Friday, July 8, 2016

On Buddhas and Buttholes

The tattoo I added to my left shoulder twelve years ago needs some retouching. As well as I can judge. I’ve never seen it. At least not right side around. The mirror is the best I can do.

Without telling you the whole story of how the design came to me, my  ink reads, “Destroyer of Illusion.”  The script looks sufficiently Indo-Himalayan, the pattern sufficiently abstract, that lots of people curious enough to ask me about it assume it’s not in English. The letters striate from the perimeter into a tightly described circle, a part of my body visible to others but not to me. I take it on faith that it’s there.
Well, maybe you get the idea...
“Destroyer of Illusion” can mean a lot of things. When the phrase started running incessantly through my mind, I pictured Keanu Reeves in The Matrix as vividly as the warrior boddhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism. Only later did I get it that those three words, and the design I’d made of them, were teaching me a lesson about acknowledging my First Chakra. Big surprise--embodied wisdom isn’t always a matter of cognition, or of self-awareness in a dominantly intellectual sense. Sometimes it’s a matter of going down into the earth and into the silent, unseen roots of our life, rather than up into the clarity of an elevated realm of light. It’s a matter of trust that it’s not only safe, it’s even essential, to be seen from another perspective than that of our own ego.
“We go down, like moles, claws scrabbling in the soil,” sing The Hidden Cameras. “The journey goes down, not up,” writes Pema Chödrön. “A man walks upright, and the food in his body is shut in, as if in a well-made purse,” says Julian of Norwich. “When the time of his necessity comes, the purse is opened and then shut again, in most seemly fashion.  And it is God who does this, as it is shown when he says that he comes down to us in our humblest needs.”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Slow Burn

Nearly a week after the mass murder of forty-nine mostly queer, mostly brown people, and the critical injury of dozens more, I still feel numb. I need to go on parsing apart my dissociated reaction, but meanwhile, what cuts through my denial is seeing the faces of the men and women who went to Pulse wanting a night of ordinary, God-given human happiness, but whose precious and irreplaceable lives ended there.


Here’s what I’m not numb to: the spineless cowardice of the U.S. Congress in its endless deference to the gun lobby. In particular, the hypocrisy of Republicans who care more for the score of their morally shabby, backward-looking party than they do for the future of civil society and the viability of constitutional government.  The desire of of xenophobes once again to lay blame on Muslims and on Islam, instead of acknowledging that the corrosive rage of deeply damaged men  and contempt for sexual minorities run through American society like a cancer. And chief among them, the entitled, narcissistic buffoon who will almost certainly be named the Republican candidate for president. The refusal to acknowledge that  virulent hatred and incitement to violence are in this country more often associated with right-wing Christian preachers like Baptist ministers Roger Jimenez in Sacramento, California and Steven Anderson in Tempe, Arizona, to mention only two.
For years, we’ve been marching in Pride parades more in celebration than in protest or defiance. This year, walking with queer brothers and sisters will, for many, be once again an act of courage and witness. And in the assertion, "We are Orlando," a testimony that love is stronger than death.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Other People's Gardens


Peony, poppy, bearded iris, Siberian iris, poppy, peony, peony, lilac, bearded iris, lilac.

One of the daily gifts of the short bicycle commute to my office is watching other people’s gardens burst into flowers I can’t grow in my own. Amazingly, I get to live in a place where one tiny front garden borders on the next, and it’s easy to see them not as my garden, his garden, her garden, their garden, but as the garden--the “one great garden which/ is always here” so movingly celebrated in Thom Gunn’s elegy for his aunt, “Breaking Ground.” I find myself not caring much that I can’t grow myself what somebody else has grown for all of us.  And glad for the things I grow for them. Gratitude for what I receive, beyond anything I might have asked or imagined,  flows into generosity flows into gratitude.  You can't garden in spaces like these without having at least some awareness that you're planting and weeding and watering for other people, just as they're planting and weeding and watering for you. After a while, the very distinction between giving and receiving starts to break down in this non-zero-sum game.
 
