old, outdated, rejected Modern Love Essay

A few years ago, I wrote this essay to try and get the Modern Love essay series in the New York Times to add some politics and color. They rejected it. In retrospect, I was quite optimistic.

It's a little cheesy because I thought that might help it get published, but I think the core still stands.
Modern Love Essay

Watching my good friend, DJ Major Taylor, spin at Bar Deville in Chicago recently, I remembered some parts of DJing I don’t miss: entitled requesters, people who achieve zombie-drunk state, and dancers who dance without any sense of rhythm. Wondering how the internal metronome of the heartbeat was not saving them, I joked how maybe no rhythm is a sign of no heart, which was funny until I remembered that my recent ex had no rhythm when it came to dancing. And he has a heart. A good one.

For three years we had forged our path: Mid-thirties with no desire for marriage. Neither of us was interested in the institution, in part because it is wrong to refuse rights and privileges to one set of people while affording them to another. But we had little clarity on exactly where else we could go. We never reached a conclusion on the question of whether to have children. He has a vasectomy, the result of a personal commitment to adoption—which we agreed was a beautiful but more difficult option. Also, despite an acknowledgement that some clock was ticking, neither of us felt ready. Having both placed more importance on art, activism, travel and community, our respective career paths and financial stability had become a bit murky.

Our life decisions and worldview directly relate to us both being queer, punk and more educated than most about social critiques—we have learned about and witnessed too much injustice and worked with too many under-advantaged and dismissed peoples to be satisfied with old models. We believe in the room for improvement.

A beautiful example of what I mean is demonstrated by Gay Shame, a queer group with an intentionally combative name. Gay Shame resists the LGBT focus on marriage rights because they believe it is a part of queer mainstreaming— mainstreaming that is ultimately as divisive as it is inclusive because so many people can’t be or don’t want to be “normal.” (a similar argument is made by Against Equality and the Alternatives to Marriage Project promotes fairness and equality for the unmarried). Again, we can do better. Yes, absolutely, everyone who wants to get married should be able to, but gay marriage has little if anything to do with true acceptance of people who deviate from norms.

It is with the sort of people who can recognize the value of Gay Shame’s critique that my ex and I have long formed community. As troubled teenagers with complicated family lives, him in Milford, MI and me in Wichita, KS, we had both had the luck of finding a home in the, for lack of a better term, 90s activist-punk-queer scene (a far from homogeneous loose network of people and places).

As a result, throughout high school, whenever he could get permission to borrow his parent’s car, he drove into Detroit to see punk shows. Later, he toured the country in punk bands, staying on floors and couches, started a record label and published a long running zine. At 19, I also found my way to Detroit (albeit after he had left), where a collective house project in a former mansion blew up my prior understanding of what was possible. By 20, I was hiking through the hills of an indigenous revolution in southern Mexico—trying to learn from people who were doing surprisingly well in an asymmetrical war, and trying to find a stronger sense of identity in the country half of my family is from.

A year later I moved to West Philadelphia because of its longstanding radical community. Eventually, when people learned I had a lot of hip-hop records and a basic DJ mixer, I started getting asked to DJ house parties and benefit shows because people wanted to dance but they didn’t want to navigate the skeezy dudes and get-wasted-culture of so many venues. It didn’t take long to discover I love helping a whole room dance. That’s one thing I learned from DJing: a good dance party can be a communal moment of exception, of actual joy.

A dance floor can also be a moment of clarity for a couple. Can they make it work with different rhythms? With different moves? Or will their lack of synch scare them? Will one of them not even get up from the table to try?

The punks, the queers, the “you think too much”-ers aren’t the first or only ones questioning traditional relationship models. Many have noted how, for an increasing number of people, marriage is no longer a given. Part of the urgency of the study of this phenomenon seems to be an implicit fear of a loss of a way of life. A confusion. For, if people do not couple up and build lives together, then what do we do? As one friend says, she doesn’t want to be 50 and still having sleep-over dates.

How do relationships mature, how do they last, without marriage or children? Without even cohabitation? What can we do together that we couldn’t do alone? If it isn’t a household we are building, what does the common project look like? Or are these all the wrong questions, and we just need to be more comfortable with ourselves?

The thought of endlessly dating new people is not appealing, in fact it is exhausting, but one of the elements that contributed to our break-up was a sense of stagnation. The new had worn off. He played more video games and I rambled on about my to-do list. What started as a walk across the city with a bounce in our step had become a seeping quiet. Never mind rhythm, we literally stopped listening to music together.

To hold on or let go? To put in the work or stop banging your head against the wall? Are these routines or ruts? Does avoiding marriage make it easier to walk away? Too easy? Is my ex one of those guys who wants to be a perpetual man-child so he is using social critique as a defense? Do all those years of having to be a tough girl leave me with one hand on the eject button? Or was it because of a lack of a larger goal; a bigger picture that we found ourselves, though ostensibly in a relationship, only dancing on our own?

I think many of us, as so many of our parents prayed for, thought we would somehow grow up and get boring; retreat (I remember when 40 seemed almost dead). All of a sudden Beyonce’s annoying “put a ring on it” would be more than catchy, and some version of suburbia, whether played out in the city, in quaint suburbs or in Vermont, would look good.

But too many adults seem like the kind of children who quit a game they aren’t winning, that they don’t think they can win. And since they stopped playing, stopped trying to play, there is too much unsatisfying work, too much TV, too many errands, and too many subtle excuses for why the hard work of social justice is best left to others.

But I haven’t left. Many of us are still here. Hopefully with a little more nuance and a little more careful. I have managed to avoid jaded because I am lucky to know so many amazing people—young and old—who are still willing to put in the work: to volunteer, to organize, to create, to try to not add to the damage, who are still committed to personal and societal growth.

Given the people I surround myself with, by and large the people who make sense to me, weddings are the exception rather than the rule. Still, I have been to weddings. I even DJed a couple. While some part of me is critical, wary, a bigger part of me is simply happy people are happy. For, as whomever it was who wrote the song for Rihanna came up with, they “found love in a hopeless place.” For example, I will never forget how downright giddy my brother was at his wedding. It was infectious. Everyone should get to be that excited. And everyone should be able to dance, literally or figuratively, so wholeheartedly with their partner.

I understand why people, gay and straight, embrace or fall into traditions. It’s comfortable. It’s what they have been raised to do. It might even be easier. Another thing I learned from DJing: most people will only dance to songs they know.

However, DJs used to break new artists. The ability to blend in a hot track nobody has ever heard before without thinning the dance floor is an art form.

And, if you’ll stretch with me here, left foot out, it may be a sort of willingness to keep dancing—even through unknown or bad transitions—that will lead to ever more successful relationships. When there isn’t a clear path, then we must redouble our focus, our effort, on the getting there, on continued communication of what the there looks like or could look like. It’s going to take time and some degree of self and partner (re)training, maybe even dance lessons, aka couples therapy.

I guess this is what I learned from my recent break-up, something I should have already known: ambiguity does not excuse inaction. We generally got along and respected each other, but we didn’t put in the hard work. And while I could focus on a list of his failings, I would rather look to my own. I should have been clearer about my needs. I shouldn’t have been so distracted by other commitments. I should have been both more patient and not avoided conflict. When a song got played out, maybe I should’ve taken it out of rotation and replaced it with a newer, better beat. Because, even if I don’t know exactly what unresigned adulthood and relationships look like, I do believe I can create them. We can create them. For, as Santigold sings, “We know now we want more/a life worth fighting for.”

No comments: