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01 September 2014

As the Lady From Joisey Said . . .

The Rape of Ganymede by Rubens
    “We think we know everything. We don’t know shit.” The name of the play escapes me, as does the plot, but this line sticks with me, as does the image of the world-weary drag queen who delivers it.
    Growing up, I thought I was in the know. My brand of church taught that we had the inside track on salvation, knew exactly what God wanted. It was up to us to point out to others how wrong they were.
    My eyes opened when I came out gay in mid-life. I went from a desk job at a religious organization to biscuit maker at an interstate truck stop cafe on the early morning shift. One of my co-workers was a large imposing woman with a thick New Jersey accent. I loved her sense of humor and take on the world. I often told her so. “Aw, ain’t you sweet,” she’d say. “You want to know what I think? I think you’re full of shit.”
    I didn’t want to believe her. These twenty years later I begin to think she was spot on.
    Last month I wrote a short piece about the brevity of life, how everything changes and how quickly. How to manage in such a world, I wondered aloud, and concluded: “Live as fully alive and fully aware as possible. Choose love. And gratitude. Laugh often.”
    This on a Wednesday. 
    Thursday morning, my employer called me into his office to tell me he’s decided to change my job description. I’m to identify prospective customers and sell them on our services. “I know this has been a revolving-door position,” he said, noting the average tenure of marketing personnel at our company is three months—people get fired when sales quotas are not met. “I’ve decided this is what I want you to do.”
    Had my anxiety been rocket propellant, there’d be a big hole in his ceiling. I am no salesman. As a kid, I tried peddling magazine subscriptions, and in college, vitamins. I proved an abject failure on both counts. After college, armed with a communications degree and no job prospects, I went into telephone marketing. That career topped out at a week. My next position, also in sales, lasted four times as long: I sold popcorn and caramel apples out of a wagon at the Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County, Indiana. I haven’t looked back. Until now. My boss orders me to walk the plank. 
    What I wrote about living awake and aware, embracing what is? Ehhhnhh.
    When change stares me in the face, I notice I sing a different tune. I go all queasy—and with good reason.
    It has to do with the story I heard Saturday at graduation open house for a friend who just earned her Ph.D. in psychology. As we ate out on the deck, we heard the neighbors’ chickens. Erin told us they’re being picked off one by one. Coyote? Hawk? Conversation turned to a YouTube video she’s seen: a family sets their baby bunny free to live in the great outdoors. Hop, hop, hop. As Dad videotapes its first steps toward freedom, a hawk swoops down and carries off the little rabbit squealing.
    “Run, run, be free!” said Erin, gesturing wildly. “Then wham-o!” A bunch of us laughed.
    “That’s not funny,” said her mother-in-law, who finished chemotherapy two weeks ago.
    “I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time,” Erin said. “But isn’t that life? It’s what happens.”
    Indeed, life pulls no punches. A bald-headed woman. Bunny nuggets. Me a salesman. Everything changes in an instant and it’s not funny. It’s tragic—except that it’s also somehow comical.
    We traipse through life thinking we know the score.
    “We don’t know shit,” says the drag queen, kneeling at her friend’s grave. She carries her purse over one arm, in the other, a toilet seat lid.

01 August 2014

Brief matters.

1. “A walnut killed him,” a relative says at the family reunion this summer, speaking of my great uncle. “He had a lot of food allergies,” says a second cousin. Apparently, Uncle Louie was deathly allergic to walnuts and didn’t know it. I stare at a sepia photograph of a young married man with big ears and bigger plans.
Live like you mean it, Louie. Hear me? Love like you’re gonna die at 31. ’Cause guess what—

    2. Blend the peel of an orange, a patch of velvet cloth and a gold doubloon with a Georgia peach and you’ll approximate the color of day lily my husband Dave has growing out back. Gorgeous blooms. But don’t blink. As their name implies, each blossom lasts but an afternoon.

    3. The pain is intense, and it isn’t as if I haven’t been warned. Dave pointed to the hornets' nest being built above our barn’s double doors, said he planned to kill its inhabitants. I made a case for living and letting live. They'll interfere with our painting the barn this summer, he said, and will probably sting us when we go in and out. Not if we don’t bother them, I said. I’m reminded how physical pain rivets my attention, even as I mutter, “this, too, shall pass.”

