Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Cernunnos Litany for the Turn of the Year




I sit before this altar
in praise of the Horned One.
I light candle flame
in praise of the Horned One.
Before this altar I slip deeper into trance
in praise of the Horned One
hold the Lingam to my heart
in praise of the Horned One
as though gazing into a candle flame
in praise of the Horned One
begin to pass beyond the veil of speech
in praise of the Horned One
celebrating the power of pleasure to open the heart
in praise of the Horned One
affirming our animal mortality
in praise of the Horned One
teaching us humility before the power of Nature
in praise of the Horned One
recalling that beside the Great God abides the Great Goddess--
all praise to them both, together and apart--
Womb of Creation and token of Life Longing for Itself--
all praise to them both, together and apart--
flowing through the three worlds
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of this world, of ourselves and our brothers
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of our fathers now departed
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of our sons and of the heavens and of galaxies not yet born
in praise of the Horned One…

(Above, the "Strength" card from Stevee Postman's Cosmic Tribe Tarot: www.stevee.com. You'll find the full text of this meditation in the Ritual Resources bar to the right.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holy Insomnia

God decided to wake me up at 3:45 this morning.

The miserable cold I'm fighting had something to do with it. So did the pain in the wrist I somehow sprained yesterday afternoon doing, oh hell, what? Picking up a jug of laundry detergent from the wrong angle?
But (and this is more promising) I woke up thinking about a man I've been holding up to the Light the last few days.  We met a few months back and have had one face-to-face conversation since. It's not clear whether we're meant to spend more time together. I feel like I get some of what's going on in his life, can relate to it, perhaps have something useful to offer him through companionship, which I've suggested I'm open to. In the coming days or weeks, I'll hear back whether he feels the same. Clearly, I want to spend time with him and imagine I'll find a fulfillment in our exchanges as well--in the fit between our histories, the exploration of common ground, the discovery of new possibility.
Meanwhile, long before a cold December dawn, I have a choice to see the next couple of hours as the fitful end of a botched night's sleep, or else as an invitation to send him my focused good will for his well-being, healing, and growth--what a  Buddhist would maybe call the merit of my practice--while the cat settles in on my lap, then moves on, and I go downstairs to get a glass of water and open up the laptop.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Counter-Reformation

 

Jaw slack, mouth open
in helpless awe, eyes gleaming
into unseen realms.
Across his shoulders,
chiaroscuro limns the edge
of the soul's bright dawn:
supple, turbulent,
a god blossoms into flesh,
life longing for life.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Prayer for Explorers

 

For the men who tonight in New York City have finished their first day of Celebrating the Body Erotic:
For the workshop instructor.
For the men who in sheer generosity are dedicating their weekend to assist him.
For men who have the courage to own their lives.
For men who have the courage to say yes to the wisdom of their bodies.
For men who have the courage to affirm desire.
For men who are willing to be seen.
For men who have the compassion to see others.
For men who open themselves to Surprise.
For their healing, their growth, their deep joy.
For the repair of the world.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hanging Out

I visited a friend earlier this week who's been in chronic care for about a year and a half, since a brain bleed left her dependent on others for just about everything. Much of last winter was pretty bleak. But on most visits, you could get at least a smile of recognition, the smile that made it easier to say, yes, that's her, the friend we love. But sometimes not much more than that; occasionally a few words, still available to her from a lifetime of habitually gracious kindness toward others.

Then there was the miracle of seeing her come out of the fog one day last spring, as we listened together to a CD she'd always loved. The further miracle of finding her, this fall, capable of full sentences, watching television with interest, drinking tea and eating a cookie without assistance. And on this last visit, engaging in a full conversation, with a few holes that the words she wanted just weren't there to fill.
It's an impossibly long shot that she'll improve enough to move into any sort of assisted living. There's not even any telling whether this dramatic improvement will last. Another cerebral hemorrhage--the last one was her third in ten years--could wipe it all out in an hour.
Hope isn't the point. What's ahead isn't the point. Last winter, a smile of recognition was the point. In the spring, the joy of listening to music together was the point.  This fall, sitting side by side watching excruciatingly bad reality TV was the point. This week, hearing her express her eagerness to leave for home, knowing she probably never will, and suggesting that next visit I should bring real food from outside, is the point. Next visit, letting go of all of it again may be the point.
That's the gift I receive from my friend. She helps me remember that what's fallen away isn't what creates love. What's fallen away doesn't jeopardize love. We're just hanging out together, in the shared experience of being in our bodies, being dependent on our bodies, experiencing an unpredictable fragility that's both the terror and the glory of being alive, and learning that somehow, love goes on snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cities of Refuge

Sometimes, the idea that there's a place of safety, of full acceptance, of life lived freely and without constraint, is even more important than actually getting there.

