The Hairy Ape

I take for granted my own living body most of the time. Specifically, that it exists, filling up real space in a real world. Most days, it seems easier to stick to “the facts.” I’m “Alex.” I live in “Paonia,” a small town in “Colorado.” I am a “writer.” I am “white.” I am a “man” who “loves” my “husband.” And so I, like most humans, live in a world of layered abstractions.

Take away the distractions of our high-flying egos, elaborate wordplay, and endlessly reproducing screens, however, and we humans are no more or less physical than any other living creature. We are real. We are animals, always. Meeting others. Every day we act and react, want and withdraw, shriek and flail, run and remain.

In my most recent essay for Orion, “8 Meetings Nobody Scheduled,” I’ve curated a short list of moments that have cut through abstraction and left me gasping in shock and surprise at the very real world and my own very physical presence in it.

Despite the tired cliche of the civilized man vs. the wild animal, I declare that to know your wildness is to be more sane. To know your animality is to be more wise. To know you are no more nor less than the other creatures you meet each day is to be more honest, humble, and free.

Advertisements

After you’ve broken

If I am learning anything from my long journey toward becoming a writer, it has something to do with kindness.

Oh, sure, there’s courage and honesty and creative word-smithing. Those seem important. Discipline, scalpel-sharp critical thinking, dogged commitment. Yup. Lucky breaks, too, and putting in your time and learning how to get by with less. But really, at the very bottom of it, I find it’s kindness that is the most essential to continuing forward.

I’m not talking about empty kindness, easy kindness, the stuff of courtesy and politeness. Real kindness. The undeserved, the unbidden, the unworthy, the unending. And I’m talking about being kind to yourself.

I nearly broke myself last winter when I was kicking my own ass in a brightly lit apartment thousands of miles and an ocean away from home. I was working on my first book-length manuscript, demanding myself to write at least 1000 words a day and a chapter a week for twelve weeks. I was demanding myself to write the best book ever written, the best adventure story, the best gay marriage story. I was demanding myself to write a story that could change the world, that would subvert and surprise and give and give. I was writing a story that could save my relationship with my siblings and could teach my parents. It was a story that was true and right. I was demanding perfection.

Meanwhile, I was physically ill. I was depressed. I was pretty sure I was an egocentric hack. I went spiraling down a vortex of doubt feeding fear feeding frustration feeding doubt. I survived the vortex.

Some folks don’t.

Six months later, thanks to a friend’s suggestion and an editor’s selection, I found myself sitting in a circle of writers seeking our stories together at the incomparable Summer Fishtrap workshop in eastern Oregon. Across the circle sat Luis Alberto Urrea, who told of his own doubt-fear-frustration-doubt vortex that led him to the edge of everything. He survived. And returned to the world of the living with the gorgeous epic The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

If you survive the vortex does not mean you will produce a gorgeous epic. Nor am I saying you must go through the vortex in order to produce brilliance. But I do believe that to tell a great story you must be willing to face the truth of things, and you very well may balk in the face of that truth. And if you balk, it very well may be kindness which allows you to escape with your life and your story.

Later that same week of Fishtrap, the poet Kim Stafford explained to us how his father, the poet William Stafford, wrote. I find it the daily expression of writerly-kindness-to-self:

1) Write the date.
2) Write boring prose.
3) Write into an aphorism or koan – a self-contained observation or idea
4) write the thing.

Kim made us practice his father’s technique. This is what I wrote that day:

7/9/14

Today is Wednesday. I had a harder time waking this morning than yesterday. I didn’t hear as many birds and I am not sure if there actually were fewer birds or if I just couldn’t or didn’t hear them today. No hummingbirds yet today. Or dippers.

I’m wondering as always about the good that will come out of this. This is writing church, but I distrust all churches. I like to believe that this mistrust is not because I believe I do not deserve the sanctuary, but because I doubt the truth of sanctuary in the first place. Or if not truth, then usefulness. Though the use is obvious to be kind to oneself. To be kind to yourself means being kind to everything you know about yourself. Being kind to the ugliness. To be kind to the fear, to be kind to the doubts, the anger, the endless river of voices. These are my voices and every other voice I have ever heard.

Give me the strength to survive this, the going out, the falling. And give me the strength to still be kind, long after I’ve broken against the bedrock.

