Friday, September 17, 2010


A human being forms physically inside another human being. From the beginning the enclosing person influences the development of the cradled interior person. Something like that happens -- except outside the mother -- after the infant emerges. To form the personality and talents of that child, one might say they install the programs in the tiny smart-phone-sized computer they are except that then the child begins to write its own apps, explore it’s own internet, and . . . you get the idea. But from the very beginning there are always two in relationship, even if one is the child and the other is the world.

The body of theory called “object relations” or sometimes “teddy bear psych” is about the relationship between two persons. The publishers like to put plush bears on the covers but they could use a “blankie” or “binkie.” The teddy bear is a kind of mother surrogate when the youngster begins to break away from the real physical mother, a courage talisman. The image that sticks with me is one I’ve often seen: a group of women sitting and talking at a ball game or a church event and a toddler still gripping his or her mother’s skirt, getting brave enough to venture out onto the empty vast floor after something, but panicking and rushing back to bury his or her face in his mother’s lap. I know you’ve seen it, too. That child is Columbus sailing to the edge of the universe, then returning to safe harbor with, um, Queen Isabella. The theorists I read were D.W. Winnicott (Lady Di uses his theories on her princelings), Piaget, Kohut, and Bowlby (who talks about attachment) but there are others.

The takeaway I valued was the idea that two people, whether mother and child or therapist and client or two lovers, create some kind of virtual world in the space between them. It is not a physical object but one can see it on film, that construct spun of glances and gestures and possibly the moving of objects or maybe even touching, embracing. It is best when the partners are equal, or at least focused on the same goal, because then that unholy struggle to control in the name of virtue is absent. So much in our lives, at least those of us living in media-dominated world, is about sex and so little is about intimacy in the sense of emotional or mental sharing. We’re so busy figuring out how our bodies work (seen the latest fMRI studies of the pre-frontal cortex?) that we’ve lately been neglecting our minds and imaginations. I think of Anne of Green Gables, so starved for affection and interaction that she made friends with her reflection in the glass of a bookcase. Now maybe the glass of a computer screen.

Now comes Joshua Wolf Shenk whose article in Slate, the online magazine, explains how he is going to create a work about partnerships by throwing open the doors of the comment section so we can all share. (Shenk’s name has always stuck in my mind because in his previous book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” he speculated on the erotic potential of Lincoln’s long pale shanks.) Shenk has some interesting anecdotes, like the one about Tiger Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams, manipulating Tiger’s performance by lying about distances, but he strikes me as a person making checklists off Google rather than a deep thinker reconciling concepts.

Still, I often reflect about the dynamics of my own dyads, partly because the Sixties with Bob Scriver were so wildly dramatic that it’s been hard to settle down for the last forty years. At seventy I have finally found someone who can collaborate intensely -- while all the time letting me live quietly with my cats because it is a writing relationship. My fantasy is that we sit across the table from each other with old-fashioned straight pens as syringes, mainlining ink into each other’s arms while a stack of manuscript accumulates on the table. In reality we’ve never met and have communicated for more than three years through keyboards and the Internet. We don’t stick to print: Tim Barrus uses video and we both use sound and image. Sometimes the product is near-liturgical, certainly a binding together as in the root of the word.

At first we were simply keeping something like a journal. Then one day. rereading, I saw that we had created a kind of document and set out to organize it, create transitions, and find the narrative “spine” of a year. The theme is always survival: Tim’s, mine, and the boys of what was then called Cinematheque. And the theme is art, which is a form of survival. (Think of the productive shared worlds of art therapy, especially with children.) This became “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs,” the beseeching song during the passage underground and the inability to bring back those we love. At first we just had a lot of dramatic stories about boys, both Tim’s and “mine.”

Then we ourselves began to change as we wrote. Our writing deepened and intensified as we challenged and explored. In this time period Tim’s shoulders had to be replaced, extremely dangerous surgery since he carries HIV and is a recovered morphine addict since the replacement of his hips. My ministerial education was worked hard to supply courage, especially since we are both post-Christian, living in a construct mostly supplied by physics and wilderness, searching for talismans of courage. I kept trying to use my strategy of analyzing the family past. Tim has a huge taboo on this. Tim kept trying to explain the criminally sexual underworld and its enormous power now. Even after five years doing law enforcement, I had a hard time getting my head around exactly what that meant to individual victims. I was amazed to realize how complex and philosophically-based were the American gay world of San Francisco, Florida, and Fire Island and how many gifted and wealthy people have been doing good in ways that began while quietly carrying casseroles to brilliant loved ones, dying in SRO hotels.

This country still suffers from two huge pandemics: the tuberculosis that devastated the Transcendentalists and the AIDS that wiped out so many in the arts and that has allowed tuberculosis to return. What I never thought about was the loss of real-life partnerships, not all of them sexual. My first AIDS loss was a ministerial colleague.

Writing with Barrus is deeply satisfying, but I would never have considered such a thing before he proposed it. If it had not been for AIDS, he would not have lost his earlier male co-writers. If it had not been for the collapse of publishing, we might both have found collaborating editors. If I had not been so stiffly independent, I might have been subsumed into another relationship like the one with Scriver in the Sixties where collaboration made me so invisible that some Montana people still can’t see me. Barrus treats me like a man, with dignity and equality. This is revelation I was seeking. This is work I can do. As for Tim, he has found a circle of poets who are peers in a way I am not, but he does not abandon me.

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