As the Lady From Joisey Said . . .

The Rape of Ganymede by Rubens

The Rape of Ganymede by Rubens

“We think we know everything. We don’t know shit.” The name of the play escapes me, as does the plot, but this line sticks with me, as does the image of the world-weary drag queen who delivers it.
Growing up, I thought I was in the know. My brand of church taught that we had the inside track on salvation, knew exactly what God wanted. It was up to us to point out to others how wrong they were.
My eyes opened when I came out gay in mid-life. I went from a desk job at a religious organization to biscuit maker at an interstate truck stop cafe on the early morning shift. One of my co-workers was a large imposing woman with a thick New Jersey accent. I loved her sense of humor and take on the world. I often told her so. “Aw, ain’t you sweet,” she’d say. “You want to know what I think? I think you’re full of shit.”
I didn’t want to believe her. These twenty years later I begin to think she was spot on.
Last month I wrote a short piece about the brevity of life, how everything changes and how quickly. How to manage in such a world, I wondered aloud, and concluded: “Live as fully alive and fully aware as possible. Choose love. And gratitude. Laugh often.”
This on a Wednesday.
Thursday morning, my employer called me into his office to tell me he’s decided to change my job description. I’m to identify prospective customers and sell them on our services. “I know this has been a revolving-door position,” he said, noting the average tenure of marketing personnel at our company is three months—people get fired when sales quotas are not met. “I’ve decided this is what I want you to do.”
Had my anxiety been rocket propellant, there’d be a big hole in his ceiling. I am no salesman. As a kid, I tried peddling magazine subscriptions, and in college, vitamins. I proved an abject failure on both counts. After college, armed with a communications degree and no job prospects, I went into telephone marketing. That career topped out at a week. My next position, also in sales, lasted four times as long: I sold popcorn and caramel apples out of a wagon at the Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County, Indiana. I haven’t looked back. Until now. My boss orders me to walk the plank.
What I wrote about living awake and aware, embracing what is? Ehhhnhh.
When change stares me in the face, I notice I sing a different tune. I go all queasy—and with good reason.
It has to do with the story I heard Saturday at graduation open house for a friend who just earned her Ph.D. in psychology. As we ate out on the deck, we heard the neighbors’ chickens. Erin told us they’re being picked off one by one. Coyote? Hawk? Conversation turned to a YouTube video she’s seen: a family sets their baby bunny free to live in the great outdoors.
As Dad videotapes its first steps toward freedom, a hawk swoops down and carries off the little rabbit squealing.
“Run, run, be free!” said Erin, gesturing wildly. “Then wham-o!” A bunch of us laughed.
“That’s not funny,” said her mother-in-law, who finished chemotherapy two weeks ago.
“I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time,” Erin said. “But isn’t that life? It’s what happens.”
Indeed, life pulls no punches. A bald-headed woman. Bunny nuggets. Me a salesman. Everything changes in an instant and it’s not funny. It’s tragic—except that it’s also somehow comical.
We traipse through life thinking we know the score.
“We don’t know shit,” says the drag queen, kneeling at her friend’s grave. She carries her purse over one arm, in the other, a toilet seat lid.

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STOP. In the name of love.

Even in rural Indiana, traffic can be crazy. On our trip into town yesterday, at two separate intersections my husband and I watched dumbfounded as an approaching driver ran the stop sign. One vehicle we could have broadsided had we wanted to. I wanted to. We had already sidled up to the bright red octagon, come to a complete halt. Our turn to go when a man in a gray sludgebuster coming from our right slowed and drove right on through, right in front of us. I wanted to ram him. Good thing Dave was at the wheel.

 Me, I was wielding the December issue of The Sun, a favorite literary magazine. I often read aloud when I’m riding. A few hundred yards back I’d finished a brief piece by Thomas Schritz recounting an experience he had while waiting at a red light in Los Angeles. He watched a man who appeared to have palsy attempt to cross a busy six-lane freeway. As the man stepped out into the crosswalk Schritz thought to himself, he’ll never make it in time. He was right. The light turned green when the man was only a third of the way across. A nearby police cruiser sounded its siren and pulled into the intersection, lights flashing. Schritz grew angry as he waited for the officer to give the man a ticket. “The Los Angeles police are not known for being overly friendly,” he writes. He was surprised when the officer simply blocked all traffic until the man made his way safely to the other side.

 My voice had caught in my throat. I’d choked up. Dave had glanced over. “What?”

 “Sometimes we all need help making it to the other side,” I’d said.

 “You’re right. You and me, both. And Joe, for instance.”

 Joe entered our life quite recently when he mustered up the courage to call the phone number his therapist had given him. “This is the contact information for a gay couple who may be able to offer you some support,” she’d told him. We’d been cued in that he might ring.

 A denizen of small-town Indiana, Joe is in the early throes of coming out to himself in mid-marriage, midlife, mid-air. He feels like he’s falling, not sure what to do, where to turn, how to find his way. Not sure he’ll survive.

love

 Over 15 years ago, Dave and I found ourselves in similar straits. More than 15 years later we are still grateful to the people who extended a helping hand, warm welcome, listening ear. We too came out in midlife. We too wrestled with how to tell our wives, children, parents, siblings and society the truth we were discovering about ourselves.

 There is no easy road, no one right way to exit the closet. And there are no guarantees. Not everyone makes it. Most everyone hits hard times somewhere along the way. Joe tells us he feels lonely, depressed, afraid. Feels sad, scared, foolish. Feels like a teenager. Feels like an old man. Feels hopeful one minute, then despondent for days.

 “It’s all a part of it,” I tell him. “It’s natural to feel a wide—and wild—mix of emotions. How could you not? Everything is changing for you right now. It’s an unusual time, a remarkable opportunity. How many people have their world upended and get to recreate their lives half-way through? These days hold great peril and also great potential.”

 We’ve met with Joe a few times. We’re going out for pizza together tonight. We look forward to staying in touch, offering him the kind of support we received as we took our first faltering steps into new life. Simple kindnesses, really. Stop, look, listen. Bear witness. Offer encouragement, pointers and warm regard.

 After all, the traffic is crazy out there. The lights change quickly. We all need help making it to the other side.

 

This essay appeared in the February issue of The Community Letter