Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Longing for the Tribe

Photo from the Website of Red Pepper Spectacle Arts
For twenty-three years, no matter the weather, a proudly and joyfully rough-edged parade has snaked through Kensington Market in downtown Toronto on the night of the Winter Solstice.  Giant ravens  glide along the street. Iroquois shadow puppets tell the story of a miraculous birth. A contingent of Italian kitchen witches shrieks renditions of "Return to Sorrento" and "That's Amore." One year, a contingent in raccoon suits frolicked on the roof of a parking garage overturning garbage cans. 

Such apparently chaotic magic takes planning: it doesn't happen on its own. For the last ten years,  Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, a not-for-profit, artist-run collective has coordinated the parade our of their storefront community studio in the heart of the Market: http://www.redpepperspectaclearts.org/.  The Festival has always thrived on a model of leadership that blurs the line between spectators and participants. Handmade lanterns, many created in the open workshop Red Pepper hosts the week before the parade, float above the random crowd as we fall in behind the firebreathers, the stilt-walkers, the ten-foot street puppets, the drummers.

The Kensington Market Festival of Lights embodies much of what's most precious about this extraordinary city that mothers us all. There's room in the parade for every cultural tradition people choose to bring to it--and room for the ongoing creation of the new, shared tradition of the parade itself. Some of us bring Christmas, some of us bring Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or Yule.

I invest this parade, every year I go--and I've gone every year since I discovered it by accident in 1997--with my longing for a community created from the roots up by those who come together out of richly diverse experience, all the while affirming the distinct identities they bring as a gift to enrich the possibilities available to us all. And I'm intensely aware that such community can't be forced, can't be manufactured as a product, but instead has to be nurtured as a living thing: a seed planted in the cold furrow of a winter's night, lovingly tended in the light and warmth of the unconquered and reborn sun.

From year to year you can see subtle shifts in the demographic. There are always parents with small kids, hoisted on shoulders around the final fire circle for a better look at the burning of the Old Year. There's a growing contingent of beautiful, energetic twenty-somethings with piercings cooler than any body fashion statement I'll ever make. The last few festivals have seen a strong and foregrounded First Nations presence.  Always on the lookout for clusters of gay men in the crowd, this year I was happy to be part of such a clan myself, at least momentarily, a gaggle of nine or ten of us. The paper lanterns we'd decorated together a couple of weeks  ago helped us keep track of each other as we flowed with the larger crowd down the narrow streets of the Market and  into the park where we finally torched the Old Year.

I long to be part of a tribe with such men, however intermittently. I long for this to be the first of many years in which we come together as part of this fiercely uncommercialized, rough-hewn celebration of holy darkness and holy light. But such an aspiration calls for a light and flexible grasp, for hope rather than determination. Thinking back on the wonder of Solstice just a few days ago, the shifting constellation of our lanterns floating down the street seems like a parable for what 's required in holding to such an intention:  a few of us out ahead, a few scattered to one side, a few behind: all of us aware of the others, sometimes allowing for distance, sometimes slowing down to regroup or hastening to catch up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Mess of This Year's Book

I'm right at that cusp between looking back through the bewildering, worn-edged clutter of my day planner for 2012, and looking forward to the clean, sleek, empty Moleskine for 2013 into which I've only just begun to enter the first advance notes.

I still use a day planner, with paper pages that you turn with your fingers and write on in ball-point pen. I can't imagine forgoing this tangible, material record of my day-to-day life, any more than I can make the transition to reading the newspaper online. And every December, I imagine the coming year's book won't end up looking like the chaotic mess I've made over the last eleven months. I still try hard, at this point, to write in a controlled, neat script, carefully budgeting the space of each day's allotted inch-and-a-quarter to allow for some logic as the schedule fills in.

The natural sloppiness of my hand will take over in earnest about a week into the New Year. By then, what I'd in theory like my life to look like will collide with the reality of the choices I make from week to week, with what's demanded of me, with what I agree to, with what I want in the moment. There will be the notes transferred from one week's page to the next, a record of my sometimes epic procrastinations. There will be anxious reminders wedged in between consecutive meetings. I can trace the record of mounting anxiety about being overbooked by scanning this year's planner for the pages where I've even made notes to myself about when I intend to fit in exercise, when I intend to call a friend with whom I want to catch up.

This year, my resolution is not to fantasize about that clean, ordered book that I once again won't keep, but to look back with affection and wonder at the fullness of what's been, and to welcome the messiness of life as it lives itself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wanting the Polaroids

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have hope, largely because a friend has so little of it right now in his life. The future doesn’t look good at all. A lot of the time, when we talk about his prospects, I’m at a loss for what to say that might offer comfort or help. What’s happening now is fine. It’s what may come to him—or may not come—down the road that’s sucking the blood out of life here and now, like some motherfucker demon that gets more and more powerful, the more fear it sees it can generate in us. At times like this, seeing what my friend is suffering, I can only say, it’s the future that kills us. It's longing for reassurance that everything will work out, and dread that it won't, that often pull our attention away from the blessings present in our lives today.

If he and I were on non-theistic paths, and God or the gods were irrelevant to us—if, for instance, we were Buddhists—it might be easier just to say that hope is beside the point; or even that hope is a toxic distraction, an enticing indulgence like absinthe that makes everything burn a little brighter for a while, and then slams you with the worst hangover of your life.

But my friend and I are both committed to the use of "God language," however tentative we may sometimes be about it. We're both given over to a faith in a You to whom we respond, by whom we're held in loving embrace, in whom we're comprehended. Sometimes that faith is little more than wanting to believe. At other times, it breaks into our lives by direct experience, like something we could never have expected, never could have asked or imagined, never could have bargained on. At times like those, we're confirmed in a trust that all will be well--and reminded that we have no idea in advance what that wellness will turn out to look like.

In the Christian Gospels, people have an odd way of not recognizing the resurrected Lord. They think he's the gardener, or a stranger on the road to Emmaus, or some random walker on the beach. They only twig when they can let go of their expectations, and of their dread.

In the face of uncertainty, we long for certainty. We want an infallible description in advance of what's in store for us. We want polaroids of the final destination, and GoogleMaps directions on how to get there. Instead of trust in a Person, we want knowledge of a thing. It's not hope that deceives us, but our habit of confusing hope with self-confidence.

We're in blessed luck: we don't get what we bargained on. We hang onto hope. The ongoing struggle--always in process, always a challenge, always an invitation--is to let go of our desire for the polaroids.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why I Love Shortbus

I can count off on one hand the movies that I don’t just love but credit with changing the way I look at my life:

Word Is Out, the 1977 documentary that assured me there were any number of ways to be gay in the world, most of them interesting, many of them desirable;

Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, which helped me find the courage to walk away from spiritual abuse at the hands of a dogmatic, life-denying religious hierarchy;

Babette’s Feast, which goes on reminding me that the only way to find the deepest joy is to give joy lavishly away;

And Shortbus : John Cameron Mitchell’s sexy, sad, funny, compassionate vision of a queer utopia, set in and around a Brooklyn salon/sex club hosted by the outrageous and divine Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (then still pre-Mx. and pre-Vivian).

