One of my best friends has been grappling with a major life decision. It would involve a move to another continent, and for her a new culture, language and lifestyle for a new job. She would be leaving behind a great deal for a fresh start in the late summer or early autumn of her life.
I tried to be a good listener during our phone call yesterday and offer a helpful perspective.
I told her about my living in New York City for a year, where she is now, and my dreams of living in Europe in a German-speaking country. At the time, I was 21 years old, still a fresh graduate from college with a degree from a respected journalism school. I was working a full-time job for an estate attorney for the German Consulate, a part-time job for a weekly newspaper in Brooklyn, and attending evening Business German classes at New York University.
I was a young man from a modest socioeconomic background who had led a very sheltered life as a member of a vast German-American family with no gay role models save for a much older second cousin whom my father and one of his brothers mocked openly. (They later told me I was too sensitive when I objected to their portrayal of this mystery relative I had never met. They also, with great concern, asked my mother if I were trying to pass on a secret message that I might be gay.)
I knew I liked being a man, so any image of a drag queen made me retreat deeper into the closet. I was terrified of AIDS. I knew I wanted to be respected by my family, so I breathed great sighs of relief every time I won a national poetry award, a match on my college tennis team after which I would call my parents, and, after one year of living in New York City, received a Fulbright scholarship, to this day still a great shock! I also tried to act straight, which must have been pretty funny to all who knew in their hearts that I wasn’t. I explored a lot of New York the one year I lived there because I didn’t drive and walked everywhere. One day, passing through Grand Central Terminal on my way to work, a gentleman asked if I had ever tried modeling. He gave me a card.
I was horrified and curious at the same time. To make a long story short, I eventually was featured in one national ad for sweaters along with a dozen other young men. They wanted us to represent countries from around the world, and they gave me a haircut to make me look like I might have come from Holland or Germany.
I left the modeling world pretty quickly. I knew I couldn’t hold a candle to the stunning acquaintances I made who were auditioning for the same part-time gigs I was. I was also scared out of my wits.
What if I became real friends with some of these guys? Then I would be gay, right? Then I would get AIDS, right? Then I would die young, right? And my family would be humiliated, right?
To make another long story short, I moved to Austria, lived in a monastery, taught in two schools, studied translating at the University of Vienna, and wrote poetry. The wonderful Fulbright administrators in Vienna approved my scholarship for a second year. I left the monastery, worked at an embassy, tried to date women, and played a lot of tennis with many straight men. I was terrified a few might realize I was actually gay even though I had not yet accepted that fact. After some years, I returned to the United States. I married a woman. I wanted children.
My convoluted message to my dear friend yesterday was “Take chances. You may never know if they will come your way again. You don’t want to wake up 20 years from now and think, ‘What if?'”
And that lead me to thinking.
What if I had not moved to Austria but had dated men in the ’80s in New York City? Would I still be alive? What if I had stayed in the monastery in Austria? What if I had never married a woman I loved? What if I had never taken a chance a few years ago in the summer of my career and had not persuaded my family to move to Hawaii. What if I had not persuaded my husband to try parenthood?
I have no amazing answers. All I can write is that I feel fortunate that life has turned out to be a marathon and that I try to savor every mile even when I’m exhausted! I try not to overthink the miles before and after. Sometimes I just decide to run them.
So, to my dear friend in New York, whatever decision you make, keep the faith and know I and many others will be rooting for you!