A meditation on intimacy

I don’t, as a rule, blog about personal relationships or intimate feelings. I do, however, care deeply about how we build community, and how we constitute family and social connection is at the heart of that. As since age and disability have brought me to a place where I understand what it is to be erased, to feel invisible, I think a great deal about how we set expectations and manage communications about intimacy and community.

I think we do a poor job of it. Or at least, I have observed many instances in which we — I — struggle to do it well. And I think this has larger implications, which is what makes it worth blogging about.

A Facebook friend shared a blog post by a couple named Josh and Lolly Weed that set me searching for language this particular morning. In the post, they explain their decision to end their marriage. They are devout Mormons who, despite their deep affection, children and generally happy home life, have decided that their marriage cannot accommodate Josh’s same-sex attraction. We are assured that there has been no infidelity, but that it’s not healthy for them to remain in a marriage where he can’t love her the way she deserves to be loved, and neither of them is free to find love with someone else. This paragraph from Josh, especially, sent me off on a reverie that had little to do with their revelation:

The love I felt [for Lolly and their children] was real, but something in me wanted to die.
It’s the thing that wants to die in all of us when we don’t have hope for attachment to a person we are oriented towards. It’s actually a standard part of human attachment: when we don’t have attachment—and have no hope of attachment–our brain tells us we need to die.

The post is worth reading  for its testimony about people of faith struggling to reconcile what their church teaches about homosexuality with their lived experience. I don’t intend to address that here. What I want to say about that paragraph is that it resonated deeply with lived and observed experience – a lifelong crisis that I once thought existential, only capable of being articulated in art, but increasingly, taking shape in public policy.

Too many of us don’t know how to create and sustain connection to other humans. Too many of us live outside of structures of extended family and community. Experts say the lack of connection is killing us. The UK now has a Minister of Loneliness. A former US Surgeon General took to the pages of the Harvard Business Review to declare loneliness a public health crisis and to call on employers to change their cultures. A 2010 AARP study found a strong correlation between loneliness and poor physical health.

Weed’s words triggered very specific memories.

When I was a child, far too young to know of romantic relationships, there were two songs that moved me to tears, that touched something that I knew deep inside from having been uprooted and displaced: Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” and Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” I never spoke of the way these songs made me feel. I suspect that Aretha’s song sounded like the pain of some of the adult women I saw in my neighborhood, or heard my aunts and uncles talking about in conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear: “Ain’t no way for me to love you/If you won’t let me…” But “This Bitter Earth” spoke to a fear I carried:

This bitter earth
Well, what a fruit it bears
What good is love
Mmh, that no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
Ooh, that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows

Oh, this bitter earth
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth, ooh
May not, oh be so bitter after all

I was a lonely child, unsure where I belonged, how I fit in, and Dinah Washington spoke to that so powerfully that I resolved not to listen to that song, lest I give in to despair. At that age, it was a slew of things that loom large for a child, but less so for adults, such as being told by a relative, “You must be a genius, because you are weird.” Or being bullied in school. Or thinking Janis Ian’s ode to teenage angst, “At 17,” was written for me. I grew up, and have lived much of my life in the friend zone, hopelessly crushing on people who would confide their love for my best friends. Oh, well. l learned early on to be philosophical about this.There’s a reason my middle school classmates called me Spock.

Later, I would be told that I had been a rebel in college, not adhering to the expectations of how young women were supposed to behave, ignoring people who were attracted to me (or in the words of one friend, supposedly in love with me.)  The truth is that my parents pretty much raised me to read books, take care of home and family, and exercise. I was rarely allowed to date or have a job other than babysitting. This is how my parents hoped to keep me from being derailed before I got a chance to have a life.

I didn’t break the rules; for the most part, I never learned them.  So if you wanted to step to me, you had to make it plain.   Later, of course, I learned that most of us are misfits in our own way. Sometimes we find others who understand our nerdiness, and we can be misfits together. Sometimes that connection comes through a partnership called marriage that lasts for decades. And sometimes not.

Anyway, it’s with this understanding that I came to Josh Weed’s words. And then I thought about people I had met from other cultures, other stations in life.

I thought about the people I have met who come from cultures that consider “love marriages” inferior to arranged marriages. I know women in arranged marriages who are at peace with their lot, for whom intimacy is built on shared history, values, and priorities. I don’t know how they process the idea of the kind of passion of which Josh Weed speaks. And then I remember the young man I met in Biratnagar, Nepal, who told me how his wife’s family disowned her because she chose her husband. He was from a lower caste – which wasn’t supposed to matter, but it did. I remember having a conversation with another man, a student, who said he couldn’t possibly enter a love marriage, despite the fact that they are growing in popularity. It would be too devastating for his family; it would ruin his career; he would lose standing in his community.

