Today, I see a hawk drag a dead pigeon across the ground. Ravens sit above, watching down. I think of my demon dreams fifteen days ago, waking up in darkness to the sound of static. And I think of the amount of ambulances I’ve seen, and police chases, almost every day this past month. My mind sank into a fog, and today, finally, some clarity.
I laid in bed last night, relaxed. I laid in bed last night, thinking of expression. Expression as not some sort of calculated articulation, but an ambiguous gesture. This fuzzy word! I think in brushstrokes and streaks—expression an indifference, passionately, to its own intelligibility. Expression a faith in the strength of communication without refinement.
I woke up to stare at the clouds today. For the first time in a month, I saw the clouds as clouds. I could write about them, for the first time in a month, thinking their slow ease across the sky, and their inevitable dissolution. The light, playing across the sky, a blue-gray texture, molded. Brightness breaking through.
Today it is supposed to rain. On and off. I wanted to see how far I could drive, to sit and write in the rain, but instead, I stayed close to home, so I could reach out to the ones I know, and so I could go to the museum. I want to see things expressed.
Yesterday, walking into Barnes and Noble to see if they had the book The Sluts, I passed by the stairs where, a few months ago, a woman collapsed. The movie theater workers propped her pale body up on the concrete wall, while ambulances came and roped off the area. Barnes and Noble had The Sluts, and I flipped through it, thinking of a goodreads review of Horse Crazy: “it is like every other gay or non-gay novel in which an older guy chases after the skirts of some pretty young thing who ends up being a femme or homme fatale, a moral black hole.” I put the book down and walked away. No more words, until today.
I puddle-hunted yesterday, on my way to an empty church, to talk to the pastor about a gig operating the audio equipment. He wanted to know who I was, and I told him I’m a photographer, with four years of experience working audio at a church, who also got a degree in religious studies from Long Beach State. The pastor told me that the church was almost progressive, and that the church was part of the ELCA, which meant that they support the gays, although half the church left after the denomination had made that decision, while the rest remained silent. I thought of the Episcopal church, where we have gay priests, and there cannot be silence. “Silence is not the answer,” was a social-justice theology book my grandma gave me, before she passed, from the same church. “Your grandpa keeps his cards close to his chest,” said the pastor, wondering what my grandpa thought of gay people. I did not come out to the pastor.
He asked me what I was reading, and I said Giorgio Agamben (controversial) and some other post-structuralists, like Foucault and Derrida. He asked me how I was reading graduate level books—why the religious studies program at Long Beach would teach that—and I said I read them on my own; that a professor might recommend them. “You’re in the epistemological drain,” he said, and I shrugged—what does that even mean?—while he recommended comparative theology books.
“I read Georges Bataille,” I said, “which is kind-of an anti-theology. I’m not so sure about theology.”
“It will be a leap for sure,” he said, “and the theologians kind-of just ignored the epistemological problems that the post-structuralists raised, moving along.”
“Oh okay,” I said.
So he recommended some religious studies books, and one about secularism (I’m bored by secular/sacred dichotomies, because like, we make all that stuff up. In the words of Robert Pirsig, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” Would you call a motorcycle, or a computer, sacred? Who cares). He talked about his master’s in comparative religious dialogue.
“Speaking of religious dialogue,” I said, “I ended up spending a lot of time digging into queer-religious studies and queer theology.” He said that the Buddhists had a third gender person. I told him “I know,” and thought of the epistemological drain (this skepticism that we can really know very much, or that doubt our language and structures of thought correspond to an “objective” “reality,” which is not a denial of reality—just a skepticism).
I think of how comparative religious dialogue means finding queerness across religions for the pastor (relying on the safety of religious categories), and how for me queer people sometimes find their own (non)religious structures (aka: what is religion?!). And I thought of how most queer theology I’ve read resides “inside” the “epistemological drain,” for, as some theorists say, even the category “queer,” and often LGBTQ people in general, and particularly within the church, are an “epistemological” threat to the church. And queer people have often had knowledge used against them, so are in a place to interrogate who knowledge is for, how knowledge is produced, and what knowledge does (Foucauldian!).