When the movie came out in 2006, I was raw from a long, obsessive breakup with plenty of confusion, grief, anger, and blame to go around. Mitchell’s film showed me people trying hard, fucking up, struggling against shame, longing to connect, fleeing from connection, hurting those they loved, forgiving themselves and each other. I found myself in more or less every scene.

I had a chance this weekend to take part in a conversation about the movie with twenty other gay men--some of us newcomers to the film, some fanatic fans for the six years since it came out. At the end of the evening, one man who came observed that if the leader had screened the end of the film as one of the clips to prompt discussion, he would likely have cried through it, as he had before. I expect I would have too.


In candlelight during a blackout, Mx. Bond sings "In the End," more or less summing up the vision of the film. Songwriter Scott Matthew's lyrics are anything but upbeat: "We all bear the scars," they begin. "We all feign a life." But it's the tenderness and affection that Bond brings to the song, and that Mitchell and his cinematographer bring to the shooting and editing of the scene, that convey what matters here: that the participants in this "salon for the gifted and challenged" have touched what a Buddhist teacher like Pema Chödrön would call "the genuine sadness at the heart of things": bodhichitta.

This is the realization that our lives are infinitely precious because they are infinitely vulnerable. The end of the song erupts, with the incursion of a marching band--I'm not making this up--into a riot of musical and erotic carousal. In the end, the characters celebrate their humanity not despite but in and through their flaws. They find community, but only because they accept the aloneness that we can't overcome.

Some less than appreciative responses to the film, including Bruce Diones' snyde notice for The New Yorker, objected to the utopianism of the final scene. But the inbreaking of what isn't expected and can't be foreseen, until we let go of our attachment to the illusion of perfection, is the whole point. "I never saw that one coming," Bond observes through a bullhorn in the last line of the film. "You never know what's gonna happen in this neighborhood."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Thinning Veil Between Worlds

I've had the oddest sense lately, making love to my partner, of the two of us being in a roomful of men.

When I say odd, I mean it's not exactly the fantasy of sharing him with a group, and sharing a group with him, that's coming forward for me. Nothing odd about that: let's be clear right at the start, the prospect turns my crank, and if it suited him as well--which it doesn't--we'd explore it.

Partly, it's the enduring presence of his former partner in his life, and by extension in mine. Bob died a little over ten years ago. His books line the shelves that cover whole walls of the house where we live summers, many of them inscribed to him by their authors, some of them annotated in his hand. His photographs hang throughout the house. A few summers back, we finally poured Bob's ashes into the bay, floating in a kayak together with Bob's first high school lover and lifelong friend, reading Whitman to each other in a light drizzle and watching a white heron flying low over the water toward an island at the mouth of the creek. I've come to say, only half jokingly, that I'm in a threeway relationship: sometimes one of us being dead makes it less challenging; sometimes more so.

Partly it's the long, slow repair of my friendship with my own former partner, now coupled up again himself, and the approaching prospect early next year of finally leaving the house I bought with him fifteen years ago, and the garden we created together before we separated. No question, I'm still in love with him too. It took me six years to admit that to myself.

Partly, it's the wider awareness of all the other men I've let into my heart, and into my pants, over the years--some of whom I dated; some who became soulmates on the short, intense coller-coaster rides of workshops; some whose names I only learned while we were having sex, or never learned at all, and never saw again. Thery're very much present in the room. Objects that represent them sit on my altar in the corner: the icon G. gave me on my fiftieth birthday; the crystal pendant cross S. brought me on a visit eight years ago; the natural phallus of stone, ground smooth by the tide, that A. found walking on the beach and saved for me; W.'s tuning fork.

Partly, it's the awareness that my partner's erotic history has been even richer and more varied than my own--and that now and then my nose is pressed to the glass with envy about that.

And in the shadow of all these, it's something else, something more. It's the sense that when we're making love, though we're two isolated individuals, we're also part of something larger, something more general. Something that embraces the other men who dwell within us: those who've slipped away, carried elsewhere on the diverging currents of our lives; even those who've passed beyond the veil of death--the"waves of dying friends" that the late poet Michael Lynch so movingly commemorated in the early years of the AIDS crisis.

I can't describe more precisely what I'm sensing so strongly of late within/behind/ beneath/beyond the experience of being with this particular man I love deeply, with whom I most intimately share my life. But whatever it is, it flies in the face of the romantic cult of the couple as a self-sufficient unit. It's radically opposed to the notion that we find one person who somehow completes us, so that anything else becomes an admission of emotional failure and defeat. I can't help but feel that our current obsession with marriage rights (as necessary politically as that may be) threatens to flatten and suppress the richness of this broader web of emotional, erotic, and spiritual connection.

Strangely, I'm reminded of what Plato said about (gay) love in the Symposium: that we start by loving an individual, progress by loving many individuals, and end (ideally) by loving what we find embodied in them all. That's one of the few things I can take away from Plato at this point in my life without vehement disagreement.

And perhaps even more strangely--weirdly, in fact--I connect what I'm feeling to this moment in the year--Hallowe'en, All Souls, the Day of the Dead, Samhain--when the curtain between what's present and what's vanished from our daylight lives is pulled aside, and we're in communion with the dead--and by extension, with the otherwise departed, and with the alternative worlds of our unrealized longings. If Bob's ever in bed with us, surely it's now. I'm glad for the thought he's there. Along with all those others, alive and dead, across town or across the continent, at the far-flung corners of my life and my beloved's, the men of our queer tribe, who nestle and nuzzle around us.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Living Soulfully

Last Sunday afternoon, I spent two hours in a church basement with thirteen other men, most of whom I was meeting for the first time. Maybe the fact that we'd come together wasn't exactly miraculous. But as we went around the circle introducing ourselves and sharing what had led us to gather, the hope I heard most of us voice seemed rare and precious.

Many though not all of us had in common that we'd spent time at Easton Mountain; or else at least we shared curiosity about Easton's mission of building more vibrant, more spiritually engaged, more inclusive community among gay men. But more immediately, what had brought us together was the desire to find such connection closer to home than the seven-hour drive from Toronto to Easton itself.

Easton's own programs, and the programs it hosts, are extraordinary and precious resources for personal growth and transformation, for the formation of new friendships, for the weaving of wider communal bonds. But as with so much of our experience of spiritual community as gay and otherwise queer men, these brief, finite opportunities to build our own culture are here one day and over the next, as we move back again from such gatherings into a world that we haven't made for ourselves, where we stand at the margins, where we're not quite fully at home.

There's a wistfulness that's an almost inevitable hangover from the peak experiences of "workshop culture. " It's a longing to walk more easily, and more often, into the space of deep connection. It's a dissatisfaction that the texture of everyday life allows so little space to integrate deep friendship, queer eros, faith, playful abandon, and resolve to change the world.

A place like Easton Mountain,to offer sustained hope for the transformation of queer men's spiritual realities, has to find ways of becoming more than itself--more than a few acres of land in upstate New York, however beautiful and peaceful they are; more than a week or two at a time of celebration and release from the constraints of life in a heteronormative world; more even than the few men who live on its land and hold space, ready to welcome those who come. It has to spread itself out as a widening network of complex, interwoven, multiple connections, like rhizomes just under the surface of the soil.

