It’s become so clear to me how I’ve spent much of my life running away– avoiding, escaping, surviving. Now, more and more, I’m committed to arriving and being present in the good life I’ve co-created with a wonderful husband in a safe, cozy home, and from within a relatively healthy body I continue to learn to better care for. Life is good. There’s no need to run anymore.
Every so many years, I go through some intense period of professional growth which inevitably intertwines with my personal growth. The last time I felt this kind of sea change happening in my life was when I trained in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy from Sept., 2012 (starting on my birthday) to May, 2014. Now, it’s occurring again for me while embarking on wholeheartedly learning Brainspotting (BSP) therapy. This time, the growth feels faster, while learning IFS, also intense at times, was comparatively more gradual. In between was getting taught EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) in 2017, which felt like a great augmentation to IFS yet its own powerful, technical tool. I did not feel a sense of collective enthusiasm and community around EMDR like there is with IFS and BSP.
It is awakening and buoying to my spirit to join another wave of something so transformative, a form of healing art that truly exists for the greater good. While I’m admittedly very tired from all this learning and application of something new, it’s a good tired.
Last night, I was feeling a little vulnerable. After three decades of no contact with someone I’d met in college and coming across him on Facebook fairly recently, I just made amends for my problematic, hot/cold treatment of him when I was a lot younger and comparatively less wise and compassionate than I am now. Some days later (yesterday), he accepted my apologies but drew a boundary with fully resuming the friendship we once had, which had faded off through time and distance. However, he did leave a slight opening by indicating his current intention to maintain a very limited connection with me on Facebook may change, won’t necessarily remain “never” with having more contact. I certainly respect his wishes and told him so. Still, I felt a bit disappointed and vulnerable/exposed after reaching out and making amends, which I solidly feel was the right thing to do. Clearly, a part of me was hoping for a more open-hearted response, even though the reply I did get was ultimately fair, reasonable, and one that perhaps hints at trust of me by this other party needing to be rebuilt over time.
I just completed an interesting memory and writing exercise, which was to list all the places I’ve lived in my lifetime. The total number is forty-five. This does not include a few months-long periods of homelessness (by my parents’ choice, never out of forced necessity) during my childhood while we traveled about, staying in friends’ homes, youth hostels, camp grounds, inns, a thatched roof hut, and even one overnight on the front door area to a priest’s house/rectory in Central America. It is no wonder I especially value the stability of hearth and home so so much.
I was just listening to NPR in my car to a show about people’s real life experiences of being embarrassed, including the long-term repercussions from these incidents. I could relate. A central aspect of most, if not all, extremely embarrassing situations is humiliation. I believe actual mistakes that lead to feeling embarrassed are generally forgivable/reparable. But, even when, say, a group of witnesses or even the public has long moved on from judging a person’s perceived mistakes/errors in judgment, the physical/somatic sensations of feeling humiliated remain, triggered forth again by some subtle reminder(s) in one’s environment or even simply by a passing thought.
A lot of us have survived intense embarrassment, often repeated occurrences of this emotional state, including by someone(s) very close to us in childhood, which results in a betrayal of trust. The world can then seem like humiliation lurks around the corner. You never forget because, as trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk states in his well-titled book, “THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE.” Even small embarrassing moments can and often do trigger a mental and physical cascade response to past, old humiliations. Through helpful somatic-oriented psychotherapy, these embedded-in-the-brain and body reactions can be shortened and de-intensified, but I don’t think they ever completely go away. I believe this is evolutionarily important. It is good to hold some memory so one can retain helpful knowledge of these past painful experiences and avoid repeating them as best as possible. Also, empathy for others is deepened, or at least the opportunity for this to happen is presented.
I’ve done all I can to distance myself in proximity and time from those in my past who humiliated me. I know others have also accomplished this for themselves. I’ve created a wonderful, stable life filled with supportive and neutral (such as strangers in my neighborhood) people. I’ve worked on healing myself deeply, including developing a level of self confidence (such as in my competence as an effective psychotherapist) I wasn’t quite sure I’d ever know. But, there is admittedly an edge of caution I still retain. This translates into avoiding more potential embarrassment that could arise in, say, speaking before large groups of people, something I’ve hardly ever done in my life. I remain quite sensitive to the possibility of being humiliated, albeit significantly less so than I used to feel.
If you or someone you know is particularly concerned about being embarrassed and, likely, humiliated, which is not exactly the same as worrying about what others think of you (which I largely could care less about except with a small few who I know well and love), please hold patience and compassion for that individual, including yourself. Sensitivity to embarrassment, especially the sting of humiliation, is a scar on the psyche, a reminder of one’s tender humanity.
