I first met Wilder at church on Easter Day 2005. He was wearing an all-white suit and dancing to the Hallelujah Chorus. We are Episcopalians. We do not dance, and we do not wear white before Memorial Day. But that was the least of Wilder’s unconventional zeal. Later over brunch he donned his Easter bonnet and made the rounds, talking to and revving up each person in the room. He was like that yellow roman candle in On the Road, mad to live, made to talk, desiring everything at the same time. Our conversation was brief and furious, and I was a breathless by the end. I’d never met anyone so over the top.
Don Wilder Plett died on April 30, 2014 in Spokane, Washington. Yesterday I took a few moments to remember all that he did. I wrote a few words and sent them to his family, gathering today for a memorial service. Nine years later, I am still breathless at the way he impacted me and others.
- Wilder gave my friend, Ryan, a place to stay when he had nowhere to live. He put up a Chinese screen in front of the couch in that tiny one bedroom apartment so that Ryan had some sense of privacy.
- Wilder cut my hair for years, sometimes on credit when I had no cash. For a half hour each month, I was the center of the universe. And I was treated to some tall tales that graciously reminded me I was the one orbiting him.
- Wilder loaned out his car, his apartment, his time, his things, and I’m sure his money, to countless young people learning to make it in DC. He was generous to a fault.
- Wilder always had a project, an idea, a brainstorm, or someone new that he wanted you to meet. For all his fabulous stories of the past, he was incessantly peering around the corner and yelling at everyone to come along.
I met Wilder in my mid-20’s, during a delayed adolescence after coming out and moving to the city. I was trying to find my way, and myself, failing spectacularly at both. Wilder was not someone who helped me grow up. He helped me stay young, while I was stumbling toward adulthood.
My favorite Wilder memory must be from 2006 when he marched with my church in the Gay Pride parade. He carried a flag and handed out his business cards, calling out to the crowd: “God loves you, and he wants me to do your hair!” I thank God for the flamboyant, inappropriate, delightful, and generous of spirit person he was.
In this world there are people you remember. And then there are people you can’t forget. Rest in peace, Wilder.
I had dinner last night with strangers, mostly, and the conversation included some interesting stories. A flight attendant for a private charter plane was propositioned by Zac Efron. An optometrist is training for a swim in shark infested waters off Alcatraz, part of his upcoming triathalon. A former underwear model can play the piano by ear and eats at this restaurant several times every week. A friend just visited his newly nudist parents at their Winter home in a naturist community.
I’m not sure who won the competition for the most interesting story. But the meal and the conversation were pure fun. Almost all were strangers to me, but they have been friends for some time. I was fascinated that they shared some fairly intimate, intriguing parts of their lives with someone they didn’t know well.
After the meal I had no plans. So I drove toward the beach. As I crossed the intracoastal, I rolled down my windows to let in the breeze and the sound of the crashing waves. I could smell the salt. I could see the moon reflected on the shore. I could feel my past washing over me, and then away. In its place was the present moment, with new memories of funny stories and good people. Past and present mingling together.
I drove past other memorable places:
- I watched the boat show from that balcony.
- I met my mother for lunch at that restaurant during her visit.
- I made a passing friend at that bar.
- I used to work in that building.
With each memory, I wondered, who am I now? Am I the guy who used to live here, or the guy who likes to vacation here? I’ve been gone from Florida longer than I lived here. But I visit three or four times a year. So I have this “second life” now. With each visit, the former life fades a bit more, and new memories take its place. Yet the pull of the past is like the moon at low tide, constant, inexorable, almost rhythmic.
My 8th grade teacher taught us that ocean water rolls around but stays in place. The appearance of movement is an illusion. As I pass the time on my beach vacation in a city I once called home, the past crests and falls like a wave. What exactly is new and what is old, what moves and what stays in place, is a mystery. Both are within and both are true. How they combine to form and shape me is a process I will need to attend to if I’m to experience it fully. Otherwise, it will just wash over me like a nameless, meaningless happenstance.
I’m on vacation in Fort Lauderdale. As it turns out, a friend from DC was also here for a long weekend. Since we arrived at the airport together, we decided to grab dinner and to see the sites. If it is accurate to say this city has sites.
I lived in Fort Lauderdale from 2008 to 2010. I actually hated living here. I had my heart broken and life upended here. But, for some reason, I love coming back for vacation. I get excited every time I feel the humid breeze and smell the salt air. There is something tactile and visceral about returning to this place.
Pablo and I landed around 9pm, so it was quick and easy pizza for diner. We then headed to Wilton Drive, the center of gay life in the city. We had a few glasses of wine at the Naked Grape, where I used to work. And then I gave him a quick driving tour of the strip before heading home.
I did not see anything new. But I did see this city through different eyes. I experienced that mix of nostalgia, loss, and yearning that comes from remembering a past both painful and pleasant. I waxed on about places as if they were photographs in a scrapbook, touching them and remembering the whole range of emotions and experiences they signify. I am who I am today because of all that hurt and happiness.
Who doesn’t love the sun and sand? But for me they burn inwardly in a sanctuary where my memory keeps vigil for a life broken and made new. God, I love and hate this place. And then I love it again.
I knew something was wrong when I started to shiver. It was 70 degrees outside, and I was walking in the sun, in jeans and a long sleeve shirt. But all I could think about was how cold I was and that I couldn’t wait to crawl into bed.
I got the flu, for the first time in my life. I’ve had lots of colds, coughs, and sinus problems, but never the flu.
What can I learn from this as part of my 30 day challenge? Accept your limits. Listen to your body. You can’t control everything. Yes, these are true. They are. But this bout of sickness has me thinking back to something else.
A year ago I was roughed up on my way home from my own birthday party. I spent a night in the hospital. In a matter of seconds, my life was no longer mine. I was disoriented. I bled and couldn’t stop. I was shivering uncontrollably. Thanks to some good care I turned out fine, and thanks to an excellent surgeon (big cuts on my eye and lip) you’d hardly know it even happened. But I was struck, literally, by how quickly and arbitrarily my life changed from celebration to trouble, and from being in control of my body to being very out of control.
Why do we fuse together certain feelings and memories? What causes my brain to put the flu on the shelf and push it toward the back next to the mugging? They’re hardly alike. Except my body I guess. My body feeling pain. And that pain halting my life. That pain reminding me that I really am vulnerable in this world. While I know that intellectually, most days I’d rather not acknowledge it.
This post has turned rather serious. And there is no tidy resolution or tidbit of wisdom learned. But I’m open to what this stirring up of emotions and memories has to teach me. Maybe that’s the only victory, learning not to run away from the hard stuff and sit with it long enough to let fear give way to authenticity.