01 August 2008


I’ve washed the drinking glasses, am on to the bowls. I pick up my favorite, a study in dandelion yellow, inside and out. Its outside is ribbed—’twould be a bumpy ride if I were a flea circumnavigating this half-globe. If I made it over the thick rounded rim, however, I’d have smooth sailing right down into its slick center. Were my world then turned upside down, I’d be trapped under what looks like a frat boy’s embarrassingly bright beanie topped with a big dimpled button. No backstamp offers the name of its maker, hint to its age. Ah, well. 

Perhaps where things are going is more important than where they came from.

Sturdy to begin with, this bowl grows heavier with age, encrusted with layers of memory. It once belonged to my grandmother, part of a colorful set that included yellow, orange, cobalt, and turquoise. These were the favored cereal bowls of my boyhood. Every summer our large family spent at least three weeks at my grandparents’ home in rural northern Minnesota. Every morning there we ate hot cereal—oatmeal, oatmeal with raisins, oatmeal with coconut, wild rice porridge, cornmeal mush, cracked wheat, farina. 

My siblings and I vied for our favorite bowl colors. Yellow was my first choice, with orange and cobalt following close behind. Some mornings there was no color in my world since there weren’t enough of these favored bowls to go around. Two people ate from shallow, scalloped white china bowls and two poor saps had to spoon their oatmeal from soulless, square, glass bowls with insides the color of watery milk, outsides a sickly yellow. Those bowls made any kind of cereal lose its savor. But there was no use protesting. I knew what my parents’ answer would be. Might as well dig in, make the best of it. Be earlier to table tomorrow.

This lesson has proved useful.

My wife and I were visiting Grandma one summer when I asked if we could someday have those colorful bowls. She laughed to think anybody would want them, told me to take all five home. 

Though I glued it once or twice, the cobalt bowl did not survive the onslaught of our firstborn son. I was prepared for this. Early on, my wife and I had agreed we wanted to give our children the message that people are more important than things. We knew accidents would happen and our children would break things we treasured. We would accept this with good grace and remind ourselves that everything is temporary, fragile.

Another useful life lesson.

Our three children came to visit me at the ratty apartment I moved into after coming out to myself and others as a gay man. My middle son accidentally knocked the orange bowl to the floor. It might have been my heart lying there. Or my marriage. Some things, there is no gluing back together. 

That was a time when my life seemed to echo Yeats’ description of a world in turmoil: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” In coming out I lost my marriage, home, job, contact with my family of origin, my friends and faith community. Soon, my eldest son quit coming to see me, citing discomfort with my sexual orientation, conflict with his religious beliefs. A few years later my other sons followed suit. A judge stamped his approval. Here, have another helping of mush in a pus-yellow dish.

These losses hit hard. Some days I had no appetite for life. Yet morning after morning, bowl after bowl, life went on dishing out my daily portion. It was amazing how the sun kept rising even on days I had no desire to get out of bed. No matter my reaction, life kept on dishing it out. And the thing is, some days it arrived in a dandelion yellow bowl. 

From my grandmother I received all those years ago—is it mere coincidence?—not one but two bright yellow bowls. My husband and I ate breakfast from these this morning—my husband, partner in a heart-marriage that has lasted as long now as did my first church-sanctioned union. I live in a soul-nurturing home—walls painted vibrant colors, many windows, the woods around full of birdsong, coyote call, tree whispers. I have animal, plant and people friends who enrich and wonderfully complicate my days. I have alone time. In solitude I have opportunity to explore the universe within my heart, even in sleep to plumb its depths in dreams.

Life is a mix, I keep learning. Some days my portion arrives in a sunny container I love. Other days I glance at what I am given and think, “I’m expected to eat that?” The answer is yes.

This essay first appeared in The Letter, August 2008

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