Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Thaw

If there’s anything more pleasurable than making it into New York City just under the wire before a massive blizzard, it’s being snowed safely into New York on arrival. If anything is more pleasurable than getting snowed into New York, it’s watching the city dig out in bright afternoon sun two days later, the runoff sheeting down the facades of buildings and over shop awnings like an endless cascade of diamonds, the resilience and toughened joy that’s the birthright of New Yorkers pulsing at every intersection on the Upper West Side.

If anything is more pleasurable than watching New York dig out, it’s making the trip up Amsterdam Avenue to look at Keith Haring’s 1990 altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I don’t share the love of many for the building. It’s a hulking barn, utterly out of human scale, the jumped-up emulation of medieval Europe that you’d expect of New York’s Episcopalian plutocracy in the Gilded Age of industrial rape and pillage. If you’re butch enough, you could pass a football down the length of the choir. From the back of the nave, you need binoculars to see the celebrant at the altar. But it’s home to a remarkable, welcoming community and the repository of vast treasures–-cultural, social, and human--Haring’s altarpiece being for me among its greatest.

Deeply incised in the triptych’s luminous matte surface, you can spot Haring’s unmistakable compositional vocabulary down the length of the dimly lit chapel where it stands. Spanning the lower third of all three panels, a tangle of figures gyrate over what can only be the dance floor of a crowded downtown club. Above them, angels hover in the side panels--one taking a dive to the viewer’s left. At center, an impossible multi-limbed composite figure pulsates, an enfant cradled in its two lowest arms below a heart radiating energy and a cross superimposed over this loopy Trinity’s head. Oversize droplets rain down from this figure on the dancers below. To one side, the sun bursts out over the crowd. (The artist made a second version of the altarpiece for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.)

Haring would die of AIDS just after he completed this last sculptural piece of his brief, joyous career, a fag saint whose faith in life never failed, for whom loving, celebratory promiscuity was a path to the community of the beloved; whose playfulness in everything he touched was itself his prayer; whose littering of New York’s streets and subways with random acts of whimsical delight and incitements to hope was his expression of love. Seeing his triptych, here in this glacial yet vastly inclusive cavern of a building, is the best New Year’s thaw of all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

On the Eve of Nativity: Shekinah

What fires our devotion to either masculine or feminine aspects of the Divine–in Its intrinsic nature, Its relation to the world, Its presence enthroned in our souls? Why does such imagery feel so essential at one stage of the journey, then less so at another? And how does all this relate to the sexual identities of queer men?

The very traditional crucifix I bought when I was twenty-one was gaunt and Germanic. It freaked out more than one of my best friends–and especially those with strong feminist commitments. Jesus wasn’t just undeniably dead, but undeniably male, and I was hardly the first conflicted gay youth who needed the dying Christ as the one lean, naked man he could adore without enduring a toxic amalgam of crushing shame and guilt. I certainly won't be the last. Eventually the crucifix came down off the wall when I fled Christianity entirely for fifteen years. When that long sabbatical was over, my pieties had shifted.

Still, I needed to find room within the life of God for my own embodiment–for what was unmistakably transcendent and sacred in my erotic experience; for what was undeniably erotic in my devotion. By dwelling on the gender and sexuality of Jesus, as resolutely as mainstream Christian religiosity works to strip him at least of the latter, if not always the former, I staked an essential claim to my wholeness as a sexual being with a spiritual life and a spiritual being with a sexual life. St. John of the Cross, riffing on the Song of Songs with a homoeroticism that hid in plain sight, gave voice to the roiling welter of my longings. Theodore Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), opened for me a vision of queer men’s marginalized experience enshrined at the heart of the Christian tradition–as did Terence McNally’s sometimes maligned but courageous and moving play, Corpus Christi.

And then–something shifted. Profoundly. Slowly. Starting with a day given over entirely to imagery of the Goddess at the Body Electric School’s Erotic Temple retreat. In digging deeper into Julian of Norwich’s vision of God as both Father and Mother. In building an outdoor altar that turned out to be disastrously and arrogantly incomplete in its failure to honor God’s feminine aspect in the world. In praying for Luke, a friend’s grandson born dangerously premature: I knew nothing better that I could ask on his behalf, but that God’s Shekinah–her Presence–would enfold him as the womb he still so desperately needed in order to survive--and realizing that, when all was said and done, Luke and I were in the same boat. Finally, in my spiritual director's encouragement to meditate on Jesus’s own experience of Advent–the whole of which he spent in amniotic fluid.

The shift has been, and continues to be, a wondrous discovery. After years of needing an image of God in which I could recognize myself in order find validation, I surprise myself by taking rich comfort in the enfolding Shekinah of God as Mother; in a validation prior to all our searching, all our striving. I have no idea how long I’ll float here, before the next stage in the journey. I only know that this is a place of safety and of deep, unspoken joy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Between Equinox and Solstice

Andrew and David and Nick and Robert: for twelve weeks, we’ve formed a community of four men, in long-distance covenant with one another to explore together Julia Cameron’s course-book in creative self-empowerment, The Artist’s Way. We agreed we’d keep the channel open by writing three unpremeditated, unedited and uncensored pages every morning, then setting them aside without critique. We’d take the child within out on a play-date every week–to a sculptor’s studio; to an open mic poetry reading; into the woods to build a delicate assembly of twigs and acorns; to a pet shop to find plants for a newly set up aquarium. We’d share our process and our creativity with one another via e-mail. Who knew, when at the Autumn Equinox we undertook to walk this path together, where it would lead us?

Here is some of what we have become in one another’s presence.

Nick Bovalino: Hope for Release

Andrew Graham: Earthyman

David Townsend: Wisdom

Robert Gross: Daedalus

Andrew: Drew Blur

Andrew: The Offering

Robert: Scribble

Nick: Crystalline

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Way of the Tea Garden

I had a solid professional excuse to spend five days in San Francisco last week. The weather stayed obligingly grey and wet most of the time I sat indoors glued to a computer screen side by side with my collaborator. The morning of my free day at the end of the trip, the sun rose without a wisp of fog in sight, and I made straight for the Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

For twenty-five years, no spot on earth has brought readier healing to my soul. The place is full of small, gentle gods: the spirit of this clump of rushes, growing at the edge of a broad, shallow pond where koi undulate like stoned holdovers from the Summer of Love; the god of this expanse of moss, stretching out below a grove of cedars behind the pagoda that rises above the steep hill in the northwest corner of the garden; the god of this stone basin, water brimming from its lip amidst a stand of bamboo at a turn in the path from the teahouse just before it descends again toward the entrance gate.

The bottom of the stream was strewn with drowned russet maple leaves on Monday morning; a fading yellow carpet of ginko lay sloping down over the bank.

The timelessness of the place is an illusion. Sand sifted over dunes here in the late nineteenth century. The garden was created as a permanent park after the 1894 World’s Fair by Makoto Hagiwara, who first invited the kami–these quiet, unassuming gods of small things–into the heart of his adopted city. From the 1950's, various restorations and rebuildings have transformed its design. The stone basin welling endlessly below a bamboo waterspout arrived only in 1996. The pagoda at the crest of the slope above the koi pond has begun to disintegrate, its paint peeling, the shredding edges of its staged rooflines sporting gardens of lichen among the pine boughs high above the paving stones.

The Hagiwaras tended these five acres for over forty-five years–until they were interned along with most other Japanese Americans by the U.S. government in 1942. The place was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden and left to languish. Many of the family’s original buildings were demolished, including the Shinto shrine that stood at the top of the great hill behind a torii–a temple gate–as out of place before the Buddhist pagoda that replaced the earlier building as a crucifix in a mosque. The garden is named for the Hagiwaras once again; the torii has vanished since my last visit.