And then I wrote the thing:

To the Writer

Never tell the names
of the smallest gods whirring
behind your ears, but do not
swat them either, cursing

be kind to everything you know
about yourself, even your doubt
even your hate
even your own death

be kind long after you have
leaped, after you have
fallen, after you have broken against bedrock


Applications are open until December 15th for 2015 Summer Fishtrap Fellowships and Scholarships.

That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

Fab Planet 2014

If you missed the first-ever Summit on LGBTQ Identity and Sustainability that took place this past September in Seattle, you are in luck! The good folks at Out for Sustainability, a national non-profit seeking to connect queer greenies, have posted the audio of the day’s sessions.

How could it get even better, you ask?  I had the honor to speak in the opening panel on Intersectionality with the brilliant artist/musician/policy analyst Loren Othon and Out For Sustainability’s co-founder Gerod Rody.

And if you don’t have time at the moment to sit down for a listening session, I’ve included some of my notes for the talk:

As Gerod mentioned, I currently work for the National Park Service, restoring alpine meadows in Yosemite. What that really means is that, as I’m decompacting the soil and shoveling dirt and moving plants, I have a whole lot of time to look around at the pretty mountains and think. Lots of time to think.

For much of that time, I’m thinking about why I am out there. Why do I care so much about these meadows? Why do I care about Yosemite Toad habitat? Why am I devoting my life to conservation and restoration and sustainability?

My answers to these questions include the likely suspects of ecological function; biological diversity; clean water for the Central Valley and San Francisco; the opportunity for people to come to the mountains and experience wilderness. All that feels good.

Invariably, though, my answer to that question of “why do I care?” also includes something distinctly different. There’s another answer, a more important one, even. That answer is more of a feeling, and the feeling goes something like this: I care about the environment because I am queer. I suspect many of you might share in that same feeling.

Which, I hate to break it to you, isn’t much of an answer to the question, really.

Explaining environmental ethics and values are complicated enough. Throwing LGBTQ identity into the mix makes for quite the messy elevator statement or cocktail party conversation.

Even so, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of this intersection sexuality and the environment.

And I’ve come to believe that this intersection–of sexuality and the environment–is in fact much more than just a feeling, more than just a very niche market of us here in this room.

No, in truth, I see LGBTQ identity and sustainability as two communities–two projects of our modern global community–each of them attempting to determine how we define our collective future.

And I think these two projects–and the scale and quality of their impact on our future–are directly tied up in one another.

So, we are not here to pat ourselves on the back today. We are not here only to stare in the faces of like-minded people. We are also here to look outward. To better understand our selves and our communities in order to more effectively and passionately create our future.

So intersections:

What are they? How does our better understanding of sexuality and sexual identity deepen our understanding of sustainability? And vice versa?

First, let’s start with how our understanding of sustainability and environmental concepts can possibly enrich the lives of LGBTQ people and strengthen the queer community:

1) Nature as Refuge
The concept I’ve spent much of my time writing and thinking about is the old idea of Nature as refuge, and how it affects the lives of queer people.  It is an old story, the idea that the land will take you in, no matter the color of your skin, or your gender, or who you love. By land I mean the more-than-human, non-engineered world.

Ideally, there is no judgment there, or at least, the lack of judgment is inversely proportional to the amount of human impact on that place.

And you know what, it is hard to survive as someone who is LGBTQ in the judgey, prejudiced human-engineered world.  Just like so many other minorities, whose lives are more difficult because of who they happen to be, it is more important for queer people to have places of refuge. Personally, I know of no better place to find refuge than the wilderness.

After Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student, committed suicide after being bullied online by his roommate, I wrote an article making just that point. I hoped he had at some point stood on top of a mountain, or come in close contact with a bear, and known what it was like to be unjudged. To simply be human as free of our physical and social constructs as possible. To be an animal. To be a forest. To find that solace and peace of self can literally mean life or death.

Clementi didn’t necessarily need to be out in the wilderness to find it either, and I don’t want to come off as a wilderness snob either. I personally find it easier.

If he hadn’t, why not?

What are the problems of access for queer people to building a relationship with the natural world?

