Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Being Called "Queer"

I told a short story tonight at school about being called queer when I was in elementary school back in NYC. When I was growing up on Staten Island I lived in a neighborhood that was very conservative, but my family was quite liberal. So while all the other boys in school had short hair or even crew cuts, I had long hair and had a denim jacket with various peace patches and environmental patches on it.

Needless to say, I got beat up a lot.

I generally didn't like hanging out with the boys in school because they were overall pretty stupid, so I preferred hanging out with the girls. First off they treated me better and secondly I was raised by women more than men so I "got" women/girls better. I was also painfully shy and deeply introverted. Whether in school or at home I preferred living in my own thoughts more often than not. That, and the disfunctionality of my family made me very fearful of any outsiders, and many times insiders.

But my family, for all its faults, knew language. My mother was a poet and my father, though largely absent, was an English professor. So in that regard I understood from a very early age what words mean. So when the day came in fourth or fifth grade when a fellow student thought he was dealing me a death blow of linguistic accusation by calling me queer I realized that he had bit off more than he could chew.

I'm sure he made the accusation in order to cut me down. I have no idea what his own story is; whether he had been called names himself by fellow students or even in his own family. Maybe so or maybe not. It may have been as much the social ethos of the era that allowed kids and adults to call someone a name in order to other them so as to avoid dealing with difference in their midst. But nevertheless, he felt it was appropriate to call me queer in order to shame and embarrass me.

Now I don't remember how I knew this. But somehow in that moment I remembered that queer, while in the context of what this child was calling me, was meant as an insult, I also remembered that the term had a more neutral meaning that didn't necessarily have a negative connotation.

So I asked him if he knew what the term meant. It was obvious he didn't really know. So I told him. I told him that queer meant that something or someone was different than the norm, the standard, the accepted way. And considering the state of the norm, the standard, and the accepted way, being queer to me was quite a compliment.

So I thanked him for the compliment.

He didn't try insulting me anymore.

As I mentioned earlier tonight, I didn't have the muscles to fight off bullies. So I did get beat up on a regular basis. But I did have words to defend myself, and so I used them to the best of my ability. As I grew older I learned how to use my words to keep me safe or defend me. Now, as an adult, I have to be careful in how I use my words today. As it's often been said, that which saves you as a child can kill you as an adult. So in that  regard I must be careful to use my words very carefully.

Other boys had their muscles as their weapons. I had my words. Both can be deadly if used in wrong ways. We each used them to protect ourselves when young. And if we're not careful we can just as easily use them to do violence to others today.

I turned a phrase intended to hurt into one that became a compliment. But it was a selfish pursuit. Appropriate in its context, but dangerous as a template for later use. Just as using your fists to fight off an attacker is appropriate, that lesson can end up becoming a continuation of the cycle of violence if not checked and understood rightly.

So with words used to protect can just as easily become words that coerce and manipulate.

It seems language is a queer thing.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Valley of Dark Shadows

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.

The Psalmist states this quite clearly. He will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The promise isn't that we'll be kept from that valley, but that in our journey through that valley we will be comforted by the presence of God. And yet, as I walk through my own valley of dark shadows, I do fear evil. Not the external evil of some demonic force "out there" but of the evil within me. I fear my self sabotage, my self destructive impulses that are consistently more clever than my rationality or even my faith. With one hand I dig trenches under my own foundations and with the other I try to shore them back up. Meanwhile the valley descends and keeps getting darker. I know valleys don't go on forever, but when you're in the middle of one, it can sure feel that way. And feeling can be more powerful than any rational understanding. I will believe against my feelings that God's presence and care are with me. It's my only hope.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Economic and Moral Microcosm

I am Greece. I am Spain. I am Portugal. I am the U.S. I am Ireland.

I, like each of these countries, have spent years spending like a drunken sailor, living far beyond my means. Peter and Paul aren't speaking with me anymore because I've spent so much time robbing one to pay the other. I've rotated my debt in order to keep on spending, hoping against hope, and any realistic assessment of reality, that somehow it would all work itself out in the end without me having to make drastic changes.

Well, reality does have a nasty habit of eventually catching up with our self imposed fantasies. And with each succeeding step of living in fantasy the cost grows higher and the climb back to level ground is steeper. If we're fortunate enough to have this reality stare us in the face early on, we can adjust our thinking and behavior accordingly and turn things around with a minimal amount of pain.

But if we have a reservoir of support available to us and a system which rewards conspicuous consumption through easy credit than the temptation is very strong to go along for the ride. I bought that lie. I bought the lie that I could buy whatever I wanted based on future earnings which would counteract my current excesses. I, along with my various creditors, believed that the road always rises and never falls. We now both know better.

We live in perilous times of great economic and social uncertainty and upheaval. I can't say what others should do but I know that I have a choice to make in response to my own situation. I have a moral obligation now just as much as I have had at every step of the way in this economic journey to indebtedness. I can either walk away and neglect my responsibility for my part in bringing this about and blame everyone around me for my woes, or I can own up to what I've done and not done and get to the dirty but ultimately noble business of cutting back to bare essentials and work harder to bring myself back up to level ground.

I have spent years being consumed by rampant consumerism and have found myself slowly dying of consumption. I'm therefore faced with very difficult choices brought about by all of my previous choices. But face them I must. The issue isn't whether I will make a choice, it's what choice will I make? Will I continue in this long slumber fed by the ever droning commercial narcotics streaming into my ears and eyes, burrowing deep into my very soul? Or will I awake from this deadly dream to a new day of harsh choices, but which I can at least be content to know that I will have dealt with reality on reality's terms?

A crisis at the right time be a true blessing if it awakens us to what is true and necessary.