01 December 2011


Blood-red Horse of Course, hairless and stuffed with cotton batting. I loved him. He was hairless because I loved him, because I'd plucked out his fur bit by bit, fuzzed it against my face and in my ear each time I lay down to sleep. He'd gone threadbare for love. Threadbare and shabby. And because he'd gone threadbare and shabby, my parents disposed of him.

I remember it this way: we took Horse of Course for a drive to the county dump. Down one long dirt road, then another, ending in an clearing ringed by pine forest. A parking area afforded space for several vehicles. I only ever saw it full at dusk. In our northern Minnesota backwoods, the dump was where the night show took place. At twilight, cars sidled in, families, young couples, old folks. Drivers parked so their headlights would shine out over the star attraction, the black bears that came to rummage through the day's leavings.

But this was daytime drama under a harsh bright sun. Dad parked the '47 Chevy atop the small rise. Nobody else there. A fire burned in one of the garbage piles below. I watched my red horse tumble over the edge, bounce down the sandy incline, land in the burning waste. I do not remember holding my mother's hand as I stood there. I do not remember feeling any tears on my face. I was two, maybe three years old.

"That never happened," my mother said, an edge to her voice, when I recounted this memory to her a year after my dad died. She and I were standing in her dining room beside a china cabinet filled with dishes, dolls, cups, gee-gaws. My husband Dave and I had trekked to southern Missouri to spend a week doing house and yard projects for her. "That never happened," she said again.

"That's the image I have in my head--Horse of Course rolling down the hill and into the fire."

"Well, it didn't happen." A long pause as she looked off into middle distance. "I wish we would have let you keep him."

I pressed the issue no further. My mother already blamed herself for my having come out gay. I figured this was another case of self-recrimination. You wouldn't have turned out like this if I had let you keep your stuffed animal. Why was I so worried about what the neighbors would think?

The lesson I learned at an early age: You cannot love what you love because you love it. You will love what we tell you to, whom we permit you to, that which we deem acceptable.

The message I hope my kids catch instead: Follow your heart. Love what and whom you will. Love matters more than anything.

Our family relocated to Indiana when I was five. Growing up, I was taught I owed my first allegiance to God, then to mother, church, family and Minnesota, in rank order. I was to trust what God and church said over what I heard anywhere else, including my own heart. Especially my own heart. "The heart is deceitful above all things," my mother said, quoting Jeremiah 17:9, "and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" Not my heart but God's word as written in the Bible served as instruction and guide.

Listen for God's voice deep within? No way. Too much like transcendental meditation, Quakers or the Moonies. Too woo woo. Too tricky to determine when it was God speaking and when it was me.

I knew it wasn't God speaking when I found myself attracted to other boys. That was the devil. That was my deceitfully wicked heart. That was sin, pure and simple, complex and tenacious. That was my ticket to hell, sure-fire assurance I would burn for eternity.

+ + +

Christmas morning the year I'd turned three, much was made over one specific package with my name on it. I tore off the paper to find a stuffed gray donkey with lonesome eyes of two large black buttons, each sewn atop a drooping oval of white felt over a larger drooping oval of red. One floppy gray ear held a small jingle bell. Pedro, read the attached nametag. Set down in writing, no questioning authority. "His name is Peed-row," my mother announced.

Peed-row carried me off on many an adventure. I did the same for him, toting him about by his deaf ear. My mother sewed that ear back on countless times. When I at last lost the ear altogether she made a replacement from the toe of a white cotton sock. By then I'd plucked about half of Peed-row's fur. During my high school days, Peed-row became my confidant, listened with a grave and soulful expression as I poured out my heart, told him about how the kids pushed me around, what names they had for me. Peed-row listened and I loved him for it. I wrote out my last will and testament, directing Peed-row be given to my brother Steve, passed on through the generations. I tucked this document behind a loose brick in the school entrance hall.

Today my brother and I are estranged over my having come out. Today Peed-row straddles the headboard of the four-poster rustic pine bed my husband and I share, presides with somber eyes over the activity of love.

+ + +

Church told me if I had faith, prayed earnestly, threw myself into the arms of God I'd be given victory over temptation. Over the allure of Frank Stassek's square chin, enormous dark eyes. My attraction to the shapely curve of Rick Scheesler's shoulders. The pull of pounding thighs as Rodney Young ran the basketball court.

I believed my same-sex attractions were not part of me. They were a foreign incursion by an power that did not have my best interests in mind. My job was to fight, conquer and overcome these desires, never to give them place or purchase in my mind or heart. I tried to resist, to rid myself of these attractions to no avail. No amount of prayer, faith, fasting, self-flagellation seemed to matter. Same-sex desire constantly reminded me what a failure I was, how far I was fallen from grace and God, how weak my will to live aright.

