Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Story of Resilience


A matador with a perfect bubble butt struts in Louboutin heels, unbound hair streaming over his shoulder. He faces off against a bull loosed by Picasso on the north side of Winnipeg. His cape is a Hudson’s Bay blanket. The last matador down, a more conventional fellow, is attended to by a kneeling First Nations man. Behind the wounded modernist bull, whose testicles are the size of canteloupes, a herd of bison roam the street. Across a vacant lot, a car goes up in flames as a troupe of shamanistic buffalo dancers press toward it. A police helicopter hovers overhead, as does a seventeenth-century Mercury in winged helmet.

This is the vision of Kent Monkman, the queer Cree artist whose current exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, is currently on view at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, presides over this monumental Trickster indictment of Eurocanadian cultural genocide against the indigenous peoples of Canada. The show is a triumph for Monkman, a coup for the Museum, and as trenchant an antidote to national smugness as we’re likely to see in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

Eurocanadians love to congratulate ourselves on, well, how much less self-congratulatory we are than Americans. Ironically, what we so often fail to recognize is the strong current of critique and dissent deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. By contrast, Canadians are more often than not loathe to call ourselves and this country to genuine account for the dark side of its history and present life.  Monkman is calling our bluff.
 
 
Nothing’s sacred here. The iconic group portrait of the Fathers of Confederation is reconceived as “The Daddies.” The scandalized architects of national unification gaze with detached distaste, with fascination, with dread, or all of the above at a nude Miss Chief seated in the foreground, back to the viewer of the painting, on a champaign case covered by yet another Hudson’s Bay blanket. In another painting, Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of a united Canada, stands with glass askew and a drained bottle on the floor behind him, at the shoulder of his apprehensive wife.
 
 
And everything’s sacred here. Anthropomorphized beavers become the victims of a reimagined Slaughter of the Innocents  in which indigenous and colonial hunters share complicity; a silent Miss Chief looks on from where he shelters survivors behind a tree. Native women fight for their children as nuns, priests, and Mounties struggle to abduct them into the horrors of the residential school system. A vast landscape evoking nineteenth-century Romantic visions of the sublime is populated by bears--some four-footed and fur-covered, some two-footed, leather-clad, and sporting erections. A native woman lies dying in a hospital bed, surrounded by mourners who revision Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin.
 
 
 
The resilience of the show’s title is the resilience it documents. It’s also the resilience it embodies--the resilience of the First Nations, but in the second instance also the resilience of queers, of the natural world, of the survivors of spiritual abuse, of all those who know we have to stand together, at the intersection of our struggles to claim our lives.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Faith of the Caterpillar

It’s Inauguration Day in the District of Columbia. Aside from this morning’s New York Times, I’ve declared myself under news blackout until tomorrow, when I’ll attend a solidarity rally in Toronto and look online for coverage of the Women’s March in Washington.

Both Malachy McCourt and Carrie Fisher are credited with saying that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. How can we continue to engage without sacrificing our happiness to no good end or giving into despair? By weaving connection. By keeping hope alive, as Shepard Fairey, who designed Obama’s iconic 2008 poster, has done by creating a new series of images for the dark time that began today. By defending one another’s rights and one another’s dignity. By creating local strategies for progressive change, and for resistance.
 
And by recognizing that when we’ve chewed through everything in sight, till our skins are taut to bursting, we may need to reach a moment of acknowledgement that more of the same will lead to nothing other than exhaustion.  We may need the faith of the caterpillar that inside the cocoon, something will happen beyond anything we can ask or imagine. The cocoon itself is the faith of the caterpillar.
This is not a cute image of easy change. If you get curious from the outside about what’s going on in the cocoon, you can only wreak destruction. Open it up, and you’ll find nothing but an organic soup: the caterpillar doesn’t gradually transform into a butterly. It dissolves in an act of self-digestion.
This is no time to retreat into our own private cocoons. We need now both to go into the cocoon together and to become the cocoon for one another. We need to embrace the notion that for life to go on, we have to surrender our attachment to the strategies that have failed us, or at least run their course, but say yes to one another, from day to day and week to week.  We need the faith that was shown by the Occupy Movement. We need the faith of the Freedom Riders. We need the faith of Martin Luther King. We need the faith of the antinuclear movement of the 1980s and of the Stonewall Rebellion. We need the faith that a day will come when it’s time to emerge.
 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On the Eve of Incarnation

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.


