Two months ago, I jigsawed everything I owned into four modest suitcases and boarded a Southwest flight from San Francisco to New York City, successfully completing my first cross-country move to begin a three year masters program in divinity at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. At some point after my arrival, that fabled, gnawing voice that seems to haunt most American twenty-two year olds stumbled upon a megaphone and began using it liberally to broadcast those hopelessly unanswerable questions I’d hoped to leave on the West Coast: the ones about vocation, purpose, and future.
A month in to my program, after preliminarily discerning that I don’t want to work in a church, I started a love affair with my Google search bar: “What can you do with an M.Div if you don’t want to be a pastor?”; “Ph.D programs in American studies”; “Top law schools US.”
I was drafting an email to a friend of mine whose spouse went to law school at Stanford, wondering if his husband would be willing to meet with me to help parse through some of these questions about where I hope to land after I graduate. “I’m just not sure what I want to do with this degree,” I wrote, struggling to remember why I applied to seminary in the first place. With friends settling snugly into careers in medicine, law, education, and business, I feel embarrassingly naked, knowing only that I love books, people, and Netflix.
Finally, just before boarding a flight back to the City after a weekend with my boyfriend in Phoenix, the clarity I was craving came to me.
Seminary, for me, is not primarily about utility, about what I will be able to do with my degree after I don the red robes of my institution and receive my diploma. Contrary, my years in seminary are an unimaginable privilege, a time and course that are encouraging me to continue becoming the kind of person I hope to be: a man who constantly interrogates his presence in the world, and tirelessly fights–in faith that his efforts matter–for those whose voices and experiences have been unfairly silenced. Seminary, I graciously remembered, is a purposed endeavor precisely because of its ability to subvert the questions my society teaches me matter most: will people be impressed by your job title? Will your salary buy you a designer living room? Will people know your name before you introduce yourself? Instead, it illumines far more pressing ones, questions that–if left unanswered–will compromise my character: will you be a person who sows love in the face of uncertainty and death? Will you be bold enough to decry oppression in all its pernicious forms, even when it means you lose your job and security? Will you choose your children over your career?
For now, these are question enough.
On May 11, 2012, two of my best friends got married in front of a castle—this aged, brown-stoned thing with vaulted, wood-beamed ceilings and a photo booth in the den with moustaches and bowler hats in a basket at its side. Once it was over—the vows, the meal, the toasts, the dances, the cake, the toss, the oh-my-god-you’re-married’s, they slipped into a raven, stretch limo and flew to Costa Rica for two weeks to celebrate.
I met them at their new, two-bedroom apartment when they got home to help unload the U-Haul, and—after exchanging knowing hugs and getting a brief tour of the place, we drove to Ikea to buy their first bed.
Ikea is weird, this corn-maze of end tables and wall mounts, a Swedish mecca of organized closets and cooking utensils. After walking through some could-be kitchens and living rooms, we made it to the beds: an entire floor filled with wooden headboards, patterned pillows, and beaming couples sprawled head-to-head across potential mattresses. I took out my phone and texted my boyfriend while they decided which one they wanted.
“Kind of in the mood to fight with you over which bedframe we like best.”
“I can’t wait for that,” he texted back, and I felt my chest warm. “This must be unreal,” I thought as I watched them thumb through prices and dimensions and colors.
They settled on this grey-brown number, “because it’s sturdy, and—look!” J said pointing across the showroom to some matching night stands, “We can complete the set,” which sounded like the most matrimonial of things to me, completing the set. We picked up the pieces in aisle 26, bin 28, and loaded them onto one of those flat push carts that are hopelessly hard to maneuver—the ones that crash into the candle display by the register.
When we got to the parking lot, I was pushing the bed toward the trailer when I turned to J to ask a question.
“Is this as romantic as I feel like it is, buying a bed with the person you love most in the world?” She paused for a second before responding.
“I don’t know,” she started, “I mean, yeah—it’s wonderful, but it’s weird because if our life were a movie, this is the part where the music would swell and everyone would cry because we finally made it, you know?” We walked a few more steps. The wheels rattled over the asphalt, like ice in a blender.
“It’s not really like that, though. It’s not that magical. I mean, I’m hungry. And I’m thinking about that more than I am about the bed right now. It’s amazing, sure, but it doesn’t feel all that dramatic.”
“I wouldn’t trade it,” she concluded, putting her hand on Chris’s back. “This is real-life romance.”
A real-life romance, one that they’d paid for—not in credit—but in the currency of tears and compromise and sacrifice. I can lose myself in dreams about these benchmarks of commitment, wondering what it’ll feel like: buying our first bed, the trip to South America, joint bank accounts, picking up the kids from practice and figuring out what we’re going to do for dinner. Far more rare are the dreams that include the work it takes to get there: the years spent in different cities, the seasons of disconnect, the quiet dinners with parents.
Love, they’re teaching me, at least the kind that sticks around when tears have kidnapped all your words and you can’t remember why you’re worth loving, isn’t something you stumble into by surprise.