Queer people are told to live in cities and be urban. This message comes from popular media, but it also comes from family and friends too: join our kind. Live where it is safer for people like us. Beyond the fact that it is not necessarily safer for us in cities, those social pressures present all sorts of barriers for queer people to build a healthy and deep relationship to the land.

Queer people that do choose to live in rural places, or have no choice but to live in rural places, have other unique challenges. The more-than-human landscape might play more of a direct role in their lives, but they also very often face extreme isolation.

While studying at the University of Montana, I interviewed a dozen gay men who are park rangers about their experiences, and they all spoke about the internal conflict of loving the land and the refuge they found within it while also reconciling sometimes an intense sense of isolation.

And so this conversation about the values of Nature as Refuge, to me, seems to be a very important project for both the queer and environmental communities:

–how do we provide better access to the natural world?
–how do we encourage queer people (along with all sorts of people who fall into any number of you-are-a-minority-so-you-must-be-urban category) to build a relationship with the natural world, finding a sense of refuge in it?
–how do we work against the corresponding urban and rural barriers for queer people to be healthy and happy?

2) Evolutionary Biology
A second intersection which I wanted to mention today is the contribution that the sciences of ecology and biology can provide to our understanding of sexuality. It’s still amazing to me how little modern science really has discovered about humans as a species, how we evolved, and the biological origins of so many of our quintessential human traits.

Sure it’s interesting to know how biological mechanisms work within our bodies, but for me it’s way more interesting to know how and why we have such a broad capacity for behaviors. In terms of sexuality, there has been a number of theories to explain the evolutionary origins of same-sex and other non-heteronormative behaviors. And really, we still don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that non-heteronormative and non-monogamous behavior are nearly ubiquitous part of sexuality across the animal kingdom and beyond. There’s something so liberating and empowering about that fact to me. When I look at pairs of geese now, I do not assume that they are a male-female pair. When I see animal mating behavior, I wonder who is who and what their real motivations are. Life is messy!

Better understanding the biological and ecological mess can provide a sense that there is nothing inherently abberant, diseased, defective, or unnatural about being queer, about being a man that loves another man, or a woman that loves another woman, or desiring to present as any number of genders that is not your biological sex.

In fact, I wager that as we continue to study the evolutionary emergence of human sexuality, that the complexity and diversity of human sexuality and gender has actually played an important role in the survival and health of human communities throughout history.

One obvious caveat to this conversation, as explained best by the UC professor Marlene Zuk in her Sexual Selections: what we can and can’t learn about sex from animals–is that it is dangerous to find justification for our behavior based on what we see animals doing.” This goes without saying, but we shouldn’t eat our babies like hamsters, or be as violent as male ducks

BUT by cultivating a more accurate understanding of the biological framework of living things on earth, we can better understand how huge our behavioral capacity is–and how it is our collective project to determine what is considered allowable within our societies.

There are no inherent biological rights or wrongs, despite what we’ve been told for the last 150 years.

In this way, better understanding the messy complexity of Earth’s living systems allows us to more confidently assert the messy complexity of humans as a part of those living systems. In the process, we can find liberation from entrenched pseudo-Darwinian ideas of individual fitness and the supposed purpose of life which is to produce as many children as possible.

3) Queer Ecological Imagination
Which brings me to how the LGBTQ community can deepen our understanding, and in fact, play a crucial role in defining what future sustainability means. What does it mean to have healthy human relationships with the environment.

Currently, we still live in a society that in many ways is a cult of the masculine. Much of our culture’s basic standards of success and happiness are directly linked to production, dominance, and power.  Controlling the wild natural world is supposed to be a good thing.  Even notions of sustainability, in this context, are dependent on how efficiently we can dominate, how effectively we can use resources.

Similarly, sustainability is often couched in heteronormative terms of reproduction. We need to think about our children and our children’s children. What if we have no intentions of having children? Even people’s sense of the outdoors often is veiled in heteronormative terms, like going out to conquer a mountain, or camping in a cul-de-sac campground designed in a very public way for traditionally-structured families.

AND SO, as queer people, we possess a unique identity and set of experiences that might encourage us to question those relationships to the natural world. How do we talk about sustainability if we aren’t acting based on the continued surival of our genetic material?

Who but we can best advocate for more complicated understandings of biological and ecological processes?

