Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jesse

Photo of Che with quote
Happy Birthday, Jesse

One of the talents I most admire in other human beings is the ability to recognize and foster that which is special in the people they encounter. It's a skill which requires self-confidence and an open mind (which accounts for its relative rarity, I suppose). Jesse Wendel is someone who possesses this talent to a pronounced degree. I'm honored to call him friend as well as colleague.

Jesse began reading my blog because of a tip from Sara Robinson, who likewise has a keen appreciation of humanity. He declared himself an avid fan of my Great American Lesbian Novel and threw himself into learning about the subject. But he didn't do it from a position of being a 'guilty' outsider, he simply assumed this new territory would enrich his existence and that, in turn, he could offer a valued perspective. When this is done without arrogance, it's delightful to encounter.

He's a hilarious, attentive, and nimble conversationalist. His sense of responsibility is profound, and his kindness is legendary. As I grow older, I have come to believe kindness is the attribute that matters most in human relationships.

Jesse was raised Mormon, and it's intriguing to me how often I encounter stellar progressives who are ex-Mormons. I don't think this is simply a case of those who leave behind a narrow religion are going to be open-minded. I think, like all faiths and cultures, there are some essential truths peculiar to the Mormon way of life which can be transformative and liberating, especially if they are taken in by a child who continues to believe in truth and goodness even when his innocence is betrayed by the religion itself.

For example, the reason why the LDS Church funds genealogy to such an enormous extent is not only because they have a religious mandate to offer the option of salvation (i.e., conversion to Mormonism) to everyone who has ever lived -- which is why they "baptize the dead", hoping to save them from the eternal fires of hell. Beyond this superstition is an accurate comprehension that every human being on the planet is more closely related that most people know or would feel comfortable knowing. You literally cannot separate out Mormon "kin" from other folks. Thus, you have to embrace all lineages as your own. It may not have been practiced by church leadership, but the principle is there and that sort of world-view sticks with some folks.

As a result, the LDS Church has collected orally transmitted genealogies from all around the globe, some of which go back 1500 years. I've read them, transcribed onto microfilm and held in the nuclear-bomb-proof archive in a mountain near Salt Lake City: A litany of names from South Sea Islands whose way of life may have vanished since they were collected. I sat in the dark cubicle of the Oakland Temple research library and wept as I whispered these begats to myself. Good manifests itself in the most unexpected places.

Jesse escaped an abusive and violent upbringing by joining the military, marrying impetuously and having four children in six years. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, in some sense, and yet every step of the way, he's made the most of his decisions, even ones which contained a mistake in the mix. (Not that I'm judging any of the things I've named a mistake.) He's never stopped working on cleaning things up. He believes, as I do, that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he also knows the demands of such a life leave you with skin scraped raw much of the time. You either love yourself though the process or you won't survive.

He's an extremely good writer who takes seriously the obligation you owe your readers, should you have any. That's actually a redundancy, from my point of view. I lean on him as an editor more heavily than I think most of you know. He's taught me a ton over the past year, and I don't expect it to stop any time soon.

One of the things I treasure most about him is I can tell him exactly what I'm contending with physically, as a multiply disabled person, without him either feeling compelled to "fix" things, offer advice, point out options which of course I've already considered (I live in this carcass 24/7, you really cannot offer me an unconsidered notion) or taking the opposite tack of inserting distance between us so he won't have to feel what it feels like when you hear difficult reality. He stays present, and has even offered up the absolutely heretical joke here and there, making us both laugh until we pee a little. It's an extraordinary gift, that ability to stay present in the face of another's suffering. It's all we ever hope for in our travels through this world.

Last July, Netroots Nation was coming to Austin, and Jesse moved heaven and earth to make sure I could attend, raising money, helping organize assistance, and talking me through my qualms. Not the least of my fears was that it would be our first meeting in person -- what if we did not, in fact, turn out to like each other? My resources are virtually nonexistent. I was terrified of losing this new friendship.

At the last minute, the woman who helps me with errands and tasks I cannot perform took a trip out of town and was unavailable to do laundry for me. I could not locate anyone else to do it for me, and was faced with not being able to go to the conference because I literally didn't have clean clothes. I was humiliated and depressed about it. Jesse flew in the day before and said if I could get a bag of laundry to a cab, he'd take care of it. That was as much as I could manage, and it felt like a godawful way for us to meet, but in the end, I had to say yes. He slid into the back seat of a cab beside me, we went to the nearest laundromat, and with him leaning on his stick, he washed a bag of clothes for me.

It's one of the most intimate acts of love I've ever received. And as if that weren't enough, when he left, he handed me a small bag of fresh fruit. Good as gold in my limited world. I ate it the next morning for breakfast before heading out to meet up with him and Lower Manhattanite as Netroots Nation began.

Happy birthday, Jesse my boy. I'm gladder than I can express that you got born. The rest has been up to you, and you've done your mother proud.