01 December 2009


Open seating at the university theater tonight, so my husband and I arrive early. It is a love story. They cannot begin to pack all of the actors and actresses involved in this drama onto one little stage. So they make do with those called for in the script. I realize this as my husband and I wait for the curtain to rise.
Nearby, two college men capture our attention. Surrounded by people, they are absolutely ensconced in their own little world — a world bounded by each other. The (slightly) younger of the two has a peaches-and-cream complexion and short curly red hair. In profile he reminds me of a Roman Caesar. Red waves his hands about as he talks, but hardly keeps pace with his companion whose arms fly here and there, punctuating the discussion. He wears a blue plaid shirt. He has curly blond hair — thinning on top — and a matching beard. Both are tall and lanky, but Plaid is the taller of the two. They are equally animated. They almost bounce out of their seats.
Just before the play begins, Plaid moves halfway across the auditorium, sits opposite us. He crosses his arms, remains impassive through much of the show, even the funny parts. The woman to his left leans away from him, rests her chin in her hand, elbow on her left knee. The woman to his right sits with her arms crossed. No sign of him being acquainted with either.
The lights dim, the action begins. The play has a fair proportion of women in it. I keep my eyes on the men. They have slim builds, flat stomachs, tight butts. The play calls for the men to drop to one knee with a regularity I appreciate — the fabric of their trousers pulls tight, rounds off the buttock.
At intermission, Plaid appears glum as ever. Off to his right, I see my friend Joe. As a teenager, Joe wrapped his car around a telephone pole. He barely survived. The accident left him crippled and disfigured. He walks with difficulty. He slurs his speech. He wears plaids and stripes together. When he came out in middle age, he learned first-hand how mercilessly cruel members of the gay subculture can be to people who do not fit cultural standards of physical beauty. Joe has never had an intimate relationship. He has friends but no boyfriends. Dave and I go over and chat with him until the lights dim. Then I go back to ogling sexy actors.
In Act Two, the audience must face the stage death of an endearing character. We welcome the finale, a joyous celebration of the survivors falling in love, one after another. Life will not be easy, they acknowledge, but love will see them through. Love makes life worth living.
I listen to them proclaim their love. And I wonder. I wonder about Joe. I wonder about my friend Scott, who padlocks his heart, refuses to open it to anyone. He will not share his home with a dog, a cat, a fish, a bird — a houseplant, even. He believes that if he loves anyone or anything he will get hurt. He was present when his mother died. Hearing his sister's immediate wail of grief, he said to himself, "See? See? This is what happens when you love someone. You get hurt."
Easy enough for the actors and actresses to make stirring speeches about love, proclaim its primacy, its role in saving us from ourselves — after all, they are reciting their lines. But are they feeding us one? Is this how love works? For Joe? For Scott? For Red and Plaid? For Dave and me? Does love always triumph? Does it for everyone?
Perhaps the answer is too big to fit on the little stage of my mind. Perhaps the answer envelops me, every day, enacted in the lives of those I pass. Perhaps it plays out in this season of the year as our planet turns from the dark powers of winter towards life-giving light once again. Do I have a role in this cosmic drama? Do you?

This essay appeared in the December issue of The Letter.

01 November 2009


Ever wish you could rewrite the past? At a friend’s urging I tried this re-righting exercise: “Recall a painful life episode and retell it with an alternate, positive outcome. Include the presence of a supportive, powerful character.” I chose to examine my real-life memories of a high school bully I’ll call Mack.

* * *

I riffle through the tumble of books, notes and papers and pull out what I need for the next three classes: advanced biology, college math and English. Almost there now, almost there. I’ll breathe easy once I reach Mrs. Bush’s classroom. I swing the locker door shut. A hand lands on my shoulder, a piece of lead in my gut.

Mack shoves me against the beige lockers. A silver handle stabs at my back. “Where you going in such a hurry.”

It is not a question.

He jabs a hand under my chin, jerks my head up and back against cold steel.

Mack is not the biggest boy in our class, nor the meanest. But for four years he has loomed large in my school life; for nine months out of every twelve I have let him make my weekdays hell. He seeks me out, baits me, calls me names, teases me, pushes me around, gets in my face. And I let him. I play the good boy, turn the other cheek, pray for his soul to burn in hell.

