huge totem pole with the paint worn down. A wooden pavilion on a hill with long splintery tables where we ate lunch and congregated to be picked up and dropped off. There was a lake on the far edge of camp, with racks of aluminium canoes and plastic yellow kayaks, and strings of buoys that used to be white, and a little floating dock. The beach was a small strip of coarse sand flanked on both sides by grass and tall reeds. We would do archery with red recurve bows and weave baskets in the crafts barn and swim in the lake, bounded by the old grimy ropes hung with yellowing floaters.

I couldn’t have described any of this to you in such detail until yesterday, when my friend was talking about her childhood playmates, and she mentioned a fifth grade classmate named Ivy K——. I buzzed like a lightning rod at the name. I interrupted my friend’s story and made her repeat the name. I got this wondrous look on my face and said holy shit. I used to know her. Did she have longish strawberry blonde hair and green eyes?

Yeah, why? she asked.

I went to summer camp with her. That was all I said.

But it all came rushing back like a flood, summers I hadn’t even thought of until I heard Ivy’s name again.

Ivy was my best friend at Camp Sac. She was a few months older than me, and an inch or two taller. We did everything together. We did paper crafts and wove lanyards in the barn when it rained. We were canoe buddies, and we rowed together whenever the counsellors would let us. On sunny days, even when it wasn’t particularly hot, we swam in the lake and dove down to the bottom to see who could grab the most seaweed (she could dive, but I couldn’t, so I just jackknifed into the water, legs and arms straight and rigid as a board). We’d hold our breath down there, wave at each other as we squinted through the dark green gloom. Sometimes we rolled our wet hair up into little sausages on top of our heads and laughed at how we looked like George Washington.

We talked, too—about everything, nothing. I don’t remember most of our conversations so I wonder what we even had to talk about, but kids always find something to say. I remember talking with her from the minute we saw each other in the morning till the minute we had to leave in the late afternoon; our days were like one long, ongoing conversation.

We forged the sort of relationship that’s common in childhood: a fiercely loyal but fleeting friendship. We were devoted to each other during the summer, but were we to cross paths during school, I’m not sure either of us would’ve even said hello. She went to a different school, though, so it was a possibility that never actually occurred.

Ivy was competitive and a little bossy; I was creative and a little moody. She could run faster than me, and of course she beat me on the diving front, but I didn’t mind because I was a better artist, and besides, friendships between girls generally aren’t about the same competitiveness as boys’ friendships. She was paler than me, and my hair was (and remains) curly, frizzy, knotted, and generally unmanageable, while hers was soft and poker-straight.

She was my first crush. Which I guess is why I repressed the memory of her without even realising it. I remember telling her once, while we were treading water at the far end of the lake enclosure, that I really liked her and that being around her made me feel good and happy. I said I liked talking to her and I felt like she was someone who would keep a secret no matter what. I think I was eleven.

“Do you have a secret?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, truthfully. It’s not a secret if you’re not conscious of keeping it. Plus, the realisation that there was even a secret to be kept was still many years away.

Nothing ever happened between us. I wanted to kiss her but I never did. And after my last summer at Camp Sac, I never saw her again. I didn’t know that would be my last summer there—afterwards I started taking summer arts courses through a program at my school—so I just waved goodbye and said I’d see her next year.

I know it doesn’t seem like much. A young gay kid’s first crush. A summer camp like any other summer camp. But it was special to me then, and it still is now. Her missing tooth. The bracelets we made out of colourful string. Our spindly legs treading water, swimming till our fingertips were pale waterlogged raisins. These things are only ours, something that just belongs to us. She opened a door for me, even though she didn’t even try, and had no way of knowing. And so it feels significant, me and Ivy, even if on the surface it wasn’t anything unique.

Spring is coming soon, I can feel a warming in the air. It’s been around six months since I came out, and it’s still hard to say the words. But during those summers at Camp Sacajawea, the words were the last thing on my mind. There was so much to say that couldn’t be said, so much I wasn’t even conscious of yet, so much in the way we came up from the bottom of the lake, laughing and spluttering, and in the way that my whole body burned when she held my hand.

You Are Here

This is not a “cultivating wonder” post. This is not a breathless plea for you to look at the stars and marvel at their vast multitude, or to contemplate the sublime complexity of the cells that make up your body. I’ll save the wide-eyed awe and flowery language for another time.

I just wanted to check in, take stock, do a little progress report. As for the state of things: the world is still turning. The sun will rise in the east tomorrow. You’re living and seeing and thinking. Take a deep breath.

You don’t need to be anything. The way you feel now is the way you’re supposed to feel. Good or bad, it will pass—the gift of transience. Let go of expectations, responsibility, duty, just for one second if you can. A second is enough. Just be.