These are the dilemmas of the search for intimacy: to conform to the expectations of one’s culture at the expense of the possibility of deep connection. To search for connection and fail, repeatedly, because you can’t measure up to set of rules you may or may not understand. To follow the rules as you understand them, only to realize that you don’t know what healthy connection looks like. To enter a marriage with hope, and to stay for decades out of a sense of soul-crushing duty. And, occasionally, to stare in wonder at that rare couple who has managed, against all odds to find a way to be together until, “the last of life for which the first was made.”

I have sat with older people, some close relatives, who no longer see a purpose or place for themselves. Spouses gone or dead, children grown, work life behind them. I remember some of them deciding they were done, and before long, they were. I remember a lively widowed friend in her late 70s who ached for a companion, and I hear there’s a bar in town that has become something of a pickup joint for seniors. Well, why not I say. Just be careful out there – STD rates are rising for older people.

I have participated in support groups and forums for other people with disabilities struggling with the pain and disappointment of losing lovers and marriages because their partners can’t understand or cope with the ways in which their bodies and lives are changing. I am also reminded of the happily coupled people I know who happen to use wheelchairs or have some other impairment, and what it’s like to deal with others’ assumptions that their dating and marriage options are limited.

I am living Josh Weed’s fear – “no attachment, no hope of attachment” – but I am determined not to die.I have resolved for myself to stay connected to life, through writing, through work, through church and community involvement, through friends.

I appreciate the connections I have to old classmates. Even if we weren’t intimates in youth, we are at an age where we share much that is meaningful that younger people wouldn’t understand. We don’t have to read a book to know what it felt like when the Kennedys and Dr. King were murdered, or why Vietnam was so divisive, or why wearing pants to school was a radical act. We’ve had chronic illnesses and scares and losses. We remember Carol Burnett and platform heels and Belmont Plateau and Summer Madness. We go out, share a meal, dance to old songs, sometimes accompanied by a man, sometimes not.  And then we laugh and tease about how we’ve still got it.

I think, in this next phase of my life, I will revisit Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, which I read when I was far too young to understand. I am one data point in this public health battle against loneliness, but I think that this quest for deep connection is a researchable problem, and I will be part of its solution.

The Good Mother, part 2

Hi Mommy,

What was it like for you to be back in New Jersey busting suds and picking crops, after spending those years in Hartford, Connecticut, learning etiquette, elocution and the other skills essential to becoming a proper bourgeoise? No doubt it was a shock, and not just for you. You loved your New Jersey family and they loved you, but sometimes you just didn’t understand each other, and maybe that was to be expected.

For one thing, your sisters and brothers couldn’t get over the way you talked. Your sister was chuckling about that just recently. South Jersey folks of that generation have their own kind of country drawl, but you had a New Englander’s clipped enunciation. You had a way of saying, “Look at the the dogs!” that sounded more like, “Look aht the dahgs!” making your family double over with laughter because they had never heard anyone speak that way. It hurt your feelings, but then, lots of things hurt your feelings, and you could say things that they found just as cutting.

Not that there weren’t good times there. Along the White Horse Pike, between Camden and Atlantic City, and over the Ben Franklin bridge to Philadelphia, there was a world to explore. Near as I can tell, your Mom, Eileen, moved you and the kids around, depending on the most affordable and livable arrangements available at the time. Mostly you were in Chesilhurst, near your grandfather Ashton’s family, and not far from where your father’s brother built a home.

And your dreams of high school proms, high school dating, and eventually, college receded into heartbroken imaginings.

Start in South Philly, a place that you all visited on occasion. Eileen’s father, John Henry Farrell, had his own “Sanitary Barber Shop,” as his business card said. John, Jr. was the first colored elevator operator for one of the big department stores downtown. And his brother, Wendell was a mechanic in the Air Force. Sometimes Aunt Gladys came to visit, and Eileen would get together with her and sisters Lynn and rarely, Edna, who moved to Elizabeth early on. Lynn was something of a glamour girl and you all got to be friend with her kids, all being around the same age.

Cross back over the Ben Franklin to Camden, either on the bus in a car like that big pink Studebaker your Mom used to drive. Camden was a working class town, but it was in much better shape than it is now. There was plenty of work at the Campbell Soup plant, and if some folks had to shop at the Goodwill on Broadway, there was also a Tiffany’s.

But if you were young, black and looking for fun in the 1950s, the action was down the White Horse Pike, in Lawnside.