Walking these paths as a queer man, I can’t but draw the line between the plight of the Hagiwaras, victims of one of American history’s more shameful injustices, and the marginalization of my own kind. The same morning as my visit, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments for and against the constitutionality of California’s Proposition Eight prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. It’s a mere two months since the rash of suicides by bullied gay teens that spurred the It Gets Better campaign. I weep freely for the Hagiwaras this morning in part because I know what it’s like to be denied my rights and treated like a threat rather than seen for who I am. But I also sit beneath the roof of the tea house in gratitude for the family that created this place and invited these gods into it–as for those who have tended it ever since their departure. I sit here in gratitude for their example: that kindness, civility, and quiet reverence before the simple miracle of beauty can prove stronger and more enduring than bigotry and injustice.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Enjoying the Light

Once again, thanks to my beloved Jonathan, who shares with me his whole second set of holidays in addition to my own, I’m sitting here watching the candles burn down on the first night of Hanukkah. What a funny holiday it is in the Jewish calendar.

Not commanded anywhere in the Torah, or in the Hebrew Bible at all, it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration in the second century before the Common Era, as narrated in the Books of Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees survive in the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint and count as Scripture for Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but neither for Protestants nor for Jews. Rabbinic tradition, rather than even this quasi-biblical source, attests the miracle by which a supply of oil sufficient for only one day kept the lamp of the Temple burning for eight, until a fresh supply could be found.

What’s more than a little unsettling, these sources (especially 1 Maccabees) embody a tendentious politics of cultural purity: modern scholarship mostly argues (more in line with the author of 2 Maccabees) that at stake was not so much a foreign oppression of Jewish faith as a civil war between traditionalists in the countryside and more liberal, multiculturally oriented Jews in Jerusalem. It’s as though Southern Baptists from Northern Alabama were to pick a fight with liberal Episcopalians, win a bloody war against them, and then write what became the definitive history of the conflict.

But set aside all that’s suspect about how Hanukkah came to be, and consider what it is, or can be. Like the Solstice three weeks from now, it’s about light in the darkness. It’s about hope when hope seems to be extinguished. Like Advent, it’s about waiting for deliverance beyond our power to deliver ourselves. For that matter, like Diwali in the Hindu calendar, now nearly four weeks past, it’s about the victory of good over evil.

And yet, it’s not a serious holiday. It’s for kids, and it only gets hyped in North America because it offers a culturally specific alternative to Christmas. It’s about playing with spinning tops, and chocolate coins, and eating potato pancakes and singing sometimes silly, not always particularly edifying songs. Unlike the core holidays of the Jewish year, there’s no prohibition against work on the first days of the eight-day celebration.

But at the heart of Hanukkah–and this is what I love–is the injunction to enjoy its light. The candles of the Hanukkah menorah are supposed to be gratuitous. You’re to appreciate them, not use them for practical purposes. They’re there as a kind of holy play, an occasion to invite their beauty into one’s soul, for as long as it takes them to burn down completely; an invitation to lose oneself in a sense of security that comes from beyond ourselves, in the presence of which it’s safe to dwell.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Trouble with Nice People

If you’ve found a reasonably inclusive faith community, where as a queer man you feel more or less fully enfranchised, you’re lucky–and you’re blessed. But, malcontent that I am, let me ask: if you belong to a welcoming “mainstream” congregation, what, if anything, about your queer experience do you have to check at the door? Do you pay a toll for acceptance? And does that toll limit in any way the integration of your erotic with your spiritual life? (And please answer! I’d genuinely like to hear back from you if you’re reading this post.)

I attend one of the most progressive Anglican congregations in Canada. The last time I heard statistics, about a third of us self-identified as lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer. We’re fully integrated into the life of the parish at all levels of participation and leadership. We push the envelope in creative end-runs around the Canadian Anglican prohibition on church weddings for same-sex couples. The Toronto chapter of Integrity meets in our space. Still, I remain surprised and skeptical that we could possibly make up a third of the church. Sometimes we blend in so well you’d never guess. Maybe that’s not really such a good thing. Week in, week out, it's not all that easy to find each other, except by personal association.

Which is another way of saying, we’re in a particularly comfortable and roomy closet. Nothing says we can’t be open, but we’re assumed to be just like everybody else, so how would anyone ever know, unless you make a big deal about it? (And being Canadian Anglicans, oy, how we don’t make a big deal.) The struggle for equality slides easily into a quest for homogeneity: we want to get married like everyone else; we don’t want to be denied ordination.

Worthy goals, to be sure; and don’t get me started on what I think of the bishops' poor excuse for leadership in continuing to treat the issue of inclusion as one of charitable harmony and good order rather than of justice. But the notion that, in fact, we’re not the same as everybody else gets swamped here. Any possibility that our presence could offer a radical leaven to force a more general rethinking of the theology of sexuality goes straight out the window.

In most liberal Christian theology, the value of committed relationship replaces procreation as the principal justification for sex. Liberal church statements may go as far as incorporating bland language about celebration and the intrinsic goodness of the body. But sex remains something we’d still better monitor carefully, maintain a tight, voluntary control over, and not talk about any more than absolutely necessary. The perplexing--and endlessly fun--depth, variety, and muddiness of our erotic lives get pushed to the periphery, almost as effectively as they did when we weren’t allowed in at all. Our short-term relationships; our one-night stands; our autoeroticism; our multiple partnerships; the complexity of our fantasies and our experiments with playing them out; none of these makes it past the door as material for serious theological reflection, much less as possible sites of grace and the presence of God in our lives.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Consecrating Space

The problem isn’t missing the sacred when it rears up and smacks you in the face. Well, wait a minute, yeah, that’s a problem too, but it’s another problem. The problem is making a home for the sacred in the midst of the daily and the ordinary. The five minutes in the morning when it wouldn’t cost all that much to stop, sit down, be still, read a short meditation, focus on what anchors and sustains your life. The gatepost in the garden, if you have a garden, just wide enough for a small bronze Buddha on an improvised ledge. Or else next to the door of your walkup on Avenue B. In the bedroom, a spare corner that could hold a modest altar. An icon on the bulletin board between the office wall and the computer monitor.

I’ve never found it easy to hold for more than a week or two onto a daily spiritual practice of any length or complexity: it’s almost impossible for me, as easily distracted by shiny objects as I am, to set time aside as sacred without setting aside space. I need something tangible to help me focus on the Presence that otherwise I might ignore, or just take for granted. I need an address I can visit, and shiny objects to hold my attention. Any daily prayer or meditation that I can’t associate with this spot that invites me in as I pass will likely spring up like grass on the wayside, then wither in the next drought.

It’s not a mere matter of installing these objects and then leaving them to themselves. It needs an act of focused intention. A shrine is only a shrine as long as you tend it: with the windblown flower laid at the feet of the Buddha in mindfulness that all things come into being and pass away, and are no less glorious for their mortality. With the nod of reverence to the icon before booting up for the morning. With a blessing to consecrate the corner altar, perhaps like that of the Havdalah service at the end of Sabbath, addressing God as somehow at work, alongside human convention, in the division of sacred from profane, of light from darkness, of the rhythm of ordinary time and hallowed time–and of this one small corner of the bedroom from the tangle of dirty laundry on the futon four feet away.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Alexander and Ismael

Fanny and Alexander: a painting by Boris Muller after Bergman's film

Nearly thirty years ago, seeing Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander changed my life. Last weekend, I watched it again, ravished once more by its stunning cinematography, moved by its profound compassion, and grateful to be reminded of the deepest lesson it taught me: that if religion and spirituality sometimes coincide, at others you have to flee religion to save your soul. In my late twenties, exhausted and chronically bruised by the homophobia of a Toronto Lutheran congregation whose most upstanding members spent the better part of a year variously making it clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in their midst, Bergman’s film helped me find the resolve to walk away. (I wouldn’t set foot in a Christian church for fifteen years thereafter; looking back, I regret not one day of that long sabbatical.)

