For JoJo.

My cousin Joell passed away on Saturday morning.

It was quite unexpected. She was only 45. My dad had to repeat himself multiple times on the phone before my ears would even accept the news. My heart is still having trouble understanding how it could possibly be real. I had to be the one to call and tell my sister about it. After I hung up, I spent several hours wondering if I had heard my father wrong and just told Lindsay some terrible lie.  Oddly, it didn’t truly sink in until after signing in to Facebook later in the day and seeing Joell’s wall, plastered with RIP’s and “you’re in my prayers” postings from dozens of people. That’s when I realized it was true; I was never going to see her again.

Jo was the sort of person who was very good at letting those she loved know she loved them. She frequently made it a point to tell my sister and I that we were beautiful and smart and talented…and whatever other encouraging thoughts struck her in any given moment.  She was also very supportive of our life choices and goals. From her Facebook wall the past few days, I have learned she was that same brand of loving and supportive with nearly everyone she knew. She is also an organ donor, so she will continue to spread her loving kindness, even posthumously.

I wasn’t always the most outwardly reciprocal person; not because I didn’t love her back or anything, but precisely because I did. She would message me to let me know her daughter missed me; I would promise to visit “soon”.  She would post something on my Facebook wall that would make me laugh or smile; I wouldn’t even bother to take the extra second to “like” it because I assumed she intuitively knew I did. In other words, I took her for granted. It never occurred to me to think one day she wouldn’t be around. (I’m assuming I don’t need to pause and explain the underlying lesson here, people.)

The last time I saw her in person, I got to say good-bye and give her a hug, so I am thankful for that. But there is one thing in particular I am kicking myself for never saying to her while she was alive. I am going to say it now. Better late than never, I suppose.

In order to do that, I need to tell you (those of you who didn’t know her, anyway) that she was gay. She was a lot of other things too, of course,  but she was also openly, happily gay. She was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with her soulmate before she left us. I feel terrible for her partner, Shannon,  and the pain she must be suffering right now, but I am so happy the two of them at least had a couple of years together. Some people don’t even get that much.

I don’t remember Jo ever having any big coming out speech to me or my family.  At holidays when we were younger, she would always bring lady friends with her, but whatever their relationship actually was would remain unspoken on all sides. Whether or not Jo had to have a specific coming out conversation with her parents, I am not completely sure. It seems highly unlikely, though. She always just seemed to lived her life,  and we all silently accepted her sexuality as part of who she was. That’s sort of how my dad’s side of the family operates, in general. They’re a very “don’t ask/don’t tell” sort of  bunch. They are all loving and supportive people; it’s just not in their nature to over-share. Sometimes I wonder how my sister and I came from the same bloodline as them, as we tend to be open books when given the opportunity.

Talking to my dad after Jo’s passing, he said he remembers when he was younger, that she and him were very close. They would play football together (if that gives you any sort of indication of the tomboy she was, even as a child). My dad said, “Every day. I played with her every single day.” Then Joell went off to college, and her and my dad were never really close, ever again. They loved each other, sure. They stayed semi-involved in one another’s lives. But it wasn’t the same. My dad says he fully knows it was a little bit due to ‘the gay thing’. “She just left and stayed away,” is how he put it.  Not that he and his brothers would have ever shunned her (again, they are a very family-centric group), but it did cause a minor, unspoken wall between them. Whether it was because my dad and his brothers hadn’t fully sorted their opinions on homosexuality back then (I think my dad is still actively sorting through his own feelings, even now), or if it was because Joell was afraid she would disappoint, she subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) kept a safe distance. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Either way, from my vantage point, it seems like such a silly and wasteful reason to grow apart from someone you care about. And though it was only in hindsight that my dad processed these thoughts, he seemed pretty regretful.  “How sad,” he said, after a few moments of silence.