Who but we best understand what it means to have to fight for our inherent right to exist, independent of our economic or biological value as an individual?

Which brings me to the bottom line:

I care about the continued existence of other living things, and the relationships between those living things because I have had to defend my own right to exist. I have had to fight so damn hard just to exist. To be who I am.

And so I can empathize. I can understand. I can extend my own sense of equality and justice and liberation ever outward. I strongly believe that my fight for all of those things, equality, justice, liberation, are tied up in everyone’s fight for those things. And what I’m realizing is that that fight, that circle of empathy and compassion, must extend beyond the human world as well–if we are to succeed at furthering these modern projects of “civil rights” and “equality” and “sustainability.”

I recently read an essay in Orion written by a friend, the San Francisco-based writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit. She had researched Thoreau’s laundry habits, in his defense, since he’s kind of gotten a bad rap about it since it is likely his sisters and/or mother often did his laundry. And what she discovered was that yes, they could have done his laundry, but they also formed a very strong, passionate family. Particularly his sisters and mothers, who were politically active, and whose beliefs affected Thoreau strongly.

Specifically, the Thoreau women were strong abolitionists, who founded the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. As Solnit says:

“The women seemed to find a kind of liberation for themselves in this movement for the liberation of others. They were able to act independent of husbands and fathers, to take a public stand, to become political beings in a new way. The women’s suffrage movement, the first feminist movement, grew directly out of the abolution movement. The went to liberate someone else and found that they too were not free.”

We are on that same journey as the women in Concord.

We are seeking to liberate others–our fellow humans first, from environmental and climate injustices while also extending that circle of empathy and liberation out to the more-than-human world.

So I encourage all of us here today to thing of this gathering and this community as more than just a fun niche interest group. This is much more than that. This is an extension of the civil rights movement. And we are uniquely positioned to provide invaluable influence in how we understand our current and future relationship to the living world.

As we learn how to build green communities and talk about sustainbility, we are also talking about expanding the circle of empathy, ecolgoical imagination, and humanity. In the process we are also continuing the process of liberation of ourselves, of others, and of life on this messy planet.

Visit Out For Sustainability’s Fab Planet Recap Page for more information on the 2014 Summit and how you can get involved with Out4S, including socials in a city near you.

And for resources on Queer/Ecology, visit my website!

On writing a memwah

Turns out writing a book is hard (real hard).  Who knew?  Likely just about everybody.  Except me.  Somehow, in my youthful wisdom (read whimsical naivete), I thought I could say I was writing a book.  And then just start writing.  And keep writing.  And voila, I’d have a book!

ImageNot true, good sirs.  Nope, turns out you have to dredge your soul.  Stir up all your demons.  Face all your doubts.  And fail.  And fail.  And fail.  And then after years of this–after the whole idea of the book-length story which you want to tell cuts you down right to your base, then, finally, maybe, it’s no longer an idea.  It’s an actual story-like thing.  And then, maybe, you can actually write it and write it and write it until it turns into a book-like thing.  More than a collection of words, but a body.  A living thing. That breathes and speaks and does the tango with itself and whoever else wants to join it.

Turns out writing a freaking memoir–or as I like to call it, a memwah–is real hardWriting a memwah means not only having to successfully tell an interesting story in the first place (which seems easy enough, but proves exceedingly difficult in practice), but that story also has to be true!  It also has to be fair to your dear loved ones who you are writing about–while also honoring your own, likely divergent perspective on shared histories and experiences.  On top of all of that, the real people I write about also have to be good characters–and the real events good plot.

Speaking of plot: it is the story of an adventure I undertook several years ago with my at-the-time-boyfriend-currently-husband Pete during which we paddled 1800 miles of the Yukon River.  The story is also about us falling in love, of getting married, and honeymooning in Everglades.  It’s also about making sense of love in general–and my gender and sexuality–within the culture in which I live.  It’s also about what and who is natural; where the line is between self and other; what we risk when we are true to our selves–our dreams, our loves, our desires; and what we have to gain.  It’s an adventure story.  And it’s a love story.  But it’s also a queer story, which hopefully means it will surprise and delight and confuse people and their expectations and assumptions.

Oh, golly.  Overly ambitious, right?