A short synopsis can’t possibly convey the wondrous complexity of the movie’s plot and imagery. You have to watch it for yourself. Suffice it to say that it’s a loving (and yes, romanticized) celebration of a chaotic extended family that, despite its pervasive heterosexuality, is profoundly queer in its flouting of bourgeois norms. The film’s most devout character, the local bishop, is also its most demonic. The abuse he inflicts on Alexander and his sister, the children of his second wife, never succeeds in crushing their imagination.

Their deliverance comes in the magical household of their grandmother’s sometime lover Isak, an elderly Jewish merchant who smuggles them out of the prison the bishop’s palace has become, hiding them in his labyrinthine warehouse-apartment of precious antiques, nodding masked effigies, and luminous animated mummies. With him lives his unsettlingly intense nephew Aron, a master puppeteer whose alluring attentions to the eleven-year-old Alexander are subtly erotic and less than subtly sadistic; behind a locked door lives Aron’s disturbed brother Ismael, heard singing in the night.

When with Alexander we meet Ismael, the danger he presents isn’t what we’ve been led to expect. A lithe, soft-spoken androgyne, in him all oppositions are dissolved and flow into one another. He is male and female, Self and Other, spirit of light and dark angel, and he guides Alexander to the realization of the terrible, saving, desire of his heart.

Amidst its many other riches, the film offers a parable for the spiritual abuse so many queer men and women continue to suffer–after decades of debate, after dozens of task forces and hundreds of study groups, after various pathetic, gutlessly nominal gestures of inclusion–at the hands of most Christian denominations; it’s a parable, too, for our ongoing resistance, our resilience, and the unexpected wellsprings of the Spirit where we find improbable sustenance for our own and one another’s inner life.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Duty and Delight

If you’re reading this right now, I hope your computer is near your front door and that you’re ready to answer when the next pod of children knock for Trick or Treat. If you’re a high Anglican church-going type, forget Evensong. It’s your civic duty to hand out candy tonight. It’s your spiritual obligation, whether or not you’re going out later as the Queen of the Night in a Sally Ann wedding dress dyed black for the occasion, or staying at home with a season of True Blood DVDs.

As my friend Elaine is fond of observing, it’s the only night of the year, in a time of rampant paranoia, that children get to be anything even close to loose on the street and walk up to the houses of neighbors and strangers in the expectation that something nice will happen. It’s one of your best shots for the next twelve months at reassuring them that the world can be a place full of fun, where the joy–and the scariness–of imagination and fantasy come to good. It’s your chance to instill delight, to give them permission to dream worlds into existence, to dream secret identities for themselves, a brief glimpse into a different way of walking in their skins.

And isn’t that, after all, why it’s the queerest holiday in the calendar? This is what we share in common with the children who stomp up to our doors as dragons and Spiderwomen and jellyfish and Ninja Turtles and vampires and (blech) Disney princesses: that with them, we long for a world where playfulness and the freedom to dream a different, more spontaneous life are safe and celebrated; where we can put off identities that oppress us, or that bore us, or that we love ninety per cent of the time, to try on, just for a while, something beautiful, or hideous, or silly, or unsettling; something rich and strange, as on an enchanted island full of sweet sounds and airs that give delight, and hurt not.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Packing Carefully

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve gone off to a retreat of one sort or another–Gay Spirit Visions’ fall conference in North Carolina, and then, this last weekend, to spend two days in silence with Jesuits an hour west of Toronto.

Leaving home for destinations that encourage mindfulness, I’ve found myself wanting to take along something tangible to help me lay claim to whatever space is mine for a few short days. Somehow, it feels all the more important to nurture a sense of my own spiritual history and identity as I go off to a place that offers the possibility of some transformation.

Never one to weigh myself down in travel by packing more than I need, I’m learning to think small about this as well. For years I’ve had a little zippered pouch of Guatemalan embroidery, about three by five inches, one of several I bought cheaply on impulse, the others long given away as the covering for some other small gift. This one sat on the bookshelf, gathering dust and fading in the sunlight, until it occurred to me that it could accommodate a few small objects, and that its size would discipline me to choose carefully. In it, I can fit a tiny Shiva lingam carved of black stone, given to me by a fellow participant in Body Electric’s Erotic Temple workshop a year and a half ago, who had it in turn from a young gay man who clung to him for two days in Varanasi; a mala I bought on the afternoon of Rathayatra in Toronto five or six summers ago; a Tibetan brass vajra; a tiny hinged icon that a friend found at the shrine of Julian of Norwich; a small roll of fresh prayer flags.

I have no settled practice involving any of these. Some days, I count 108 breaths with the beads of the mala as a meditation. Some mornings, I hold the vajra to my sixth chakra in aspiration for a balance of wisdom and compassion in my life. Very occasionally, I say a short prayer before the icon. Each calls up something about the last six or seven years of my inner life that I need to hold onto, in ways that aren’t always clear even to myself. The flags I usually leave behind, tied into the branches of trees, as a continuation of the prayers I’ve said in the place I’ve visited.

Unpacked, they all fit nicely onto the tiny altar cloth that the pouch becomes when it’s emptied. Arranging them, I have a chance to take stock of how the pieces of my life that they represent relate to one another in the moment. The next time I travel, or the next day, or two hours later, a different arrangement may reflect some changed understanding of who I am and how I relate to these stand-ins for my inner experience and story. Carrying them, I carry home–and a small, adaptable map of my soul–in the palm of my hand.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stand Up Homo

Collection of Hunter Reynolds
Copyright David Townsend 2007

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First Fold

Fifty-five years old, and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of folding an origami crane.

Every time it’s the same: the square folded over into a triangle, the triangle folded over again, and then the first magic reversal, one shape turned inside out into another. Finally, the moment when abstract geometry suddenly becomes, before the process is quite finished, the recognizably emerging image of a living thing.

Every time it’s different: the pattern and texture of this paper; the intransigence of this particular fold, born of some infinitesimal imprecision at an earlier step in the process. The head and neck not quite poised at the crisp angle I’d hoped for. Each crane individual after all, imbued with a personality just barely distinguishable from the last five I’ve made.

I've found it the ideal meditation in my more obsessively driven moments, when I’ve most needed, and been least able, to slow down. Years ago, I kept a stack of paper next to the phone, ready for the likelihood of being put on hold. Folding required nothing of me at all but immersion in the moment. Monkey-minded distraction, lulled in spite of itself by the multiple steps, came full circle to meet singularity of purpose. Periodically, a whole bowl heaped with paper birds called for some suitable disposal.

To offer a crane to a friend; to a stranger; to leave it for discovery by a passerby never even seen; to string scores of them from the branches of a tree in a public park; to scatter them across a beach in the light of early morning; to let the simple act of transforming a sheet of paper stand in for a more explicit and eloquent intention, when words are exhausted, or exhausting, or both; to let mute paper pray for you when you cannot; to invest it with a desire that the world should be full of simple but elegantly beautiful surprises: all these begin in the first fold.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Age Cafe

A friend and I had a few hours in the car together this last Sunday, driving back from a group retreat, to talk about our respective discontents–distinct, but overlapping–with eclectic raids into the spiritual traditions of others. Our experiences over the previous days gave us plenty of complicity to chew on: an ample smattering of Native American practices shared by a gathering of a hundred men, few of us of identified indigenous heritage; a soup of radical faerie and Wiccan rites, these not so directly subject to the charges of hijacking precisely because of their own elements of self-conscious modern synthesis; my own leading of a kiddush for Erev Shabbat despite my very tenuous second-hand Jewish credentials; African-inspired drumming around a fire lit by a bunch of mostly white guys; the symbols of various traditions displayed on the windows of the great room where we assembled: Islamic crescent moon, ankh, Star of David, pentagram, Buddhist lotus, the monogram of the Sanskrit mantra Aum.

In most of this, a studiously minimized direct appeal to the Christian tradition, overwhelming in its cultural familiarity, in which most of us were reared, in which some of us still abide, by which so many of us have been scarred, from whose toxic effect many others have fled in order to claim and defend their wholeness.