+ + +

My parents had allowed my year-younger brother Steve to keep Teddy even when that faithful companion was bare of all fur, missing his music box, weak in the joints. At age 8, my brother David, five years my junior, still had his much-loved stuffed bears--Pinky and Big Teddy. Then 13, I knew I was different from both brothers, deficient. I coveted whatever it was they had that made their life easier. Somewhere I'd taken a wrong turn. I fixated on the fact I'd never had a teddy bear. I put it atop my Christmas wish list. My parents were puzzled by this odd request, but obliged. I knew they had when I checked the gifts secreted in their bedroom closet. But it didn't happen, whatever magic I was hoping for when I opened that package on December 25, acted surprised. I turned the wind-up key; Rock-a-Bye Baby tinkled forth, devoid of answers. comfort. I never pulled any fur off that bear.

+ + +

At 24, I married a strong-willed woman, sure she would be my salvation on earth even as I believed Christ would be my salvation in heaven. Didn't work that-a-way. I was still tormented by the allure of men. And despised myself for it.

Deep the lesson was scribed in my soul: hate yourself for thinking, feeling, being this way. And count this hatred your highest virtue. (Hate yourself and love yourself for it? Nowadays, I count this a simple recipe for insanity.)

At the time, I didn't know how or where to find the answers I was seeking. More to the point, I didn't know how to phrase the questions.

My coming out process held several turning points. I sensed God speaking to me one Easter, believed deliverance from this lifelong curse of same-sex attraction was immanent. I swore to do my utmost to help it happen within a year. Eleven months later I stumbled into an internet message board chockablock with the stories of people who claimed to be what I had believed was impossible--both Christian and gay. Could such a cross between fish and fowl exist? Yet I recognized myself in their accounts of the lifelong struggle, the never measuring up, the deep deep knowledge that something within is flawed.

Could I be gay? No way. Yes, surely. No, unthinkable. Your answer please.

Declaring myself a gay man would end my marriage, end so many things, so many relationships. And yet I reeled from the possibility there might be a place for me in the world, a name for who I was, a reason why I felt as I did. This got my attention, whispered of life to come, of hope.

But could I square this with what God had to say in the Bible on the subject of homosexuality? No, I could not. And this stopped me cold. Almost.

How do I know if I'm gay? I put this question to the online bulletin board participants. How could I know, really and truly know? Said one respondent, "If you have to ask, you can't be gay." There. I had my answer. But it didn't ring true for me.

Another man joked that he had a sure-fire test. I emailed him privately to say I was all ears. He suggested I imagine I'd died and gone to heaven; God offers me choice of two beds--one with the most beautiful woman in the world in it and one with the most gorgeous man; which would I choose?

My heart sank. This was not the test to lay to rest all my fears. "I'd choose the bed with the man in it, no question," I responded. "But since I'm in heaven, I can't choose a sinful response, so I would know God is OK with it."

This the crux of the matter: what would God think? What would my family think? My church? Minnesota? All these people and forces who held sway over my life. Whose opinion was more important than mine.

+ + +

Family shopping trips were rare excursions when I was a boy. The September I entered Mrs. Hewitt's third grade class, my parents took all five of their children to a department store in the big city. There I was taken by one particular stuffed animal--a six foot long snake in bold magenta. Cloth eyes, red felt tongue. I made sure my parents knew how much I wanted it. "We don't have money to spend on each of you kids right now," my mother said. I nodded. I knew our family wasn't rich. Come Christmas my heart leapt to find that pink-red snake in a package under the tree, my name it. My father had purchased it on that very trip while I was across the store with my mother. Now I smile to think of my parents giving me so phallic a symbol. And my naming it Ferocious. He was soon wrapped around my arm, my neck, my chest, my affections. In childhood he served as jump rope, lariat, repelling cable and more. In my coming out I took him with me when I moved out of the house. He served as touchstone, lifeline, reminded me I am permitted sometimes to love what I love.

+ + +

In coming out I made the conscious decision to look within my heart and trust what I find there, to believe in the value of my affections, the validity of my experience. To love what I love. Ferociously. To say yes to life in the form it presents itself.

This turned my world on its ear. Family, friends, church, employer, trusted others threw me out, consigned me to hell, eyed my tumble from grace. In mind's eye I stood alone on cliff's edge, stared out over a vast wasteland, flicking flaming tongues below, wondered what would happen to me.