Throughout my compulsory schooling, my academic performance was generally poor until my last two years of high school. I went on to graduate from a good state college with Honors in my major (psychology) and, sometime later, earned a Masters degree from the school of my choice, which is nationally respected in the field I’m in (social work). My point here is that I’m a living example among many of how academic performance throughout a child’s development is not the best determinant for her/his/their later success in life. Far from it. Valuing school grades can be over-emphasized and needlessly anxiety-ridden for everyone concerned.
When a child gets low grades on a school progress report, here’s something she/he/they could really benefit hearing from a parent: “You’re not as good or as bad as your grades. You’re still wonderful. I love you no matter what.”
Around the summer of 1975, my parents and I moved into a semi-communal house on Cragmont Street in the hills of Berkeley, California. Since February of that year, we’d been traveling around the state and up to Oregon and Washington, seeking out land to purchase and settle down on. I was almost nine years old and looking forward to starting school nearby for some much-needed structure to my life, not to mention socialization with others my own age. This home we lived in for the next year or so was filled with adults who, like my parents, were in their mid twenties to early thirties.
And then there was me. I conversed as much as I could with our three to four ever-changing housemates, all but one of them moving out over the months to soon be replaced by others I then did my best to get to know. There was Paul the lawyer, a very tall, bearded man who drove a Citroen, which fascinated me to no end, the way it rose up on its wheels after turning on the ignition. I decided that I too would become an attorney so I could own a similar kind of car when I grew up. Ron the dentist replaced Paul in the room across from ours. He was quiet and looked somewhat like Lee Majors, pre-THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Then, I believe Michael the musician filled Ron’s spot. I would make up adventure stories which he would accompany with passionate guitar playing. Harry and his girlfriend Sandra lived in the room next door, closest to the front entrance. Harry wore wire-framed glasses, had thin wisps of blond hair, and was a bit stiff in demeanor. He played Steely Dan all the time, filling the house with those smooth, jazzy rock songs I still love hearing no matter where I am. His girlfriend Sandra was kind and gentle, wearing thick dark-rimmed glasses and long straight brown hair. Downstairs lived the anchor tenant, Jeffrey, who my dad knew from college. He was a suave graduate student of music, his shoulder length black hair, big brown eyes, and wide chiseled jaw lending him a somewhat Byronesque look. I remember my mom commenting to me about how “very handsome” he was. Jeffrey dated two beautiful half Indian and half British sisters, Emma and Lucy, until they found out about each other’s shared involvement. This was thanks to me standing with Emma in the kitchen one day, inadvertently telling the blonde, blue-eyed statuesque woman that I’d seen her younger sister (also statuesque, but darker skinned and raven-haired) coming around recently. No-one had told me to keep mum about this observation of mine. Lucy and Jeffrey would soon marry, then later divorce. When Steely Dan wasn’t blasting in the living room, Jeffrey could often be found playing piano with one hand and gracefully waving his baton with the other.
There were at least three other housemates in this rotation of occupancies. One was Joan, who could be moody, though I did deserve her irritation at times with my attention-seeking, such as one afternoon when I quietly loaded up her dark brown hair with grass and leaves while she read a book in the nearby school grounds. Then there was Nancy who kept her makeup in the medicine cabinet of the shared upstairs bathroom. I made use of her eye shadow on more than one occasion. I stopped this when Mom suddenly turned to me one day and sternly said, “Don’t get into Nancy’s makeup!”
There was another woman who lived in the same room previously occupied by Harry and Sandra, but I forget her name. I was puzzled with the big curlers in her dirty blonde hair she wore some mornings, resulting in perfectly straight locks. “I curl my hair to make it straighter,” she eventually explained to me.
When I wasn’t talking or trying to play with one of my adult housemates, I usually entertained myself effectively enough, going on imaginary journeys in the brick-laid front and backyards, bamboo (or some other kind of high shrubbery) growing tall between the sidewalk and the front area of the house. I was too young at the time to appreciate the sweeping view down to assorted trees, other homes, and the spacious playground of a local grammar school. A tall Rainier cherry tree tickled against the living room window of our abode, yielding delicious red-yellow fruits. My father would tie an old sock and wire to a long stick and then scoop up cherries for everyone in the household to eat. I did not mind sharing these natural treats with the chattering squirrels that hastened along the tree’s branches.