That was something of the meaning of San Francisco in the lives of so many queer people in the 1970s and well beyond--even through, and in part even because of, the full horrors of the health crisis. You didn't even have to get to San Francisco. You just had to know it was there. Or if you did go, for a few days or weeks or months, it was the memory of men hand in hand on the street, of a dyke couple picnicing in Golden Gate Park with their kids, of a leather queen in harness and floral hat vamping bare-assed down Folsom, of a young man moving slowly and patiently beside the walker of a sick friend, steadying the IV pole, that sustained you when you were back in San Diego, or Tulsa, or Grand Rapids, or Greensboro. And when things went very badly there, as when Harvey Milk was shot, when the death toll from the AIDS epidemic began to rise exponentially, you knew that in some real sense it was your life on the line as well, a thousand miles away.
If you think we're beyond the point where we need cities of refuge, consider that Scott Jones was viciously attacked in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia this Saturday morning, left paralyzed from the waist down in critical condition, in what looks like a homophobic hate crime.
We can't all crowd into them. But life is tolerable because our hearts are turned toward them. Paradoxically, our longing for them is in fact probably better than the reality.  Jerusalem has functioned as such a place in the Jewish imagination for over 2500 years. Conditions on the ground are always more complicated. San Francisco is obscenely stratified by race and class; Jerusalem is riddled with the bigoted insanities of right-wing Orthodoxy and paranoid suppression of the city's multi-cultural heritage.
Easton Mountain north of Albany NY has come to figure as a city of refuge toward which my heart is turned. I spend only a week or two a year there, on average. But I know it's there. I know that it's land on which a community of queer men, and all those whom they welcome there, can breathe the air of real freedom to be and to become more fully themselves. I know that out beyond that small piece of land nestled in the upper Hudson Valley, networks of men have formed, committed to a more soulful living out of who they really are, committed to finding community together, committed to being, in some small way, the change in the world that they want to see.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

At the Foot of an Oaken Goddess

A Lingam Puja, honoring what is sacred in male sexuality and desire. We walked encircled in the embrace of the Mother, weaving our prayers into the fringe of a great city. New York, Riverside Park, September 29. The Hudson flashed diamonds of light toward us through the leaves, at the foot of an oak that took root when most of Manhattan was virgin forest.

 
 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Aspiration and its Fruits


Julian of Norwich wrote one of the most  insightful records of spiritual experience ever to come out of the Christian tradition. And then practically nobody read it for five hundred years.
You plant an oak tree, knowing that it may well survive you--in fact probably hoping that it will--but can't predict its fate, two centuries from now.
You open your hand to the homeless woman on the street and have no way of knowing whether the change you press into her palm will go to her next meal or her next fix.
You visit a loved one now deep in dementia. Do any of your words get through? What will stay with him from your visit ten minutes after you've gone?
Between the aspirations that drive us forward and the fulfillment we can't foresee, there's a gap where grace happens. It's what we can't steer, can't predict, can't even ask for or imagine,  that comes to us as gift.
What we consciously long for and believe we're working toward isn't the goal. Longing simply pulls us forward, blindfolded, walking in trust. It's what we never bargained on that calls forth gratitude.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ritual Resources: Breaking It Open




It's easy to fall into the trap of supposing that the main aim of ritual is a perfect, peak experience. When a ritual works well and moves us deeply, of course we want it to move us again, and so sometimes we get more and more focused on the choreography. It's easy to start chasing the buzz, for its own sake. We can forget that the ritual isn't the goal, but a path; not the moon, but the finger pointing at the moon.

Good ritual isn't a commodity that we shop for.
Especially when we're experimenting with the creation of personal or group ritual from the grass roots up, there's always the possibility that we'll try to turn ritual into a perfect fulfilment of fantasy. Paradoxically, succeeding in that might be the worst thing that could come of ritual practice, if it lets us off the hook from becoming more self-aware about our motivations and aspirations.  (I've heard people refer to heavily scripted, complex, and edgy erotic experiences as ritual, as though labelling them as such automatically explained the complexity and shut down deeper reflection about what the experiences meant and what could be learned from them.)
So it's really important to fuck it up.
It's harder for rituals to point to something beyond themselves if they're perfect. Flaws remind us that there's always a tension in ritual between, "here and now" and "not yet" or "not literally." In Christian liturgy, the sharing of bread and wine symbolizes a banquet at the end of time; but what you get is one sip of usually bad wine and a wafer that looks and tastes like fish food: this is a banquet in which you share, but only by anticipation of what's still to come, and in acknowledgment  that life as we're living it isn't there yet.  (Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran liturgical theologian, talks about the tension between fulfilment and foretaste in his book Holy Things.) Turning a Christian Eucharist into a five-course meal centered around artisanal baguettes and Chateuneuf-du-Pape would weaken its power as ritual, not strengthen it.
In the queer men's lingam puja that I've described this summer, the erotic content of the ritual stays more or less veiled. If it were acted out as a fulfilled fantasy of communal sexual experience, it might satisfy one or a few participants, but to the exclusion of others. And it would lose much of its power to make us dig deeper into the meaning of desire in our spiritual lives. So instead of staging an orgy (not that there's anything wrong with an orgy), we circle meditatively around a symbol of the erotic energy that galvanizes our lives and unites us with the rhythms of the natural world.
Good ritual may help us to feel more fulfilled and at home in our lives. But at least as importantly, we have to break it open,  so we can see through the cracks to what's Outside, and so we can grow beyond what we're yet able to ask, or even imagine.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ritual Resources: Holding Ritual Space and Time

