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THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRA(I)NES
A RUMINATION ON THIS LAST DAY OF MY FIRST SIX MONTHS LIVING AS A PILGRIM IN THE WORLD
(Above: Walking home to the Eighth Arrondissement the other night, I passed this massive crane in front of the Palais Garnier. There is much crane activity in Paris. Lots of sprucing up the place for next year’s Summer Olympics taking place here which is rather lost on me since I love the refusal-to-be-ruined-though-already-rather-magnificently-ruined beauty of Paris, the heightened irony that resides in its cultural and architectural bones. The scaffolding has been up at the Palais Garnier since my arrival two months ago. The three-dimensional murals have been added lately. And I assumed this massive crane I had never seen before doing its midnight work as I walked by was either going to affix a new mural to look like the real building or continue to do work on the masonry.)
(Above: The next day I walked by the place and saw that this ad was what was being hoisted and attached to the scaffolding. The language of cranes lost on me yet again. Or was it? Isn’t the fashion business and its moneymaking cosmetic branch about the same refusal-to-be-ruined-though-rather-already-magnificently-ruined beauty of Paris itself. Coco Chanel had enough heightened irony in her bones - and even in her troubling narrative - to have built an empire upon it, not in the fashion of Napoleon but by knowingly asserting which bit of that heightened irony in her bones to separate out, flaunt, reconfigure. That is the French secret about the innate style of its people. It is the sly parenthetic eye as well as the sleek I of the parenthetical, the paired thus heightened irony embedded there; it is the bone apart.)
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Those captions above are about reconfiguration. Let me continue the reconfiguring. In my last column I mentioned that I was going to write this one and title it THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRAINS in reference to David Leavitt’s novel The Lost Language of Cranes. But even renaming it that spoke to what this column was going to be about because I misunderstood myself. The clever use of language became more important than the real meaning of what I was going to try and say. I had intended to write about how I feel better understood in Paris where I don’t speak the language than I do in America where I do. A lot of that has to do with the politics back in the states and the fascist right and its demonization yet again of us LGBTQ people as incapable of real love and undeserving of respect, and the takeover of the GOP by MAGA rabble and mendacity and religionists from what some would call the party of John McCain, whom I had mis-remembered as a “Crain” so the title no longer worked and I had to reconfigure it as well. I was going to wonder in THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRAINS why people get so upset at people giving themselves agency with claiming their own pronouns. I am told that language matters by the people who argue with me about not wanting to use “they” for a person or “she” when they perceive wrongly a person being a “he” without even realizing - the fascistic right is where American irony goes to die - that they are arguing against themselves. Yes, language matters and that is why to those whose pronouns matter to them insist on having agency over them. I fail to see how their agency over their own language for themselves affects the lives of the always-livid fascist right whose motto should be “Livid and Don’t Let Live.” See? Language can be playful and still make a point. But it can be serious as well when the points being made are about one’s very life. There is a through-line from the theocratic authoritarian fascist right’s insistence over having dominion over the bodies of women and their insistence in having dominion over the pronouns people choose for themselves. Bodily autonomy is also about language.
And yet since the title with which I was going to preface the column I had begun to preview in my mind before sitting down to to write it - to write this one - no longer made sense I had to find a way into making it - both sense and this column. Welcome to my thought process since I am doing both those things as I write this very sentence. I am using language to write this and you are using language to be included in my thoughts and yet what is asserting itself is something on the other side of language. Let me explain. Let it.
I had set out to write a column about not being understood in America and being more deeply understood spiritually and culturally in London and Paris while on this “pilgrimage,” which is a way to define with language the way I am now living my life free of so many of the constructs of living a life: house, apartment, possessions. I have given up belongings in order to feel more deeply that I belong. Part of that belonging is finally belonging to myself and no longer trying to find a way to belong to others - which was what I always thought falling in love was about: belonging to another by becoming a belonging.