Adjoining the living room, the dining room was framed by a large window overlooking the verdant backyard below and, further off, the ocean. It is possible I am remembering this view incorrectly. Memory is tricky, often inaccurate, merging different places together into one, changing colors of things, moving people and objects from their original locations. Hence, the Oakland Bay may have been even further away and/or completely obstructed by buildings and trees. The skyline was wide, though, and, in my mind, through that window I keep seeing the grey-blue Bay surrounding a deep brown-hued Mount Tamalpais off in the distance, all this held within a vast dome of clear to faintly cloudy sky. I reflect now with a sense of gratitude and wonder that I lived for a time in such beautiful surroundings.
I often hungered for face-to-face engagement with other adults. Boredom was sometimes the reason. But, mainly, I was still reeling inside over my father’s divorce from my birth mother over four years before and her subsequent leaving me with him and his new girlfriend (and wife-to-be) about a year later. At the time, I didn’t consciously understand the deep significance of these events, I simply yearned to be with any grown up who would give me their undivided, loving attention. I started venturing next door to a few neighbors’, having met them on different occasions while we each stood outside, a line of shrubs as the property boundary between us. Twenty-nine-year-old, deep-voiced, bespectacled Vicki often had me over in her dark downstairs apartment, where I watched TV, since there wasn’t one in our house. I primarily remember seeing reruns of BEWITCHED and episodes of the then newish series THE WALTONS at her place. She was generous with her time and attention, and I’m forever grateful to her for all that she gave of her home and herself.
Another neighbor was Gage, who lived next door in a two-story apartment by the other side of the house. I watched TV sometimes at his place as well, while downstairs, he often created spray paint art on large canvases composed of differing patterns of intertwining string. Perhaps he felt a bit compensated for putting up with me via my parents and our housemates allowing him to keep his cannabis plants nestled away in our brick-covered backyard, far from the street and hidden from other residents’ view. I had been instructed by my folks to tell any visitors that they were tomato plants, should anyone happen to ask about them.
Of all the people I lived with and around during this period in my life, Charlie made the deepest impression on me. The first time I saw this dark-brown-skinned, towering-appearing man was on his second floor apartment balcony, right above Vicki’s unit. Seemingly rising up out of the high shrubbery along the property line, he stood playing his saxophone, repetitively blowing out the same partial tune, whatever that was. (One of my female housemates– Nancy, I think– would later tell me that he was trying to play “Misty,” though I’m not sure if I have the correct title after all these years.) I was intrigued. This was pretty routine for him. My mom and others in the household chuckled now and then, remarking how untalented he was.
I think I started conversing with Charlie from the back deck during one of these jam “practices” or “sessions,” if you could even call what he was doing either of those. He probably appreciated this audience of one, a curious child largely uninformed about music, albeit someone who was non-judging. One afternoon, Charlie spontaneously walked with his saxophone all the way down to the schoolyard, which could be viewed from his balcony, and met up with me there. I happened to be hanging out with moody Joan or softer-spoken Nancy, I can’t remember which. I enjoyed watching this man, the sounds out of his instrument being secondary, unimportant. I’d probably known him for at least a few months at this point. I think both Charlie and I longed to be fully seen and heard without criticism. I could give him that and he, seemingly so naturally, returned the favor.
I started visiting Charlie and his white girlfriend Marne in their apartment. Like Charlie, Marne was probably in her late twenties, maybe thirty, though I recall Charlie seemed a little younger. Always one to take notice of and be fascinated with people’s hair, Marne’s was impressive: past waist-length, thick, black, and wavy. I remember her as being quiet, serious, and patient, a bit depressed. Charlie, on the other hand, always seemed to be smiling, his white teeth cleanly juxtaposed against his dark skin and large Afro.
There were two other residents in this apartment of warmth and welcome: Leroy, Charlie’s pet Great Dane and Lab mix, and David, Marne’s much smaller, older dog who was probably part Beagle, part Lab. They were both black in coloring, with Leroy being more shiny, like a panther. The two got on well enough together. I don’t recall them ever fighting or even barking at each other.
Leroy and I instantly became buddies. Affectionate and playful, the huge dog was always ready for pets and gentle wrestling, never once snapping or barking at me. If I wasn’t paying direct attention to him, Leroy would stand close by, looking up expectantly, waiting. I felt guilty one time when I moved my hand suddenly without looking and jabbed him in the eye. No apparent harm done, thank goodness. He didn’t even squeak. I’ll never forget watching Leroy play tug-of-war with a huge bone of his that a visiting friend of Charlie’s held up high in both hands. The dark canine seemed to tower over the somewhat heavy-set African American man, simply glad for the attention and fun.
