Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wanting the Polaroids

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have hope, largely because a friend has so little of it right now in his life. The future doesn’t look good at all. A lot of the time, when we talk about his prospects, I’m at a loss for what to say that might offer comfort or help. What’s happening now is fine. It’s what may come to him—or may not come—down the road that’s sucking the blood out of life here and now, like some motherfucker demon that gets more and more powerful, the more fear it sees it can generate in us. At times like this, seeing what my friend is suffering, I can only say, it’s the future that kills us. It's longing for reassurance that everything will work out, and dread that it won't, that often pull our attention away from the blessings present in our lives today.

If he and I were on non-theistic paths, and God or the gods were irrelevant to us—if, for instance, we were Buddhists—it might be easier just to say that hope is beside the point; or even that hope is a toxic distraction, an enticing indulgence like absinthe that makes everything burn a little brighter for a while, and then slams you with the worst hangover of your life.

But my friend and I are both committed to the use of "God language," however tentative we may sometimes be about it. We're both given over to a faith in a You to whom we respond, by whom we're held in loving embrace, in whom we're comprehended. Sometimes that faith is little more than wanting to believe. At other times, it breaks into our lives by direct experience, like something we could never have expected, never could have asked or imagined, never could have bargained on. At times like those, we're confirmed in a trust that all will be well--and reminded that we have no idea in advance what that wellness will turn out to look like.

In the Christian Gospels, people have an odd way of not recognizing the resurrected Lord. They think he's the gardener, or a stranger on the road to Emmaus, or some random walker on the beach. They only twig when they can let go of their expectations, and of their dread.

In the face of uncertainty, we long for certainty. We want an infallible description in advance of what's in store for us. We want polaroids of the final destination, and GoogleMaps directions on how to get there. Instead of trust in a Person, we want knowledge of a thing. It's not hope that deceives us, but our habit of confusing hope with self-confidence.

We're in blessed luck: we don't get what we bargained on. We hang onto hope. The ongoing struggle--always in process, always a challenge, always an invitation--is to let go of our desire for the polaroids.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why I Love Shortbus

I can count off on one hand the movies that I don’t just love but credit with changing the way I look at my life:

Word Is Out, the 1977 documentary that assured me there were any number of ways to be gay in the world, most of them interesting, many of them desirable;

Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, which helped me find the courage to walk away from spiritual abuse at the hands of a dogmatic, life-denying religious hierarchy;

Babette’s Feast, which goes on reminding me that the only way to find the deepest joy is to give joy lavishly away;

And Shortbus : John Cameron Mitchell’s sexy, sad, funny, compassionate vision of a queer utopia, set in and around a Brooklyn salon/sex club hosted by the outrageous and divine Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (then still pre-Mx. and pre-Vivian).

When the movie came out in 2006, I was raw from a long, obsessive breakup with plenty of confusion, grief, anger, and blame to go around. Mitchell’s film showed me people trying hard, fucking up, struggling against shame, longing to connect, fleeing from connection, hurting those they loved, forgiving themselves and each other. I found myself in more or less every scene.

I had a chance this weekend to take part in a conversation about the movie with twenty other gay men--some of us newcomers to the film, some fanatic fans for the six years since it came out. At the end of the evening, one man who came observed that if the leader had screened the end of the film as one of the clips to prompt discussion, he would likely have cried through it, as he had before. I expect I would have too.

In candlelight during a blackout, Mx. Bond sings "In the End," more or less summing up the vision of the film. Songwriter Scott Matthew's lyrics are anything but upbeat: "We all bear the scars," they begin. "We all feign a life." But it's the tenderness and affection that Bond brings to the song, and that Mitchell and his cinematographer bring to the shooting and editing of the scene, that convey what matters here: that the participants in this "salon for the gifted and challenged" have touched what a Buddhist teacher like Pema Chödrön would call "the genuine sadness at the heart of things": bodhichitta.

This is the realization that our lives are infinitely precious because they are infinitely vulnerable. The end of the song erupts, with the incursion of a marching band--I'm not making this up--into a riot of musical and erotic carousal. In the end, the characters celebrate their humanity not despite but in and through their flaws. They find community, but only because they accept the aloneness that we can't overcome.

Some less than appreciative responses to the film, including Bruce Diones' snyde notice for The New Yorker, objected to the utopianism of the final scene. But the inbreaking of what isn't expected and can't be foreseen, until we let go of our attachment to the illusion of perfection, is the whole point. "I never saw that one coming," Bond observes through a bullhorn in the last line of the film. "You never know what's gonna happen in this neighborhood."