This Thing Called…
June 25, 1979
I am a Christian, Lord,
but I’m a woman too.
— Tammy Wynette, singing “Womanhood”
When I was still living in New York, I gave a party to watch Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on television. I thought this gathering would be just the right combination of sophisticated and weird; my friends and I would smoke dope, drink wine, and be smartly detached from an old story. I like trashy epics, from The Poseidon Adventure to The Ten Commandments, and I like retellings, maybe because as a child was taken to see Gone With the Wind six times. Anyway, whatever else you might say about Jesus, he was an interesting man, and he’s at least as important as Einstein.
My, friends thought such a party was sophisticated and weird. However, they did not realize, until the show actually started, that I intended to watch every minute of it. All three hours of it. During the Resurrection I was sitting by myself in a cloud of reefer. Most of my friends had gone home. A few remained in the kitchen, drinking wine and talking. It was better that I was alone because I was not acting smartly detached. Instead I kept laughing and crying. This behavior did not seem sophisticated and weird, merely weird. David, who used to be my editor, was the last to leave. “It’s all right,” he said, holding my hand. “I like Jesus too.” David is one of the few people I know to whom I’d apply the abused word brilliant. He is not a happy man. “Southerners,” he added, “are so Southern.”
I am living in my hometown now, where I do not hang out with brilliant, ironic friends. Instead I spend lazy days with a group of people who cultivate their pleasures as meticulously as they cultivate their summer vegetable gardens. I find my new friends’ lifestyles as exotic as they find my ambitiousness. “Why do you work so hard?” one of them asked me. “I don’t know,” I said, and stopped. For a while I let my days evolve into explorations of how tanned I could get, and my evenings into bouts of pinball and pool and disco dancing. If I get any more laidback, I told my new friends, I’ll have to be mounted on rollers.
But when Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth played on television again, I didn’t give another party to watch it. The rerun was an expanded eight-hour version, offered as a mini-series. I cleared my social schedule, stocked my refrigerator, rolled a tiny mountain of joints, and settled in for a week of psychodrama with Jesus. This time I would laugh and cry in private. A number of things happened to me watching Jesus, but the relevant one for this essay is that during the second installment, while Jesus talked tenderly to his disciple Thomas, I found myself jerking off. Jesus, I realized, reminded me of a woman I used to be in love with. According to Zeffirelli, Jesus didn’t blink. This woman, whose name was Deborah, never seemed to blink either. Looking at her eyes, I often had the sensation I was falling into them. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Deborah’s could have flown in or out easily. She made me feel forgiven.
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I was in love with Deborah eight years ago, and I’m no longer sure what it was I needed to be forgiven about. I do know that I’m 33 this year, which is as far as Jesus made it. This is the year, I tell myself, when I hang it up about Western guilt.
Rebirth is currently a fashionable notion, so my timing feels right. According to Rolling Stone, even Bob Dylan is taking Bible classes with some saved friends. I can’t think of any other concept that could unite Dylan, Jimmy Carter, and Larry Flynt. My own concept of rebirth seems to be more modest than this unusual trinity’s. I am not particularly interested in rededicating my life to Christ, but I am interested in returning to my sources here at home. For instance, I spend a lot of time with my mother and sister. Recently, my mother gave me a book I’d cared about as a child. I spent several hours reexamining If Jesus Came to My House. I like the pictures and the rhymes and the unselfish message, and I like Jesus’s little halo. When I look at Jesus’s halo, I think about the rosy nimbus that settled inexorably around each of my lovers.
Counting Deborah, I’ve been in love six times. The first time I felt a tremendous innocence. I even felt cleansed. I was more sexually aroused than I’d ever been, and I spent several weeks wandering through an erotic haze. I remember walking back to my apartment in Boston early one February morning feeling quite dizzy with elation. The snow on the brick street in Back Bay was pocked and gritty, and the garbage can at my front door had spilled. The label from a can of green beans blew against my leg. I looked at the trashy street and saw it transformed: The green beans label against my leg was utterly beautiful. I remember thinking I’ve never been this happy. I also remember thinking this must have a price. A few months later, when I was drinking myself dumb and mumbling I can’t live without her, I paid my debts. Not only were my emotions clichéd, they were overwhelming. I felt dreadful, but I felt trivialized as well.