Leroy’s exuberance seemed to be an outward expression of the more subdued yet warm current of enthusiasm I felt between Charlie and myself. It impresses me to this day how Marne did not mind my daytime and evening visits with she and her boyfriend. She hung back, more reserved, yet also felt easy to talk to. Sometimes, I sat on their bed watching some show on a black and white television set with the two of them or just Charlie, though perhaps always with both. I remember Charlie and I in closer proximity to each other than Marne and I ever were. His body warmth still seems palpable. I only remember once being asked to leave, which was a time Charlie wasn’t home and Marne seemed particularly tired one afternoon. Otherwise, I usually naturally knew when it was time to go home, including to avoid worrying my parents (which did happen once one evening, though).
As I reflect on these visits with Charlie and Marne, I wonder what may have been going on between them that I, an attention-hungry nine-year-old, did not pick up on. Was Marne unhappy because Charlie abused her in some way? Were my visits possibly a brief respite for her from an intermittently unpleasant intensity of living with him? Or was she depressed, or simply run-down, for reasons other than issues with her boyfriend? Undoubtedly, Charlie’s incredible warmth towards me completely skewed my already naive perspective. I’m left with just my impressions, which have their own intensity. It’s also possible that I’m now looking back with clinically-trained wondering and suspicion over a problem that didn’t exist. I’ll never know. For what it’s worth, I don’t recall hearing a harsh word or seeing a disapproving look pass between them. I do know that Charlie’s demeanor and friendliness were radiant, balanced with a proper restraint. I never once felt intruded on by him, such as left with any lingering sense of “icky” or “bad touch” or even a minute sense of pressure to somehow engage with him in such contact. None of this. I’m not sure if we were even ever alone. I felt completely safe around him at all times and I was.
One day, I believe Charlie showed me pictures of himself, friends, and family members in a large photo album. This must have happened because I sat close to him on the edge of his bed one afternoon (probably one out of perhaps three occasions). Glancing down at something in his lap, I asked a question now and then about what we were looking at. I can’t recall any of the photographs, though I’m certain those are what I saw. What I do clearly remember is Charlie, how I kept looking up at him, admiring his thick Afro, his pleasant smile and soft, soothing deep voice, the warmth of his body, his muscled arms. He often wore only a sleeveless t-shirt for a top, unpleasantly referred to by many as a wife beater. Perhaps he just wore this once and my selective memory leaves me thinking of him wearing one all the time.
It may have been during this same visit that Charlie shifted to showing me something more intimate than his personal photographs. Or perhaps it was during a separate occasion altogether. I’m not sure how this sharing got started, but Charlie informed me that, some years before, a man fired a shotgun directly at him one day. I wish I could remember more details to the story, but I don’t. I may have found it hard to believe, or that I didn’t want to accept that he, such a kind man, had been through something so awful, cruel. Unprompted by me, Charlie gently took my left hand and guided it to his right upper bicep or deltoid (I’m not sure exactly where), pressing my fingers into the flesh and moving them in a small, brief circle. I felt a hard pellet move tightly within tissue. He then guided me to his chest, somewhere by or just below the collarbone, repeating the circular motion of my fingers. Again, a hard pellet, this time closer to bone and the surface. I think I also felt the upper edge of his pectoral muscle against my palm, unless this is just what I later imagined feeling. One final holding of my hand led me to his skull, close to the temple. I forget which side. Close to the surface under the skin: yet another hard pellet. Fascinating. I felt relieved that he was still alive, healthy, there spending time with me.
If I hadn’t initially believed Charlie had been hit with shotgun pellets, I believed him after this intimate show and tell, or, more accurately, find and feel. I was a very inquisitive child, so I’m certain I asked him about details. The dialogue during these moments is largely gone from my mind. This exchange entered a more primal realm for me. Charlie’s face and chest dominate the scene, as if I see him in a movie closeup, only I’m right there, feeling the heat of his body, enveloped in his large presence, comforted, intrigued, desirous. And aroused– or, more accurately, feeling the beginnings of this state. I wasn’t familiar with that word at the time, but I’ve long since realized nascent arousal mingled with desire were in the mix of my feelings and sensations.
I can count on one hand the times I remember finding grown men attractive before and when I was nine years of age. But, Charlie was my first in-person crush, not a fleeting attraction to an image or someone briefly in my presence or passing by. In my own young way I think I loved him, as best a child traumatized by divorce and the upheaval of frequent moving knew how. And it certainly felt like he loved me, what with sharing his home and personal life so openly and warmly the way he did. This rare combination of interest in and respect of me– particularly by a man– felt so affirming, energizing, comforting, evoking space inside for desire to come forth.
