01 December 2007
01 November 2007
What did I just witness? What sense to make of it? Was a life lesson offered me?
I want to know more, anything. I open volume one of my 1965 Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary. Harvestmen, I learn, are not spiders but arachnids, members of a family that includes spiders, mites, scorpions and harvestmen—or daddy longlegs, as they are commonly called. Alas, aside from a note that they eat insects, nothing here about the lives and habits of these small creatures.
So I replay the scene in my mind. What do I notice? I make a list:
(1) There is much about life I do not know, do not understand, even when it plays itself out under my very nose.
(2) How difficult it is to do good! Should I have intervened? On whose behalf? Should I act without knowing the full story? And when am I ever privy to that?
(3) In the end, I stood back, watched without emotional investment or entanglement in the outcome. I let happen what would happen. Can I view my own life from similar perspective?
(4) The harvestmen were entirely wrapped up in themselves, intent upon their own actions—these two small beings whom I could have crushed with my thumb. Of what real import their struggles? Of what real import mine?
(5) Am I of any more cosmic significance than a daddy longlegs? Would I not appear as ludicrous to any gargantuan force that might peer down at my little wrestlings with others?
(6) Surely a spider knows nothing of the wider human world. Surely such creatures ought to be grateful they have instinct, knowledge and awareness enough to make their way in their own world, and leave it at that. What makes me think I can grasp anything beyond human ken? Am I not arrogant to believe a given religious dogma or scientific doctrine explains the mysteries of the universe?
(7) What does it mean to be alive? To be a human? A harvestman? Are we not all somehow spider-men? Perhaps I have more in common with the creepy-crawlies of the world than I imagine. Surely I can learn from them.
(8) Will I?
This essay appeared in The Letter, November 2007
01 October 2007
Looks like it would make a mighty fine walking stick. It’s about five feet tall, just the right size ‘round. As my husband and I walk through our woods I spot it alongside the trail. I pick it up, am surprised to find it’s hollow, light as lemon meringue. Dotted with holes where woodpeckers once drilled for insects. Knock all you want, but nobody’s home.
I once felt like that, empty as all git out, and I couldn’t understand why. I was doing everything right, everything church, society, family told me to do. I married, had kids, a house, a dog. Served as a church leader, worked for a religious-affiliated nonprofit, always used my turn signal. Yet found my self, my whole world, hollow inside. Was there nothing more than nothing at the heart of it all? Good people were supposed to be happy, I thought. Was I missing something?
In a word, yes. And I didn’t have a clue how big it was. Or if I did, I repressed, ignored, denied any hint of it. I couldn’t be gay. It was unthinkable, impossible. I believed what I’d been taught by church, family, society: gay people were hell-bound sinners, misled, misbegotten, mistaken. These sex-crazed creatures were objects of pity, destined to be much less happy than, say, me.
No way I could be one of them. No way, I say. No, not that. Anything but that, but them. Not me.
Bless marriage, middle age, mortality for finally waking me up to life, to the realization that my lifelong attraction to men was more than passing fancy. To my unhappiness, to the fact I was sharing it with those about me. To the news that this wasn’t going away.
After I came out to myself and others as a gay man, my wife and I separated, divorced. Loss beset me on all sides: children, family, friends, church, employer, landlord, legal system. I learned the hard way I could not rely on any external source of help.
When others turned me out, I turned within—pushed open the door of loss, grief, pain and stood amazed at what lay behind. A path led down into depths, into dark. Shaken, shaking, I took tentative steps into myself.
Along the way I lit several little candles: I recorded the events of my days, dreams of my nights, my reflections on each. I learned about and practiced active imagination. I meditated. I read books, various authors’ call to nurture one’s inner life. By these actions I cast light on the self I’d been afraid to face.
I found more substance in that supposedly hollow space than I could shake a stick at. And I understood that when wrapped in my robes of self-righteous comfort, I’d been the one who was misinformed, misled, mistaken, an object of pity. Then came life, rapping at my door, insistent, probing, inviting, “Empty yourself. Come in, come down. Of all the space in the universe, this is your true home.”