I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him

(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in his Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once

He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?—Then

open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one

who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,

we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,

every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,


and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably

damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.


Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15, as translated in The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, ed. Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), pp. 38-39. Quoted from Poetry Chaikana Blog: Sacred Poetry from around the World.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

One Morning Past Solstice

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman: Elijah

 
At the margin: between land and sea, between fire and water, between flesh and spirit, between resignation and hope. As Oscar lived.
 
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
v’al kol-yisrael, v’imru: “amen.”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman: Yehoshua

Oscar's meditation on his mortality as his cancer advanced.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hermitage V: Tonglen

I don’t share a lot of explicit detail here about my sexual practices. Our erotic lives are dense with personal history, with private meanings that we don’t even ourselves consciously understand. I'd rather make room for people to explore their own inner landscapes than clutter the space between us with my own psychodynamic tchachkes. (Then too, maybe sometimes a still-internalized fear of shaming also holds me back.)

But long walks in the woods have a way of clarifying things, like when to put your money where your mouth is. So after two hours out on the trail this afternoon, here we are: sex in the hermitage. Masturbation, prayer, and how one can flow into the other. 
 
I’ll start by sharing something about me that will speak to some and not to others. As tortured as my relationship to wanking was all through my adolescence (and maybe because my relationship to it was so tortured in those formative years) it remains a staple of my erotic life. In recent years , men like me have increasingly claimed the emerging label of the “solosexual.”  Thank God for a website like Bateworld. Thank God for groups like the New York Jacks and the San Francisco Jacks and the Rain City Jacks, for every small local group some generous man is willing to host, and for periodic events like Healthy Friction. 

It’s not simply that I masturbate, like virtually all human males over the age of  thirteen or so. It’s not simply that my own cock and balls offer me pleasure and satisfaction beyond what most of us are willing to admit, given generations of repression and censure, contempt and derision for the most universal and readily available sexual experience men can have. It’s that I find my own body intensely erotic. Stroking myself to orgasm means as much to me as sex with partners. 

I’d never want to face a choice between sex with myself and sex with others. If I had to, I’d probably pick myself, behind Door Number One. I can and do relate lovingly to all sorts of people I don’t and would never have sex with. On the other hand, when it comes to sex, whenever I’m in the mood, by happy coincidence so am I. 

Solosexuality involves a lot more, though, than just an easy date:  the difference between a quick wank to get off and the deliberate, extended cultivation of pleasure, the practice of “edging,” whether for an hour or two or over whole days or weeks; the conscious, intentional spreading of energy and focus to the erotic capacities of one's whole body. Paradoxically, some solosexual men are as reluctant to reach ejaculatory orgasm as any devout Catholic schoolboy of the 1950’s. Not in fear of mortal sin, but in commitment to the heightened energy and juiciness of staying open to desire for as long as possible. 

Like many men for whom masturbation isn’t second best, or last resort, I do indeed want to share my solosexuality with others. I’d much rather have the opportunity to masturbate with another man, or with a group of men, than always experience the joy of my own body alone. I won’t try to explain this right now for those who don’t already “get it.” The depth of the fraternal bond between comrades that I’m talking about is either comprehensible to you, or it isn’t. You’re fine, either way: if you don’t get it, we’re just different. If you do get it, let me know if you’re free Sunday afternoons.
 
Even mentioning the potential depth of that bond, though, witnesses to how intensely I want to understand my solosexual side in spiritual terms. It’s as important for me to do so as it is to understand my sexual relationships with others in spiritual terms. 

When solosexual men find spaces to share about our experience, it emerges pretty quickly how profoundly centered we feel, sinking into the pleasure we give ourselves. When we go deeper, without distraction, everything else can drop away, just as it does in the most intense interpersonal lovemaking. We can find ourselves as blissfully absorbed in the present moment as we might be in deep meditation. Arguably, such an experience is deep meditation, as masturbation gurus like Bruce Grether, and more recently Jason Armstrong, have argued.  

