Elsewhere, I have written about how Chris awakened something in me. James Baldwin’s description of ecstasy comes close, that place where the spiritual bleeds into the erotic. Of the poets I love, Essex Hemphill best captures this particular magic. Recently, I have realized how much more I owe Chris.
He was the first to teach me about the relationship between desire and style, about how stylization could shape and direct desire. By no means was he conventionally attractive, but he was compelling. He had, to use several clichés, a sense of inner strength, conviction that elicited response. Even when unsure, he commanded disciples.
One reading might be that I was drawn to his masculinity, that which I had been told and I perceived was most lacking in me. If it was masculinity, and here readers of Hemphill will understand my citation, it was a masculinity wrapped in tenderness, so different from the models I would later encounter that strutted and bragged and taunted and bored.
Over the last few years, as I have aged, though many dismiss my sense of aging, I have been trying to understand some of the myths that circulate about desire and love. In particular, I am fascinated to see my own desires changing. Where once I may have ranked brilliance as the primary quality in a partner (I use the dreaded word!), now I think of gentleness; where a certain sharp wit was essential, I must admit I’m more interested in kindness. In part, this might be because I find these qualities lacking in myself (again with lack), and thus desire them all the more.
A more generous reading would be that I have been lucky enough to meet and be surrounded by kind, gentle, and generous individuals, many of whom have helped to smooth my life, to provide respite and pleasure even when I have been recalcitrant and grumpy.
I think a lot about what it might mean to adopt kindness as a sort of style. Not in the casual ways we think about trends and fashion, rather, here a pun, in the sense of self-fashioning. What the bible might refer to as putting on the armor of faith I would read as learning to be vulnerable otherwise.
For months I have been struggling to write about kindness. Here, I have begun to approach the topic, though with none of the fluency I desire. And I wonder at my inability to be fluent, to imagine and practice kindness. The wonder is not simply intellectual. Rather, it might be considered a certain crisis: what forms of politics have I learned, embraced, and practiced that make kindness seem so unattainable? Why, in discussions of ethics and morality, sometimes heated, many more fluently written, has kindness felt so thin?
I’m still not sure what it might mean to desire kindness much less practice it. I do hope that the question continues to disturb me.