The day after the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, I was in Salem, Oregon, for a dragon boat race. My team was warming up on a brick-covered picnic area. I leaned over for a stretch and found myself face to face with the inscribed brick you see pictured here.
I stopped. The park around me seemed to inhale and hold its own breath. Five words and a few numbers sent me falling through a telescoping tunnel of history, and I wondered, Would everyone see in these letters and numbers what I saw? Because what I saw was an epitaph, a love-letter, a hidden grief. I saw one man with a full name, one without. I saw a date of death in 1991. I saw AIDS, and all the loss and secrecy and grief and politics hidden within it. I saw a time in history when the idea of gay marriage wasn't even part of the conversation, when the hope was for recognition, for the right to acceptance, for safety and community and belonging and love without a death sentence attached to it. I saw another time where a marginalized group was insisting, in the face of bigotry, that their lives mattered. And then, with the mental roar of a jet engine, I fast-forwarded to now, and the significance of the Supreme Court ruling, and the celebrations throughout the country, and a Facebook image posted that afternoon of a friend, a survivor of that terrible era of AIDS, standing, holding hands and saying vows with his partner. These two images - the brick in the park and the photo from Facebook, melded into one and I saw the journey writ large across my mind, overwhelming in its significance.
I blinked and stood up and looked at the circle of people around me who continued about their business. And I went about my business, too, but my heart held the journey - then, and now, and everything in between. I couldn't let it go.
As I thought about that moment and its meaning, and as I tried to explain it to the people around me, I found words inadequate. I stood at a strange crossroads of past, present, and future.
The day before, I'd been at a high school graduation party and heard a group of young people talking so openly and casually about sexual orientation. It was no big deal who was what. They are the future. Do they know the past? Do they understand the journey that led to this moment? The whole journey? Do I?
There is an incredible young adult book that speaks with exquisite eloquence about this particular convergence of past, present and future. It's by David Levithan and it's called TWO BOYS KISSING. Read it.
That moment looking at the brick in the park resonated beyond the journey of gay rights and LGBT history for me. As I age, my relationship to time - to the past, present and future - changes. When I was very young, I lived mostly in the present. Soon, my attention shifted to the future. Who would I be when I grew up? What college would I go to? What would I do after college? Where would I live? Would I get married? Would I have children? The future - always the future. But now that I've rounded the corner of middle age, the past - its value and meaning - occupy a growing portion of my attention.
Friends, contemporaries, face terminal illness or sudden death from heart disease. Children marry and start families. Parents struggle with the challenges of aging. Technology leaves me in the dust. The world around me becomes increasingly different. My neighborhood is changing. I see city blocks with buildings razed, and I find myself asking "What used to be there?"
That question looms in my mind. What used to be there? Memory, communal memory - that's what history really is and remembering history is more than being "condemned to repeat it." We need to hold and preserve our communal memories in order to understand ourselves, to appreciate our present and to grapple with our future. It is frighteningly easy for that memory to disintegrate like old silk and crumble into nothing. When that memory includes part of your own story, the thought that it will evaporate is heartbreaking and terrifying and infuriating all at once.
We have a responsibility to record the journeys. For some, it is through writing. For others, through film or the visual arts or music. For some, the responsibility lies not in the telling, but in the asking and the listening and the learning. And the noticing - stopping and noticing a small group of words and numbers on a brick on the ground in a park by a river, and registering their significance.