So, finally--back to my week of hermitage, in the woods of southern Indiana... 

Two weeks before I made this pilgrimage, I formed an intention  to spend my time here cultivating and raising my erotic energy without release until the final night of my retreat. I don’t know why. Tantric practitioners talk a lot about the benefits of semen retention. I’ve never been drawn to the prescriptions of Indian ayurveda, at least not as passed on in the West. But I understand from direct experience how  emotionally open I’ve become on retreats where I’ve been encouraged to refrain from ejaculation, how intensely aware I’ve become of a Divine Presence enlivening me and deepening my connections with others. Something (where did this come from?) led me to choose this path for myself during this present week of prayer and simplified living. I asked a far-away friend (yes, another solosexual, and a tantrika into the bargain) to support my resolve, checking in daily by phone to anchor my intention.  

And then, it just started getting weirder, if you’re already wondering what planet I’m writing from. The night I arrived,  I set up my altar, burned incense, hung fabric and prayer flags around the room. The next day, six men were due to arrive for the weekend in response to my invitation to share two days of intentional community. As I prepared and consecrated the cabin,  a conviction enveloped me that I was laying my erotic energy at their feet. I’d use the emotional openness I hoped would result in order to hold space for them more lovingly throughout their two days as my guests. Upon their departure, I’d lay my erotic energy at the foot of my altar, in service to myself, and in communion with the Holy One who is, in the end, the best lover of all--as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila knew so well. 

As the week has gone on, in these later days of solitude, breath and genital stimulation have complemented and balanced each other in my erotic practice: genital touch energizing breath, and breath enabling a heightened control of the urge to ejaculate. Seated before my altar, I imagine myself engaged in a version of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen: taking in the difficulties experienced by others, transforming them, and then breathing out healing and peace for their benefit and the benefit of all sentient beings. I’ve found myself praying through masturbation, found myself transmuting masturbation into prayer. Most vividly of all this morning when my friend checking in on the phone was as caught up in his erotic trance as I was in mine. 

I won’t describe more specifically how I’ve pursued all this,  visualized it, verbalized it, nor about how I intend to ritualize the release of energy that will close my weeklong practice. Partly because the details  are as likely to shut some readers out as to invite them in. But partly because (and maybe this is just a different way of saying the same thing), like many initiations into esoteric ritual practice, the transmission has to occur face to face and in living speech, when the time is right.

Even if you’ve drawn a blank on a lot of what I’ve described, you’ve still persevered to these last lines. If so, I hope that you feel invited into a calling we do indeed share as queer spiritual seekers living our lives in male bodies: to unite flesh with spirit; to forge links between earth and heaven; to become ourselves the ladder on which angels ascend and descend. If, on the other hand, you’re a brother solosexual--may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart bless you on your way.

 
 

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman


Monday, December 12, 2016

Hermitage IV: Reaching Back

On the altar of my hermitage sits a faded color snapshot of me at the age of six.  It took a long time for that little boy to make it out of a shoebox on the top shelf of a closet.  

He’s putting on a brave face for the camera, but he’s not happy about being on display. He’s already self-conscious about being chubby.  He’s already felt the shame of being always the one picked last for teams on the playground. Still in the future lies his humiliation at the effeminacy he’ll hear  and hate in his own voice on a tape recorder; and later his self-recrimination for the homophobic taunts directed at him by other boys in gym class. Over the decades, his shame will turn into a young man’s self-loathing for the child he’d been.  

My task now, and increasingly my joy, is to father that boy. To reach back across half a century, to bring him to this cabin. To make a home for him here. To tell him that he’s just fine, he’s beautiful, he’s worthy of love. In showing compassion towards him, I find my compassion for others.

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman: Daleth


Sunday, December 11, 2016

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman: Menorah

Three little candles...

 

Hermitage III: On Choosing a Staff

This side of sixty, I find walking in the woods just a little dodgier. The numbness in my right foot, the result of some serious lower back defects, has advanced enough these last couple of years to affect my balance on uneven terrain. It doesn’t help that I snapped a tendon in the other ankle on a flip turn in the pool one afternoon about five years ago, either.  I’ve arrived at the point that, scrambling over roots and stones, a walking stick feels like a comfort and a reassurance.  