What does Mack see in my countenance that gives him license to treat me with such disdain? What do I see in his that stops me from standing up for myself? These are questions I won’t ask until years later.

“Where do you get your clothes.” Again, it is not a question. “Fetla’s.” Mack spits out the name of the discount surplus store in Valparaiso, our county seat. “I bet your mom bought that shirt at Fetla’s.” He fingers my shirt collar. “Why do you wear clothes like that anyway. If I had clothes like that, I wouldn’t wear them to school.”

I keep my mouth shut. Long ago I learned there’s no reasoning with him. He steps in close, pushes my chin up again, my head back, presses his chest to mine. “I asked you a question, pud.”

“Mack, please. I have to get to class.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. Anything is the wrong thing to say. His chest swells. “Didn’t you hear me, faggot? I asked you a question. You’re not smart enough to—”

“Oh, no you don’t!”

Everything happens at once. One second Mack is on me, over me, the next he’s not even touching me. A loud shout. An “oof.” His body slams into the lockers to my right.

“I’ve had enough of you, Mack.”

It’s Frank Stassek who last year, even as a sophomore, played varsity basketball. Next year he’ll help our school capture the conference triple crown and whup big city Valparaiso—a first-ever feat. In this corner of basketball-crazed Indiana, in this small school where grades K through 12 gather under one roof, jocks are gods.

Blinking, Mack looks up into the face of an angry god.

“You leave this guy alone, hear me? Keep your paws to yourself. I don’t want to see you touching him again.”

Curly ringlets of dark hair frame Frank’s deep brown eyes and gorgeous face. Although I hate sports, I attend every home basketball game I can to watch Frank’s thighs pound the length of the court, his muscled arms pull down yet another rebound, his chest heave under the blue and white jersey marked with a large number 20.

It’s my chest that’s heaving at the moment. Frank takes my arm, pulls me forward. He slips an arm around my shoulder. “C’mon. Mrs. Bush will be looking for us. You don’t want to be late for class, do you?”

It is not a question. It is an answer to prayer.

* * *

In “real life,” neither Frank nor I ever came to my rescue. But in retelling this story, I catch a glimpse of the Frank who lives inside me. Maybe I will call on his power next time I need his protection.

This essay appeared in the November issue of The Letter.

01 October 2009


The weather forecast promised clear skies, so we did not cover the exposed part of the roof with tarps. But we did scramble the next morning when we heard liquid sunshine pattering overhead. We rolled out tarpaper and tacked it down, laid shingles as fast as we could.

We were three: my husband Dave, his adult son and me. Son’s house sustained hail damage this past spring. We had volunteered to help re-roof the place. At the end of day one, we were soaked with sweat. Throughout day two, intermittent rain showers wet us to the skin. We exchanged tired happy smiles when we finished the job.

Ready to get down, I stood on the ladder alongside the house as Dave and his son walked the ridgeline one last time. They examined their work. They pointed to this and that. I watched them proceed with careful confi dence, one after the other, along the wet roof. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or a blurring brought on by high humidity or exhaustion.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Dave and his son I was looking at on the roof. No. To borrow from the poet Sherman Alexie, it was all the fathers in the world and all the sons in the world. Dave and his father Orville were walking that ridge line. Never mind that Orville, at age 97, uses a wheelchair to get around. It was Orville up there with his son, and he was walking.

It was me and my dead father up there. It was my dad and his dad—my grandpa—walking that ridge line together. It was me and each of my estranged sons—one, two, three—trying to maintain our balance, trying to find a way forward without slipping over, sliding off the edge. It was you and your dad. And your dad and his dad. And his father before him. It was all the fathers in the world and all the sons in the world on
that roof.

It was two men longing for connection. It was two men already more connected than they know. It was father and son separated by death, by prejudice, by action or insult. It was father and son separated by accident, by intent, by geography, by ignorance.

By spite. By life. By wife. By creed. By war. By family pattern. By social pressure. By suicide. By immigration. By disease. By chance. By choice.

It was two men who had labored together toward a common goal sharing pride in a job well done. It was two men who felt connected, who found themselves in a precarious place having to step carefully. It was recognition that even in perilous situations, some degree of safety may be felt.