Neither of us embraces the melange without twinges of misgiving. My friend, a long-lapsed Episcopalian, has little patience with hollow formula from any source, having experienced a lot more outward sign than invisible grace in the liturgies of his childhood. Ritual queen though I am, my cerebral side sometimes balks at practices lifted out of the cultural contexts that first engendered them and gave them meaning, then set side by side like a bowl of badly made Thai red curry jostling bad sushi and bad enchiladas at a cheap buffet.

And yet for both of us, such gatherings as this weekend’s–filled as they are with the courage, thoughtfulness, and integrity of the men who’ve stepped out of the mainstream to attend them–remain a path forward to an authentic queer spiritual community as we find our way through the desert, knowing from long experience that no tradition any of us has inherited has served us well.

And so we borrow other traditions’ language, symbols, and gestures precisely because they’re imperfectly familiar. Their newness allows us to connect with what more domesticated words and actions can’t: because the rituals of our own heritage have become irretrievably shot through with the taint of oppression; because a tradition on whose threshold we stand as newly arrived guests becomes a site of our hope that we might find somewhere a place of greater freedom and fuller integrity ready to welcome us; because the strangeness of the Holy calls for an unfamiliar tongue.

Five years ago for the first time, I heard Krishna Das chanting kirtan. All I knew of Hinduism was what I remembered from a short unit in an undergraduate course thirty years earlier; nor had its theology held any intuitive appeal. And yet, at the call and response in praise of Lord Ram, my heart strangely alight, my arms raised, I could only say, “Oh–it’s You again.”

We don’t always get it right. We can place faith in misunderstood rites as though our comprehension didn’t really matter. We can develop a wishful, naive trust that over the rainbow lies some tradition free of all flaws, but especially the flaws of our own–such a naivete thrives best in the shallow soil of brief acquaintance and incomplete comprehension. We can kid ourselves that our self-congratulating enlightenment makes our own eclectic, inclusive path more authentic, less full of blindness, than someone else’s more traditional approach to God.

Or else we can come to recognize that every human approach to the Mystery is flawed, and we can fashion from the scraps we’ve borrowed a fabulous ritual drag for the ersatz banquet where the Divine and the ludicrously mismatched share a temporary address–knowing that a temporary address is all we ever have.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Towards Two Mile Hollow


It’s not the beauty of the man
that’s haunted me for days.
One broad, browned chest
would have turned my head,
then merged with every momentary god
into the surf.
The memory of a boy
pale, round-faced, curious, repeatedly
trudging from plover on to gull,
then back again, but furtively inspecting
on every pass two aging men–or striving
for such discretion as a six-year-old
can hope to own:
my charmed amusement
would have evanesced within the day.


The sting of longing,
elastic as it slaps into the hollow
niche the heart has left it,
took me in the chest
at first sight of a father with his son
in shallow, low-tide breakers: the child pressed
between a half-length surfboard and the weight
of sinewed arms around him, as they clung
resolutely, blissfully,
from wave to wave, ecstatic to ride forward
a yard or two–the short thrust was enough
to span a world.


I stood awash,
coveting–what? The father’s rippled shoulders?
To be the boy? The wave on which they rode?
No fantasy could compass
what together they stirred up, while from a distance
I dovetailed my attentions with the caution
an age that brooks no Aschenbach demands.
An older son strolled near them up the slope,
neither bored nor jealous, but content
with calceous fragments, for the moment, and a pit
that reached prodigious depths despite the absurdity
of one red beach shovel all three had shared
with a lean man older than my lover--
the grandfather, clearly; in whose presence
there spiralled open an abyss
of nameless yearning drawing down that sand.


At last, the boy glanced toward me between waves,
and in his flash of curiosity
some recognition recognized itself
where things converged:
his fascination with us
earlier in the week;
his father’s flanks
above red boxers clinging to strong buttocks,
athwart the chest to which I’d turned my eyes
so briefly down the shore;
the father’s joy, losing himself,
flesh pressed to flesh,
in a childhood his own, and not.
It seemed then that desire
for once was not indictment, nor conundrum,
but a tidal force we shared, and not,
defiant of analysis, that bore us up.

Copyright David Townsend 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010


There aren’t many times in life that you get to sink entirely into the moment, putting one foot in front of the other without any idea where the next bend in the path will take you, and still remain certain that you’ll reach your goal.

There aren’t many times in life that getting lost feels so safe. Or, as a consequence of it feeling so safe, when it’s possible to learn from the experience of getting lost so easily and directly. Or more to the point: when your sense of being lost is revealed as only an illusion, because all you need do is follow the path.

If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, it’s probably time for you to find one. It will teach you all this and more. One of the best-known of these virtual pilgrimage routes is laid out on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. Its pattern reappears in copies all over the world–in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; at Trinity Square in Toronto; in Boston; in Hong Kong. You can look for one close to you at

There’s one way in, and you have no decisions to make once you’ve embarked. The path will take you to the center. Walk it as quickly or as slowly as you need. At the center may lie the deepest goal of your life; a desire you long for that seems so distant you have no idea how to reach it; the answer to a prayer. Or your death. Or Jerusalem, Mecca, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya. Once you arrive, you can choose to linger; or you can walk right back out again, either way retracing the steps that brought you there.

You will enter and find yourself immediately almost at your goal. Then the path will take a hairpin turn, and suddenly you’ll tread the very periphery once more, closer to where you started than where you’re headed. You will have this experience again and again before you reach the place you’ve sought all along.

You may find yourself on the path alone, or follow a friend, or lead him in. You may walk with strangers who have also converged on this place. You will make your way forward just a few paces behind someone, only to find him, a few breaths later, arcing out of sight across a widening gyre, then approaching you once more, his shoulder almost grazing yours as you pass. Perhaps you’ll meet at the center. Or perhaps he’ll have left to start his return before you arrive.

You may gaze from the center back out to a scene of people passing by, engaged in their daily business, as through a subtle veil woven of your breath, your movement, your intentions. A child may run across the space in impatient fascination. Your experience today will not repeat the experience of your last walk; nor will you repeat it, at least not exactly, in the future. But wisdom will rise up from the earth through your feet as they carry your weight forward through time and space.

Monday, September 13, 2010


We always sat at the back, just forward of the electronic organ, in a side chapel eight pews deep that would accommodate perhaps sixty if absolutely packed, which it never was. Walls of pieced sandstone, a floor of slate, the chancel rail a smooth, austere length of cherry. An expanse of red, blue, and orange rectangular stained glass set into heavy cedar mullions, representing nothing, spread to our left, the devotion of a third-tier acolyte of Mondrian and Klee at prayer. If at age six I remembered at all the Victorian church this building had replaced, I’ve long ago lost the direct recollection and have only a commemorative plate from the late 1950s honoring the congregation’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

This gleaming new suburbanity was the church of my childhood and adolescence. Only years later would I cease to think its facile, cut-rate modernism splendid. Many more years would subsequently pass before I could admit, through the thick veil of my disaffection, that it embodied fine intentions and a noble effort, by a community not yet moribund, to translate an intellectually svelte, whiggish Lutheranism into the idiom of American modernity. I must have been aware of the building’s newness, but paradoxically, nearly from the outset, to me it represented timelessness.

Week after week I noticed, then found irritating, then gradually came to prize the sameness of the chant, its sinuous melody, adapted from Russian Orthodoxy, at first unfamiliar, then moronic, then finally unquestionably apt. I remember most vividly the slowly pulsing phrase, “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.” Then the pointless redundancies, verbal and musical: “Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right of the Father, have mercy upon us.” And the closing syncopated melisma on “art most high,” which I thought splendid from the beginning.

I stand next to Aunt Doris. We share a service book, though not yet having learned to read music I commit the melodies to rote. More importantly, the book affirms our shared experience. I vaguely understand that in addition to being my aunt, she is my godmother, a mysterious relation imposed from the outside, my knowledge of it mediated through my mother’s well-meaning but nonetheless toxic preemption of my experience by rehearsal of her own memories and intentions. Instinctively I prefer not to dwell on this aspect of the bond between us, which threatens to undermine rather than deepen my experience of her; that somehow links her more closely to my mother than it does to me. I spend this hour with Doris at her own invitation, which I accept week by week with my mother’s consent, but neither at her initiative nor in her presence.