For the pastor to just ignore the problems raised by the post-structuralists and leap to theology seems to be the symptom of silence; if the subjects of our conversation probed not whether it was safe to come out to a pastor, but how (with the strength of his knowledge) he would think about gay people, I can understand why, in my gut, not owing anyone anything, I did not come out to him. Maybe next time.
About nine years ago, I stood in a gravel parking lot at sunset. All alone. This was my sunset practice in a parking lot with three or four cars. A large mound of dirt piled up with a carved slope in the middle. A black speck roamed around the base of it. We made eye contact. He sat. A black dog nodded at me. The sun cast the dirt to a burnt gold. In front of me, muddy green fields unrolled behind a barbed-wire fence; behind me buildings walled up around the lot. My friends continued their daily lives inside of them, ready to go home. I do not know how the cars got here.
I climbed over the barbed wire, sinking my feet into the long green grass. All mud underneath. And I walked and walked and walked until the parking lot shrank out of view and became a staggered line of speckled dark on the horizon, where I came from. The dog did not follow.
In front of me rolled green up and down, darkening beneath the glacial clouds above. They took on the sun. The sky burned. The fields continued left and right, widening forward, winding up the horizon until my sight vanished into the foothills. And above the foothills, clouds. Beneath the clouds, a jagged white smudge, distant, marked with the sky’s purple onto the blank snow. The clouds darkened, and the wind picked up. Water specks dotted hands and face, smoldering the sky’s flame. I looked back. This is rainy and cold. We can endure more than we think. The sun extinguished, finally, like the candles at the end of a liturgy (nature is no liturgy), and I turned back towards home.
This feeling of the green fields beyond the barbs came to mind recently, and here it is written down. And I, like most days, sat writing this memory down at a coffee shop—one that was not especially good—with a book in front of me. It’s too mundane to bear, but I bear it. A table and book, inside of a neighborhood simulacrum of a German village, with no capital-N Nature nor any event in particular to bring me out of my own mind. No high ceilings to pull my perception away. Just a quiet patience pulling up memory. I exaggerate with metaphor (look above: “the sky burned”!?) in my memory. Make it big enough, beyond apprehension, but small enough to trust, and memory becomes long-form, a patience sunk deep enough to believe that a story—some collection of memories put into motion—will, hopefully, unfold over time. (That is the patience of the past; here we are in the present). The unfolding, time slowed but never stilled (patience of the present). What am I saying? It’s nice to feel small, clustered in the coffee shop walls, and see the world slip out of mind.
How often desire folds into memory. Last year, during the summer, I drove out to the Sierras to help document a backpacking trip. It was a route I should have memorized, because, in that green-field time nine years ago, I drove this highway full of desire. Desire for friends and closet lovers, desire for connection and carelessness, abandoning the regularity of the rest of my life. Place holds my memory, welling it up, and, well, I missed those moments and desires and carefreeness. Some, probably waiting to die, say moments pass into oblivion. No! They make a home in my heart! This heart’s still beating.
Think of photography of the present, masked as memory. You can take a photo and infuse it with nostalgia, you know. Nostalgia like a strange fabrication, like a nod to an old self. Condense your experience and strip all the contingencies away (this religious gesture!), so that all that remains is this essence of yourself. The part of you that survives to this day, no longer attached to the wind or the skies-on-fire or the muddy grass, buried deep in your memory, resurfaces. The part of you that’s taken its time to unfold. Pure feeling.
IN: Poetry, thoughtfulness, nuanced and complex feelings
OUT: Chaos season, Georges Bataille-ish negativity (via negativa for post-structuralists), Mind-Body dichotomy, skepticism of language.
