08 January 2010

Healing And Wellness: How To Be A Spiritual Subversive

Another trip to the doctor--this time, Dr. Tran (who insists that I call him Richie), my primary-care doctor. I think I've spent more time with doctors during the past year than I did in my entire life before then.

Dr. Tran, like Dr. Jennifer Johnson, is part of the Callen Lorde Community Health Collective. I've been using their services ever since I "came out" to Dwayne more than seven years ago. Michael Callen was a composer and singer who, after learning that he had AIDS, started one of the first organizations for those stricken with the disease. That was at a time when all of the known victims--according to official reports, anyway--were gay men.

I never met Michael Lorde or, frankly, knew much about him before I started going to C-L. That probably says more about me than about him. On the other hand, I met Audre Lorde once. Ironically, it was during the early days of my sobriety: some time not long after my 90th day, if I recall correctly.

I had gone to one of her readings at Hunter College. The odd thing was that in my sobriety, when I was following the Twelve Steps, I was more taken with the militancy of her poetry--and her militancy, period--than I was when I was abusing alcohol and drugs. I say this newfound appreciation at that time in my life was odd, or at least ironic, because the Steps directed people like me to, in effect, surrender our selves to a power greater than ourselves. On the other hand, Lorde, in her poetry and her work as an activist, exhorted people--especially women, people of color and lesbians--to know as much about themselves as possible and to take charge of what they learned.

But what I was responding to about her poetry and rhetoric, and what I was responding to in The Twelve Steps were, in some way, not so incongruous. At that point in my life, I never would have become clean and sober on my own. Yet somehow I knew I needed to do that. And, in much the same way most of us need someone to teach us the fundamentals of the languages we speak and of computation as well as any number of life skills before we can construct our own lives, I needed help to start my process of recovery. When I told Kevin, who would become my first sponsor, that the "power greater than ourselves"--at least as I heard it decribed in the meetings I attended--sounded suspiciously like the Judeo-Christian God, he implored--in his old-school Bronx Irish-meets-Hell's Angels way, "Well, let them describe Higher Power that way. You know what it is for you; go with it." And so I did.

Anyway...after her reading, I had Ms. Lorde autograph my copy of "Our Dead Behind Us." I was the very last person for whom she signed a book that day, and we talked a bit. When I thought about that moment later, it seemed more surprising than it did at the time. After all, you can't find someone much whiter than I am, and I was living as a male--and doing everything I could to seem the part. On top of that, I was clinging desperately--although I could not know, at the time, just how desperately--to the idea that I was some sort of straight guy.

You might say that I had stepped up to a battle but didn't know that a war lay ahead of me.

But somehow she seemed to know that. And, from the expression in her face and, more important, in her eyes, I knew that she knew what I needed to do--and she expected me to do it.

Many years later, I would see exactly the same expression from another poet who, if she didn't know Audre Lorde, surely had read her works. During my second year of living as Justine, I attended a reading by Grace Paley. After she finished, she signed copies of two of her books for me.

Before I could say anything to her, Ms. Paley told me, "Write that book!" And Ms. Lorde told me, "Always tell your truths!"

What I learned from both of them--from meeting them and reading their work--is that a woman has a moral and political obligation to herself--and to other women, and to everyone else--to learn everything she can about her body, her mind, her spirit and the world she lives in, and to never, ever stop telling whatever truths she finds--even if they fly in the face of whatever notions were previously inculcated into her. Or, as Lorde said, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies of me and eaten alive."

In other words, choosing her own survival is the most spiritually wholesome, and the most subversive thing, she could have done. I'm sure Paley could have identified with that. I know that I can.

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