Life happened to me. Pain and anguish and loss and loneliness. Joy and wild gladness, healing and acceptance from members of my own tribe. Laughter and love. Yes, love happened to me, too. Came along a man when I'd had all the stuffing knocked out of me. Picked me up and held me. At my lowest ebb, loved me.

Dared I trust him? Dared love him? I listened to my heart. Yes, it said. Yes.

Yes, I said. Yes. We've been together ever since, some 16 years.

With practice and a certain long difficult repentance, I keep learning to listen to my heart and to trust the wisdom within. On my best days I experience this as living in tune with the divine, expressing gratitude and love, celebrating those times when these manifest in exuberant joy.

Other days, life sucks. Finding the grace and gumption to say "thank you" and meaning it as much as possible, this is the heart's gift. To recognize weakness, inadequacy, failure, pain and to be present to it. Accept it. Say yes.

I shall never be perfect, not in the way I once thought I was called to be. But as I listen to my heart I discover I live in a world infused with the sacred. I choose awareness as often as I remember to do so. I feel my feelings, breathe into the moment, realize I am not alone, walk in wonder, embrace mystery. Say yes.

An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in the December issue of The Community Letter

01 November 2011


I had never seen anything like it, of that I was sure. The creature erupted spontaneously, grew quickly, gathered strength, energy and power right before my eyes. Soon it was massive, undulating, amorphous—and hungry. It sported 100 arms, half as many heads, spoke with one voice.
Only later did I realize I have seen it many times before. No, not so much have seen as felt it, feel it. In fact, I feel its presence almost every day—almost all the time.
But back to the moment.
Last month my husband Dave and I participated in a weeklong communal gathering that welcomes people of any sexuality, orientation, gender identity or expression. Over 100 of us camped in the woods of Eastern Tennessee, ate, played, worked, danced and drummed together.
At sun set Friday evening the weather turned unexpectedly chilly. A few people ringed the communal campfire. Several more lay huddled on a nearby grassy knoll, warming themselves by group body heat. Each lay his or her head on another's belly. Some interlocked arms and legs. "Look! It's a puppy pile," said one man as he hurried to join. The clew grew larger by the minute as others followed suit.
We approached with caution. Dave had sprained his ankle and was walking with difficulty. We opted to steer clear of the frivolity, aimed instead for the fire. As we made to pass by, arms reached out grasping, beckoning. Voices called, "Join us! Join us!"
We shook our heads, smiled our apologies to the multi-limbed creature, gestured toward the fire.
"Joooooooiiiiiiiin usssssss!"
From somewhere in the deepening twilight came a single voice: "No! Don't feed it! Get away while you still can!"
We laughed, walked on over to the fire, joined a drumming circle. I tapped out a repetitive line—one and two and three and four. But I kept an eye on the mass of people on the knoll. I loved what was going on there, a spontaneous action, an event, a happening. It embodied humor, served a practical function and fostered togetherness. Plus, the participants were having a lot of fun.
"We could feel each other laugh," one of the group members told me later. "We all had our heads on each others' bellies and we could feel the ripples of laughter. Words, too. A word would just erupt and we'd all chant it in unison. We called ourselves a 'pheno-moeba.'" My informant was located on the outer edge of the group. "I guess I was the asshole of the creature," he said.
One and two and three and four. The moon rose over Short Mountain. The pheno-moeba howled in delight. One and two and three and four. I marveled at how long they kept at it. And with such enthusiasm. With their bodies, their voices, their coming together, they were creating community. They were being playful with it. They were keeping each other warm. And having a great time all the while.
One and two and three and four. A fan dancer decked out in white feathers and sequined drag came by and presented impromptu entertainment. Flashlights served as makeshift spotlights. When the show concluded the howling resumed.
Then the single voice again, this time preaching a gospel of freedom. "You are all individuals! You each have your own mind! You can think independently!"
From 50 mouths erupted one word: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"
"WE ARE ONE!" the creature insisted. "ONE! ONE!" The prophetic voice was silenced. Night blanketed the hillside; I couldn't see if the preacher-prophet escaped or if he was pulled in and subsumed into the group mind.
One and two and three and four. I pondered what was playing out alongside me. A parable of sorts about groupthink, about the unwritten codes that pressure us to conform, walk, talk, dress, vote, buy, spend, waste same as everyone else. The call to uniformity. In the larger society and in our subculture niches, as well. The comfort and warmth of being sucked in, feeling a part of a whole. The institutions—church, family, academe, work, legal system, politics—that define, reward and reinforce acceptable behavior. And punish anything else. The voices that cry in the wilderness, speak out against the blob, the pheno-moeba of social structure, stricture, prejudice. What happens to them.
A sudden chill of recognition. Although I do not see a physical creature called Societal Pressure, I feel it breathing down my neck in nearly every aspect of life: I can't do/say/think/love/be that. What will the neighbors think? What will my mother say? Will people like me? Will I be accepted?
Dare I stand against the pheno-moeba? Do I? Will I? Will you?

