Tag Archives: T. S. Eliot

Guess what you guys! We interrupt our regular schedule of not-posting-on-Thursdays to bring you this post over on Catholic Exchange. It’s really nice to be writing publicly as Joseph Prever again; I mean, it’s really nice for there to be only one of me.

It’s also nice to write stuff that isn’t about gayness in particular. Anyway, here’s an excerpt.

Is it safe to expose children to such dark images? I think so, or as safe as any real poetry can be; poetry is no tame lion. At that age, I had no categories in my mind for real darkness, and so the darkness couldn’t get in to do me damage. But the image stayed; which meant that when the reality showed up years later, I was not defenseless.

Maybe you could go over there and leave comments, so they’ll think I’m awesome and post my stuff all the time. Peace.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I think she’s starting to suspect something.
Harrison Ford: Who?
Michelle Pfeiffer: [scarily, sexily] YOUR WIFE.1

It’s tricky, having a secret identity. Not so tricky when you live alone: I imagine Superman enjoyed lounging around his apartment in cape and tights, blissful and carefree as long as he kept the curtains closed.2 And of course he had the Fortress of Solitude, so that was nice.

When I first started blogging as Steve Gershom — wow, over a year ago — I considered not telling my family about it at all. At that time, they didn’t know about my SSA, or most of them didn’t. My parents knew, from back when I was less computer-savvy,3 although it wasn’t really news to them — I mean, they were the ones who paid the shrink. My older brother knew, because I told him…meh, okay, he knew already too: I had confided in his then-fianceé some years back, and she turned out to have a sorta big mouth.4

But from everybody else, when I finally sent the big email, I got reactions ranging from:

  • “Whaaaat? Really? You?” (in a nice way) to
  • “Well, I did grow up with you.” (fair enough) to
  • “So you’re into dudes, huh?” (my favorite)

The whole thing was extremely liberating, and afterwards my reasons for holding out seemed a little dopey. “Your little brother will be freaked out,” I told myself. (He wasn’t — see last quote, above.) “It would be selfish to burden them with this,” I pontificated. (SERIOUSLY? How ’bout the number they did on you?5) “There’s no point, and it won’t really help,” I predicted. (Yah, because sharing your burdens with the people who care about you never helped anyone, ever.)

Not only was it liberating, it was fruitful, too. When you come from as large a family as mine, the sheer age spread makes it hard to be as close to your siblings as you might like; and when you come from as wounded a family as mine, an awful lot can get buried.6 Once this came out, a few other things started to. Those ripples are still spreading.

Which is not to say that the decision was easy, or that I should have made it sooner, or even that everybody should do it. A lot of things had to happen before I was ready. And then, some ostensibly Christian parents really would disown a son for being into dudes, and some ostensibly Christian siblings really would be disgusted. Mine didn’t and weren’t, because if there’s one thing my family is good at, it’s tolerating idiosyncracy.7 Everyone should be so lucky, but not everyone is.

But everybody — Oh, everybody, and I know this is hard for so many of you, because it was for me — needs somebody to tell.

As for telling everybody, it’s mainly the prudence of Father T. that has kept me from it. It’s a complicated question, and the best I can do is try to follow the Spirit. It’s possible, of course, that the whole thing is moot, and that everyone is just silently going “Dude. We know. No big deal.” When I told my friend M., he acted properly surprised, but it turned out he had known for SEVEN YEARS — again, due to the big mouth of a dear friend’s brother. Pseudonym or no, I’m not exactly careful, and anyone who knows even my basic history could (and frequently does) piece it together pretty easily.

The question is a little more pressing in the case of my roommate. He knows I write, and will ask fairly often how it’s going, which makes me hem and haw like nobody’s business. (“I’m writing…something. About…people.”8) And I feel bad: he really is interested, which I take as a compliment, and I hate making him feel shut out, because he’s my friend. And if I really didn’t want him to know, wouldn’t I have made a habit of writing in my own Fortress of Solitude, viz. the attic that’s only accessible through my bedroom? And if I tell him there’s a blog, I can’t exactly refuse to tell him where it is. There’s nothing I’m ashamed of on here, but it’s some pretty personal sh★t. Does anybody really want to know that much about the guy they live with?

