01 December 2015
Ours is not an expensive set hand-carved in Italy. With the exception of a black cat made of resin and stamped Singapore, the characters who gather at our manger boast a French connection—they were formed when wet plaster of Paris was poured into little molds and left to harden. Still, some unknown artist(s) took time decorating the figures. Jesus' eyelashes rival any drag queen’s. The sheep exudes personality. A touch of rouge on Mary’s cheeks sets her face aglow.
After my dad died my husband Dave and I helped my mom clean out his workshop in the garage. This manger scene was tucked away on a back shelf. I asked if we could have it. I don't know its history or how my father came to have it. It's not the nativity set I remember from childhood. Maybe he bought it at a garage sale.
It dates to the 1930s or 40s. It’s been cared for, even if its plaster players have suffered setbacks over the years. A previous owner made them a plain wooden stable with three openings: a huge bay that leads onto the front patio, a little window, forward-facing, low and off to one side, and a round hole high up in the back that admits a single small lightbulb.
The homemade manger looks like a watering trough to me. It’s long enough the shepherd could lay down and take a bath in it. We've filled it with grey downy feathers from our chickens to make a soft bed for the Baby Jesus. I bet he once looked cute with both arms intact, outstretched. But he wouldn’t have been able to lay in this skinny manger. With only one arm, he fits in just fine.
This year most everybody huddles inside the stable. Only Jesus, the sheep and shepherd are out on the patio. The donkey sticks his nose out the wide entrance. His ears lie flat against his head. This was a design choice meant to keep them from breaking off, I'm sure, but he looks as if someone's slipped crank case oil into his oats. Or maybe he’s feeling pain in his right hind leg where a chunk of flesh is missing.
O, we are broken people every one, none of us a stranger to injury, indignity and loss. Sometimes we stand on the outside, left in the cold. Sometimes we grouse and grumble from within. Sometimes we’re as befuddled as the shepherd, with a look on our faces every bit as blank and dull as his.
Being human is no cake walk. “Life breaks everyone,” Hemingway wrote. “Afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”
When I worked as editor of my alma mater's alumni magazine I insisted we do more than fill each issue with puff pieces about how wonderful everything was on campus. Who's gonna believe that and for how long? I wanted to remind readers we were human, real, honest.
I relate best to folks who have suffered loss, who aren’t always at their best, who know the taste of defeat. Who keep showing up, year after year, scars and all. The people who scare me are the ones who know everything, have no doubts and no problems. They’re either delusional or divine. Either way I want to watch my step around them.
Each December a black cat with no nose peers out the side window of our stable. I’d like to know where he fits into the story, how he came to join this crew. Yet I’m glad we’ve made room for the unexpected, the unexplained. So much of life is mystery. Let’s celebrate it for what it is.
01 November 2015
During the downpour the parents of a newborn baby find an aged man lying face down in their backyard. His bedraggled wings are stuck in the mud. They’re amazed at first, but then. . . . well, the man is ancient, bald, nearly toothless. He speaks what they guess is Norwegian. They take him for a shipwrecked sailor—until the wise woman of the village points out the obvious: he has wings; he must be an angel.
"Club him to death," she says.
They lock him in the chicken coop instead and call for the priest. He finds the winged man suspect. The old geezer smells terribly human and doesn’t understand Latin, the language of God. A crowd gathers. Curiosity-seekers gawk and jeer. Pilgrims pray and petition. The homeowners fence off their yard and charge a nickel admission. The line stretches as far as they can see.
The angel ignores them all. Eventually, the visitors and villagers lose interest, distracted by some new wonder. The courtyard falls silent. The angel’s hosts don’t mind. They’ve made enough money to better their situation.
His eyes rheumy with age, the angel wanders house and yard, bumps into posts, seems not long for this world.
Then one day the wife sees him attempt flight. He careens about the yard, crashes into the shed, ploughs into the vegetable garden. At last he lifts off. She breathes a sigh of relief, both for herself and for him, watches until he becomes a small dot on the horizon.
End of story. And the beginning of its impact on me.
+ + +
We human beings have such a messed up relationship with the divine. Sure, drop an angel in our laps and we’ll take notice—then take advantage or try to turn a profit. Soon enough our attention wanders. Magic unfolds beneath our noses and we count it beneath our notice. We’re messed up, indeed.
