On a Friday morning, I wake up at 7:30 am and get myself ready because Erik is picking me up in ten minutes. Thirty five minutes later I find myself hands splayed, head down, legs straight, butt extended into the air, all extremities shaking to support my unsteady body. Every Monday and Friday mornings Erik takes a yoga class at the Fitness and Aquatics Center. Today I have joined him.
"Plank," he whispers to me. I am concentrating on flexing my calves and do not look up.
"What?" I whisper back.
"We're in plank."
I look over and see that I am very clearly and very awkwardly not even holding the correct position. I cringe as I correct myself according to Erik's body. He giggles kindly, and it is apparent that these yoga stances are effortless for him.
He is comfortable in his position; his strong, lean arms supporting the weight of his straight back and long legs, body stretched, smooth muscles emerging from his slender shoulders. After years of practice, Erik Schmitz is comfortable in his skin.
Erik loves Asia. He also loves riding his bike, camping, writing, organic food, and beautiful things. But most passionately right now, he loves Asia.
Erik is tall, lean, and usually unkempt. Most of his head is covered in an untamable cluster of brown hair. His skin is imperfect and his considerable mouth is quick to smile. Although he is not handsome, Erik is one of the most attractive men I have ever met.
Though notably intelligent and hard working, Erik's mind is as scattered and as unpredictable as he has found his own life to be. All of our minds embody a strewn miscellany of what we have seen, what we hope to see, and what we believe. In Erik's brain, all are filtered through into a package of heartbreaking passion. What follows demonstrates this.
Throughout our times together Erik has commented, either in passing or in painstaking detail, his views on everything from childhood to China.
"When I was young, I always wanted to do things in the sciences. I went through phases of fascination with different aspects of the natural world. I think I found weather the most mind-blowing. Tornadoes used to scare the shit out of me. I wanted to be a meteorologist. I wasn't intense enough to want to be a storm chaser. At other points I wanted to research space, or birds, or dinosaurs, but it was always in the sciences -- a psychologist, an evolutionary biologist, a professional atheist -- up until freshman year of college when I got more into the arts."
"Organic food is real. It's like you have to pay extra to get the real thing that's not altered genetically or covered in chemicals but it's just the real food. It's natural. You really shouldn't eat food that isn't organic."
"Think of a bee visiting a flower and sucking all of the pollen out of it until it dies and then the bee just goes on to the next flower. But that never happens in nature. It only happens in man's industry. With what man creates. That's what I think of when I think of things like puppy mills."
"Look at the statues of the greyhounds outside of the FAC. I think it's so funny that the girl dog has nipples. At least our school isn't so Catholic that they put up sexless statues. Father Linnane probably wouldn't like that I lock my bike to those dogs."
"Bumper stickers are so funny. I love that one that says, Jesus loves you but everyone else thinks you're an asshole."
Erik and I sit together at the kitchen table of a mutual friend. He is wearing a white t-shirt underneath an old, blue, pinstripe suit jacket with khaki shorts. Many of Erik's clothes come from places we can only suppose -- an old man's closet cleaned out by his widow after his death and sold for a dollar or two.
Some of his clothes still carry the musty odor of poverty. The staleness clings to the fibers of his jacket and reminds me of damp attics and forsaken moth balls. While many people shop at thrift stores to save money, Erik's reason is neither poverty nor charity, but rather corporate protest.
We have been drinking tequila for many reasons, and I can feel my face beginning to flush. Erik puts his hand firmly around my arm and leans close to my face. His long, willowy fingers nearly wrap completely around my upper arm.
"I need to tell you something," he says. When he speaks it is usually in the same, deep intonation. His laughter is a number of chords higher than his speaking tone, and it erupts very loudly and very suddenly. We have learned through years of classes together that neither of us have ever been good at whispering.
He leans closer and I am worried he is about to try. "I want you to know that you are beautiful," he says. He erupts into his penetrating giggle, and is all at once serious. "I just needed to tell you that because it's important that people know these things."
Erik's vocabulary is strewn with words like "beautiful," "talented," and "smart." Those who are loved by him are acutely aware of his affection.
He thinks I am beautiful, but he is not attracted to me because I am not a boy.
When I think of Erik, I often recall walking with him on a cool, clear day through the woods of northern Maryland over three years ago, the fall of our freshman year of college. The walk stands out in my memory for many reasons, primarily though because it was the day Erik and I became friends.
It was also the day he told me he was gay. We talked about many things -- our homes, our families, our struggles that came with growing older. The late October sky was clear and blue and the leaves crunched beneath our feet. Our talk was unpretentious and unguarded.
Later that night, when Erik quietly and courageously revealed his sexuality to me, I was calmly unchanged. Rather, I was proud of him, and thankful for the bond of trust that we had established in a new and changing life. One of the first people at college to know of Erik's sexuality, I credit this night as one of the reasons for our lasting friendship.
Reflecting back on his own process of "coming out," Erik describes the progression as, "messy. It'll get messier too." As a twenty-one-year-old college student, he struggles with a father who will not recognize his homosexuality, and a mother who refuses to believe that sexual orientation is neither a choice, nor a phase.
