Friday, May 17, 2013

Wading Into the Stream

(Photgraph of James Broughton and Joel Singer by Robert Giard.)

One day--or maybe one month, or over a single season--it starts actually to sink in that you're past the watershed of middle age. A creaky joint, long a background annoyance, a souvenir of the vigorous exercise you've so prided yourself in, starts actually to control and circumscribe what you can (or choose) to do. A friend gets cancer. A whole string of friends get cancer. A parent dies. A sibling dies. You get cancer. You realize on a visit, after a few years of separation, that people long close to you, whom you've always thought of as peers, have crossed over into the realm of the elderly. You wonder how anyone, ever, could possibly read the print on that drug label. You finally accept the fact that those leather chaps, in which you looked so unbelievably hot ten years ago (as a string of men told you) are probably no longer a good idea. (Or possibly you say, fuck it, a daddy can wear anything he likes.)

It's a universal passage, but your experience of it is utterly your own. There's virtually no communal recognition of it in our culture, little space for sharing the sense of loss, and not much more for discerning, honoring, and even celebrating what you've gained. Something profoundly human, something that unites us all, seems instead like a crisis that you're going through in bummed-out isolation, a painful realization of personal diminishment that you don't want to admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else.
But then, perhaps you begin to ask why, in our fear and anxiety over the omnipresent fact of change, we segregate the world in the first place into people on the right side of the stream that separates birth from death and people on the wrong side of it--only to wake up one day to the realization that we've crossed over ourselves. Maybe instead of imagining that we stand on one bank or the other, it dawns on you that we're all in the stream, whether we move with the current, or swim against it. We can struggle and exhaust ourselves, or we can float. And the body you inhabit as you float in that stream (or as you struggle against its current) is your particular body at this moment: not the body you want to have; not the body you imagine you could transform yourself into, if you only ate the right food, performed the right exercises; not the body you remember from ten years ago and want to hold onto with moisturizers or botox.
Your guess is as good as mine how best to make the transition from the unimpeded middle of our lives to an acceptance that our bodies change. But this I'm convinced of: we need to meet this passage in community, not tough it out in isolation. We need to share with others the fears and disappointments that come with our full embodiment as well as our celebrations of it, allowing others to bear witness and to stand in solidarity, bearing witness and standing in solidarity with them in turn.
This is true for everyone who's blessed to reach an age where they face these challenges. But in my gut, I do feel there's something particular to queer men's experience  of the aging body. Many of us as we came out fought long and heroically to inhabit our bodies, with their desires, pleasures, and capacities for connecting with others, in the first place. That sometimes leaves us all the less capable of accepting that the bodies we've struggled to claim are not immutable possessions, but changeable and always in process. And perhaps above all, we find it hard to accept the mutability of our erotic life. We get stuck in the notion that only youth is beautiful or sexy. We get mired in the nostalgic fantasy that it was better when three times in a night was an option, or when erections were more or less as common and as instantaneous as flipping a light switch.
And so here is my "to do" list, and I invite you to consider whether some of what's on it might helpfully go on yours. Get massage and other caring touch. Find a circle of men with whom you can bear witness to what's going on for you in your body. Learn to express your experience of embodied pleasure in the presence of others. Learn to ask for what feels good. Find safe places to spend time naked in the body you have. Befriend men old enough to be your father. Befriend men young enough to be your son. Breathe. Say Thank You.  


Provenance unknown. If you are the owner of the above photograph I will gladly remove it at your request.


  1. At age 65, I certainly get this. I quickly end my complaints about the aches and pains and non-pretty-boy status when I remember how many beloved men, including my first dear partner, never made it past the earliest stages of middle age. This older age is our reward. But now, rather than sit and simply age, I'm living my dream of full-time fine art and having surprising success, winning awards and having work in permanent museum collections. THAT was worth waiting for. Wish I'd been braver sooner.

    Thanks, sweet man, for this wonderful blog piece.

  2. So glad it spoke to you. So glad to see you thriving.