 
If we want to use ritual to focus and redirect and transform parts of our lives, it needs a strong container, a force-field of intentional energy, that frees us to step outside our expectations of how to act and what to expect in ordinary life. Ritual has to take place in a space where simple actions can have weight and carry symbolic meaning. Receiving or giving a blessing of water or colored powder on the forehead; pouring water over a stone; tying a thread around your own wrist, or someone else's wrist; lighting a candle, breaking bread together, giving someone a flower--if you do any of these things in ordinary time and space, it  won't carry much weight. Such actions seem small, ordinary, undramatic in daily life. Or just weird and out of place.

You have to mark out a boundary between life-as-usual and ritual space and time. There are ways of marking out and entering ritual space that you can borrow and adapt from many different traditions. Christians invoke the Trinity. Hindus remove their shoes at the entrance to a temple and ring a bell to announce their presence to its resident god. Jews put on a prayer shawl and recite a blessing specific to doing that. Wiccans cast a circle to begin a rite.
Just as importantly, ritual space and time have to be closed. Mass ends with the words, "Go in peace." Wiccans close their circle.
One of the biggest pitfalls in crafting ritual from the grassroots up as a shared practice is uneasiness with what feels like the artificiality of ritual time and space. If you're not used to crossing over into it, what happens there feels awkward and contrived, maybe even a little pompous and self-serious. So we try to reassure ourselves by making small talk while we wait for something to happen, or joking about the practice we're engaged in.
It's important to notice these impulses and be mindful of them, and to resist them when they compromise the integrity of ritual space. And it's advisable, if not essential, that a specific person take on the role of holding the ritual space. This might fly in the face of our democratic principles. It might make us a little uneasy on a more personal level. But it's not about setting someone up as leader because of who they are. It's about someone taking on a role, and then putting it off again when the ritual is over. You can make a distinction between being an officiant in ritual space and "becoming a priest."
Ritual space and time have to be held lightly. It's important to invite the unexpected in. People will come late. Somebody will feel confused about what they're being invited to do and say, if they're new to a practice. Unexpected noise will intrude from the street. A cat will jump onto the altar. The goats will start yelling from their pen when a chant begins. A holder of ritual space needs to take all this in stride, as best he can. Welcoming the unpredictable into the container only makes the container stronger, more resilient, capable of holding more. There's room for play and laughter within the container, and that's different from using wisecracks that rupture the container.
It's important not to talk ritual to death. Actions have to speak for themselves. A good leader uses words to invite participants into a practice, not to explain exhaustively what an action is supposed to mean to them. A good leader leaves space for every participant to have his own experience, which is no one else's.
And finally, a good holder of ritual space invites the whole community into a sense that they're also holding the space--giving them meaningful roles, encouraging them to take ownership of what happens, perhaps even making himself increasingly dispensable, the more a community comes to feel that an emerging practice belongs to them all.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ritual Resources: Binding Intentions


How mindful are you, when you begin something, of why you're doing it--what your aspirations are, what you're focused on, whom you're holding in your heart?