Erik and I have spoken about his homosexuality at length. In response to list of questions I wrote for him to consider, Erik has written:
Is there anyone important in my life who still doesn't know that I'm gay? Yes, I still have not come out to my father. I mean, he should know but he just doesn't. Not only should I have told him, but he should have put two and two together. First, there was the time he found gay porn on my computer sophomore year of high school. Then there has been my mother who has made it obvious to him that something is "wrong" with me. She leaves books lying around like The Homosexual Next Door, which is some Christian-Right book about how to bring homosexuals back from sin without going too far to sound like you're telling them its wrong...even though that's exactly what they're saying! But despite all of that, plus the fact that I've never had a girlfriend, should equal…my son is a homosexual. But apparently he still thinks I'm going to end up with a woman.
It is now November of 2006, and Erik and I are sitting together on an overnight bus from Baltimore, M.D. to Columbus, Ga.
"Your dad found your porn on the computer in high school? Oh my God," I say.
"I know!" Erik responds.
"What happened? What did he do?"
"I don't know what he did. I only know it happened because my mom told me. I didn't ask her what he did or said."
We laugh, picturing Erik's father as images of muscular, sweaty men stream before his face and consume his computer screen. We laugh, yet I know that we both silently recognize the frustration behind Erik's drollness.
It is interesting to stand back and watch a person transform. Perhaps Erik has grown more in the past year than ever before. He spent four months taking classes in Beijing, China and traveling throughout the country in the fall of 2005. This trip has significantly and permanently changed the way Erik's mind works.
He returned to America with a renewed sense of social justice, an affinity for eastern culture, medicine, and food, and an insatiable desire to go back.
China, a country that has jailed people for public displays of homosexual affection, did not at first seem like a suitable fit for Erik. In Beijing, Erik found skies grayed by layers of pollution thick enough to stain buildings, statues, and windows; and political propaganda as equally choking.
However, after leaving behind parents who have not yet accepted or forgiven his sexuality, he found a new family among his fellow students and the ex-pat scene in Beijing. He drenched himself in culture, ethos, and discernment. In a land of oppressed political sovereignty, Erik discovered his own life of freedom in only a single semester.
"I returned to life in America, just as I had left it, as if Customs had lost everything I achieved or learned in China."
Although he carries a heartbreaking awareness of his parents' misunderstandings, fears, and prejudices, Erik is not without love for them. For him, just like every other child, there was a time in his life when he knew was loved unconditionally.
As children grow, change, and develop into highly individualized people, they lose pieces of the perfect family they knew. Sometimes gradually, and sometimes in great chunks, illusions are chipped away and replaced with understandings of reality. Layers of naivety and innocence are shed for a thicker skin.
Although we all grow up in different ways, and struggle through our own particular trials, each life challenge unites us as Generation Next -- a generation with new and perhaps more complex problems than our parents knew of.
No child ever expects to grow up to realize that their parents' love has faded. No child ever expects to be a stranger in their own house. No child ever expects to learn to cope with difficulties such as depression, cancer, eating disorders, drug abuse, or mental disease. But we do.
Life, we find, is sometimes like climbing a wall of ice -- every once and a while your pick hits a loose spot, and you pull sharp, icy debris down on top of yourself. All you can do is shield your face, and watch as the pieces fall to the ground far below. The key is to hold your footing.
Erik understands that he can either sever his ties with his parents, or he can stay and simply live with their disapproval because regardless of what they believe, they still love him, although imperfectly. His sexual orientation has de-valued him in their eyes. He loves them, but he resents them in a way he rarely puts into words.
Six months after returning to America, Erik left again and backpacked alone throughout Asia, where he took thousands of pictures. A photography student at our school, Loyola College in Maryland, he takes beautiful pictures.
I am struck by the color and emotion in his pictures. A slight Chinese priestess reveals her face from a window, and smiles shyly back at me amidst a sea of vibrant beaded necklaces for sale. A string of colorful Tibetan prayer flags blow atop a jagged, ice-capped mountain. I peer past them at the rough descent to the smooth, green hills below.
On his journey, Erik witnessed social injustices and agonizing poverty. He discovered families struggling to survive, and governments bulldozing every semblance of political or social freedom. But in the midst of all the imperfections and tragedies, Erik found staggering beauty and a love that he expresses in his writing, his photography, and his life.
By the end of the semester - our last fall semester together -- yoga class has become a regular event for me and Erik.
The early morning air is biting, and our hands feel raw against the handlebars of our bicycles as we ride back from the class. We stop pedaling as our bikes gain momentum from a descending hill as we cut through the campus of Notre Dame.
Slightly ahead of me, Erik straightens his back and releases of the handles of his bike. We laugh at the recognition of the childlike exhilaration of letting a really good hill take control of you. We live with the knowledge there are elements of our lives that we will never be able to control. And though there are times when we struggle, we both know that sometimes we just need to let go.
Everyday we are growing. We are changing. We are becoming the people our lives are shaping us to be. And we are enjoying the ride. The wind rushes by and the cold magnificently shocks our faces and draws tears from our eyes as we are sucked into the hill's vacuum. Faster and faster. We are almost home.