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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Days of Obligation

I have been reading Richard Rodriguez's "Days of Obligation - An Argument with My Mexican Father." It seems to be one of those books that one either loves or hates; or so I gather from browsing through the reader reviews. Still, I'm enjoying it. It's written by a practicing Catholic, a Mexican/American, a gay man, and a San Franciscan. (Some of you may remember him being interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS series: Faith and Reason, which I blogged about back in August.) So I thought I'd see what it was about.

It's a hodgepodge collection, loosely bound by themes which are consciously sacramental, surrounding his life and experiences. On how Mexico differs from America, even though Mexico is in his parents' memory, not his, since he was born in San Francisco. The way Mexicans worship, embrace death, tie themselves like Indians to the land. And how America lives, looks forward to some grand, invisible ideal; but then, where are all the Indians? Or the way San Francisco's Victorian homes were built around the "nuclear family" - and how these homes are lived in now, ironically, by gay and childless couples. Vacant mirrors, gilded with cherubs.

About San Francisco and the AIDS crisis, he wrote this moving passage, which I'll quote and leave with you:

And if gays took care of their own, they were not alone. AIDS was a disease of the entire city. Nor were Charity and Mercy only male, only gay. Others came. There were nurses and nuns and the couple from next door, co-workers, strangers, teenagers, corporations, pensioners. A community was forming over the city...

And the saints of this city have names listed in the phone book, names I heard called through a microphone one cold Sunday in Advent as I sat in Most Holy Redeemer Church. It might have been any of the churches or community centers in the Castro district, but it happened at Most Holy Redeemer at a time in the history of the world when the Roman Catholic Church pronounced the homosexual a sinner.

A woman at the microphone called upon volunteers from the AIDS Support Group to come forward. Throughout the church, people stood up, young men and women, and middle-aged and old, straight, gay and all of them shy at being called. Yet they came forward and assembled in the sanctuary, facing the congregation, grinning self-consciously at one another, their hands hidden behind them.

I am preoccupied by the fussing of a man sitting in the pew directly in front of me - in his seventies, frail, his iodine-colored hair combed forward and pasted upon his forehead. Fingers of porcelain clutch the pearly beads of what must have been his mother's rosary. He is not the sort of man any gay man would have chosen to become in the 1970's. He is probably not what he himself expected to become. Something of the old dear about him, wizened butterfly, powdered old pouf. Certainly he is what I fear becoming. And then he rises, this old monkey, with the most beatific dignity, in answer to the microphone, and he strides into the sanctuary to take his place in the company of the Blessed.

So this is it - this, what looks like a Christmas party in an insurance office, and not as in Renaissance paintings, and not as we had always thought, not some flower-strewn, some sequined curtain call of greasepainted heroes gesturing to the stalls. A lady with a plastic candy cane pinned to her lapel. A Castro clone with a red bandana exploding from his hip pocket. A perfume-counter lady with an Hermes scarf mantled upon her shoulder. A black man in a checkered sports coat. The pink-haired punkess with a jewel in her nose. Here, too, is the gay couple in middle-age; interchangeable plaid shirts and corduroy pants. Blood and shit and Mr. Happy Face. These know the weight of bodies.

Bill died... Passed on to heaven... Turning over in his bed one night and then gone.

These learned to love what is corruptible, while I, barren skeptic, reader of St. Augustine, curator of the earthly paradise, inheritor of the empty mirror, I shift my tailbone upon the cold, hard pew.


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