Sometimes, I have a rare sort of emotional rumbling best described as a belonging feeling. I've had no more than seven or so during my life on earth, and they always mark some kind of momentous occasion. Like most of life's momentous occasions, I don't recognize them as particularly momentous until their memories have gone soft and sepia in the rock-turner of my mind. It's too early to tell, but I think I might have had such a moment on Saturday night at the Cracker Barrel in Manchester, Tennessee.
I was standing by a display of pumpkin-and-vine dishware when a six-and-a-half-foot man dressed in a polyester leopard print shirt loosely laced from his navel to his Adam's apple wove past a cotton-haired lady in a brown apron toward the hostess station. I'm not sure he could have drawn more eyes if he had come walking in arm-in-arm with a camel in hot-pants, but I am sure he left plenty of dropped toothpicks in his wake as the vast variety of assembled Bubbas stopped to stare, mouths yawning in shock and glee, as they struggled to discern an appropriate insult to whisper amongst themselves. The man didn't seem to notice that the narrow aisle between the jar candles and old-fashioned candy had become his catwalk as he pranced past the appliqued t-shirts in his own personal pride parade. This, I thought to myself, is going to be interesting. And it was. This evening, it seems, was destined to be a foray into the surreal.
It wasn't long after we sat down that I saw a tall gray man walk past the window. He wouldn't have been particularly interesting if it hadn't been for his flat-top haircut and his shirt sleeves. It seems that the sleeves of his white button-up had been cut and hemmed until they were only about two inches long. His jeans were rolled up to reveal white socks in brown dress shoes. I caught his message. This, he seemed to say, was who I was. It was me who picked your daughter up in a '55 Ford and made doughnuts in your soybean field. When my mother-in-law's huge blue eyes got a few times larger, I just looked back at her and said, Nice. Which is what I say when something is either not nice at all, or when I just don't know what else will fit.
Soon, a white Ford 250 pulled up and an entire family rolled out into the parking lot. The two women had masses of hair flowing down their backs past the elastic waistbands of their skirts. I call this particular kind of people Churchagods, because that's usually where you can find them on Sunday mornings. (It's at this moment that I want to be able to write something witty about them. I want to be able to make some kind of remark about this kind of subordination--do they feel subordinated?-- of women, that will make you laugh and dissipate some of the internal tension I feel when I try to write about them. There was a time when I stood before a group of people and pledged to submit myself to the all-male leadership of a church. In retrospect, I am altogether embarrassed to remember this moment. I wonder if, even for a moment, we stop and realize what it is we're actually doing when, as women, we do that?) So, this is all somewhat of an aside, but when I saw these women walk in, I started having that belonging feeling and I started to realize why.
I thought about the man in the leopard shirt and I wondered if it's hard to be gay, and not only gay, but OBVIOUSLY, FLAMINGLY, HOMOSEXUAL in a small Tennessee town. I imagine he's built up a kind of toughness that would easily surpass that of my friend in the cut-off sleeves. What must it be to be like that? What must it be to be the object of attention always? And then, I remembered that Little Richard (yes, that Little Richard) lives just down the road. And I thought it interesting that he would choose to return to his small Tennessee town. And I don't have an answer for this mystery other than that it is some sort of mystery that not belonging sometimes feels comfortable. So, it becomes clear to me: the feeling of belonging comes from a shared feeling of not belonging. Not belonging in your body, not belonging in your era, not belonging in your church, and not belonging, ultimately, on this planet. So, I think my point isn't that I am weird, but that we all are. Like puzzle pieces, we fit together in our differences. And the image that I'm left with is that of an entire nation of weirdos struggling together to find a normal that doesn't really exist.