 
(Photos offered by Hoppergrass.)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sacred Clay: A Guest Post by Abwoon

I’m very grateful to Abwoon, an ordained minister and ceramic artist, for his generous sharing below. I read in the following account of his creative practice his devotion to the deep Mystery of embodiment, and a moving faith that spirit and flesh belong together--that, for those of us who walk the Path in cisgendered male bodies, heart and cock belong together, for the repair of our souls and the healing of the world.

You can contact him at abwoonclay@gmail.com.





I'm obsessed with process. I seldom find something interesting without wondering how it came into being. The process of mold making has always roused my curiosity in particular. No matter the material, looking at the finished piece, I love to imagine the mold from which it was pulled.

While preparing myself for my second attendance at Coph Nia, a now-defunct gathering of gay and bi Pagan men, I considered what I could add to my vendor space alongside the essential oil blends I’d prepared and the bodywork I’d be offering. I’d long wanted to learn how to make plaster molds for slipcast ceramics, and I was also interested in the notion of phallic objects for altar and ritual use. It seemed like the perfect time both to learn this process and to create those phalluses.

I worked with a friend I’d met through a ceramics class she'd offered. She’s a master mold maker, and I couldn't have had a better teacher. We worked from a big rubber dildo that I borrowed from a performer friend who'd used it as a prop. My teacher and I created the mold in a day, I brought it home to cure, and over the course of a few weeks I poured and released copies of that mold that each managed to take on its own personality and individual qualities. You might expect a mold to create perfect replicas every time, and in a very controlled, factory setting, that’s exactly the case. I wasn’t looking for that at all. From that mold I pulled phalluses that leaned different directions, curved in their own ways, and displayed a suggestion of the diverse reality of men's members in shape if not in size.

I used a two-glaze process on the phalluses, and the outcome was exactly not what I expected. This aspect of ceramics both interests and maddens me. It’s part of what moves the process beyond the mundane. I find the finished products beautiful, and not what I’d anticipated. They were fired hotter than they normally would be in order to increase their strength. The high temperature changed the behavior of the glazes. At first I was disappointed. I felt that two months’ attention in pouring, releasing, first-firing, glazing, and now second-firing had ended in failure.

I spent some time with them on shelves just to look at them; I needed to see them for what they had become, apart from what I’d imagined. They were and are beautiful in spite of my desire to control the outcome. If that's not a metaphor for life, I don't know what is.

Our lives are beautiful.

What I ended up with in this first (and maybe only) run of ceramic phalluses, is a dozen ceramic cocks of various shape, size, and finish. Some are light; others are heavy. Some are varied in color, others uniform. Some are glossy in finish, others matte. What they all share is an incredible feeling when they rest in your palm. They are solid. They are powerful. They will endure.

It’s been a pleasure to share these pieces with others. It's been a pleasure to walk this path, practicing a new process with my hands while experiencing a higher journey toward accepting my life as it is, apart from expectation, and remembering, every time I lay hold of my own phallus, that I hold something sacred in my palm, a source of pleasure that can be devotional, worshipful. When we remember this sacred dimension of our desire and pleasure, we find ourselves living in a new way. We honor our sexuality as part of the entirety of who we are, and not as a substitute for holistic living. We find that we are called to live out a life that finds the sacred everywhere, just as we find it within.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost

If God were as small
as the houses we frame--how
deeply fucked we'd be.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Waiting on the Season


These last days of April, these first days of May, what I most need to cultivate is patience.

