Monday, December 12, 2016

The Generosity of Love

            I’m having trouble lately with staying mad. Mr. Makeout Music and I have (I’m almost sure) moved on from being in a fight to just taking space from each other. We’ve communicated this to each other in the most adorable way ever:

            Last Wednesday during Lego Day, he stopped in to reprimand some kids in such a protective and manly way, telling them (in his dreamy a-little-bit-mad voice) to be respectful of me and each other. I looked up from my coloring, smiled, and offered him a high five. He took it and I felt just a little more whole.

            The kids and I have been working on a kindness chain—a paper chain where each link is something kind you could do or something kind someone has done for you. He hung around and wrote like five links, the last one being “Giving people gold stars for existing.” Which is a thing that I do, so I knew he still felt friendly toward me, still thought of me as the person I was before November’s storm of grief and drama. Just that little visit was enough to start up the daydream machine again, so I’m still keeping my distance.

Saturday, though, used to be our main hang-out-and-make-art-while-he’s-supposed-to-be-working day. There may still be a stack of his art in my middle desk drawer as souvenirs. While I was getting ready for work last Saturday, I accidentally listened to the wrong toward-the-end-of Hamilton song so I went in with the achingest of hearts.

I was able to pour a lot of that love into the Thankfulness Christmas Tree I made with the kids, but I wanted to reach out to Mr. Makeout Music a little, so I made him a card with a pretty, delicate blue paper snowflake glued on and wrote:

“Space is awesome.
But/and I miss you a whole bunch.
I hope your life is full of awesome.

Poor editing that I used the word “awesome” twice, but after I gave it to him and he was sweet and thank you-y about it, I felt a million times better and much closer to the part of myself that feels missing while I’m missing him.

It reminded me of the brave day I let myself fall for him. He gave me a paper of his to read, a paper about rising to the occasion of fatherhood. I liked it so much and felt so grateful that he’d let me read it that I COVERED the margins in gold stars, intricate pink flowers, vines, and tiny purple asterisks. (No hearts, but those would come soon enough.)

I did all this in full view of my boss and everybody. One of the kids asked what I was doing and I (only a little bit sheepishly) said “My friend let me read his homework and I really liked it.”

It’s part of my routine to sit around work and doodle while waiting for my programs to start, but I knew this time I was being a little ridiculous, a little carried away, but something just unlatched and a light shined out of my heart, golden yellow like the million stars I was drawing. Something inside me said “Give, it’s safe.” So I did. I folded it up in a #10 envelope with the library’s return address on it, like an envelope could contain the ridiculousness.

That was the first day we really talked, the first time I stood next to him and really felt next to him. I don’t’ want to reduce him to just a Muse, though he certainly IS one, but there was something about our connection, something in his generosity of spirit that made me want to give him and the world every loving thing I had. While I miss his companionship very much, I also miss being able to give and give and give—to sing out his name, to lavish him with praise (and accept his), to unabashedly hand him every piece of art I felt like making him, without feeling the need to ask (as I did with the card on Saturday) “Is this okay?” I miss and value so much the flow of it, of him, of us.

I wonder sometimes, in the midst of that glitter-storm of generosity, why it was so important that he didn’t love me back in the same ready, open way. But it is, and I know every day that I take care of myself with space and grieving is a day closer to the next love, the next unlatching.

It’s hard not knowing whether he and I will end up friends or if our whole thing is just beautiful and done, but if I can love him in little ways, if I can visit the selflessness, softness, risk and vulnerability of those first margin-doodles, maybe I can stay in touch with the me that he was drawn to, maybe even become more like her. I have a lot of thinking to do about service, submissiveness, and unconditional love, and I’m so proud of how I got to these realizations. I’ll never stop loving him for it, even as I learn to let him go.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Lady Work Crush, 2010: A Story of Cultural (In)competence (Part Three)

            I took a few days off and lay in bed with a cat sitting on me, deciding what to do. I went into the afterschool classroom in the in the middle of the day when no one was there, gathered up my stuff and left a note. I ran into one of the kids on the way in and the guilt just killed me. I felt like I was abandoning the children I’d been there to serve, because I was. Despite LWC’s perception that I was mean, the kids really did love me a lot, they always do, and I loved them so much too.

            I’d already written to the C.E.O. and other higher-ups during one of the witch-hunty meetings over the summer, and I wrote to them again at the end. This is one of those shitty experiences you hope has a good effect in the long run.

            A nice friend who worked at another school made me a card and had everyone sign it at the all-site meeting. It was sad but I hoped that future LGBTQ AmeriCorps members would be treated more hospitably.