It was Father and Son. It was Age and Youth. It was Past and Future. It was lessons being passed on—lessons in how to love, how to protect oneself, how to put a roof over one’s head. It was lessons in frugality, in can-do, in practical carpentry. It was lessons in self-reliance and in accepting help. It was lessons in living, in making it through.

It was ending and beginning. It was passing a torch. It was the longing to pass along all the things that never will be handed off, that are non-transferable, that must be learned for oneself.

It was father connecting to son. It was generation touching generation. It was all the fathers and all the sons in the world on that roof, walking that narrow way, one person at a time, the long slide on either hand, danger, pride, peril, accomplishment, hope ahead.

This essay appeared in the October issue of The Letter.

01 September 2009


From what I am told, I map the geography of his upper body. A faint trail leads southward from the oasis of navel. Northward, the ridgeline runs through a ripple of abs to where well-defined pecs rise up, capped by salmon-brown peaks of aureole and nipple.
Strong neck, square jaw, stubbled chin. Lips full in the flower of youth. Dusting of moustache, unapologetic nose, blue blue eyes. Windblown bangs drift across his forehead. What in his upbringing could prepare him to fathom his own beauty?
He recently came out to himself after growing up in a conservative, homophobic religious tradition. His rugged good looks and generous endowment garner attention, praise, devotion. Heady stuff, I imagine, for one who spent years denigrating himself and his “sinful” desires.
He has thrown himself into the gay sexual scene with abandon. He supplements his sensual exploration with heavy drug use. He regularly engages in barebacking and other unsafe sexual practices.
“I suppose I should get tested.” he says and laughs. His voice tone says he has no such intention. His behavior says he wants it all, wants it now, wants it with no holds barred. No time to think, no time to consider. Take, taste, feel, feel, feel.
In his poem Syringe, Jim Wise describes

The stunning blond god,
His muscles straining against
The taut flesh of a body he
Was just learning to enjoy.
The godlike youth in the poem employs sex as a means of getting heroin into his system. He strips sex of its potential for celebration, emotional connection, a sense of being present to another human being. People make such choices. So do gods. I feel sad when I tot up the costs.
What the gay youth, so recently out, seeks in his headlong rush, I don’t know. To heighten sensation? Numb the pain of losses incurred in coming out? Blot out the confusion of so many new choices? I doubt that he knows himself.
I do not condone his choices, yet I recognize the wild eruption of feeling, the recklessness, the sense that the shackles have been thrown off and anything goes. I felt a similar rush in my coming out journey.
Yet behavior has consequences, understood or not. And desire exerts a powerful pull. The gay poet Cavafy observes (in this translation from the Greek)

He swears every now and then to begin a better life,
But when night comes with its own counsel,
Its own compromises and prospects—
When night comes with its own power
Of a body that needs and demands,
He goes back, lost, to the same fatal pleasure.

In coming out I encountered men who shepherded me, acted as mentors, offered sage advice, modeled appropriate behaviors. I also found men who stood ready to take advantage of my naivete. While I learned something from both sets of men, I have maintained friendships with only one group.
We do others a favor, and bless ourselves and our entire community when we treat others with respect and genuine regard. We can celebrate the body electric—the body erotic, the body taut with pleasure and discovery of its own sexiness—in a way that honors the sacredness of all life, affirms the expression of our sexual selves, and builds community at the same time.

This article appeared in the September issue of the Letter.

01 August 2009


From experience, my husband Dave and I know the perfect vacation is the one we’re planning to take next. The one that’s still a bit up in the air, destination fuzzy, dates wide open, details sketchy. That’s when a vacation is absolutely perfect. Once the dates are nailed down, once the packing list is drawn up, once there are bills to pre-pay and animals to be seen to in our absence, already a vacation starts to feel a little less than ideal.

We prefer to keep our plans a bit open-ended. Make room for serendipity. Leave time to stop at roadside attractions, follow the sign pointing left: “antiques, five miles” or right, “historical marker, one mile.”

Last week we were at last ready for vacation. We scheduled a week and a day off work, would head west to Kansas. We would venture into the unknown by attending a men’s gathering billed as “an experiment in community building.” No appointed leader, daily decisions made by group consensus. We’d registered for three of the twelve days. If we liked it, perhaps we’d stay six. Or maybe we’d head south, visit family members in Missouri.