In London, I met a young man with whom I felt a profound connection. This is the first time I am writing about it even though he gave me permission to do so months ago. I did not know what I was so keenly feeling when I met him. Was I falling in love? I am truly not sure I have ever fallen completely head-over-heels in love. I have lived a life too emotionally guarded for that, which is easy to understand because of the consecutive deaths of my parents when I was seven and eight and the emotional trauma of abandonment that left in my life that has remained. Through language, I have reconfigured it into a kind of refusal-to-be-ruined-though-already-rather-magnificently-ruined beauty by becoming a writer. Some people suffer from body dysmorphia; I have suffered from emotional dysmorphia since those childhood traumas, paired and thus heightened as they embedded themselves within my own body, my bones. That is all to say, I have no idea what falling in love really feels like but I knew back in London meeting this young man - and he was young, I am 40 years older than he - that I was feeling something, yes, profound for which I had no language. Plus, I was feeling rather like a dirty old man focusing so on him. I did not want to come off as creepy. I knew I would never make a pass at him but, as I told his mother when she had me over to dinner, I would not refuse a pass if he made one at me.
Yes, I told his mother that during a dinner she prepared for me at her home, a meal she purposefully did not invite him to join. I assumed she was going to tell me to stay away from her son. But the narrative took a turn that no language could have limned, only love, the doubling up of the maternal sort. I was the one who brought up my thinking she was going to shoo me sternly away from her son. “Not at all,” she said. “I think it is important that he has an older gay friend,” a word she italicized but did not put into quotation marks. And I did understood the implicit sternness and shooing-away in that. “In fact, help straighten him out,” she continued.
What did that mean?
She then proceeded to tell me their shared mother-son narrative. When he was born he was the smallest baby ever to have been cared for at Great Ormand Street Hospital for Children because he was severely premature. He weighed less than 3 pounds and could fit into a nurse’s palm. The reason for that is that she was told by her obstetrician after a routine checkup that it appeared that the fetus developing within her had no stomach but they wanted to do other tests. They did them. And discovered he had a stomach. What he did not have was an esophagus. They would monitor him. Soon they told her that if he remained inside her he would die and if they removed him that he most likely would die but there was a chance for life. She took the chance and she moved into the hospital for the first year of his life after he had a subsequent operation by a renowned surgeon to move his tiny intestines up into his throat after several incisions in his few-pounds body that have left scars there as profound as my emotional ones left by the death of my mother who died of cancer of the esophagus. That was the profundity of the feeling I had been feeling for this young man. My mother left this world without an esophagus and he had come into the world without one. His mother - not knowing that at all - was telling me his narrative that was conflating with my maternal one. It was dizzying, disorienting. And then an utter calmness came over me after she told me the story. Language was needed for this heightened combined narrative to occur but no language could describe what I was feeling in that moment nor what I had been feeling each time I was in this young man’s presence: it was my mother. I joked with him, after that meal, that I assumed he had a daddy issue hanging out with me but I found out I had a mama one. And yet I am quite serious about this: I think my mother arrived through him on this pilgrimage I am on - one she always knew I was on from the moment she died - and is helping me to heal because she couldn’t in that year after the death of her husband, my father. I don’t think time means that much to her where she is now so maybe to her this boy’s arrival in his own life was simultaneous with her departure from hers and she has not been waiting for the three of us to meet - temporally waiting has nothing to do with it - but existing within each of us, our mothers having combined in some way. Our scarred childhoods so different and so alike. Our scarred adulthoods too. I felt more than love for him. I felt kinship, the parenthetical I embedded spiritually within his body, a body not perfect but perfected. That is the profundity with which he has left me: gratitude. I might not have been falling in love with him but he was proving to me that I had the capacity to do so. He has been part of my healing. I hope he can find in knowing me a part of his own. But that is not up to me. That is up to him. Language can help us understand but healing is less syllabic than soulful. This young man has become my soulmate if not my lover. It has been one of the most unexpected experiences on this pilgrimage but the most deeply felt and finally understood.