Leaving my father, my mother had fled first of all to her uncomplicated kindness–and the more grudging hospitality of her husband. I bonded with her on my own terms. She taught me to crochet in order to keep me quiet and still in the evening, before the impossibly early bedtime her obsessive-compulsive husband imposed on everyone under his roof. Mornings I followed her through the topiary arch in the hedge at the top of the rise, into the Lutheran cemetery where she walked her dogs and, laying fresh flowers from her garden on the family graves, introduced me to my departed relatives. I don’t remember the stints I spent in her care when my mother was away entirely as particularly idyllic; but I knew who I was in her presence, and she facilitated my belief that such self-knowledge was my own, not her gift. Later, surprised to find that at the age of seven I still couldn’t tie my own shoes, she taught me.

Week by week the same canticles percolate into my sense of this place, where time loops back upon itself without extracting an unpayable tariff for the compounding richness of its meaning–meaning which passes away over the course of the hour but abides poised to recirculate in due course of seven days: melodies, gestures, the pastor’s movements across the shallow chancel space, our responses, all palimpsesting the memory of earlier iterations. It requires no scripted welling like the rest of my family’s histrionics, only movement of the lips; and in the unthreatening neutrality of that external response, my own interior assent finds room to articulate itself for the first time.

The pastor is the antithesis of the ineffably hot Vicar Riehl of my cousins’ church. This man–a bit bland, unhandsome, but kind in conversation and reliably benign–moves inexplicably but predictably from Epistle to Gospel side, pausing to bow before the altar, or raising his hands in the Aaronic blessing (since making the sign of the cross would have been unthinkably Catholic)–completely pointless gestures that fascinate and entice me because they’re so weirdly unnecessary. I somehow understand that this place in some way is home, in a sense more deeply rooted than I can fathom; that I started out here and have returned.

As a toddler observes at the end of Mary Gordon’s novel, The Company of Women, “We are not dying.”

Monday, September 6, 2010


Wednesday night, I’ll take my place once again as a sojourner, a non-Jew standing in shul beside my partner Jonathan on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, the first night of the year 5771, the anniversary of Creation: the sanctified center around which the year revolves; the sanctified womb from which all that we make of our lives emerges; the still point to which we return to hear again the heartbeat of the cosmos in the sound of a ramshorn blown ceremonially into the silence.

I’m blessed to come to this tradition without the baggage that almost inevitably accompanies the negative associations of our early spiritual lives. From my place at the edge of the congregation, this is what blows me away, if you’ll pardon the pun, in hearing the excruciating bronze-age cry of the shofar: that time itself is holy. That we are accountable for what we make of it. That amidst its ever-rolling stream, change is a gift. That if we can only stretch so far, we can learn to see even our own mortality as an aspect of that gift. That, miraculously, we get more time, a second chance, when we need one. That the Mystery is infinitely larger than our souls, but that our souls, together with the souls of those we love and of those we mourn, are and will always remain a worthy part of that Mystery.

That every cry in the Middle East for peace, security, dignity and justice–from Muslim, Christian, and Jew alike--is the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of Matthew Shepard dying alone, tied to a fence in Wyoming, was the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of men in the shared ecstasy of their lovemaking is the sound of the shofar.

That the cry of an oil-soaked pelican in a marsh destroyed by the criminal greed, negligence, and stupidity of oil companies is the sound of the shofar.

That the shout of my late schizophrenic neighbour, “Kill the Fags!” when he was off his meds, and his apology when he was in remission, were the sound of the shofar.

That the laughter of children over a garden wall is the sound of the shofar.

And let us say, Amen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Queering our Masculinity

Why go on so about the spirituality of queer men in this blog, if Spirit is what binds us all, ultimately erasing distinctions between male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, white and racialized, able and disabled, young and old?

For me, it’s a rhetorical question. I have no hesitation about my answer: only by entering more deeply into what’s particular about our experience will we come to know better our place in a world that’s not just about us. Among feminism’s most important insights over the last forty years has been the insistence that truth is relative to the experience of the one who knows and speaks it, and most especially to his or her gender/sexuality. French psychoanalytic feminism in particular charted the ways that patriarchy distorts and discounts women’s ways of knowing, speaking, and being in the world. Writers like Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous put the finger on (and gave the finger to) patriarchy for claiming that only men’s modes of thought and language count, and for discounting women’s views and expressions as secondary and derivative.

I feel passionate about feminism, but let me be clear: not only out of guilt, but more importantly out of a solidarity born of shared interest. If patriarchy puts men on top–and of course it’s done that for millennia in unjust and violent ways-- the price we pay is the fullness of our selves, our souls and bodies. Patriarchy doesn’t exult the lived experience of men. Instead, it asks us to renounce our frail, embodied, contingent existence, and to pretend that there’s something inherently universal and standard about masculine ways of being, acting, speaking, and knowing. The French feminists called this distorted, abstract understanding of male identity “phallocentrism.”

The problem is, if we carry the phallus around long enough, we lose track of our dicks. The phallus, patriarchy tells us, is perfect, unchanging, universal, and all-powerful. Not so that strange, changeable, capricious organ between our legs. Not so the whole range of pleasures we’re capable of feeling with our bodies that have nothing to do with an obsession with “normal” male sexuality. Not so the multiple ways that those varied pleasures can impact our souls and shape our understanding of who we are and who we’re capable of becoming through the call of the Divine.

When Jesus queers a normative understanding of marriage in Matthew 19:10-12, he caps off what he has to say with an outrageous parting shot worthy of the provocative queen he often is: “There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Hear it if you can. [SNAP]” Saying no to patriarchy in order to say yes to the fullness of our experience may look nelly, but only to those who are still under patriarchy’s spell. Saying no to patriarchy means saying no to a power structure that serves no one well. Saying no to patriarchy, we smash an idol that we’ve been in thrall to for far, far too long. And we gain the whole world outside the closet door.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As Spirit Descends Into Flesh

How do you feel about your spiritual life when you’re naked and have an erection?

When you connect to the Source of your being–whether through prayer, meditation, corporate worship, or a walk in the woods–can your erotic energy still flow freely? Or else, between the Hot and the Holy, is there a great gulf fixed?

Christianity in its mainstream packaging succeeds, more often than not, in setting up the erotic and the spiritual as polar opposites–and ironically so, since the tradition is founded on a paradoxical belief that the infinite life of the Divine has joined itself to the world of matter and of flesh.

For some, the conflict remains irreconcilable. Everything I’ve read of the work of Andrew Holleran, an accomplished and much-admired gay writer of the last thirty-five years, has seemed to me predicated on the arid notion that a life engaged with the flesh can only be lived at the expense of a lost, nostalgically charged purity. If his characters succeed in redeeming themselves, they do so only by renouncing a sensuality that, however alluring, finally proves to be shallow and unsustainable. As evocative as his prose can be, his characters’ growth and deeper integration seems endlessly arrested by the closet wall running down the middle of their souls.

But the sharp dichotomy hardly does justice to the complexity of some gay men’s experience. In reviewing my own spiritual biography, a desire for God has been folded over in complex ways since my early childhood with my bodily longing for men.

I don’t recall how, when I was five, the object of my adoration entered the hospital room. He simply materialized at my bedside. He subsists in my memory like the resurrected Jesus walking through a locked door to greet his cowering disciples, supported on a sea of half-conscious associations, a macho angel with a heavy five-o’clock shadow. Extraordinarily loquacious five-year-old that I was, bent on engaging whatever adult I faced, determined to charm them into sustaining me, I was utterly reduced to fascinated silence. His blue cheek and jet-black hair hovered just out of reach as he sat down. He must have been twenty-four or twenty-five, a third-year seminarian, less than half my present age, with the pastoral and spiritual sophistication of, well, the average devout seminarian. But for me, he was ageless, or the perfect age of the perfect man–once more like the risen Christ. I fantasize now, fifty years later, that his eyes were dark brown, his skin pale, his build solid but trim, slightly shorter than my adult height–but that’s pure erotic riff. He must have greeted me by name. More importantly, he named himself: “I’m Vicar Riehl.”