This essay first appeared in The Letter, October, 2007
01 September 2007
Virginia (not her real name) would die with in 36 hours. She didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. Newest arrival to the nursing home, she’d been placed on the bed beside my grandmother’s. Virginia was distraught, wild-eyed. restless. “What do you think I should I do?” Her voice ran to the high side of throaty. Her tone was earnest, laden with emotion. Her question very human: “What should I do? Oh, what should I do?”
My own throat tightened. What should you do about what? Doesn’t look like you can do much of anything. And how should I know? I don’t have the answers. I felt relieved when her minister and granddaughter soon arrived.
“Oh good! Maybe you can help me. What should I do? I don’t know what I should do.”
“Rest,” said the granddaughter. “You’ve had a big day. You were transferred from the hospital this morning, remember? You’re here now, but you’re tired out. You need to relax, and get some rest.”
“I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know what should I do.” She caught her breath. “Am I dying?”
Ah, that’s her real question.
“You’re tired,” the minister said. “You’ve had a big day. You need rest. You need to let your body rest.”
“Is that it, then? I’m tired out? Oh, good. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’ve been worrying myself sick.”
“Try to relax, Grandma. Just lay back and relax.”
By the next evening Virginia was dead. Didn’t her minister and granddaughter know she was dying? Or did they know but feel uncomfortable talking about it? Did they choose to protect her from the truth?
I don't know. But I do know I don't want the same thing to happen to me. If and when I am dying, don’t tell me I’m merely tired. I want the truth.
This represents a sea change for me. I spent years not wanting to know, suppressing my attraction to men. I didn’t want to be gay, didn’t want to consider that I might be. I was afraid of this truth. Life changed for me when I turned and faced what was. Possibilities opened up. Awareness set in. No way I want to go back.
When I am dying I want to know it, and to use the hours and energy left me to prepare for my final passage into Mystery. I'd rather do this than go to bed early and catch up on my rest. Those around me, if they're willing to be honest, able to overcome their own fears about the subject, may be able to offer me a heads up. As I have opportunity, I'd like to make use of my time. Yet that time, that opportunity is now, isn’t it? I need now to be surrounding myself with truth-tellers, using my time to honor, further and tell truth. I need now to be living into what is, learning to stay aware of those facets of truth I already know.
This I know: I am dying. You are dying. We all of us received a sentence of mortality when we were born. Virginia was no braver than me. No smarter. No stronger. No different, really. Her death, when it came, came with a rush. She navigated this ultimate passage with eyes closed. Me, I want mightily to keep them open wide.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Letter, September 2007.
01 August 2007
There is a certain type of man who, when I spot him, I want to greet with a swift kick in the balls. I am not prone to violence; this is an almost visceral response, a (forgive me) knee-jerk reaction. Although I don’t know him as an individual, I recognize his type. I’m sure he doesn’t know I exist, doesn’t care one way or the other. At most I appear as a blip on his radar screen, one more blob among the mass of faces that blur as he rolls by in his gilded carriage. I watch with a peasant’s smoldering rage.
He is twenty-something with dark hair, a face that turns heads, a body to match: trim athletic build, rippling muscles in his arms, legs. His shirt would cost me a week’s pay; the day I wear shoes like his is the day I’m invited to dine with the Queen of England.
He walks, sits, stands—breathes—with the easy air of privilege, arrogance, conceit. He has, is everything I am not. Comfortable in his skin, his sexuality. Rich. Young. Good-looking. Born to convenience and easy living. Takes life for granted, gets away with it. Treats people like dirt, gets away with that, too.
Hating him, I feel better about myself. Some frigid part of me hunches over the flames of jealousy, envy, spite. These coursing emotions energize me, if only briefly. While in their grip I feel larger than I am, more powerful, more holy, more dangerous. As a steady diet of hatred would exhaust me, I use it much like horseradish on a sandwich—just enough so it hurts. I get a quick high, a cheap rush. And by holding onto hatred I don’t have to deal with pain.
