When the century changes, I marveled, I’ll be fifty-one!
Beyond my fascination with all things time-related, I do not remember why, at age thirteen, I wanted to know this, but I clearly remember performing the calculation.
Odder still was that although I could look out into the future, at least mathematically, and see how old I would be on December 31, 1999, I could not see me.
The future, if and when I thought about it, did not exist. There was simply nothing there, as if I were sitting in a movie theater after the lights went down but the show never started. If you have ever experienced the kind of total darkness in which you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, that was my future. Imperceptible, silent and formless.
Thus the calculation of my age at the turn of the century was just that, a calculation. Attached to I’ll be fifty-one, there was no and I’ll be a gymnast or a pilot or an astronomer or a dancer, each of which, as a young child, I wanted to be for several months before I lost interest.
I lost interest, I understand now, not because that is what kids do as they learn about and explore the world, last week’s aspiring Olympic athlete morphing into this week’s rock star wannabe. I lost interest because in order to be any of those things—gymnast, pilot, astronomer or dancer—first and foremost, I had to want to be, period.
Don’t get me wrong; I was not suicidal. At six and seven and eight, I loved jokes and riddles and making people laugh. I loved music—my father’s musical comedies, my sister’s rock-and-roll, and my aunt’s Big Band—and I loved to dance.
I loved running and gymnastics. When I visited my grandparents—until the day they caught me—I would sprint from the back bedroom to the living room and somersault over their wing chairs.
I loved roller skating and riding my bicycle, struggling up the hilly street on which I lived in order to race down at top speed.
And I loved books. I had, as we would say today, a life.
But at nine and ten and eleven, that life gradually grew darker and darker until the lights—the Light, actually, with a capital “L”—was shut out by my increasing sense of “otherness,” of not fitting in and not belonging.
At school, for example, I was last to be chosen when softball teams were formed. Sent to the outfield, I prayed—along with everyone else, most likely—that a ball would never come my way. When, on occasion, one did, my clumsy attempt to catch it and then lob it to someone else was met with shouts of, “Throws like a girl!”
Today, I would retort, “You are so astute!” or some other bon mot, but then, the humiliation burned into my soul.
Just as it did one summer in junior high school at the local municipal swimming pool. Waiting my turn on the steps leading to the high diving board—to jump, rest assured, not actually dive—my face was butt-level with that of the boy ahead of me.
As I watched the water run down his surprisingly hairy legs, I felt a weird mixture of intense fear, excitement and shame. But all very free-floating and incomprehensible. What was exciting, exactly, and why was it so scary? All I knew for sure was (a) it was something to be embarrassed about, and (b) it was not to be mentioned to another living soul. Ever.
Clang! Somewhere in my mind a door slammed shut. And, over time, another and another and another. Until, like every other gay boy throughout history, I was imprisoned by the secret I carried within me, a secret that for a long time I did not even understand. I just knew—in some profound, preverbal way—that I was not normal.
Being in my body, therefore, was too scary. Not only was my sense of isolation and alienation external, a product of growing up gay in the America of Eisenhower and McCarthy, but—even scarier—it was also internal. My own body and my own mind betrayed me at every turn.
More than anything else, therefore, more than gymnast, pilot, astronomer or dancer, what I really wanted to be was invisible.
Thus I was not surprised, decades later, when I showed Katherine, my post-9/11 shrink, the formal portrait taken of me when I was bar mitzvah, she said, instantly, “You’re not even there,” and tossed the photo back to me.
To this day, I have difficulty being in my body. The more accurate expression, I think, is occupying my body. Openly, fully, and expansively. To do so feels almost treasonous. It means that—ugh—I really live here on this primitive planet, in this difficult and treacherous world.
But, I understood recently, if I continue to covet invisibility, constricting and folding into myself, I cannot act out in the world with any impact or effectiveness at all.
“Buddha Belly!” I hear Susan, my dear friend and yoga teacher, proclaim. Thus after a lifetime of holding my stomach in, I now consciously practice inhaling deeply and pushing my belly out, simultaneously pulling myself up to my full height and aligning my spine so as to be physically grounded and present in my body.
In the process, I am discovering the energy, the power and the courage that come with being physically present. Once thought to be a drag on soaring spiritually, living in my body in fact provides a launch pad, a home base. Quite a shock for someone who has fought the idea of Earth as home for as long as I can remember.
I am still at the “conscious incompetence” stage, aware, at least, of when I am slumping and retreating, and I am a long way from “unconscious competence,” when standing tall with full-out Buddha belly will be the default position.
In the interim, I wonder what I was really trying to figure out when I was thirteen and calculated how old I would be in 1999. Maybe nothing more than the number that my computation revealed.
But it feels weightier than that. Maybe I was looking for some assurance that when the calendar flipped to the next century, not to mention the next millennium, I would most likely be here to witness it. Fifty-one, after all, is not so old.
Obviously, I made it to the new millennium. Yet all those years when I tried so hard not to be here took their toll. The roads not taken are gone now, not because I consciously made other choices but because I did not even see them.
And I shall always be the poorer for it.
Tags: boomers life changes homosexuality_ gay secrets rev. christopher ross
Please log in to post comments on this article. Not a member? Click here to register.