I’d love to say that it happened somewhere poetic—like while I was driving across the Mojave Desert or on some barren, wave-torn coast in San Francisco, but—truth be told—I don’t remember when it happened, exactly. I just know that when I got back to school the fall after I travelled across the country by bus, I didn’t believe in demons, or Satan, or hell anymore—at least not in the fire-y oblivion and crimson, horned tormentor I’d seen on Flannel grams as a little boy. Read the rest of this entry »
Because I didn’t know why I was so mad that night until my fingers hit the keyboard the next morning. Because I don’t ever want to forget how his kiss made my skin tingle in the car that day. Because when we jumped in the river, the water crawled into our hair and made us shiver. Because I almost got married and need to know how. Because saying, “I’m sorry,” out loud sounded cheap. Because seventh grade was awkward for us all. Because I need to know which stories are important. Because my mind would get too cluttered otherwise. Because it makes me a more honest person. Because some days it’s all I have. Because it keeps me hopeful. Because it makes my parents proud. Because it makes me proud. Because Dean thinks I’m good at it, and I have the email to prove it. Because I never thought I could, and neither did she. Because Taylor told me to, and I promised I would.
Because they said if I shared my story I’d lose my job. Because I had to share it anyway. Because he called in December to tell me gay people don’t belong. Because that’s called injustice. Because I was afraid of myself for so many years and I’m not anymore and that matters a hell of a lot. Because no one whispered into my twelve-year-old ear to tell me that it’s totally normal for boys to like other boys. Because he wrote me a letter promising he wouldn’t kill himself after he read that one I wrote about the way my dad hugged me when I told him everything. Because it really is normal. Because when I was in fourth grade, my dad spray painted rocks and scattered them across our back yard when the gold rush at school didn’t go as well as I’d liked. Because he also helped me pay for counseling when I had sex for the first time at twenty-one and it was way scarier for me than I thought it’d be. Because more dads should be hugging their sons.
Because no one should have to walk through life without good, loving friends. Because a lot of people do. Because I know what it means to feel so lonely you want to vomit.
Because it takes practice. Because I can’t help it. Because it teaches me that failure is fine. Because it’s worth waiting for the right metaphor. Because, “metaphor,” really means, “person.” Because time can only smell like buttermilk biscuits on paper, and my arms aren’t actually fifteen-years long, and it’s weird to tell people the color green sounds like home over coffee. Because, like most worthwhile things, it’s difficult. Because it makes me feel brave.
Because some words are too thick for air.
My truck sailed up the coast on the northbound 5 toward Los Angeles. The waves’ crests, like stars in the sea—pierced the midnight expanse with dull, white bursts before they smashed back into the black and disappeared. While the wheels rolled forward, my acrobat mind was tumbling and contorting — the way it does when it’s unbending dreams.
I was trying to forget the bookshelf I’d told him I’d build for our living room, and how he said his mom would love me when we went to visit. Unlearning those things you spent so much time memorizing, turns out, is crippling: the favorite songs, how he takes his coffee, which way is most comfortable to sleep. They warned me about sex in church when I was growing up, told me not to have it until I was married, that it was special, intimate. They never warned me about dreams, though, never told me they weave you together the same way. I was trying, especially, to forget Paris, this bastard of an image we’d painted together that buried itself deep in the folds of my brain and proved difficult to undo.
It looked something like this: we’d been in the city a few days already, and woken up early to head to our favorite café. We were sitting on the patio and my palm was resting on his leg while we read books and wrote and laughed. By noon we were tired, and ready to head back to the apartment we’d rented.
“We’ll walk back holding hands,” I remember him saying.
“And when we get to the door,” I continued, “I’ll run ahead up the stairs, and you won’t catch me until the landing between the third and fourth floors, but when you do, we’ll kiss.”
It had been three weeks since I’d found the letter he left on my doorstep—the one that said he respected me and was sorry for the sadness he’d likely imparted, the one that was resting on top of the crisply folded sweatshirt I’d let him borrow months before, the one that made me blush, embarrassed that I’d loved deeper, the one that said Paris would never happen. I was on my way to LA for a friend’s birthday party, hoping that enough alcohol or romantic attention might numb the fabled pang of rejection that was humiliatingly gnawing at my confidence. When I reached San Onofre—forty miles north of my home in San Diego—I turned the radio off and let the hum of the tires tearing over the road fill my cramped cab. The stories settled in my mind, and amidst the chatter of frustrated dreams, like some long-awaited realization, one voice spoke.
“I’m lonely,” I thought, and knew that another night spent at a stranger’s side wouldn’t make it sting any less. “I’m lonely, and I’m tired.” When the green-and-white sign for the next exit reflected in my headlights, I veered off the freeway and turned my truck south. An hour later, I was on my couch watching Harry Potter, alone and sober.
A friend of mine — one who’s wiser and kinder and more thoughtful than I — knows the difficult, painful unweaving I’m talking about. She, too, was carroted down the rabbit trail of a hope-filled future shared with someone, only to discover her bed was left just as cold as the promises she’d so earnestly trusted.