Around the summer of 1976, we moved from the hippie-filled household on Cragmont Street into a second floor apartment close to downtown Berkeley. I never saw Charlie or Marne again. But, I would go on to often admire, feel curious about, and lust for Black men for the rest of my life. This came to a head in late 2012 or early 2013 while participating in a months-long series of intensive weekend trainings on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. For several days, my mind kept periodically showing me a lurking, nearby presence of a tall African American man. This was not at all upsetting, just intriguing and distracting. I can only guess that this inner stimulus was somehow prompted by the deep psychological work I was engaging in with several other people, almost all of us psychotherapists. With the skillful help of a certain woman therapist, who also worked from the IFS model and practiced EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I unlocked this little inner mystery. While following her moving fingers across my line of vision, I thought of this recurring image of a muscular Black man. Suddenly, I remembered Charlie and grief welled up inside me. I burst into tears. I’d long missed him, or some young part of me sure had. I then talked this through with the therapist, completing a sense of release. What remained was a gentle wistfulness and a lingering curiosity to find out whatever happened to Charlie. Alas, I didn’t know his last name, let alone his date of birth, probably all just as well.
Sexual and emotional attractions are complex and mysterious. I don’t claim to fully understand all of what has me feel so strongly interested in certain people and not others. But, I do know that some particularly powerful, lasting attractions can and do come from a longing, which interweaves into romantic fantasy, a longing to return to a real or imagined (or combination thereof) time of special, exclusive, all-encompassing sense of connection with another. Perhaps, as in my case, this often stems from a childhood experience, when one’s senses are clear, filled with innocence, curiosity, a wide openness and hunger to connect, and wonder.
[Note on the accompanying photograph with this post: Me in the summer of 1976 in Alameda, CA, near Berkeley, around the end of the time period this personal account occurred.]
I’ve spent most of my life moving around, starting at age four, only settling down into a true home within the past two years. There are many stories to tell along the way of my past itinerancy and this is just one of them.
For a few years, my father, step/adoptive mother, and I lived in Berkeley, California, starting around the summer of 1975. We had recently left the inland city of Modesto to start about an eight-plus year period of exploration, a time when my hippie-identified parents left their formal careers as junior college English instructors to hold assorted jobs, occasionally interspersed with episodes of unemployment and much creative writing. In the fall of 1976, having attended a small, flaky, but well-meaning alternative school for fourth grade in the Berkeley Hills area, I entered fifth grade at Longfellow, a public grammar school close to downtown. I was not aware of the term “culture shock” at the time, but that is one phenomenon I experienced as a student there.
Longellow School’s student body was more diverse than I’d ever come across in my short life, though I had already attended about seven other schools by then, counting pre-schools. The student body was about 40% (or perhaps even more) African American, 40-45% Caucasian/white, with the rest being Asian (and of that demographic, mainly Chinese and Japanese Americans) and a very small amount Latinx. I wish I had the formal break-down in front of me of what the actual percentage of ethno-cultural groups were represented at Longfellow in 1976 and ’77, but I don’t. Researching that information feels distracting away from my own impressions and subsequent reflections I wish to focus on and convey here. I realize I could be off with the numbers due to my own sense of overwhelm with the presence of what felt like so many Black peers around me compared to what I had ever previously, or thereafter, experienced. These students largely seemed to come from lower to lower middle-income homes, which included my own at the time.
A brief observation of my father’s sums up a lot of my feeling state I lived within while attending Longfellow. While he and his second wife, my adoptive mother, happened to be taking a walk near the school one day, he saw me standing up against the playground wall, scared. Adjusting to yet another new school while trying to downplay my high sensitivity and frequently “girl” labeled persona, I was also trying to negotiate this seemingly new to me culture of forthright verbal and physical expression, even aggressiveness, among these largely comfortably embodied, confident seeming Black kids. Repressed gay white boy that I was, I indeed felt scared, on many levels. It took me several years to grow comfortable in my own skin and stop being so afraid. These exuberant African American boys and girls reminded me of how I had a long ways to go.
Black history was a key part of the fifth grade curriculum at Longfellow. Each of us twenty-four students in white Mr. Abadie’s class was assigned to read biographies of influential Black people in U.S. history, which we then had to write about. We often watched films on Black history and historical figures and also went on field trips on at least two occasions to the Berkeley Film Archive to view movies about African Americans. We watched the miniseries ROOTS on video over a period of several weeks, joining with other classes in an assembly room to do so. There was even a field trip to see THE WIZ, a big theatrical hit in San Francisco at the time. Not long after this, another trip occurred in which our class got to see a handful of that play’s all Black cast as they were interviewed. Some limited questioning by us students was allowed. I watched, impressed and fascinated, glad for my fellow Black students having successful role models to see, take in, and even interact with. One boy in my class had a fun exchange with a female cast member, the boy giddily, half-heartedly protesting, “Whatcha doin’?!” as she took him by the arm and whispered something in his ear. He quieted down and returned to his seat in the audience, a smile on his face. I felt slightly envious of the special, brief exchange the two seemed to share. Black camaraderie seemed constant around me, an outsider.