Or maybe not. Maybe we’re simply human. T.S. Elliot writes: “‘Go, Go,’ said the bird. ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’”
The birds I live with keep driving this message home. Every day my pet chickens present me with fresh eggs—the stuff of miracle and mystery. Yet I take them for granted.
You’ve seen the inside of an egg. Nothing magic there. A yellow ball of pus sailing a translucent sea of snot. Mmm. I’ll have mine over easy, please.
But put a fertile egg in our home incubator—as we did this spring—and 21 days later a baby chick emerges. Mouths open, my husband Dave and I watched life literally unfold, take a deep breath, start kicking about and knocking into things.
This little winged miracle has since lost its luster, become just another chicken in our home flock. Another mouth to feed and water, another bird to lock in at night. Another reason to clean out the coop.
Chicken shit happens. And human kind cannot bear too much reality.
+ + +
I might as well have been a Norwegian castaway dropped with a thump into the middle of my very straight, very conservative church-going family. It wasn’t wings but horns they thought I’d grown when I came out as a gay man. What to do with me? Club me to death? Call in the priest? Lock me away? They tried everything they knew.
Not until my wings grew strong enough, not until I could unfurl them, careen about the place, finally take flight . . . not until I became a dot on their horizon did my true nature show itself.
+ + +
Maybe that’s how it is for each of us—we are born with tattered feathers, thrash about, run headlong into walls. Only when we recognize the reality of the divine within, the miracle of our being, only then are we able to cut loose and fly.
Image: Louis Tiffany's window, "Angel of the Resurrection" (1904), Indianapolis Museum of Art, compliments of Wikipedia
01 October 2015
“Do you want me to make you anything special for your birthday?” Dave asks.
“Yes,” I say, “cake.”
His mouth falls open.
“With ice cream. And hot fudge.”
“Are you serious?” he asks. My husband’s expression, his entire body language shouts, I’ve been waiting all year for this!
We decided to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners this year as much as possible. The no’s started on New Year’s Day. No cake, no cookies, no candy, no chocolate chips. Worse, no ice cream.
Amazing the prepared foods laced with sugar: bread, snack crackers, red beans, creamed corn, dried fruit, light mayo, marshmallows. Many others.
We’ve changed our eating habits. No coffee creamer. No dry cereal with any taste. We now dress salads with oil and vinegar. For dessert, bananas—or apples, almonds, plain yogurt, muffins made with fruit juice concentrate instead of sugar, and so on.
I’ve been resolute. (Dave calls it stubborn.) I’m like that. Once my mind clamps down on an idea I’ll face hell and high water before I let go.
Of late I’ve met Count Chocula’s gaze without flinching. Told the Nestlé bunny to get lost. And shed 30 pounds since January. This strengthens my resolve.
So my birthday request surprises Dave. “What kind of cake do you want?” he asks.
“Something light,” I say, grabbing a vintage cookbook. “Here: Dorothy’s Fabulous Oatmeal Cake. But just a half-recipe, please—one layer.”
A few days later Dave unveils his masterpiece: a nine-inch round cut in half, stacked two layers high, slathered with coconut-pecan penuche. I forget to breathe.
I want that cake. I WANT it. It surprises and shames me how much I want it. Want all of it. Am prepared to face down anyone who’d dare stop me, even Dave.
I’ve forgotten sugar has this effect on me.
My intense craving reminds me of a gruesome passage I read, maybe in one of Anne Rice’s vampire novels.
Two sexy young men fall for each other. Their love is doomed. Not only does medieval society forbid such relationships, a vampire wants one of them as his new boy toy.
The vampire stakes his claim during a bloody necking session. The youth resists the older man’s advances, then refuses to embrace his own fateful transformation.
The young lovers are imprisoned separately in a castle dungeon. Jailers ply the one with food; they starve the other.
Crazed with hunger and a thirst he’s never known, the boy toy collapses against his cell door. It opens. He wanders a dark corridor, senses a warm-blooded animal presence ahead. His lips pull back from his teeth. He snarls.
