Seeing God in his face

Today is Monday, September 18, 2017.

Nicholas and I met during my freshman year at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio. We were in the same Intro to Theater class and were playing an icebreaker game for the first session. There was a blue ball that was passed around, and whoever had it introduced themselves and then passed it on to another person in the circle. It was Nick’s turn with the ball. He said his name, as was required, and then immediately locked eyes with me. Soon the ball was in my hands.

We started dating on Tuesday, September 18, 2012.

One of the first things we had in common was music. I thought I was the only person in the universe who knew an Imogen Heap song besides “Hide and Seek,” but was (happily) proven wrong. Marina and the Diamonds was another shared love, as was No Doubt. I remember sitting in my dorm room and swapping artists we liked, only to discover the other person loved them too. It was a simple thing, but it got the butterflies going.

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The two of us getting ready for one of our best friend’s wedding.

We spent a lot of time alone, “studying.” Nick and I both enjoyed our solitude, and we could be quite reserved socially. I know I’ve said before that I was a precocious child, but I mellowed out once I got to college. I tended to spend time with people individually, as opposed to groups. Since Nick was similar, it only made it easier for us to be together. I remember our early days being filled with talking and more talking–about everything.

Nick likes to talk. A lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I talk, too–but Nick talks. Sometimes, when he’s on a roll, I’ll just slowly tiptoe out of the room and hope he doesn’t notice (he’s going to roll his eyes when he reads that).

Because of all the talking (wink), I quickly noticed we had some differences in how we spoke. While I was raised in Northeast Ohio, Nick grew up around Dayton–basically two separate worlds. The Northeast, home to Akron and Cleveland, is more hilly terrain and was once known as having “no accent” or a “General American” accent. Southern Ohio, however, veers more towards farmland, and definitely has aspects of Southern or Hoosier accent. I was raised with this “generalized” accent, and so was Nick–mostly. There are key words that he would pronounce different than me, and I always went out of my way to smugly point them out (since, you know, my accent is correct).

For example, “cement.” I put the emphasis on the second syllable, i.e. ce-ment, and pronounce the initial “e” like the “i” sound in “it.” This is the only pronunciation I’ve ever heard, but Nicholas pronounces it “see“-ment, and puts the emphasis on the first syllable. He didn’t even notice the difference until I said something!

However, that pales in comparison to the chasm that exists between us on the word “ornery.” I (again, the obvious correct one) pronounce it “or-nuh-ree” with a long “o” sound, which is how Merriam-Webster pronounces it. Nick, on the other hand, pronounces it “ahn-ree” with a long “a” sound as in “ah.” It’s weird, and does not make any sense. Ah!

That’s when I felt this nudge–an unexplainable small feeling. It told me, in whatever strange cosmic gut-way, that this is right.

I apologize, I digress.

All that being said, we have more in common than we are different.

In particular, we share a similar background of a family focused on faith, who attend church, and who identify themselves as Christians. Nick, who had barely even come out as gay when we first met, adamantly believed that his sexuality doesn’t interfere with his faith–that he could be both gay and Christian. What a concept to me at the time! The strength of his conviction struck me.

That’s when I felt this nudge–an unexplainable small feeling. It told me, in whatever strange cosmic gut-way, that this is right on multiple levels: 1) that Nick is somebody I didn’t want to lose, 2) that God was there, with me, in that moment, and 3) that God was not judging me, but nudging me this way, to this man in particular.

We’ve been long-distance on and off since that first September Tuesday–I studied abroad for a semester, he moved to New York a year before me–and we’ve remained strong. Sure, we have had our ups and downs. But each time a barrier seemed to get in the way, and we thought about calling it quits, the fear that we were leaving something worth more than petty disagreements persisted. We couldn’t escape that we were in something that was meaningful and true.

Living together in New York has been an adventure all of its own. Nick and I have been faced with the arduous task of finding space for all of our stuff in one less-than-ideally-sized bedroom (under-the-bed storage saves lives). And we’ve also quickly learned that patience is key to dealing with each other’s needs and quirks (Him: leaving his underwear on the floor, Me: being anally-retentive about closet space). But I wouldn’t change it for the world. We’ve claimed a little nook of the city and named it as our own.

