Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bearing Witness: The Gift of Reconnecting to Old Friends

There’s something I’ve needed for some days to write here. But I’m having trouble formulating my thoughts—understanding the point I feel I need to make. The feeling is there—a tug in my soul—but the thoughts connected to the feeling aren’t entirely clear. I know that the impulse I’m feeling has to do with my insistence on our call to bear witness. But I’m not precisely sure what it is to which I need to bear witness here, what kind of witness I’m compelled to offer in this statement.

Perhaps the best way to follow this persistent impulse is just to write the thoughts out, and let them lead where they will. To connect heart to mind by pulling the thoughts of the heart into the head, as I write.

And that’s part of the challenge with the particular kind of witness I want to bear here. It proceeds, as many of the significant experiences in our life do, from a fullness of heart that’s not so easy to verbalize. We know that our hearts have been moved. But how they’ve been moved, and the import of their reshaping, is not simple to express to others—let alone to ourselves.

Here’s what happened. Here’s what provokes this attempt to find words to give testimony. Recently, as Steve and I headed to Charlotte to visit a friend for Thanksgiving, we spent two days in Atlanta, where Steve had work-related meetings.

As we checked into the hotel in Atlanta at which a national gerontological conference was being held (Steve’s meetings were connected to it), I happened to glance over to a circle of sofas and chairs in the lobby area, and catch sight of a face that appealed to me. It was the face of a man, a smiling, welcoming man, speaking to a group of women—holding court, almost, since he was talking and they were listening.

I think what struck me, and made me want to look more intensively, beyond the initial glance we give to most of those we meet, was the man’s ease with a group of women. Many men freeze in the company of women. Many men cannot smile with much ease, because the rigid script that determines male behavior forbids the giving away of oneself emotionally. It forbids making oneself vulnerable, especially to those lower on the power scale than oneself.

Dorothee Sölle writes about this somewhere, noting that gay men attracted her, because gay men are often socialized (or naturally bent) in another direction, one less vigilant about keeping oneself in the top-dog space. Sölle notes the freedom with which some gay men who are at ease with their feminine personas move and interact with others, and how this contrasts with the constrained way in which straight men intent on fitting macho stereotypes often move and interact.

So. What caught my eye with the man whose face I glimpsed was the way in which he was exchanging conversation and laughs with the group of women among whom he was sitting.

And then this happened: I looked again, and realized that I knew the man whose face had caught my attention. Or I thought I knew him. I looked yet again, trying not to stare, to be sure I was correct: yes, the man I’d spotted was my high-school classmate, someone I had not seen in 41 years. Not since we had graduated and gone our separate ways.

I couldn’t avoid staring now. At the same time, I felt frozen to my spot, unable to decide to go and say hello to my classmate. I vacillated. I thought about approaching Bob and saying hello. But I finally turned away and tried to look inconspicuous as I waited for Steve to do the check-in at the hotel.

From other classmates and friends, I knew something of the life and career of my classmate Bob. I knew that he had become a distinguished scholar, teacher, and writer in the field of geriatric psychiatry. He had spent almost his entire teaching career in the same university, and had been amply and rightly rewarded for his contributions to that university. It made sense that I would spot him at a gerontology conference, given his work in the field of geriatric psychology, where books he has written are, I’m told, now standard textbooks in many classes around the country.

My hesitancy about introducing myself had everything to do with the sense that, by comparison, I have all too little to show for the 41 years after graduation. In the years in which I taught and did administrative work, I bounced from pillar to post, often trying to find any kind of work at all in the checkered, dispossessed lives and careers Steve and I have had as first closeted and then unapologetically gay Catholic theologians living in a public, long-term, committed relationship.

How does one explain any of this to someone one is seeing suddenly after more than four decades, someone whose own career as a scholar and teacher has been so productive and stable, by contrast? I decided not to try. Bob was brilliant in high school, one of two mathematical geniuses I’ve met in my life, who have that astonishing intuitive ability to know, without knowing how they know, the precisely correct answer to a complex mathematical problem other (moi, certainly) would take hours to solve, and then perhaps solve wrong.

And then I made the mistake of telling Steve whom I had spotted. Steve knew the name. I had spoken of Bob over the years, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit more detail below.

Steve stopped me on the spot, made me turn around, told me I absolutely had to overcome my inhibitions and go and say hello to someone who had been a significant part of my adolescence. And I did so, and am very glad I did so.

I’m not sure Bob knew me at first. And why should he? I had more hair when we last saw each other, and it was dishwater blond hair then, untinged with gray. I weighed considerably less in the past. My eyelids weren’t drooping and my step had spring to it.

When we had made contact, though, and realized that we did, in fact, know each other and had much to catch up on, I was surprised at how full my heart felt at the surprising gift of this encounter. I found myself suddenly close to tears, especially when Bob asked about a classmate who was a mutual friend of ours (and my best friend in high school), who died of AIDS in 1995—something I knew, but Bob hadn’t yet heard.

So many years, so much to catch up on: so much in both of our adult lives to reconnect to the adolescent selves we had known in the past, in the years in which we were in school together. We made plans to get together for drinks the following afternoon, to catch up.

Bob was not, I should explain, a close friend, but he was a cordial acquaintance, someone I knew through at least six, and possibly more, years of school. More than that, he was an academic rival, someone with whom I competed throughout high school, as our grade point averages rose and fell with razor-thin margins, his now topping mine, mine suddenly inching past his.

