Justin Cascio had to leave home to find his people: more than once.
“There’s a third presence when we meet in this space,” Mark Greene told me recently. We were meeting face to face for the first time, albeit in a Google Hangout. “There’s you and me and the place in between.” Those spaces in which we relate are precious, but they can also make us uncomfortable: feeling exposed, potentially foolish. For this reason among others, men are particularly vulnerable to isolation.
We’re lonely and ignoring it. Not only are men risking death, but men are less likely to seek help of any kind: from a friend, doctor, therapist, or spouse. We’re more likely to kill ourselves, in our pain and isolation.
In 2000 I lived on the Gulf coast of Florida, where my parents had resettled us from New York just before I entered my teens. Fourteen years later, after finishing college and beginning my first professional writing job, I started to transition to living as a man. The resulting hostility separated me from people I’d thought were my friends, and from already strained relationships in my family of origin. But what I was gaining was priceless. I hadn’t spoken to G-d since I was seven years old, and here He was, real to me again. I’d never dreamed this would happen. I sought out a LGBT synagogue and started to attend on Friday nights.
After I lost a custody battle for my little boy, as well as a more private battle for “hearts and minds” in my family, I found solace in my new community. It was a tiny piece of home that reminded me where I had once lived and thought I would never leave, until I did. I was grateful, in the most humble way, for a religious community, for old people and other queers who cared about me and me for them. Traditions, routines, rituals, the exalted invisible, acceptance.
After I lost custody, and then my job, due to transition, with the exception of my new friends from the synagogue, my world narrowed. I looked for work in other cities: New York, San Francisco. Anything to get out of the South. When I packed up to leave the state of Florida forever, two friends from the synagogue helped me pack my U-Haul.
Arriving in New Jersey on Christmas Day, I had a car, two cats, a bed, a consulting job, and very little else. I made my home in a well lit apartment and furnished it slowly, not wanting possessions to come rushing in to fill the emptiness. I valued the space more for the way it made me think about what I might want, without the pressure to run out and get it, and what I could happily live without. For the first several weeks, I didn’t get a TV or a phone. I listened to public radio, read books. Each day after work and on weekends, I walked down the street in the snow to a pay phone, and stood there for an hour or more, smoking cigarettes and talking to a friend from home.
I was fleeing not only a stagnant technology market but conservative, evangelical cultural forces that made me feel unwelcome as a queer, liberal, non-Christian. There’s a long history of people like me making a run for it, and heading for the city. But it used to be, or at least in nostalgia this is the case, that there was a home somewhere, still populated with our family who preserve the place and wait to welcome us back at the holidays. The truth is that our families and communities have fragmented under the pressure of market forces squeezing us for resources. The ability to go home and see childhood friends and family may no longer exist: they may have all picked up and gone somewhere else. Where once we worked in the factories and farms that were in our town, it’s now common for wage earners to travel to other cities, even other countries, for work, leaving behind not only extended family, friends, and familiar places, but partners and children. There is a global remittance economy that is, in some places, among the leading sources of income for entire countries. We don’t get to know our neighbors: we keep moving, and assume others are, too.
I loved the little city where I’d settled in New Jersey, and began to make it my home by wandering its streets, haunting its tiny library, researching its roots, and seeking out its true locals: the nuns who taught at the Catholic high school, the old men who sat outside in good weather, the cooks and cashiers of the restaurants and shops lining the shopping district. I felt surrounded by expatriates of countries where commonses and community life are still thriving. Once while waiting for a bus, a man was so eager to chat that he endured my appalling Spanish for more than an hour: one of the first things I told him was, “I am a writing desk.” I still remember that conversation, twelve years later, because it remains so rare for me to talk to strangers.
For the year that I lived in New Jersey, I attended the synagogue across the street from my apartment, not becoming a member but being a reliable man to make minyan, the minimum ten Jewish adults (or Jewish men, depending on one’s degree of Orthodoxy) required for certain group prayers to be said. It was a Conservative, just barely egalitarian shul: on occasion, the Orthodox would send a man over to ask if we had an extra so they could make minyan, as well. Here were more old people to be glad when I showed up, if not queers, and schnapps at the oneg, both of which warmed me for the rest of my Saturdays in New Jersey.
It seems such an obvious lesson, but one I hadn’t managed to internalize by the time I found myself deliberately new and outside, looking in: that if we don’t learn to make friends and neighbors of the people around us, we will remain alone. It takes courage to bridge these gaps between us, as well as rational thought, confidence, a desire to nurture, an ability to protect ourselves, and a need to connect. To reach out and start a conversation with a stranger is a mitzvah, the word Jews use that means both “commandment” and “blessing.” We are commanded to welcome the stranger, because once, we were strangers in Egypt.
I haven’t attended services in years … there’s a synagogue down the street from me again, in this new city, and I haven’t been, even once. Once again, I am faithless, and not willing to try to fake it til I make it, which is the official advice to Jews whose faith is wavering. Without faith, I don’t believe I could manage more than another conversation or two with strangers: that if I let them know who I really am, they will wish I had never come into their lives, and so will I.
Image credit: Charkrem/Flickr