I knew as I turned down the road toward the familiar view of golden wetlands in a spring evening that the immediacy of the sensation would fade. I ought to have written right then, I thought. I ought to take this out of my chest but I won’t.
(The tenses are all fucked up, I realize.)
Now I am in a coffee shop where pop songs from the eighties are playing just a little too loud. My friend in the midst of her stream across from me cracks me open in new ways. It is cliché to write so often about the heart, the muscle, the fist in me, the fist raised for her. (I will have to cut that corniness, I realize. I have to love the champion I am, I have to love myself, to love my capacity.)
I try not to use the word heart. I try to live according to my heart’s intelligence. Can the science of neurocardiology authorize this? The giant vagus nerve that I see as strong as my spine, flexes it’s will, overcomes me, the hundred sensations of my “heart” are sent along nerves, out to the tiniest endings.
In class on Thursday, a class on the history of emotions as a methodology for making sense of the AIDS crisis and social movement, I had broken out in goose bumps, my eyes burned and flooded, I swelled with (affect, the “nonconscious” physiological, yet also normative, socially trained response, the theory teaches us)—”with what?” I wondered in the moment. Was I proud of my students? I was surprised at their goodness at their ability to risk and the way that the language of readings-I-had-wept-over, moved, had moved them. Was I moved by these students too? Would a person who had not spent fifteen weeks learning this history with them see their brilliance? Is it me I am proud of?
A young white man, ambiguous in his orientation, but gentle-hearted, raised rich, (a bit of a hustler, I thought, until I had let him know he was not getting away with it and he rose to the occasion) played a bit of his podcast on African American men facing AIDS and at the end he quoted James Baldwin, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” as a benediction:
“Go forth, be of good cheer, never returning evil with evil, but always returning good” my minister parent had sent us away every Sunday, with his palm raised gently, as if to our foreheads. The sleeve of his robe falling down his hairy wrist. (It was him. It was his life. It was his desire to please me, where did it come from? We are so complicated in our million, brilliant childhood strategies, our laundry list of fourteen traits. Hell is sometimes where it comes from, the impoverishment of the secret dysfunction, don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t tell. So many in this class have broken down before me, in anxiety, with allergies, full of hopelessness. In history classes, we inventory the public dysfunction, systems of power and privilege. The gendered, sexualized, raced, classed intersection of white supremacy. Ignorance and power. Silence = Death. There is relief in such admissions.)
Wyatt’s podcast ends.
As a teacher, I choose to take off my glasses then, and wipe my eyes my voice trembling give them my parting words. Baldwin and Wyatt have done it for us though.
“Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation” (James Baldwin, Interview with Goldstein, 1984).
I think some may think it is “weird” to see me cry, I hope one day it gives them permission. I hope my pride goes into their blood and takes hold in their hearts, that they follow the intelligence of the vagus nerve, evolved to empathy.
The road turned along the golden field. The music beats now. My eyes, this enormous nerve. My friend. Who cares if no one likes my writing?