Even as I ready to press PUBLISH on this post on which I have been working for 3 days (Not non-stop. I don’t write like that.) I am certain I will come back to it and edit (again) and add (I know, it’s already 3000 words) and delete (I know, thank heavens, you say) and — but, I am putting it out there because it is where and who I am in this moment. And a friend has STRONGLY suggested I give up writing fiction, re-visit all my blogs, and shape it into a memoir. Alas, I fear the only people interested are either dead, or already read my blog, so, anyway, Here we are. Going!
Fall began Thursday, September 22nd. I started house/pet-sitting at a gorgeous mountain retreat Friday, September 23rd. That night the television series version of “THE EXORCIST” debuted and like a fool, I watched it. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to write this, which started out as a memory about my brother, L, taking me to the movies, and somehow transmogrified into a meditation on marble and naked trees and gender and Michelangelo and … my usual babbling bullshit. So here we are, going.
THE FALLING LEAVES/OCTOBER APPROACHES
Autumn is my favorite season. I love the peeling away, the gift of being encouraged to lay bare the bones, disrobe and denude and divest and uncover, to have permission to abandon maintaining the adornment and artifice of the colorful and too often noisome business of being, to be allowed the enchantment of sloughing off, encouraged to welcome stillness, a peaceful, quiet, fallow resting, inside of which is the promise of renewal and spring.
Providentially, for these first ten days of Fall 2016 I am house/pet-sitting in a lovely mountain location just distant enough from the nearest town to afford an extra chill in the air, foliage making visible the breeze, brilliantly unfettered showers of sunlight, and silence enough to hear the birds, insects, and chattering leaves saying their goodbyes before they flutter and flitter and fall to the ground in the glorious quietus of release in which resides the covenant of resurrection.
But first, before we rise again, comes the letting go.
As I’ve aged, life has turned out much differently than I had planned, imagined, hoped. And as I accumulated experiences and disappointments I lost the smiling, optimistic, embracing, believing, open MiracleCharlie I was as a child. Now, after what began as a forced letting go and continued as a prolonged keening over and mourning for what was, what had never been, and what would never be, it has become clearer and clearer that finding MiracleCharlie again is more about that quote attributed (questionably, I think) to Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.”
This blog is a reflection of that process in my life, these stories I examine and re-examine as I chip away at the marble of memory and imagination, shaping this me; MiracleCharlie 2016 iteration.
THE GENDER THING
I was twelve when my brother, L, did the only thing with me I ever remember the two of us doing together: He took me to see The Exorcist.
In the semi-autobiographical concatenation of romantic remembering, longing, and solipsistic ambagiousness that is this blog, rarely has L been involved in the stories. Long have I attributed the trajectory of my life to what my family seems tacitly to have agreed was our defining moment: the death by combination of alcohol and telephone pole of my father in the late evening of September 17, 1962. And while we were all shaped and shattered by our father’s careless suicide, it was L who woke up on September 18, 1962, expecting to celebrate his tenth birthday, only to find he was now half-an-orphan.
Although I know one can’t (shouldn’t?) measure or compare, I think L suffered more — or at least, very differently — from the death of our father not just because it forever marked his birthday, but also because it left for him a vacuum of like masculine energy. I — the only other biological male in that out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere household — was not yet two years old, and the five remaining survivors were female. Though L made a few attempts along the way to teach me to throw or dribble a ball, it was clear early on from my proclivity for arranging one of his white T-shirts on my head, insisting it was long, luxurious blonde hair as I gaminely tossed it, twirling, trilling, and affecting a tremolo in my delusional attempts to affect a Judy Garland mien, that we would not be sharing the sort of bond I shared with my sisters.
What I most clearly (I think) remember about L from those years is that even when he was around he was locked behind the door to the room we shared and the distinct although tacit understanding that he was not like the rest of us. He was — like my scary uncles — that mysterious, dangerous sort around whom you had to be careful not to be fully yourself, he was: A Man.
It may be difficult for those born into the information age to comprehend how circumscribed and protected was the world of the 1960s in which I was raised. My family lived miles from the nearest town, there were no neighbors whose houses we could see, and before I could read my only contact with the outside world was through television, radio, and St. Peter’s Catholic church where I spent Sundays. I was a joyful, precocious, laughing and loving child who was happy to belong to the coven of brilliance which included my mother, four sisters, and aunt, Sissie. Even when I began school, it was the tiny Catholic one attached to the church, where the nuns knew my tragic fatherless story — we seemed to be the only family of children in the school without a father —and so in addition to my family coven, I then had a convent of School Sisters of Notre Dame who drew tight the circle of love and light around me in which I was shielded from the reality, protected and coddled.
Then, fourth grade happened.
St. Peter’s school was redlined out of existence by Vatican financial cutbacks and I was forced into the real world as represented by public elementary school without sisters of any sort to protect me. I was ill-prepared for its cruelty and primal-Darwinian violence. There, for the first time, I was expected to be a member of the tribe to which my brother and uncles and those mysterious creatures other people had called “fathers” belonged.