            When I look back on the whole situation, I feel pretty humbled and mortified. Though homophobia was certainly a thread that ran through the whole experience, unwanted workplace advances DO need to be taken seriously, and she certainly deserved to be free of them. But at the same time, I never deserved to be treated with that much suspicion, that much distrust. Though the distrust was understandable in some ways, and I should have been much more willing to take time earning people’s trust, it still hurt, it still did damage, as did kind of having a car aimed at me.

            As I went deeper into the education field, the distrust factor got deeper and drownier. I found it very hard to stay in touch with my best qualities when people kept assuming the worst, and by the end, I was a threat to kids, I was part of a racist system and solidly part of the problem. I have to take responsibility for that and keep trying to bridge the gaps that separate me from African American people, from men, from straight people. The things that separate us hurt so much, and I know I can only do little things to fix the broken connections.

            If I were to run into LWC now, I would apologize for sending her the poem, for making her uncomfortable, for letting my frustration and loneliness impact her job. She probably wouldn’t apologize for aiming a car at me. Straight privilege seems insurmountable sometimes, and I am really, really sick of it.

            All of this informed my not-quite-love story with Mr. Makeout Music—the fear of meetings, the self-consciousness, the worrying about coercion, the general feeling like I might be the bad guy. But I’m gratified to say, this is a wholly different workplace (Well, it’s also a hetero attraction, but still.) Everyone on his team has been cordial and sweet and my own department head has been a patient, encouraging listener. Yesterday as the kids and I made a kindness chain for Christmastime, I felt things shift back into their normal, loving work ways.

I’m sorry it took me this long to realize I’m not back in the scary LWC situation. For all of my getting upset about Mr. Makeout Music greeting me with fear, I brought my own mess to the table too—fear of meetings, fear of oppressing him, fear of being too much and too many. As I revel in the space we’re giving each other and the freedom to grieve the lost connection, I feel aglow in the kind and accepting workplace I helped create.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Lady Work Crush, 2010: A Story of Cultural (In)competence (Part Two)

            At the time, Sweetie was working an hour and a half from home, on a good traffic day. It was a sacrifice she’d made so we could move to our new city, a sacrifice which my mother reminded me semi-daily was my fault and mine to correct.  Sweetie and I usually talked on the phone during her long commute, but the guilt and all of the dinners alone, combined with my insufficiently examined white lady issues, added up to a toxic soup of guilt and loneliness.

            While I was feeling this emptiness and longing to connect, Lady Work Crush developed a deep connection with the Mean Boss Girl, and they started to call each other sisters. Of course I would never want to begrudge anyone friend- or sister-love, but their bond made me feel even more alone, especially since their friendship included the detailed reiterating of SVU plots and I had to ask them to tone it down, to their great annoyance.

            We had a long series of snow days that February, during which my AmeriCorps hours got hopelessly behind and during which I wrote a love poem about Lady Work Crush. I mentioned it in passing and she said that she would love to read it. I hemmed and hawed and then sent it via facebook. I cringe every time I think about that decision, how it made things uncomfortable for her and unsafe for me.

            The next day at work, I saw contempt flash across Mean Boss Girl’s face as she took a call from LWC. There was another meeting. LWC said I’d been “taking it out on” the kids because I was upset that she didn’t like me back. I didn’t think that was accurate but it still gives me so much shame just to type it. She stated and reiterated that she prefers men in a way that still looks a little bit like protesting too much.

            I said that I understood and accepted her rejection, but that I also felt like I wasn’t being treated fairly, that this wouldn’t have had to be a meeting if I were a man. I said I thought they were making me into the bad guy in a way that made me feel unsafe and unwelcome at work. I’m not sure if that was true or if I was just embarrassed and hurt and trying to diffuse the shame and rejection like I always do. Probably it was both.

            LWC was LIVID at the end of this conversation, and that work night ended with her getting in her car, turning up the radio all the way, and speeding in the direction of my closeted male coworker and myself. I don’t want to be too dramatic, she only KIND OF aimed the car at us.

            There was a meeting with the boss’s boss the next day, wherein I was asked to sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t make any more advances on LWC. Now that I’m thinking about it, I only made one advance and accepted her “no,” so it seems crazy that there was a paper. I said again that this wouldn’t be happening if I were a man, but I signed it. I also told the bosses that this was a homophobic workplace and I didn’t quite understand how to fit in there anymore.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Lady Work Crush, 2010: A Story of Cultural (In)competence (Part One)

First, an invitation—as I muddle my way through talking about race in this story, readers of color should please feel encouraged to push back on anything that bothers you. 9/10 of cultural competency is just being ready to say I’m sorry.