01 October 2011


A leaky roof? Been there. Worse, not having the money to fix it. Been there, too. So I sympathized a few years back with the neighbors down the road when they tacked a blue tarp across the east end of their roof. Not always easy, living in an old house.
I like old houses. They have character, heritage. They speak soulfully to me about the human condition. I want to honor what is aged. Protect, preserve, enjoy, learn from it. Yet the aging process is not always graceful. Left untended, a leaky roof robs energy, destroys what it was meant to protect.
Unresolved anger is a leaky roof. The problem is there all the time, even if not always evident. When storms hit there's no hiding it, no time to fix it; it may only get worse. It affects more than one person.
Over at the neighbors' house, the blue tarp crackled in the summer sun, autumn wind and winter weather. When spring rains came pounding down, I hoped the family who lived there was staying dry. I didn't notice them move out, didn't know they'd gone. But as I drove past the house one spring day I was shocked to see the huge trees that lined their lane all toppled. The trees next to the house had been felled too, willy-nilly. One had crashed through the middle of the garage roof, another had smashed into the side of the house.
"Did you see what happened to that house!?" Dave asked me when I got home.
"I did. I am so sad. Looks to me like someone was angry. To cut down trees like that smacks of rage."
"Funny you should say that," Dave said. "I thought the same thing."
If old homes are to be respected, I feel even more strongly about old trees. Seeing those trees—far older than me, alive longer than whomever hacked them down—thrown over without regard, without care, ripped at something in me. We cannot do violence to another—person, plant, animal, object—without doing violence to our souls. As I see it, whoever was responsible for this destruction tore at the spirit within.
When next I drove past, the house was gone. Those huge trees, gone. Had they dug a hole, buried it all? Had they cut up the trees and hauled them away? Only a large patch of trammeled earth marked the site that once housed a farm family, their hopes, dreams, pain, sorrow, despair, joys.
Later that spring the entire place was plowed under, planted. I felt gratified to see stunted corn grow where the house had stood, where the trees had been cut down. I was glad the harvest of rage was almost nil.
The next year's soybeans grew low to the ground. Scraggly things, nothing to write home about. And I was glad. I wanted that land to be as if it were sown with salt, never again to give birth to anything, to be forever cursed. That would show them. I wanted whomever exercised such anger to pay for it the rest of his or her life. I wanted that block of land to be blighted, to stand as testimony against anger and mistreatment.
But life is stronger than my revenge fantasies.
Corn again the next year. And I had to look twice, three times, to identify the place where the trees once shaded the long summer afternoons. Life was coming back into the soil, reaching up into the plants, filling out the grain. I was disappointed.
If I can nurse a grudge, why not nature? Must life go on, take over, will to continue? If I am sad and angry, cannot the whole world be sad and angry too? And if not the whole world, why not this little patch of it? Don't the consequences of our actions reverberate through a lifetime? How can healing take place so soon?
It's been five years now. The corn grew almost consistently well across the entire field this year. Life's message to me: Let grow and move on.
Life has been reminding me lately that I carry resentment, still wish ill upon those who reacted harshly to my coming out. I don't care to hear this. I've wrapped myself in a blue tarp, done what I needed to get by. Yet this old house of me requires structural repair. And that entails the hard work of forgiveness. The sun may be shining right now—but how long before the next storm hits?
Betcha if I keep my eyes open, life will offer me today some small chance to practice forgiveness, letting go, letting grow.

This essay appeared in the October issue of The Community Letter

02 September 2011


I can live on glimpses. I have to. By choice, my husband Dave and I make our home in a secluded rural area. This offers us much in the way of tranquility, lessons from nature, a quiet retreat from the world. What it doesn't offer is men. Most weeks I can count on my fingers the number of different men I see—Dave and my several male coworkers—and still have my thumbs left over.

There are months when I don't make it into town at all. Used to, Dave was in town every weekday for his job; he could run errands, get the groceries. Now in retirement, he still gets to town more often than I. Those times I do land in civilization I arrive ravenous for the sight, sound and smell of living, breathing male flesh. Hunger is the best sauce, says the proverb. When I'm on full alert, even a walk through the grocery store serves up a saucy feast for the senses. And don't even get me started on Saturday mornings at the lumberyard.

