Solitary Refinement

Love would be so much easier if we all lived by the credo of the quirkyalone

... [L]ove from one being to another can only be that two solitudes come nearer, recognize, protect, and comfort each other.

-- Han Suyin

On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 1953, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyonlaced their hearts together and prayed their fates would follow. It didn't seem likely. Beyond facing the common ordeals of a young couple with predictably human shortfalls, Martin and Lyon had to overcome the foibles of an era. In the early 1950s, homophobia didn't exist yet, at least not in language, but its consequence was rife: People like Martin and Lyon, choosing to love and cherish one another, were considered mentally unstable and criminal. And yet, here they are 50 years later, still together, sitting at the Castro Theatre with fingers intertwined, watching their story unfold at the premiere of No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. This scene is strange and delightful to me, not because Martin and Lyon founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first public organization for lesbians in America, back in 1955; not because they witnessed the decriminalization of their devotion and the nationwide advancement of civil rights as a direct result of their activism; not even because they remember when their Noe Valley home was so far off the beaten path that the sound of an automobile was reason enough to leap up from the breakfast table. No, their presence is strange and delightful because they are the physical embodiment of true love, something I had once dismissed as a myth propagated by the U.S. Treasury to create an emptiness and stimulate spending.

Now, I am not a cynic by nature, but neither am I a fool, and having been spared the rigmarole of major media in early life, I was given an opportunity to draw my own conclusions about romantic love -- conclusions that, for better or worse, were informed by observations and, later, verified by an unhealthy appreciation for Russian literature. By the time I was old enough to ask questions, my great-great-grandmother was a feathery wisp of the woman who once left her family to smoke tobacco and dance in the local speak-easies; my great-grandmother had forsworn romantic love and built a house on an inhospitable mountaintop circled by buzzards; my grandmother was on husband No. 3 and marriage No. 4; and my mother was finding herself. In my own family, as in Russian novels, I quickly realized that beauty, art, adventure, and merriment were best realized when those seeking it were thwarted by love or resigned to solitude. It would have all been so much easier if we had known about the quirkyalone.

According to To-Do List -- the local magazine that, along with Utne Reader, published an article by List Editor Sasha Cagen proposing the nomenclature -- the quirkyalone are a rare breed that resists "the tyranny of coupledom in favor of independent self-expression." Such a person usually displays a talent for self-reflection, creates and maintains chosen families of friends, and recognizes the failings of an approach to life that prescribes happiness through romance, all the while remaining willing-hearted for great love (which most quirkyalones have experienced at least once in their lives). Of course, Cagen knew she would not be all by herself.

Squeezing through the door of the Atlas Cafe, a longtime haven for the sort of idiosyncratic character who might be drawn to International Quirkyalone Day, I am greeted by a very small dog in a neck warmer. According to the multiple-choice name tag/questionnaire adorning his collar, Shorty is warm and fuzzy behind his mask; he believes in living free and wild; and chooses, for his write-in answer, "Barking and Shitting" as the title of his own reality show. Scanning the name tags affixed to the fronts of all in the standing-room crowd, I am not surprised to find the belief in living free outranks the belief in God and the belief in booze, combined. I am somewhat surprised, however, to find the whole gang laughing and mingling amiably, that is until I read the "movement propaganda" Cagen has prepared for the evening. On the back cover of the pamphlet, under a picture of Emily Dickinson, To-Do List explains that, while the poet was quirky and alone, she was not quirkyalone. "We are sociable people," states the program. This is a distinction that will be made tonight at quirkyalone gatherings elsewhere in the world.

There's no denying their sociability. Folks move about the room, sharing seats, sharing laps, making valentines for themselves, doodling in notebooks, reading over each other's shoulders, offering each other peer counseling at the "advice table," reading name tags, and asking questions of strangers to determine if the famous person on the back of their shirt is, or is not, quirkyalone. Katharine Hepburn(yes) pushes past Morrissey(yes) on the way to the bathroom, and pauses to read a quote from bell hookswritten on the wall about people who deny true love and cling to that assumption because, if faced with the truth of its absence, they will be engulfed by despair. This is a sentiment believed but made beautiful by the patron saint of quirkyalone, Rainer Maria Rilke. As Rilke's quotes on solitude are recited over the microphone, Virginia Woolf(no), William S. Burroughs(no), and Pee-wee Herman(probably) flounce over to Sarah Bernhardt(most definitely), who sits at the "Alone-Time Table." Interestingly, they are not rebuked.

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