My reaction is more about me than him, I admit. I despise myself for all I am not, did not, have not become. In lashing out at him I really lash out at myself. My anger simmers, seeks release. It feels easier, safer to direct my rage out and away from me. Let Mr. Got-It-All deal with it rather than me.
Perhaps similar feelings motivate the unknown person who vandalizes our property. We seldom leave the house but we wonder what shape it will be in when we get home. Our mailbox regularly gets bashed in, the house egged, debris scattered in the yard. Only once has a fire been lit on the front porch. Maybe the vandal’s motives are similar to mine; my husband and I perhaps represent the freedom, creativity and courage he longs for, that he lashes out against. Thing is, he doesn’t stop at thinking about it, at spicing his life with mental flights of fancy. Maybe he has a higher threshold for excitement, needs to down the whole enchilada. While I can see parts of myself in him, offer him a hand in recognition of our common humanity, I’m keeping the other strategically placed over the family jewels.
This essay appeared in The Letter, August 2007
01 July 2007
Cowley is my kind of man. I, too, take pleasure in little things—the sweet snappy taste of orange marmalade, the smell of my husband’s work shirt, the crinkle of a baby’s laugh. If there is a secret to happiness surely it hides in one’s awareness and appreciation of small joys.
The other night my husband Dave and I sat on the front steps of our little cheerful house eating our very little feast of egg sandwiches, watching the occasional car go by. Our hens are laying upwards of 20 eggs a day so we eat eggs. In sandwiches, tortillas, soup, casseroles. Over potatoes, toast, rice, spinach, beans. Scrambled, boiled, stir-fried, baked. Some days eggs afford very small joy indeed. But the hens haven’t given up yet and neither have we.
As Dave and I shared our step-sitting supper, a woodpecker rapped his own meal from the walnut tree in the yard’s northeast corner. A moth fluttered above the daffodils and hyacinth by the driveway. In the woods to our left, tiny spring wild flowers peppered the ground—pink Johnny Jump Ups, white Dutchman’s Breeches and the little yellow ones whose name escapes me.
We heard the driver’s taste in music (loud) long before he rolled past us in his wide-bodied brown pick-up, windows down, radio blaring. He was twenty-something, beefy build, pulled down baseball cap, dark hair, bushy eyebrows. He stared straight ahead, didn’t glance our way as had other motorists. “Careful,” I wanted to shout after him. “You might catch whatever it is you think we have.”
Sure, I may have misjudged him, but I had felt the air thicken with suspicion as he passed. He fit my image of the unknown vandal who regularly visits our property.
In our neck of the woods two men sitting on a front porch eating egg sandwiches constitutes a subversive act, as does two men weeding flower beds, two men walking out to the barn, two men painting a picket fence. Two men doing anything domestic is too much for some people. It has provoked some passerby to bash in our mailbox several times. To sprinkle white powder sprinkled in our yard at the height of the anthrax scare. To throw a burning bag of feces on our porch. To egg our house at regular intervals.
As if we don’t have enough eggs already.
Two egg sandwiches. One simple supper. A small thing, sharing this very little feast with the man I love very much. A little risk, sitting together on the porch in front of God and everybody. A little gesture towards living into the kind of world I wish this one could be.
A world where I wouldn’t look twice before kissing my husband goodbye in the driveway. Where I wouldn’t drop his hand as we walk back from the barn if I hear a car approach. Where I wouldn’t fear epithets—or beer bottles—being hurled at me as I’m out mowing the grass along the road’s edge. Where I wouldn’t wonder, “What will they do to the house next time? Where will it stop? Will they bring guns?”
By little steps I help create such a world inside myself each time I risk showing my heart, who I am, who I love. By little acts of awareness, little choices I make in each moment that is now. To choose freedom over easy acceptance, forgiveness over bitterness. To affirm light, life within. To crack the crusty shell of societal prejudice and privilege. To call into being the world I imagine. A world not of beauty—for even majestical beauty may prove skin deep—but a world built on little acts of justice, awareness, wholeness. For pretty is as pretty does.