And then there was the other Tuesday. Oh my gosh. I was on my way to work when I saw him. Shirtless, he stood at the end of his parents' driveway, hoisted two empty garbage cans. This threw his shoulders back, thrust his chest forward. His pecs were popping, biceps flexing as he hefted the twin containers. I wanted to slam on the brakes, gawk and gawk some more. I wanted an 8 x 10" glossy. Autographed. With a phone number.

He's the neighbor's boy, college kid home for the summer. I first saw him from a distance about a month ago, out in the field helping his father bale hay. He looked beautiful. Dumb, maybe, for having stripped off his shirt while haying, but mostly beautiful. Thing is, for me nearly every man looks gorgeous from a distance. My imagination fills in details, usually in his favor. And mine.

I had not seen this man face-on, close-up before. Some things are worth the wait. Some moments last forever. As I say, I can live on glimpses.

I can see him even now. Blonde curls wreathe a classic face, rounded full lips, strong chin. Suntanned skin ripples over a shapely body. He might have stepped out of a sacred oak tree or descended a sky bridge from Mount Olympus. Striking, striking man. He is a 3-D iteration—in living color—of the men I pant after in photo books.

And then I flashed on past him, cursing under my breath the oncoming truck that made me wrench my eyes back to the road. I silenced the radio so I could savor the moment, savor him, fix him in mind's eye, exult over such perfectly sculpted pecs occupying space within three-quarters mile of our house. Ah, me. Ah, men. Amen.

Surely such beauty doesn't inhabit every oak tree between home and work. Or maybe it does. Maybe the whole world is sacred, reveals itself as such to anyone who is looking.

His looks have stayed with me. I've watched for him ever since. Begun to think I made him up, or if not, saw more than there was to see. Maybe he's not that good looking after all. Maybe I have an overactive imagination.

And then I think, well, so what? If the rapturous vision doesn't always hold up under close scrutiny, so what? There's plenty of ugliness run amok in the world; I know this. I don't think it would be such a bad thing if we all saw Greek gods in oak trees . . . if we all saw the sacred in the everyday, the divine in the ordinary . . . if we started treating each other as if we were all made of stardust, as if we were all somehow celestial beings.

I caught a glimpse of the ineffable in the college-age son of a neighbor standing cheek-to-jowl with trash cans. And you can bet I keep my eyes peeled every time I pass those oak trees at the end of his drive. If I watch closely, maybe I will see him again.

Or maybe, if I'm attentive and willing to slow down, maybe I'll look within and catch a glimpse of god as close to me as my own heartbeat. The mystics tell us the divine dwells within—within me, within you, within all life, all beings. In all that is, there gleams some spark of the creative energy that animates the world. Not in every instance so visually arresting—alas!—but still, when carefully considered and understood, every bit as beautiful.

This article appeared in the September issue of The Community Letter.

01 August 2011


He stood behind the ravaged corpse, blood staining his hands, no apology in his black eyes. The white wall behind him was dotted with crimson handprints as if he had been creating art out of gore.
When I have no words to express what's going on inside, sometimes a line from a poem nails my feeling. As I looked at the carnage, a question from Stanley Kunitz' The Layers came to mind: "How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?"
Then came a question spoken aloud by my husband Dave: "What do you want to do with him?"
What indeed?
I love geese. In particular, I love Chinese geese, the most cantankerous, ornery and aggressive of all breeds of domesticated geese. But also the most garrulous. They always have something to say, will offer an opinion on anything.
Several years back Dave and I reared two Chinese goslings. I have warm memories of going out to pick wild black raspberries one summer, leading a parade of two humans, a raccoon foundling, a dog, cat and two young geese. We all of us picked raspberries, even if only two of us deposited any in the bucket.
I love geese. I love their antics, their gregariousness, their individual temperaments. I see myself in their headlong rush to catch up, being too dense to find simple routes through barriers, the way they think they know it all, imagine themselves far bigger and braver than they are.
The woods around us teem with predators: fox, coyote, raccoon. Probably a weasel or two, as well. We'd had the geese two or three years when some creature of the night killed them, first one then the other. After the second strike, I wandered the yard weeping, clutching a white feathered body to my chest. Eventually my arms grew tired. I dug a grave. A friend gave us a concrete goose statue to mark the site.
These wondrously recalcitrant creatures had been my teachers about life, anger, self-centeredness and getting along with others. And now they were dead.
We've been gooseless the last few years and I didn't realize how much I missed the excited trumpet call of a welcome, soft murmurs of grassy contentment, the way a goose always gets the last word. Didn't remember until this spring when we came home from the farmers' supply store with three goslings, two white Chinese and a gray-brown Toulouse. I was in heaven.
They lived in a box in the dining room the first two weeks, then in a corner of the basement until they were big enough to sleep outdoors in a predator-proof cage. During the day we gave them run of a large pen with a goosecote (a doghouse-like structure) for shelter. Then Dave and I returned from an afternoon trip to town to find one of our Chinese geese missing from the pen. We beefed up security, but about a week later, a second goose disappeared. I looked for her, looked for feathers, evidence of (forgive me) fowl play. I saw nothing. Poor feathered thing. I hoped the end was quick.
Dave conducted a more thorough search. He shone a flashlight into the back of the goosecote. "Come look," he called.
I looked. There was my beloved Chinese goose, snow white feathers spattered with blood, body rent asunder. And there, at the back of the cote, caught literally red-handed, a raccoon, staring up with beady eyes.
What to do? Dave put this question to me. I considered the options. Did I want to get a gun, blow the back out of the goosecote and the hell out of the murderer? I could get a pitchfork, impale the hard-hearted creature. Or seal up the door, let it starve to death.
"Let's let him go," I said to Dave. "The woods are full of raccoons. What will we accomplish by killing this one?"
I removed the dead goose from the cote, let the wild creature be. Dug a grave near the concrete statue. The spade turned up a white grub, ugly toothsome creature with a grey butt, orange-yellow face and legs. I focused my anger on that grub, held it back, threw it to the banty chicks temporarily housed in the basement. They looked askance at it until the biggest of them pecked at it, found it to his liking, chawed it down.
Even in death, geese teach me about dealing with loss: mourn what is taken, give focus to anger, let go resentment and revenge, honor the departed, allow life to feed life, learn that to love is to risk loss. Know it's worth it.