A former stop on the Underground Railroad, Lawnside was the first self-governing African American community north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Peter Mott House there is now a historic landmark.  In the late 19th century, it was the childhood home of Jessie Redmon Fauset, the novelist, poet, teacher and editor credited with launching the publishing careers of such leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.  For the last few years, they’ve celebrated Jessie Fauset Day in Lawnside with poetry competitions and historical observances. But in the 50s, Ms. Fauset had moved back to Philadelphia for a few years of genteel retirement before her death, in 1961.

The Spaniels

By the 1950s, the striving town of Jessie Fauset’s youth had become better known to local African Americans as a place for barbecues, picnics and dancing. Jack Brady’s Dreamland Cafe saw its heyday during your childhood, boasting the likes of Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. I never heard you all talk about Dreamland or the Cotton Club. But I did hear tell of the Whippoorwill and even as late as 1975, you all were still going to Loretta’s Hi-hat for family wedding receptions.

Daddy tells me there was a place next to the Tippin’ Inn where you go could for food and dancing if you weren’t yet of drinking age. That’s where he and his brothers used to go before he got drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He was going with your older sister when he got drafted. Then another man took your sister to the altar while the man who would become my father was doing his bit for Uncle Sam. It was later, after he got back, when he met you.

In the meantime, your older brother and sister were hitting the Hi Hat and you and your closest brother E  were winning dance contests at some of the local joints. Not that you all even needed to go out to have a good time. Even in my youngest childhood, I remember how you and your Mom and brothers and sisters would get together to eat, play pinochle and dance.

Grandmom cooked for white folks on the Main Line, I recall, but her family menus were strictly down home. Ham, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, string beans, potato salad, cornbread, apple pie, sweet potato pie, white potato pie, tomato soup cake — there was always something good in Mom’s kitchen. Maybe somebody put some music on a record player or maybe it was just a radio. The bop was the dance of the day.

Maybe it was at one of those contests that you met Thornton James “Pookie” Hudson from the Spaniels. Their signature  tune, “Good Night, Sweetheart,” had come out in 1954 when you were only 15. You told me that the two of you dated for a time. Given that Pookie was five years older and touring regularly, it’s likely that the relationship was more serious on your end than his. Nonetheless, you told me that you lost Pookie to a girl named “Tina” — a girl who so captured his heart that he wrote a song about her that the Spaniels recorded. You played the song for me; it mostly consisted of Pookie wailing her name.

I got an email from a cyberfriend when Pookie died in January, 2008. I thought about telling you, but I didn’t want to make you sad. I suppose you know by now.

Another time, you told me you met Arthur Prysock, and even sang backup for him. I never did hear the whole story, but I got the impression it wasn’t a serious thing — maybe even that he just let you get up on a stage with him one night and sing behind him. Who knows? It was one of those things you would say and leave unexplained, the same way you would say that we were related to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Who can say?

From what I’ve read about Lawnside in those days, it was a place where everybody mixed with everybody, so hanging out with  big stars such as the Spaniels is not as exotic as it might seem to us today. African Americans flocked to Lawnside because they weren’t allowed to be anyplace else.  Not long ago, Dottie Smith, a singer who played the Lawnside clubs in those days, told an interviewer:

“On Sunday, a lot of people would leave church and go right over there for the rest of the day,” she said. “That’s why it all felt so much like family. There were grandmothers and kids and musicians and shriners and everybody from all walks of life. Blacks didn’t have a Blue Book or a Country Club. Lawnside was where we went. It cost practically nothing to enjoy yourself. I remember in Philadelphia there used to be this weekend saying that it was time to ‘go down the ridge and over the bridge,’ which meant heading out for Lawnside and the clubs and all.”

You were popular with the fellas, I’m told. At your memorial service, a man who had grown up with you, whom I only knew through your church, talked to me about your beauty with all the wistfulness of an old man remembering his first schoolboy crush.

This was your life: work, child care, hanging out with friends on your off hours. School was not part of the picture for you or your peers. Dropping out of high school to help the family was pretty common in the 1950s. Heck, it wasn’t unusual to meet kids who had bailed on elementary school. Nobody was sending truant officers out to make sure poor black kids went to school.

The jobs available to blacks in Camden County didn’t require more than an elementary school education. They were jobs that needed strong backs more than good brains. Also, you had to have a high tolerance for being called “boy” or “gal.” And never talk back to a Jersey cop. People warned each other,  “They’re as bad as the ones in Mississippi,”

But you had seen another world – a world where a black woman could get an office job, instead of having to clean a white woman’s house or wash her clothes. A world where little black girls took ballet lessons and dreamed of going to college. A world with doilies and flowers and husbands who save up their money to buy you a string of pearls. A man who, as you were fond of saying later, “brought something to the table.”

That was the world you wanted. Sometime in 1956, when you were 17 and he was 24, you decided that my bookish father was the man most likely the partner you needed.

Yes, Ma’am. I’m going to get some rest now.