Sometime beginning in September, 2023, I stopped reading. I lost my journal too. I’d rather be inarticulate, I thought, living underneath language (that thing that conditions and limits). It’s like a language sacrificed, in Bataillain terms: broken down to an immediate and intimate life. It’s a gesture that gives up trying to articulate meanings (no thinky only feely). I began my movie binge instead. I wanted to be subjected to a stream of constantly changing images. Strobing undercurrents. No time to think. And in November, a fiery and short fling sparked, both of us testing and breaking boundaries and both of us thrown into ambiguity. It left me on the verge of a breakdown in Ikea. Left me standing, next to a woman taking pictures of the desk I leaned upon, with big and smudgy feelings, lost to myself. In December, I bought a new journal, immediately writing down a Jean-Luc Nancy quote, arguing against Bataille: “Existence, in its proper sence, is unsacrificable,” which means “rejoicing in a mediocre and limited life.”
For Nancy, sacrifice, in spite of its claim towards meaningless or Nothingness, always orients itself to an Absolute Outside or an Other or a subject waiting to be restored. Sacrifice becomes (in spite of what Bataille seems to claim) a sort of renunciation, always appropriable beyond itself. If existence itself is unsacrificable, and also unappropriable beyond its own event, then sacrifice (if it opens up to appropriable meanings like, for example, intimacy) brings us no closer to true existence (authentic life?) than anything else. Which is all to say that this renunciation of language, this position of “no thoughts just vibes,” the ambiguity of a life inarticulate and hugely-felt, is blind to its own finitude and limitation. Ineffability, here, is no closer to the unconditioned life.
This is all a strange way to say that I guess I’m interested more in subtlety and articulation for 2024. That maintaining a literary filter for life, and finding ways to put language where language seems difficult, is no worse than that Bataillian gesture (to put it simply and almost inaccurately) to throw it all out for an ecstatic experience: both are conditioned and limited. It would be better, following Nancy, to rejoice in (and not sacrifice) that limited life.
THE LIGHT IS WHAT I REMEMBER
Happy New Year. Here’s a piece from September:
The light is what I remember. Crawling in through the windows on a warm summer day, a stream of light hit his eye, half hidden in a shadow. He pulled the pillow on top of it, turning slightly, squinting. The light radiated through the room, entering the rough slatted space between the blinds, smothering its bright texture on the white walls. The traffic outside, distant, seemed to pass in slow motion. Both of us, exhausted, just lay on his bed in silence, twisted together in a knuckled comfort, resigning to the late-afternoon warmth.
Thirty minutes passed frozen like this. And I start to think that afternoons like this never climax in pleasure, but in time stolen back from the world. An afternoon dissolved into rest, as if we fell outside of time.
We get up and he grabs the towels, while I walk to his kitchen for water. And I tell him that we should meet up again, maybe for drinks, maybe for Long Beach Pride, and he agrees, before walking me to my car. We don’t meet up for drinks, nor pride. Three months pass. It’s the beginning of fall.
I walk into his apartment, lit up entirely in red (a reference to a darkroom joke I made), and we sit on his couch. It is a Sunday in September. We miss a kiss, laughing, before we move to his bed. We play safe.
I try to keep up with my queer history. Where we are now, who we are now, is an echo of where we came from, circumscribed by history that defines us. So, I read David Wojnarowicz, from the 1980s, who speaks of getting thrown in the back of a truck, his hair pulled and twisted, while he is stripped and fucked. His world is the road, unsettled, where he cruises truckstop bathrooms—a queer act in an Americana landscape. And, I read Georges Bataille, from 1957, quoted by Ricardo Peris (gay!) in 2019, who speaks of violence and intimacy, that sex is a divine escape from society. And Wojnarowicz speaks of the allure of a man who has escaped the confines of this “civilized society” (as if that were ever entirely possible). Sex, here, is an embodied transcendence, contingent on disruption, disfigured from everyday life.
Contemporarily, Brontez Purnell, in 2021, fills a book full of monotonous fucking, like it is a never-ending queer chore. The same year, I see crowds of men with blank eyes fuck each other on the beach like robots. A year later, the Television series Heartstopper aired its first season, where holding hands (emphasized by cute motion graphics) becomes a consistent signifier of intimacy. Maybe sex is no longer potent. We are liberated from its violence. The discourse has shifted, losing its bite.