The garden’s awake, and something new is stirring every day, if not from hour to hour. The clumps of Tulipa tarda whose buds  I first noticed just this morning had started to open in the sun by early afternoon. Two days ago, I wondered what had happened to the lily-of-the-valley. Today the shoots are coming up everywhere, reminding me they’re an invasive species, and the last thing I have to worry about is that they’d ever die out. I didn’t even remember planting wild ginger by the front walk last year,  until yesterday I saw the leaves an inch above the soil, looking like the wings of a pale green moth still unfolding from the chrysalis.
The longing for new life is almost more than a dedicated gardener can sustain, once the winter is truly over and past. The nearby nursery is already stocked and waiting. I can’t bear the suspense until it’s clearer, two weeks from now, what’s come through, what’s flourished, what didn’t make it and needs replacing. Three years after moving into this house, I still don’t completely understand what will grow in this soil, in this much shade, between the roots of long-established trees. Every season thus far has involved trial and error. My impatience is equal parts eagerness to see what’s in store and a fantasy of what I want to do next with the tiny front and back gardens of a downtown Toronto house. Thank God I don’t have an American Midwestern quarter-acre to contend with.
My unwillingness to wait on the garden around me reminds me of the impatience we’re capable of showing toward the garden within. When I hear friends who long for personal growth berating themselves over their lack of progress, over their loops back into earlier patterns and habits, over their inability to map a clearly defined path forward, my prayer is that they can offer themselves a little more of the lovingkindness I’m confident they'd extend without hesitation to someone else.
Like I should talk--like I’m not equally capable of smacking myself for not becoming an overnight boddhisattva.
Patience in the garden is like the balance of Wisdom and Compassion that we need  in order to thrive, and in order to allow others to thrive.
It’s also like the patience called for in Matthew 13:24-30--the parable of the weeds among the wheat. There, the owner of a field tells his servants not to risk pulling up the crop by mistake before harvest time. The subsequent explanation of that story, ascribed to Jesus by the Gospel writer, reads like a judgmental othering of the people on the wrong side of a moral divide. I’m inclined to think of that exposition, though, as a later addition that obscures, even reverses, the real point. At its core, the parable is a story of the garden of our souls, and we’re cautioned not to fuck up the process of growth and unfolding by trying to exert control. We don’t need answers before the fact. We just need respectful curiosity and the patience to wait--and gratitude when the results manifest themselves in their own time.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

In the Wake of Resurrection

I began making Jerusalem Cross drawings a couple of years ago, during mornings when I hold space at a drop-in art studio for guests of a daily lunch program at the Church of the Redeemer, Toronto. Whatever project I'm working on there, my attention is bound to be distracted--by requests for advice, by the constant task of putting materials back in order, and, once in a while, by the need to dial down the level of anxiety, manic energy, or conflict that comes into the room. These drawings gave me a pre-determined basic structure to work with and a freedom to play within. I could walk away from them and come back to them easily and quickly.

During a retreat to an Episcopalian monastery about a year ago, I learned something important about how my spirituality has shifted over the years: I've never felt great about much of the Psalms, but this time around, I learned just how low my tolerance has become for incessantly chanting vindictive, paranoid Bronze Age poetry. So during my days there, I needed a practice of prayer that  could also serve as an antidote to too much "Forgive Me" this, "I Am Not Worthy" that, and "Crush Everyone Who's Constantly Conspiring Against Me" whatever. These drawings were that alternative prayer.

 



 


 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Hand in Hand

In bright, early spring sun--the kind of day that reassures you, when you live in Canada, that we've all survived another winter--as I coasted my bike up to the door of my office building, just ahead of me, a family of four was walking south: mom and daughter in front, father and nine-year-old son behind, hand in hand, the son a step behind his dad but not, it seemed, in any reluctance at this public show of affection. It caught me in the throat, in the chest, in the gut, as such scenes so often do. I was riveted, and I lingered on the steps for another minute, watching them as they continued on down the street.

I wondered how many months--or perhaps a year at most?--before the invisible wall will most likely start to rise--before it will seem uncool to the boy to do something so childish as hold his father's hand; before it will feel to the father that it's time for his son to man up.

The depth of my reaction had everything to do with my own history, with my own wounds around an emotionally crippled father incapable of reaching out, let alone making it count in a way that I in turn could hold onto. Such a history means that a scene like the one I witnessed yesterday morning sticks to me emotionally, spiritually, and erotically like velcro. It triggers a longing for paternal connection, for receiving nurture from other men and, just as importantly, giving them nurture. It energizes the satisfaction I find in mentoring my graduate students. It goes a long way to explaining why I find it so fulfilling to hold space for another man (or woman) to explore his /her interior life more deeply--and often find it easier than having such a space held for me by someone else. (To borrow a term from our lesbian sisters, you might describe me as a spiritual "soft butch.") It's bound up with my desire to find intentional community among men.  (As when I was mesmerized, and incredibly turned on, at the age of seventeen, watching a documentary about--wait for it--Episcopalian monks in Michigan. Monks. Episcopalian monks. In Michigan.)