We were ready to start loading the car when I wrenched my lower back. I felt as if a large needle pierced my spine. Whenever I moved, it jabbed further in. I pull my back about once every other year. I have visited my more than my share of chiropractors, medical doctors and physical therapists. I’ve learned the best treatment for me involves a week of lying flat on my back. I headed for bed. I lay very still. Refused to drink. I didn’t want to have to get up to pee.

Dave and I switched plans. We would stay home. He would nurse me whilst I nursed my back. I had anticipated a relaxing vacation, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

I told Dave I knew what awaited me: at first I would taking enjoy long naps, reading books, writing letters, listening to NPR, taking it easy, but by day four I’d be ready to climb the walls. He circumvented this outcome on day three. He brought a portable DVD player to my bedside along with Terrence McNally’s Angels in America, an hours-long HBO miniseries. He and I have twice seen the two-part stage play. I bought copies of the scripts. But we had never watched the DVD.

Angels in America won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, it traces the stories of several characters whose stories overlap and intermingle. They must wrestle with ageless themes such as the problem of pain, betrayal, death, forgiveness, politics, religion, sex, love and hope. Some of its scenes have rumbled in my mind ever since the first time I saw it on stage. When tempted to sidestep difficult questions, I often recall the Mormon mother’s response when Harper who asks if the covered wagon ride west was difficult. “You ain’t stupid. So don’t ask stupid. Ask something for real.” When loss lays me low, when I feel sad and bereft, I recall the Mormon mother’s description of how people change: God rips you open with a jagged thumbnail, pulls out your guts, musses them all around, piles them back in. It’s up to you to stitch up the torn flesh. These are not comforting images, yet I find hope in knowing others have felt the way I do, faced similar challenges, survived, fashioned art of pain and loss.

Dave and I watched the DVD together—all six hours—nearly straight through. Then I watched it again. Then I read through the script of the stage play as I watched the screen adaptation, noted where lines had been cut, scenes shifted around.

The story’s main characters include a young man living with AIDS, his Jewish lover, a big-city lawyer dying of AIDS, a closeted young law clerk and his wife. In the troubled relationship between these latter two, Joe and Harper, I hear echoes of my previous marriage. All through the piece I hear the very human drama of life—harrowing, heavenly, poignant beyond words, laugh-out-loud funny, sobering. The action centers in New York with side trips to Antarctica and heaven.

I lost count of how many times I watched Angels in America during our vacation. As long as it kept speaking to me I kept listening. I'm like that. I can eat the same food for nearly a week. I have more than once downed an entire pecan pie at a sitting. Recently I compiled a CD of Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah, sung by 17 different artists. I play it when Dave is not around.

I replayed the Angels DVD time and again, some scenes even more times than that. Especially the one in which the hunky law clerk strips naked on a cold windy beach. The camera focuses on his face and bare chest as he begins to undress. Then it cuts to a back view as he pulls off his temple undergarments revealing his bare back, buttocks, thighs and calves. I played this scene at regular speed, in slow-motion and in stop-action. Twice a day I masturbated to the sight of that gorgeous man on screen. Spent, I'd let the DVD play on, watch through to the end of the movie, then start in again from the beginning.

I quoted lines from the movie in casual conversation with Dave. "Even in New York in the 80s, that is strange," I'd say, and "Respect the delicate ecology of your delusions." Sometimes we quoted lines to each other. I'd thank him for bringing me yet another meal in bed with, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" and he'd reply (per the script), "Well, that's a stupid thing to do." We'd both laugh.

Angels wove itself into my dreams. I found myself wandering a heaven that looked very much as its depicted in the movie. I talked to angels, wrestled with issues far beyond my ken.

For much of our vacation, Angels became the lens through which I looked at the world. I read from Emerson's Essays and connected what he has to say with what Louis yammers on about on page such and such. I read a Mary Oliver poem and thought, "That's what Mother Pitt expresses when she, Prior, Louis and Belize are talking at Bethesda Fountain." I pondered my life in terms of the play, thought about the people on my "to forgive" list. Can I forgive them before I die? Before they die? I wondered if, like one of the supporting characters, I could take my hate and condense it to a pinpoint of light up in the night sky. What color of light would it emit?