    4. After our long cold winter, the attack of the mayflies didn't happen at my workplace this year. There are usually one or two days the entrance to the building is heaped with mayflies that have expired beneath its bright security light. These creatures spend most of their life as nymphs in the nearby Missinewa River. Come spring, they transform en masse, unfold new wings, fly, mate and die—all within a few hours.    

    5. Love me, love my cock. My hens, too. Our barnyard chickens are more pets than livestock. I was stricken last fall when a dog maimed my favorite hen. Three weeks ago she went broody, determined to hatch a clutch of eggs. My heart swelled to think of this scrappy survivor bringing life into the world. Yesterday she responded in soothing tones to the peep-peeps of her lone new arrival. Today her nest is empty. No sign of her chick anywhere; only a broken eggshell to prove she is a mother.

    6. My oldest son is seven years old when I come out to myself and others. I lose my court gambit for joint custody, then see my visitation hours cut and cut again until finally a judge issues an order barring me from seeing my children altogether.  

    7. Pride Day in Indianapolis offers a flash of rainbow warmth and dazzle. Then it's over. Back to life as usual. Yet for one brief Camelot moment, a shared sense of acceptance and freedom.

    8. Life itself might well be an orgasm, fast as it shoots by. I’m at the age now where years collapse into months, months into hours. My elders assure me the pace only quickens from here on out.

    9. In the wake of a recent federal judge’s ruling same-sex couples here in Indiana are allowed to marry. No having to travel out of state or out of country (as Dave and I did when we wed in Canada in 2005). For three days I revel in the notion my state finally has to accord Dave and me this measure of dignity, humanity and equality. Then the 7th Circuit Court stays the order. Now, a colleague bustles over to tell me what she heard on the radio: same-sex couples who wed here are to return their marriage licenses and collect a refund of fees paid.

    10. All things change. All things change. My crib notes for living in such a world: (a) Live as fully alive and fully aware as possible. (b) Choose love. And gratitude. (c) Laugh often. (d) Avoid nuts.

01 July 2014

I Found Captain America Where I'd Least Expect Him

   

My husband Dave and I arrive late for a poetry reading—open mic, read your own work or somebody else’s—and watch the Midwestern version of Captain America approach the podium: trim well-formed body clad in blue jeans and a cardinal-red dress shirt, top button opened to reveal a white undershirt. Black cowboy boots match a thick black leather belt with shining silver buckle. Bright blue eyes, unapologetic nose, strong stubbled chin. Dark brown hair close-cropped up the sides, growing out of a crew cut on top his head. Captivating smile, a mixture of confidence and self-consciousness with a dash of eager-to-please stirred in. His introduction is promising: “I really like this poem and I love the man it’s about.”
    Woof.
    He launches into the reading and my ardor cools. Flip-flops into foreboding, actually. Captain America narrates with pietistic fervor a piece of religious propaganda about the life of Christ. What starts as a sexy male daring to read a poem about the man he loves turns into a quasi-militaristic call to sacrifice lives for God and country.
    I find myself thinking, Don’t trust this man. He will hurt you. This man hates you and your kind. He doesn’t believe you’re human. He thinks you deserve everything you get. A man like him fatally stabbed your friend Carl. Remember Andy and his partner? Clubbed to death by a man like this. And Dick’s suicide? Brought on by people with this sort of religious fervor. Their thoughts, words, theology and way of life willed his death. No, this man is not safe. Keep your distance.
    I plan to. Eying Captain America, I now see him as a red, white and blue coral snake. Beautiful, but deadly. He symbolizes the irrational knee-jerk prejudice and homophobia I fear most. I’ll be careful not to out myself with him around. I wouldn’t want to meet him alone on the sidewalk afterwards or have him drive slowly by our house fingering his shotgun.
    He reaches the final line at last, slithers back to his seat. I do not join the general applause.
    Later that day, at another venue, Captain America takes to the podium again. He reads his own work this time, a revealing look at his childhood. Abusive home, alcoholic father, raised in squalor, often scrounging for food and affection. His words are heartfelt and moving. Life has not been easy for him. It’s a wonder he’s standing before us, looking as sane and sensational as he does. I clap as loudly as anyone.
    Why must life be so complicated? I want to go back to hating him in peace. Instead, I must do the hard work of reconciling this conflicting information, the paradox that most human beings are, the mix of good and evil, of positive and not so nice. But really, the work to be done is in myself. Deep inside.
    It’s not Captain America whom I fear and mistrust, so much as it is that part of me that still is quick to judge others, that believes I’m right, that divides the world into us and them. I’m right to mistrust this energy, but it’s this energy in me I need to be aware of and wary of first of all. Psychologists call this a negative projection, not recognizing an annoying quality in myself and attacking another person for it. A positive projection can be something I admire in another person (Captain America’s beauty) but unconsciously devalue in my own life (my own degree of handsomeness). Whenever I refuse to accept something as a part of myself I project that something onto others.
    It takes energy to shoot out these projection missiles, but it takes work to withdraw them, too. It takes me waking up to the idea that I can’t blame others for my own failings, nor look to them as superheroes who may save me from myself.
    The adage rings true, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Time to don my mask, take up my shield, get ready to roll.