The following year, I had Mrs. Duperron at the start of sixth grade (until I moved out of the area). She was African American and very no-nonsense. Tall and strong-voiced, this teacher would not hesitate to loudly tell a student or the whole class she had had enough of their/our “crap.” Black history continued to be part of the curriculum in sixth grade, though I’m not sure if it was still treated as a separate, stand-alone subject like it had been in fifth. This may have been the class that actually went on a field trip to see THE WIZ and not the previous year’s.
Mrs. Duperron expressed a fun side on occasion. In another example of Black camaraderie I observed, she pretended to throw a piece of fruit in the air to a biracial (Black and white) classmate, playfully asking, “Want one, Louie?” I forget the context of this moment, but not the then very familiar feeling of being an outsider. To her credit, one afternoon, seemingly out of the blue, she did make a conscious effort to give me some positive, caring attention. She took my hand and gave me some snack treat as we walked a short ways down the hall at the start of lunch. This felt awkward but I also appreciated the gesture, mixed in with some uncertainty and suspicion over why she was doing it. Mrs. Duperron never made such overtures again, but she did seem to soften a bit with me after that, mixed in with her hard, driven side she continued to generally express in class. She was probably at least forty years of age, trained more in the “Old School” ways of teaching and parenting. I believe she was the only African American teacher I had between Kindergarten and high school, not counting the occasional substitute teacher of color.
Active affirmation of the African American (then largely referred to as Black) experience at Longfellow seemed to flow steadily, at least in comparison to any other context I found myself in before or since then. I am grateful to have witnessed the camaraderie between Black students and a Black teacher with these pupils. They all had a lack of camaraderie and outsider status to deal with in so much of the rest of the world, something I didn’t think of when I was ten and eleven years old.
One day, feeling especially discouraged about my days at Longfellow, I started a conversation with my adoptive mother about the tension I felt with fellow Black students. I asked her if I was largely resented by them because I was white and white ancestors had enslaved their Black forebears. She explained that, possibly, yes, but that other, more current factors were far more at play, namely ongoing racial discrimination. I wish I could recall this long-ago exchange, but I hardly do today. A range of feelings arises as I reflect on this scene, particularly embarrassment, guilt, sadness, and then compassion for my white, naive oversimplification of a major, systemic social problem and projection of fault for my personal difficulties onto these peers– in short, racism.
I was a sensitive, genderqueer gay white boy who had endured parental divorce before aged five, quickly followed by a succession of moves, including overseas and back again. And I was coping with some culture shock, not at all inherently a bad thing, on top of an already deep sense of insecurity in the world. I was scared and distrustful of anyone new in my life, save for any nearby, kind adult willing to give me a bit of attention. African American peers with their more bold, straightforward ways was not an actual problem, just more new stimuli for me to integrate/make sense of along with everything else that I still hadn’t yet. I do know, however, that I felt markedly different than a lot of my peers– Black, white, et al– who were largely fully cis-gendered and heterosexual, at least the most visible, attention getting ones appeared to be. Within all my layers of fear, what I found startling was how courageous I found a lot of Black pupils, the way they seemed to take up space so unabashedly with their strong, often loud voices and gestures. They spoke about sexuality very openly with each other, the boys emphasizing a macho pursuit of girls. In sixth grade, I remember being called by a Black classmate a “square.” That summed up all my inhibition and fearfulness pretty succinctly.
A few African American classmates stole items from me, or tried to. Poverty elicits desperation which can sometimes evolve into survival-based strategies like theft, especially if one feels so deprived in a materialistic world. As a white boy, I already was more privileged, though, at the time, I was not yet very aware of all the ways this was so. That said, I would later find that theft was plentifully engaged in here and there by my white peers, many of them privileged like myself or more so. Desperation doesn’t just have to be from economic impoverishment. This racial stereotyping I was mentally doing concerning what kind of people are thieves ultimately soon proved to be wrong in my own life experience.