So much for the essential core of my memory. No conversation. He finally suggested we pray together, perhaps relieved to close a routine hospital visit, frustrated that he could elicit so little response from me. Or maybe the silence only seemed to me to last forever. Did he take my reticence as his own lack of rapport with a peculiarly silent yet uncomfortably intense child? Did he read in it my fear of the hospital, or anxiety at the prospect of surgery? Did he recognize raw, inarticulate desire when he saw it? I didn’t see the point of praying. It imparted a weight to my circumstances I didn’t register they actually had. Everyone, after all, had their tonsils out. Nor did prayer in general make much sense to me: prayer was acquiescence to the expectation of adults. God had simply loomed, an immanent feature of the landscape, until this man drew down divinity into the world and into my heart. If he wanted to pray, and it would keep him in the room for another two minutes, then I’d happily comply. I felt sadness that I didn’t share the impulse, since my lacking it separated us, and I wanted nothing to separate me from him, ever. He left as soon as we’d said, “Amen.”

How could he imagine he needed to introduce himself? My cousins–sixteen and obsessed with every male in sight; twelve and dazzled at the threshold of mysteries her older sister had entered into–rehearsed his every movement, his every word at youth group. Their fascination with him flowed through me in a torrent, a desire for a masculinity that felt no more mine than it did theirs: perhaps I wanted no more to possess him than to be him, but I wanted him to the depths of my soul.

And so it’s gone in my life for a further half-century, without my ever really getting to the bottom of why my sexual energy has been deeply stirred at the moments of my most intense devotion, or why the best sexual experiences of my life have felt so much as if I were praying with every cell of my body.

One of the most cogent approaches to the integration of erotic and spiritual life that I’ve encountered is the second in a series of recorded lectures by Michael B. Kelly entitled The Erotic Contemplative: Reflections on the Spiritual Journey of the Gay/Lesbian Christian. (You’ll find another appreciation of the power of his work at At the heart of what he has to say, he draws a vivid and fruitful analogy to a great river that divides along its course into two streams, the erotic and the spiritual. We perceive these as separate energies in our lives, he suggests, until through deepening experience we begin to swim back upstream towards their shared Source. The further we travel thus along either of these streams, the more fully we intuit its proximity to the other, until their intermingling rivulets begin to impart an increasingly intense sense of their ultimate common origin in the inexhaustible waters of uncreated Life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fragments of the Self

Drama queen that I am, I’ll say this: collage saved my life.

Six years ago, when I was up to my monkey mind in unresolved grief–over my mother's death, over the collapse of a relationship I'd expected would continue the rest of my life–I opened my friend Sara Norquay’s e-mail. Packing up for a stay in Paris, she made her modest proposal: I'll send you the first sentence of a story. Illustrate it, she said; then send me the next line. You won't see my pages. I won't see yours. The words we'll share in common. At the end, we'll find ourselves in the bargain we've struck with each other.

Great, I thought. Now I’m an illustrator who can't draw for shit. I'm in, I said. Hit me. Sara threw me a line. It became thread through the labyrinth, clothesline enough to hang myself with, fragments shored against my ruin, an unfamiliar garden long seen but known for the first time.

As I struggled to make Sara’s words mine, I sat with a miscellaneous pile of scraps: haiku my ex-partner and I had written for each other on paper napkins in the teahouse of a Japanese garden. Banknotes in European currencies no longer accepted as legal tender. A wasp’s nest collected on the campus where I teach. Playbills and invitations to exhibitions. Notecards I’d received. The wings of moths. Ticket stubs for Götterdämmerung. My own sketches, now cannibalized as raw material for this new project. A tourist map of Venice. A page torn from Remembrance of Things Past, partially burnt as the paper in which I’d rolled a joint.

The private associations of all these materials jostled with what they could possibly mean to anyone else. I found the freedom to lay these shards of memory out on paper precisely because they were neither wholly part of me nor wholly separate. Veiled safely in enigma, I spilled my guts.

Who wrestled with whose angel? Over the course of twenty images, I became Narcissus at his well; Icarus at take-off; Orpheus in the Underworld; shaman; fool; slut; Destroyer of Illusion; Brunhilde at the pyre; Blake’s tyger in the forest.

Collage is a natural medium of expression for a self always in process, always gleaning fragments from the treasure-house of experience, always asking, “What do I do with this?” Think of your deepest self as a sheet of flawless paper: perfect, receptive, awaiting transformation. Your experiences are the materials that you're given. Every day, you are the artist; every day, you are the work of the Artist. To sit with a sheet of paper and the scraps of your life, the images that lie to hand; to wait patiently until they’re ready to arrange themselves; to enter into a dialogue with what’s emerged and then to move it further along: this is a point where the material world can rub up against the evidence of things not seen.

My collaboration with Sara, “Mouffetard’s Week: An Unfamiliar Garden,” will be on display at Sage Café in Toronto during the month of September. Meanwhile, next week I head to Easton Mountain’s Gay Spirit Camp to lead two collage workshops, along with three on Queer Midrash as a response to Judeo-Christian Scripture.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Amagansett to Provincetown

With the rising tide
men swarm the estuary:
August light falling.

Fallen in the sand,
slate-gray and effulgent white,
this gull dead four days,
and still the feathers pristine,
the wing still calligraphic.

The sunlit deck. Far off,
flash of black like a crow's wing
from his eyes and beard.

Three men embracing
waste-deep in opalescence,
radiance eclipsed
against the angled light's flash:
their whisper lost in the surf.

Mirrored at low tide,
two men, their children, a dog
tread no land in sight.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shopping for Gurus

I’ve embarked on a search for spiritual direction, and it’s freaking me out. The very label makes me twitch, conjuring up scenarios of surrender and domination, and not in a good way: genuinely scary Jesuits, instead of sexy Jesuits with five o’clock shadows in well-tailored black cassocks.

I’ve already had more than enough experience of somebody else trying to coopt my inner life: the tsunami of my family’s over-the-top emotional pieties swamping my own unfolding spiritual discovery as a child. My longing for mentorship as an adolescent ending in seduction by a duplicitous, closeted minister–whose advances might actually have done my sexual awakening some good if they hadn’t been so dishonest or so fraught with the abuse of his authority and the trust I’d placed in him. The abbot of the Benedictine monastery where in my early twenties I almost made a profession, brushing away, as a sign of insufficient humility, my hard-won insight into my own God-given self-worth.

I don’t need a guru to teach me submission. I need a witness. I need someone who will take time to build up a sense of my spiritual history, who hears what I say and takes it seriously, then asks questions that help me see a little further than I’d seen before. I need someone who’ll remind me to stay on my path, but only once he or she has a feel for what’s authentic in my search and can distinguish my path from his or her own.

OK, I’ve got major authority issues. I’m also a confessionally promiscuous slut who’ll pray with anyone, a church-going Christian who also attends shul with his boyfriend, grooves to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and is happy to help pull Lord Krishna’s chariot down the street at Rathayatra. Maybe I’d feel better about someone who called himself a soulwork coach.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sometimes a Phallus is Simply a Phallus

There are fire rituals. And then there are absolutely fabulous fire rituals.

The men of Easton Mountain’s Gay Freedom Camp early in July asked themselves, “What’s holding you back from living the freer life you dream of? What will you cast into the flames so that new possibility can come out of the ashes?”

Then they handed it all over to Shiva. His dreadlocks are flying. A river of sweat spins off his forehead as he whirls. He raises one foot in a gesture of power and freedom, raises a hand to tell you not to fear, raises in another the flame of destruction and purification. He has more hands left over to receive what you need to give up.

