Friday, August 12, 2011

Spill Not Thy Seed Upon The Ground

The first time I recall having made concrete plans for my decline into old age and eventual death occurred when I purchased a condo in my late forties after Will and I had broken up. It was important to me that I be able to afford staying there, living on my own and on a moderate pension, that it be easily accessible and have no internal stairs. Jokingly, I referred to it as my mausoleum; jokes, as I remark to the point of boredom, often bearing truth.

Naturally, having been a gay adolescent, this wasn't by far my first thought of death. The usual templates for living happily ever after seem neither applicable nor particularly appealing to many a gay adolescent; whether it be getting the person of your dreams or becoming a star athlete; though there are exceptions, especially, one hopes, more now than then. Gay youths of my generation tended to be particularly drawn to romanticism: to fantasies of handsome princes dying young; beautiful Camelots in decline and decay; love both tragically and happily ending before its expected consummation. It is a romanticism that lives and breathes in many a Broadway musical; love confronting its inevitable barriers and impossibilities; on the stage usually rescued by a happy ending; those who haven't died young need to sell tickets in order to make their way in the world as adults.

How many clients have shared with me their fantasy, as adolescents, which was also my own, that they would be dead before reaching the age of thirty. Only those whom the gods love die young. Once, while in college and still a teenager, I walked on a moonlit, Summer night down a path through the woods looking for a private spot to masturbate. Dormitory life doesn't provide much privacy. I found the perfect spot, near the edge of the pond, knelt down and masturbated, spilling my seed upon the ground. I imagined that I was giving my seed and self back to Nature; accomplishing a kind of unity through orgasm, the little death; being One with God; at the same time committing a mortal sin and being cast away from God; same act, different narrative.

Actually, even when I was a Catholic I thought the prohibition against masturbation was one of the more harmful edicts of its sex-negative ethic; not something I could confess without feeling both stupid and wrong-headed. I never met a priest who was comfortable with considering masturbation a sin, but I'm sure there are many of them out there; probably the most warped ones. Nevertheless, in that sex-negative culture there was an echo of my adolescent romanticism; a congruence of desire and passion with denial and death. A favorite poem of mine by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a meditation on the loss of the beauty of youth, is to me an encapsulation of that romanticism: "Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver."

As it happens, I only got to live alone, in my chosen mausoleum for a few years. The first year Julian, my youngest son, lived with me while finishing his last year at university. After he left to make his way in the world I lived alone for the first time in my life. Interestingly, as an adolescent I had always wanted to live on my own; imagining myself as a forest ranger, manning a fire lookout tower deep in the woods with only my dog as a companion. How the dog would get up all those stairs to our cozy room at the top was a detail I overlooked, but I felt I could be alone with a dog without being lonely. I've nearly always had a dog in my life, for a while two of them, in my mausoleum; a daily source of companionship and mutual caring which has been a comfort throughout my life.

I worked as a director of the public, english-language social services centre in Montreal; for a time responsible for the gamut of services from birth to old age for those who were vulnerable and in need of public services without needing institutional care. I had moved into administration from providing direct, clinical services because the work schedule, remuneration and responsibilities were more compatible with being a single parent; my heart was never in it. I always insisted that I be permitted to see a few, individual clients as part of my responsibilities and for two years I facilitated a group for physicians whose patients were largely living with and dying from AIDS. In addition, I was able to use my power as a director to promote causes that were important to me: sensitivity training for staff related to both visible and other minorities; close links with community organizations; supports related to AIDS; services to young people exploring their sexual orientation.

The workings of the beaurocracy itself I found mostly boring, sometimes tragically unhelpful and occasionally LOL amusing; if it weren't that the amusing often dovetailed with the tragic. Social services, being one of those "soft" public services that doesn't involve much in the way of real estate, is relatively easy for a government, wanting to be seen as boldly striving to improve services and the plight of the vulnerable, to manipulate. Consequently, it tends to go through cycles of centralization and decentralization; taking the pieces apart and putting them back together; each time with the promise of efficiencies in outcome and savings in costs. Clients, whose services may suffer through the changes, lack the political clout to effectively protest. Because funding is never anywhere near adequate to support the services needed, however they might be organized, no significant improvements result. By the time that fact is realized, those who have proposed and managed the changes have usually moved on to some higher responsibility in the establishment; having made their name and left the wreckage in their wake; never having to assume responsibility for failure. I managed to be quite skilled at that technique; breaking many eggs in the process of allegedly moving forward to the promised land of improved services and economies.

On the personal front, both Will and myself managed to escape becoming infected with AIDS. As I've related, Will and I were never monogamous and my few single years were quite active sexually. I'm one of the many gay men who has had sex with dozens of people in the course of my life; even though I started relatively late. I realize that to the average heterosexual such a variety of experience seems inconceivable; frequently criticized; sometimes envied. To me it has been a privilege to share intense moments of physical intimacy with so many men. Occasionally, when having trouble getting to sleep, I attempt to count the men with whom I've had sex, rather than sheep. While considerably more interesting than counting sheep, the more exciting encounters, and even more the disastrous ones, tend to be more stimulating or disturbing than soporific.

Were I to have gotten AIDS I don't know if I would have continued to feel happy with the variety of my sexual encounters. My sexual practices certainly made me very vulnerable to infection, especially during that period when the means of transmission were unclear. As it happened one of my clients, was, I believe, one of the first men in Montreal to become infected with AIDS. He was a bar tender and high class hooker who worked weekends in New York City and lived in Montreal during the week. He was diagnosed as having "gay cancer"; no one knew how he might have gotten it; within months he was dead. It was a very frightening time to be working and living in the gay community. I think the survival of Will and myself was quite possibly due to possessing that rare genetic mutation, sometimes found in men of Northern European ancestry and provoked by exposure to the Black Plague, which grants a relative immunity to the AIDS virus.

The humbling reality is that I survived neither through anticipation of the means of transmission nor through some moral predilection for limiting my sexual partners or practices. Perhaps I had a genetic edge, but my experience of friends and clients falling ill and dying around me was a striking instance of "there but for the grace of God, go I"; "dumb luck" for the less theistically inclined. There is no gloating or sense of superiority in my survival. I resent that gloating, usually tinged with an aura of moral superiority, when I hear it from the more fortunate.

My mausoleum reverted to being a simple condo when I met my current lover, partner, boyfriend in a leather bar. In the dark we didn't fully grasp our significant difference in age; a difference that became clearer to us in the light of day. Our first serious discussion occurred on that very first day of our relationship and concerned whether we should continue to see each other, given that we were in very different points in our lives: he just finishing university after having worked a couple of years and I on the brink of retiring from my position in the agency. Happily, he was and remains as mature and loving as I could ever claim to be and our decision was to not make a decision; to continue seeing each other and see what happened; that was eighteen years ago. The condo is now our home in the city and we've built a home together in the country; so, I am living much of my time in the midst of the woods, but not on my own, and, yes, there is a dog.

No comments:

Post a Comment