01 June 2014

Party Ever After

It wouldn’t be practical, let alone possible, but I’d love to take ’em all home with me, the LGBTQ+ folks who show up to Pride Day in our capitol city each year. Where do they all come from? Do we bus them in from neighboring states? Run special charter trains from the coasts? Are they posers, straight people pretending to be gay for a day, and has my gaydar grown so rusty I can’t tell the difference? Whatever the truth, their sheer numbers amaze me. I didn’t think our sleepy Midwestern state could cough up so many people ready to party.

Is that why they’re there, to party? Some look eager enough to celebrate—some as if they were a bit over-eager—but every year I pass many folks who look zoned out. Bored, even. Were they hoping for something more, something different? What did they expect?

My reasons for attending Pride are varied. One, I go to ogle. We live in the boondocks, Dave and me, and hordes of sexy men don’t exactly beat a path to our door. I go looking for them at Pride. I pray for sunshine so shirts will come off. I feast my eyes and my imagination. Last year my attention riveted on a shirtless man in skimpy red shorts. With his long curly hair and olive complexion, he looked the spittin’ image of my first-ever lover. Suddenly I was 30 years and a thousand miles away, reliving a magical summer spent as a camp counselor in England.

Am I the only one who does this? The images of attractive men I collect on Pride Day will nurture and sustain me throughout the year.

Too, they’ll remind me I am not alone. This is how crazy I am: I live with a man, sleep beside him every night, yet sometimes believe I’m the only gay man in a hundred miles, two hundred. Recalling Pride Day’s extravaganza reassures me, reminds me, wakes me up to reality.

This is not altogether pleasant. Living where and as we do, Dave and I do not often feel safe expressing mutual affection in public. I treasure our time at Pride Day, revel in being able to hold hands, kiss whenever we want to. For these several hours I let down my guard, walk about in public without looking over my shoulder, wondering if we’re safe.

This year it’s our turn to host the family reunion for my great-grandparents’ clan. A couple months back, I mailed out letters to folks I don’t even know, encouraging them to attend. The reasons I offered are valid for Pride Day, too. After all, what is Pride, but a big ol’ Family reunion? Here’s what I said:



  Come for the people. Come connect with folks you don't see often enough. Or ever.
  Come for the stories. Come tell a few of your own. Funny ones. Sad ones. Stories about how we get through. How we are.
  Come for the food. Not such a bad idea.
  Come connect with real people, in person.
  Come because you're getting older or wiser or both, and you've begun to realize that family means more than you knew; that in connecting with your relations, you connect with yourself in ways you can't quite understand but feel somewhere deep down inside.



Of course, Pride Day isn’t all happy, happy. My eyes get glued to the beautiful people and my internal critic takes over: “Gee, aren’t we old. And fat, and out of shape. And about as pretty as a mud hut.” A crowd of people can be the loneliest place in the world. Every year I see a man off by himself sobbing as if his heart is broken. Probably it is. We've all known the feeling of heartbreak.

Here's what I’d like to do: gather him up, hold him close, remind him that being self-aware, being out to himself and others is reason enough to celebrate.

 I’d like to invite him—and you, and all the rest—over to our place the day after. ’Be right proud to have you.

08 May 2014

Why I Will Not Rejoin the Evangelical Church Today




This is a guest post at a favorite blogger's site. Since early this year I've been religiously (ahem) following posts by blogger Esther Emery I stumbled across her writing when she was in a no-godtalk phase. She's since opted to go back to overt mention of Jesus; she self-identifies as an evangelical Christian and writes for an audience of her peers. Yet she also has much to say to me.
Side note; I sometimes wonder if she and gay standup comic/musician Kevin J. Thornton were twins separated at birth. Both write with verve and near-scandalous honesty/transparency. Both are voluble about their relationship with religion; both have gone off into the woods in search of a deeper experience of life (Kevin came back in short order; Esther and her husband built a yurt and stayed); both are creative and pursue life with passion; both have written books aimed at encouraging others to live their true selves. Both sense there is something more to life than meets the eye.

