At the start of Essay Daily’s 2020 Advent, Michael Martone wrote (per Aquinas) that "without death life has no meaning.... Death defines, shapes incident into a shaped charge of meaning. But if death (a real death) defines, it also renders the writer mute.... So the memoirist’s first move is to simulate that death ... create an artificial parenthesis, a cyst of sorts to sort it out."
I’m afraid of death.
Not so much the dying as the part afterward.
I’m also writing my first memoir.
It’s sorting out, among other things, a history of shame and gay sex.
That old French chestnut: La petit mort.
Whatever happened to queer happiness, Kevin Brazil asks in his essay of the same name. It’s the right question to ask in a time when queer bleakness wins awards. Queer tragedy gets all the New York folks in a lather. But, as Brazil writes, "Maybe it isn’t possible to write about happiness at all.... Happiness leaves no trace on a state of blankness, and it is happiness because it leaves no trace."
It’s unhappiness that scars, leaves a mark. The coming of unhappiness is the death of joy that gives joy meaning. Advent marks the season of comings, of preparation, of pending arrival. Joy to the world. What is the meaning of the messiah’s coming? Is it an end (of this life, this world) that will give our lives meaning, or does it suggest another end, another death: the going of the messiah, and whatever mark they might leave behind?
Rapture can be the start of your story or its end. It’s all in which parenthesis you favor.
Gut trouble runs in my family. My mother’s told stories about sitting at home as a teen and waiting for boyfriends to come pick her up for their date. She was an only child, in rural Appalachia, waiting for a man to deliver her anywhere else. She’d stand in the kitchen, looking out the window at the long country road that led to her house, and her stomach would roil and churn the whole time. "It was terrible," she told me. "I’d just get so sick."
Cue Tom Petty: the waiting is the hardest part. Contrast this with cruising, anon hookups, where the anticipation is often hotter than the sex it precedes. The hardest part? On my way to a bathhouse, truckstop, or video arcade I sometimes have to pee three times an hour. I wouldn’t call it terrible, except retroactively. When the event you’ve waited hours (or days, or adulthoods) for is bad, and not for the first time, you return to an age-old question: Why did I do that again?
Waiting as self-mesmerizing. What comes of our fantasies, our fantasies of coming and second comings, when they become reality? Is there a word for that accomplished disappointment? That advent-ure?
In "Ash Wednesday", Samuel R. Delany is ‘worried about [his] trip up to New York to attend a party.’ It’s a party for men over the age of 50 who like to have sex with men over the age of 50. Delany—who, as he writes, is ‘known as a “sex radical”’—is all the same a stranger to such parties, but what worries him isn’t the party itself, it’s the many tiny scuffles that departures and transit present for a person of a certain age with a recent ADD diagnosis:
‘Would I arrive with phone and luggage intact? Would I be able to get back with everything I started out with? Would I be able to negotiate my medications, food? Sleep? With ADD wreaking havoc on logic and focus, would I be able to document the trip as I hoped?’
I think of that hope, the hope of every reporter, chronicler, essayist. If I can capture what is happening around me in words, I can look back later and learn what What Happened means. Or it’s, Forgetfulness may have a stronger appetite than memory, but by writing this down I can even the score.
For much of "Ash Wednesday," Delany does his job chronicling: "The bus has skipped Mount Laurel and is going express to New York City. The trees on the far and near sides of the fields beside the roads are all bare, and remind me of underwater sponges. Despite the bursts of warm weather, there is just old grass—some dull green—amidst browns and tans." But when it comes to his task of meaning-making, the parts won’t come together:
"On Ash Wednesday, one of those warm days, I only saw two people with the traditional cross of ash on their foreheads in the Gayborhood streets of Philadelphia. It seemed fewer than in former years. Are activities of the sexual sort, the real subject of this meditation, replacing it? Is there any connection at all? Am I taking this trip for sex, for friendship, or just to be able to spread information to people who need it or might benefit? Or all three? Some of them all, I suspect."
After the sex party, Delany heads north to the home of an old fuck-buddy and his partner, ruminates on the differences between a hovel and a barracks, and gets on a bus back home.
"I think of myself as somebody who is interested in the differences, the differences between straight society and gay, the differences between male and female, but all of those presuppose a set of similarities on which those differences have to be marked out. Beginnings and endings are the hardest parts for thinkers who utilize such structures. Perhaps that means the best way to end this essay is to say, as of yet, it is not finished." Goes the end of this finished essay.
Ash Wednesday, the day, is about beginnings as endings. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Another stay against forgetfulness, one that sits at a distance from its Science Is Real cousin, You are made of stardust. The secular version wants to lift you up, expand you to the farthest reaches of the universe. The Catholics suggest a little more humility.
To what end? Humility and pride are secret siblings, like the rabbi in the old joke who wails "I am nothing! I am nothing!" while praying in the synagogue, but once the janitor is inspired to do the same, nudges the cantor and whispers, "Look who thinks he’s nothing." One effect of making yourself small is that the world around you—your material—gets bigger, which feels both scarier and more honest. Life is a mess we’re forever inspired by, but only in the interests of cleaning it up. Making a pretty shape. The Greeks called it hubris.
By concluding with the statement that the essay is not finished, Delany suggests "Ash Wednesday" has no ending, or that its ending, like the messiah, is TK. But without our ending, as we await it, what meaning can be made of what we just read?
A cold evening, many years ago. I’m 26 years old, and I’ve been standing silently in the dark of my bedroom for the last forty-five minutes, staring out my window and across three yards at the blazing windows of my neighbor’s house. I am waiting to see if he’ll walk into the frame, and waiting to see if he’ll be naked when he does so. He is a man over 50, a man I’ve never met or even seen outside his home, but he’s a man I like the shape of enough that this waiting, standing alone and watching in silence out a window, feels like nothing.
The waiting is everything. At the end of this essay, you’re wanting to know whether the man will appear in the window. So was I.
Dave Madden is the author of two books. His essays have appeared in Zyzzyva, The Guardian, Lithub, Harper's, and elsewhere. He teaches nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, and writes a fortnightly newsletter named Shenny. You can read the Behind the Music of this essay in a recent Shenny.