I never got to find out how my school and social life might have progressed in diverse, progressive-minded Berkeley. Shortly after the birth of my (half) sister in early December of 1977, we moved to Grass Valley, a city in Nevada County consisting of 6,203 people at that time– or so the entrance sign stated. Nestled about 2,500 feet above sea level in the Sierra Foothills, Grass Valley and its even smaller neighbor Nevada City were key locations during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Buying and then moving into a fixer-upper house to be close to an urban expatriate hippie-filled community in and around North San Juan Ridge was the compromise my parents had reached after a land purchase for them had fallen through. We would not be on the Ridge, after all, but close enough, engaging in creatively festive and spiritual get-togethers, like annual May Day and Halloween gatherings and periodic full moon poetry readings. A certain Ridge dweller, Robbie Thompson, ran a theater where Ridge and city locals alike performed in the productions, my father and adoptive mother in a few of them. I remember one Black woman with her young son attending one or two of the seasonal gatherings. One other Ridge resident was of Lebanese descent. Her older boyfriend was Black. One woman was Japanese, married to a noted white poet. They had two sons. A certain man was Native American, either half or fully. Another fellow and his cousin were Mexican American. I know I’m leaving out a few small handfuls of others who were non-white or partly so. Otherwise, most of us were white.
Grass Valley itself was predominantly white during the seven years I lived there. Same with nearby Nevada City. This hit me as another culture shock within my first week of middle school at Lyman Gilmore in January of 1978. I asked an English teacher, Mrs. Hinman, who happened to be on yard/hall duty at the end of the day, “Are there any Black people who live here in Grass Valley?” I don’t quite remember exactly what she said, but the very tall, severe-looking gray-haired woman stated something like, “Yes, there’s a Black family living over on [somewhere near downtown].” She delivered this matter-of-factly and satisfactorily, as if assuring me that the large, varied demographic I was asking about was adequately represented simply by the sheer fact that a single family of Black folk existed nearby. I didn’t know what to say. This felt like my formal introduction to a weird-feeling cultural reality of relative homogeneity in my new home community.
My encounters with African Americans and other Black people remained extremely limited while I grew up in Grass Valley. One particular memory comes to mind here. Within the first year or so of living there, I remember walking a short ways down the street from our home to someone else’s house for some reason. I was to speak with the woman there (Debbie I think her name was) possibly about baby-sitting arrangements for my then infant sister. The rationale remains vague to me. I knocked on the door. A handsome, deeply brown-skinned African American man with a short, well-kept Afro answered, Debbie’s boyfriend. She wasn’t home. We spoke briefly about the purpose of my visit and he agreed to give her my message. I think his name was Keith. He was very friendly and glad to converse, which I found discomforting. It’s taken me years to figure out exactly why. An obvious reason was that I felt bad for him that he lived in such a conservative, white area with his white girlfriend. He surely felt isolated yet obvious like a sore thumb. And then I felt guilty for feeling bad for him, like that was somehow condescending. Shame on me. But, deeper down, what I felt was afraid, of myself and for my safety, though not from him. His outer skin color reminded me how I too felt and was different, only I had wiggle room to at least try and hide my difference, albeit often pretty unsuccessfully. Here I was being reminded of how I also didn’t fit in with the locals and was under so much pressure to conform: be straight and straight-acting, not seem like a girl or a fag. I had no visible gay peer group or elders at the time to turn to. None. But, I was in denial about somehow needing such a community, since I was committed at the time to being straight and traditionally masculine. In parallel to me, this guy Keith didn’t have any Black brothers or sisters nearby to hang with, at least not that I could see. Painful. The dissonance for me was palpable, physical, though I couldn’t name it. Also, it’s very possible that I found him attractive and felt self conscious and awkward about it, like I was somehow being bad but didn’t know quite why. (That wasn’t the first or last time I experienced this oblique shame and fear around attractive men during my childhood and adolescence.) I wasn’t surprised when he’d moved away by the next year. I quietly wondered what happened to Keith, but I didn’t know who to ask. He wasn’t a friend of my folks’ or of anyone they knew well. One day, he was simply gone. Some years later, I would be too from Grass Valley, likely for some parallel reason to his, in addition to my parents leaving town for better job opportunities anyway. They settled down as junior college English teachers in the Los Angeles area, not exactly within neighborhoods of diversity in regards to people of color, but closer by such communities. The tension-filled, cheek to jowl pluralism of America continues.
Black history and lives seemed cursorily covered in middle school at Lyman Gilmore, particularly compared to how these subjects had been gone over at Longfellow School in Berkeley. I might as well have moved out of state as opposed to less than three hours’ drive away, the School and local culture felt so different than the Bay Area’s. Steadily, I participated in the racism of the place, seemingly forgetting about my fellow Black humans I’d gone to school with the year before. Horrible racial jokes were told among my peers and, on occasion, by adults around me, such as a bus driver for the local high school. I repeated them now and then, finally stopping this altogether by fifteen or sixteen years of age. It’s like I had been awakened, albeit somewhat overwhelmed for assorted reasons, and then lulled back into a sleepy ignorance, only to finally wake up again. I find that it’s always about constantly waking up, some more, and then some more, and on and on. But, then, life is that way if one is committed to always learning.
