Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Love, Life and Michael Tolliver

I've been doing a lot of reading since the first of the year. Among the books I've read in the past four months have been six books in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City Series: the last three of the original series and the three that have been published more recently.

For those not familiar with the series, Maupin, an openly gay man, started writing the books in the mid-1970's. They feature a core group of characters who live in San Francisco that includes gay men, lesbians, straight women, straight men and trans men and women. Since the original book was written in the mid-1970's and the most recent book was just published, the series follows the lives of these core characters (as well as others introduced from time to time) over the course of 40 years.

My favorite book in the series is Michael Tolliver Lives - the first Maupin wrote after an almost 20-year break (which I'll get back to below). Michael, a gay man originally from central Florida, was one of the original characters whose youthful wit and vitality very much reminded me of the character Emmett Honeycutt (pictured above) from the TV series, Queer as Folk. When the Tales began in the mid-70's, Michael was in his 20's; in Lives, he is in his 50's with the third great love of his life, the first having died of AIDS, the second, Thack, having moved on.

Coming Out and Learning to Love Oneself

Michael had a lot to say over the course of the nine books about being gay and about sex, love and relationships, and I would have loved the novels based on his character and his comments alone. I first truly fell in love with him when, early in the series (More Tales of the City), he wrote a coming out letter to his very religious, very conservative "Mama" back in Orlando who had become involved in Anita Bryant's anti-gay crusade of the mid-late 70's. I wrote about this letter here, and I'll just include the following passages in this post:
"I know I can't tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it's not. 
"It's not hiding behind words, Mama. Like 'family' and 'decency' and 'Christianity.' It's not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It's not judging your neighbor, except when he's crass or unkind. 
"Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength. It has brought me into the family of man, Mama ..."
Living and Loving in the Shadow of Death

Jumping ahead to the book, Sure of You, Michael and his lover, Thack, deal with Michael's HIV-positive status. This novel was written in the late 80's, and at that time there was virtually no assurance that anyone who was positive would survive. Life became a waiting game to see if HIV became AIDS. In this environment, Maupin put the following words in Thack's mouth:
"Sometimes I watch [Michael] with [the dog] or digging the yard. And I think: This is it, this is the guy I've waited for all my life. Then this other voice tells me not to get used to it, that it'll only hurt more later. It's funny. You're feeling this enormous good fortune and waiting for it to be over at the same time."
This passage obviously resonated deeply with me. Mark is the one I've waited for all my life. I feel enormous good fortune; but I know he has inoperable cancer and that, at some point, he will leave. We wait to see what his PSA will do, knowing that it will continue to go up. We wait to see how his hip pain will evolve, grateful for days that he is pain-free. We wait to see how he will feel tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, or next month, or in three months. We wait. But we live each day and cherish the love that we have in and for each other.

Michael Tolliver Lives ... and Loves

I suppose Maupin chose the title for this book because Michael Tolliver lived: he didn't contract AIDS, he didn't die. He grew older. In this book, he is in his early 50's. A younger man, Ben, has become his love and his husband. 

But this novel, although it explores the relationship between these two men, is primarily concerned with Michael's relationship with his family of origin back in Florida. His father is dead and his mother is dying. He journeys to Florida with Ben to visit his declining mother and his brother's family. Against this backdrop, below are some of the passages I highlighted as I was reading this book.

"[L]ove is always on loan, never the nest egg we want it to be." 

Michael has realized that love is not something we can cling to. We must hold it, gently, as a butterfly in our hand that may fly away at any moment.
"'The thing is,' [Michael] said, 'Thack did me a favor by leaving. I might never have noticed how little [love] I was getting if he hadn't taken it away.'"
Michael had learned his lesson. So have I. So have others. Sometimes, we cling to a love because it's all we know. We invest ourselves in it, thinking it's all we deserve. Or we want it so badly to be real and authentic and nurturing. But it's not. And we only find that out until after the relationship has ended.
"My folks still love me alright, but they saw that love as cause for forgiveness, not acceptance ... My life had been conveniently reduced to a 'lifestyle' by then, something easily separable from me, that they could abhor to their hearts' content without fear of being perceived as unchristian."
In this short passage, Michael gives voice to what so much of us feel but can't quite express. We know in our hearts that "love the sinner, hate the sin" is deeply hateful ... of the person, not the sin. We sense that what we are offered is not real love, but "compassion," i.e., tolerance tinged with a bit of forgiveness.

Michael's older brother is everything Michael is not. He is a real estate wheeler dealer, lives in a monster house somewhere in the Orlando area and is a deacon in his church. Many of us have relatives like that whose lives appear - on the surface - so charmed, so perfect, so "right." After visiting for a few days in Florida, Michael says of his brother and his life (as well as his own):
"[I] realized that I envied nothing about my brother's [conservative, 'Christian'* and straight] life ... none of the the things I once worried I might be missing if I committed fully to a life of homosexuality. That life hasn't been perfect, but it has been my life, tailored to my dreams and safely beyond the reach of God's terrible swift sword. My brother can't say that. Never could."
Isn't that what so many LGBT people have had to face at some point on their journey: that if they were true to who they are, they thought they would be missing out on what our culture overwhelmingly values? How many people, on the other hand, can say that their life - with all its imperfections - "is MY life, tailored to MY dreams?" [*Am I the only one who is sick of conservative evangelical Christians claiming for themselves the label of 'Christian' - as if mainline Protestants and Catholics aren't really "Christian?"]

Michael had a difficult relationship with his mother. I could relate very strongly to their relationship. When "Mama" was near death in a nursing home, Michael had a choice to make. As he and Ben were waiting for their flight to Florida, they received word that the woman whom Michael viewed as his "true" mother, Anna Madrigal, was in a life-threatening situation. He chose to stay in San Francisco to be with Anna (who often quipped that she and all her "children" - none of whom were related by blood - were a "natural family" rather than a biological family. When my mother passed, I was faced with a similar decision: I was needed at home. I had said my goodbyes already.

Of his decision, Michael explains:
"People always say, 'Of course you love her, you have to, she's your mother,' but that kind of love can die as easily as any of the others. It has to be fed by something ... I let her go a long time ago. I've done my mourning already."
I could have said the same thing.

Thank you, Armistead Maupin, for creating Michael Tolliver.

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