Angels brings up all sorts of questions for me. What does it mean that humans have wrestled with many of the same themes for millennia? Or have we? And what is it to look back at the 80s through the eyes of Angels from the perspective of 2009? Do I know how it all turns out? Many of these characters would be my age now. How will they have grown? What will be their thinking now?

Do all stories end happily? No, of course not. Does this one? Will mine? And what is a truly happy ending? Is there truly an ending?

The main character in Angels goes to heaven and talks with the heavenly messengers. They encourage him to stay. He refuses heaven, returns to earth saying (in my paraphrase), “I can’t help it. I want more life. It’s not enough, it is so not enough, and yet we humans we keep hoping beyond hope, beyond all the body can bear, when hope should be gone, still we say, 'More life.' It’s in our nature."

More life. That's what I was after when I came out, when I stepped into the death of my known self, launched into the unknown, the unknowable. Some part of me was saying, still says, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me." Some part of me has long been wrestling with the angels.

More life. That's one translation of the Hebrew word that is also rendered as "blessing." Our vacation afforded my an unlooked for opportunity to wrestle with angels. To look at the world through different eyes. And I come away feeling blessed.

This essay remains unpublished.

14 July 2009


Dear Nancy,

Thank you for writing, for slogging along, for saying out what's within. Thank you for choosing life, time and again. Thank you for modeling so strong a response to what it is to be seen as different/outcast/less-than. Thank you for writing about loss, its lessons, contours and ordinariness, Thank you for your candor and courage in evaluating yourself and your motives. That’s worth saying again: thank you for modeling honesty and bravery; thank you for your candor and courage.

Thank you for questioning, for not pretending to have the answers. Thank you for lifting the lens of feminism, for allowing me to look through it with you at the world, our society, my motives. Thank you for thoughtful reflections, wry humor, truth-telling.

Thank you for offering hope.

I have read all your books save the most recent one, and that one I ordered today. Finding “On Being a Cripple” in an anthology of essays led me to ferret out your books at our local university library. I read Plaintext, Ordinary Time, In All the Rooms of the Yellow House, then before I finished Remembering the Bone House, I had to return the lot. I was hooked. I ordered a copy of each, paycheck by paycheck. By now I’ve also read and wept and laughed and cheered and underlined my way through Voice Lessons and Carnal Acts and A Troubled Guest and Waist-High in the World.

You show me myself. This dumfounds me. I am not a woman, a wife, a mother. I am not a cripple. I am no Catholic. Yet you lead me into the plain, ordinary, bone yellow house of myself. It stinks. It smells beautiful. It leaves a metallic tang on my tongue. You open one chamber after another, invite me to peer inside. This room reeks of growing up, that one of being different, discounted, discarded. This one smells of sex, cum and desire; that one carries a whiff of wholeness, of bodymindspirit. And here—oh compelling fragrance!—indignation, independence, inseeing.

Am I looking at you? At me? At me through you? You lead me to realize—no, to real-ize, to real eyes. You help me see what’s around and inside me. What you write, what I read rings true. You do not candy coat your experiences, opinions, evaluations. You look long and hard at life, at self, at society. You are candid about the pain involved in all of these endeavors. Yet you come down on the side of hope, of life, of joy. When my journey lands me in similar places I find you already there, already exploring the territory, explaining what you’ve heard, seen, smelled, tasted, touched.

Your writing inspires, instructs, encourages, equips. Your writing resonates, reverberates, reassures. In reading you I better know myself; I lean more deeply into my own losses and my responses to them. I am reaffirmed in my daily decisions to choose life.

Thank you for your acts of creation and co-creation. I remain

Gratefully yours,

Bryn Marlow

Nancy Mairs:

In All the Rooms of the Yellow House (1984)
Plaintext (1986)
Remembering the Bonehouse (1989)
Carnal Acts (1990)
Ordinary Time (1993)
Voice Lessons (1994)
Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled (1996)
A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (2001)
Essays Out Loud: On Having Adventures & A Necessary End (CD) (2004)
A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith (2007)

01 July 2009


If I had to guess, I'd say your bladder is two or three times the size of mine. Seems I have a teeny one. Probably I have a small large intestine, too. At home, I make tracks to the toilet far more often than does my husband; at work, my colleagues sometimes rap on the restroom door, tell me to get a move on. Whatever the reason, I am a peeing and pooping marvel.

