Kindness of (21,629) strangers

January 22 2017

I won the listserve once before, almost exactly a year ago (January 26 2016). I wrote about coming out, and feeling freed from a sense of captivity and loneliness that had becoming unlivable. If you, like me, have wondered what would happen if you threw yourself into the arms of 21,629 strangers, this is what happened:

I received dozens of kind replies, from twenty-something queer women in Russia to 60-year-old heterosexual married men in Texas; from people who could relate to those who couldn’t but took the time to write anyway. You told me about yourselves and your daughters, your college roommates and best friends. You shared your secrets and sources of shame. You told me how you’ve fought to live a life truer to yourself too. Some of you broke my heart and some of you warmed it. I’d sent my entry off with trepidation. I’d even written to the listserve admin to (re)confirm that my real name wouldn’t be published. I’d braced for at least a few hateful messages. I got none.

It was perhaps the single most validating and hopeful experience of the past year for me. I was overwhelmed and didn’t reply to most of you who wrote to me (I should have), but I’ve thought back to these messages often this year, when I felt I had nothing worthwhile to give or say, and when my faith in people ebbed to a particularly low point.

2016 presented its share of particularly low points. I didn't think that a man who'd boasted about assaulting women could prove electable to the highest of offices. That a gunman would target an Orlando gay club last June, or that when he did, the tragedy would be seized upon to stoke hate.

I’ve had the privilege to live in a place and time where I’ve seen my rights as a woman, and as a queer woman in particular, expanding – subtle shifts in society from rejection towards acceptance and celebration of our differences, our shared humanity. I am young enough not to have questioned this as the natural progression of things. I fear this has been naïve, and and watching the news and divisive political climate it's easy to be afraid of the wider world out there.

But cynicism closes in on itself, its own dark and lonely closet. It’s no way to live. I will still go out to dance the night away amongst friends, to lay claim to a collective right to joy. Not the right to be tolerated, to live in the shadows of quiet, unobtrusive shame, but to dance, to be fearless. And I will still believe in moments of kindness and connection across the world, and put my faith in them – in you. I think we can often find them, if we look up.

Last November, the same week as the American election, Leonard Cohen died. He’d lived in my Montreal neighbourhood, in a small, grey brick apartment. After a week of refreshing twitter and speculating about the wider world, I walked over there. Seventy or eighty people had done the same, lighting candles that flickered against the breeze, leaving tea and oranges on the front steps. Someone had a guitar and began singing, and we all joined in. An old couple danced slowly. Somebody’s dog howled. Our voices rose in the crisp November air, drifting over the neighbourhood:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in."

Leonard Cohen
(Anthem, 1992)

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