Well, as you might have guessed, all this is to say that I’ve dropped the ball on the blog for the past few months.  But for good reason: I was writing the story of my survival.  It took me to some of the darkest, scariest places in my life.  But the good news is that I’m seeing the light at the end of the river.  I’m days and weeks away from the first complete, 300ish-page, manuscript.  I will be starting to shop it around by the end of May.

For this moment when I’m about to embark once again into a new phase of the great unknown that is this living thing, I figured the following excerpt from Chapter 0 – Shape of a River would be fitting:

Peter says he’s feverish. He certainly looks a little pale. Phlegm rolls down my bronchial tubes, and I give a good hacking cough. We launch the boat anyway.

“To the sea,” I say.

“Sssslp, lpp, slep,” says the river against the boat.

I thought it was going to be more than this. There’s no ceremony, no witnesses except the lone Al-Can drivers that flash and rattle across the blue steel-girder bridge that crosses the river here. We talked for half a year, and then decided we had better start actually planning, like a couple who hadn’t believed they were pregnant until the belly started to show. What maps did we need? Were there even maps? Who could we talk to about the lower sections? How do we get home? What kind of boat do we need? How do we eat? We made our best guesses and figures from a third of a continent away. After a full month of packing and driving, driving and packing, packing, then yeah, more driving, we did arrive. In my dreams, we hadn’t looked quite so exhausted. A sign beside the launch reads: Warning: Stay clear of control structure. 400 Meters down stream. Stay right and use boat lock.

Maybe, at least, we look good to those lonely drivers rushing by overhead. If you squint your eyes and lean back a bit, you can see us even now: two lean figures in a loaded red canoe, ready. You don’t see Pouncer’s bow rocking dangerously low above the surface or the whole boat wobbling side to side as we clip our final possessions into it, grasp at the gunnel, perch ourselves half in and half out. You don’t see how lumpy our load is, all three hundred pounds of it, which we’ve squeezed into a family of canvas bags, river barrels, and plastic crates, all of it lashed to the thwart and crossbars. You also don’t see what that same load looked like half an hour prior when it looked more like a full-on yard sale or gas-main explosion.

It’s taken most the day to get on the water, and the sun already stalks to the north and west, pawing round the low dip between spruce and birch, right where we and the river intend to go. We squint as we look downstream, barely able to see it for all the shine and glare. I lift my foot out of the muddy bank while Pete braces the boat. I swear the whole thing nearly flips as I try to sit down. I grip my paddle with white knuckles, digging the tip of it into the shore. Then it’s Pete’s turn to climb in, kicking his feet clean of mud before picking up the paddle. We roost our butts in our seats for several seconds, find places to set the soles of our shoes. And just now, we strike off from the shore, shoving water around without plan until the current catches us and brings us along. We spin in stutter-step unison, Pete sterning on starboard, I bow on port. The sun pushes in through Pouncer’s translucent hull and the light breaks around my legs like an aurora. The sea must be down there somewhere, out beyond what we can possibly know. We push and the river pulls. “We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water” says Annie Dillard. And so Peter and I face the setting sun, all that can come, and we paddle one-two, one-two, one-two-three.

The control dam rises up through the sheen, a long and low thing, like the open gates of a horse race, spanning the full fifty-yard width of the river. The current flows right on through the dam, which was built to hold back the water only when there was too much of it for the liking of the downriver residents. We can’t go through any of the open gates without risking our lives and Pouncer’s, so we push river right, slipping between the rusted seawalls of the lock which rise around us like a shipping crate or cell. Closing off the end are doors like old river rafts mounted and hinged. Just as in a dream, a ladder appears, lines of rebar welded to one of the walls. I tie Pete and Pouncer off, then pull myself up on top of the dam, intent on finding the doorbell.

There is none. What there is is a long lever that you can unlock. And a big wheel like you’d find on a sailboat. I am able to unlock the lever, which is about as long as I am tall, but there’s no moving it. As for the wheel, it turns and turns and turns just fine, and would all night long, I believe. With no other options, I holler down at Pete for help. Pete checks again that the boat’s tied off well, which I don’t see him do, but know just the same that he does it, and then he climbs up the dream ladder too. I show him the situation: turning wheel, unmoveable lever, unblinking door-rafts. We’d purposely put in above the lock, just to get the thrill of the experience, I suppose.