It has occurred to me that I might be full of sh*t.

Indeed, this may come close to the truth. Although I grew up during the societal upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, my conservative mother and father, fundamentalist church members and rural neighbors did their best to keep the 1950s in full swing.
Children obeyed their parents. The spared rod spoiled the child. A woman's place was in the home, or in the hospital, delivering the latest baby. The Bible, especially as interpreted by our denomination, was the final authority on all matters of life and living.
These and other similarly self-evident truths I swallowed whole.
Only as my palette developed did I begin to sort out what is healthful and wholesome from what tastes likes crap. Looking back I feel abashed at some of the beliefs I held. No, I feel sorry for the youngster who ingested whoppers such as these:
I am a good boy. My sole chance at happiness in this life and the next rests upon my being good.

A good boy always makes God and his mother happy, not necessarily in that order.

As a good boy my self-worth depends on how well I please my mother.

A good boy follows the rules and does as he is told.

A good boy does not get angry.

A good boy has neither sexual thoughts nor sexual desires. And never, never sexual experiences.


Every good boy marries a good girl when he grows up.

These principles and their ilk hung in the air I breathed. They were stirred into my morning oatmeal. They were repeated by school teachers and radio preachers. We prayed them aloud at bedtime. Some I didn’t seriously examine until I came out as a gay man.

I started doing many things differently then. One, I pay attention to my nighttime dreams, peer into an interior world I long ignored. Recently I attended a weekend dream retreat led by a Jungian analyst who is also a Catholic nun. As I told her, a consistent dream theme for me is the elimination of bodily wastes.

“That’s usually a very positive dream symbol,” she said. “It may mean you are getting rid of a lot of shit.” (The Catholic clerics I know seem quite willing to use words good boys avoid.)
She set me thinking. In both my waking and sleeping hours I spend much time on the toilet. What lessons this humble instrument offers!
Oh porcelain fount that every day—several times a day—washes away and makes clean.

I marvel at your ability to accept that which good boys don’t want to touch, smell, admit, own.

You have learned the secret of letting go. You swallow a lot of shit; people dump loads onto, into you, but you allow it to flow through and away.

You model non-attachment. Grasp nothing. Material things are not worth holding onto. There is wisdom and utility and joy in release.

You understand with deep knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”

You do your work without complaint, without ado, no need for accolades.
I am flush with gratitude.

This essay appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Letter

22 June 2009


When first I see him, my breathing goes shallow and quick. My pulse revs. My hands turn rubbery.

I’m on MySpace or Facebook and I’ve just seen his photo. It's no bigger than a postage stamp but its impact on me is billboard-sized—one of those roadside signs with a picture so arresting it causes traffic accidents.

I click on the word “profile” beside his name. Nothing. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing. Clicklicklicklicklick. Nothing. I am a stranger to social networking sites. Several eternities pass before I learn I must create an account if I want to view his profile. Fine. Sign me up.

I make up a first and last name, try to enter my real address. It goes in and through as Fine. I’ll rename the company if I have to. Just let me see his profile. Let me see if there’s anything more to see.

There is.

He’s posted seven photos of himself. Two show a sandy-haired young man in a red argyle sweater, blue-gray eyes, slight smile. His hair is still curly, I see. His face still mingles considered seriousness with an earnest eager-to-please look. In one photo he leans against a tree. In another he looks directly into the camera. The caption: “Yah, my high school graduation pictures. I look like a dork.” In the other photos he holds a guitar. Stands on a backyard stage, in front of a microphone. Caption: “I play in a Christian rock band.”

My son plays in a rock band! I had no idea.

Four years after his mother and I separated, a few days after he turned 10, he terminated contact with me. “Dad, I don’t want to see or talk to you. Don’t think that anyone else has influenced me to make this decision. I came up with it on my own.”

Except for the two photos of him my mother has sitting out, I’d hardly know what he looks like nowadays. I could easily pass him on the street, not recognize him. These seven photos are the heart’s feast.

They've nourished me for four years now.

