There. Now You Have a Country.

In case anyone has avoided the bevy of mentions on this site and elsewhere, CFI Ottawa’s end-of-the-world-themed conference, Eschaton 2012, was a few weekends ago, and it was AWESOME.  Recordings of the conference’s talks and panels should be up on AtheismTV in a short while, but for now I want to draw attention to the words of Eric MacDonald of Choice in DyingThe text of his presentation is available here and here.
Take a moment to read that.
Take a moment to read that in Eric MacDonald’s sonorous, quavering voice.

Take a moment to hear Eric MacDonald tell us about a childhood spent enduring abuse from both parents before being dumped in a school for British missionaries’ children in India.  A childhood spent among cultural riches that would never, could never be his, severed from the culture he might have claimed, with only the frigid mountain Kedarnath, the chilly Anglican Church, and the icy glares of incipient violence for warmth.
Hear Eric MacDonald thrum out the strands of the desolation he brought with him from India to Canada, where he married, where he became an Anglican priest, where he divorced, where he met Elizabeth, where he lost his faith.
That desolation: of someone whose entire emotional experience has been betrayal, sadness, separation, loss, rejection.  Of someone who belongs nowhere and has no one.
Nowhere and no one, not even in the places and people where everyone he ever spoke to told him he would find comfort: in his church, in his “calling,” in his wife.  Nowhere and no one, and even that is falling apart around him.
Hear him introduce Elizabeth, and the “filmy web of warm / and undemanding friendship that grew into a world.”
Elizabeth: the woman 27 years his junior who simply knew.
The woman who found this apocalyptic wreck of a man and helped him fill the holes.  They lived out a strange sort of fantasy, too perfect to be real.  Yet there it was: effervescence of spirit that finally gave Eric MacDonald someone, and somewhere.
In 1988, she presented him with a red maple leaf and told him, “There, now you have a country.”
There.  Now you have a country.
Picture that.  Picture Eric MacDonald, the man with no one, the man from nowhere, receiving that maple leaf and knowing that now, he had both.
He tells us it nearly undid him.  It undid most of the room.  I was not the only one who had spent his entire presentation fighting back tears, and I was not the only one who lost that fight then and there.
Loneliness fulfilled.  It’s an old story, and one that cannot help but resonate with introverts like me, introverts that spent most of their lives resigned to the idea that they’d never get that kind of understanding, and then found it.
Picture that.
I lay no claim to the agonies that Eric MacDonald endured.  My sentimentality is what it is, and my tears were as much a surfeit of empathy as they were a personal mirror.
But what a mirror.
They reflected that dark adolescent place where the idea of a woman simply appearing in my life, filling the gap left by years of being the only atheist I knew before I even knew the word, calming the resentment I had built around a social paradigm that seemed to privilege all the talents and proclivities I didn’t have, closing the wounds left by wanting that affection so badly and never seeming to earn it, had the tightest grip.  It was a teenage injury too easily peeled open, a narrative resonance that left me as open to the “nice guy” phenomenon as it did to romance films before I learned my way around it.
A resonance that made me cry, probably more vigorously than most people at Eric MacDonald’s talk.
Perhaps it would have been easier in a world where men crying wasn’t the same kind of nest of contradictory taboos as women’s clothing.  Sexually charged—but not too much, or she’s a slut, but not too little, or she’s a prude.  Emotional—but not too much, or he’s an emotional punching bag for women who will never want him for anything else, but not too little, or he’s a stoic man-monster who probably collects cat spleens when he’s not (!!) making women uncomfortable.   But that’s not the world we have, is it?  We don’t have a world where sentimental nerdy male teenagers get to even want to explore any of that without regretting it.  Not yet.
There.  Now you have a country.
Is there any other reaction someone who’s been an outlier everywhere he has ever been could have?
Perhaps it’s because I found the more realistic analogue to Eric MacDonald’s lived fantasy that I’m not still weeping at that thought.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a hair’s breadth from claiming that same maple leaf as mine, after the appeal of the stars and stripes and Florida’s red saltire grew pale, after learning that I would have to pay several hefty premiums for the privilege of the love of my life not wasting away into an agonizing death a few months after bringing her south of the world’s longest border.
I haven’t even gotten to the part of the story where Elizabeth develops multiple sclerosis, steadily loses mobility, attempts suicide, and finally gets to peacefully end her pain at a clinic in Switzerland because North America is not humane enough to let suffering people choose to end their suffering under medical supervision.
Eric MacDonald grew out of abuse and statelessness to find love and beauty, and thanks to Christianity, had to flee the only country that was ever his to ease that love’s pain.  And now he’s back, tearing down the first community he knew, the community in which he met Elizabeth, because its last act was to condemn her to her disease.
Out of that suppurating well of betrayal and loss came a story of such tragic beauty that there were no dry eyes in the room.
There.  Now you have a country.
There. Now You Have a Country.