Sunday, June 22, 2014

Life in Retrograde

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with astronomy, the space program, anything to do with outer space. This was odd because, living on light-polluted Long Island, it was difficult to see much of the night sky, even with my older brother’s 40-power telescope. Nevertheless, I cut out newspaper articles about Mercury and Gemini missions and put them in a scrapbook. I read every book I could find about the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, and beyond. I even created an admittedly short-lived Astronomy Club which I cajoled the other kids in the neighborhood to join with the promise of… a newsletter on all things astronomical! As you might guess, it didn’t last very long, but I do recall typing up five individual copies of a two-page flyer on the phases of the moon, with hand-drawn illustrations, on the manual typewriter in our basement.

I read about Galileo and Copernicus and even Aristarchus, who in the fourth century BCE was the first known Greek philosopher/astronomer to propose a heliocentric universe, one with the sun in the middle and the earth and other planets revolving around it. His insight was, of course, rejected since it was obvious that everything in the heavens circled the earth, and it would be two millennia before his ideas were accepted.

I became enthralled with the distinctions between gas giant and rocky planets (Jupiter an example of the former, earth of the latter), of Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, of speculation on the origin of the Asteroid Belt (a destroyed planet or one never-formed?), the names and numbers of moons of each planet, how the planets and stars appeared to us on earth.

One of the quirks of planetary motion is the concept of Apparent Retrograde Motion. Each planet moves at a reliable, predictable pace in its unique elliptical orbit around the sun. Inner planets move faster than those further out just as water circling a drain moves faster the closer to the drain. We on earth see other planets moving fairly constantly through the field of background stars, but there are times when earth is lined up in its orbit with another planet in relation to the sun where earth is either passing that planet or that planet is passing earth, and it can look like that planet has reversed its motion in the background star field. This is Apparent Retrograde Motion. It’s similar to being on a highway with other cars. If you think of yourself as motionless, a car passing you will be moving forward against the background of trees, houses, and billboards on the side of the highway. However, when you pass them, they may appear to be moving backwards. Something seems reversed, out of sync.

I tell you this because recently I have been living with a very particular sensation of Retrograde. It has to do with being a gay man in his very late 50s in America who has been out his entire life. At this historical moment, life is backwards.

Just last weekend I performed a monologue called “Shadows and Light” at the Gateway Men’s Chorus concert, “The 80s Show.” I had written it a few years ago, and it recounts my first experience as an intern in 1981 having a glancing encounter with a patient – actually with his chest X-ray – of a young gay man with a new, terrifying disease with no name. The monologue covers that day and flashes forward to how this affected my professional and personal life, my sense of mission, and my duty to my community. Although I do not name the disease in the monologue because at the time of the events it had no name, it is, of course, AIDS. (If you haven’t read the piece and would like to, it's here on my blog from December 2013.)

It was a very personal and difficult piece to perform, especially at the end as I turned around and saw a projected contemporary photo of myself and Bob Corsico, my lover then, who would succumb to the disease 13 years later.

Yet what truly amazed and moved me each night as I left the theater was that people I had never met sought me out to tell me how much this my story had affected them, what memories it brought back, how these men who had died so many years ago and decades too soon would always live in their hearts.

During these same few weeks, my Facebook Newsfeed has been full of joyous announcements of weddings of male couples and female couples, people who have been together for years, decades, or just months who are now able to move forward to publicly express and to have the government officially recognize what we have always known – love knows no gender. This movement will not be stopped, and I see signs of it everywhere.

This Tuesday, for instance, mere days after I had performed my monologue at the GMC concert, I saw “27,” a world premier opera at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis about the lives of the American writer in Paris, Gertrude Stein, and her wife, Alice B. Toklas, and the many artists who visited their salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus in the early decades of the 20th century. I was intensely moved by this story of love between two women lived openly and without shame nearly a century ago and of how love endures even after death. I had the opportunity to talk to the brilliant Stephanie Blythe, who plays Gertrude Stein, after the show, and she said to me, “This is the most moving depiction of love between two people that I have ever seen in all of opera.” And I would have to agree.

To me, what is just as moving is the fact that, from my seat in the center section about halfway back, I could clearly see the faces of many audience members, especially on the sides of the thrust stage. They were enraptured, not just by the soaring score of Ricky Ian Gordon but by the palpable love between Gertrude and Alice as they held hands, gazed lovingly at one another, embraced, kissed. As the opera concluded, these mostly older (yes, even older than me), well-to-do opera fans leapt to their feet to give their thanks with thunderous, nearly unending applause. These audience members were showing their gratitude to the story of two women in love.

Well, those of you who know me know that I am a crier. I will cry at cute puppy videos on YouTube. But this went beyond that. I wept. I was so moved by this story, by this art, and by this rapturous reception from an audience in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 21st century. We will never go back. More and more, we are all part of the family.

But in this moment I paused. These women on stage openly in love, these people on Facebook setting wedding dates, these men from three decades ago gone much too soon… Life is out of order.

People should be spending their 20s going to weddings, celebrating love and the building of families and communities. Our 50s should be the absolute earliest time in our lives when we should begin to mourn our contemporaries and start letting go of those we love. For me, and for so many men who survived, the timeline is reversed. Our lives are in Retrograde.

Of course, when it comes to planets, Retrograde is an appearance, not an actual state of motion. It results from our vantage point. Planets actually move forward, as must we. And of course, this vantage point comes from things converging in unique and unusual alignments. To hear the story of love, loss, and love eternal in “27” within days of telling my own story with this same arc informs me that the alignment of events in my life is less a disruption than it is, finally, a completion. At last, there is Synchronicity.

So I tell you this because, as I hear your happy news, you may see a tear in my eye. It is for you, of course, celebrating your love and your future. But it is also there to honor those who did not live to see this day, who will not stand beside me as I attend your wedding, but who will move forward with me through Apparent Retrograde as I carry them always in my heart.

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