Pete throws his whole buck-twenty-five against the lever, then he decides we need our combined two-ninety. One, two, three–we throw ourselves against the lever, which doesn’t even creak and gives only the slightest shrug of a bend. As for the doors? Dead. We do what anybody who’s hit a sudden dead-end does: we scowl, curse, and toss up our hands toward the sky. And we look for ways around.

“I sure as hell don’t want to portage,” I say to Pete. We’d have to make five, six, eight trips to haul all of our gear up and around the dam, then back down the steep slope to an unlikely put-in. I’m more afraid of the psychological trauma than I am of the physical challenge. Even though the distance is short, it could take us another two hours, at least. It is late already. Ten? Eleven in the evening?

The sun is still setting these days around midnight, though we’d probably have enough light to get wherever it was we needed to go for the night. Our plan had been to just get on the river, float down a mile or two, and then find a camp. I hack. Pete broodingly raises his brow first to the bank, then toward the river, which he surveys with an engineer’s fixed intent.

“No, we can’t,” I say, breathless. “We shouldn’t.” Like a thief, Peter grins.

“I think we can,” he says.

A few minutes later, we are back in the boat, paddling upstream on an eddy river right, then Pete says, “now,” and I dig in deeper as Pete steers the bow into the current, catching Pouncer like the wind catches a kite just as it rises above the trees. We whip about and then we are full on, I in the bow, Pete at the stern, paddling in time, one, two, one, two, one, two, moving with the current which is neither fast nor slow, but resolute, calm, like a madman or Siddhartha, bringing us onward toward our waiting door. Loose pieces of the mountain slopes, trunks and branches, have washed down and plugged half the gates. Pete steers us toward a gate that we had agreed looked clear from where we’d peered down upon it from the lock: third from the right. I can’t see Pete behind me, muscling and taught, but I feel him: the quick rocks of the boat side to side from the force he moves through the paddle to the water, the way the bow which is now our compass, slides right, then left, right, then left, to point dead on at the gate third from the right. Why do we risk ourselves? All we need we hold between us and Pouncer’s skin, and here we are pushing it through the gate, third from the right. No matter the outcome, we’re doomed, the two of us.

The river comes on and the future too. I keep paddling as Pete has instructed me. The dam rises up and blocks out the glare of the sun. Now I see the texture of the water, where it pushes up over the logs that jam the other gates, the way it smacks up and curls around the thin cement pillars. I see now that the gates aren’t wide, but enough: five feet, a paddle width–and I can see that each gate is in fact four, all in a line, two paired upriver, two down, and a canoe length of roiling river between them. Now we near our gate, and we keep our paddling. The river breathes through the gates, speaking now in a louder, constant voice. It is the sound of falling. The rush of on-coming. The press of the present upon our temples.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“We got this,” he says.

“A little right,” I say.

“Looking good,” I say.

Just at the gate’s center, I see that the river pillows through, piling up and tonguing over and into the mouth, down the two-foot drop, passing on through the third and fourth gates, and then out. This is our line we push toward with everything we’ve got. There is no knowing for us now, besides paddling, and breathing, and sliding toward our line. Now the dam is a hand commanding us to stop.

Now it is a mouth, open, laughing.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“Looking good,” I say.

And then we are in, and I do not pause to look about, but keep paddling, breathing, and sliding along that line. We pass through and out like we are opening a door that we will keep opening forever.

“Pete?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

What we demand in all our foolishness

Traveling, that is, striking camp and carrying it with you, searching for where you can set it down next, is the process of asking to be let in.  I first thought this city was all wall and broken concrete.  Exhaust and gutter.  Peter and I spent days walking the outlines of long, overlapping rectangles through the streets, under the earnest Yucateco sun and rain, burning and soaking, soaking and burning.  We peeked through iron grates, straining our eyes through the cracked timber rafts of doors.  We caught shady gardens, pools, refugios.  We knew there was a city on the other side of those walls, but we weren’t in that one yet.