He nearly flies down the hallway, attacks, eats, drinks. Only afterward does he realize he’s killed his lover. No matter. The transformation is complete. He is vampire.
Eying my birthday cake, I can relate.
Desire is the thing with teeth. I know this. Although I’m a novice when it comes to erotica, I can devote hours looking at pictures of sexy men. That photos still fascinate me my friend Jim finds quaint. Like most gay men I know, he prefers online videos.
“A magazine with nude pictures used to excite me,” he says. “Now it’s passé. I’ve been desensitized. It takes more and more extreme images to get me off. Some nights I spend two hours surfing for the one video that will do it.”
He pauses. “And you know what? It’s dampened my desire for one-on-one human contact. The men I meet in real life never measure up to what I can see online.”
Another friend tells me he stopped watching internet porn after hearing a TED talk about how pornography zaps the power of the imagination. He abstained for three months.
I’d probably last three days. My steadfast refusal to get wired is in part, self-preservation. If we had internet access at home I fear I’d turn vampire. I forget that eye candy, like ice cream, is best enjoyed in moderation. Desire bites the hand that feeds it. Sometimes the neck.
Image credit: detail, Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Grünewald
01 September 2015
The spotlight hits the shiny silver tinsel curtain. Out steps the master of ceremonies. He leers at us with thick mascaraed eyes, gender-bending costume of tight black pants, black army boots, tightly laced corset, white tank top undershirt. I know this character. He lives inside me and has for a long time.
“Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome…" he sings, “Fremde, enchantre, stranger.” It's our local civic theatre’s production of the stage musical Cabaret. The setting is the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. The Nazi Party is coming to power and the main characters are oblivious. Life is a cabaret, after all.
For the audience, too. In an oily voice the emcee tells us, “Leave all your troubles outside. Here, life is beautiful." And so it seems. Singing, dancing, laughs and love stories muffle the drumbeat of approaching horror.
It comes as a shock to us watching, the first appearance of the swastika, that black-on-white-on-red symbol. We cringe when we hear the Nazi Party’s anthem sung with gusto, watch others go on with their lives as if they haven’t a care in the world. We know what they are not able or willing to see. It’s playing out before our eyes. And theirs.
As the evening progresses, the emcee’s role grows more and more sinister. Grinning his death mask grin he openly mocks Jews, throws a brick through the window of a Jewish shopkeeper. For most of the play the main characters act like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. As the close, Cliff, a writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, decides to write a novel about his experience: There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies in a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world. I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.
“Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret.” Sally doesn’t fool us with her celebrated song. It’s obvious to us her life is anything but a cabaret. It’s unraveling. Hitler’s reach extends to the doors of the Kit Kat Klub. Death, destruction and doom are in the offing. We know this. What to do with our knowledge, that’s the question.
One dance number includes a Rockettes-like kickline. We have our hands apart, ready to clap and cheer—but the performers finish with a Heil Hitler salute and goose-step off stage. Into the awkward silence a man behind me asks, “How are you supposed to applaud that?”
We audience members are not innocent bysitters; we’re implicated by what we know. We know life is no cabaret—not for them on stage, not for us in our padded seats. Yet we act like it is. Here we are at the theatre, forgetting our troubles for an evening.
What are we avoiding?
The emcee—the whole show—keeps telling me something I already know, a message that came mixed in with my baby formula: it takes a lot of work not to see what's in front of your face, not to hear what's being said, not to know what you know . . . but if we all work together we can make it happen.
With concerted effort, I grew up unaware I am gay. My family valued denial and avoidance as coping mechanisms. Too few years ago my parents worked hard to ignore the cancer then ravaging my dad's body. His "sudden" death genuinely surprised my mother.
Denial permeates our culture and our country’s politics. Elected leaders vie to lead the parade of their constituents pooh-poohing the latest bad news. The call to avoidance is everywhere. Pretend. Deny. Escape.
How well I know it. Almost every day an oily voice deep within promises a comfy chair, speedy internet connection and plenty of eye candy—easy entertainment to numb the gritty pain of living fully alive.