There’s an odd way in which I can access the depth of the wound around my father’s unavailability only through the strength of the longings stirred in me by a scene like yesterday morning’s. Someone reminded me earlier this week that somewhere, Freud says something like this: that what cannot be endured is sexualized. Perhaps it’s fair to say as well that what’s too painful to acknowledge consciously is spiritualized. To say that isn’t to undermine the legitimacy of either our spiritual or our erotic longings. But it is an invitation to know ourselves more fully, and to turn our wounds into gifts--as we must, if we’re to live out our calling to the repair of the self and the healing of the world.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

each change a small death
a present resurrection
every gift received

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Weaving Together: The Stonesong Retreat


Gathering, Workshop, Retreat: they’re all labels for temporary communities gay and bi men form in search of bigger life and deeper connection. Each raises its own expectations. Advance planning from the top down,  or a container held open for the community to fill spontaneously. More focus on spirituality or less. A one-off event, or a reunion of men who gather repeatedly and build up a web of continuing connections over time.

We gravitate toward the sorts of events we’ve learned from experience suit us best. Or else,  we glean the full range of what feeds our hearts and souls by moving between communities. Maybe you need five days of silent meditation, and a week with faeries in the wilderness.
 
Speaking for myself, I want a strong sense of encounter with the Sacred. I want celebration of our spiritual paths in their mutually enriching diversity. I want reverence for the Earth and acknowledgement that we’re a part of its greater and holy life. I want rituals, both individual and communal, that rise up organically from the shared experience of those present, rituals that help us access parts of ourselves and one another that ordinary business-as-usual words and behavior can’t get at. I want heartfelt intentional communication and equally deep listening. I want freedom and safety to play and experiment with joyous abandon in the presence of others.
Those are the values I’ve brought to my conversations with Frank Dunn, an Episcopal priest and director of the DC-based men’s consciousness-raising group Jonathan’s Circle, as we’ve planned The Stonesong Retreat, four days in the company of kindred spirits in the verdant countryside of western Maryland, 18-21 August.
 
 
I invite you to ask yourself these questions:  what happens  in sacred space where you’re safe to come forward and give voice to the deepest longings of your body, mind, and soul? What would a community of brothers look like who commit to holding that space for each other? What spiritual practice might you be called to create for yourself as an expression of the fullness of life within you? What rituals would you build together to integrate the spiritual and erotic joys, sorrows, aspirations, and hopes of all?
If those questions call to you, then I invite you to please consider joining us. You can access more information on the retreat and registration here.
The time at Stonesong Awareness and Nature Centre will offer a short, sweet taste of what it’s like to live mindfully with spiritually and erotically alive men who have faith that what we discover together will be bigger and richer than what we can build on our own.
We’ll build a sacred community.
We’ll  explore the place our human erotic lives hold in  the greater life of Nature.
We’ll create personal and communal ritual.
We’ll share in heart circles.
We’ll  celebrate as faeries, tricksters, and bards.
We’ll exchange our stories.
We’ll allow ourselves and one another times of simple unstructured relaxation.
In all this, we’ll weave the connections that expand the possibilties of our lives.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Wildwood Eucharist


(Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock--original collage, 2010)

The following memoir appears in the current issue of  RFD, no. 164 (Winter 2015/16).

On a mountaintop at the end of a twisting road through the redwoods, at the end of a six-day Body Electric retreat, eight of us make Eucharist a little after dawn on the first day of the week. The valley spreads out beneath us, a river of blue fog catching fire and flowing in reverse as the sun rises over it. The ashes of dozens of men have been scattered here over the years of the AIDS epidemic. A sublime spot, holy ground, and blessed by gay men who through perilous experience have forged of irony an essential tool for negotiating the Sacred, smashing the idols, looking on God and continuing to live: we call it Julie Andrews Point. These hills are alive. 