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Credit: Grace McC Photography

I continually feel that we’re being nudged closer and closer together each day. Maybe this can work? Maybe this is what God wants for me? What does it all mean?

Well, I’m still figuring that out.

But for now, I sense that it means that I have spent the last five years of my life in a relationship with a wonderful human, and that I have many more to look forward to.

Happy anniversary, babe.

Thinking about ontology

There’s a tree outside of my bedroom window in my new Harlem apartment. I’m not quite sure what type of tree it is. Its leaves will change colors come fall (sometime soon, fingers crossed). I counted eighteen leaves on one offshoot; there are several offshoots on one branch. The leaves are a middling green, perhaps a Kelly green. The sun shines through the leaves, a mixture of sun and shadow. I like watching it sway in the wind. I love the tree. It just–is. It is itself. Perfectly.

This tree was once a seed that I could’ve balanced on the tip of my finger, probably before I was alive. Now it’s taller than my pre-war apartment building. How many residents have stared at it just like I have? My guess would be many, since Manhattanites are moving ceaselessly, in and out, up and down.

I can’t help thinking about if this tree caught fire. It would be horrible, obviously. And it would make me question–how is it possible? That something older than I am (not saying much), that has sprouted from the tiniest of seeds, that has grown as tall as a five-story building, could disappear just like “that,” into ash?

I’ve been living in New York a little over a year now after graduating college. Many things are going well: my relationship is growing every day into a better and better foundation that I couldn’t be more thankful for, I have two stable jobs that pay the rent, and I have a solid group of friends that make me smile. I am lucky.

This past year has also brought with it anxiety and growing pains. The city is a place of constant change. The country is in political turmoil. The world seems unsafe and disconnected. And here I am, barely knowing how to do my taxes. For being a self-proclaimed “writer,” I’ve barely written anything in over six months. I don’t really know anything, just inklings of something here or there. My future has often felt like an open void, like I’m constantly stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

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My bedroom window

Death, for most of my young life a far-off dream, has become more of a reality for me. People die young. By accident. Or on purpose. You never know when all your life will simply just… stop. And when it does, just like “that,” you cease to be. There’s no trace of you left besides a corpse or a pile of dust.

I’m not trying to be heavy-handed or pessimistic. I swear!

But I’m reminded of the words of one of my beloved writing and spiritual gurus, Madeleine L’Engle. In her book A Circle of Quiet, she talks about “ontology,” a word about the essence of things, the word about “being”–our “is-ness.” It’s a hard thing to grasp. But she uses the example of the burning bush from Exodus in the Bible: the burning bush was alive with flame but was not consumed, the bush was perfect, it was, it was exactly as a bush is meant to be.

That strikes me. Something could burn, but not die?

I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.

Madeleine (we’re on a first name basis) likens our “prickliness, selfishness, jealousy, in-turnedness” to parts of us that are consumed in the “fire of reality”–they are not who we are, they do not define us.

All I feel lately is prickliness, jealousy, and in-turnedness. I feel like I have to figure out myself, what I want, and who I am right now, otherwise I will die unknown and lost. I have trouble letting myself have fun, laugh, be and exist in the moment. My mind is always two steps ahead. I don’t fathom or enjoy the present moment. What does my existence mean? If I burn, will there be anything left?

I tend to ask more questions than state answers. I know we’ve been told that time and time again–that the answers do not exist. Or at least we cannot understand them. And to that: I frown, I grimace, I cry. I don’t want my life to be meaningless.

However, and perhaps paradoxically, since I spend so much time worrying about having an “important” life and losing my self in abstract longings, I forget to go outside. Talk to people. Laugh. Be. Some of my coworkers probably think I’m a bit “off,” because I become so overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, that I lash out or act antithetical to my values and how I view myself.

I love the tree outside of my bedroom because it just is. It is a beautiful thing simply by its very nature. It takes up space. It soaks up sunlight. It exists, joyfully. It will one day perish, either by an ax, a strike of lightning, or some other freak accident. But it will still exist in my mind. I will have seen it and appreciated it for being what it was.