Stranger? He and I are old friends.
photo credit: Otto Dix, Metropolis 1928
01 August 2015
My husband Dave and I are shopping the pasta section at a small local grocery store when a gorgeous man rounds the corner. I pretend to keep looking at the lasagna noodles. A woman pushes a cart beside him, I note, but I keep my concentration trained on him.
Short of stature with a thin trim build, hiss close-cropped hair looks the color of wet sand. His rugged face has aged prematurely. His fine lips are set in a serious mien.
He works out regularly—one glimpse of his biceps tells me that. The muscles of each arm twine like cables anchored in a camouflage tank top.
And if he wears baggy jeans—well, one must make allowances.
He looks our way. Dave makes eye contact, smiles and nods. I lose myself in choosing between rotini and penne.
Perhaps it puts Mr. Camo off to see two men flagrantly grocery shopping together. Or maybe our presence stretches to the breaking point his hetero-centric vision of his hometown. I suspect he feels threatened, his masculinity called into question.
Maybe he senses we're scoping him out and that’s what pushes him over the edge. Whatever the reason, when his female companion bends over for two cans of tuna fish from the bottom shelf, he gives her a resounding swat on the butt.
“Ow! What’s that about?” She stands upright, rubbing her posterior.
I don’t hear his answer, yet I doubt he verbalized his real motives. Maybe he isn’t aware of them himself.
I see a man who, in the presence of a male couple, feels motivated to assert his own masculinity. I watch him respond with violence. I see him direct his blow at the person nearest him.
He makes a show of exerting power over a woman. He reminds me of a dog marking its territory. He might as well hike his leg and pee on her.
I may be way off base, of course. I can’t see into his mind, and I don’t quiz him on his reaction. Nevertheless I suspect his companion’s butt hurts because of something he carries inside.
In Essays, Emerson tells of two small boys playing near a darkened entry. They are frightened by the big shadowy figures they see moving against the wall. Watching them, an old man says, “My children, you will never see anything worse than yourselves.”
This is what I want to say to Mr. Camo (this, and “My gosh, you’re hot”): “Do we unsettle you, studmufffin? Let me tell you, as you walk through this grocery store, you will see nothing scarier than yourself.
“You see two men who are attracted to each other, and maybe to you. You think you’re reacting to us. But we human beings see everything through the filter of our own perceptions. What you see in us is really some aspect of yourself.
If you are repelled, it isn’t us who repels you, but some part of yourself you’re uncomfortable with. Could it be you don’t like being seen as an object because you tend to objectify those around you?
“It works the other way, too, Cupcake. What you admire in others is really some quality in yourself. You think the woman you’re with is sexy? You like her curves, winning smile, warm personality? Those are reflections of yourself—perhaps your appreciation for beauty, the smile you carry inside, an ability to touch your feminine side.
“Our eyes act as a reverse-action magnifying glass for looking within. We see magnified in others the very qualities we carry in ourselves. ‘You spot it, you got it,’ they say in 12-step circles.
“We go though life thinking the world is as we see it. Not so, Sweet Cheeks. We are as we see the world.”
01 July 2015
W.H. Auden captures my predicament:
Go, go, go said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been
and what has been.
Point to one end, which
is always present
What I ask via FaceBook: “Are you the John Doe (not his real name) who worked one summer at Camp Reveal in Evansville, Indiana? I’m chasing ghosts and wonder if you are that John Doe.”
What I actually mean: OMG, after all these years of wondering whatever happened to you and if you did indeed go to Mongolia as a missionary and if you came out as a gay man and whatever did you do with all that talent and imagination and spiritual fervor…
…and having looked for you online after there was an online, and online in the pre-Facebook era and not having located you, today I log onto Facebook and there you might be, with that gorgeous gentle smile, your head cocked slightly to the side, and in your pictures file additional mugshots of you in a knit beret making faces and acting silly…
…back with a rush come my feelings for you or the memories of my feelings for you, back in the day when I was sure because I was a committed Christian that what I was feeling for you was a knitting of spirit brought on by the Holy Ghost and a sense of Christian brotherhood…
…and oh, how I wanted to be with you every free moment of the day and those not-so-free moments, too, all that summer long…
…and how jealous I was of our fellow camp counselor, he of the maize-colored curly locks with whom you held private Bible studies and prayed early morning prayers and whose place I wanted to take and whose heart I wanted to run through with a stake to make it happen…
...and are you the selfsame John Doe who taught me about unrequited love and longing, long long after the fact?