We all grew up attending The Freewill Baptist Church. By “we”, I mean my dad, my uncles, my sister and I, and all of my cousins, including Joell. Why on earth the church put the name “Freewill” in it’s title is beyond me. They should have called it The “Everything you want to do in this life will lead you to an eternity of hell fire and brimstone” Baptist Church. None of us go there anymore, including my grandparents, who literally still live next door to it. Anyway, I spent the first 18 years of my life sitting through a bunch of bullshit lessons taught to me by one of the most ungodly men I’ve ever known. All this man talked about was hate. He hated gays, he hated Muslims, he hated feminists, he hated liberals, he hated atheists and he even hated other Christian denominations. Even the other Baptists! The good that came out of it was I got to spend quality time with my cousins and my grandparents, and we did learn some nice parables about ethical living from the more loving Christians in the congregation. We got a lot of confusing mixed signals, though. All the misleading and (this is my blog, so I can make this determination here) flat out wrong information we were taught about God V. Homosexuality was directly contradictory to what I was experiencing through knowing a real life gay person. Joell, simply by being herself, was one of the first influences on my life to help me know that the whole “gays are evil” argument was absolute rubbish. And also, her gentle presence taught me to begin to question things I was taught by authority figures. I’m certain I would have come around myself eventually anyway, especially with my own developing libido, but she was a greatly influential person on my young mind. Especially because I was able to put together that if Pastor Ron was wrong about homosexuality, he could be wrong about a whole host of other things, too.

It’s taken years to reverse some of the damage from the sermons that were drummed into me in that church. I know Joell sat through some of those same lectures, and I wonder how long it took her to feel comfortable with herself after she stopped going. Or maybe she just never was as sensitive to it all as I was (I am notoriously sensitive. To everything. Always.).  Either way, I thank her for giving my sister and I a living, breathing example of how ‘gay’ isn’t synonymous with ‘bad person’. And I thank her for being one of the first small stones on my path of learning to think for myself.

It has only been in the last few years that I have been comfortable with my own sexuality. And although I am open about it on a ‘need to know’ basis, it is one of the very few areas of my life that I remain somewhat guarded about. Some of this is because I don’t particularly think it is anyone’s business, unless they plan on having sex with me or talking about sex with me. But a bigger part is, I definitely don’t want to disappoint anyone who loves me and doesn’t understand why I can’t fit into their preconceived notion of who I am (And honestly, for some people that is Straight Haley and for others it is Gay Haley). But, like it or not, my sexuality falls somewhere smack dab in the middle of the Kinsey scale; I just don’t look at gender as a determining factor in an attraction to a person any more than I look eye color or hair color. I either have chemistry with someone or I don’t. This seems totally normal and rational to me; but I am very well aware that many people (gay and straight) are not okay with it. Mostly, because they don’t understand it. I have a lot of friends who want me to be straight, because I make sense in their world as a straight woman. I have other friends who have an easier time thinking of me as gay. Whatever. I don’t really ever feel the need to correct them, as I don’t have a better answer for what I am. I am both those things and neither of those things. I hate the term bisexual. It implies “two”, as if I have some sexually carnivorous appetite and wouldn’t be happy with either a man or woman, without having one of both. The honest truth is, it is very rare that I am truly attracted to anyone of either sex, but when I am- they have been everything from a petite little pixie to a lumberjack of a man to a bubbly, blonde bombshell to a man in makeup. There’s no real rhyme or reason; it’s just chemistry (and sometimes, timing).

Anyway, I go back and forth about how “openly” to express this part of my life. The truth is, with the exception of my grandparents, everyone who is important to me either knows already from discussing it with me first hand, or has been given an ample amount of opportunity to be clued in and just rather not acknowledge it (my dad is one of the latter, for instance). I am fine living like this most days. I wouldn’t even really know how to go about “coming out of the closet”, because for me it would be like, “Um. I like  girls. And I like boys. But only sometimes. Only when they’re not all being stupid. Mostly I just like being by myself.”

I can’t imagine that being very effective or climatic.