It's easier to do that in relation to something big, like following a pilgrimage route. Or something dramatically set apart from the practice of ordinary life, like reading a spread of Tarot cards, or walking a labyrinth, or meditating or praying with a set of beads. It's less intuitive with something like meal preparation, or simply beginning a new day, or making love.
Giving deliberate voice to an intention reminds you that what you're doing has weight, that it's worth noticing, worth pursuing mindfully. What would it be like to speak an intention before you stepped into a shower? Before you went out for your morning run? Before you shucked your pants down to enjoy a few minutes of self-pleasure after work? Before you opened the door of your apartment when your online hookup knocks? Before you started slicing the vegetables for the meal you're preparing for a table full of friends?
An intention doesn't have to be elaborate, or intensely goal-oriented. You might intend to appreciate the cleansing power of water as it courses over your skin. You might intend to connect with your breath and calm your mind on your run, and to notice the colors along your path. You might intend to slow down and pay attention to the sensations of your whole body, and not just your cock, as you masturbate. You might intend to treat your trick as a brother you're privileged to meet and spend an hour or two with, even if you expect not to see each other again. You might intend to notice the texture of the vegetables as you cut them and to think with gratitude about the labor that went into their growth and harvest. You might as you begin your day intend to be open to new experiences, or to take risks that you'd normally avoid.
Your intention is more real if you speak it aloud, or write it down. More real if you speak it to someone else as witness. More real if there's a durable and visible reminder. (This is, on a grand scale, after all--duh--the point of marital vows and wedding rings.)
So here's a simple building-block of ritual that you could incorporate into any number of daily practices. It's borrowed from the Hindu tradition of tying a red thread, called a mauli or kalava, around your wrist at the beginning of a puja, as a way of absorbing the power of the observance. Keep some colored thread on hand. When something feels like it has enough weight (or you want it to have enough weight) to warrant your ongoing focus, speak your intention aloud to yourself, and then tie a length of thread around your wrist or ankle to keep it real when the words have died away. Better yet, speak your intention to someone else. Ask him to do you the service of binding your intention to you by repeating your words as he ties the thread. ("David, I bind to you today your intention to…)
If you develop group rituals from the grass roots up among a circle of brothers, this is also an element you can include in larger ritual structures--like the lingam puja I described in an earlier Ritual Resources post. The practice of listening carefully to one another's intentions, and of mirroring them back to the speaker as best you can, is itself a cultivation of mindfulness and respect; forgiving your witness for not getting it perfectly and helping him recover your words as he repeats them is itself a cultivation of lovingkindness and release of ego.
You only have so many wrists and ankles, so this isn't something I recommend you do twice a day. If you ask your trick to do it with you, he's likely to head straight for the door. But a longer-term boyfriend or life partner might be more tolerant, and more on board with sharing the practice; as might a table of friends at a major holiday. And you'll have the experience of the everyday becoming something a little closer to the remarkable.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ritual Resources: In Praise of the Same Old Thing

 

The dominant culture encourages us to place a premium on new experiences. We want surprise, fresh excitement, even unforseen revelations.We toss out the phrase "been there, done that" as an easy dismissal of anything we reject as old, outmoded, worn, unremarkable.
 
It's not surprising in the world of "been there, done that" that ritual often gets a bad name. "Empty ritual"; "ritualistic": the repetition of the same action, the same words, time after time, raises suspicion. We assume that sincerity and deep engagement don't mix with what we do out of long, often habitual practice.
If you have a daily personal practice, even of the simplest and briefest sort (and simple and brief are sometimes best) you already know it's more complicated than that. It's true that repetition at its worst can be meaningless and mind-numbing. But  at its best it can  build a strong, resilient container where new experience and insight have secure space to grow and flourish. The same gesture you've made a dozen times before means something different today because of what's happening in your life. The words you know by heart feel like you're hearing them, or speaking them, for the first time.
The positive side of repetition is if anything even more powerful in shared practice. If you consistently perform ritual with a group, you'll see the nuances that build up, not only for yourself, but in the outward signs of how it's speaking to those around you. A turn of phrase that's a little different from the last time these words were spoken; the quality of someone's touch, or your touch, as you pass a ceremonial object between you; the hand one man raises spontaneously in the middle of a chant or a procession--these start to form a feedback loop into your own experience and understanding of what's going on, and a whole group can find itself swept up into a kind of spiritual jazz. Or less dramatically, subtle variations may speak in a still, small voice. Familiarity becomes a platform from which you can dive deeper. The ritual becomes a solid vessel that holds you all together, and yet gives you each the space to be more completely yourself.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ritual Resources: Lingam Puja

The social advances in acceptance of sexual diversity over the last ten years  have been staggering. But they don 't cancel out the virulent homophobia of many parts of the world: think of Russia, think of Uganda. Think about the brutally violent acts that continue to claim the lives of queer people even in  places where legal protections are in place. (If you haven't seen the film Clapham Junction, look for it--it's a brilliant and wrenching story of the intolerance and repression still endemic in "enlightened" places like middle-class London.) Think about the spiritual abuse inflicted on queer people by erotophobic religious communities. Think about the wedge driven between eros and spirit through the souls of many men by sexual abuse at the hands of religious authority figures.

Homphobia is alive and well. Sexual shame is alive and well. Erotic injustice is alive and well. We're kidding ourselves if we think our work is over--the work of civil rights, the work of social acceptance, the work of self-acceptance, the work of intergrating our spiritual with our sexual lives, the work of expanding our own compassion. We need ritual that affirms our queer male bodies, with all their erotic capacities, as sacred participants in the universal Mystery. And we need to see our own spiritual healing not as an endpoint, but as preparation to offer ourselves in service to the healing of the world.
We need ritual that declares at the same time the holiness of the feminine and its presence in our lives. We need ritual that doesn't exclude or marginalize trans people.
One resource for the creation of ritual that helps us bring all this into our lives is Hinduism's veneration of the yoni lingam--of Lord Shiva's erect cock (lingam) enclosed by the vulva (yoni) of his consort, the Divine Mother. The stylized image of the yoni lingam is a primary feature of every Shiva temple. If you're not clued into its significance, you might never figure it out from its abstract, stylized shape in most temples.
Hinduism does better than many religious traditions in explicitly acknowledging both male and female sexuality as sacred forces. Sadly, this doesn't necessarily translate into the empowerment of women or the acceptance of gay men or lesbians in South Asian cultures. But we can work the magic of queer culture on the resources it offers, like spiritual drag that we appropriate from our mothers' closets to our own ends. We take what we need. Sometimes we outrage those from whom we borrow it. At our best, we take it anyway, but in the spirit of the Trickster, not in rancor or bitterness or a spirit of appropriation.
In the paragraphs below, I describe a puja (a ritual act of devotion) for a group of queer men. You can perform it with as few as two or as many as a hundred. It's designed to be a shared practice to start the day in community, but you can adapt it to different times of the day and different social circumstances. It works best as a group continues to gather repeatedly, so that the various elements start to feel more familiar, and participants begin to take community ownership. With repetition, many participants will find that the significance of the ritual "opens out" for them into new associations with the issues they're confronting within themselves.

*****
To create the ritual space, you need to delineate a circle on the earth (or indoors, or on a rooftop), large enough for your whole group to walk comfortably in a clockwise direction around the center.  You establish a fixed entrance path to the circle. You can do this with stones, or colored powder, or fabric, or cord, or other suitable materials. This circle and its entryway together form a yoni  honoring the holiness of female sexuality. We stand in this circle acknowledging gratefully the source from which we've come, and upon which the ongoing generation of the world depends.There is space here to honor as well the receptive erotic capacity of our butts, and the manginas of trans men.
You might consider placing a representation of an animal guardian figure at the entrance, whose purpose is to banish from the circle all that obstructs the spiritual development of queer men: forces like homphobia, misogyny, transphobia, racialized and class-based exclusion, sexual and spiritual abuse.
At the centre of this circle stands the lingam  honoring the holiness of male sexuality. Since a  central purpose of this ritual is to reclaim the connection between the sexual and the spiritual in our own bodies, it's preferable (in contrast to Hindu ritual usage) to use a realistic sculpture of cock and balls. Ideally it will be big enough to "read" clearly as a ritual object, rather than as a really ambitious dildo. It might be virtually as tall as an adult man; a smaller sculpture can be placed on a support narrow enough to allow for direct contact and embrace.
Place an altar before the lingam with a bowl to receive offerings of flowers to the Goddess, an incense burner, and a receptacle for open flame. Cut lengths of string in a color that seems appropriate, long enough to wrap two or three times around your wrist and tie in a knot.
Someone needs to assume the role of an officiant who will hold ritual space, improvising the necessary formulas of introduction and explanation to guide the assembly through the details of the ritual.
There are several stages to the ritual. The details are less important than is making the shape of the ritual your own: experiment with variations of content and language until it feels right.
You begin with a Greeting and Entrance into the sacred space of the yoni. The officiant prepares the space ahead of time by lighting a flame, burning incense, and centering himself in his own devotion. He greets every man as he enters the circle, marking his forehead with a tilak (the smudge of colored powder that signifies a god's devotee). He could, for instance, say, "Welcome, my brother. I mark you with the sign of One who abides in this place." He invites each man to offer his flower and to ring a bell announcing his presence, as congregants continue to gather.
You then proceed with an Invocation of the Goddess and the God.  The officiant  or another member of the gathering might read out the names of Goddess and God from a previously constructed list, or might invite all present to call out the names of God as they're moved. Including divine names from many traditions opens the ritual to affirm more powerfully the connection between sex and spirit in our lives. The officiant can improvise ritual language around this litany of the divine names.
The officiant invites each man to declare aloud his Intention in the ritual: his aspirations for the hours and days ahead. Men in the circle declare intentions one at a time in turn. A thread is tied around each man's  wrist after he has spoken, to visibly bind his intention to him. The officiant performs this service for the first man to speak. Then each man in the circle, after he has spoken, performs this service for the man who speaks next. The circle is completed when the officiant speaks his intention last of all.
A clockwise Circumambulation of the lingam is the central act of the puja. The officiant invites the men present to walk in meditation and prayer around the lingam, silently or speaking aloud as they're moved.  This continues for as long as it feels right. Congregants walk at any pace that's comfortable, at whatever distance from the lingam they wish. They may feel moved to come forward to embrace the lingam, kneel before it, lay a hand on it. If the lingam is draped in a ritual garment like a stole or a set of prayer beads, a devotee may wear these during his devotion and then replace them as he returns to the walking circle.
The Circumambulation of the lingam ends at the discretion of the officiant, who rings a bell three times and invites congregants to gather around the lingam in physical contact with it and with one another and to tone together until the chant subsides.

A Dismissal follows that may include the recitation of a short verse, a blessing, and an invitation to exchange an embrace of peace before departing the circle.
 
Photographs courtesy of Gerry Fortuna: http://gerry-fortuna.artistwebsites.com

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Danger of Violent Thunderstorms


A big chunk of the Northeast has been under a static dome of high pressure for over a week.  The humidity's through the roof. The sun beats down like a schoolyard bully. Our cat stalks lethargically from her water dish in the living room to the relative coolness of the shade under a bush, and then back again half an hour later, sounding as cranky as I feel.