In 2008, I moved from a small city to a bigger one, and the new city felt more segregated to me, though I was probably just feeling the shock of a less white-centric existence. Though my defensiveness and self-righteousness wouldn’t have allowed to admit it at the time, I brought entitlement and racism in with me. I’m sure that that informs this story and I hope that I’ve made some progress in the intervening years.

As my AmeriCorps position brought me into situations where I was often the only white person, one thing that I had to get used to was people distrusting me based on my race. It was only a microscopic fraction of what people of color go through, but it hurt and felt frustrating nonetheless. People kept assuming I was a pushover, so I ended up coming across as meaner than I meant to, more forceful. I wanted insta-credit for living in the same neighborhood and for serving the kids—that’s entitlement. When the kids assumed I was voting for McCain over Obama, I was devastated, and I guess I’ve come a little way forward since then because I felt much more empathy and understanding this year when kids assumed I was voting for Trump.

As I was (often poorly) navigating being the only white person, I was also the only out LGBT person in most rooms. The new neighborhood was very religious, both Christian and Muslim, and was much more gender-normative than the hippie neighborhood I’d come from. My wife and I stopped holding hands as we walked down the street, and I don’t think I’ve ever fully acknowledged the loss in that.

The afterschool program I worked in was sexist and homophobic. My supervisor told me that he felt it was men’s duty to “correct” any boys they noticed “acting wrong.” (Meaning gay.) We walked the kids in from school in boy-girl lines. Though I loved leading my group with my sweet and sensitive male teaching partner, the supervisor put a more traditionally masculine man in charge of us because he thought “a male influence would give the kids more structure.” I quit in a blustery huff and moved to another site with a more progressive leader.

I’d only been working with kids for a couple of years at that point, but I’d already decided that it was my duty to be as out as I could with them. I wanted them to know that they knew at least one LGBT person and for any kids who were growing up queer to know they had at least one ally. Even under the progressive boss, I was always getting in trouble for this. There were meetings. When the progressive boss moved to another position, he was replaced by a mean young woman and things got worse.

Once, I showed the kids a picture on my phone of Sweetie and me having bagels with my niece. Meanwhile, my boss had an entire collage of her family life behind her desk for all to see. I was pulled aside at a training by my boss’s boss for a reprimand, and I pushed back against it, saying that I felt unwelcome and unsafe because of the double standard. I was proud that I’d stood up for myself and I hoped that maybe I was heard.

It was into this context that Lady Work Crush arrived. She was beautiful and I felt something spark between us, or at least spark in me. She came across as a little butch and she looked like a goddess to me. We became friends and my heart started to do the yearning thing.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Little Polyphobia, Two “I Love Yous” and a Blocked Number

            In the past, I’ve always found a way to diffuse my shame and sadness at the end of a love story by making the guy into a villain, which only one character in this blog every really was. The hurt is normal, the shame is my problem and my responsibility, and the rejection is not personal, so I want to treat the end of the Mr. Makeout Music story as kindly as possible.

I’m not sure what made me think I should be as out with him as I was. Maybe it was our mutual love of Steven Universe, the fact that he used to write erotica, or just the attraction making me all shiny and self-love-tastic. The librarians who supervise me at work range from queer-friendly-and-ready-to-learn to genderqueer and poly-leaning, so I don’t really feel the need to hide my queerness or poly tendencies. It’s not like I’ve talked directly to the kids about it, but I never worry about them overhearing. They all know by now that my ex-wife is my best friend, that I enjoy handsomeness, and that I’m active in LGBTQ and feminist causes.

There have been a couple of painful misunderstandings, but for the most part I feel safe to be myself—it’s part of why I love the job so much. Through honesty and careful conversations, I’ve helped make it a home that accepts me.

And before I tell this story I should say, it’s not like I haven’t acted polyphobic before. In my frustration and failure to fit and find love in the poly world, (Or, it sometimes seems, any world…) I’ve lashed out and been judgmental, impatient, and pushy in ways that I really regret. I’m grateful that my poly friends have been so generous and patient with me while I figure out what the heck my deal is.

Anyway, so Mr. Makeout Music. I REALLY missed him over Thanksgiving break. I wasn’t due back at the library until Tuesday, but I started wanting to sing out his name around Monday night. When I walked in and saw him at the front desk, everything seemed to go really well. He knocked me out telling me that he’d tried to watch some Gilmore Girls for me! We had a little awkward moment when I told him I didn’t like the book he’d leant me (Y: The Last Man, because apparently he thinks feminism means murdering all the men through childbirth…) but I felt like we were settling back into an easy flirty rapport and I was so delighted to see him.

