“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” first line of Joan Didion’s essay, Goodbye To All That, included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
I have spent the last thirty minutes or so writing in what I believe to be explicit detail about what I believed — during those thirty minutes — to be the first time I read Ms. Didion’s sentence, when I was just eighteen and had returned to the family home in Libertytown after having failed at running away to California where I’d hated it, where I’d been less than successful at the Bohemian, free-spirited thing — which translated meant being unemployed and camping on someone’s couch and obsessed with a man, Mark, whose sweat smelled sweet, the way I’d always imagined expensive French cologne, a flowery scent he claimed was the result of never having used deodorant or chemicals of any kind on his body, which is one of the two details about him I have kept, the kind of mental, probably semi-fictional talismans I’ve acquired in my vast collection in the museum of my heart’s history devoted to the long line of men I believed I could never have, for whom I never really tried, my youthful Catholic brainwashing having convinced me I was not and would never be in any way, in any area of my life enough, and, too, I realize now in retrospect and review, that same Catholic guilt forced me to justify what turns out to have been — most often — simple lust by convoluting it into a drama of unrequited love — often embellished with a glissando of tragic elements — not learning until I was well into my forties that many times if one looks with longing at or asks a fellow for access to his dick, it will be happily — even, sometimes, gratefully — granted, my being good enough or anything enough has little to do with it, and seeing beginnings and endings, as in that opening sentence of Ms. Didion’s, is — are? — in many ways the same sort of terribly complicated and ridiculously simple, at once, all together, layered, like memories, and deceptive like memory too, because, having spent thirty minutes writing about that first time I read Ms. Didion’s sentence I realized it was probably not at eighteen, returning home, shamed and afraid and failed and mourning the loss of Mark’s imagined, perfect and unscented dick when I read it, but rather, it had happened years earlier in the same Libertytown house when, a child, I spent most of a friendless summer there with my aunt, my days full of collecting the magazines and books piled everywhere in Libertytown’s twenty-seven hoarder-capacity filled rooms and arranging them in one room I called The Library, during which time I discovered Joan Didion’s columns in the Saturday Evening Post magazine, became obsessed with them — although I doubt very much I understood them — and I remember wanting to write like that but feeling, even then, I would never be able to because I would never know enough words or have the kind of life people who wrote those kinds of words had.
There you go, more than 500 words until the period trying to get to the memory of a beginning and still, not there yet.
That summer, my discovery of Ms. Didion as I hid away in that house where I pretended to be everything and everyone from a librarian to a diva descending a stairway in Hello, Dolly! to a 5th Avenue rich-lady (don’t ask, right now, another story, another time) to — I can’t remember anything else at the moment but even though I have lost the details, I do know there were more, many more I pretended to be — was that the end of something? Or the beginning? Because now, decades later, I think Ms. Didion mistaken. At least in my experience, beginnings and endings are impossible to demarcate. There are commas and em-dashes and parenthetical asides and clauses and every sort of digression and diversion and detour and deflection (give me some sort of award for deflection, because it is a gift, truly a gift) and departures and driftings and — you see what I’m saying — but what I find it hard to locate, to believe, to accept, are (obviously) periods and new paragraphs.
I’m having to move again, darlings. I’ve moved a lot. An exercise in memory follows in this paragraph — feel free to skip it. Birth home: Oak Orchard. I was seventeen months old when Daddy died: Libertytown with Grandparents and Aunt. House re-done with insurance money and we — Mommy and her six fatherless children — returned to Oak Orchard. Stepfather enters picture, I was eleven or twelve: Walkersville. Then, few years later, Woodsboro. Troubled at home, trouble at home, sixteen, to sister on Gas House Pike. No good there, wreck car. Woodsboro return — although I had to beg permission. No good there, quit school, thrown out of house at seventeen, Steve took me in on Third Street. Soon, still seventeen, my own place on Rosemont Avenue (which is less than two miles from where I live now, life). My late teens and twenties are a blur. There was a return (or two or three) to Libertytown. California with friends. New Jersey with a sister and her husband. New Haven with a friend. Libertytown (again). Patrick Street. Madison Street. Carriage Way. Columbine Drive. Carriage Way. Braddock Heights. Funeral Home on Church Street. Here. Now, within the next thirty to sixty days, somewhere yet to be determined.
I guess you could call all of those beginnings and endings if you were so inclined. I am not. So inclined. They are commas in a continuum, although, some are more unto semicolons. Or, colons? I don’t know. When it comes to punctuation and grammar, like Ms. Didion, I play it by ear. Not much for rules. Conventions have never worked for me. (This is a diversion and digression, you see? I don’t want to talk about moving.)
I was talking to a friend yesterday whose daughter was leaving home. The moving on, the moving out, the letting go, it’s hard. Change is hard. Transitions are so difficult. I felt for her pain.
