Saturday, July 30, 2011

Six Degrees: Surprising Discoveries of Interconnections

Isn't it interesting how frequently in life we discover hidden ties that have bound us to someone we've known for some time, entirely apart from those ties?  There's nothing whatsoever profound or new about that observation: six degrees of separation . . . .  And yet every time one of these discoveries comes my way, I find myself surprised all over again by the recognition of how my life has been interwoven with that of someone else in my circles of friends and acquaintances, without either of us having known of that connection.

My most recent discovery: I've been talking in the past week with a friend about how our relationship grew gradually from the relationship of co-workers (and from one in which I was her supervisor) to a friendship.  We had discovered early on that she attended a college at which my uncle was academic vice-president, and my aunt, his wife, taught my friend English.

As we've talked in the past week, I've reminded my friend of the courage she displayed at the going-away celebration when I left the historically black college in Little Rock at which she and I both worked, and she was the only dean I had supervised who came to the celebration.  All were African-American or, in one case, African.

When the president who had hired me left the college, the interim president who replaced her quickly spread the news that he intended to get rid of all the white people the previous president had hired, and at that point, associates with whom I had thought I had a cordial and trusting relationship began to shun me.  It was dangerous to be seen with me or to be thought of as friendly to me, when the new president had targeted me and several other non-black administrators.

And so it was an act of real courage--of humanity--for my friend to come to my going-away celebration and to tell the group gathered there, all white, since no one at the college who wasn't white had the courage to attend the party, that she had appreciated me and would lament my leaving the college.  As I've told my friend, this is among the reasons, I suspect, that a relationship that began as a work relationship has blossomed into a friendship: we relate to each other as human beings across complex racial lines, where others would prefer to play games with these lines.  To use those lines to separate.  To whip people into shape.  And to benefit in some way from keeping the racial lines in place, to use them to their own selfish political advantage.

As I've also told her, I can understand the tremendous pressures to stay inside the lines and to adhere to the will of the group from my standpoint as a gay man interacting with what passes for a gay community in the area in which I live.  A community that frequently functions at a puerile level, trying to enforce conformities of one type or another on its members, so that if one doesn't look right, dress right, behave right, know the right people and say the right things, one is quickly put into Coventry . . . . .

In Coventry, where Steve and I have been quite happy to reside, since Coventry is preferable, in our minds, to the junior high school games of many of the gay communities we've known, in which all depends on impossibly superficial norms of looks, dress, social status, and, above all, money . . . .  Any jail is preferable to the return to junior high school, Steve and I tell each other when we pay any attention at all to our local gay (non-) community.

And the new little unexpected thrill of connection, in the middle of these discussions with my friend about how it happened that our relationship transitioned from one of co-workers to one of friends: she recently had to make the difficult decision to move her mother to a care facility.  And as she and her brother began to clean out their mother's house and divide its possessions, she ran across a letter her mother had saved for over forty years.

A letter from my uncle, congratulating my friend on the grade-point average she had earned one semester in college.  Which meant so much to my friend's mother that she had tucked the letter away in a box of treasured documents, for my friend to re-discover in the same week in which we've talked a number of times about how our friendship came to flourish . . . . 

And in the same week, I happened to find out that a cousin of mine with whom I have recently connected is a very close friend of two other friends of Steve's and mine, a gay couple, who moved last year to Italy.  These friends spent every Christmas day with us and our family for almost a decade, bringing any of their own family members who were in town to Christmas dinner at our house.

And in all the years that we knew each other, it never occurred to either of us to mention my cousin, who was a co-worker of one of the friends, and who considered that friend her mentor.  And why would they think to mention her, since her surname--Arendale--is not my surname, or the surname of other members of my family they have met?  Or why would I think to mention someone who happens to be a double cousin of mine, since her grandparents were first cousins of my mother on both sides of my mother's family, to them?

And then this cousin, who contacted me out of the blue some time ago, since she has a growing interest in family history, happened to see on my Facebook page, to which she had linked as a friend, our mutual friends who now live in Italy, but who were close friends of hers when they lived here, as they were close friends of Steve's and mine.

We really don't know all the ways in which we're interconnected, do we?  Even when we think we know someone else fairly well . . . .

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