While I was being racist with my occasional off color joke telling, I endured homophobic jokes and even told them too sometimes, as a way to try and fit in, denying and shaming a whole part of my own nature. Middle school and then, to a lesser extent, high school was a time of enduring bullying, pretty typical for a femme gay kid in that era and in such a conservative community where the high school football team was so highly celebrated. At least I was never physically beaten up, for which I am grateful. Others have had it much worse, including so many of those who are of racial/ethnic minorities. But, by denying the humanity of others different from myself and the dominant white culture I lived within, I was further denying more of my own humanity, piled onto my internalized homophobia. Depressing. The racism I started to shed, as best I could, later in high school, the homophobia not until college. Some of us are late bloomers, but we evolve and eventually get where we need to go.
In August of 2018, I visited Grass Valley and Nevada City for the first time in twenty-five years. I was heartened to see a large, art-filled cafe in my former hometown, the likes of it akin to places in downtown Cambridge or Somerville, Massachusetts. One of the managers was African American, having moved from the Bay Area to clean up his previously trouble-filled life. He was part of a wave of Bay Area residents, come to Grass Valley and Nevada City to add more progressivism and diversity whilst seeking quieter, simpler lives. The area still was mostly white, but somewhat less so than when I’d left there in 1984. Interestingly and also, the large public high school I attended for ninth and tenth grades, Nevada Union High, seemed to have become a safer place for gay students. At least that’s what I was led to believe by a (white) classmate of mine who I caught up with on Facebook in recent years. His gay son, a dancer, came out while still a student there. I was glad to see some cultural evolution had happened in a place that a part of me thought never could or would change. I appreciate any degree of it wherever and whenever I see it.
I am grateful for my time at Longfellow School in Berkeley. It is now a large middle school, as I just found out online. I’m guessing that Black history is still taught there, which is a blessing that I happened to be regularly exposed to this vital topic in addition to some amount of Chinese American history, albeit far less so. My favorite subject in fifth grade was human anatomy. Unbeknownst to me, I would indeed pursue a career concerning the internal life of humans, just not so much the physiological but, rather, that of the human psyche and all of its resplendent (and not quite resplendent) parts. But, anatomy of the human body and psyche includes and pertains to all of the wondrous people on Earth. I would have missed out on the deep importance of and respect for diversity of humanity had I never gone to rough and tumble feeling Longfellow School and, instead, straight on for fifth grade to homogeneous Lyman Gilmore in conservative Grass Valley. I had traveled across much of Europe, Central America, and Mexico while six years of age, so some seeds of appreciating the vast range of human cultures had been planted inside me. However, only quite recently have I gleaned that more seeds of wonderful connection to humanity and culture got planted a bit later while at Longfellow and living in Berkeley. I’ll never forget the periodic walks with my parents down Telegraph Avenue with all of its street vendors, so many of them people of color. But, that is part of another story.
I always found Roger Moore (1927-2017) as Simon Templar in the 1960s TV series THE SAINT (and, later, as British spy James Bond, 007 on the big screen) to be wonderfully suave, poised, and good humored. His on screen persona was a balm during my troubled adolescence, at which time I so longed for more sense of order, confidence, and effectiveness. Moore gracefully embodied all of these qualities. Admittedly, he had no sex appeal for me, but neither did Sean Connery, his predecessor in the James Bond movie franchise. I’m thankful to the late Sir Roger Moore for uniquely enriching my inner life, including being somewhat of a role model for me in my youth.
Two nights ago, during my evening power walk, I experienced some interesting encounters. Someone’s pit bull mix came charging at me on one of the neighborhood streets I stroll along every night. Fortunately, between my shouting the dog down and her owner’s commands, I was not bitten. A short while later, the owner caught up with me in her car and apologized profusely and repeatedly. It turned out she’s pregnant and I’m the second passerby the canine had recently gone after as if out for blood. I explained that her dog can smell and sense her owner’s pregnancy and is in protector mode. I also angrily emphasized that the local leash law must be upheld. The owner promised to always follow that rule from now on. We introduced ourselves and she said she never wants me to feel afraid to walk on the street on which she, her husband, and their dog live. I calmed down and walked some extra blocks— including uphill— to thoroughly unwind.
Life has its little surprises, but still is good.