And also: an admission of advancing age; a reminder of the tenuousness of physical health; a challenge to my gay male fixation on fitness and a body as toned and strong as I can keep it. If I need a stick now, will I even be able to take this walk at all in fifteen years? Or in ten? Everything that arises, the Buddha tells us, is subject to dissolution. That would include me. Or at least, would include what I habitually think of as me. 

I’m not yet ready to buy the stick I expect I’ll eventually carry more continuously. So setting out from the cabin down the slope onto this afternoon’s trail,  I scanned the fallen leaves for likely prospects. I found a thin, supple, surprisingly straight piece of vinewood, probably left there by someone who’d used it as well. I liked the spring of it, how it responded to pressure. I could count on it, but not for too much. It offered just enough reassurance, gave me just enough added stability to feel more fully the pleasure of starting off down into the ravine. I had to pay conscious attention to it as a companion on the journey. In return, it reminded me that I was a man of a certain age, walking a trail exactly as a man of a certain age should do.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Friday, December 9, 2016

Hermitage II: Paths and Road Maps

I remember, decades ago, joking with friends in college about the words of a fundamentalist Sunday School song: “I’m using my Bible for a road map.” Already when I was twenty, it seemed like a bad metaphor to live by. Looking back now, I see that I needed humor as a way of defending myself against claims of biblical literalism: perhaps I still had misgivings at gut level that maybe Jerry Falwell and his crew were right.

Long since, I’ve pulled  far away from the notion that Scripture (of any tradition) could function as instructions-in-advance for how to live from day to day. I no longer spend much time dwelling on whether other people still believe that. Except that I know how much damage it does in the world to have fundamentalists loose in it, raising kids, running school boards and local governments--and coming to wield increased influence as well at a national level. Or for that matter, declaring brutally repressive caliphates, or justifying the seizure of Palestinian land. 

I’m sitting at the kitchen table of the cabin I’ve rented to allow myself a week’s retreat. I’m gazing out at the Indiana woods of my childhood. Speaking of fundamentalists: the smiling, photogenic, soft-spoken fascist governor of this state will become Vice-President in six weeks. A heartbeat away from the office that will be occupied by a narcissistic charlatan who’s currently conducting the selection of his cabinet like another season of The Apprentice. 

Sometimes, in the interest of keeping hope alive and saving strength to contribute to the next struggle,  in however small a way you can, you just have to detach from what’s happened to the level of public life, and go inward for a while. That’s what I came here for.
 
The wood stove in the middle of the room is softly whistling as it draws air. There’s a nuthatch outside doing laps around the trunk of a hickory tree. Later I’ll warm up soup for dinner. I’ll go on writing, perhaps read, perhaps use the Tarot to help me look at something in my life a little differently. At the end of the week, I’ll spend an hour in meditation in front of my altar, before I disassemble it and pack my belongings to head back to the bland sanity of Canada before dawn. 

Earlier this afternoon, in the best light the day had to offer, I went for a walk along Trail Number 3 through the state park where I’ve rented my hermitage-for-a-week. I found great pleasure in (a) not knowing where I was going and (b) trusting that someone did, who long ago groomed the trail. It felt like gift and adventure to see only ten or twenty paces at a time ahead of my feet. 

Maybe I started contemplating the difference between road maps and paths because the road ran parallel to the trail for a good fifteen minutes, curving up the same rise, twisting back again, before I finally headed off down another slope toward a steep ravine where a rivulet laughed underneath a footbridge. In any case, I’ve come to a point in my life where spiritually, as well as literally, it feels both more honest and more satisfying to walk a path on which I know only as much of the route as I need in order to take my next steps, in trust that somehow, I’ll go on finding myself where I’m supposed to be.

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman: Looking Forward to Hanukkah

Oscar gave the title "Menorah" to a series of images of men posed with one arm raised. Hanukkah starts very late this year (the evening of December 24, aka Erev Christmas), but there's no time like the present.

One little candle...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hermitage I

Deep in the forest
where ice hasn’t formed--a pool
still flashing sunset.

In Memory of Oscar Wolfman

 
At the Black Eagle, Church Street, Toronto: Oscar among his tribe.