I could not. I did not belong. And I did not want to belong. But this is all a confusing mess of still sometimes embarrassing and painful remembories, a block of marble in which I am trying to find my 2016 shape.
The thing that finished me was when a duplicitous cretin named Kathy Tacks (sue me, go ahead) goaded me by calling me a goody-goody (among other names) into drawing pictures of a naked boy and girl.
Now, I know because there are pictures, that I took bubble baths with my baby sister when we were very young, but, as I said, our world was small and we were not a family who walked around unclothed. So, when I drew a naked boy and girl, they looked alike save for the girl’s long Marlo Thomas, early That Girl flip-hairdo. Tacks, who had pretended to like me in order to get me to do the drawings, started screaming with laughter immediately, showing everyone my art, leading the movement which continued throughout my school career where I was labeled not only a queer, but a sexually backwards freak.
I was finished.
I honestly had no idea what made a girl a girl and a boy a boy except that whatever it was that everyone else seemed to know a boy was, was not something I knew how to be. I walked funny. I talked funny. I looked at my fingernails funny. I carried my books funny. I liked the wrong music. I read too much. And the wrong things. Nancy Drew for fuckssake. I was too smart. I hated sports. I was excellent at jumping rope and hopscotch. I didn’t know how babies were made. I didn’t know anything at all about sex. My idea about what would happen to me in the future had something to do with — sorry to be such a cliché but it’s true — Judy Garland and the boy next door in Meet Me In St. Louis and Barbra Streisand crooning “Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein” in Funny Girl.
That’s a lot of funny in that paragraph. Too much.
I wish I had been able to find the funny in it then. But, the bullying and name calling and daily terror scarred me, forever. I still have a great deal of trouble believing anyone truly likes me. I have always believed I am a choice people make — as son, brother, friend, lover, actor, writer, whatever — when no one else is available. And, what makes it more difficult is that I still struggle to recover from the belief with which I was back then indoctrinated, a belief worse than the ever-present fear of being name-called or beaten up, a belief generating endless, crippling shame, the belief that whatever was “wrong” with me that caused me to be such a pariah, was my fault.
What else would I believe? Trapped as they were in the same cultural zeitgeist as was I, the people who loved me tried to help me by telling me not to be myself; “Act more like a boy,” or, more frequently, “Stop acting like a girl.” Messages which not only said, “There’s something wrong with YOU, Charlie” but, too, that there was something wrong with being a girl.
And I knew that was not so. All the people I most loved, all the people who had been kind to me, all the people who could be trusted and didn’t raise their voices or hit, all those people were girls.
And my brother, well, he was locked in his room.
It never occurred to me to ask L about being a boy, because not only did I not really want to be one, but I knew I’d be no better at it than I had been at baseball and basketball or other sporty-skills he had tried to teach me only to end up screaming and storming off to lock himself again in our room. Too, by eleven, puberty had hit and having gotten my hands on a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and discovered masturbation, I had faced up to the fact — if only in my head and only to myself — my Portnoy-ing stories about David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman and Leif Garrett and Robby Benson and Jan-Michael Vincent were not going to magically metamorphose into fantasies about Susan Dey or Raquel Welch or whatever other female I ought to be thinking about.
L may have been locked away behind the door to our room, but I was locked up with my pathetic secret that I deserved all those names people had been calling me for years because, well, I wanted to kiss boys. Or, actually, I wanted them to kiss me.
And I couldn’t change.
And, holy crap, my inability to be the boy I was supposed to be was embarrassing not only for me but, it seemed, for everyone else. It became clear that not only was I not going to be Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, I was hurtling toward the doom of being Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, or his portrayer, Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Maybe, if I was lucky, I would turn out to be Charles Nelson Reilly; at least he’d done Hello, Dolly! on Broadway.
So, on the occasion when L gave in to my pleadings — actually, he caved to the demands of his girlfriend at the time, Charlotte (What are the odds she’d have the female version of my name? I loved her.) who was extra fond of me — and took me along with them to D.C. to see The Exorcist, I was excited. No, I was overwhelmed. It meant a lot to me that L wanted to do anything with me. He was magical in our family — taciturn where the rest of us were effusive, calm (which I now suspect had something to do with the amount of weed he smoked) where the rest of us were excitable and nervous, male when the rest of us were female, or, whatever I was, that thing between — and so his inviting me to do something made me special. Made me cool. Especially because he was doing it behind my mother’s back. Especially especially because I would be able to tell everyone at school I had gone to a movie no one under 18 was supposed to be allowed to see. All wins.
AND THE EXORCIST RETURNS
2000 words later, I’ve arrived at the event that prompted me to write this entry. Succinct, I am not.
