Thursday, May 10, 2012
Two days ago, two things happened that set me off: the vote in North Carolina to outlaw any kind of recognition of gay relationships or domestic partnerships, and the death of Maurice Sendak, a gay artist of great acclaim. The first is bothersome on its own demerits. The second set me off because in a long obituary on CBS news, there was no mention whatsoever of Sendak's 50 year partnership with Dr. Eugene Glynn. When Glynn died, Sendak, who was openly gay, gave a million dollars in his partner's memory to Jewish Family and Children's Services, where Glynn, a psychotherapist, had treated children. I commented on this on my Facebook page. I said I thought that omitting this was most egregious on a day when gay relationships were being voted against in North Carolina.
Then came the shock. A straight but sympathetic friend responded that perhaps people had evolved to a point where it no longer mattered who Sendak slept with. I felt as if I had a bucket of ice water thrown in my face. I can't begin to express how painful it is to hear something like that from someone I had believed really "got it."
A huge part of this man's life, of what made him who he was, the core of his being which informed his art and creativity, was reduced to "who he slept with," and so was his 50 year marriage.
I will never live long enough to be able to explain to people that being gay is so much deeper than "who we sleep with." I tried with my friend, who could not understand that what she said was unbelievably offensive and who became increasingly hostile to the point we seem no longer to be friends at all.
It occurred to me a while back that maybe the way to explain this best is this: we are conscious as very young children that we are "different.," long before we have any consciousness of sexuality or understanding that it even exists. We are gay long before we become sexual beings. If that doesn't tell you there is more to it than genital sex, than who we sleep with, I don't know what will. We are not just like straight people who are attracted to people of the same sex. We are different inside in subtle ways that go far beyond sexuality. That's why I use the word gay rather than homosexual, a misnomer which has the unfortunate connotation it's only about sex.
My friend made the point that she saw us just as us and not as gay us and we should just shut up about the gay stuff (equated with who we sleep with) if we wanted to be accepted as just us. I want to be accepted as I am, not in an edited version. As I am includes a lifetime of personal experience of what it means to be gay and to live with it in a hostile world. It is also a world that would be at a great loss if gay people with all their gifts and accomplishments were just to disappear one day. I don't want my lifetime of pain and fear and love and joy discounted in any way when you think of me. Don't erase my identity to make me easier to sell to a disapproving public. Don't cut away the core of my being to make me palatable to the multitudes. Try to listen to what I have to tell you about who I am.
I've been me for 73 years and I just may know something.
Last night we took our second semester Hebrew final, which we both failed badly, I am sure. It was unexpectedly long, complex and beyond my learning ability at 73. No matter how hard I studied, it went in one head and out the other. Two and three week gaps between classes added to the problem. I couldn't retain it. It just wouldn't stick, no matter how hard I pounded the books! I have rarely been so happy to have something end as I was with that class. I learned a lot in it and some of the lessons were totally unexpected.
I started studying Hebrew for two basic reasons: I wanted to be able to understand the prayers at services, and I wanted to be able to read Torah in its original language. Most of my life I've had to live with bad translations, and I thought it would be great to be able to know what it really says. After two semesters of studying Hebrew, I realize two things. One, I do better not knowing what the prayers mean. Some of them express theology that doesn't fit my belief system at all. I can enjoy them liturgically if I don't really know what they mean; if I do understand them, I reject the theology and battle with myself over it, losing the ability to enjoy the moment. Sometimes it's easier to pray in a language you don't understand!
The second thing I realized is that I will never in this lifetime learn enough Hebrew to even begin to read the Torah. I will leave that to the rabbis. I will enjoy the stories and let that idea die as it should. Done deal.
There was one very positive thing that happened as a result of taking that class. I began to learn a new creative medium, Jewish Paper Cutting. The Hebrew instructor is an artist who uses that medium and I also took a class in that from her. I was wanting to rekindle my creative fire and that proved to be an excellent medium for me to explore that. My fine motor skills have been compromised by arthritis, making drawing difficult, and using a tool, like an X-acto knife, seems to work better at focusing my hand movements. I like the feeling of the knife connecting with the paper, much as I like the feeling of a paintbrush connecting with a canvas. It's alive and connected to me in a partnership that produces more than I might create alone. I think I have discovered a new outlet for my art.
So, while my original motivation for taking the class didn't work out, I gained something entirely unexpected and creative from it. I now know some rudimentary Hebrew and have the beginnings of a new artistic skill. Thanks, Kim.
No more classes for me, I think.