If the assimilationist camp has won; if gay marriage and the “heteronormative” framework that institutes it has become the project of gay politics, then we have moved beyond the Wojnarowiczian world of cruising (and implicitly, beyond the threat of violence that structures queer identity) into the sappy utopian world of Heartstopper. If we have won our gay marriage rights, then gay oppression is just a history filling the memories of the old; gay protest is more a personality than real activism. And, if the assimilationist camp has won, then it seems to preach a puritanical libido—either obligatory sex, devoid of passion, or obligatory passion, devoid of sex.
On Thursday, while I eat tacos, I get a text: “Hey, can I give you a quick call?” I sigh and eat my tacos. And I wait in the car for half an hour before he calls. He’s distressed and nervous.He says that his mouth is kind-of tingly. He asks me what my sexual history is. I told him that I do not really remember, so it must have been a while, or the sex was not memorable. He hooked up with a guy last week. He has not yet gotten tested. I tell him that he should get tested. It’s probably nothing. We were safe, I said, and I always play safe, so it’s not likely that we gave each other anything. Or, worst case scenario, it’s probably a cold sore. It’s a bit early to show symptoms. He says okay. He’s made an appointment with his doctor and will keep me updated. No update yet. My friends think he had spicy food. I think his blood sugar was low.
I read Sarah Schulmann, who passes contempt on the softness or passivity of younger queers. Queerness, for her 1980s anti-sentimentality, includes straight people, as long as they’re experimental or tough, especially if they’re artists. Although Schulmann romanticizes a difficult past, she seems to integrate violence into a sort-of queer virtue: that queerness is so special because it knows how to put up with sickness, assault, death, and perpetual marginalization. So, for Schulmann, queerness transcends fear and violence. Queerness never assumes its own safety, and queerness is always a fight.
If gay history creates our gay terms, then, at least according to Wojnarowicz and according to Peris’ implication of Bataille and according to Schulmann, oppression and violence directed against gays are both played out and transcended through sex. But if the terms have changed into Heartstopper utopias and Purnell’s bland carnival of sex, then the discourse—and gay definition—have shifted: the “transcendence” of sex no longer comes through violence. Instead, in this world of mitigated risk, it comes through a slow-motion waste of time.
We lay in bed, with no image of disease or risk, that early summer afternoon, where time stopped. No schedule, no work, no errands. In the fall, his test came back negative. Just spicy food. The light streamed in on the wall’s paint: that thin layer preventing the salt-water air’s perpetual work towards dissolution.
In 2021, my friend sent out a text to everyone who lived near me. One of his friends, visibly queer, had been hospitalized. He was beat up by a group of guys. It was a hate crime, apparently. “Be safe,” my friend told me.
In 2022, Ryan Pfluger published an interview with Leo and Jacob. Both feel like publicly holding hands puts them in real danger. But they push themselves to do it anyways. They, too, live near me.
If the assimilationist project has won, it has only naturalized its own discourse. For there is no identity without history: Schulmann and Wojnarowicz do not vanish into thin air. We may lay for a moment, stealing time back from the world, if only, according to Wojnarowicz, “that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”
One day before Christmas, Luca the dog jumped into the back of my car, now with the hard shell removed. The freeway scared him, so he climbed into the front seat with my brother, until we drove on a gritty dirt road surrounded by brush. We stopped to put Luca back in the back of the car. His ears perked up. As we continued, a truck circled in a mud pit, flinging dirt around. Two cars in front of us turned back. I drove through. The car slipped a bit. And up the trail, we parked the car and began our hike to a waterfall. Luca said “grrr bark bark grrr bark! bark!” at other dogs--especially a small, fluffy, white one that needed to be carried. The white snowball cried back, boldly, “arf arf arf!” while her owners shooed her along. Down the trail, Luca said “bark bark bark!” at a woman who stood petrified. The woman said “hi, thanks” to me. They say German Shepherds are aggressive on leashes.
For Christmas, my dad got me a radio for my car. At first I was bummed because it looked like the radio for the 1998 Geo Trackers. My car is a 1995. I tested it out anyways. The radio did not fit, so my dad was bummed too. And the disappointment felt good, because it felt like a sort of a small, manageable and real disappointment that did not matter. We could solve it.