You’ve seen him dancing in his ring of fire in a hundred restaurants. If you’ve also seen the ceremonial lingam that embodies his energy, you might never guess that its decorous abstraction represents his phallus; or that the yoni on which it rests is the vagina of his consort, who contains his power and prevents it from utterly destroying the cosmos.

No mistaking Shiva, though, in the spectacular lingam sculpted by the gifted and ingenious Moss and decorated by the endlessly creative Hunter Reynolds.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting Inked

I’ve got a relatively fresh scar crying out for transformation.

When I’m standing, it knifes in a gently curved vertical line along my right thigh. If you extrapolate the lines, it forms an ellipse with the curve of my buttock, when I flex my glutes in wistful longing for the bubble butt I never had, even at an age when wanting one would have been a reasonable gay career goal.

Any man who desires me must desire this scar as part of who I am. If he doesn’t, it’s a good indicator there’d be nothing there between us if we tried.

I love this scar. It’s my history made visible, and a daily reminder that my embodied soul, no static entity, is in continuous process. That my arthritic hip tried so hard for years. That I remember it with love and gratitude for all the good work it did. That finally, last October, it was time to let it go. I’m packing titanium and space age polymer now: sometimes I set off airport alarms; sometimes not. Go figure. It’s a little death (though alas without the orgasm).

Now, instead of that beloved hip, I have the scar. It’s wonderful not to live with chronic pain. It’s wonderful and easy to let the memory of pain slip away, as though it no longer had to do with me. Cure verges too quickly toward complacency: the Day of Atonement's gates already closing on the time when this pain was our pain, my share of all flesh. The pain meant I couldn’t forget. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a time and place when you can trade pain for a scar, but now the scar’s job is to bring me back to mindfulness.

Manjushri is the wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara, Tibetan Buddhism’s boddhisattva of compassion. His diamond wisdom cuts through illusion. He’ll take his place on my flank. I’m still not sure when. First I have to settle on a tattoo artist whose design sense I trust. I need to confirm what precautions should be taken to guard against infection, an issue for two years after a joint replacement.

To do this right, I would have given my hip sky burial, leaving it ground up on a mountaintop for the benefit of the turkey buzzards. But I suspect that would have freaked out my buttoned-up Canadian surgeon way past the tipping point.

October 6 is my scar’s anniversary.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Meditation: A Koan

Gold light slanting
through morning pine boughs. Above,
a rustle: bird hops?
Mind clearing, this moment. On
my thigh the wet sound of shit.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Queer Midrash

For the last thirty-five years, the religious right has been swinging the Bible like a club. But it's a bigger, richer, more liberating, and, yes, sexier book than Pat Robertson would ever want to admit. Reading it together and responding to it as gay men with word, movement, art, and music, we can reclaim it for ourselves as a site of spiritual growth and empowerment, a source of heightened self-awareness, and even a space for the holy, erotic playfulness of our queer imagination.

Perhaps we can't afford to stop arguing over the “proof texts” that for centuries have served to marginalize same-sex love: bigots still have to be resisted, and people of good will with an at least partially open mind need to be convinced. But sooner or later, it's soul-destroying to focus only on the negative work of proving homophobes wrong. For our own spiritual nourishment, we need to sidestep that whole, sorry debate with people we’ll never convince, and instead to take back a sacred text on our own terms. It’s our right to discern how our lives as men who love men are reflected back to us in a book that comprehends so much of Western culture’s search for the Divine.

One tool for that reclamation is midrash, a staple of Jewish biblical interpretation that starts with the questions a biblical story raises but doesn’t answer; a midrashic interpretation fills in the missing details in order to provide answers to those questions. Who is the mysterious young man who flees naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the Gospel of Mark? What was the nature of the bond between David and Jonathan? Between Ruth and Naomi? Between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple?

Abraham Katzman takes up this challenge in his wonderfully homoerotic meditation on the Exodus, “Wicked Child” (in The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry, ed. David Laurents, 1995). In the Passover Haggadah, the "wicked child" is the one who defiantly refuses to believe that the Exodus has anything to do with his own life. Katzman has the chutzpah to claim the Exodus for two queer men in the midst of their very steamy lovemaking. The poem’s speaker addresses his still bound and just now unblindfolded lover: “I will explain to you this holiday./ I will explain to you Passover./ How our people, our tribe, wandered the desert/ for forty years. How we were slaves in Egypt./ How our gay tribe of jews/ fucked each other’s asses/ even then in the desert./ How we spoke of it as holy./ As a way to understand G-d.”

The photography of Oscar Wolfman (accessible through the link to his website in the sidebar of this blog, and on display this month at Queen Gallery in Toronto) offers an often lush and sometimes deeply unsettling visual trope on portions from the Torah and other scripture.

An extraordinary collection of poems by Brian Day, Conjuring Jesus(Guernica Editions, 2009), re-imagines the life of Jesus with unapologetic desire for his flesh. What’s more, Day breaks open the stories to embrace the spirituality of other world traditions: in his retelling, the raising of Lazarus becomes a lover’s encounter with the sleeping Krishna: “Krishna is wrapped in strips of gravecloth,/ his skin moist with the fragrant oils of death./ Each summons the other from across the rock,/ which is loosed by the falling tears of Jesus,/ by the yearnings of Krishna as he lies like a stone.”

At Easton Mountain’s Gay Spirit Camp from 16-23 August, I’ll lead three workshops on the practice of queer midrash. I can’t imagine a greater privilege than encouraging gay men to take back the Word and being present to witness their integrity and pride in laying claim to the sacred page.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Putting It Out There

I returned yesterday from four days at Easton Mountain, a retreat centre in upstate New York founded and maintained by a community of gay men as a gift to the world. There I attended the Body Electric School’s weekend workshop, “Art and Eros.”

The twenty of us who registered included professional artists, deeply accomplished amateurs, men whose creative life lies outside the visual arts, and men who hadn’t picked up a paint brush or pastel stick since grade school.

The late capitalist notion that everything is commodity has robbed us of our birthright: that we are all creative; that our creativity, as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, might put it, flows forth from us in the image of the Power that created us. Art doesn’t count because someone else judges its quality. It counts because it puts the shape of our inner lives out there, visible to ourselves and visible to the world, where what we’ve produced can become the Other with which we enter into dialogue–and in so doing, address the work and adventure of repairing our souls. (Shown at left is Andrew Graham's fox avatar.)

And repair our souls we did, as men in a loving if temporary community, losing ourselves in the sheer kindergarten magic of making marks on paper, in high silliness, in tears, in outrageous flirtation, in moments of ecstatic abandon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Keeping Vigil

This last Sunday, in the little Lutheran church near my summer house in Amagansett NY, I heard read a lesson from Isaiah 65: “I held out my hands to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks.”

Uh oh. For the moment, let’s set that one aside, along with Leviticus 20:13.

Sunday night, I consecrated a derelict brick barbecue as my summer altar and temple. If that isn’t camp and chutzpah together, tell me what is.

Earlier in the day, I’d restored dead leaves and garden waste to the freshly swept lower compartment of the altar, where they’ll rot and generate new life. (The poem I shared late last week, "Playing with Agni," talks its way around the experience that led me to perform this small act of respect for God in her endlessly generative female manifestation.)

Changing a little before sunset into white drawstring pants, I set in the altar’s upper chamber the objects that will rest there till the end of August, each of them sexy and resonant with the memory of a treasured moment of my inner life, some of them gifts from beloved comrades. A brass vajra; a minuscule Ganesh; a crystal cross; a tiny buddha that turned out to balance perfectly on the half-dislodged mortar between two bricks at the center of the back wall, a few inches above the floor; a round soapstone box shaped as a Shiva lingam: these things fuse my erotic longings with my desire for the Divine.