Bryn Marlow lives in Indiana on a 1930s farmstead with his husband Dave who mopes about the house saying, "I can't stop thinking about that poor grub." This letter appeared in the August issue of The Community Letter. Photo credit: Rocket Ship,

01 July 2011


I am not one to talk about awareness. Not when I am surprised every mid-April to learn income taxes are due. But I do have moments of lucidity when something rivets my attention. The threat of imminent death, for example. Or immanent sex. Sometimes, too, quiet moments of reflection heighten my awareness.

Small wonder, then, that I was feeling especially aware this past Thursday while sitting in the hospital waiting room outside the cardiologist’s office alongside the sexiest man I know.

Two weeks ago, on the day my husband Dave retired after 24 years at this same hospital, he went to see his doctor about recurrent chest pain. A treadmill stress test uncovered some abnormality. He was referred to this cardiologist. He was told to arrive 20 minutes before the appointment to fill out paperwork.

I took the afternoon off work so I could accompany him. I was late. Dave already had the pickup running when I pulled in the drive. I jumped in and we sped off, sped down the country roads, silence heavy between us.

We arrive at the office only three minutes late. I breathe a sigh of relief. The “paperwork” amounts to three questions the receptionist puts to him in rapid succession. I’m not listening. My eyes are on the man next to us. Slim-bodied and a little shorter than Dave’s 5'-7", thick silver hair cascades over his shoulders and part way down his back. He wears a long-sleeved pink dress shirt and jeans, huge belt buckle, shoes of Italian leather. I keep looking at him, stealing glances. As we seat ourselves in the waiting room for nearly an hour-long wait, I ask Dave, “Do you think that man is gay?”

He knows who I’m talking about. “The man at the counter? What makes you think so?”
“He’s violating social expectaions.”

“How so?”

“He has long long hair. He’s slim and trim. He was telling the receptionist he watches what he eats. He’s wearing pink.”

“Hmm.” Unlike me, Dave is slow to leap to conclusions about people’s sexual orientation.

“This is Indiana,” I say. “Chances are good.”


Silence. Then I stare at my husband.

“What,” he says. He knows I’m up to something.

“Want to break some social expectations?”

“Not exactly.”

“You already are,” I say. “You’re sitting too close to another man. You’re thin. You take care of yourself. You look years younger than your actual age. But I could help you bust a few more.”

He gives me a look.

“Bob Wallace?” A woman’s voice. The man in a wheelchair near us jerks his head up. His daughter has stepped out for a moment, however, and isn’t here to push his wheelchair. The nurse tells him she’ll call him again in a few minutes. She does. Daughter has yet to return. More waiting. Third time’s the charm for Bob.

I’m about to pick up an issue of Angina, sole magazine in the wall rack, when Dave’s name is called.

