Early dawn. She sleeps. I caress her body with my eyes. I slide through her hair, gently kiss her closed eyelids. I taste her in my mouth and smell our sleepy warmth. I am amazed by her beauty, by the strength and kindness that is her face. I also see pettiness and hurt. My heart embraces her. I move closer, she murmurs and pushes against me. I fall asleep.
I dream: I am with the female half of me. She is an attractive woman of my age. She tells me she is pregnant. I have to end the pregnancy and begin hitting her over the head. She says she hates this contradiction of life and death, that this time of birth and joy has to be such a time of pain. I understand and want to use this knowledge . . . but I’ve already done the violence. I crumple up (as if in pain) and awaken, scared.
* * *
I learned about sex when I was young. At four, I had an abbreviated lesson about “the facts of life.” I was amazed that a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina, and, somehow, a baby is made. I remember asking,“What if he has to pee?” For a few years, I was unclear whether he got his penis back.
I have become more knowledgeable about the mechanics of sex, but I am no less awed (or ignorant) about the mystery. First, I learned about sex roles; how boys and girls (and men and women) should feel and behave. A lot of my life has been used learning and un-learning them. Now, I acknowledge choices as individual decisions and do not believe there are “correct” roles. I do think/know that men and women are different but am still guessing as to what this distinction is. This difference has been a compelling influence in my life.
In the first grade, I walked around the block and kissed every girl I knew. The next year, I kissed them at the bus stop. Kiss, kiss, kiss, eight in a row. I bragged to the boys at school; I particularly remember the taste of one. A mixture of air in deep caves and brilliant flowers in spring sunshine. I have re-experienced that subterranean richness in a few other mouths that were attached to women with whom I spent years working out our balance of love and fear.
I remember dreaming of rescuing my childhood sweetheart. She was naked on the examining room table and I probed her mouth with dental tools (ah ha! that one’s obvious). By the end of elementary school I was an experienced spin-the-bottle player. Our sixth grade graduation prom was P.S. 98’s precocious preparation for adulthood. Dates were made a month in advance, and boys wore coats and girls had their frilly party dresses. After the dance, Nancy and I double-dated to Chinese dinner and then a walk in the park. Kenny and his date strolled ahead, their arms around each other’s waist. I anxiously observed,“This is like the movies,” as I reached for Nancy. Kenny and his date kissed; Nancy and I kissed. Later, with our classmates, we played make-out games until almost midnight. At home, still caught in the excitement, I lay awake most of the night.
* * *
We moved to North Carolina, and I moved into adolescence. During overnight campouts, I learned about masturbation from my friends in the Boy Scouts (I also was taught how to inhale cigarettes, the right way to rub a girl’s breasts, and other vital tidbits about life). I lived through those awkwardly painful teenage years (I have met people who were actually disappointed when high school ended; they were cheerleaders, class officers, sports heroes, and future soldiers) wanting only a few things: to make A’s, to be a star athlete, to fall in love, to have sex with somebody. I entered college, a lying virgin with scores of fantasies behind me.
* * *
For much of my life, I was hooked on sex. Sex and love seemed interchangeable, and, at the heart, sex seemed preferable to neither. Sex was the doorway from loneliness to unity (or distraction from my loneliness). Sex was the rite of passage from boy to man. Being sexual meant that I was somebody special. A woman caring/trusting/loving me enough to have sexual intercourse gave me a worth that I seemed unable to give myself. Sex was the quick way for me to open my heart, which I was so afraid to do. Sex/love were the transcendental magic that I sought with a fervor which is kin to desperation.
I sell long days of hard-earned harmony so cheaply in need-filled nights. . . . women take my peace with friendly glances and leave my wanting heart. — written at a bar, 1970
Intellectually I was learning (as I still am) that I did not want a woman to fill a part of me that was missing. I wanted to be whole, on my own, and then, if I met a partner, we would complement, not complete, each other. As a friend explained, “Like two fields next to each other. We cross-pollinate, we can see farther.”
Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls . . . Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. — Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
* * *
In the ten years since I left high school, I have been involved in three relationships that hinted at partnership ( each one more than the preceding), several brief “affairs” (some more loving, others more lusting), long periods of celibacy, and a slight sprinkling of delicious kinkiness. Sharing a living space with a sexual partner ( or anyone) has always had a vast impact on our growth and awareness of limitations (i.e., how much we were willing to love and how much we protected ourselves in fear). I enjoy bumping into my edges, for a while, but so far my fear (and whatever?) has kept me from doing anything more than fantasizing about marriage and children.
