Posted on

The Summer I Bought New Pencils

The experience of putting hand to paper stimulates an entirely different writing experience for me. Back in 2016, I found this to be true as I started writing long hand at times to break through the long, dreadful periods of staring at the glow of my expectant laptop. I’m not sure why, but it took me until mid-2017 to go out and buy a pack of brand new pencils for the first time in… more years than I care to admit.

Suffice it to say, the selection these days is pretty limited. But the pack of black, No. 2 Triconderogas has served me well. I should’ve done this years ago: as a lefty, I’ve spent almost my entire life accumulating enough ink blots on my writing hand to make an entire book of Rorschach tests. But, in the maelstrom of our WiFi-enabled way of life, I still forget to just sit, think, and write what comes to mind. Going right to the keyboard just makes more sense, in terms of efficiency, but it never feels as second nature as pencil to paper.

My handwritten notes indicate that I bought the pencils right before Memorial Day, at the beginning of a summer that I’ll remember for two unforgettable events. For different reasons, I’m still trying to comprehend them both.

The Shockwave

The news came at the end of a mid-June afternoon in a sudden, tearful phone call from my sister: our fifteen year-old cousin, the son of our first cousin and grandson of our closest aunt and uncle, had taken his own life. I’d only met the kid a handful of times, but he was pals with my three teenage nephews. They’d spent every Fourth of July together, tubing on the most picturesque of lakes “Up North” in rural Michigan, and everyone had been looking forward to the next reunion.

No one knows why he did it. It’s likely we never will. On a night when Jaxon and I were supposed to go see Pink Flamingoes, instead our chosen Minnesota family quickly assembled here in our backyard, and we drank a toast to the kid we wished had grown old enough to join us here someday: to Alex.

It’s hard to describe how far a shockwave like that will travel. I found myself of two minds in the weeks and months to follow. First, I had to reckon with the deep sadness that will sit with my extended family for a terribly long time. There’s no avoiding the loss, and few words or sentiments can comfort that pain. Second, it forced me to think back on those quiet, lonely times in my own youth when I wondered if everything would be better if I just weren’t here. I only came close to acting on that impulse once, during the darkest days of a confused and isolated adolescence. I don’t think back to that moment often, but in the aftermath of my cousin’s death, I sometimes find myself lingering on those memories and wondering, between his decision to leave, and my decision to stay?

The Surge

Interestingly, the second definitive event came barely ten days later, on a trip to New York that surprised me with an unexpected “full circle” moment. Way back in 2000 (when so much seemed so innocent), I spent a summer in Manhattan attending a publishing institute that I hoped would launch my literary career. Instead, I came home deflated and uncertain of myself, questioning the ideals that had propelled the literary activism of my college years. Seventeen years later, with a Masters and PhD in Social Work behind me and a really great book project gaining steam, I returned for a week of research and networking. Coming back to the city, I didn’t quite know what to expect: the buzzing energy and creativity that first attracted me, or the indifferent beast that chewed me to bits and sent me humbled back to the Midwest?

It was a glorious week, more extraordinary than I thought possible, and a restoration in many ways to the sense of self I thought I’d lost some time ago. On a bright, sunny Sunday morning – just hours before the annual (and original) Pride parade – I was already riding a wave of momentum as I left a Midtown restaurant and strolled up to Central Park. My research interview that morning turned out to be with a literary agent who took an interest in my project, and as I wandered through the park, I hastily made some excited calls to Jaxon and my sister. After basking for a while in the morning’s seeming perfection, I made my way to the subway, did my patriotic duty by flipping the double birds to Tr*mp Tower, and descended to catch my train.

For completely different reasons, the moment that followed caught me as fully by surprise as the tragedy preceding my visit.

I entered the nearly full car and, miraculously enough, found a seat near the doors. A moment later, I looked up from my phone to notice two parents, a little older than me, and three boys – twelve years old, as I heard one of the kids’ mother say he would be turning thirteen in a few months. The boys’ shoulders were draped with Pride flags, two with the traditional rainbow and one with a transgender flag. The three friends were – excitedly – going to their first Pride parade.

It was all I could do to stay quiet and marvel at the scene: smiling, empowered, arms hanging across each other’s shoulders with looks of sheer happiness. The middle kid reminded me of, well, me at that age – husky and standing half a foot taller than the other two. But I’d been awkward and ashamed of my body and my size, hesitant to show any hint of exuberance, and terrified deep down of being labeled a faggot.

For a brief second, I envied them. And then I smiled, said nothing, and let a wave of contentment overtake me as I got up and left at my stop. It was their day, their moment, and their parade. To mark the first Pride of the Tr*mp era, organizers wisely put our future front and center – wave after wave of resistance activists, mostly queer youth of color, whose collective voices raised hell with a thunderous call to action up and down Fifth Avenue.

It had started as a day for me to bask in what truly felt like a personal restoration, but by the time that massive parade had shouldered past, I knew better. It was their day, and without question their future, confidently taking the streets where revolution – the long, slow, generation to generation kind – always unfolds and renews itself. And I thought this to myself, remembering my cousin, my own darkest days, the flag-draped boys on the train, and their slightly older champions striding past in righteous fury:

If the political leaders of this country think they’re going to take these kids’ confidence away, if they think they’ll somehow reverse the long strides made from Stonewall to today, if they think it’s arbitrary and acceptable to yank back a community’s spot from society’s decision-making table, then they have no idea what kind of fight they’re in for. For this generation of LGBTQ youth, their place in the family of humanity is spoken for, their claim for recognition unquestionable. And while undoubtedly we’ll still lose some of our beloved along the way, many more have a chance now, thanks to the cohorts before them who’ve refused to back down in the face of denigration, denial, and displacement.

On the morning of my departure, I made one last visit to the West Village, searching for a quiet breakfast place and perhaps a souvenir. I wasn’t sure what I wanted until I stepped inside a funky little stationery shop, and my eyes drifted downward to a simple, pocket-sized journal – the perfect choice to complement my pack of pencils, only recently acquired but already so essential to the work I still have ahead of me.


About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s