Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Thoughts on the world: 9/20/2001

I wrote this nine days after 9/11. Between the death of Osama bin Laden and the mood I've been in the past couple of weeks, re-posting it now seems appropriate.

“New” and “changed” are words getting a lot of use these days, as in “we’re living in a new world,” “the U.S. is facing a new kind of enemy,” and “life will forever be changed.” Tonight, though, I’m reminded that, in so many ways, life—and our world—is neither new nor changed.

I read an article this evening about a Neanderthal jawbone that had been recently discovered in France. The jawbone was missing almost all of its teeth and showed considerable bone damage. Because of the lack of teeth, the scientists who found it believe that this individual would have been almost totally unable to chew food and would have had great difficulty surviving independently. Further analysis showed that the jawbone’s owner had lived for at least six months while in this condition, and they concluded that the bone provides the earliest evidence of the human capacity for caring for others—that someone, or some group, was providing this injured or diseased individual with soft food. Perhaps fruit, perhaps food that been chopped or cooked, but likely more food than the individual could have gathered or prepared on his or her own.

Whether or not their theory about this nearly 200,000 year old jawbone is correct, somewhere along the way humans did, in fact, start caring for each other. Perhaps we are touched so much by the efforts of others in New York City, and the willingness of people around the world to give to the relief effort, because caring for one another has such ancient roots. We’ve grown accustomed to rushing through our busy lives and being disappointed by the perceived slights of those around us. And yet when we need each other the most, we’re there; we come through for each other. This past week, whether we looked to our families that we were born with, or the families that we’ve made, we found a depth of love and caring that too often we had forgotten was there. And when we watched those at the epicenter of September 11’s attack, we’re overwhelmed by the selflessness and heroism of those sifting through the rubble in search of survivors—men and women unwilling to abandon those who might still be alive, unwilling to leave behind the bodies of those already dead.

This week is not the first time this summer that I’ve thought about our connection with the past. In July I drove up the coast with a man named Eduardo. We ended up following the Russian River inland, and, stopping in Monte Rio, I was struck by the fact that with all of the technology that we’ve developed and the amusements we’ve built, people still go and simply sit in the water. Maybe the swimmers and bathers were trying to escape from the traffic and computers and phones of daily life. Or maybe when you really get down to it there’s nothing better than just soaking up the sun while staying cool in a river’s slow current. But either way, here they were: young and old; men and women; straight and gay. People enjoying themselves in the most basic way that you could imagine—sitting in the water.

How can we even begin to imagine how many people have done this through the centuries, the millennia? In a way it makes me laugh at the elaborate efforts that we go through to entertain ourselves. But it also comforts me, because it is a tie to our past, to our origins.

Continuity is a great source of security. When I first came out of the closet and began going to gay bars back in 1987, there were several individuals that quickly became fixtures in my world. The first few times I ventured out, I went alone, and it was sometimes scary to walk into that new environment. Somehow it was comforting seeing familiar faces, even when they belonged to people that I never met. There was a beautiful young man named Ronno who entered a wet jockey shorts contest on a Thursday night at the End Up. For two or three years afterward I saw him around town; those being the early years of the AIDS epidemic, seeing the same faces through the months was particularly reassuring. I remember thinking to myself, “As long as Ronno is around, things are okay. Life will be all right.”

As the years passed, I stopped seeing him around San Francisco. Life, somehow, continued. By then I had established a large circle of gay friends, and that familiar but unacquainted face in the crowd was no longer needed for my comfort. Even today, though, I catch myself making eye contact across a dance floor, or on the street, with someone whom I have never met. Sometimes we smile with some strange, shared recognition that we inhabit the same world; it isn’t necessary to connect beyond that.

Connecting without connecting…: another aspect of living in a herd. We’ve lived in groups for as long as we’ve been around as a species; no doubt it is the natural condition for us humans. I suspect that nothing really “new” has happened to us for quite a long time. So what is it for us to be living in a “new” or “changed” world?

When I look around me—and inside myself—the only thing I find that has really changed is… me. This week I feel a little older. I feel a little more for those around me, whether they are next door or across the world. And I feel much more of the desire to give something back to the world. That feeling extends beyond sending money to aid the survivors of those who have fallen; somehow that’s an inadequate response to the magnitude of this. I want to be a better person, mostly in small ways. I’ve found myself waving at firemen and policemen. I’m friendlier with the people who share the routine of my life, whether they are co-workers or salespeople or men and women on the street. My grand plans for my sabbatical have been tempered; maybe I can spend some of that time giving rather than just enjoying. Maybe the opportunity it provides is a chance to share and to learn rather than to just be free from work.

Strangely enough, tonight I found myself feeling happier. It’s been a long road this past year as I’ve learned to be single again; learned to live on my own and for myself, and I know I’m happier for having been successful at that. But I’m also happier this week because I feel more alive. I feel more connected with my friends and family and the others around me. I sense the timelessness of human existence that Walt Whitman spoke of when he asked, “What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” I am reminded of the beauty of people simply living their lives; how the same things—good food, falling in love, the rhythm of music—continue to thrill us. I’m trying to be better and to figure out what I should learn from September 11.

And I know that if I saw Ronno on the street tomorrow, I would stop him and say, “hello.”

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