I’ve generally decided that I’ll just live my life and whatever happens, happens. If I fall in love with a woman and I want to her to meet my grandparents, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.  Usually that seems like the best plan, as long as I am no longer shutting off my own romantic options because I am terrified of how other people will take it. As long as I am living as the truest version of myself possible, then it doesn’t really matter how many people “know”.

But other times I think about impressionable young minds watching me and learning from me and being effected by me, even when I’m not paying attention. And those are the times I think I would want to come out; to make it easier for someone else down the line, to save them the years of self-destruction and self-loathing and guilt I put myself through because of the lies I heard from that church and my mom’s side of the family.   I don’t know if I will ever do that. I might do well enough with just not being ashamed of who I am, and being honest if someone cares enough to ask. That’s pretty much what Jo did, and it was still enough to influence my life. I guess the overall moral here is “To thine own self be true,” and the rest will work itself out.

So, to make a long story short: I am grateful to Jo for her positive influence on me. Her life meant something to my life. Not just because she was kind and loved me. But because she loved herself, too.

And now, life goes on, I guess. The cycle continues. I walk outside, and see my front lawn looks the same as it always has…but I will never again hear her voice.  I laugh with my grandpa about his fascination with social media….but I’ll never smell her perfume. I will hit the publish button on this blog and it will immediately be sent to her email address…but she won’t ever get to read it. 

I can worry about my self-image and my eating habits next week. Right now, I am simply grateful to be alive. I am grateful for Joell.

And I am grateful for you, too.

But why dontcha get outta here and tell someone you love how much you care about them?  While you still can.

Rest in peace, JoJo. I love you to the moon and back.

Joell Gange. 1/15/68- 2/16/13

Joell Gange. 1/15/68- 2/16/13

There are no facts, only interpretations.- Neitzsche

Today’s blog is about perception/perspective- whatever you want to call it.

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                 Me, circa 1986.

Here is a photo of me from my days as a dancer. I took dance classes very seriously as a child. Dance classes and singing in church were my gateway drugs into theatre. I would probably still be a dancer had the sole company in Corcoran not left town when I was in middle school. But they did, so I started begrudgingly playing sports instead. I sort of blame my half-assed rhythm on the fact I never had the opportunity to fully hone my skills as a ballerina. While we’re at it, let’s blame my body on that, too. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

Back to the photo. This image of me was taken during my first delve into the dance world; I was one of the bunnies in our town’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I loved my teacher and classmates, I loved the music and the pretty clothing. I loved everything about dance class, except for the fact that our bunny costumes had tails, smack dab on our fannies.

For whatever reason, I found this very uncivilized. I suppose I don’t need to mention that I was a sensitive child, but the horror of a cotton ball poof attached to my bum was literally the worst thing that had ever happened to me up until that point in my life. I was horrified. Somewhere in the world, a video exists of me dancing with my other bunny cohorts. The few times we are required to shake our bunny booties to the audience, you see the other dancers obliging, “And shake, two, three, four…” while I flash my back side towards the audience with a speed my physique has never been capable of before or since, then grimace as I count out the remaining beats of the music shaking my bum towards the back of the stage. You see, it didn’t matter if the bunnies in the row behind me saw my horrific tail. They were worse than me; bunny tails AND second row placement? Ugh. Losers.