This past week I make another of my periodic visits to Facebook. I poke around, find a teeny photo of another of my three sons. He looks to have grown tall, lost weight. He’s dressed all in black—black fedora, too—with a red tie and white boutonniere, hands in pockets, stands beside a young woman, hair piled atop her head, red dress, plunging neckline. His senior prom photo? I can only surmise.

It’s been four years since I saw him and his twin brother. Just before they turned 14 they met with a judge, asked that visitation with me be terminated. I arrived at their mother’s home to pick them up for their birthday party, found the restraining order taped to the door.

Some days it sucks being a homosexual father in rural Indiana.

I look at this small photo, let sadness wash over me. I keep learning to acknowledge, accept and feel my feelings. No sense running from them. No use trying to hide. Buried, they only rot to rise like zombies unbidden and at inopportune times.

Instead, I open myself to my emotions, open wider yet to let them wash over, through, past. Sadness keeps coming, sometimes like waves pounding the coast. I imagine myself as a rock, deeply rooted in living earth. Waves of sorrow, rage and fear may wash over it, but the rock remains.

My feelings are not me. No emotion, no judge, no other person can determine who I am at core.

This essay appeared in The Letter mid-month online issue, June 2009.

01 May 2009


No moon or stars visible when I finally go out to gather eggs. The hens have long  since gone to roost. Unable to see in the dark, they always settle in early. And chickens don’t sleep walk.

But someone or something is.

I open the coop door, find the hanging feeder swinging back and forth. Some creature has just been digging in  it, and it warn’t no chicken. My eyes widen; my heart thumps.

I shine the flashlight all around. Nothing out of place. No signs of struggle. Chickens all present, all okay. What could it be?

A few years back, same summer cancer was eating its way through my dad’s body, some predator raided our coop almost nightly. Chickens disappeared one by one. Or, as with a newly hatched brood of chicks, a dozen at a time. My husband Dave and I didn’t know what was after them, or what action to take.

We doubled the height of the barnyard fence to eight feet. Next day, another chicken gone.

We barred the doorway with chicken wire. Next day, two chickens gone.

We sealed the coop doors tight. Next day, all present and accounted for. Day after that, another chicken gone.

Whatever it was—snake, opossum, raccoon, weasel, mink, marten, fox, coyote, wolf, mountain lion, grizzly bear, Big Foot, Loch Ness monster—it was voracious. It was canny. Fearsome. Stealthy. Smarter than we were.

It upped the ante, started making daylight raids. We foiled its attacks only after enclosing our flock in a high-security fence. We dug a trench, started the chicken wire barricade a foot below ground to discourage digging underneath it, then fenced the sides and up over the top as well. At last the chicken population stabilized. 

We never did identify the perpetrator.

Has it now come back? I watch the feeder swinging to and fro. What creature breached our security? A human? 

The answer pokes out from under a nest box. I spot the scaly tail of an opossum. The beast must have crept in the other day when I left the gate open, let the chickens roam the lawn.

Next day Dave chases the opossum out using a shovel as shield, the end of a rake handle as motivation. I cheer him on from behind the coop door. Our foe snarls, hisses, bites, leaves. All is quiet for a few days. Then I find the feeder swinging back and forth again. Just our luck, I tell Dave. We’re being haunted by a were’possum with supernatural powers of translocation. 


Dave thinks to check the maximum security fence, finds a hole big enough for a horde of were-opossums to tromp through. 

I fix the fence. No more nighttime visitors. 

Yet I’m grateful they showed up in the first place. They gave me a wake-up call, set me thinking about my inner life, put me on the lookout for trespassers. Suddenly (or maybe not), there they were, coming out of the woodwork. What, translocating? Strangers, friends, family, institutionalized religion, former employer tromping willy-nilly over personal boundaries I thought were secure, draining my resources. 

I reminded  myself that I am only one person, can do only so much. I examined my inner fences, patched the holes, said No.

Out of the coop, ’possum.

Life is like this. Exquisitely coherent. The ’possum in my outer life prompts me to look inside for something similar. What do I notice? What is happening there? How am I feeling about it? What would I like to have happen? How might I feel then? What will I do now? 

Out of awareness, change.

An earlier version of this essay first appeared in The Letter, May 2009