Our plan was to strike our camp in California, and set it down here in Merida for a few months.  We just came, no more details than that.  As a traveler, you are certainly asking, even demanding something of the places in which you enter, (ie. Let me in.) and even more, you are asking something of their inhabitants.  And so, I’ve realized, there are things asked of you in return.  Of course there’s the money, but I’m thinking more about the other demands.  In whiskey, it’s called the angel’s share, the bit that evaporates out of the no-matter-how-tightly-sealed cask.  I’m not one for religion, but the belief in angels, the sense of them, came before the sense of God, so let’s let ’em be for now.

I’ve traveled over lots of this green, blue, brown, red and white earth, and I say that everywhere demands its angel’s share.  In wildery places, out away from people, you might have to share your fancy schmancy electro-diode gps mahuey that takes a drink in the rushing river and never wakes up.  Or you offer up all the peanut butter you have, all 10 lbs of it, to the ravens.  And in fact, just like whiskey (preferably Scotch), the greater your ambitions, the longer you age it, the richer the product, the more substantial the angel’s share.  If you, traveler, go out and attempt to cross the Bering Strait on foot, asking to be let in each day, each hour, then you might just have to give up all of yourself to the angels. (metaphorically speaking, of course.  With less religiousity: you risk your life!)

Now here brings up a question I’ve been having about this angel’s share: how much is enough?  When are you paying your fair share, and when are you just a plain ol’ fool who doesn’t know the rules?  If the peanut butter is our guide, then I suppose there’s an inherent need not to want to give up your share.  To actively protect your peanut butter from the ravens.  But alas, inevitably you will underestimate the world for its inventive ways to give and take.  And then you’ve got to cough it up.

These are the thoughts that sprung from a recent misadventure Pete and I had here in Merida.  In retrospect, I’m not sure whether we conducted ourselves with grace, or whether we were baboons (metaphorically speaking, of course.  Baboons, I’m sure you are intelligent and graceful in ways made clear from your own perspective.)

Peter and I bought two hats, sombreros, Jipi Japas.

The city streets stay busy late into the night, full of people just being outside, reveling in the special joy found in just being outside at night in a tropical climate (a joy which many of the locals probably don’t find special at all, but rather quite ubiquitous). As we walked down the street casually, with no particular destination in mind, a man engaged us.

Jose stood with purpose in front of the yawning door of a castle-like building in the city center, the University of Yucatan – Merida.  He was looking for dupes like us.  He wanted us to know about the Maya, his people.  His enthusiasm was sincere, I do believe, though the details–which were suspect in the first place because Pete and I were interpreting them with our stutter-step command of the Spanish language–were murky, if not downright lies at times.

There was a festival going on, he said in Spanish. He told us that we should visit the festival tomorrow, but if we were to visit, out of respect, we should be wearing traditional Mayan garb.  His enthusiasm was real, and so ours was too.  Yes, we do want to be respectful travelers.  He explained hammocks: Maya only slept (and made love (he said with a quick vulgar motion of his hands)) in hammocks.  He explained guayabera: the traditional maya shirts had four pockets, which the men would fill with guayaba fruit (which could only be found in the native villages, he said.  We had to go and taste them, he said) after climbing up the local trees. And he explained the Jipis, the hats: the best hats, the true Maya hats, were made out of Cayamo (best attempt at phonetic spelling), a fiber made from the henequin plant, a type of agave.  He also told us that we needed to hurry to the artisan shop, not the governmental one, but the local cooperative one, that it was closing and would be closed for the next month because of Mayan festivals.

We arrived at the cooperative, which did not appear to be closing within the next few minutes.  Immediately, a kind employee swept us in, explaining that five artisan families had come together to create the cooperative.  All the items were the highest quality: hammocks and guayaberas, belts and tapestries, and Jipis.  First we tried out the hammocks.  The finest quality.  We needed a bigger size, he told us, because I was so tall.  Cuanto cuesta, I asked.  Tres mil ochenta.  Nearly four thousand pesos.  Even with the strong dollar, that’s in the almost three hundred dollar range.  We politely refused, and then we moved on to Los Jipis.  He took us into a side room, for the air conditioning, he said.  He showed us many Jipis, explained how they were made from Cayamo.  The scent repelled mosquitoes, he said.  They also hold their shape, he demonstrated as he folded up the hat into a ball, thanks to the process in which they are formed, after being woven–inside a warm, wet cave to cure.  It was impossible to know what was true and what was false.  On the street, I’d believed it all.  But now, we were ducks waddling around through an impressionist’s garden.  Our friend was the painter himself. What did he want from us? How much were we worth?