During Christmas Eve dinner, my grandpa brought one of his friends. She talked about gay people a bit. Her friend survived the AIDS crisis in New York. My mom looked at me every time anyone said the word “gay.”
My younger brother did not come home for Christmas. He was about 15 minutes away. According to my mom, he wants to be cut off from the family. And I think that’s okay—everyone needs their distance sometimes. I thought of the family in Ivan Doig’s memoir, and how the father in that book first hated, then learned to tolerate, and then began love his mother-in-law. I thought of how family relationships are sometimes complicated. What does it take—boldness or arrogance or distance or power or grief?—to rearticulate relationships in a family that needs to grow?
My entire Instagram feed has been filled with ranchers. Ranchers and cows and horses and sometimes cowboys. Some comments say that real ranchers (and real men!) don’t post themselves on social media like an influencer. I wonder, then, what they’re doing even watching the videos. “What makes a real man?” I wonder at the comments. I think of how belief is often strongest when it cannot be articulated or explained.
In the car, with Luca trying to sleep in the back, I explained to my brother what masc was for gays. “My friend drives a mustang,” I told him, “and wears flannel.”
“What?” he said.
“And I drive stick, and also wear flannel, so you know…”
“Seems silly,” he said.
“Well yeah that’s why it’s fun.”
I’ve been reading recently. And I do not want any of it to mean anything big. Just prose for prose.
I read de Certeau a few weeks ago, and he described knowledge in two ways: either a sight from above, or a memory of a route from a ground-level walk. The one from above constructs official names for things and uses them to demarcate territory; the one from below remembers sights and positions the world in relation to that. Where the sight from above says, “turn left on eighteenth street,” the one from below says, “turn left when you see the red house.” And now, I read a book by a man who worked as a fire lookout, describing the territory around him as if he is reading a map, and I want to stop reading. I think of Annie Dillard, who does the opposite, describing her local mountains like shards to the sky, but then kicks off to metaphor, about God or the void or something. Just give me those triangles reaching into the sky, with no name and no invisible metaphor, please! Nothing larger than it’s due. I’m in no mood to play, but to rest.
It’s an exacting map. In a drawn-out patience, scattered with landmarks, nature writing nods to the landscape that produced it. I sit in a bright, clinical room, but my attention inclines towards mountains and pastures. Can I, sitting here, become somewhere else? Can I become something else?
I used to believe that nature writing missed the “point” of nature entirely. Go on a hike, I thought. Do not waste time. But now, I think differently: if language is a territory we occupy, why not give it a topography in both content and structure?
I read, now, of Grass Mountain (part of the Big Belts, opposed to the Castle Mountains, near the Smith River). These are places I have never been to. I have no plans to visit. But here I sit, with a map open, imagining its “generous pasture.” I notice of all the other things I could be thinking about. My mind returns to this expanse, unfurnished. Allow this strange attention to unfold, to settle into something tranquil and ancient.
I woke up before sunrise today. For the first time in a very long time, I woke up relaxed and well-rested. I felt like I was in the mountains. I had a dream about listening to Arcade Fire in a Dollar Store, while I gave two of my coolest sweaters to my friends, and we all drove away in my Geo Tracker. I only had a dollar with me, so I could not decide what to buy in the store. It did not matter because I was content with listening to Arcade Fire and hanging out with my friends.
I woke up, thinking of how absurd life has been. Yesterday I helped out on a shoot all day, with no real job there except to model for the lighting and lend a hand. The shoot, for women’s empowerment, featured an upbeat singer lip-syncing to the words, “peace, love, and happiness.” The scene was called P.L.H., written on the slate. The owner of the studio looked at the slate. He announced, “Palestine Liberation Hopelessness.” The singer mentioned that she had footage of people around the world, all singing “peace, love, and happiness.”
I learned last night that Iran joined the Israel-Gaza situation. The United States sailed one of their aircraft carriers further into the Mediterranean. That’s not good.