All the cardiologists here are top-notch. Asked which one he preferred, Dave chose the cutest of the bunch. He has good taste in men, my husband. This doctor has a full head of close-cropped dark hair shading to gray, gray-blue eyes, dark eyebrows, a classic profile, compact muscled body.

Doesn’t hurt that he delivers good news. The abnormality in the stress test probably indicates nothing. Dave has none of the risk factors for coronary heart disease, except that he is male and over 50. The physician recommends a low-level dosage of medication to regulate blood pressure, keep the heart from beating too fast.

“Come see me again in a month.”

Hoo yah.

+ + +

Our mood is upbeat as we leave the hospital to run errands en route home. First stop, the expensive grocery store for a few items the cut-rate shop doesn’t carry. Whilst I flip thru a magazine on raising chickens, Dave leafs through a photo collection of the royal wedding. How very gay we are, I think. Here I am looking at cocks while he’s checking out the queens.

Several minutes later Dave gives me a guilty glance. “I know I’m taking a lot of time,” he says, “but I’m enjoying this.”

I tell him not to hurry. I am aware of how little time we have together, any of us, how sweet our shared moments. Attentiveness offers this gift: it reveals the wonder in the everyday.

As we pull out of the parking lot Dave thumps the steering wheel, “Man, I like living with you!”
“And I with you.” I reach over and lay my hand on his thigh. Warm sunshine glints through the open window. A small black jumping spider edges along the windshield wiper. A nearby cardinal sings, “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty!”

An edited version of this essay appeared in the July issue of the Community Letter.

01 June 2011


My husband Dave very recently retired after 24 years as chaplain with hospice. He looks forward to having time for creative pursuits. Yet even as he says hello to his creative self, he says goodbye to position and daily routine, patient contact and serving as part of a hospice team. He is defined by the space he no longer occupies.
Dave's last day at work was Friday. He left at 3:00, headed for a 3:15 doctor's appointment regarding his heart. "This is not how I envisioned starting my retirement," he said. He's been feeling tightness and sharp jabbing pains in his chest—angina pectoris.
And so we are at the hospital. He's here for tests. I'm here for him. I feel a pang when I look at this man I adore, when I place a hand on his defined pecs, know I love him, fear losing him. I want to hear that all is well, that this pain is perhaps the result of stress and major life transition.
Today Dave will undertake a treadmill stress test with radioactive dye coursing through his system. Just now he is in line for a blood draw when the man behind him engages him in conversation. This fellow had a heart transplant three years ago. Doctors had given him 10 months to live without the transplant, 10 years with it. He opted to pursue treatment.
"I used to weigh 430 pounds," he tells Dave. "I hated shopping for clothes. I felt like I was buying a couch cover when I bought a pair of pants." Before his heart transplant he lost 60 pounds and had bariatric surgery. He's now down to 180 pounds and says he is doing very well, feels great.
Dave says hearing this man's story helps him put his own troubles in perspective. "I realize I'm worried about my condition and there are people who face far greater challenges than I do."
What I hear is how we are defined in part by the space we no longer occupy. This man once weighed 250 pounds more than he does now, and he readily shares this information with a stranger. Part of who he is now is what he does not have. He no longer has the heart he was born with. He no longer has 250 pounds that were once a part of him. These losses allow him to live and to live more fully, but that doesn't mean that he's forgotten about them or no longer thinks about them. In an intangible, invisible way they are a part of who he is.
Dave and I later stand at the radiology counter. An elderly woman comes out of the waiting room, looks about, looks bewildered. The receptionist turns her attention from us to the woman.
"They wheeled your husband down to Area 2. You were on the phone so I didn't interrupt you. Go down this hallway to the desk in Area 2 and they'll tell you where he is."
The woman nods and steps away, then turns back. "When you've been married to a man for 60 years, you miss him when he's not around."
Dave says he hears this as a need to talk, invitation to dialogue, plea for help. I hear a comment about loss, about self-definition, about defining oneself by what or who is not there—or here.
I gauge such encounters through the screen or filter of my own experience. Who am I? I am who I am not; I am the space I no longer occupy. I am the father whose children are lost to him, whose children choose to have nothing to do with him. I am the father whose eldest son at age 10 said, "Dad, I don't want to see or talk to you again." I am the father whose twin sons when they turned 14, obtained a restraining order to put a stop to our visitation together. At issue: my being gay. My being an openly affirming gay man. My being a gay man with the temerity to believe I'm not going to hell for being who I am.
I define myself in part by the space I do not occupy, by the children who are lost to me. By the heart space that is empty, the echo I hear when I call my sons' names. Is this me, the un-father, not-father, used-to-be father? Yes, part of who I am is who I am not. But I sometimes wonder if I spend too much time looking at the empty half of the glass. Still, to be human is to experience loss.
The stress test over, we go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled. The woman in line behind us says she's been up since 3:00 this morning. Her husband is in the hospital with an unknown heart condition. She received a middle-of-the-night call from the nursing staff suggesting she come sit with him. None of their three children could join her. She's having to go it alone.
"I don't know what I will do if something happens to him," she says. "We're barely making it on two incomes now."
Who will she be when her husband dies? How will she handle a new definition of self when it smacks her in the face? How does any of us handle loss? We adapt, we cope. We grieve. We move on, we get stuck. We do the best we can, the best we know how. We rely on each other. We tell our stories. To anyone who will listen. This is part of being human, too.
Later this month, come Pride Day, I'll be thinking of this as I celebrate us as a people of courage and spirit, as I listen to the stories told of who we are, where we've come from, how we define ourselves. We are who we are—and also who we are not.

