I’d been lonely as a kid and teenager just trying to figure out my relation to church and life and love. I’d prayed and cried and searched and read looking for connection even when I felt the most connected to what I thought god to be. I went to church, you know, all of the time. Remember when I took you to my parents’ house and showed you that gray tape recorder? That’s the one I took with me as a teenager to churches for services and musicals. People called me the “boy with the gray tape recorder,” if they didn’t know my name. And they did this because I was always there, always praying, always fasting, always attempting a deep relationship with god.
I have not been altogether honest. You are not the only one that has tried asceticism, that has tried to renounce the world and the flesh for something higher and different and other. For a very long time, I thought I was to be celibate, thought my life was some sorta sacrificial example of how to move to the world without wanting, without desiring. Or, not really not wanting nor desiring but channeling want and desire into the direction of something bigger than myself. I let it put me on a pursuit to god, yes. You know that I wanted to be a preacher but you do not know that I seriously considered catholicism because of celibacy as a way of life. I’m older than you…by the time I was in college and considering seminary as a next step, you were – what? – just entering middle school?
I don’t talk about that time of my life much because it is so difficult to recount. I was very conservative, would tell folks that they were hell bound for being queer, would tell myself most intensely of all. I remember when the college choir was asked to sing at an event for the yearly LGBTQ celebration week and I said to the board – since I was the choir director – under no circumstances would we sing for them. “We” don’t want to give “them” the impression that we are ok with their “sinfulness” is what I said. I was serious. The board argued with me, yes, but in the end, I persuaded them and we didn’t sing. If I try to recount now the kinda faces they made at me it was likely because they were thinking, this gay ass muthafucka or something similar … but, though contradictory – I’d go home and get on AOL and chat or call the party line and have someone come over late at night – I was still convicted that queer shit was sin shit. And I was convinced, above all, of my own need to reform lest I be hellbound.
So maybe I was all into telling other folks about hell as an end because I was hoping to prove to god that I could be serious about my purported calling, that I could really be true and honest and pure, that I was serious about sacrificing all the shit I felt in order to be saved. And it seemed like catholic priests – even though I knew so little of catholicism – had done so much to control their flesh and I knew I needed a way too. So I started attending Saint Martin de Porres Church on Lehigh, would go there every Sunday for Mass and I’d leave there and go to Open Door. I’d arrive to Open Door late, of course, but because the service went from 11:30 until about 2 or sometimes 3, it didn’t matter much. I sat in the balcony at Open Door anyway, wanted to be anonymous as possible. They were very different kinds of churches in many ways but very black in similar ways too. One black catholic, the other blackpentecostal; one male priest, the other black female pastor. Anyway, I went to Open Door because it connected me to what I knew but Saint Martin de Porres I attended because I was seeking, seriously, another path and direction. I began talking to the priest there, going to confession and everything, hoping to get rid of what I kept feeling and desiring against desiring, what I kept dreaming for even though they were like nightmares. I tried to escape, was serious about the priesthood, so no, you’re not the only one that’s doing the thing you’re doing now. I read scripture daily, prayed the stations, lamented and praised, cried and wailed. I tried to perform what it’d mean to do this sorta serious thing that ascetics did. I wanted to retreat into my personal desert, retreat into my own catacomb. Maybe then, alone and in solitude, I’d find god and love him and do what was required and would be sheltered from my longing and desire for boys. And I thought I’d be, finally, united with someone – with god – and that would let me feel better about the world.
And then, sometime later, I met you. And then, sometime later, that smile.
Anyway, I guess I’m figuring out all over again that my search for connection with god didn’t dissipate the loneliness, that the aloneness I felt was a kind of isolation from the world, from worlds, that that isolation made me desire connection that always felt, and still today feels, thwarted. So I didn’t have to go into deserts or retreat from the world. I’d prayed alone and cried there so much, alone, for a change to come, for relief, for reprieve. And it wasn’t until I met you that I felt what I came to later read about and consider entanglement to be.