“Falling in love is totally magical and beautiful and gives you this insane ability to operate on 4 hours of sleep a night for a long time,” she said. “It chooses you and that gift is one of life’s best ones. You have to choose it back, though.” She paused, her voice cracking, and I knew she meant it. “At some point, you become more real to each other and the hard work sets in. So you try and try, and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out. And when that happens, you’ll be ok.” I was looking at her across the table.
“Just let it be sad,” she concluded. “Ironically, sadness will be your guide out of sadness.”
Naming our hurts and fears and doubts is an infinitely more difficult task than numbing them, I’ve learned. Naming them makes them real, gives them breath and pulse, and—clothing them in flesh—lets them walk around our consciousness for a while. Numbing, though. Numbing feels so good—the overworking, the beer, the sex, the school: it quiets them for the night and gives us momentary pause from their persistent gossip. The problem is they never go away, these vices, not until we look them in the eyes, at least, and explain why they don’t win.
Four months later, I now know she was right, my sage and clever friend: that if we take her wintry, ancient hand, Sadness will lead us through and teach us to smile again.
After years of observation, I’ve identified six discrete stages of pop song addiction.
Stage One: The Highbrow Scoff
This is the first — and most self-congratulatory — stage of the process toward full-fledged, seemingly irreversible addiction. A song comes on the radio, and — almost impulsively — you make that god awful scratching noise with the back of your throat — the same one Becky made in tenth grade when that new girl from Menlo sat next to Steven in fifth period and “had her boobs hanging out all over. I mean, seriously, is she that desperate?” The first encounter generally lasts no longer than 30 seconds, during which remarks are made about how the artist “sounds so processed,” and “probably sucks live,” and “has the trashiest lyrics.” If possible, the iPod is turned on, or a CD is played, and once Bon Iver or The National are on again you’re reminded that you’re a socially aware, farmer’s-market-shopping 20-something who reads good literature and only buys fair trade.
Stage Two: The Crank-It-Up-Two-Notches
The strangest part about the second stage is that you don’t really know it even happened until it’s over. What you’ll remember — in retrospect — is that the same song came on the radio, only this time you forgot to scoff. Actually, you turned the volume knob up two notches, and — in some cases — began tapping your foot or bouncing your shoulders. It’s the commercial for career colleges that runs after the song is over that snaps you out of the trance. You shake your head because you’re disappointed in yourself, and turn the radio off — parking the car in silence.
Stage Three: The Unexpected Hum
This usually happens at work or at school or — most embarrassingly — when you’re making dinner with your super indie friends in their dimly lit craftsman kitchen. Under your breath, you hum the chorus to “Teenage Dream” while chopping asparagus to go with the quinoa patties, and, unfortunately, he hears. “Are you singing Katy Perry?” You look intently at the bamboo cutting board, and feel the same way you did when you still liked Pokémon in middle school. You deny it, feeling a bit shaken.
Stage Four: The Wait
After the Unexpected Hum, you start to embrace the fact that the song is catchy, at least, even if it is vapid and McDonald’s-esque. You start to sing it regularly — in the shower, in the canned food aisle, in your cubicle, and it doesn’t take long for the notes to weave their way into your hopes and dreams. When the woman at Subway mentions the new Rihanna single, you hear yourself say, “I love that song,” which feels both weird, and right. So, so right. You suddenly cannot wait to hear it again.
Stage Five: The Sing-A-Long
Depending on the duration of the anticipatory period, this can be the most awkward of the stages.
Scenario 1: If you’re fortunate, you won’t have waited long; when the song comes on the radio, you casually turn the volume up and sing the words you know, which are — at this point — the chorus, and the verse lines that cuss.
Scenario 2: If you’ve waited significantly, the introductory notes are like auditory X and you frantically increase the volume to hazardous levels. You may scream, which makes the guy in the silver Corolla next to you at the stoplight stare. You still don’t know the words, but — because of the excitement — produce these loud, guttural, (sometimes) melodious noises in lieu of lyrics. When the base line of the chorus drops, you hit the top of your steering wheel with your closed fist, and hammer out the rhythm. If you’re musical, you’re singing harmony, which surprises even you, and you internally remark about your ability to blend with Nikki Minaj. “Boom ba doom boom, boom ba doom boom, baby,” makes you smile and laugh when it rolls over your lips, and if someone’s in the car with you, you push her shoulder in that we-just-won-the-little-league-championship kind of way. When the song is over, you’re breathing heavily.
Stage Six: The Telltale Quote
At this point, the lyrics have imperceptibly finagled their way into your speech, and, in rare cases, have become part of your moral compass. You’re sitting at a table, about to eat the lunch you brought from home: three-cheese pepperoni pizza, Dr. Pepper, and M&M’s. Your co-worker, concerned, remarks about your eating habits having taken an unsettling turn. Looking up from your plate, you respond instinctually: “Baby, I was born this way,” after which you bite into your slice, semi-growling. When fighting with your boyfriend, you actually consider calling him “Shawty,” and reminding him that he is, indeed, your e’erthang. Two months ago, you didn’t even know what a “she-wolf” was, but now you’re convinced you’re harboring one that just needs to breathe. You think Katy might be right: that he is an alien and that you’re definitely ready for abduction. Unfortunately, the addiction is nearly irreversible.