Friday night I watched the television re-boot of The Exorcist and I was terrified all over again. I thought — four decades later — I had recovered from the can’t go to sleep, bumps in the wall, demons around every corner horror I had suffered after L took me to see the film. I was so traumatized at twelve that I would not sleep in my bed until the frame was removed and my mattress put directly on the floor because I was convinced otherwise, each night, Satan was rocking and levitating it. My mother wanted to kill L.
She had learned her lesson a few years earlier when she’d given in to my pleading and taken me to see Love Story, during which I sobbed with such vigor and at such volume audience members voiced their dismay at the parent who’d subject a child of such sensitivity to the film. I did not stop crying until almost six hours later and for weeks afterward the opening notes of its theme, heard on the radio, could (and did) start my weeping again.
It is interesting to me, here in my fifties, when I tried recently to watch Love Story I laughed out loud at its manipulative plotting and the ridiculously bad acting. But, The Exorcist, I still can’t watch it. SO WHAT IN THE WORLD MADE ME THINK I SHOULD WATCH THE TELEVISION SHOW?
I spent most of the hour texting my sister, D, in panic. She had suggested I not watch it in the first place and then begged me to turn it off and finally forbade me to ever watch it again. I am, however, obsessed.
Partly because I am fascinated that a movie about love now seems silly to me while a movie about fear still terrifies me.
But, mostly because, watching The Exorcist series debut took me back to that movie trip with my brother. Why did he take me along? The more I considered it, tried to emotionally parse it, the clearer it became to me: if I didn’t know how to be a boy like he was, if the rest of the family lived on a plane of female energy and emotion, how left out must he have felt? The things he loved were of no interest to me. We had nothing in common. Who I was and who he was and our age difference didn’t present us many opportunities to do things together, to be together. Too, I dismissed the things that mattered to him — whether out of defensiveness or fear — and looking back from this vantage (took me long enough) I see that when I presented him with openings, he always said yes.
I brought him into my world when I couldn’t find a grown-up to play Doc in my youth production of West Side Story, and despite the fact he hadn’t set foot on a stage since his senior year in high school, L said yes when I asked. But that milieu, much like our family, was too clamorous and dramatic and out-there for him. “How,” he asked me one night, “do you stand all this noise and all those people in your face all the time?” But, I noticed when he said it, he seemed proud of me, proud that I could command and conduct the cacophony.
Until, I couldn’t. And had to leave.
I thought about killing myself. A lot. Many times over the years. I tried. Many decades ago. And for the last few years of my past life, I would pray every night to a god I no longer much believed in to have mercy and let me die. But, finally, I realized I am not like my father, and I didn’t want to choose fear over love and go in a truck, drunk driving like a coward into telephone poles until the story ended, but, rather, I wanted to have courage enough to say, “I am somewhere in this chunk of marble and I need to chip away at it until I find MiracleCharlie again.”
LOVE & LIGHT beat fear and darkness
This is all part of another story not yet ready for the telling (Not yet ready for me to really look at, too much marble, an overwhelming amount, I can see nothing but how heavy it is and how I cannot — now, anyway — imagine tackling it.) about the kind of man others wanted me to be, which had as little to do with me and who I really was as did all the “be a boy” taunts of my youth.
But, it’s fall. I am in a beautiful place, surrounded by nature’s music in which there is resounding, marvelous silence, rests of length enough to invite in the remembories that prompt blog entries, that make me re-think and shed the leaves (chip away the marble?) covering my trunk, my core, my strength, my spine, and look again at what holds me up, what grew me.
What I have grown. What I can let go. What seems silly to me now. What I am still afraid of. What — despite all the years of examining and over-examining my life and my thoughts and reality — I misunderstood along the way, or, maybe, being kinder to myself, hadn’t yet grown vision enough to fully see.
The Exorcist scared me Friday night. But, I talked myself down and went to bed here at my house-sit, and I laughed when I got under the covers, realizing that here, in this bed, I could remote control raise the head of the mattress and make it vibrate. Fuck satan. Fuck fear. I’m letting go the things that prevent me from being the MiracleCharlie in the bubble bath, free of shame, free of labels, happy and splashing in a cozy world full of people who love me.
The rest, well, it’s just a story someone told to make me cry or make me afraid. This is my movie now, and its shape doesn’t fit the “norm” of American-acquisitiveness any more than queer-little Charlie fit the “norm” of boy — and I’m not making that same mistake again of believing there is something wrong with me.
I’m MiracleCharlie, and I almost (I’m afraid to fully commit) even like the body I have made for myself (see first picture in post) even though I wish it were 15 pounds thinner, still, I have recently walked naked in front of another man (or two, I go to a gym) with that body and felt, well, okay about it, and that is a lot of many kinds and levels of marble I have chipped away and leaves I’ve let fall and I love my brother and I forgive Kathy Tacks and even more important, I forgive MYSELF, and here I am, dammit, laughing, smiling, happy, loving, fucking, being me, and baby, I am going.
Love you all. Be back soon.