This essay appeared in the June issue of The Community Letter.

01 May 2011


I don't think I was born to my parents at all. I think they opened a box of lime-flavored Jell-O, ripped the top off the brown packet inside, poured the powdery contents into a bowl, stirred in boiling water and ice cubes, and–voila!–there I was. Ready to be poured into a waiting mold. All my life I've let others define my boundaries; decide what shape I am to fill.
On the other hand, I'm convinced my friend Bill began life as a hawthorn tree. His parents planted him in the good earth, watched their sapling son grow tall, strong and iron-willed. Like the sharp-spiked hawthorn, Bill can be worse than prickly if you get too close. Grab him the wrong way and you'll be sorry.
Bill seems to have an inborn ability to summon boundaries. Something comes up automatically in him, some self-protective mechanism which I totally lack. He swells up like the puff adder who when threatened pretends to be a cobra. Mess with him or those he loves and you're in for a world of trouble.
Mess with me and I probably won't even notice. Or if I do, I'll tell myself I deserve whatever ill treatment comes my way. I am the puffball. Threaten me and I just sit there. Step on me and I emit a little gasp and spew green spores into the air.
Growing up, I didn't know I was gay. Didn't know the meaning of the word. Didn't know there was a word to describe who I was inside. Knew I was different; couldn't tell you how. Knew that difference was wrong. Knew I was somehow flawed, disordered down deep inside, sinful, wrong. All this without ever learning there was a term to describe me, without learning there were others like me, that who I was had validity in and of itself.
Instead, I picked up on the message that who I was inside was worthless. That if I were to find acceptance and place in the world, it would be granted me to the extent I made my mother happy, to the extent I followed religious teaching, to the extent I paid attention in school and followed the rules.
I grew adept at molding myself into the exact shape of others' expectations. My parents wanted an obedient cheerful child. Voila. The church wanted a good boy, one who told his friends about Jesus, who memorized Bible verses and volunteered time and energy. Voila. Teacher wanted answers, homework done, legible handwriting, no lip. Voila.
Later I met the demands of professor, employer, girlfriend, fiancée, wife with similar aplomb. I look back now and shudder to remember my boss praise me with, "You have a real knack for knowing what I want." Voila. That's how I survived in a world where I felt nobody would want me if they really knew who I am. Given a whiff of your expectations, I'd mold myself to them. Captain Jell-O rides again!
I wish I could say coming out changed all this. My mother would probably say so. She experienced my coming out as a slap in her face. To me, in coming out I signaled I would no longer kowtow to what and who others wanted me to be. At least in this one area I would claim my right to exist. I would claim my own life. I would live into it. My announcement met with something less than widespread acclaim.
"Bastard," said family. "Not here you won't."
"Fired," said employer. "Not here you won't."
"Reprobate," said church. "Not here you won't."
"Betrayer," said wife. "Not here you won't."
Suddenly I was running naked through a forest of hawthorn trees. Bloody business, that. Some of the puncture wounds are still tender, 16 years later.
I have not altogether broken with the past; coming out did not reshape me into an entirely new person. I'm still beset with Jell-O-like tendencies. What's changed for me is that I now ride though life with greater awareness of when and how I'm shaping myself into another's mold. Sometimes I make conscious choices to shape myself this way or that; sometimes I refuse to bend and flex. Sometimes only afterwards do I say, "Gosh, how very Captain Jell-O of me!" I then resolve to be on the alert, watch for it the next time. I forgive myself and move on.
I'll never be a hawthorn tree. It's not my nature. And why be something I'm not? I'm proud of myself those times I ask this same question when I feel the urge to take up my Captain Jell-O cape and ooze to the rescue.

This essay appeared in the May issue of The Community Letter.