Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beyond Sex and Civility

Dear Laura,

You mention the kind of dignity and respect we discuss as good manners, as basic civility between human beings. I absolutely agree. But I think there’s something more, some ineffable thing that must be addressed as well. At coffee this morning we ran into one of my former partners. He was respectful, polite, as was I. Yet something more profound was missing, no? Truth be told, there was always something missing from that relationship, which was based entirely on sex and civility. What is that something more that comes up between people who are really in conversation? And how do men and women really enter into conversation together?

I think, beyond manners and civil behavior, we’re looking for recognition, of a very particular kind. What brought us together as friends? At first, it was just a glimmer, catching one another’s eyes light up in particular moments of discussion, seeing one another navigate the world in ways we both found intriguing. Then, as we started to really talk with one another, it became something more. We recognized, in each other, a particular relationship to life and to love. We saw one another as fully human. We were vulnerable to one another.

My former partner—let’s call him Kennedy—never recognized me. And honestly, I never recognized him. Kennedy did all the things good, engaged people are supposed to do—he worked hard, he read widely, he took care of himself physically, he volunteered, you name it—but he never seemed fully himself with me. He was this collection of disparate parts. He put up a good front. He was never vulnerable.

When I think of how vulnerable we’ve been together—sometimes in this very space—I connect with something fundamental. There is a core to you, and you allow me to glimpse that core—both in moments of sadness and in moments of great joy. You share these moments with me, and for that I am deeply grateful. Because it is this kind of sharing that keeps me alive.

Kennedy and I met on the bus coming home from downtown Minneapolis. We hit it off physically, but it never progressed beyond that. I can’t even picture him sharing his hopes and fears with me, or I mine with him. In the end, it was good that we let that relationship go. It was too casual for me. I want, particularly when I am in conversation with you, to live fiercely. Anything less has come to seem awfully unsatisfying.

You ask about how we go about satisfying our desires as women. One place we satisfy those desires is in the company of the people we recognize. This is why we’ve begun thinking of creating a space of conversation for women artists—we want to speak with women openly and honestly, to recognize the humanity in one another. But is recognition more difficult between men and women? Perhaps. I know the turmoils and the triumphs of other women far better than I know those of men. Yet there are men whom I recognize, and who I believe recognize me. They are, most often, men who think a great deal about what it is to be a man, just as I spend much time considering what it means to be a woman.

Take, for instance, S—your friend and mine. We may struggle at times to recognize one another, and I know that I sometimes find it difficult to see where S is coming from. Yet he is vulnerable with each of us, and we have each been vulnerable with him. Certainly there is much he doesn’t understand about women’s experience, and much we don’t understand about men’s. But we are, the three of us, having a real conversation. And that’s where it all begins.

As you know, I went to the state fair with D yesterday. I spent much of the day thinking about what I’ve come to love in him. He holds nothing back. And because of that, I feel I can be fully myself with him. There’s not a thing I worry about saying. He gets me. Or at least he’s always willing to try. And for me, trying means a great deal. I expect to fail sometimes. The trying becomes important in the face of that inevitable failure.

D and I rode the SkyLine up above the fair and gazed down on the crowds of people. The state fair is usually not my cup of tea. So many people. I forget the world is so full of us. But yesterday, that realization—that we are far from alone, that there are so many of us, made me thrilled with the possibility of it.

Between the promise of possibility, and the certainty of cheese curds, the fair proved a much better experience than I had anticipated. And so has our back-and-forth over this question we are wrestling with. The question, for me, is one of recognition. So what do we do to recognize and be recognized? Particularly when it comes to relationships between men and women?