A man on Scruff, who I’ve been chatting with for a months, pulled my Tarot this morning. He told me that I’ve been working on a project for a while, but it’s stagnated for some reason. The best thing to do would be to chill out. The project is simpler than I think, and I should not be trying to do something new. It was helpful advice, because I feel trapped in a big project in my lighting class: it is too basic for me.
Last night, before everyone left the studio, the owner of the studio and director of the film thanked everyone for their help. “You did something good in the world today.”
I’ve lost my journal, which somehow means my emotions are more immediate. They bubble to the surface faster.
Yesterday, I made worms for a class on lighting. The worms are supposed to be carrying toast. And I’m supposed to take a picture of that. Initially, I thought that using real worms would be unfair to the worms, whom I wanted to pose. So I spent $50 on ingredients to make little edible worms. I think I messed up the recipe because the cream curdled when I poured it into the hot red mixture. I don’t know if it matters because I’m not eating them.
Apparently Israel is dumping white phosphorous onto Gaza. That’s no good. And my friend sends me an article calling Israel out for human rights violations. War is bad. I read a pacifist friend’s tweet, remembering that I was once a pacifist. A robust pacifist, not like a passive pacifist, as I learned in an ethics class or two. But I’m not sure my commitment to some ethical ideology matters at all, as I sit staring at my phone across the globe from the beginnings of a small war.
One of my friends, this morning, shared with me an Instagram video of an autistic dad who owned a bunch of matching sweaters, a bunch of matching shoes, and a collection of art books by one artist. My friend suggested that him and I have the same type of autism. I own sweaters, and own an art book or two, and mostly own converse shoes. So I took a test. I do not have autism.
One of my friends posted about attachment styles and sexual needs. It seems more and more like all relational behavior is somehow reducible to four words: Anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. I wonder if internalized homophobia is a more useful lens for viewing gay men’s relational issues than a broad identification with one of those four attachment words. I wonder why people are so quick to diagnose the differences they see in others.
One of my friends noticed that I was reading philosophy the other day. I read it when I’m anxious, to slow my brain down. And I posted on Instagram that I saw a correspondence between the structure of religious thought and some arguments in post-structuralist writings. It’s striking because although postmodernism and post-structuralism are not the same, many religious people critique the post-structuralist writers (naming them “postmodernists”) as anti-religious. And I posted how interesting it was that sometimes “religious” writers don’t really have a “religious” structure of thought, and that “non-religious” writers seem to have an incredibly religious structure of thought. One of my friends facetimed me, asking if I was okay.
A partial eclipse happened this morning, when I walked outside to feed the dogs. They continued to bark at me, as I stared and noticed how specular the lighting had become outside. I wondered, looking at the shadows, what made the sun seem smaller and less diffuse. The dogs barked loudly. One has a cone on his head, and he bumped into me and the other dog, blocking my way to feed him. I gave them extra food today, while staring up at the sun, wondering what was going on.
I gave my friend a life update. He told me that it sounded like a fever dream. If I continue to publish notes like this, it is because life seems disordered to me right now, and I feel an urge to report as a draft, as immediately as it comes.
The coffee shop I’m sitting in right now is playing Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog. I’m convinced I’m still asleep. None of this is real. I cannot write. I am so tired.
You know when you sit, leaning back against the wall. You become an observer. And all you can feel is your body pulsing, losing grip with every beat of your heart, until you sink back into the anonymous world.
I’m supposed to be shooting commercial photography. They keep telling me that an image must have “stopping power,” without explaining what that is. Because, the lazy argue, to explain it would be to lose it. It’s just like a religion or social movement that loses its power when explained, or it’s just like our own haunting critical suspicion of our perceptions when we subject our intuitions to social critique. How, then, can I create an image when I cannot even believe in one?
I listen to this girl next to me trying to tell her friend about a new skin care routine. She’s selling it to her friend. She rambles without a breath, like a preacher practicing for the pulpit, to an audience of one resigning its choice to speak up.
It all feels religious to me. It tastes, if it tastes it tastes at all, like a bitter water that lingers on my tongue. If I believe in anything, I only believe in an opaque language that either legitimizes itself or does nothing at all.