Measured Extravagance

2000-12-03 - 8:28 p.m.

Sometimes I am accused of underreacting to situations around me, which is both understandable and exasperating. It's understandable because I find that my body is not always in sync with my emotions, such that while I sometimes giggle hysterically at things that I don't actually find all that funny and cry upon embarassingly banal cues, I also sometimes fail to display on my face the appreciation or interest or sympathy that others want to find there. Of course, sometimes it's because I don't feel those emotions--and sometimes it's because I end up feeling more than one emotion at once and the wires that connect mind and heart and face get hopelessly crossed. I can just hear the stations trying to hook up: "Let's see, do we signal that we are appalled…and/or amused…and/or mentally-scrambling-for-a-solution(-or-excuse)? Oh, the heck with it, let's just send all this emotional stuff into the stomach instead where no one can see it." Which is one of the ways I end up with both belly laughs and belly aches, both metaphorical and real.

It's exasperating because our society doesn't tend to believe in layers or gradations of emotion; it's either/or. Either you genuinely feel something or you're faking it. Either the expression on your face reflects real feeling or it does not. If someone accuses you of lacking an emotion, how do you prove your sincerity if your expression has already failed to do so? We don't trust people who do things because they think they ought to; we want them to perform their duties because they genuinely feel they ought. At least, that's the impression I get after this year's presidential campaigns, not to mention perusing too many articles about the excesses of Method actors. Me, I'll take calculation and technique over so-called sincerity any day. Mind, I'm not saying that I'm against spontaneity or improvisation. (Far from it, given that if they were crimes, I'd have an arrest record as long as the lines of rush hour traffic here in Nashville.) I do think they are often overrated, and that they are not at all synonymous with sincerity when it comes to creative product. For instance, I ultimately believe that the poems I revise over a period of months (and even years) end up being closer to my core truths than the first drafts I scrawl out on the backs of discarded invoices, because in the space between ignition and completion, there is time for mind and heart and hand to reconcile what I truly want to say.

I started thinking about this at church today, because I found myself surreptitiously wiping up a few tears in my eyes as the sermon progressed. I am using "up" as the most precise choice of preposition: there were just a few tears, and they didn't fall, but they surprised me by appearing at all, and even more so by insisting on resting on my eyes instead of being blinked back into them. Until I lightly pressed my fingertips against them, thus lifting them up from the surface of my eyes.

In this case, the occasion was not banal: the theme of the service was "AIDS in Africa." Which was cause for reflection and acknowledgment of AIDS here in America, of course, and Rev. Morn began by asking the congregation to "speak into the silence" the names of people they'd lost to AIDS. And so for several minutes - maybe as few as two, perhaps for as long as five - there was silence in the sanctuary except for voice after quiet voice saying aloud name after name. It was random: people simply said the name on their lips when they sensed there was a space to say it aloud. There were names spoken from the front pews and the back, from the center and from the wings. The couple in front of me said the name "Emily." The succession of names called to my mind an image of swallows flying in and out of the eaves. It was calm. It was beautiful. It was sad.

I said the name "Thomas." He was the choir director who'd asked me where was "Bruton Town" (the title of one of my audition pieces), and I'd told him, "I'm not really sure, I just assumed it was one of those towns where people died for love." He had repeated my answer back to me - "…one of those towns where people died for love" with a sort of appreciative astonishment. At that time I hadn't the faintest idea he was HIV+. We were not close, and I moved away from Chicago at the end of that summer, and three years later I came across his obituary in an issue of The Advocate. I did not cry then. I did not cry several years later when I volunteered for the AIDS quilt display in Ann Arbor. Given that I did not know him well, I hesitate to claim that I mourn or miss him - and that is why I was startled to find tears in my eyes as I said his name. But I do have the sense that his death was a loss -- he is someone I was glad to have met and that I would have liked to have met again -- and so, in the end, I believe that my feelings at least share some semblance to sorrow--if they are not indeed a variation of the actual article.

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