Tres mil  sesenta, for the two.  Three hundred dollars.  I immediately balked, and expected Peter, the generally more-thrifty of us, to do the same.  But Peter looked at me with those let’s-get-the-puppy eyes.  Maybe he was having trouble with the conversion rate.  That’s ALOT, I said smiling, glancing at our collective friend.  I said, in halting Spanish, that we would have to wait for another day.  But you will have to wait a month, he said.  That’s okay I said.  But we need money for the festival now, not in a month, he said.  I’m sorry , I said.  Tres mil pesos, he said. No, you don´t need to lower the price, I said.  We just don’t want them.  He was no longer our friend.  Is it the quality? he asked.  No, I said.  The price? No, we  just don´t want to buy them now, I said.

Dos mil cinquenta, he said.  Peter, still with that let’s-get-the-puppy look.  That´s like a hundred dollars a hat, I said.  They will be with us for the rest of our lives, Pete said.  Okay, I said.

After the momentary thrill, Pete and I both began wondering if we’d been duped.  We went home and inspected our hats more closely in the privacy of our room.  Mine had a weak point, a soon-to-be tear.  We were embarrassed to show our friends we’d made at the hostal we’d been staying at, or to tell them how much we paid.  Our guidebook said people could spend between 200 and 5000 pesos on a Jipi, which told us nothing.   Days later, we went to the Sunday market, and found a display full of hats just like ours, for 200 pesos.  Arghhhhh! We blew our budget on a broken hat.  We walked home and grabbed our hats, put them back in the bags in which we had carried them home, and returned to the street vendor.  Identical.

And so we went back to the collective, asking for our share back.  Here was our dilemma: we were strangers, güeros, that really didn’t know anything about these hats, how they are made, or the people that make them.  We’d already accepted that we were destined to always climb our way out of the hole that is the legacy of ugly US imperialism (and corresponding tourism).  Had they given us a good deal?  Had we paid our angel’s share?  Or had we, like fools, paid too g-d much for our g-d Jipis.

We walked in and put on our best business faces.  We were doomed.  Good afternoon, we said in our best business Spanish.  We would like to return our hats.  This one has a hole, we said.  Oh, sorry, you can only return them one day after, he said.  We can still return them, Pete said. I don’t understand, he said.  You understand, I said. Awkward silence.   You can change the one with a hole, he said.  We want to return them, we said.  You can’t, he said.

We exchanged them, and took our sweet time finding the finest, best made hats in the place.  The poor guy who had greeted us at the door this time had passed us back off to the original sales-guy, who wasn’t quite our friend, but wasn’t wasn’t either.  After our neither friendly nor angry goood-byes, we took to the street.

As we walked past, a man pointed to our bags, which were apparently quite obviously Jipi bags, and said we needed Guayerabas with our hats.  Yes, we know, I said, but not today.

This man began in again on the Maya.  I accepted the fact that this was both a scam and an education.  But then I decided to ask him: if we were to still need hats, how much should we spend.  Oh, a good hat can be tres mil pesos, he said.   We pulled ours out of our bags.  Oh, yeah, those, those are the highest quality.  How much did you spend on them? he asked.

And so we still don’t know the truth of it all.  We’ve asked around some more about the hats.  Did we get ripped off? Maybe.  Did we give them a hard time, even after they gave us a good deal?  Maybe.  It doesn’t matter so much though, not only because they are just hats, but also because it has been a full exchange.  We asked to be let in.  And we thought we were being let in.  But we weren’t.  And so we asked again to be let in.  And we thought we weren’t.  But maybe we were.  Or weren’t.  And so we’ll ask again.  And again.

I know what love is.

June 19, 1937

Dear Cedric,

A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that related to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.

Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptance of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.

Art is both love and friendship, and understanding; the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of Things, it is more than kindness which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the inter-relations of these.

I wish the thundercloud had moved up over Tahoe and let loose on you; I could wish you nothing finer.

Ansel

Read this and other fabulous correspondences at Letters of Note.

To read more about my wedding, where our dear friend Dor (aka Bacon Bit) read this letter, visit my Big Gay Fancy Camp page.