That's my prayer for what the fourteen of us in Toronto, together with those who find their way to us in coming weeks and months, might become: a web of roots strong enough to hold together, vibrant enough to send up fabulous green shoots into the gay sunshine, extensive enough to link us to men who share our vision at the foot of a mountain in upstate New York; in Boston; in Philadelphia; in New York City; in Florida; in New Jersey.

Chapters of Living Soulfully, an organization of men whose lives have been touched by the promise of Easton Mountain, offer fellowship and opportunities for local community in a growing number of cities and regions: see www.livingsoulfully.org and the Facebook pages of local groups.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Stanley Kunitz: The Snakes of September

Faced with the mortality of one of my dearest friends--made more vivid by the bad news from the last CT scan--I have only these lines of Stanley Kunitz, who was still hauling compost along the paths of his Provincetown garden at the age of 100, until his death in 2006.

All summer I heard them
rustling in the shrubbery,
outracing me from tier
to tier in my garden,
a whisper among the viburnums,
a signal flashed from the hedgerow,
a shadow pulsing
in the barberry thicket.
Now that the nights are chill
and the annuals spent,
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped to the nether world
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
After all,
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
braid of creation

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Under the Surface

In these days just after the Autumn Equinox, I step out my back door into the last mortal exuberance of the garden. The late clematis is at the end of its three-week riot: thousands of small, scented white blossoms billowing over the fence, over my neighbour's garage, into the grape arbor of the yard next door. The corroded bronze Buddha sits on his small shelf just to the left of the garden gate, nearly obscured by the forsythia. What's left of the dicentra and ferns lie sprawled across the paving bricks in the corner nearest the steps from the deck. And day by day, the pond moves slowly but steadily toward dormancy.

The sunlight that sliced through its surface two months ago now barely grazes the far end. The floating plants--water lettuce, parrot feather--get leggier as they reach for light and slow down their relentless spread that from late June to early August needed thinning nearly every week. The goldfish, gluttons that they are, continue to guzzle anything I drop into the water for them with as much enthusiasm as ever, even though their metabolisms are slowing as the water temperature drops imperceptibly from morning to morning.

Down below, God knows what's going on. Fiteen years ago, I released half a dozen Japanese trap-door snails. An enterprising raccoon occasionally manages to fish one out and leaves the fragments of shell on the edging stones--sometimes along with a chaotic tangle of vegetation--as proof they're still going about their invertebrate business in the thickening layer of muck at the bottom and in the hoary film of algae that clings to the sides. I have no idea whether the current population of goldfish still includes any of the half-dozen ten-cent feeders that my ex and I turned loose in 1997. Some additions over the years have clearly contributed their genes to the mix.

I marvel at how little effort I have to invest in this more-or-less self-contained ecosystem the size of three or four bathtubs. I plug in a floating electric heater for the winter to keep enough of the surface free of ice that the fish--hibernating near the bottom except when the odd warm spell brings them churning sleepily up to the surface--don't suffocate by spring. In early May, an algae bloom turns the water an opaque emerald. A week or two later, the pond weeds begin to suck up enough free nitrogen for the algae to calm down and the water to clear again. By early summer, the seasonal floating plants and the water lily shade enough of the surface to regulate the water temperature. The marginal plants grow happily on a diet of fish shit, their roots functioning as a natural filtration system. I know what little I need to do to sustain these cycles. But I also know that my job is mostly just to get out of the way, and to give thanks.

It's all so long, so slow, and so resolutely under the surface. I'm directly aware only of the barest fraction of its life. And therein lies the lesson I continue to learn from it, more deeply with each year that it settles gradually into stasis and then wakes again the following spring into new life: that what happens fast and with obvious drama often just barely skims the surface, while something far more richly interconnected moves out of sight to its own rhythms.

Monday, September 17, 2012

5773: Some Thoughts for the Anniversary of the World

The poignancy of Rosh HaShanah (literally, the "head of the year") is that it invites those who observe it--Jews, those partnered with Jews, and other fellow travellers--to remember the world at the moment of its mythical creation. And in remembering its newness, at once to celebrate its promise, and to mourn how far short of that promise it has fallen; to assert as an act of faith that the world might still be perfected, or at least repaired; to imagine that we could be, in some small way, the instrument of its perfection.

At the funky, quirky, fiercely inclusive alternative shul that I attend, goy toy of my partner that I am, I was offered this morning the following:

"Each time I stand for the Amidah [the great, silently recited prayer at the heart of the first part of the service] I sift through the tangle of legend and learning that is our inheritance, searching for my own blessings, my own prayer. I stand with one foot planted in empiricism and the other entwined in the messiness of my own humanity. No body part touches the God of my ancestors. My heart wishes to be open, my mind to be fully present. And so each time I stand for the Amidah I invent my own religion." -- Claudia Bernard

"The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is the human being as creator. When God created the world, God provided an opportunity for the work of His hands--humanity--to participate in creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal humans could repair its flaws and perfect it. God gave us the Book of Creation…not simply for the sake of theoretical study but in order that we might continue the act of creations."--Joseph Soloveitchik

In these two quotes, I find a place for myself as a queer participant in a tradition that doesn't belong to me. I find space to invent my own religion. I find the chutzpah to believe that by inventing it, I am participating in the completion of the world. I find the ethical leverage I need to insist that part of my calling is to correct the great world faith traditions when they fail to see queer identities and queer love as part of the richness of Spirit's unfolding.

Monday, September 10, 2012


My partner and I have just returned to the house we left fifteen months ago. It's been surprisingly easy to settle in. The couple who were living here were extremely conscientious about giving it back to us more or less as we left it.

But what's surprised me over the last ten days is how little I'm in a rush to unpack the stuff we stored in a corner of the basement the spring before last, or to reclaim the five or six boxes we shlepped to a friend's attic. It's not just that I've lived without this stuff for over a year and probably don't need it back right away. It's that I wonder why I need it back at all. And why I'd want to weight myself down with it.

I don't want to romanticize this impusle to chuck some ballast. It's one thing to live a thoroughly middle-class life (as I do) and think, wouldn't it be great not to be so thoroughly owned by my possessions? It's quite another to be living on the street, trying to piece together the price of a room for the night. But it does seem like a good opportunity to remember that life isn't all getting and spending.

And now for the wisdom of George Carlin:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

John 6

This post carries an explicit Christian content alert. I preached this sermon a week ago on the following passage from the Gospel of John.

So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Once every three years, today's Gospel reading comes around, and we're reminded where the acclamation comes from that we sing every week: "Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." And we remember the context of these words in the Gospel of John, and with it everything they imply.

Jesus says something over-the-top outrageous this morning, as we observed last week as well: "I came from God and live because of God. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and you'll live forever as I live forever." This is what all the passages from the sixth chapter of John that we've been listening to for several weeks have been leading up to.

Imagine how freaked out pious first-century Jews hearing this would have been. Or you don't have to bother imagining: just ask a Jewish friend in our own day how bizarre, and how offensive the idea is of consuming flesh and blood, in light of the injunctions of the Torah, let alone counting it as the flesh and blood of God in human form. And then think of the amount of conflict the doctrine of the Eucharist has created within the history of Christianity itself, with Roman Catholics believing in transubstantiation, and Protestants saying that the bread and wine are simply symbolic of an inner spiritual reality, and Episcopalians and Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox trying variously to steer up the middle without hitting any oncoming traffic.

I promise not to treat you to a long disquisition on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Let's just leave it with this: here, now, in this place, in a few minutes, we'll participate in a Mystery that we share with every Christian who's confessed the faith, for very nearly two thousand years, that Jesus has the words of eternal life; that in the person of Jesus we receive the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God, that was God; that nothing came into being without this Word. We gather on the first day of the week to remember that on the first day of the week Jesus broke the chains of death and won for us and for all Creation victory over the grave. Christians have gathered to remember this Mystery in an unbroken chain of Sundays for twenty centuries.

And yet, every Eucharist is different. When we celebrate this Mystery, we don't just remember what Jesus did two thousand years ago. We confess that Jesus's victory is present here among us, in Amagansett, by the highway, at the end of August, just next to a construction site that in a few months will be home to a whole new community of people who'll be glad to have an affordable roof over their heads. We confess that the Mystery of Jesus's victory over death is present here among us, even while some of us are living with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; while some of us struggle with disability, or depression, or addictions, or bereavement, or broken relationships. We bring whatever suffering we endure, whatever hopes we cherish, to this table that we share with all the faithful in every time and place. We say, here, take what I'm bringing. Make my suffering into part of your suffering. Transform my hopes into your hopes.

When we remember Jesus, we participate in a Mystery by which Jesus is present among us, here and now. It may sound strange, but in some way, God has been waiting all this time for us to show up this morning and make a Eucharist that will be different from every other Eucharist that's going on this morning, and different from every Eucharist that's taken place since the disciples saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We bring who we are in the moment, and we ask to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, as grain is transformed into one bread, as grapes are transformed into wine. Jesus is our host, and Jesus is our feast. And he needs us and invites us to become, like him, the bread with which he will feed the world.

This is a message of radical inclusion. God loved the world so much that God dwelt among us and suffered alongside us, unable to bear that we should have to go through anything apart from God's presence. God in the person of Jesus proved that love is stronger than death and pain and decay. God invites us in this Eucharist to be as radically inclusive in our love as that.


And yet, there's another side to today's Gospel, an edge of exclusion and estrangement. Peter says, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" when some of the disciples have taken off, unable to receive what Jesus has said. Jesus asks the ones who remain behind whether they're going to walk away as well. Peter is saying, "What choice do we have? There's no one besides you to whom we could turn."

If your experience of life is anything like mine, maybe you share at least a little sympathy for the disciples who couldn't accept what Jesus was saying and who felt they had to depart. My partner is Jewish, and I'm intensely aware of how uncomfortable he is with the crucifix that hangs above my desk, and how weird bordering on blasphemous he finds a lot of Christian worship and devotional practice. I suspect most of us know people of other faiths, as well as people who haven't experienced Christianity as either liberatory, or life-giving. When the disciples who depart leave the scene, I'm not comfortable with just writing them off, as though they've missed the boat and they're no longer any of my concern. I want to know what becomes of them, and I certainly want to understand better what's at stake in their decision that they have to leave.

The Gospel of John is unique among the four Gospels. It stands out from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a lot of ways, and it was almost certainly the last of the four Gospels to be written. It came from a time when Jewish believers in Jesus were getting expelled from many of their synagogues, after several generations of acrimonious disagreement over whether Jesus was the Messiah. I don't think it's unfaithful of us to keep this in mind when we consider how the author represents Jesus and what Jesus says to the disciples. The community for which John's Gospel was written was feeling the sting of being marginalized by their fellow Jews. We see this expressed in today's Gospel by the statement that some of Jesus's followers found his words too much to swallow, and left. We can hear the hurt and resentment of the community that first read John's Gospel expressed by this story that some rejected Jesus's message.

But I'd like to think that maybe we can receive the precious message of John's Gospel about God's radically inclusive love for the world in the person of Jesus, and still resist the understandable human resentment of a community that sometimes saw the world as divided into us versus them:" us", the believers who receive Jesus as the Word of eternal life, and "them", those who've walked away. I'd like to think that the Jesus to whom the Gospel of John witnesses is even more surprising than the community that first listened to John's Gospel was fully able to take in.

Think about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection in the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, but she doesn't recognize him at first. She mistakes him for the gardener. When she sees the resurrected Lord, she sees him where she doesn't expect. Jesus twice appears to the disciples behind locked doors, suddenly appearing even though they've shut themselves in. They've divided the world into us versus them out of fear, in as tangible a way as they could, by locking "them" out; and yet, there before them somehow appears the One who has broken the power of death.

A similar choice still confronts Christians in the twenty-first century. We can see ourselves as the in-group of those who've confessed faith in Jesus, in contrast to everyone else who hasn't. Or instead, we can see ourselves as the ones who gather at this table to eat in thanksgiving the Bread of Life, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will make us as well into the Bread of Life, knowing that in Jesus is life, and that that life is the light of the world; knowing that light and life pass when they have to through the locked doors that separate "us" from "them." Knowing that the risen Lord shows up in the strangest places, appearing even to those who aren't part of our charmed circle, even to those who from our perspective are the among the disciples who left.

Some of you have met my godson when he's come to visit me. He attends a very liberal, very high church Episcopalian congregation in Rochester. The church faces an artsy streetscape in the center of town, and one very hot summer day, when there was a street fair, the congregation decided that passing out free bottled water and cookies would be a nice way of offering hospitality. Down the block an evangelical group set up a table, and their leader came up to the rector of Nate's church and asked with evident suspicion, "What's your Gospel?"

The rector replied, "That God loves the world." And the leader of the evangelical group told him, "If you believe that, then you're going to hell."

I love that story for how clearly it exemplifies the choice we always have before us, just as the first hearers of the Gospel of John had it before them. Like them, we're always at risk of twisting the grace that's offered to all into our own special possession that someone else doesn't share. Or instead, we can embrace the radically inclusive love that compels God to offer Godself to us, over and over again, week after week, year after year, generation after generation, as bread for our journey; the love that walks through the walls we put up to shut out those we fear and resent, and says to us, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Praying for Paul Ryan

I was surprised Thursday night to realize how grateful I was for the prospect of sitting on a bus for two and a half hours the next morning. I'm almost never as aware of my own need for down time as would be good for me. Over and over, I notice, as though it were dawning on me for the first time, that I'll be happier, in the face of an overloaded agenda, if I slow down rather than speed up. Nothing on my list will get done. But I'll feel very different about the list when I go back to it: I won't feel like it owns me.

On my way to the bus, I saw an especially beautiful Rose of Sharon in bloom and wanted to take it in. Just breathe, I told myself. Breathe into the perfection of this one moment that's slipping away as quickly as it's coming into being. And then found myself reaching for the mala in my bag, thinking that if a few breaths were good, 108 breaths counted out with the beads would be even better. And soon slid into breathing for the people waiting with me for the bus. For the driver of the SUV inching by in the slow August traffic. For the couple I was rude and dismissive to last week in a disagreement over a much-coveted parking space, on which all our lives desperately depended. And then for people I've known better and longer.

The five people I know who currently have cancer.

The friend now living in chronic care after an incapacitating cerebral hemorrhage.

The men in my ritual circle.

The friends I'll say goodbye to over the next few days until next summer.

The friend who had a difficult meeting with his employers at work that morning.

And here's the kicker: the delegates to the Republican National Convention.

The delegates to the Republican National Convention???

Please don't misunderstand me here. It's not that I think Republicans are nice, well-intentioned folks just like the rest of us and deserve my respect because, hey, there's only you and me and we just disagree. Republicans in 2012 are, at best, willfully blind in their elevation of greed and selfishness to the status of national virtues. At worst, they're self-aware liars about the real nature of their agenda. They won't be satsified until the last poor person of color is disqualified from the voting roles; until the last option women have for control of their own bodies is criminalized; until sexual minorities are forced back into the closet; until schoolchildren are given standardized tests twenty times a year and their teachers blamed for weak results; until the health care system in this country is run like a commodities market; until every ten-year-old is presented with an attack rifle and told to exercise his right to keep and bear arms; until the last unspoiled place on earth gets its own oil well.

Take Paul Ryan as a case in point. There's virtually no distinction between his position on abortion rights and that of Todd Akin, the Republican Senatorial candidate in Missouri who notoriously opined last week that in cases of "legitimate rape" women are unlikely to conceive. Like Akin, Ryan in his support for a ban on abortion doesn't even endorse exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother, though he defers on these points to the position of his lack-lustre, flip-flopping, off-I-go-to-the-highest-bidder running mate.

Ryan is the poster version of the self-made man, the guy who, when he lost his father at sixteen, rolled up his sleeves and supported his family; became a hunting enthusiast who butchered his own kills and made his own sausage; who read the ponderous, self-important screeds of Ayn Rand and found himself on every page. He's the man who wants to slash Medicare but has the duplicitous gall to level precisely that charge at Barack Obama.

Friday morning, Paul Ryan felt like a good person to breathe for, to pray for. Wrapped inside all that rhetoric of the self-made man is still the sixteen-year-old who defended himself against the pain of bereavement by telling himself to buck up and get past the loss. The strategy worked so well for him--he pushed the grief and pain down so effectively--that now he can tell himself that if he could surmount his own obstacles, then so can everyone else: like him, they should all stop whining and stand on their own two feet. Any softness of heart that comes of staying in touch with our own experience of suffering, loss, and need, any chance of connecting through that experience with others, gets buried like rich topsoil under asphalt.

That rich topsoil is what Buddhist teachers like Ani Pema Chödrön call bodhichitta: the noble and enlightened heart. And they remind us that we all have it. Even Paul Ryan; even delegates to the Republican National Convention.

If there's hope for me, it's the same hope that's there for the likes of Paul Ryan: that something will lead us to break through the asphalt we've laid down and find rich, soft soil underneath. That we'll find what's soft in our hearts, despite execrable politics, or fights over parking spaces, or whatever else we use to defend ourselves against a more basic and life-giving truth: that we are vulnerable; that we are mortal; that we need one another as seedlings that have found their way through a crack in the pavement need water and light.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Few Axioms for a Day at the Beach

If you inscribe a labyrinth in flat, packed sand at low tide on the beach, some or all of the following will happen.

A middle-aged man will walk across it as though it weren't there.

Most of the other adults will walk around it rather than cutting straight across.

Two men or two women walking the beach together may turn to admire it. It thus may serve as a useful tracking device for spotting gay men, lesbians, and/or feminists on a straight beach.

Almost all of the children who pass by will notice it.

Some of the children will jump around on it.

A few of the children will decide to walk it.

The children's attention may induce a grownup to walk it with them.

The tide will claim it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rabbi David Dunn Bauer: Bodies of Knowledge, Bodies of Wisdom

The following is a cross-post from David Dunn Bauer's site, www.queerspiritualcounseling.com.

In a recent conversation with a Spiritual Counseling client, I made reference to the ancient and yet startling Jewish blessing for the internal functions of the body – all our internal plumbing – a blessing that traditionally is recited after going to the bathroom. The blessing begins with the words

Blessed are You, God, who created the human being in wisdom.

My client (this one happened to be literate in Hebrew) pointed out that the original text could legitimately be translated quite differently.

Blessed are You, God, who created the human being from wisdom.

I think what blew me away was the simplicity and the obvious rightness of his reading.

Not only can we perceive a wisdom in the structure of the body, but we can mine wisdom from the very tissues and fibers of it. The medium – the clay, if you will – from which we are sculpted is wisdom. We connect to that wisdom through what our bodies experience and feel. That experiential wisdom may be something we can translate into words, or it may remain inexpressible. Truth can get lost in translation. The sensation of a caress, a squeeze, an ache, or an orgasm can communicate a wisdom to our souls that no words can contain.

This reminded me of a healing session I experienced once with my friend and teacher Joe Weston. During a spiritual body work session shortly after my father died, Joe found places on my torso that were painful to the touch. I said, “Make the pain go away.” Joe replied, “You don't want the pain to go away, you want it to tell you what it knows.”

Bodies are made of wisdom. It's an obvious truth, yet it is a very Queer truth.

The acknowledgement of an authority competitive to the mind is Queer.

Recognizing the sensations and experience of the body as wisdom – that is so Queer!!!

To hold as a religious truth that the erotic body can teach the mind through its sensations is Queer.

The conforming approach has been that the crude and ignorant body must only be lectured to and made wise by the mind. Queer God, Queer faith, Queer experience tell us different.

May we bless the Queer God who creates us from wisdom and in wisdom, and teaches us not to judge the ways in which we are wise.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Holy Hubcap of Antioch

Among the sacred objects I treasure most deeply, I count the rosary I bought at the shrine of St. Francis Xavier in Goa. Also the small, naturally sculpted phallus of smooth white stone I found while walking a beach with the men in my ritual and art-making circle. But the one that really stands out is a Cadillac hubcap.

Last summer one of my mentors found it lying inexplicably in the woods on a morning hike. It sat at the foot of the altar for three days at a workshop before he presented it to me as a parting gift during the closing circle. I knew instantly it would become the tray on which I'd keep a small burner for arati--the cool, steady flame of camphor tablets--along with powders for tilak--the facial markings that declare the wearer's devotion to one or another of the Hindu gods. It needed a good blast of the garden hose and a stiff scrubbing with a wire brush to get what rust I could off the underside.

For the rest of the summer, I waited to see if visitors would recognize its previous incarnation. I enjoyed sharing the joke, whether they caught it on their own or I pointed it out to them. But the moment of recognition also always felt a little risky. Could my arati tray be funny and serious at the same time, a loose adaptation of a practice with millennia of tradition behind it and still a castoff car part that had turned up in the middle of the forest, and that now intermittently flaked rust onto the sari laid over the floor of my tent?

We often want the sacred securely and absolutely separated from the profane. We get uneasy when they turn out to sit cheek by jowl with each other. People may write off a ritual practice as frivolous; they may indeed get angry when they think the line is drawn wrong. Think of the furor that has surrounded public performances and displays of art in which one representation of the holy strikes others as sacrilege.

At the Christian Easter Vigil, an officiant sprinkles the congregation with water to remind them of their baptism into the community of the Church, usually flinging it over their heads from a leafy branch dipped into a basin. A friend of mine one year instead pulled a squirt gun out of his vestments to spritz the kids in his confirmation class. Everyone saw the joke, but not everyone got the point: that we meet the sacred when it breaks into the circumstances of our ordinary existence, and that we ought to rejoice and celebrate that it's so, because otherwise, we'd be far less likely to meet the sacred at all. The kids loved it and were way ahead of some of the stuffier adults in the congregation.

My hubcap didn't work well for all the men who saw it, or saw me using it, either. At a retreat center where eclectic, radical faerie spirituality has a robust presence, the disconnect wasn't always about the danger of being flippant. Instead, at least sometimes, men were puzzled and a little put off by the clear and serious, if unconventional, connection to an established but unfamiliar tradition. It was the arati and the tilak they had more trouble with than the hubcap.

What I'm trying to say about my hubcap is this: sacred symbols aren't doing their work well if we get them perfectly, right away, and they flawlessly confirm our prior expectation of where we'll meet the Divine. Maybe they should make us pull back, just a little, at least once in a while, so that we notice their absurdity. Better they should be a little rough around the edges, with a little rust flaking off, and maybe a dent in the rim.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In Honor of Pema Chödrön

Today is the seventy-sixth birthday of Pema Chödrön, the resident teacher of Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Ani Pema is on yearlong retreat for 2012. She has made the suggestion that to honor her, those grateful for her teachings should practice in solidarity with her today.

Here are two excerpts from her writings:

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." "If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person." Or the scenario might be that they find fault with others; they might say, "If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage." "If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get along, my job would be just great." And "If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent." But loving-kindness, or maitri, toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous of full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. (The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, pp. 3-4)

How are we going to spend this brief lifetime? Are we going to strengthen our well-perfected ability to struggle against uncertainty, or are we going to train in letting go? Are we going to hold on stubbornly to "I'm like this and you're like that"? Or are we going to move beyond that narrow mind? Could we start to train as a warrior, aspiring to reconnect with the natural flexibility of our being and to help others do the same? If we start to move in this direction, limitless possibilities will begin to open up. (The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, p. 20)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tree Hugger

I feel stressed today, sitting in the house as a crew takes down the very large maple twenty feet from the front door. They've been at it since around 9 this morning, and they're very good. I hear them strategizing, then the sound of a chainsaw, a warning shouted in Spanish, a crack, a thud that comes up through my feet from the floorboards, laughter, then the blows of a machete hacking the smaller branches into lengths they can load onto the flatbed. They're down to the last lead branch as I write this. It stretches up now about sixty feet on its own, the last remnant of the giant presence that's shaded us year after year, that wrapped us in a living green embrace against the worst of last week's heat wave.

And I'm quietly sick at heart. This is the tree that held through last August's hurricane, when limbs had fallen up and down the street as we came out of hiding at the end of the day. I owe this being a compounded debt of gratitude. I owe it awe for its rootedness and strength, owe it admiration for the birds and insects that have made homes in it. I need its forgiveness that at the signs of disease in its trunk and central leader we decided against the risk it posed so close to the house.

By cordoning it off with a ceremonial rope five days ago, setting a bronze Buddha atop one of its roots, burning camphor at its foot every evening as dusk fell, reverencing it by laying my hands on its trunk, I confirmed our neighbours' hunch that I've gone around the bend. To mourn this tree, to make mourning real by ritualizing its destruction, is a conscious decision I could choose not to make. By early influence and upbringing, I'm disposed to do so--my mother and her people, for all their Protestant piety, were closet animists, without knowing the word--but I could still choose instead to say, "It's only a tree, for God's sake."

But to honor this tree is as much about how I want to be in the world, and who I want to be in the world, as it is about the object of my grief. I'd rather spend the rest of my lilfe as a crazy fag who goes out to the front yard in a sarong at dusk to burn incense at the foot of a doomed maple, and who lavishes as much attention on plants and animals as some people pay their children. I'd rather see the creatures with whom I share this poor, poisoned planet as having as much right to their lives as I and my whole sorry-assed, self-obsessed species. I'd rather stand, in whatever ways I have power and means to stand, with the whales and the old-growth pines and the spotted owls and the orangutans and the few embattled traditional human societies that are left, than with the corporations and governments that treat the earth as so much raw material to chew through: the ecological rapists of Canada, and the US, and Brazil, and China; the oil and mining and automotive companies, the chemical conglomerates, the factory farms.

I'd rather see the Earth as my Mother. I'd rather begin and end the day saying Thank You for the ground under my feet and the light in the sky than taking them as my due.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Signs and Wonders

I turned the cards over one by one as I sat in the garden yesterday morning, before I set off for a day that would call for a grounded sense of who I am and the gifts I can offer those I meet; for openness; for risk-taking.

Temperance. The High Priestess. The World.

I was happy not to see again the dark cards that have turned up dauntingly often over the last two weeks: Death, the Nine of Swords, the Ten of Swords.

Along with relief came surprise that I'd turned up three Major Arcana together. A Tarot deck consists of seventy-eight cards: the Minor Arcana in four suits, and twenty-two named cards outside the suits--the Major Arcana. Your chances of turning up one of the Major Arcana are less than three to one. Your chances of turning up three of the Major Arcana in a row are, obviously, much lower. (I'll leave the correct statistic to those who know more math than I've long forgotten.)

Then I settled into the slower, more ambiguous search for what these cards could tell me, digging into the uncertainties, looking in the shadows cast by hesitation for what I might otherwise fail to see. Reading your cards, or having them for you, requires a kind of faith. You have to trust that a series of random occurrences has something to teach you--that hovering just behind pure chance is a sign that points to something you'd do well to notice. You have to get past calculating the odds in order to embrace what Thomas Moore has called "the reenchantment of everyday life."

You don't have to believe deeply. You just have to behave as though you do. You have to give yourself permission to imagine and play with the possibility that the randomness of the world is speaking to you. You can use the Tarot as a technology for the expansion of your soul. You could just as well use astrology; or the I Ching; or ink blots; or the pattern of the flowers that have opened this particular summer day, in this particular meadow. The truth isn't in the cards, but in the dialogue you have with them--a dialogue that can both take you out of yourself and invite you to enter more deeply into yourself.

The faith that the accidental encounters of daily life can speak to you is right next door to naïveté; and just across the street from narcissism. My life history makes me painfully, uneasily aware of what can happen when well-meaning people lose their critical edge. I grew up with a born-again uncle who claimed to have prayed his gas-tank full between paychecks; with an aunt who met the Devil on her way to a family reunion, turning him down, I'm glad to report, when he needed a lift--and who had an unnerving habit of sharing with new acquaintances (like my former partner, the first time she met him) a few of the most important miracles she'd experienced in her life. I've known hyper-rationalist empirical types who've fallen off the wagon into talking about auras and chakras as though they were subject to the same verifiability as the laws of thermodynamics.

And this is why I think a sense of play (and a healthy dose of irony, our cultural birthright as queers) is ever more essential as we integrate the spiritual importance of our everyday experience. As we search the ordinary for the wisdom it has to impart, we need to remind ourselves, more or less continuously, that it's what happens between us and the signs and wonders of our lives--the cards we read; the dragonfly that settles on our arm; the coincidental meeting that feels too providential to ascribe to dumb luck--that opens us up, not those occurrences in and of themselves. There's no objective, "scientific" truth to the Tarot, as far as I'm concerned, but there is what it calls forth in us as we play with what it offers. The chance happenings of my day aren't direct messages from a God who has nothing more pressing to do than send me personal telegrams; but I can choose to take them as evidence of a Mystery that unfolds before me, and, sometimes, an invitation to allow it to unfold within me as well.

(If you're interested in learning the basics of reading the Tarot, Joan Bunning offers a very user-friendly (and free) online course at www.learntarot.com.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Enough With Genius, Already

Above, Joan Miró, Toward the Rainbow, 1941, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.

"I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets of paper with no preconceived ideas," said Joan Miró of the playful, intimate works on paper, the Constellations, that established his reputation in America when they were shown in New York in 1945. He'd made these paintings, gouache with oil washes, in dark days in indeed, in 1940 and 1941, in occupied France and then in Franco's Spain.

In the amazing retrospective show of his whole career on display at the National Gallery until mid-August, there's a priceless wall of five or six of these pieces. They're the quintessential Miró that you can't help but recognize, if you've had any previous acquaintance with his work at all.

The didactic panels in the show do what they have to do in a major art museum: they tell you why these pieces are important; they nudge you toward reverence in the presence of genius. The Gallery website is quick to quote Miró saying that the Constellations were "one of the most important things that I have done," and to say that as a consequence of the 1945 exhibit Miró was subsequently welcomed in America "as one of the great figures of the modernist movement."

But what turned my crank as I stood in front of these paintings last week was anything but homage to Miró's genius. I love these paintings because I look at them and think, "I could do that. I can do that. I'm going to do that."

Not as brilliantly, not with his sophistication. But Miró is empowering rather than awe-inspiring as an artist. He leads with his playfulness, not with his technical mastery. "I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets," he says. It's Miró's "Beginner's Mind," in the Zen sense, that brings me joy and sends me home wanting to let go of preconceived notions as deeply as he did: to be guided by the same pleasure in line and simple shape for their own sake, to be just as seduced by the raw magic of color spreading across white paper, to let things build up associatively and experimentally until the eyes and nose of some loopy, surrealistic creature finally invite discovery amidst the crush of invention.

The cult of genius doesn't have much to do with the artistic impulse. That's what you have to discover in the shadow of everything museums--however necessary and however well intentioned they are--do to convince you otherwise. Behind their incessant talk of importance and lines of influence and recognition lies the prior moment when an artist couldn't stop himself from making marks on paper, when he lost himself, and found himself, in the process of creation--when he made art not because he was an artist, but because he needed to make art in order to be truly alive. When we glimpse it, it's that moment which encourages us to claim our own creativity as well, to go home saying, "I can do that."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blessed Solstice

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning," Section VII

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This is my prayer for you, whoever you are reading this, in these longest, brightest, most generously welcoming days of the year. May you find a way, today, or tomorrow, or the next day, to shirk responsibility, get off track, and lose yourself in something pointless. May you misplace your day planner, smartphone, or whatever you use to keep the list of things you need to accomplish. Or better yet, may you choose to set it aside and take the plunge back into something you know you love but just haven’t the time right now to indulge in.

Maybe it’s waiting for you in the kitchen; or the garden; or the bedroom; or on the easel shoved for the last six months between the filing cabinet and the wall; or on the massage table; in the aquarium shop; in the gallery; in the guitar case; at the animal shelter; in the antique shop; in the knitting bag; on the curb the night before trash pickup; at the beach in a pile of driftwood; in the fabric store; on the bike path; at the greenhouse; deep in the woods; in the middle of a meadow; on the tennis court; in the dance studio.

May it be free of the burden of usefulness. May it carry you far away from any voice within that says, it’s no good, it’s of no interest to anyone else. May you not even think to look over your shoulder for anyone’s approval. May you forget to look at your watch and then be startled to learn how much time’s gone by.

May it pry you loose from grind of work, from the anaesthesia of mass media, from the grip of addiction. If you find it all too easy to get off track, may you do it this time by conscious choice, without guilt, and feel when you’ve done it that it’s enough.

May it make you say, yes. This is what it feels like to be in my own skin, in my own soul, in my own joy. This is what it should feel like to be alive.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Old Enough to Be Your Father

At left, James Broughton and Joel Singer. Photograph by Robert Giard.

I’ve been taking inventory lately of how many of my friends are at least fifteen years my senior or junior. I'm attentive to the question because of an intensified sense of my own aging—a function of increasingly exuberant aches and pains, but these last months ratcheted up as well by the number of friends, in most cases people my own age or younger, now facing life-threatening diagnoses. 

A woman I’ve known for over twenty-five years, my closest friend during the time we taught together in San Diego, is twenty years older than me. She has a great gift for intergenerational friendship, of which I’ve been only one of many beneficiaries. I don’t think it’s even a stretch for her to reach out socially to those young enough to be her kids, or even, at this point in her life, practically her grandchildren. It just seems to come naturally.

 I’m six years older now than she was when we met, and I find myself thinking, I should do so well—but in particular, I should do so well in bridging the intergenerational chasm in my relationships with other queer men. As a kid, like so many all-too-well-behaved little gay boys, I gravitated naturally towards adults. In my mid-twenties, determined to embrace a fully gay life, I fell into a narrower cohort of men who saw their place in the world more or less as I did, shaped as we were by the twelve or thirteen years between Stonewall and the onslaught of AIDS. Most of us were deeply energized by the politics of coming out, though not all of us were equally radicalized.

I was insufferable in my impatience toward older men who’d mastered the finely calibrated arts they'd needed to survive a world far more uniformly hostile than the one we had to face, for all the homophobia we confronted and opposed. When these older men and I did befriend one another, I was often patronizing and more or less blind to the treasures of their wry irony; their hard-won but less complicated sense that their personal lives were nobody’s business but their own; their ability to let go of battles that weren’t worth fighting; the flexibility with which they could finesse the very questions of firmly declared sexual identity that my emerging view of the world was based on. My connections with such men often didn’t survive my inflexible judgmentalism. I’d say now that my life was the poorer for it.

Befriending the young, on the other hand, didn’t even seem an option. Any solidarity we might have ventured in the 1980s toward anyone under twenty-one was hysterically denounced as recruitment and predation, and many of us chose the easier and safer path of sealing ourselves off from the next generation's pain and isolation—but also from their promise and energy. Meanwhile, the young learned to fear the stereotyped rapacity of older men. (Later, the drag queens would come home to roost: at least some of those a generation younger than us would use their different experience of AIDS as an excuse to write us off as summarily as we’d dismissed our pre-Stonewall brothers.)

I’m beginning to think that perhaps the single most damaging effect of homophobia on gay culture is the opprobrium it heaps on us, even today, when we risk reaching across age cohorts . The generational segregation that’s become endemic to North American society is all the more absolute in the solitude and misunderstanding that far too often divide gay men now in their fifties and sixties from those in their eighties, as from those in their teens and twenties and thirties. We need queer elders to reassure us that we are in fact part of something more enduring than our own moment; we need queer heirs to whom we can pass on whatever we’ve created of lasting worth. We need networks of friendship and mentorship to help us make sense of the passage of our own lives and to impart meaning and dignity to the mortal condition shared by old and young alike.