For the last two days, the forecasts in the New York Times have promised relief sometime today. A powerful cold front is lumbering toward us from the northwest, pushing more hot air in front of it, but promising rain behind that. I keep looking at the sky for the first harbingers of all this, wondering if each toss of a branch is the beginning of the weather system, grateful for the prospect of relief, and apprehensive of what the "thunderstorms, sometimes violent" of the Times report portend for my train trip up the Hudson Valley this afternoon to assist at a weeklong retreat. Two years ago, I was headed for Easton Mountain on the same route when a deluge brought down trees across the tracks and delayed us for eight hours.
Checking the web for alternative, perhaps more up-to-the-hour reports of what to expect is an exercise in self-perpetuating anxiety. The weather websites stoke their hit counters on hype, and so instead of "thunderstorms, sometimes violent," weather.com offers "danger of violent thunderstorms," with additional links, in case you're not yet anxious enough, to features on how best to prepare for the contingency. The weather is a threat, and the response to our lack of control is to pretend that we have some.
Part of the powerful mythology of my mother's family was my maternal grandmother's deep connection to nature and the earth. She planted trees at the house she moved into as a young wife and mother, the house where she would live nearly the rest of her life, the way most young couples place furniture. She raised foundling birds the way she invited stray human children as well to her already overextended kitchen table in the midst of the Depression. My mother habitually rehearsed a description of the rest of the family cowering in the house, in the midst of Indiana summer storms, while my grandmother stood at the back door, looking up into the wind and lightning and laughing in delight. I never saw my grandmother do this. Though I was blessed to know her for a few precious years, she was elderly, disabled, and sliding steadily into dementia from the early years of my childhood. But I'm grateful to my mother for passing this memory on, vividly enough that it's become my own.
I don't imagine my grandmother being foolhardy about the danger. I think she just didn't really give a shit about it--that she'd  decided  the possibility of getting hit by a falling limb, or electrocuted, was the acceptable price of seeing a wonder she wouldn't miss for the world.
This wild abandon seems to me all the more miraculous when I think about how she started her life. The abused stepdaughter of a woman who broke my grandmother's hip when she was nine, she fled the house four years later and dropped out of school to work in a greenhouse and live with the family who owned it. I think she was about twenty when she became pregnant by my grandfather, and they married, to the disapproval of his lace-curtain German immigrant family. That first child died in infancy. I imagine going through all that in your first twenty-one years might make you hold on to safety even more tightly. But my grandmother went the other way. She would never have used such language, but I imagine her thinking, fuck it, death by lightning strike would be a glorious romp next to what I've already been through.
I bless the memory of this woman. I breathe in gratitude that her blood runs in my veins, and I pray that I may have inherited some small portion of her spirit. I pray I'll be ready to look up into high winds exploding with ineffable sound and light the next time I have the chance, instead of cowering against a perceived threat.
 I think of the two dozen amazingly adventurous and spirited souls with whom I'm about to spend a week  at the Body Electric School's Erotic Temple retreat. I think of the journeys that have brought us all to this improbable rendezvous. I think of the courage it takes to bring our wounded histories, our longing to heal the rift between the sexual and the spiritual in our lives as queer men, our anxieties about being fully seen, our fears about what we can't quite yet face down in ourselves. I think of how easy it would be to scan the horizon for thunderstorms, sometimes violent, and seize up in an effort to brace against their danger.
And I pray that my grandmother will send her spirit upon us all.
 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ritual Resources: Making Friends with a Stone

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves," said Rilke.

If you're anywhere near as much of a task-oriented head-tripper as I am, that's a nice thought, but one you're likely to file away as fast as you can in the Drawer of Worthy Sentiments.

The career decision that's looming; or the one that just gets endlessly postponed. The relationship that may or may not have a viable future. The leap it would take to move to a place where you might make a fresh start, or at least open a new chapter of your life. The decision you can't make, can't make yet, about how or where to let go of a dead partner's ashes. The request you know you have to voice for what you need, but your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, every time you try. The gift you know you could make to someone else of what they've asked of you, but you can't yet bring yourself to answer that appeal with either a yes or a no. The elective surgery that might improve your life, but carries risks. The generosity you can imagine showing, but you can't muster the courage to let go of what you have to give.

Be patient? Love the questions? When instead I could flail around in a vortex of self-obsession and rising confusion as I grab at answers that are out of reach?

Here's a suggestion: put the questions out there, in a form you can see, touch, feel, hold.

Choose a stone. Not a small pebble, but a good chunk of rock, too large to hold with one hand, too large even to get your two hands around, heavy enough that it feels like an effort to lift it. Maybe its surface is smooth and even. Maybe it's rough and jagged. You'll know which feels right, which matches the state of your soul.


Set it on your altar. Lay your hands on it. Bear witness that to this stone you commit all that is unanswered in your heart. Mark it, if you feel called to mark it, with chalk or with charcoal. Tie cord around it, if you feel called to tie cord around it.

Sit with this stone in your hands, day by day. Meditate on its weight. Meditate on its impenetrability. Consider that if you hold it with tension, you'll strain yourself. Consider that if you pay attention to the effect it has on the muscles of your hands and arms, you can sit with it comfortably. Consider that you could break your head open with it, but instead press its firm coolness to your forehead. Carry it to the forest. Carry it to the beach. Kiss it in reverence. Jack off onto it in the light of the full moon. Raise it as you sit to the level of your heart. Take it again, daily, to your altar, and leave it there.

You'll know how long you need this stone. Maybe you'll need it for years. Maybe for a few weeks or months. Someday you'll let it go. You'll bury it, or throw it into the sea, or lay it back again where you found it. So far, you don't know that. Today, you don't need to know that. Today you need only make friends with the stone.  



“Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”

(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Starting with Irises


Last weekend I celebrated a beloved teacher's big birthday with about forty others at Easton Mountain. To be in community for a few days with that many queer men, some old friends and acquaintances, and many more new, in a place that brings out the best in all of us, carries for me the sheer joy of homecoming. The loose scheduling of the weekend was just what I needed: events I wanted to be part of, but long stretches of discretionary time when I could lose and find myself.
Outside the main lodge stood a bed of blue irises in full riot, begging to be drawn; the art supply cabinet held a fabulous cache of watercolor pencils. For the next two days, I couldn't keep myself away from the flowers, or my hands off my sketchbook. I fell into the out-of-myself absorption I've experienced so little of for months: the kind of state that reminds me I'm not so much an artist as somebody who needs to make art in order to stay alive.
The longer you look at, and into, a bearded iris, the more seductively complex you realize it is. Unruly petals define convoluted inner spaces. Light plays across diaphanous surfaces. The scent is one of the underappreciated wonders of the floral world. The flower will utterly defeat you as you try to translate all this into lines on the page and variations of colour to suggest depth. And the defeat is the best part of the experience, the "hook" that will bring you back again and again in happy obsession to try to get it the next time. 
I spent more time drawing than I have the last six months--and still had time for the sauna, for the erotic massage exchange that was the centrepiece activity one afternoon, for reading Tarot two or three times with friends. I came away with four drawings that pleased me more or less, and with a resolve that I'd take my obsession into the studio course I'd booked for afternoons the following week.
Being a student in the studio is always a challenge for me. I don't like producing drek in front of even the most supportive of instructors. I want success and praise on the first brushstroke. Given an exercise, I'm headstrong and want to strike out with it in my own direction. I'm too invested in what I produce and in how others see it. Showing a teacher what I've thrown myself into, only to have him take it as the starting point from which he'll encourage me to depart, is a tall order. So opening my sketchbook on Monday afternoon to say, here's where I'm at, was probably the toughest moment of the whole week.
I didn't go further into the irises as I'd planned. Instead, I spent the week pulling back from them, thinking hard about the backgrounds behind them, learning how to scumble color into the negative contours along their edge, coming back to the challenge of mixing the color I saw, then letting it go in favor of the color that pleased me on the palate; practicing the dance of knowing when to press forward with a line or patch of color that wasn't working, knowing when to leave a shape as it was, knowing when simply to move on. Trips back to the flower were starting points, not the place of repose I'd imagined they'd be. The flower into which I dove turned out to be the flower within.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mummy, Daddy--There's a Naked Bishop in the Hot Tub

Australian gay activist, theologian, and independent Catholic bishop Michael Bernard Kelly discusses the sexual ethics of gay marriage and gay promiscuity. Eloquence, wisdom, and grounded spiritual awareness--all from the currently non-functional hot tub at Easton Mountain.

http://eastonmountain.org/tub-talk-episode-1-michael-bernard-kelly/

Wednesday, May 22, 2013



Around a corner,
the intoxicating scent:
lilacs, still unseen.

 
 
 
 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Wading Into the Stream


(Photgraph of James Broughton and Joel Singer by Robert Giard.)

One day--or maybe one month, or over a single season--it starts actually to sink in that you're past the watershed of middle age. A creaky joint, long a background annoyance, a souvenir of the vigorous exercise you've so prided yourself in, starts actually to control and circumscribe what you can (or choose) to do. A friend gets cancer. A whole string of friends get cancer. A parent dies. A sibling dies. You get cancer. You realize on a visit, after a few years of separation, that people long close to you, whom you've always thought of as peers, have crossed over into the realm of the elderly. You wonder how anyone, ever, could possibly read the print on that drug label. You finally accept the fact that those leather chaps, in which you looked so unbelievably hot ten years ago (as a string of men told you) are probably no longer a good idea. (Or possibly you say, fuck it, a daddy can wear anything he likes.)