He came to visit my department almost right away and we were talking about how awesome Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was. The conversation randomly wandered to my arbitrary dislike of Helena Bonham Carter (It’s probably because she killed Sirius Black!) This topic opened a surprising and irritating can of worms.
“I think she had some kind of love triangle thing a while back? Although, that doesn’t seem right. Why would I not like a love triangle, they’re kind of my thing.”

“Children’s department…” He said warningly, and I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

“I’m not ashamed of being poly, and I don’t expect you to be, either.”

“I’m not ashamed, but they’re kids. There’s a time and a place.”

“You don’t need to protect the kids from me.”

“I need to protect them from everything.”

I was completely shocked by this exchange for several reasons, mostly because we had been talking about all the topics for months and months! Never anything it was inappropriate for the kids to hear, but definitely things more scandalous than a love triangle, which is the basis of like A THOUSAND Disney movies. I didn’t like his assumptions about what I was saying and the fact that flirting and being me was suddenly something he thought he had to control, something that was suddenly wrong. It was one of those loss-of-trust moments that’s hard, maybe impossible, to come back from.

When I got a crush on somebody at work, what happened next was what I was afraid of. I asked him to come into the meeting room and talk just a few minutes before the kids were due to come in and make paper snowflakes.

I told him what it’s like to have grown up queer, to have so often been perceived as a threat to children. The bad thanksgiving was weighing on me so much and I’m sure that made this more fraught than it otherwise might’ve been.

Though we’d spent months sneaking in flirting into a million different library conversations, he kept insisting that I’d been talking about sex in front of the kids this time. He kept repeating the “time and a place” thing. I think when I said “love triangle” he heard “threesome.”
It was Annoying Heteronormativity 101. I explained that some of the three-or-more relationships I know are families, that I was talking about love rather than sex. If he wouldn’t feel bad for talking about his family, I shouldn’t have to talk about (VERY VAGUELY ALLUDING TO,) other kinds of families. He was really mad and defensive, but he did try to listen.

From there I told him how hurt I was that he acted so afraid of me back when I took his hand, that he was sometimes treating me like a threat. Not as much the rejection part, but the fear. He insisted that he wasn’t afraid, but it did look like fear to me, then and now.

I started to sob and he said “Ms. ________, please don’t cry.” And came over and sat right up against my side, so sweet, so loving.
After some more back and forth about polyphobia/rejection/election, he said “Ms. _______, what do you really think of me?”

“I love you,” I sobbed, and cried the ugliest, snottiest tears you ever saw.

“I wasn’t expecting THAT answer! To tell you the truth, I really do love you too.”

So that happened. In the midst of all the mess and misunderstanding, we love each other, in whatever way. It counts for something, although right now I can’t imagine what.

I genuinely tried to keep being friends, but I was madder than I wanted to be about the threat-to-kids thing, and he must’ve been mad too, because the next time he came to visit, he was grumpy and he kind of glowered at the paper snowflake I’d made him. (Pink and blue for gender harmony. Maybe that was a stupid thing to say.)

After a few minutes of him grouchily making one sixth of a snowflake and me trying to be professional/lighthearted/friendly, he said he had to go to dinner and left the snowflake there. I felt disproportionally sad about that. We’d given each other so many pieces of art, from homework margin doodles to a leaf rubbing that he named “Ms. ________ in Autumn” because the colors reminded him of me, to watercolor galaxies to me singing out his name, to these paragraphs, and his forgetting the snowflake made me feel like I couldn’t give him one more unrequited thing.
It wasn’t about the snowflake, of course. I texted him about it after work and we got in a really dumb fight that ended with me telling him he was using the wrong “your.” He was mean and I was mean, and I blocked his number and deleted the thread.

I’m stupid right now because of unrequited love. He’s stupid from love, too, and whatever else is keeping the friendship from being what it was. Nobody’s the bad guy, nobody’s wrong, nobody’s the patriarchy (Well, he’s a little bit the patriarchy.) Just a thing that didn’t go where we wanted it to. I can’t try to be gracious and cute about it anymore right now. I can’t quite get to magnanimous and sparkly and generous about it. We can’t fix it right at the moment and I can’t wish myself fine about it.

If I’m going to trust my heart, I have to trust the heartbreak too, and give it time, and take myself gently and firmly forward. Onward, and, more than anything else, outward.