I remember the day the photo was taken. I, always having the sensibility of someone much older than myself, was mortified to learn there were a pair of junior high boys in the room. Whether these boys were babysitting their younger sisters or related to the photographer I can’t remember. But because they were older (and therefore cooler- a correlation I’ve only recently come to understand does not always equate), I would not, could not, dare not show my damn tail. It was bad enough I was wearing bunny ears. Like a child! And pink, for christsakes. I spent the entire time trying to make sure that, at any given point, my cotton-tailed butt was facing away from the hip young men. I mean, I was in second grade! What sort of mature, classy, sophisticated second grader dresses up like an animal, replete with a tail? How barbaric! I could feel a panic attack coming on (I had no idea what one was then, but I’m nearly certain I had one. Or it’s possible I may be exaggerating a little here for storytelling purposes). In any case, I do remember asking if I could just postpone the picture. “My tummy hurts,” I whined, half telling the truth by that point. But I was informed this was the only day to take the picture, ever, in the history of the world and since I was the sort of kid who tried not to ever disappoint anyone, I stepped out under the lights and tried my best to dictate how the photos were shot. I’ve never before or since been so loose behind a camera. My reasoning was, “I will do anything as long as I do not have to show this tail to those boys.” So I posed and contorted my little body in a million possible ways that made me look like a bunny, but did not show that stupid tail.  I put my hands out like little paws in front of me. See? I’m posing like a bunny. I jumped and hopped in the air. Just like a cartoon bunny! I sat on the floor and brought my knees up to my chin. Exactly like a real bunny! 

It didn’t work, though. The photographer, my mother, my aunt, and my cousin who had just finished taking her shots (the little traitor), all encouraged me to do the same humiliating pose as the rest of my classmates. I tried, unsuccessfully, to protest.

“But everyone is doing it this way,” reasoned the photographer.

“And your little rump is so damn cute!” gushed my aunt.

“Other people are waiting, Haley,” added my mom, with a tone implying it was her final warning.

My face flushed. “FML,” I thought to myself (or would have, had I known what that meant at that age).  I let the photographer take the gdamned picture and then raced to the nearest bathroom to remove my “accessories”.

I HATED the resulting photo for years to come. If you look closely, you can actually see the worry and discomfort in my eyes, the crimson of my embarrassed cheeks, the strain in my tight, forced smile.

Of course, I look back now and think, “I am the cutest fucking thing since an actual baby bunny.” Especially knowing the story behind it.

This past weekend, I joined some of my friends (31 adults, 2 children in strollers and 3 dogs, to be precise) in a 5K for pancreatic cancer research. Our group was the 2nd highest fund-raising team out of the whole race, following only behind the founder’s team. I got to spend an entire day with some of my favorite people and relish in another visit with Jarvis. At this point, every one is sacred because we don’t know how much longer we will have with him.

Upon coming home, I saw some of the pictures taken from the event and immediately my old cantankerous voices came forward to remind me how the whole day was a joke because I am so very very ugly and very very fat. They even got some new zingers in, courtesy of my new haircut. I mourned for a while- not only that these stupid, antagonizing murmurs still exist within me, but that I was giving them the freedom to take away such a special, perfect day.

And then, when I got home from trip, I randomly saw this bunny picture and remembered the parable hidden within it. I thought of my voices, “Oh, just shut the hell up.”

Part of this journey is coming to accept the fact that nothing is gonna change by me snapping my fingers or climbing up a hill and then descending into a easy, even, moderately paced solving of my issues. This has been, and always will be, more like a roller coaster ride. I had a bad moment this weekend; I’ve had a few bad moments lately. But they are at much less frequent intervals than before. And I am able to come of out of them so much quicker than I could do a year ago- to a much higher and better state of ‘neutral’.  For that, I am thankful.

I said something in my last therapy appointment about feeling like I am really “in recovery” now. Then, completely involuntarily, I began weeping. “What’s going on?” my therapist asked.

It was the realization that I fully do see myself “in recovery” at this point. I am no longer in the throws of an eating disorder and body dysmorphia and self-hatred and all those other things. I am truly at a place where I believe I am in recovery from it. There are moments that remind me not to get too cocky, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is brighter and closer than I ever dreamed possible. All this, from only taking half a year to face it, head on. Imagine what all of us could do if we faced all our demons head on?

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Years from now, all I’ll remember is: this was a great day.

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                 Team Jarvis at the finish line.

So you see, my dear friends? Perspective. Perception.  If you don’t like the way you’re seein’ something, change your point of view. There are no facts, only interpretations.

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