But these questions don’t bother me, not tonight. God has proved himself good time and again, and as for that funk I’m starting to dare to say that I’m coming out of — guys, the Memorare? One heck of a prayer.

1 Yeah, that movie has nothing to do with this post at all.
2 That sentence sure got creepy fast, didn’t it?
3 Was I ever really dumb enough not to delete the search history? Seriously.
4 Dearest R., who I still reads this thing: I mean that affectionately, I promise.
5 Joke. Mostly. Hey, what family doesn’t F★ck each other up, is what I’d like to know.
6 “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
7 Tolerating? If idiosyncracy were an animal, there would be like seventeen of them on our coat of arms. Rampant.
8 Okay buddy, getting a little self-indulgent with the inside jokes.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.1

When I was in college and going through the worst of it, I got tired of praying that the sadness would go away and that things would be easy. I got tired of it because it was a prayer that was never answered. Or maybe it was, since it’s said that every prayer has only three possible answers: Yes, Later, and Something Better. If this prayer was answered at that time, the answer was certainly one of the latter two.

I wondered, then, if there was a prayer that God would always say Yes to, to spare me the suspense of wondering what his response would be. I came up with this one: Lord, let this day be good. I’d say it on the mornings when I woke up and felt the pain settle in, and I’d say it in the evenings when I saw another night of difficulty coming.

The whole trick was not to bother myself about what “good” might mean. All the problems came from bothering: Why me, why this? What’s the use, what’s the point, what’s this for? How did this happen; when will it be over? Questions that tied my stomach into knots. And again, if God answered those questions, I couldn’t hear him — as C. S. Lewis says somewhere2 — over the din of my own grief. Better not to ask till the noise died down.

But “Let this day be good” — this was always answered. Years later I began to have glimpses of how it was answered, but never completely, and never steadily. Others could see it, no doubt, better than I could. I was too close.

It’s an easy prayer to pray. It requires quiet, and it brings quiet. Sometimes it’s the only prayer possible.

It’s the sort of prayer Jesus might have prayed on the Friday which is, after all, called Good.

1 From T. S. Eliot’s East Coker.
2 Either in The Problem of Pain or A Grief Observed.

I was having a great night out at the bar — I was with mostly men, a situation that would have once tied my tongue completely, but I was doing great! I left the booth to use the bathroom. I was so pleased with myself for being social, and relaxed, and non-awkward, and normal, that I congratulated myself in the mirror.

Out loud.

For being so normal.

Then I heard the toilet behind me flush. I left the bathroom very quickly.

Conversation is like using a public urinal: the less attention you pay to it, the better it flows.1 I don’t mean Deep, Meaningful Conversations (DMC’s)2, I mean what’s usually called Shooting The Shit (STS). It’s something I’ve always been bad at.

In high school I occasionally got invited to all-male sleepovers, where the conversation followed a predictable pattern: first poop jokes, then talking about girls, then loopy dreamspeak until the last person passed out. I could very rarely get into the rhythm of these things, and would divide my time equally between being terrified that I’d say the wrong thing and terrified that I wouldn’t say anything at all. It was like a first date, all the time.

I was discovering coffee around the same time, and on one occasion I found that being heavily caffeinated lowered my inhibitions a little bit.3 so I would prep for these gatherings by drinking no fewer than three cups of instant Folger’s. Horrible stuff, and it didn’t usually work, though it did help with the paruresis.

Later on I somehow got the idea that conversation wasn’t Really Conversation unless it involved either half-baked metaphysical theorizing or profound self-revelation. The college I attended was a hotbed of seekers, oddballs, and eccentrics — among I tried to cultivate a reputation as King of the Oddballs — so this served me pretty well during those years. It worked less well after graduation, when I was confronted with the vast throng of more-or-less normal people.

And, again, it wasn’t just a problem of of talking to people: it was a problem of talking to other men. I’d freeze up, just go completely dry in my effort to say the right thing. I always wanted to talk theory and generalization, but conversations between men seem to consist in telling each other facts, and I seemed to be ignorant about most of the facts they cared about — and terrified to expose my ignorance, or to say something unmistakeably fruity.

Do most men talk that way because it’s how they’re wired, or is it a smokescreen, a way to avoid the important things? Probably some of both. But, really, it isn’t just men: even back then, I could do it too, when I wasn’t talking to someone I was desperately hoping would like me.