My life, the way I have attempted to live it, has meant choosing queerness even if that, at the same time, has meant choosing loneliness. It’s really a variation on a theme because I was alone with god and then, again, away from it. And the loneliness didn’t go away when I chose queerness. It only seemed to dissipate when I felt that quickening in my heart and butterflies that time, that first time you smiled at me, for you. And you’re right, I guess I always try with boys because I always try with my parents, with the church. And my friend Sofia kinda put a name to it, said that it’s about a kind of forgiveness. I was telling her about the art project I’m trying to do with the painting and the Hammond organ and she was all into it. this is what she said:
What you wrote to me about the project – really, they are projects, connected but also deeply attempting to do different registers – made me think about tarrying and being together and it made me want to ask you about forgiveness. I feel like forgiveness is pulsing so much about in the work you do … forgiveness as healing and the coming-into-being of community…but sometimes it’s just not there, and you say it too, that you know the church isn’t utopia, it participates in sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia. And yet you write, “something is there, in the aesthetic practices,” that is working for us, all of us. No matter what, the music is on our side.
I’m reading a lot of Mennonite missionary stories these days…stories of my family, kind of… you know my mom was a missionary in Somalia, and that’s how she met my dad. And reading what you were saying about the Sufi tradition made me think of how the missionaries viewed, and maybe still view, Somali Sufism. There’s this idea that sufism is less violent and extremist than other forms of Islam, and that for this reason, it’s a good entry point for Christian missionaries, like you can get close to a Sufi mosque, get people to talk to you, get inside. I really can’t help seeing this as imperialist! So it’s painful, you know? And it’s like—how do you tarry together with that—how to live along? I keep thinking of Jacob and the angel: “I will not let thee go unless thou bless me.” That struggle, that wrestling, that tarrying, active waiting. And what if the blessing never comes? Can we—I wonder, after reading about the kind of thing you’re attempting in the show—can we see the wrestling itself as a reconciliation? Or an analogue to reconciliation, anyway, a tarrying despite everything, a sharing of the breath. this, it seems to me, would bust the whole notion of forgiveness out of time, and maybe return it to itself. To refuse to move on, to always be in a mode of tarrying, ceaseless movement, living and wrestling along. Wrestling along, breathing along through racism, imperialism, homophobia, holding to the music. I don’t know, there are ways I don’t expect the church to bless me in this life and I don’t expect to let go either.
She made me cry. She made me cry because each instance of attempting relation, I know now – I feel now – has been a certain kind of forgiveness, a way to reach for connection after its having been severed, a reach and desire for a different way to exist in the world. And one of the things that moves me about Sufism, I was telling her, is that there is a search for something that is connected to the search in Black Christianity, a search that I hear and smell and touch in blackpentecostalism, a connection that is not about Christianity, though it is found there. And I’ve been thinking that bringing folks together, bringing them in contact, is what I’m attempting with the art project, a way to do something like forgiveness out of time, forgiveness against normative time. Maybe wrestling itself is the tradition, wrestling as refusal, wrestling as resistance, wrestling as being discontent with the normative world, a refusal to be done with or satisfied by it.
And I do want to say I wrestle with you in this kind of way, don’t wanna normalize wrestling when a lot of times what people engage is really just abusive behavior, is refusing to let go of someone that doesn’t want us and so we become violent. That’s not what I mean here, by us, at all. I just felt we were together in some spiritual and mystical way. And I don’t even know, really, what mystical and spiritual means because I’m not really a believer anymore. I just know I feel you.
Anyway, he doesn’t get a pass, even if he is lonely and his weirdness, his rudeness, his distance is grounded in disbelief that something beautiful could come from thinking more intentionally about me. And so I want to hold out the space to say that my choosing loneliness because of the lack of erotic relationship doesn’t seem to be the same as choosing a sorta mystical experience of the individual, of individuation, of the subject or something. And maybe I need to say I haven’t chosen loneliness at all but the possibility for an alternative to community, so many folks I’ve met and love and cherish because of choosing the sociality of queer folks. You, of course, included.
But I’m rambling,