(Insert long radio silence here.)
He never answers my que(e)ry. Perhaps for the best. I peruse his “likes” and see the National Rifle Association is the most liberal of the organizations and causes he supports. Not much chance of us re-connecting even if he is John Doe of blessed memory.
But in some part of my psyche I am still 18 years old and he is 21. I am gangly, nerdy, scatter-brained; he is earnest, creative, focused. I am smitten; he is oblivious. We work together the entire summer. When the camp closes, I ask John D. for a ride home. To his home. It means my folks can pick me up after a drive of one hour instead of five. It also means I’ll have to stay at his house overnight.
Not that I read anything into this. I am so highly closeted as to be clueless about my sexual orientation. Really. All innocence, I gush to him during the long drive to his house.
That evening we walk a rolling country lane. John leads me across a bean field and through rows of head-high corn.
"I used to run down these rows pretending I was an Indian and the cowboys were after me,” he says.
"When you were a kid?"
He laughs. "Last summer. We only moved here a year ago."
He is this free—free to be himself, express himself, and talk about it without shame. I burn with adoration and jealousy. I want him. I want to be with him, be him.
That night we sleep in separate rooms.
My parents pick me up after breakfast. John hugs me good bye.
Not for years will I understand the ache in my heart, what it means, why it remains, why the memory of him brings sorrowful joy. I loved him more than I knew.
+ + +
Illustration is modified. Original from Punch, 24 July 1841
01 June 2015
And what does that mean?
It’s one of those sudden insights best accepted at face value, not poked and prodded too much. In this world a glimmer of truth is a delicate creature, not a pickled frog to be dissected in ninth grade biology class.
Yet I start picking at this vision as if it’s a booger I can’t quite let alone. Perhaps I’ll always be a callow freshman in the school of life, hopeless when it comes to understanding the deeper mysteries of being.
Those are cabbage butterflies, I remind myself, bad news for our six spindly cabbage plants. And those green bushes they used as a dance floor, that’s an invasive species we’re to eradicate from our property. So said the district forester who was here yesterday to measure the health of our 15-acre woods. And the white ash trees out this back window? He pronounced their death sentence, also. They’ll soon fall prey to an pestilential insect invasion, now about three miles from our house. We’re to girdle the trees—kill them now, before the emerald ash borer does—and harvest the wood.
The sun shines bright overhead even as distant thunder growls like my grandfather used to. Nothing is what it appears. I’m taking a piss in thinking I know anything.
Still, I keep trying to learn. I’m on my way out to the chicken coop when I stop by the far gate. Ahead of me, an ash tree wraps a large rust-orange metal drum in leafy embrace. The limbs have grown around the old gas tank. It gets more support from the tree nowadays than from its original metal legs, one of which has rusted away at the ankle. A knee-high log stands on end near the base of the tree. A red-bellied woodpecker perches on it. This is the chopping block on which I have executed many a rooster using a sharpened axe. The bird drives his strong sharp beak into the wood, seeking life where others have met their death. His skull and the membrane around his brain are thickened to cushion the shock of ramming his bill into hard wood. When he locates a beetle or ant he shoots out a sticky barbed tongue, impales the insect, then devours it. How might I might follow your example, ingenious and wise one, you who find life in a place of death, who uses your thick skull to nourish yourself.
As if to belie my assessment of him, the woodpecker hops onto the metal leg of the gas drum. He hammers at rusty iron. Foolish fellow, there are no bugs inside that metal tank.
Or maybe not so foolish. My bird book informs me woodpeckers drum on trees, poles, even telephone transformers, as a mating call and to warn away other red-bellies from the area. This one was playing love songs on a kettledrum. Quite the way to make a statement, and one other than what I was trying to read into the encounter.
Not a bad lot in life, to keep my eyes and ears open, try to read the signs, listen to the voice of the world, laugh at my misinterpretations, lose myself in wonder and joy.
En route to the coop this week I stop short when find a spotted fawn blinking big brown eyes at me. I hold my breath. Ever the world shows it soft self again and again, even to cabbage heads.