CW: Emotional abuse, suicide.
When I found out that Mary Oliver had died a few weeks ago, I closed the door to my office and cried at my desk. I fell in love with Oliver’s poetry early on in an English literature class during my first semester of college. “In Blackwater Woods” started out as a recitation assignment but eventually became a prayer. I whispered it between classes. I scrawled its lines onto multiple scraps of paper, slipping them into notebooks and coat pockets.
“To live in this world,
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.”
(In Blackwater Woods)
I was drawn to her simple invitations – to look up at the world around me, to be astonished and deeply grateful, to care for creation and the tender earth of my own body. Over and over, I returned to her for wisdom and comfort: after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship; in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting; when I felt alone and aimless in a new city; as I grieved a friend’s death by suicide.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
Her words channeled life when I was inconsolable; they were spiritual direction when I was unmoored. I didn’t know she was queer at the time. To be fair, I didn’t know I was either.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment I knew I was bi. What I do remember is the first time I honestly acknowledged that terrifying and beautiful feeling of the universe opening up inside of me. Early on in 2017, at a dinner, a friend casually threw a “You’re queer, right?” into our conversation. We had just been laughing about first dates and relationship mishaps, but every part of my body froze; no one had ever asked me that question before. I stared at my plate for a few seconds before answering, “I think – I’m not sure.” She smiled and pushed a pile of french fries towards me.
“And that’s okay.”
But it didn’t feel okay. I wanted so badly to be sure – to not hesitate. To be proud and speak my truth, as scrambled and squishy as it was then. Really, I was afraid of how that it could change my life. I was afraid of what it would mean for my participation and leadership in the church. I was afraid of how my partner might respond. What if none of the labels fit quite right? What if no one believed me because I had only ever dated cishet men? And what if it upended who I thought I was and who I believed God to be? There was so much unknown and out of my control. Owning this uncertainty was like wading into new waters, and I had a feeling that if I kept going, there would be no turning back.
Two years have passed since that otherwise perfectly ordinary moment. Being a part of and supporting communities and spaces like #QueerlyBeloved, #FaithfullyLGBT, Brave Commons, and PAAC Family has taught me that queerness is so much more expansive than I thought. I know that queer kinship and connection and community can transform us if we let them. Like God, queerness holds endless possibility and like God, it takes the world into its arms. Queerness is fierce and tender, illuminating all that is sacred and disrupting false dichotomies. There are days when it feels like it would be so much easier to ignore this part of who I am, but I know that my life is richer and more complex and full because of it.
I still carry so many questions that I can’t answer but I have promised myself that I would follow Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: to pay attention to that terrible, beautiful feeling of the universe opening up inside of me – and “not be afraid of its plenty”.
About the author: May realized she loved to write in the fifth grade, when she unintentionally plagiarized one of her favorite books, “The Phantom Tollbooth”, for an essay assignment. She got into a lot of trouble (obviously) for it but has tried to keep writing since. She has many hobbies but her favorite right now is borrowing too many library books at one time.
Cover Image: David Marcu via Unsplash