Besides, talking about Important Things all the time isn’t how people work: humankind cannot bear very much reality,4 or anyway not on a typical Thursday afternoon. It’s not how we usually get to know each other, and doing it all the time would be exhausting.

I’m getting better at it, the talking, the relaxing, but I’m still new at being good at it. Any time I get through a few hours of Shooting the Shit with my male friends and realize at the end that I wasn’t thinking about whether I was nervous or tense or awkward or fruity — wasn’t thinking about much, in fact — I feel great, and grateful, like I’ve done something worth celebrating.

It’s the little things. Like not being a tense neurotic nervous oddball maniac.

1 Yes, I am an occasional sufferer of paruresis, commonly known as “stage fright.” Sometimes I find that trying to silently recite Kubla Khan helps me get going, but I usually get stuck after “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” What the hell is a rill? That must have been some good dope STC was smoking.
2 Or DMC’s, as we used to call them in college. The term was coined by my friend M. to describe the kind of conversation that was always going on at 2am after heavy doses of alcohol and heavier doses of Hegel. DMC’s usually ended in tears, mutual professions of deep fondness, the forging of entire new paradigms of thought, or all three. Or sometimes you’d just pass out.
3 I know, alcohol does the trick a lot better, but I didn’t figure that out until college. Just as well.
4 See TSE’s Burnt Norton.

“God really does give you your heart’s desire,” Mother Agnes was saying, Madre Inez I mean. She was the last person you would have expected to end up in Puerto Maldonado, one of the poorer sections of Peru, surrounded by jungle on every side. Twenty hours by bus from Cuzco and most of those on dirt roads, jungle on every side. I think she grew up on a farm in Iowa.

She’s birdlike, frail-looking, pointy-chinned. I had been there for two months before I started to suspect either her great tenderness or her great strength, because everything about her is so ordinary and small.

I went to Peru for discernment and healing, but also, let’s face it, looking for excitement and adventure and really wild things.1 Mother Agnes wasn’t what I had in mind.

The order had just moved from to this place from a suburb of Lima, and they were looking for somewhere to build their new home. The “heart’s desire” she was talking about was all around us: everything green, rainforest-green, the wind bending the trees but somehow making everything seem more still. She said living in a place like this was what she had always wanted.

In terms of vocation, she seemed like a contradiction. When I think of someone who’s meant to leave their home country to confront poverty and disease of body and soul, I don’t think of Mother Agnes. If vocation is God fitting you for a certain life, wouldn’t he have made her strong, brazen, robust? Maybe even a little swarthy? Maybe he could have given her a better ear for languages, too — her Spanish, after five years in the country, was worse than mine.

But there she was in Peru, talking about her heart’s desire, smiling bigger than you would believe.

Vocation has everything to do with desire, but not always how you’d think. A priest’s vocation to the celibate life doesn’t consist in not fancying marriage. Rather the opposite. I suspect that every true vocation means giving up something you care deeply about.2

But there’s desire, and then there’s Desire. I think so often about what I want — companionship, intimacy, pleasure — and those things are true and good, those things are worth wanting, but it’s not the deepest kind of desire.

Here’s another contradiction: desire takes work.

There’s a beautiful Buddhist3 story that my mother once told me. A young man goes to a Zen master and says he wants to see God. The Master takes him to a lake and says, Okay, kneel down. So they both kneel down by the lake. Then the Master grabs the young man’s head and shoves it under the water.

He’s pretty strong for an old man! He holds him there, notwithstanding the poor guy’s increasingly desperate struggles. Finally, after a good minute or so, he lets him up. When he does — the guy is gasping and spluttering, can’t believe that a great sage would do something like that — the Master says: “You want to see God? When you want to see him as badly as you wanted to breathe ten seconds ago — that’s when you’ll see him.”

Desire takes strength. Desire takes patience. Desire isn’t what you want at the moment. It’s what your whole heart wants. If only you can bear to cut away all the dead wood, or let it be cut away. If only you will listen.

1 Ten points if you know who I’m quoting, and how many heads he has.
2 See Eliot’s Little Gidding: “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)”.
3 Okay, so I don’t know whether this is actually a Buddhist story, or makes any kind of sense in a Buddhist context. Whaddaya want, I don’t know from Buddhism. But stet, because it’s a hell of a story.