This essay appeared in The Letter, April 2007
01 May 2007
My hand reaches up to return a high five to the fifth grader with the long frizzy hair. I remember him from last year, all right, even if I’ve lost his name. Jared? Jesse? Jamie? He was one of the rascally boys, the ones who all year long give the fourth grade teacher fits, only to shine bright in the one-day clown class I teach each spring. I’ve been coming back to this little elementary school the first Friday in May for nigh onto 25 years.
Clown Day is an institution of sorts here, a rite of passage for every ten-year-old in town and the surrounding countryside. The children learn clown techniques, practice skits, apply makeup, present a program to the entire school and a smattering of parents. "The best thing about school is recess, lunch and Clown Day," one fourth grader told me today. Said another, “You taught clowning to my mother.” A fifth grader said she'd forgotten what role she played in last year's clown program. I couldn't remember either.
I had once hoped to bring my sons along with me to Clown Day, the year each of them was in the fourth grade. A bitter divorce intervened, made time with them hard to come by, time together outside the narrow window of court-ordered visitation almost unheard of. Knowing what her answer would be, I didn't bother to make the request of their mother. I kept mum.
I clown silently in pantomime, and this fifth grader greets me in like language. He waits in silence, black eyes wide, face serious, palm held high. We could be performing together. Me: bulbous red nose, white dress shirt, obscenely long yellow tie, maroon suspenders, tiny black vest, green highwater pants, mismatched shoes. Him: long frizzy hair, black and white mime-striped t-shirt, ragged blue jeans, scuffed black shoes. I smile broadly.
I wasn't smiling last night when I checked the brood hen, would-be mother. She'd jumped ship, changed nests, left her week-left eggs to go stone cold. Found greener pastures one nest box over, abandoned 12 little promises to life for the pleasure of warming a single fresh-laid egg in a new nest. When I see senseless waste, dreams shot down without a chance at life, something dies inside me, just as surely as it died a dozen times over in her old nest. What kinds of mothers are abroad in the world!
I returned to the house, as a spiritual discipline started a love letter to the mother of my children, my former wife, present enemy. I cast it as an opportunity to fight fire with love. Started off boldly enough. Loving words ran out of my pen, soon ran out altogether. I found myself voicing regret, petty pity, spite. Something's died inside me. I feel very sad. I wonder, if nature abhors a vacuum, what has filled the empty space in my heart? In hers?
Clown meets fifth-grader. Clown remains standing at adult height, chooses not to bend sore knees, put rubber nose within pulling range. Returns the high five. Or tries to. Hand meets empty air because boy withdraws his. The promised high-five was but set-up for a joke, fifth-grade sense of humor, getting one over on the clown. The adult feels angry. I've died enough little deaths, kid.
My adult self elbows out my clown. Man and boy continue the interchange. Boy continues to pull his hand away, but man is ready for him now. Man is quick, manages to tap boy's hand more often than not. Boy's face registers no affect, remains serious.
I come to my clown senses. What am I doing? Who am I, anyway? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? My clown's character is one easily duped, readily fooled. I step back into clown shoes, play the dumkoff.
A teacher's aide approaches. A big smile rings her happy face. "I just wanted to tell you something," she says. "My mother was at Clown Day two years ago. Do you remember her? She was the lady in the blue kerchief, a cancer survivor. Well, anyway, she was at Clown Day two years ago and she had such a good time. She laughed so hard. She's passed on now, but two years ago, you really made her day. She laughed and laughed. I just wanted you to know."
I smile to her telling, pantomime sorrow at the news of her mother's death, doff my hat by way of saying thanks. Nod and smile some more. She leaves.
As clown, I turn to the boy beside me. Here am I, child, fool me if you will. I will to believe you. I will to trust you. I live in a world where hope springs eternal, where people tell truth, love each other. Here's my hand.
This essay remains unpublished.