I believe in the continuous present: The way we allow ourselves to experience any given moment is the exclusive result of how we internalize our past.
The first time I lost touch with the present was the first time I was exposed to Gay Pride. Sitting in my grandfather’s den one hot, oppressive June evening watching the television news, a story about the New York City Gay Pride parade appeared on the screen and immediately sent me into shock. I was 9-years-old at the time and struggling daily with a desire I knew was unavoidable yet unacceptable: a desire to stare at men, to be near them, to be the focus of their attention and to receive theirs in return.
That evening the only man near me was my grandfather, whom I idealized and yearned to become. Yet this man, who spent each morning expanding his vocabulary by doing New York Times crossword puzzles, possessed a morbid rage toward any expression of homosexuality so strong that, as he had revealed to me on some earlier occasion, he believed “all gay men should be hung in front of city hall.”
What followed has remained with me ever since. Before cutting to commercial, the news promised a story about a growing movement of gay men and women who were no longer living under the oppression of shadows and silence. My grandfather had reacted with disgust, releasing a torrent of profanity that sent shivers down my sweaty back. Too scared to move, I left my body and retreated to an inner world safe from the possible physical backlash of my grandfather’s hatred and devoid of the confusing feelings of love and fear I felt towards him.
Years passed and for a long time I believed the wrong things. I believed I was flawed, unlovable and incapable of improvement. I believed everything I did – attempt to lead a meaningful life with a male partner, pursue a productive career in social services – would never succeed and those things I did obtain – an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, acceptance to an equally impressive doctoral program, being promoted as the youngest manager ever at my agency – were valueless.
Most importantly, I believed in the power of the past and its complete ability to determine the events of the present. As a result I lost touch with everything, from the physical sensations of my body to a basic understanding of why I was making the educational, professional and social choices I did. Helping others become nothing more than a futile effort to help myself, and never seemed to leave me any less detached from the present or consumed by the same symptoms I had endured that night in my grandfather’s den.
Then I attended Gay Pride, and returned to present.
Standing along Fifth Avenue, I felt alone, scared, trapped between the waves of crowds and the restrictive memories of my grandfather. And I accepted it. I accepted that this moment was a moment of complete simplicity that could not have occurred without the events of my past, but would unfold in a manner totally dependent upon the way I allowed myself to experience it. And I believed. I believed for the first time that I could exist in a place between two knowns, between my grandfather’s prejudice and my sexuality. That place was the present, a space of utter silence in which the trauma of my past was but one part of a continuous present that included not less than everything.
This I believe.