Perhaps I should take a leaf out of its book.

A Coming Out Story

Happy National Coming Out Day y’all!

So, coming out is a long and lengthy process for a lot of LGBT individuals. It’s not always like there’s one, singular, grand moment where you magnificently walk outside your closet door and you officially declare, “I’m Out™.” You have different social circles such as your friends, family, and co-workers. When’s the best time to come out to each one? And of course it also depends on the individual friend/family member/co-worker. Perhaps one friend has more traditional views, or one co-worker has said homophobic comments before? There’s a lot to consider when coming out, and some LGBT individuals are more particular than others on who knows and who doesn’t.

My coming out was one of these rather drawn-out affairs, and I’m not even sure if it’s completely over yet. It’s been nearly eight years since my first year of high school when I started to confide in my friends (and then it spread rather quickly in those circles). For my family, my full coming out has been more recent, and generally more anxiety-producing. For co-workers, it all depends on the situation and the job itself.

20160608_030639000_iosBut, I’ve decided not to focus on the full, all-encompassing story of my coming out, because that would take all day (and trigger many different emotions). I would, however, like to tell you about my coming out to one particular person, and a very important one at that: my brother Kevin. He was the first person I told in my family, and one of the first people I told in general.

My brother and I weren’t always close. We had some rough patches when he was in high school, and there was also a sizable seven-year age difference between us. As I entered high school he moved back home and both the physical proximity as well as the overlap in our (artsy-fartsy) personal interests brought us closer.

I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was 2009. Kevin was in his room on his computer, working on something art-related (my brother’s an artist, you should check him out at kevinsmalley.com), and I was in my room. We were home alone. I had been thinking about telling him for a while, and I finally mustered up the courage to do it. Kind of.

I made the first step by going into his room and simply laying down on his bed, with his back turned to me. Okay, great—I was in the room, I had located myself properly (pat on the back to me). However, I froze and couldn’t say a single word. I just laid there with a growing knot in my stomach. Moments passed, then minutes.

After a while, Kevin asked a simple “What’s up?” and I don’t really remember what I responded, but it probably was “Nothing.” I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I stared at the ceiling of his room. More time passed.

Probably sensing the strangeness in the air, Kev asked if I needed to talk about anything, to which I replied (rather quickly) “Yes.” Yes! I had an in. My stomach knot was the size of the state of Ohio.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked. To which I replied, hesitantly, “I don’t know.” Great, that’s going to take this conversation somewhere (idiot).

Slowly, Kevin started to ask more specifically what I wanted to talk about. “Is it about Mom and Dad?” If I couldn’t bring myself to say it, maybe Kevin could lure it out of me. This might work!

“No.”

“Is it about school?”

“No.”

“Is it about love?”

“Yes.”

Yes! Getting closer now.

“Is it about a girl?”

“No.”

Oh, he just knows how to ask the questions, man.

“Is it about a… boy?”

“Y-yes.”

Voila! Oh my god.

“Are you gay?”

“Yes.”

Thank god. Oh boy, I was getting worried there for a minute. 

And then it was out there, and I felt so incredibly light. The weight on my chest had been tremendous, it was hard to describe. Thinking about doing it was easy enough, but still came with obvious anxiety. However, when I was actually in the situation, everything became immensely difficult. The silence had become palpable.

Thankfully, Kevin was able to draw it out of me and we could talk about it. The whole affair took over an hour, but it is one of my fondest memories because that’s when my brother and I started to become very close. Which was (and is) so important to me, since in a family with more traditional views, coming out is not easy (hence, why it was a drawn-out affair). For the first time, I had a rock I could cling to in the very messy situation I considered myself to be in for most of high school. I often felt like I was living a secret double-life when I was with my family, and the fact that I could express myself openly, even to one person, made all the difference in the world.

Brothers like Kevin are a blessing, and I am so thankful to have him in my life. I don’t know where I’d be without him. National Coming Out Day is such an important day to be celebrated because coming to terms with your own identity, and being able to share it with others, literally saves lives. And makes living so much happier, healthier, and more enjoyable.