I often find myself reacting to Esther's posts—she stirs me up inside, makes me think and feel. I love this about her writing, I who spent much of my life wanting to be accepted, wanting to prove myself acceptable, feeling the need to cover up, cover over, say the right thing, offend no one, please everyone in reach. I couldn't let folks see who I really was on the inside—one, I didn't know myself, and two, I suspected if anyone ever did see the real me they'd send me to hell. (I was right about this. And got to taste it first-hand when I came out in mid-life. My gosh, the furor raised and fervor with which I was roundly condemned. If William Congreve is correct, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then evangelical church surely places a close second.)

Esther's candor speaks to me. Too, her ready acceptance and advocacy for LGBTQ+ persons. When she asked me to compose a guest post for her blog, I was happy to do so. Happy and sad at the same time, because of the issues raised. She'd recently posted about her decision not to leave the evangelical church, even though she finds its actions incompatible with her own beliefs. I'm in a much different place, and for many reasons, not the least of which is the lasting harm done to LGBT+ people by the evangelical church, all in the name of Jesus.

The harm done LGBTQ+ persons in the name of evangelicalism is all too real, and lasting. In this guest post on Esther's blog, I offer a glimpse of the real-life consequences. I begin like this:


At his funeral one minister after another called him “the consummate Presbyterian.” I can believe it. He was fussily exacting in all he did, and he went at it with a will, impassioned, dedicated, committed. Consummate. He had been a leader in his church, at the local level and beyond.

At his funeral, one minister after another called him innovator, helper, instructor, teacher. He had made a difference locally and across the state because of his skill and efforts at networking, pooling resources, thinking creatively to serve more with less.
At his funeral he was described as a thinker, philosopher, colleague nearing retirement, mentor, exemplar and friend. His sense of humor was noted, as well as his encyclopaedic knowledge of classic American cinematography. 

But at his funeral no one described him as gay. No one described him as conflicted, soul-torn between who he felt himself to be on the inside and what his religious-based employer, his church family, his small-town evangelical Christian community told him about men who are attracted to other men.


Read the rest of it HERE.


photo credit: Jonathan Cohen at flickr.com

01 May 2014

I Did. I Almost Did. I Do.

    Did I grow up hearing the word “gay” mostly on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons as in,

    When you're with the Flintstones
    Have a yabba-dabba-doo time
    A dabba_doo time
    You'll have a gay old time

and notice a gay old time week in and week out involved a grown man getting locked out of his own house and hammering at the door to be let back in?

    I did.

    Did I make my way through the world compliant and quiet, the middle child, a people-pleaser who valued appearances because they helped keep the peace and make folks happy?

    I did.

    Did I embrace the Bible thumping tenets of my family with a fervor all my own, label my same-sex attraction sinful temptation fanned by the flames of hell, plead with God to remove from me the stubborn desire to lust after other boys, promise to read my Bible two hours every day, never backtalk my mother and become a missionary when I grew up, if only I could be cured?

    I did.

    Did I hear whispered that homosexuals are monsters, child molesters with horns and red eyes who lisp and can’t hit a baseball, and know for a fact I wasn’t one of those even though the part about the baseball fit?

    I did.

    Did I lean on my reputation as the shy studious type to avoid dating women in high school and college as much as possible?

    I did.

    Did I learn to live in my body as in a house divided, keep at arm’s length the despicable part of me that lusted after men, assure myself this wasn’t the real me, and succeed so well that as a college senior I could find excuses to bathe whenever our floor’s resident Greek god padded his way down the hall to the group showers wrapped only in a towel, and envy the towel, yet banish from consciousness the idea I might be gay?

    I did.

    Did I marry a hard-headed woman in the sincere belief I was doing what was right, honorable and holy, and in the hope she would save me from myself only to learn she did not have the power to change me?

    I did.

    Did I become father to three sons, change diapers, read stories, play Robin Hood, sing songs, make funny voices and discover that parenthood, while demanding, did not lessen my attraction to men nor its accompanying self-hatred?

    I did.