Here in Paris I met another young man with whom I felt a profound connection as well. The other day as we were saying our goodbyes he finally understood that I had let go of all my belongings in order more fully to belong spiritually to myself. He then said it reminded him of Diogenes and Alexander the Great - or as he put it and I heard it: “Dee-oh-jean and Alexander the Big.” He is a barista in my neighborhood but during one of our earlier visits had told me he had been a philosophy major at university. After he realized how I had given up almost everything in my life to be sitting there the other day telling him goodbye and tearing up doing so, he then told me the story of the meeting between Diogenes and Alexander, which I had not known before. Alexander decided to pay a visit to Diogenes whom he found lying in the sun as he approached and stood over him. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything and he would grant it. “Stand away from the light,” he told Alexander. He only wanted The Light. Alexander was so taken by that that he told his attendants as they left Diogenes lying in the light that if he weren’t Alexander his greatest wish himself would be to be Diogenes. “You are Dee-oh-jean,” the young man told me. “You only need the light …”
After he told me that story, my tears did flow for this young man had not known the importance of The Light in my own spiritual life - I write often about it on social media and sometimes on here but he is not on social media himself and has never read this column - and yet the last thing he told me as we said our goodbyes was this narrative to fold into my own, into ours. Another pairing that thus became heightened. I think one of the things I love so about The Light is how divinely elemental it is which in some way has led me to live this elemental life of mine now. The Light needs no language, no narrative. Indeed, I often say that I can sum up my belief system in this way: “First there was Light. And then there was man who said, ‘Let there be God,’ who said, ‘Let there be Light.’” That this young man became the conduit for that narrative about the elementalism of existence moved me deeply - indeed to tears. No words can describe why he told me that story. It is beyond language.
These two young men have been spiritual messengers for me because they had no idea they were and in that innocence of being so they were both elevated and elemental, that sacred incongruity itself embedded in the boneless Light.
I had always thought that David Leavitt’s novel The Lost Language of Cranes, a rumination on belonging and being gay and loving and being loved, was about some sort of zoological discovery but the cranes in the title were construction cranes like those populating Paris and, seen through a nursery window, became the emulative way a child named Michel communicated no matter how many toys and picture books he was shown. It was a psychological case study that fascinated a lesbian character in the book as part of her academic endeavors. “How wondrous, how grand those cranes must have seemed to Michel, compared to the small and clumsy creatures who surrounded him,” Leavitt wrote about that boy and his lesbian character, and us all. “For each, in his own way, she believed, finds what it is he must love, and loves it; the window becomes a mirror; whatever it is that we love, that is who we are.”
It is mentioned in Leavitt’s narrative that another character was read to as a child by Colleen Dewhurst. I wrote an email to a friend of mine, Tom Viola, who worked as Colleen’s assistant when she was the head of Actor’s Equity and helped her write her memoir. He himself has for years been the head of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I asked him about his memories of Dewhurst and how he has come to emulate her in his life, how she became, in a way, his crane. This is some of what he wrote back: “She probably made more of an impression on my life – and life’s work – than anyone I have ever met. She set me up to accessing parts of myself – accepting and pressing forward with my life – in ways that had seemed stuck or unexplored when growing up or in my 20’s. And here’s why: Colleen taught me you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference. That in fact, bringing your fully imperfect, flawed self to a job, your relationships, to a community is what made a person uniquely valuable. Somehow in my Catholic up-bringing – or as a kid sensing that I was such a disappointment to my father (in terms of all that held my innate interest and excelled in) - that unless I could do something unquestionably well, there was little upside to risk stepping forward. After a decade or more of mucking about in my 20’s and early 30’s , working closely with Colleen showed me how leading with your heart can be messy but true. Can create opportunity, generate courage and ingenuity. Colleen was a lot of things. But she was always her imperfect self, empathetic to a fault, hilarious and impatient, somewhat messy, but authentic. Perhaps the only thing she despised were those who ‘punched downward.’ Her strength was in her vulnerability and contradictions. It’s what made her a great actress and safe harbor, if sometimes unpredictable as a friend. I saw in her the acceptance of the inevitability of imperfection and - except in her own work - impatience with impossible standards. She never told me this implicitly. I somehow figured it out observing her and working with her so closely, both at Equity and at her home, ‘the Farm’ for the 18 months or so that we worked on the book together. … One day, she walked into the office as I was venting about something over the phone, probably something driven by my own impatience or an imagined slight. She paused in front of my desk, got my attention with her smile and said, ‘Charm, Tom. Charm …’ She laughed and walked into her office. ‘Come in when you’re done there,’ she said settling into her desk. I could hear her riffling through her purse looking for a cigarette. ‘And bring a lighter.’ … I think of Colleen with great affection all the time, particularly when I stumble on the way to things going wonderfully well.”
Leavitt also wrote this in The Lost Language of Cranes: “Hope had stolen into his life just as he was growing comfortable with despair.”
On this last day of my first six months of this pilgrimage, I write this:
Move all obstacles away from The Light.
Recognize conduits when they arrive.
Believe in charms.
Let your reconfigured life be conducive for the sacredness of incongruity.
Ruminate on love.
Being lighter, be the lighter for others.
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