Like me, Bob was the quintessential nerd in high school, and—again like me—a 90-pound weakling who consistently failed to meet the expectations of the burly coaches who were determined to whip us into a macho shape ludicrously impossible for either of us to attain. We first bonded in junior high school in p.e. class when we found that our smallness and lithe, skinny bodies enabled us to dodge balls better than anyone else in dodge-ball class—and when we both realized that our success at the game was also our doom, since it left the two of us, each class period, standing in front of a firing squad of boys twice our size, hurling balls from all directions at our heads and groins, as we were the last two standing on our side.

Ironically, p.e. was the one class that created the rising-falling grades that allowed one or the other of us to move ahead of the other academically throughout high school. When Bob got a B for the semester in p.e., and I got a C, my GPA fell below his, and vice versa. In general, the coaches decreed that I performed at a lower level than Bob did in p.e., so my GPA was constantly dragging downward, solely because of that class. Our entire academic future—our comparative standing in our class—depended entirely on how we performed in a class neither of us liked, could do well in, needed for academic reasons in the least.

In our final year of school, this and one other bizarre twist caused Bob’s GPA to surge slightly above mine as we finished high school, and we graduated with a bit of consternation on my side that I’d been unfairly deprived of a graduation honor due to murky circumstances that favored my competitor unfairly. If Bob and I didn’t keep up from graduation forward, perhaps that consternation was a factor in my losing touch. I don’t know that that’s true, though. People just do lose touch with each other when they graduate and move on into adult lives and careers.

As I say, I’m delighted that I reconnected to this classmate recently, and perhaps that’s what I feel obliged to give witness to: to my gratitude at the unexpected gift of meeting an old acquaintance, after many years, in surprising circumstances. This isn’t an experience we have frequently in life. When it does come to us, it seems to be grace.

These encounters not only give us a chance to catch up, to assess our lives after the passing of time. They also give us a chance—an unexpected opportunity, a gift—to look back at experiences through which we lived with that feeling that young people always have, the feeling that we are the only person in the world who has ever struggled through such a tight space, moved through such a confusing passage.

Though my friend Bob and I have led very different lives, in some ways—he has married a number of times and has children—in other ways, we’ve led very similar lives. We both chose to go to church-related colleges, to the astonishment of our classmates and guidance counselors, who encouraged us to choose ivy-league schools and were confident that we could go to such schools, since we were both national merit scholarship finalists and had academic records that would open doors. We both chose as well to go into service-oriented, help-related fields that haven’t brought either of us fortunes.

We write. We teach, in our own ways. Politically and religiously, our lives have followed amazingly similar trajectories. Bob has moved gradually away from his rather constricting conservative evangelical background, without repudiating the Wesleyan social teachings and values inherent in that tradition—something I’ve done, too, as I’ve been pushed to the margins of the Catholic church.

We both think that the Civil Rights movement, which resulted in the integration of our high school during the final two years we were there, shaped our political views in ineluctable ways—ways for which we’re grateful. When we met, Bob reminded me that there was widespread joy in the school when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and that we and several friends and a handful of teachers constituted a tiny minority among the white population of the school who celebrated this event. We have very similar memories of the murder of a black teenaged boy in our final year of school, for which—as I’ve shared on this blog—three of our classmates were charged but not convicted.

And so to what am I giving witness here? I suppose first and foremost this is a testimony of gratitude for an encounter that moved me profoundly, in the depths of my soul—for a gift that doesn’t drop into one’s life every day. I’m deeply grateful for the chance to reconnect to someone I admire, with whom I had long since lost touch, and with whom I’ll now remain in contact. Bob has made plans to visit on his next trip to see his mother.

I’m grateful, too, for the gift of having the chance to revisit the past—and to think about how it has shaped me—with a sympathetic and intelligent friend who lived through some of the same past I did. There aren’t many people in the world with whom I can now talk about our chemistry and physics teacher, Miss Marian C., who smoked cigars and flew into rages when asked questions in class, assuming—always—that even the most innocent question indicated the questioner’s disdain for the credentials of a woman scientist.

And who remembers Mrs. Sallie C., our Latin teacher who was so justifiably proud of her master’s degree from a distinguished Boston university, who wore her hair in a Romanesque chignon and loved to display her Roman profile as she stood at the blackboard writing out the scansion of a passage from Virgil? Or Mrs. Margaret H., our English teacher, who had us read Goethe, Lady Murasaki, Balzac, François Villon, Cervantes, and a long list of other writers from around the world, and encouraged us to think we had the ability to write, and told us that the world outside our tiny town was larger and might prove more inviting to those with an interest in books?

Above all, I’m grateful for the inkling of confirmation I had in my meeting with my classmate of yore that, though our lives have had their twists and turns, something of what we glimpsed as we committed ourselves to building a better world during the Civil Rights movement in our small Southern town, and something of the gospel values that inspired that commitment, remains alive and useful for us even today, these long years later, when the world seems to have grown older. And colder. There is a line—a line of continuity, no matter how tortuous—running through both of our lives from those years, from what we saw and learned in the midst of rapid, necessary social change as legal segregation fell by the wayside during our adolescence. And it is a thread that has run true for both of us, I think.

The photo I've chosen as a graphic, entitled Old Friends, is by Herbthyme, who has generously uploaded it for non-commercial replication and sharing at Wikimedia Commons.