    Did I finally devise a way to kill myself and test it on several small animals to make sure it worked?

    I did.

    Did I successfully use it on myself?

    No. I almost did. Although I peered into the void, I did not follow through with my planned suicide. After I composed my final farewell, I made a small choice for life, postponed my death for an hour, then a day, a week. (At such times grace may be measured in minutes.)

    Even as I believed hope was gone and all was finished, a whole new world was waiting to be born—a world I had never dared imagine, never heard described in positive terms, never believed would receive, bless and nurture the likes of me. A world in which I am acceptable as I am, loved without having to change, remake or undo myself. Nowadays I often see it reflected in my gay friends and chosen family, in our shared laughter, warm embraces, genuine regard.

    Here’s the thing: this world had been there all along. It had been and was and is within me. Within each one of us.

    The path is uncharted, the way perilous, the door hidden, the night dark. Yet life endures. Life cloaks itself even in catastrophe, calls to us ever and anon, in tones loud and soft.

    May we with courage listen, respond, reach deep, take hold the key, unlock and prise open the door, step into all that awaits us there.

    Did I commit myself to such action, to shaking myself awake and having a go at it over and again?

    I did. I do.




+ + +

Illustration credit: Spooky Dad, at flickr

01 April 2014

Between the Sheets


    “Can we add a second person to this room?"
    Yes, you can. But you’ll want a different room, one with two beds.”
    “No, the one we reserved is fine. We’ll only use one bed, anyway. Both nights.”
    “Not a problem,” she said. “But the price is the same either way.”
    “One bed is fine,” I said.
    Both Dave and I took out our credit cards. As the clerk looked on, we haggled over whose to use. I pushed mine her way.
    She processed the card. “He’s bigger than either of us,” she told Dave.
    We all laughed.
    Even though she drew us a map, we got lost in the warren of multi-room units. In the dark we had turned right too soon. The room was chilly when at last we found it. I cranked up the heat, unpacked the knapsack, hung our coats and dress shirts. Dave had signed up for a two-day workshop; at the last minute I’d opted to come along for the ride. We readied for bed.
    While brushing my teeth I heard his low insistent tone, “Bryn, come here. Bryn, come here.”
    I spun about.
    “What do you think this is?” He pointed to an insect crawling across newly turned down sheets. It looked like a large reddish-brown tick, only bigger, and with horizontal segments comprising its abdomen.
    “Is it a bed bug?”
    “Could be. I don’t know they look like,” I said.
    “I don’t think you can see them; all you find is bite marks in the morning.”
    “Let’s squish it and take it down to the front desk. Maybe she has access to the internet and can look up what a bed bug looks like.”
    Dave tore the clear wrap from a plastic cup. I scooped the creature into it, then replaced the covering to keep it from flying out.
    We dressed, donned jackets.
    “We’re back.” I said this as if it were good news.
    “I see that.” She said this as if she weren’t so sure.    “Do you know what a bed bug looks like? We found this critter crawling under the sheets.” I set the glass on the counter.
    “They look like a tick, that’s all I know,” she said.
    “Then this might be one.”
    She approached, hands up, palms forward, as if we were pointing a gun her way. She took a quick look. “Now, I can handle pretty near anything,” she said, “but when it comes to bugs I go all ‘girlie.’”
    She offered us another room. “This one has two beds. That’s all we have left.”
    When we moved, Dave and I straightway checked the sheets—again and again. Lifted mattress, bed covers, mattress pad. No sign of bugs. No bite marks come morning.
    A few days later I did an internet image search and learned our beastie was indeed a bed bug. I also learned (from the Utah Department of Health website) about these common misunderstandings regarding bed bugs:
•  You can’t see them. (You can.)
•  You can feel it when they bite. (You can’t.)
•  No bite marks means no bed bugs. (Not necessarily.)
•  They only infest filthy hovels. (Flesh and blood attract them, not dirt.)
•  They only affect other people. (Wishful thinking.)
•  They’re not all that big a problem, really. (Oh, really?)
    These misunderstandings echo ways we often dismiss pestilences we’d rather not notice/admit/own: A planet in crisis. Blood for oil. Power to the One Percent. Institutionalized injustice. Prejudice. Arrogance. Self-absorption. Shame-based living.
    We sleepwalk, learn not to see. O who will awaken us to the bite marks on our own flesh? We have made this one world bed for ourselves and now we must li(v)e in it. What do we want between these sheets?