Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hope and Deliverance

It’s not just that I think Rebecca Drysdale is wonderful. It’s that the world is a vastly better and richer place because Rebecca Drysdale is in it. I would become a lesbian for Rebecca Drysdale.

This is why:

It's her contribution to YouTube’s “It Gets Better” campaign, kicked off by Dan Savage and his partner in the fall in response to a cascade of highly publicized suicides by bullied queer teens and young adults. It’s brilliantly produced, stunningly edited music video. The lyrics are supple and brash. The choreography moves like sexy lightning.

But it’s the balance of rage, compassion, and the celebratory promise of hope that takes her video to the top of my list. An often-voiced critique of the campaign over the last months has been that too many segments–certainly not all of them, but more than a few–however well-intentioned, leave the kids who watch them in limbo, no clearer than they were before about how to survive the oppression and pain they endure daily, no clearer about how they’ll ever make it from the hell they’re living in to the safe haven they’re told awaits them. There’s no bridge from here to there, but a great gulf fixed.

What sets this video apart is that it briefly but vividly imagines individual lives and dwells on them from the inside. Rebecca doesn’t just offer herself as an example of a survivor. She stands in solidarity with the stories of half a dozen kids and presents herself as though she could be their classmate–that in some emotionally real sense, she is their classmate. The message of hope she offers doesn’t drop down out of the sky. It’s proclaimed from the midst of the virtual assembly of those who sit in something near despair and yet long for deliverance. She doesn’t just express compassion. She models it.

The rage and contempt she expresses for the perpetrators doesn’t dismiss the suffering they inflict as negligible. When she holds out survival and fulfillment down the road as the best revenge, she’s immersed in just how awful the experience kids go through can be. The solidarity implied in the anger of her lyrics is a cry for justice. And it throws out a lifeline.

No more than anyone else can she offer a roadmap to show the shortest way out of a land of darkness. But she says, pack what you need, put your shoes on your feet, and get ready to move out. Somewhere the fuck beyond this enslavement to daily misery, there’s a shore on the other side where it’s safe to sing and dance. Believe in it. Breathe it in. And along the way, remember that you’re in solidarity with a whole community of the oppressed, with whom you’ll live to celebrate together. Treat them with compassion, protect them when you need to with your righteous anger. In doing so you’ll experience compassion and protection yourself.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Camera Obscura

I came with my last lover
to long for trinity--
that the pentecost
overwhelming the two of us
so infrequently
a third man might ignite:
his tongue of flame unshrouding
what we studiously veiled
(noli me tangere)
from one another.

And went so far
as arrange a tryst
numinous in its unfolding:
“that’s only for me,” I told a Guest
polite enough to ask permission;
“these,” I said, “are yours to share,”
as faces nuzzled into necks
and sacramental jets
splayed roping across the Newcomer’s chest.

And now: having acquired the taste
(or learned at last I’ve had it all along),
find that my beloved cannot bear
the thought of sharing me--
while I needs share him with the man
whose spirit this house inhabits;
whose images of my beloved
silver-salt away years I never knew:
a lithe brown god, those summers,
naked, luminous.
Toward him my gratitude must overflow
that he brought the man to whom my soul is knit
to the place where, at last, we met;
miraculously held
his innocence in trust
against the casualty
of our finding one another--
two grizzled boys learning to fuck again
among the ruins.

Copyright David Townsend 2010, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Commodifying the Soul

In yesterday’s New York Times, city critic Ariel Kaminer describes three forays into ritual observation of the New Year. “A new year, a new opportunity to cleanse the soul and start afresh. Isn’t that what everybody says?” she begins (on p. 22), and then soon goes on to observe, “I’m not sure where my soul resides, but wherever it is, it’s probably a terrible mess.” She writes wittily and vividly about three very different encounters, beginning with scaring off a family of tourists while standing in Central Park, holding an egg to various parts of her body and uncomprehendingly chanting kabbalistic invocations.

So much for five-dollar rituals off an internet site. (I’m not making this up, and apparently neither is she.) If the two ritual consultants she subsequently visits have better credentials, her experiences with them don’t prove much more meaningful. In the last paragraph of her column, she writes: “as much as these women charge for expert consultations... the mere fact that New York can support a blessing business is in itself cheering.”

It’s a clever quip, and an artful parting shot. And sadly demonstrates at the same time that, yes, perhaps her soul is in a terrible mess. Not a mess unique to her, certainly, or entirely a mess of her own making, or any worse than the mess lots of people’s souls are in, whether they consider themselves to have a spiritual life or not. But the mess that comes of turning even the quality of your inner life into a commodity that you shop for; of going to someone for spiritual counsel not in a relationship of trust, but as a smart (and smart-ass) modern consumer buying a service.

Could the exchanges she relates have turned out differently? As she describes them, they’re all about the externals of some simple ceremonies. There’s no way of knowing much about the thick texture of her interactions with the advisers who led her through them, of how effectively they invited her to drop down out of the role of arch observer to take seriously any unfulfilled longings for change and growth that might have led her to seek them out, had she not simply been covering her beat. In short, it’s dicey to speculate how these experiences gone so badly and comically awry could have turned out to her genuine good. Claiming to sell enlightenment– running a “blessing business”–is if anything less admirable and more soul-destroying than trying to buy it. There’s nothing cheering about the prospect that New York or any city can support such an enterprise, though of course many cities can–often in the form of evangelical Christian megachurches preaching a “prosperity gospel.”.

But the way Ms. Kaminer writes, it’s hard to see whether any of the three practitioners she profiles is actually doing such a thing, and in fact I rather think not. Even the loopiness of her five-dollar internet egg ritual might have come to good: twenty minutes of web-surfing for more creditable sources on Kabbalah to supplement its eccentricity would have at very least given her some insight into the meaning of the invocations she was instructed to perform.

The fact is, ritual is a sort of language. It has a vocabulary and a grammar, and what seems like meaningless babble to an outsider conveys rich significance only between those who share the dialect. Like any language we learn, we learn through immersion, repetition, and a relationship of cooperative trust with those who speak it already. The creation of non-traditional personal ritual is even more precarious, and even more dependent on the authenticity of the connection between those who are devising it, precisely because they have to cobble such a language together as they go, creating as it were a kind of spiritual pidgin. In this, the simple-minded adoption of half-understood practices from a tradition one has barely grazed is perhaps merely the inverse of Ms. Kaminer’s skepticism. But at very least, such incomprehension has good will on its side.