I’ve made some really good relationships with people from Alabama. The first person that I met from Alabama, Regina, became my wife. The second person that I met from Alabama was often confused as my sister. I met both, my wife and my friend LeeAnn working for an apparel company in Atlanta. Because of our similar look and style, LeeAnn and I were automatically drawn to each other like one’s reflection in a pond. In our twenties, we both were lanky, had large dark glasses and wore backwards Kangol hats. Our similarities didn’t end with our physical appearance.
We were both raised in small, religiously oppressive towns. We both had chihuahuas and we both had ties to musical theater in high school. Her brother, who actually did look a lot like me, even went on to become a well-respected theater director after his stint as a cruise ship entertainer. This was the first instance that I had heard of anyone using cruise ship entertaining as a career stepping stone. I thought that it was only the final chapter for semi-talented triple threats, but I was proven wrong.
Over lunch, LeeAnn and I would wax philosophical on politics, our families, religion and the most taboo of all subjects, movies.
Movies were the language of bridge building, empathy machines, as Roger Ebert put it. We filmed a night’s worth of footage for the 24-hour film fest in Atlanta, but ultimately decided that we’d trash what we had. If we couldn’t spend more than a day making our film, then we’d do it later and do it the right way. Movies would be our way to rebel in spirit to the injustices around us and solve the problems of the world. If only we had the resources, but we didn’t.
As a lesbian from Hokes Bluff, Alabama, LeeAnn was familiar with the looks of condemnation that came from being open with her sexuality in the Bible Belt. I know that some preachers have their check lists, but at her own granny’s funeral, the granny who supported her the moment she came out, the pastor decided this service was the appropriate time to aim his own fire and brimstone using Old Testament verses to damn LeeAnne, her wife and brother for being gay. She took it in stride and knew that if she could, her granny might actually spring from the casket, slap the preacher, turn to LeeAnn and say, “Don’t you worry baby, he’s as lost as last year’s Easter egg.” This had the potential to be a scene in the movie we’d one day make.
LeeAnn was gay and I was accused of being so because I had aspirations of being an artist and refused to hunt woodland creatures with my southern brethren. So, having grown up in rural communities that quickly denounced those who were different, one can see how LeeAnn and I may have both been drawn to the western interpretations of Buddhism even though we had been raised with the Lord’s Supper. Maybe it was our personal rebellion.
Maybe it was because one could be a Buddhist without evoking the concept of dogmatic punishment. We had had enough of the Jerry Falwells, Jim Bakers and Jimmy Swaggarts of the world. Our particular favorite Buddhist writer was Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The small, soft-spoken friend and contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr. suited us just fine.
My great-grandmother Marche passed away shortly after LeeAnn’s granny died. In the ‘70s, Marche moved to Georgia from Connecticut to be near her family. Marche had been a psychiatric nurse during the war, a lifelong lover of the night sky, a fan Carl Sagan, and like LeeAnn's grandmother, had supported the family’s black sheep, my mother. Marche was the lone financial supporter of my mom’s efforts to go to college and to one day become a teacher. My mom was different because she was only the second person in her family to value a formal education and Marche became her cheerleader.
So, when Marche died, not having a church home, we used the funeral home’s “on-the-spot” evangelical preacher to perform the service. Though, not nearly as horrifying as LeeAnn’s experience, the pastor did use our time to also warn us of the everlasting fires of hell. We all laughed at the juxtaposition of what was happening and who Marche really was and vowed never to use what was the equivalent of a Drive-Thru funerary service again.
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is assholes.
At our next lunch, LeeAnn and I commiserated over the loss of our grannies and realized again that we had even more in common. The funerals of our supportive grandmothers were both held hostage by men of dubious ethics who used our family’s time for grieving for their narrow spiritual agendas. Thich Naht Hanh was quoted as saying “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent, when they are not.” LeeAnn and I modified it to “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is assholes.”
When LeeAnn’s 30th birthday was upon us, I was somewhat honored to be included in her birthday outing for tapas and pastries which sounded too much like Topless with Pasties, so that’s what we began calling our upcoming outing, LeeAnn’s Topless with Pasties Birthday Celebration. And I say honored because I was the only straight male to be included in her birthday outing. It’s not that this is impressive in itself or that I’m patting myself on the back, but in my twenties, I thought it amazing that I, having had been raised in a small town, not unlike Hokes Bluff, could now be in the “big city” eating hors d’oeuvres with my gay friends. And what’s more I knew that my conservative friends back home would be praying for me.
At our restaurant, I told LeeAnne that I had gotten her two gifts. Her first was the gift of absolute bluster. I asked her to pick any table in the crowded restaurant and that I would convince the patrons to come over to our table and serenade her with a birthday song. And to my word, I did it. It was great. LeeAnn pointed to a table of young women at a bachelorette party and I was off.
If I ever had to walk up to a table of women on my own behalf when I was single, I would have tripped over every one of my nervous words, but for a friend, I was all bravado. The inebriated women obliged by singing Happy Birthday to a most appreciative LeeAnn. Gift one was a success.
I had always considered myself a great gift giver, so what transpired next shook my confidence. LeeAnn then opened the following presents from her peers to much cheer from the chorus of friends that I did not know. I did not get the memo for what an appropriate second gift was. Here’s what I mean by appropriate.
- Dancing Boobs Wind-Up Toy
- Several DVD copies of various types of porn
- Lips stick in the shape of a penis
- Other things in the shape of a penis
My face was pallid. All of the blood had rushed from my extremities to support my racing heart. It’s not that these sexually explicit gifts made me turn red or embarrass me because I was prudish. But if I had known that there was a theme, I might have bought something a little more in keeping with the other birthday souvenirs.
I saw my meager, unopened, simply wrapped gift cowering behind the opened wrapping paper, and menacing sex toys and began to wonder if I could sneak it back to safety under the table.
LeeAnn saw the packaged book and the note from me and said out loud, “Oooh, the BEST for last.”
LeeAnn discarded the brown wrapping paper in front of eager eyes who were ready for the next laugh, who maybe thought if it’s a book at least be one like the “Kama Sutra” or the coffee table book “Sex” by Madonna. She then revealed my gift to the party, a copy of a paperback book, completely non-sexual in any way.
The small assembly of friends looked on blankly. By the expressions some were disappointed and some a bit confused as to why the one straight male in their company would bring such a no-fitting gift. Was I judging them?
I’ve never been so embarrassed to publicly give someone a copy of the Penguin Classic, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhaht Hahn. LeeAnn dismissed the looks with a wave, gazed through my dismay, leaned over and whispered to me as if channeling her dead granny’s accent, and said, “Honey, this scene has to go in our movie.”