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.

Dear Matt,

This past Wednesday, October 12th marked eighteen years since your (Matthew Shepard’s) death. If you were alive today, you’d be 39 years old (nearly 40)—an eternity in “gay-years”! Just kidding, I don’t really believe in that. But, maybe you would have, and hopefully you would have had someone, say a friend or a husband/boyfriend/partner, to tell you that you’re ridiculous for believing in such silly things.

In honor of the anniversary of your tragedy, I bought and read The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I’m sure you know, Matt, that this company wrote a play about the Laramie community in the midst of your murder through interviews and found text related to the incident. I mean, there are a lot of books and movies about it, but I decided to learn more about you and your legacy by reading this play. I had never read it or seen it produced, but I hear it’s pretty famous. I also hear that you’ve done theater before (as any good gay boy does), and I wonder if you would have liked it, if, somehow, you could have seen a play like it when you were alive. Perhaps, maybe if what happened to you had happened to somebody else? I don’t know.

matt

I liked the play. I think it’s honest. I think without all the corny sentimental overlay music that they use in the HBO film version (which I watched), it would be quite objective, and yet personal. Yes, the creators/interviewers of the play are liberal and gay, but I think they really wanted to capture the truth of the citizens of Laramie, both the non-gay-affirming individuals and the affirming. People believe what they believe, and they are entitled to that. Prejudice exists and we need to be honest about it before we can do anything to help combat it. How religion and spirituality ties into all of it is complex and difficult to see clearly, but even within religion, prejudice exists. Hate exists in us all.

Was this a hate crime, Matt? That’s kind of the question of it all, isn’t it. The Right says that the gay community had an agenda and blew the whole incident out of proportion. They said that you were also involved in drugs, and that could have played into your murder as well. Some Laramie residents wondered if the case would have reached national headlines at all if you had not been gay. I mean, in my opinion, it probably would not have. But does that mean that the gay community sensationalized it? I don’t think that either.

It’s strange to think about: “Why was I murdered?” Taking for granted that departed souls can think, that is. Like any other incident that has ever taken place, it’s not like there’s one, sole “reason” or “purpose” or “motive” for every thing that we do. Especially if your murder wasn’t premeditated—who knows what series of events, words, and feelings led to that violence that led to the end of your life? We have testimonies from people at the bar and confessions from your murderers, but what else? Nothing really, besides the evidence: your beaten, tortured, unrecognizable body left tied to a fence.

If it wasn’t a hate crime, if your being gay didn’t play any part, would there have been such a degree of violence in this “robbery”? Violence that left you, I repeat, unrecognizable? Violence that could be compared to a car crash at 80 miles per hour? I wish you were here to tell us, Matt, to tell us for sure. To tell us if they spit on you as they left, or how many times they may or may not have called you a “faggot.”

Fear creates prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. Human actions are not a result of a singular thought or feeling, such as “I’m going to kill this man because he’s a fag.” Human actions result from a mixture of thoughts, feelings, pressures, lessons, views, and perceptions. While it is impossible (and improbable) to say that your sexuality was the sole reason for your murder, Matt, it is also inconceivable that the fear, prejudice, and hate that underlies a homophobic society were not even a tinge responsibility for influencing the actions of the men (who were your age) who murdered you. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I’m just trying to say, well, I don’t know. It’s strange and corny to be writing you this letter, but I am trying to connect my experience to yours. While it’s not fair to make you a martyr, since on the one hand you’re just an innocent victim, it’s also impossible to ignore you and what happened to you because—well, you could have been me and I, you. I could have been born in Wyoming, I could have gone to school in Laramie if my circumstances had been different. The same forces that contributed to your murder eighteen years ago could also kill me today. And I can’t forget that, I refuse to forget that.

You didn’t choose to be murdered. You didn’t do anything worth being celebrated other than being who you are. You may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that really matters because it did happen, and it was you it happened to. So, I’m going to thank you. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.

Thank you, Matt. For representing our community and for giving us a voice. Your death created and contributed to a dialogue that continues to this day for gay dignity and visibility, and the vulnerability of gay youth. I read that you were interested in pursuing political science in undergrad and were heading towards human rights advocacy. While your destiny is not the path you envisioned or wanted, I hope you are able to still feel pride for what has been done in your name, for the many good things that have been and will continue to be accomplished. For this, you have become a martyr.

Thank you.

Love,
Josh

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.