The second time I fell in love I was braced for it. Like the flu, I knew I’d catch it again. This time I moved through my lines with graceful detachment. Not surprisingly, the affair didn’t last long.
Then I met another woman I couldn’t live without. Sex with her felt holy. She left her husband, I left my girlfriend, and we moved in together. My sense of magic receded, and I tried frantically to retrieve it. Within a few months I began to stutter. I began to whisper. I had trouble finishing sentences. One day I started to cry in the Post Office. When this woman left me I took one hundred and five aspirins to soothe my headache, but after I was released from the hospital she hadn’t changed her mind.
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As the years passed, I met a couple of other women I couldn’t live without. With one of them I lived happily for a long time. I’ll never leave you, I kept telling her. Now I know that when I say forever, I mean about five years. My breakup with R. was extremely painful, but I was not suicidal. After all, I wrote to a former professor, how many names can you cry in the night?
R. and I separated a year ago. At first I concentrated on what I called the Lamaze method of emotional survival: If I could breathe evenly enough, pain was just another interesting experience. My libido felt like a marble rattling around in a box. I had a few crazed sexual reactions, but I didn’t fall in love. Slowly, I realized that one reason I resisted ending my relationship with R. was that I simply couldn’t fool myself into running the same patterns again. Leaving R. would involve the death of something larger than that relationship.
And where would I be without passion? How would I organize my time? I know what I’ll do, I announced to anyone who would listen. I’ll go back to Charleston. I called my mother, from whom I’d been estranged. Come on home, she said. After all, tomorrow is another day.
So I came home, to puzzle over old plantations tucked among housing developments, tunnel-like highways with mossy oaks arched over them, pungent cascades of flowers, antebellum neighborhoods — the whole culture of antiques. I sat on the Battery, where the Civil War began. I wore a T-shirt that says CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON. I am so glad to be home that twice I’ve lain down on the ground and hugged it. My love for Charleston has provided me with a respite from more painful passions. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened in my life.
The word passion originally meant suffering, agony, as of a martyr. The passion of Christ and all that. No wonder being in love made me feel out of control.
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Love is an altered state; it changes our vision. I remember the first moment I saw R. transformed. We were sitting on a hillside in Vermont, admiring the landscape. I thought R. was nice-looking, and that she was pleasant in bed; I didn’t really think beyond that. But while we sat on that hillside, she took on a certain glow. Light settled around her, and she became larger than the natural view. I could see gold flecks inside her brown eyes. The freckles on her shoulders looked like gold dust that had scattered from her hair. In that moment R. became numinous for me, and I fell in love.
Looking back, I can see how it was inevitable that the magical qualities I had experienced with R. should reverse themselves. If sexual magnetism had brought us together, while we were disentangling our lives the magnets had reversed. One night I saw R. on the street with a man she briefly married. Her grin seemed to stretch from ear to ear, her jaw thrust harshly forward; and her eyes were too close together. She looked demonic.
Recently, I spoke to a woman. with whom I had become friends after R. and I separated. Linda told me she’d met R. at a party. I was intensely curious. Linda hedged. “It’s always odd to meet someone else’s obsession.” I prodded her. “She was good-looking.” I prodded her again. “Okay, she seemed like a nice girl from New York to me.”
I laughed sporadically for hours. R.’s magical qualities and her monstrous ones were both largely the result of projection; that is, they were qualities of vision I brought to our relationship. I have always understood this about my friends’ passions, but not about my own.