During that time, I have been a sexuality counselor (I was director of a university sexuality information and counseling service) and have worked for the state as a sex educator. Sometimes, in the midst of my personal confusion, I have wondered how I could be helping others with theirs. (I now realize that people don’t have to be perfect in order to be helpful. Sometimes I have been most facilitative when I have felt my worst. When we are helping or counseling people, we are, simply, facilitating their being in touch with what they already know — perhaps in a form that seems more manageable and articulate). Over and over, I learn how unique and universal we people are. Our concerns and needs, our hurts and dreams are so very individually special and yet such common themes run through us all.
* * *
When our survival needs are being met, loneliness and union are the primary concerns of most human beings. Although we obviously are all alone ( at least these physical shells), we all have experienced the transcendence of being unifed in love with someone or something else. There is a peace and joy in love that overcomes our fear and aloneness. Most of us spend our lives balancing between unity and loneliness.
We open our hearts at different rates. Often we are afraid of touching the parts of ourselves that we still don’t love or accept, where the lifetimes of pain lay buried. For some, the fear is so great that we never show ourselves (and the fear is almost always greater than the pain). We stifle our love and hide our feelings even from our own selves.
Many people truly believe that they desire intimacy without realizing how hard they work at avoiding it. Their fear of abandonment is so powerful that they do not risk being close to anyone; that way they are invulnerable to the disappointment and hurt of desertion, of someone not meeting their expectations. They shut themselves off, wishing someone would reach in, but their walls of fear have made them inaccessible. Some may seem hard and tough, others shy and self-conscious: all are scared. People move through lovers and friends without opening themselves to any, never experiencing their human vulnerablitilty. Husbands and wives never reveal who they are. I have watched (and participated in) fights where both people claimed the other was being unloving. And the way out seems so simple: acknowledge the pain, the fear, and ask for what you want.
Perhaps the most difficult task of all is asking for what we deeply want. The risk is great — we may not get it, and the years of hungry hurt may come avalanching upon us. I often see people who say, “I’m embarrassed talking with you. I never ask for help.” But it’s so healthy to ask for help, we all need each other’s help.
I get by with a little help from my friends, I get high with a little help from my friends, Going to try with a little help from my friends. — Lennon-McCartney
I have friends who devote themselves to the care of others without taking care of their own needs. They give and give, and in their faces I see starvation. If we don’t feed our own hunger with the love and devotion that we have fed someone else’s, we have not been intimate or nourished, and our hunger will haunt us. When we don’t value our own needs, we have walled over a part of our heart, and we are not in union. And, of course, if we only value our own needs, we are alone. We will live with insatiable appetites and no feeling of the commonality of shared humanness. And what could be lonelier than to think that only our needs were worth fulfilling?
Many people devote themselves to distracting themselves from their real selves. They continually seek to be entertained, pursuing one amusement after another. Work, hobbies, marriage, sex, drugs, television, sports, religion, worrying, fighting, the list is as long as human pastimes. Some, like families, or religion, can be ways to be truly intimate and in unity or, as easily, ways to keep out of touch with our feelings, desires, needs, love. I don’t think being distracted from our deeper self is a poorer way to spend a life than being in touch; with as much suffering as life seems to contain, we need healthy forms of entertainment. But the more we are in touch with who we are, the deeper our intimacy is, the greater our chance for true fulfillment and unity. We have to know who we are in order to get what we want.
* * *
We are all the products of brief moments of sexual fusion and nine months of symbiotic swimming. A fortunate few of us come from families that were rich systems of love and support. Regardless, by the time of pubescence, we have experienced hurt and fear.
Sex can open us up. During sexual intercourse we can transcend our self-consciousness. If we are acting, we may hurt ourselves (like spraining a muscle by bending beyond our capacity). When we go over our intimacy edge, we contract in order to maintain our balance. Sexual dysfunction is another way that our bodies give us emotional feedback. For men, non-erection or premature ejaculation and, for women, painful or non-orgasmic intercourse are usually messages from our bodies about our relationship, our love and fear.
* * *
The nature of our beings and of life is a mystery beyond comprehension. There are many ways, though, that we can acknowledge and change ourselves. These will allow us to live more fulfilling, healthy, and happy lives. As we learn who we really are, our fears, anger, sadness and loneliness are gradually melted away by the love that will fill our hearts and lives. Love is the only part of us that is truly eternal.
I will respond to any questions, concerns or comments that you send to me, Leaf, care of THE SUN, Box 732, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514,