I won’t lie. Your situation may not be alright in the end. But it will be—it will happen, and if you can’t change that then put it out of your mind. Don’t look down the line, don’t let your brain go to the space of hypothetical catastrophes and paralysis and dread. This moment is enough to worry about for now. There is another one coming. Take it one at a time. And look at that, you’re making it through.

Now get back to work, or leisure, or whatever it is that feels so urgent today. You will make it through, and then you will move onto the next, and you will be living and breathing and blinking and doing all sorts of wonderful things and in the meantime, the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.

You don’t have to be pretty or powerful or smart. Just do your thing. Stand up straight. Drink water. Pet a dog if you can find one that is amenable to being pet. Breathe in, breathe out. This is enough for right now.

You are here. I’m here too. I’m glad we’re here together.

Eulogising Myself

Last spring, I took a public speaking course (not by choice; my schedule didn’t allow for the creative writing one I really had my eyes on). It wasn’t very fun or informative or useful in any way, but I did get to practise writing and delivering lots of speeches. Our final project was to write a eulogy, whether it was to a person or an experience or an abstract concept, like childhood or optimism or something like that. Most people went humorous with it but since I never pass up an opportunity to contemplate death and mortality, I decided to eulogise myself.


Not many people get the opportunity to attend their own wake as anything other than a ghost, and today I count myself among the lucky few who will soon be buried but who are cognisant enough to enjoy their last days with the people they love. I am truly grateful for that, brain tumour or not.

The reason we’re standing in my front lawn is because this, as you all know by now, is where I’ll be laid to rest. I’ve arranged for a “green funeral,” where I’m buried in a biodegradable box that fosters decomposition and rich soil, and from that soil I’d like to plant a nice tree. A dogwood, maybe a cherry blossom or an elm. I originally wanted an apple tree but I thought people might be too creeped out to eat the apples lest it be some sort of pseudo-cannibalism so it’s best to stick to something simple and non-fruit bearing.

I had a small stone engraved that will be placed at the base of the tree, and on it I wrote this elegy: Here lies Mia R— P——, dead at age 53. She loved people, and stories, and she found them both in the unlikeliest of places.

That’s it. For someone tasked to sum up their life in a sentence, I don’t think it’s half bad.

Because I do love people, even if I sometimes hate them. When trying to pin down whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist, I always fall back on a lesson I’ve learned over and over again that has never served me wrong: people will always be both better and worse than you expect them to be. People will always, always surprise you—if you let them. I truly believe that.
As for stories, I’ve heard a million and then some. Stories of loss, hope, redemption, denial, betrayal, hatred, joy, everything. I’ve written a few of my own, too. That’s a message I want to leave behind: that stories are vital, that by telling them and living them and writing them down we connect to others and to the deepest parts of ourselves. Our stories live apart from us, beyond us, and they are more powerful than you could ever imagine.

I was thinking the other day that I’ve only borrowed this body, these atoms. They’ve been a part of so many things before they were a part of me. And when I die, and they go off to become something else again, I hope they’ll have a few good stories to tell about the time they once combined to create an arrangement so specific that it can never be replicated: a curious, curly-haired oddball named Mia.
People and stories; I think that’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about death. Not in a morbid sense, not in a miserable sense, but in the sense that it is just as essential as life and deserves more than to be draped in black lace and sealed in a casket to the sound of dirges.

When I die, the world will continue to spin, just as it always has and always will until the sun implodes and gobbles up our galaxy, but by then we will all have been gone for a very long time.

When I die, there will be no funeral motorcade, no ticker tape on the morning news announcing my passing, no flags at half-mast, which is the way it should be. I lived a life that was small but deep, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When I die, there will be no mourning—I forbid it. There will be no tears of sadness, no funeral wreaths, no flowers on gravestones. Nobody will be allowed to wear black, or to play sad songs. You will laugh, and dance, and play my favourite music. You will eat far too much food and when it gets late, and you’ve drunk just a little bit too much, you will sit around the big table in the dining room and you will remember me. You will tell stories about me, and laugh, and learn things about each other and myself that you somehow never knew, and you will cry not because you’re sad, but because you’re drunk and your tears mean that you loved me as deeply as I loved you. And you will drink a toast to absent friends.

I don’t know what waits for me on the other side, but I hope it will be an adventure. I have always hoped to arrive to my death with a wistful heart and pockets full of memories, but now that I’m here, I just want one thing: more life.

And I think that’s the biggest testament to how much I’ve enjoyed this life; I want another. It is hard to let go, harder than I’d ever thought it would be. I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared to leave it all behind, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, and now that I stand here before you all, in front of my grave, and I feel death’s hand on my shoulder, all I can really say is… that I would do it all again. In the blink of an eye, I would do it all again.