I smeared my heart and the altar with a paste I’d made of earth and green tea and sweet wine. Cones of incense smoked as I set out candles and an unglazed clay lamp filled with olive oil from the kitchen and a wick cut from a length of garden rope. At a time I’d arranged in advance with a beloved brother far away, I kindled flame and offered prayer to the Eternal as fire-bearing Destroyer of Illusion.

The candlelight glowed off the brick walls as darkness fell. Hour by hour I woke and went outside to find the lamp still burning, on through to the sound of birds waking before dawn.

I’ll work on Isaiah 65 later...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chanting in Orgy on a Summer Morn

On Monday comes the hinge between the half year of growing light that is about to end and the half year of fading light that begins even as summer burgeons into full life.

Don’t let it pass unmarked. Make it your queer soul’s business to embrace the rhythms of earth and heaven.

Sit on the beach, or on your fire escape, and watch the sun rise on the Longest Day. Greet the sun naked if it moves you, and you can do it away from unwelcoming eyes.

Kindle a flame at sunset to unite your heart to the light that sustains us all.

Plunge into a lake. Or into a swimming pool. Or into a mudhole. Or into the dust that we are.

Make an altar, however small, however simple; however large and over the top. Bring to it the objects that best embody your heart’s intentions, your hopes and aspirations and the sources of your strength.

Drum and dance with a circle of comrades, if you’re blessed to have such men by your side.

Mix a ritual paste out of the substances that token your deepest connections to the world that has given rise to your flesh. Make it of earth or ash or crushed herbs; of water or honey or wine. Bring the full energy of your erotic self along in the making of it. Anoint yourself. Smear your heart. Smear another man’s heart. Smear your altar.

Do this for the healing of the Earth; for its preservation from the corporate greed that treats her not as our Mother but as a resource to be endlessly degraded and exploited. Do this to affirm that you, and every man who has loved men since we came out of the woods and started building huts, do not stand over against nature, but are a part of nature. Do this to celebrate the mayfly glory of your own mortal desire.

This is your only chance. The self that greets this Solstice has already sloughed off the self of last summer; nor will it endure into the self of next. Do it now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Altar's Lesson

Playing with Agni

There is no controlling damage.

The twigs won’t ignite
in high winds, with heavy rain coming.
Dry straw added, and the sticks catch,
a modest conflagration, sacrament only
of all-destroying flame. And then the chamber
proves no empty vessel after all;
the aspiration to save
all sentient life from destruction
only a naive wish. One ant, disoriented,
circumambulates the flames,
then more begin to swarm,
freighting eggs from a crack between the bricks.

I abort the fire,
scatter the faggots,
keen to save the colony. Feel relief
when the tiny panic subsides. Wonder
at my treason against whatever god I’m welcoming,
but move the smoking brands
away from the nest, burning my hand,
which smarts now as I write.
I’ve usurped this womb, claimed it half-heartedly
for a god of fire only to relent; carry the stigma
of a scorched palm for my temerity,
punishment at once from the goddess I have refused
in the end to evict and the god I have refused
the price of untrammeled entry.

What was I thinking? A safe fire,
a purification of mere emptyness,
a discount holocaust?
A place of fecund chaos
scoured clean of the disorder of life in full spate?

is my split allegiance, then:
to fire that blazes up only to be scattered
before it has consumed all;
to seed that falls into the earth and dies.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer Altar


Clear the brush
that someone has laid atop this small ruin,
and from its lower chamber.
Remove the loose
bricks that have collapsed
from the upper platform
into the recess below, where the detritus
has composted into rich
humus, a home
to sowbugs and earthworms.
Relocate among tendrils at the garden’s edge
these creatures and the soil
in which they live and move.
Sweep it clean, before
you set a purifying fire in the chamber.

You do not know why
you are doing this. It’s not a rite
from any tradition in which you were reared. Perhaps
it’s your own muddled amalgam
of half-remembered accounts
of other cultures’ encounters with the Holy.
The humus in its fecundity is sacred,
the worms and arthropods that have burrowed into the darkness are sacred.
The fire merely prepares the house for another face of God.

It doesn’t matter
that this ruined altar began
as an abandoned barbecue behind your summer house,
unused at least these seven or eight years.
It is what your imagination
longs for it to be.
It is dark, autochthonous; it is open to the sun.
It will receive
the objects you declare holy.
It will sanctify
the objects you bring to it.
Prepare it for the summer solstice
some two weeks from now.
Tell no one who will scoff.
The sight of it will speak for itself.
Trust the god who leads you blindfolded
into the miracle of the ordinary.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Ritual Works

Not everyone has an intuitive inclination to ritual action. Many people who've had mostly negative experiences of ritual don't see the point of it in their lives. I respect such viewpoints: they're important, because they're often grounded in how badly burned people have been by bad, inauthentic, and/or toxic ritual. Such folks can offer important perspectives on what can go wrong, or fail to go right. Here are some of the things I say to explain why I think ritual is a positive tool for personal growth and a potentially helpful component for a richer spritual path.

Good ritual “puts it out there.” Our inner lives take on a more concrete reality when we make them visible through word, movement, and symbol. Through ritual, we “come out” in ways visible to ourselves and others.

Good ritual is deep play. Sometimes we need to get lost in an experience and forget the narrow definitions that everyday pressures put on us to “get it together.” Good ritual is a chance to “waste time” creatively, the way a safely held child has the security to ‘waste time” creatively. It’s a way of “going to pieces without falling apart” (to borrow the title of a book by the Buddhist/Jewish psychotherapist Mark Epstein). Good ritual gives us safe space to let go for a little while and give up unhelpfully narrow preconceptions about who we are and where we’re headed. It helps us find our deeper, more expansive, and more playful selves.

Good ritual celebrates the complexity of our lives. A good ritual doesn’t have one simple, restrictive meaning. It involves objects, words, and actions that can mean different things depending on how we look at them. Good ritual doesn’t present us with an “either/or” choice. Instead it invites us to think “both/and.”

Good ritual honors what’s tough. Good ritual helps us hold the paradoxes of our lives together in one piece. It’s a safe space where we don’t have to choose between one layer of our experience and another. We can feel joy together with sorrow, love along with anger, hurt along with healing, fulfillment together with longing, detachment together with passion, instead of blocking out what’s difficult in ways that aren’t true to our experience.

Good ritual helps us focus and moves us forward. When we let ourselves go, affirm who we are, and lay claim to our hopes and aspirations, we’re ready to meet our lives with greater clarity and energy. Good ritual sends us back out into the world ready for our life.

Good ritual is fabulous. How can queer men say no to a chance to dress up and act out?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Do We Need Ritual?

Our lives are rich and full of complex, deeply layered meanings, but it’s easy for us to lose touch with that richness and complexity. We get tangled in the demands of the everyday. Authentic ritual affirms our connectedness to one another and to the wellsprings of our life. It can help us open up to a more profound awareness of the amazing, infinite adventure of our finite, precious time on this earth.

We live in a goal-oriented culture that demands results and values quick, easy answers. Our drive for success and individual prestige sidelines our capacity for wonder, awe, and playfulness. We all live with the consequences. Our sense of ourselves can get flattened. We can lose touch with the miracle of our existence. We can lose touch with the miracle of each other.

Ritual is a nearly universal human response to such pressures. In our modern, secular society, some still find respite and renewal in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Some find it in the rituals of team sports. (Think of the outpouring of communal euphoria around the Olympics.) We make much of weddings. Maybe we know someone who’s made the trek to Compostela, or gone to Jerusalem or Mecca, to Dharamsala or Varanasi or Glastonbury.

But “ritual” has negative associations for many. The rituals we do encounter sometimes feel hollow and leave us confused or dissatisfied. Funerals are notorious on this score, and lots of us have very mixed memories of confirmations, bar mitzvahs, and other early experiences. Some of us wouldn’t dream of setting foot inside a religious institution, and often for good reason on the basis of personal history.

Queer men are in double jeopardy. For much of our lives, we may have found ourselves shut out from full access to even the very limited amount of good, satisfying ritual practice that modern life offers.