I can’t claim parental experience; but I have had a life of uncle-ing and teaching. When I taught I often had kids who spent more time with me than they did at home. I somehow had a reputation for welcoming those kids (and adults) who didn’t fit easily in the world. Theatre is a great place to find healing, a safe place to experiment and grow into one’s own, unique and amazing soul, embrace possibilities. Many of those so-called “troubled” kids have turned into grown-ups who are much stronger than I ever was (or will be) and sometimes I think, “Hmm, maybe had I had ME when I’d had nowhere to go as a youth, I would have grown into someone capable of taking care of himself.”
Again, another story for another day, the point of this is, sooner or later, with all those kids (and the grown-ups, too) there came a time when they were ready to go. With each presence and departure, I would change as they changed; my world was made a little smaller with their exit, and yet had been made wider for their having been there.
Now, my life is much quieter, but there are a number of those children — now grown-ups — still actively in my life, which is surprising and brilliantly blessed and blissful for me. They are great successes, and I am still patting myself on the back for all the ways I made a nest for them, gave them space to grow wings, and INSISTED they fly. Beginnings and endings, all twisted together in lovely ways, but there is no denying that each transition shaped like goodbye also brings with it some rueful, melancholy difficulty and hard time: packing up and watching the going, no matter how right the going, how exciting the going, still, when it is one’s child, one’s fledgling, one’s mentee you are sending away, there is the stab of the knife, to have succeeded so in making the outside world understandable and conquerable enough for them that they have the oomph and courage to leave your bosom and tackle it, and make their own version of it. When I taught, as I watched my VERY SPECIAL ones ready to conquer the world, I almost wanted to KICK myself for making them so strong, when having them around as pals once they grew into themselves was such a joy and comfort.
After decades of teaching (and directing), it became too exhausting to say goodbye over and over. Endings. Which always came with beginnings. For those leaving. For the new ones who’d arrive looking for a place to be and to grow into themselves.
I started this entry believing I had first read that Didion sentence when I was eighteen in Libertytown. That was what I was writing about, the experience of recalling the blue cover of the paperback of Slouching Towards Bethlehem which had been bought at Learmont Book Shop, downtown Frederick, owned and operated by two relocated New York gay men who told me what to read and listen to and stayed a safe distance from me because I was so much younger and they were — at that time, I see and understand now — operating in a dangerous limbo of small-town in transition (that word again) — and I was reading that book, so lonely, late night in Libertytown, isolated (before internet, before cellphones, before you could even reliably get the New York Times in Libertytown) sitting in my bed, a bed made by my great, great, grandfather, a bed passed on to me when my aunt died, a bed which I passed on to my niece, Rachel, when I had to move a few evictions ago, and my nightstand was the one I still have, the one three feet from me now, the one I will take with me from here to wherever I go next, which has been in my family for more than one hundred years, its beginning I do not know, its ending a mystery right now except that I suspect when I die, it will be lost — who would want it? I keep it for the aura of memory it has, the table on which I first stacked my own copies of Didion. She is there now, still, in different form because the copy I’d had at eighteen was lost in the flood that happened a few weeks after I moved here, where I am now leaving, this place where I lost the first editions, signed, of my Didion and my Adler, acquired when my life was very different, those editions and that life . . . lost. Ended. Ending?
I am getting confused about why I wrote this. Why I started. Where I started. Began. Or, how to end. Or, should I?
Because I do not believe we can see beginnings and endings, not really, not ever. That Californian, Mark? He became an investment banker. He started using deodorant. And hair gel. Those Saturday Evening Post magazines were sold at auction, the auction that happened when I had to pack up and move away from Libertytown. I gave a copy of Didion’s Play It As It Lays to another in the line of men I believed I could never have, one who later told me he’d known all along I wanted him, who’d said, out loud, “Would you want anyone to think you’d slept with Charlie?” Or so I was told. By someone else with an agenda. So, was that true? I don’t know. I know that his not wanting me helped me decide to run away to New Haven. When Larry Kramer was writing for the New York Native about GRID, before it was AIDS, before I lost what was lost. I had all those New York Natives, too, saved, like someone had saved all those Saturday Evening Post magazines. And, I lost them too, when I had to get out of another place I had lived and ended up leaving behind years of collected periodicals and albums.
Ending? Yes. Beginning. Yes. But, wait, maybe no, to both? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Where was I? The thing is, there are hundreds of books remaining for me to pack and move. Somewhere. And this blog and its sentences, too long, like my life, too long. The commas and the clauses and the wanderings and the removals and the defiances of conventions and the men I believed I could never have who I never had and the men I believed I could never have who I did have and Mark and Pavel and all the others and the lies and the lays and the friends and the fiends and the foes and the fools and the manipulators and the abusers and the people who beat me down and the people who lifted me up and it is all such a long run-on sentence of a life in which I will never write one line as good as a Didion-line and never star in a Broadway show and never have a successful love affair and never have financial security and never feel safe.
I want, I think, The End.
See, it matters where the period goes, I guess.