Peter, a physician from Mississippi, reads the Epistle; Bill, a Christian Brother who teaches at a Midwestern Catholic college, the Gospel. Facing Bill across our circle, I recall from earlier in the week our sweet evening of animated, heartfelt talk, at the end of which we drifted to the hot tub to float naked in each other’s arms late into the night. Listening to Peter, I think back to the exercise for which we found ourselves partnered two days ago, bearing silent, intentional witness to one another’s erotic self-exploration, out on the same sweeping overlook where we’re now celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I’ve known extraordinary bliss in his presence: my ejaculation marked only the beginning of an orgasm that played over my body and soul like living phosphorous stirred in the nocturnal waters of a luminescent bay. I couldn’t pinpoint the moment when it finally ended, as the light poured down over me through the branches of the oak above our blanket; as dragonflies and grass fulfilled their glorious, mortal natures; and I along with them.

Robert, a Roman Catholic church musician from Milwaukee, chants the psalm. At last year’s retreat, he and I sat on sarongs spread at the edge of this same promontory to exchange the stories of our erotic lives. The telling led to half an hour of caresses and synchronized breath while we gazed into one another’s eyes. 

We hold history’s shortest (and probably chattiest) Quaker meeting in lieu of a sermon; and yet by some miracle, though all eight of us in the course of fifteen minutes have something (conscientiously brief) to say about the readings we’ve just heard, our words emerge from the silence without diminishing its power. 

Bob, a Disciple of Christ from Oklahoma, says the Words of Institution over bread confiscated for our dark ritual purposes from the yesterday’s lunch buffet. These last few days, he’s been the beloved of my New York friend Hank. 

Dell, a Presbyterian turned Sufi turned Anglican turned seeker who now contemplates another foray into organised Christianity, pronounces a benediction. The warm connection between us falls short of what I long for. I’ve hung helplessly head over heels for him since our first fifteen minutes together six days ago. Two days into our time together I patched together the courage to tell him this, in a nightly checkin group that includes as well the man who by then had already won his most intense and focused affection for the remainder of the week. I nearly hyperventilated at the risk of owning my jealousy of the bond between them; and received from each of them in turn acceptance, grace, and words of respect for my courage.
Forty of us have spent a week creating a miracle of mutual love, support, and radical honesty, a community of the beloved. All of us have come to this place as men of Spirit–the eight of us in this circle, the thirty-two still asleep up the slope–Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, atheists, radical faeries, souls of the New Age, none of the above. The lived experience of love–the vibrating, enlivening, penetrating, transforming experience of love–has united us all, however variously we’ve understood what’s happened here. The confessional distinctions that divide us have fallen away like skins we’ve outgrown. And here the eight of us stand to take up once again the words and gestures of one tradition among many–a path toward the Divine as flawed in its unfolding as any other; a tradition that has misled so many gay men so heartlessly, in so much of the world, for so many centuries.


The fearless, grace-filled truth-telling that we’ve learned together to practice over the last five days, the acceptance of deep joy into our lives, the blessings we’ve laid on one another’s lives in compassion for our own wounds and one another’s, under the tutelage of two extraordinary men who have led us through the process–these constitute a culture of love and mutual support. What overwhelms me this Sunday morning, in the presence of the seven brothers who’ve come with me out to the Point to commemorate the life and death of God made visible in human flesh, is how deeply and how authentically that culture has become the hermeneutic ground for theological reflection. The day’s reading from Colossians 3:5-11 would normally have me muttering under my breath against Paul, the narrow prick who never got a life. The words sound here and now as though they’re spoken to us of the community that we ourselves have embodied: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” In that renewal there is no longer Protestant nor Roman Catholic, neither Californian nor Argentinian, and ultimately neither Christian, Buddhist, nor atheist; but for us, Love among us in our flesh is all in all.
 
In short, I’ve never heard the Scriptures opened so powerfully by the Spirit as I do this blessed morning. I’ve never heard the Words of Institution spoken so powerfully to those who happen to be present at the moment of their recitation. Like Wesley listening to the words of Luther read aloud, I feel my heart strangely warmed. 

Christianity, I said last night to Dell as we sat looking at the moon over this valley, is a crock of shit, but it’s my crock of shit. It’s my flawed, broken vessel for carrying what cannot and must be carried, what must and cannot be contained in human language. To stand with these men, to claim together– fearlessly, defiantly, subversively, and lovingly–the power and authority of the People of God: this is to behold the vessel at once broken and mended, at once marred and perfect. This is to behold all things being made new.