If we need these roles and relationships, we need as well the resolve and social means to foster them. We need ceremonies to make them visible and honor them. Amidst the overwhelming attention that gay marriage now commands (for better and for worse), we need rituals to recognize bonds between elder and younger friends, between protégés and mentors, outside the structures of the nuclear family to which even same-sex couples are now pressured to aspire.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wild Thing

Nothing I could say about Maurice Sendak, in the wake of his death on May 8, hasn’t already been said.

So instead, I’ll just offer thanks for Max, surely the best-known and best-loved terror-in-training in all of American children’s literature. Without Max, without the Wild Things he sailed off to discover, cavort with, tame, and escape, life would be, if not unthinkable, then hardly worth living. For almost fifty years—since the forest first grew in his room one night in 1963—Max has been there to assure us that there is a love that never ceases to cherish and watch over us—not only despite our Wild Things but somehow, mysteriously, also because of them, for all their terrible roars and terrible claws and terrible teeth. Max is there to remind us that when we need to wear our wolf suit, when we need to make mischief of one sort and another, we won’t undo the world, but make it all the richer as we take the risk of exploring our deeper selves.

(Above left, Max with friends, from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, in fair-use illustration of the above commentary.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Holding One's Lovers Lightly

Recently I walked the beach with a friend. The day was near-perfect: bright sun, a cloudless sky, rolling surf a dozen shades of white and green,more plovers than I think I’ve ever seen running up the sand all together.

We’ve been close the last ten or twelve years. Not many more times than that, we’ve tumbled in and out of bed. Whenever it’s happened, it’s been good for us both, sweet, affirming, affectionate. I have no idea when we’ll see one another again. He’s made a decision about where to go next with his life that quite possibly takes him to the other side of the world for the forseeable future. I’m not convinced that what he’s chosen is a great idea. I stuck my oar in some time ago to tell him so. I gather several other friends later echoed what I’d said.

He turned over some alternative ideas during the winter, then decided, he told me a few weeks back, to go ahead with his original plan. I find it way too easy to offer unsollicited advice, but I’m glad to say I fought back the impulse and did my best to listen supportively. If my fears for him are misplaced, he doesn’t need me sapping his declared excitement and enthusiasm. If they aren’t, it’s not my hunch but what he learns of himself that will bring him out the other side of the experience. It’s only the knowledge that rises from within us that counts in the end.

My deep-running desire to be right, to see farther, isn’t about my love for this man, but about an impulse to colonize him, to treat his soul as though it were my own territory. I’m not happy to think how long it’s taken me to realize this, how often I have to learn it again: looking out together hand in hand at the light glinting off the ocean is better than holding up a map to announce with authority, “here we are.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Claiming the Story

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52, New Revised Standard Version)

The best thing I did last week was hand a few people a pair of scissors and encourage them to cut up the Bible.

It took an hour to work up to it. We’d been reading the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar named Bartimaeus on his way out of Jericho in Mark 10.

We gathered as queer and queer-positive readers and listeners around a sacred text. We weren’t asking for permission to enter. We weren’t interested (at least not for the moment) in “what the Bible really says about homosexuality,” and we certainly weren’t setting out to argue, for the ten-thousandth time, over the so-called “clobber texts”—the handful of mostly short, oblique passages that the likes of Rick Santorum, Billy Graham, and the current Pope pull out of context as warrant for their ongoing bigotry.

The religious right puts much of its energy into pretending that the Bible is a seamless whole, a Magic Decoding Ring that spits out answers for everything. But it’s not. It’s an archive of twenty-five centuries of people struggling to comprehend the Mystery we often call God, and it’s full of contradictions, bearing the traces of the many times that struggle led disparate groups to disparate conclusions.

Instead of looking for pat answers, we gathered last week to enter Scripture as a space we claimed a right to inhabit, a place to find ourselves, much as Bartimaeus in the story claims space despite the pious folks in the crowd around him who want him to shut up. We were there to imagine our way in: to find ourselves among the bystanders, puzzled by what might make a charismatic, iconoclastic young rabbi stop for a persistent beggar at the side of the road; or among the rabbi’s followers; or sitting ourselves in Bartimaeus’s place—the pushy, half-Greek, half-Jewish pariah; the ACT UP protester, half-blind with CMV, disrupting Mass from the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the campy queen who screams like an extra in Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.

Before we were finished, making the text our own meant physically taking it apart and pasting scraps onto blank pages as collage: superimposing it over a background; drawing around it; laying one phrase over another. One of us found her way in through the words “Jesus stood still”; another through “take heart”; another through a jumble of phrases spilling disjointedly over one another.

But claiming the story was only the half of it. The other half was being claimed by it: the silence and concentration of half a dozen adults deeply absorbed in a project reminiscent of a kindergarten craft exercise; getting lost in words turned into raw material, rearranging them only to find, when we looked at what we’d made, that the words had rearranged us, called us to an awareness of something we hadn’t seen before. Like Bartimaeus, seeking new sight we received it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Colorful Realm

The scrolls flank the hall leading to the Awakened One seated at the far end: Ananda and Mahakashyapa attend him as he expounds the Lotus Sutra, proclaims compassion personified to all living beings. But interposed, the chatter of several hundred viewers drawn here, as I am, by the hype of PBS and the New York Times. A frenetic pilgrimage, this day of Amtrak back and forth from one imperial city to another for a few hours with these birds and flowers: jostling for a closer look at the filigree of feathers like cloisonné, built up stroke by stroke from shell-white ground in glue, craning, much like the herons that crane back, for a view  of one scene entire.

Itō Jakuchū of Kyoto (1716-1800): well-to-do wholesale grocer, retired at thirty-nine; student of painting and Zen who spends the next forty-five years learning to begin. He starts with the lovely and innocuous, a flight of butterflies defining the space where they aren’t. Then his materials take over: viscous snow splattered on both sides of the silk, across draftsmanship that speaks of consummate control. Just below the white goose, a brushload of ink savage and elegant and more blatantly nothing but itself than DeKooning in his middle years. Streams and garlands that leave little for Klimt to invent. Gold applied sparingly for its dangerous opacity.

Om mane padme hum. Deep in the meditation hall, life bursts the genre, too many invertebrates neither bird nor flower. Sixty-seven species of insects swarm around the frogs, water seething with tadpoles, hanging gourd coiled round by a snake, foliage lovingly painted in every stage of decay, caterpillar chewing exquisitely around the edge of the widening hole into which the leaf will vanish. Fish swim through the air above a pond seen from five viewpoints at once, dissolving the viewer into confusion. And endless: the fascination with chickens nobler than the Forty-Seven Ronin.

And suddenly I love this random crowd of our samsara. I smile and laugh with the woman who walks smack into plexiglass as she approaches plum branches beneath the moon; long to speak to the two men pressed shoulder to shoulder before an octopus floating in space. “What a gift to see this,” I offer lamely to the elderly woman with whom I share a bench and broken ice. "The real gift," she replies, "is to have created it."

I want to say Yes. And No. We are the unfolding now. We are the chattering birds weaving among impossible chrysanthemums.

For more of the paintings from The Colorful Realm of Living Beings,  go to http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/jakuchuinfo.shtm.