Years ago, my brilliant friend David met a European model on Christopher Street. They tricked, and David fell in love. The model returned to Europe. LOVE REAL, the telegram David sent insisted. PLEASE RETURN. He did return, but promptly fell in love with someone else. “You’re having a hallucination,” I told David. “This love is not real.” But when I consider the length of time David’s attraction to this man has troubled him, I’m not so sure. David’s anguish has grown skin over it, that’s all.
It is dangerous to push metaphor too far, as a story I heard about Bruno Bettelheim illustrates. According to this (probably) apocryphal tale, Bettelheim became irritated with a middle-aged woman who was knitting in the front row while he lectured. Madam, Bettelheim is supposed to have said, Did you know knitting is a substitute for masturbation? The woman did not cease. When I knit, she replied, I knit, and when I masturbate, I masturbate.
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It is dangerous to push metaphor too far, but I do think that falling in love is the only religious experience our culture legitimizes. We cannot talk about magic, or seeing God, or believing in astrology without seeming a bit silly. Even those of us who still read the I Ching do so surreptitiously. But falling in love is as democratic as puberty: it happens to almost all of us if we live long enough. We can talk about falling in love as seriously as we talk about quantum physics, astronomy, Idi Amin, or nuclear power. Romantic love is the only mumbo-jumbo we all still agree about.
Before the 20th century, a lot of songs used to be about God. The chief theme of popular music is love, whether we are listening to “Gloria,” hearing how Layla got somebody on his knees, or hanging out at Kingdom Hall. The Ramones insist they only want to be sedated, but Dee Dee Ramone just got married, which is at least as touching an act as taking Bible classes . In our music, the passion of Christ has been replaced by more carnal trials.
I don’t know whether I’ll fall in love again or not. Right now, I’m trying to be reborn. My shrink once told me that people who commit suicide by jumping out of windows or off buildings are trying for rebirth symbolically. I don’t know if she was right or not, but I’m extremely suggestible. My notion of rebirth is more eccentric than I like to admit, and since I’ve come home, I’ve become a skydiver.
After 11 seconds of freefall, a skydiver reaches what is called terminal velocity. One’s rate of descent increases for the first 10 or 11 seconds. Then the body’s resistance to the air stabilizes the rate of falling, at about 120 miles an hour. In terms of my capacity for passion, I hope I’ve achieved terminal velocity. In midair, I feel only my own weight. Einstein once wrote, “There came to me the happiest thought of my life… If one considers an observer in freefall… there exists for him during his fall no gravitational field — at least in his immediate vicinity.” I don’t think we’re emotionally constructed to endure the earth moving a half-dozen times. Back when covered wagons were fashionable, I suspect people didn’t fall in love repeatedly. Repetition has destroyed my sense of gravity.
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Once I went with a woman to see a movie called Marjoe. Marjoe chronicled the life of a faith healer who had been trained while still a child for religious exploitation. As an adult, he cynically continued to manipulate people’s religious needs. Then he let some hip filmmakers document the fraudulence behind his ministry and the sincerity of his victims. I knew at the time that l would much prefer to be one of those folks twitching ecstatically on the floor to being one of the filmmakers, or the faith healer. This was not a moral position; the people transported by swatches of blessed bandana laid across their foreheads were having a better time.
So when I find myself meditating on the honorable history of the cliché, I think, Oh Jesus, I bet I’m going to run this whole trip again. Luckily, Christ is locked firmly into my numinosity slot. It is the past that glows for me now, in a light I can’t quite interpret.
Last week, my mother gave me a photograph of her, taken when she was 16. This photograph made me cry. I cried because my mother was once 16 years old, and her mouth was tenderly painted on, and she had signed this repossessed gift to a boyfriend, “With all my love, Elaine.”
Passion. I interpret passion according to the Big Bang theory of human relationships. If astronomy is metaphorical, we are all traveling away from each other at tremendous speeds.
Blanche Boyd’s last novel was Mourning the Death of Magic.