It's a universal passage, but your experience of it is utterly your own. There's virtually no communal recognition of it in our culture, little space for sharing the sense of loss, and not much more for discerning, honoring, and even celebrating what you've gained. Something profoundly human, something that unites us all, seems instead like a crisis that you're going through in bummed-out isolation, a painful realization of personal diminishment that you don't want to admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else.
But then, perhaps you begin to ask why, in our fear and anxiety over the omnipresent fact of change, we segregate the world in the first place into people on the right side of the stream that separates birth from death and people on the wrong side of it--only to wake up one day to the realization that we've crossed over ourselves. Maybe instead of imagining that we stand on one bank or the other, it dawns on you that we're all in the stream, whether we move with the current, or swim against it. We can struggle and exhaust ourselves, or we can float. And the body you inhabit as you float in that stream (or as you struggle against its current) is your particular body at this moment: not the body you want to have; not the body you imagine you could transform yourself into, if you only ate the right food, performed the right exercises; not the body you remember from ten years ago and want to hold onto with moisturizers or botox.
Your guess is as good as mine how best to make the transition from the unimpeded middle of our lives to an acceptance that our bodies change. But this I'm convinced of: we need to meet this passage in community, not tough it out in isolation. We need to share with others the fears and disappointments that come with our full embodiment as well as our celebrations of it, allowing others to bear witness and to stand in solidarity, bearing witness and standing in solidarity with them in turn.
This is true for everyone who's blessed to reach an age where they face these challenges. But in my gut, I do feel there's something particular to queer men's experience  of the aging body. Many of us as we came out fought long and heroically to inhabit our bodies, with their desires, pleasures, and capacities for connecting with others, in the first place. That sometimes leaves us all the less capable of accepting that the bodies we've struggled to claim are not immutable possessions, but changeable and always in process. And perhaps above all, we find it hard to accept the mutability of our erotic life. We get stuck in the notion that only youth is beautiful or sexy. We get mired in the nostalgic fantasy that it was better when three times in a night was an option, or when erections were more or less as common and as instantaneous as flipping a light switch.
And so here is my "to do" list, and I invite you to consider whether some of what's on it might helpfully go on yours. Get massage and other caring touch. Find a circle of men with whom you can bear witness to what's going on for you in your body. Learn to express your experience of embodied pleasure in the presence of others. Learn to ask for what feels good. Find safe places to spend time naked in the body you have. Befriend men old enough to be your father. Befriend men young enough to be your son. Breathe. Say Thank You.  



 

Provenance unknown. If you are the owner of the above photograph I will gladly remove it at your request.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Wasted

he’s such a pain out there on the asphalt puking
we’re so buff sunscreened sleek ready for Gay Pride
junked-up scarecrow tinder box of a geezer dumpster crazy
sort of guy who doesn’t take his meds piss-stained and mumbling
humping the roughcast a creature of brownsites
blackouts out of style out of touch out of mind
nothing he knows counts nothing he’s done’s remembered
no one he’s fucked survived to tell the tale
bones all poking out angular chest scars heart brain scars
dick a dried up stem of last year’s jack-o’-lantern

he blinks and wheezes stares and spits
scratches his balls belches a crazy laugh

I’m outta here

like a landmine he ruptures the smooth deathscape
of August afternoon one fiery ejaculation shot across the ecliptic
stallions aflame an Apollo with the balls to be so old
so gaunt distended crazy so totally uncool

we reach out for blessing jerk back
jerk off thick gobs of blood and cinders
like somebody deepthroated a red-hot chisel
ecstasy jismed out of sight out of it totally
leaving us standard deviation gays
stranded in the dark of too much light

Elijah’s come and gone

--Robert F. Gross (reposted by Robert's kind permission from www.boyslutpublications.com, April 25, 2013)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Nude Photography of Andrew Graham

By Andrew's kind permission, here are seven of his most recent images.


 


 
 
 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pink Sheep of the Family

In the ten years since my mother died, my trips back to my home town, an eight hour drive from Toronto, have tapered off dramatically. I still have a beloved aunt living in the area. Since last year, her advancing deafness and an undramatic but steadily creeping edge of confusion have put paid to keeping in touch by phone. Yesterday she turned 100, as good an occasion as I'll ever have for making the journey, and so here I am in east central Indiana. There were seventy-five of us at lunch yesterday: a handful of nieces and nephews, but nearly everyone else direct descendants or spouses, down even unto the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren forming a moving obstacle course of toy cars and plastic dinosaurs in the corners of the Methodist church hall.

I'm flooded almost at once with the joy and the pain of being among these good people--the first time I've seen so many of them at once in I'm guessing thirty years. I gravitate toward a corner of the room with two of the nieces, my cousins. As much as I've adored my aunt my whole life, feeling at home among most of her own children and their families has always been a challenge. We live in different worlds, and theirs is as toxic to me as fresh water to a salt-water fish. I imagine mine is as unintelligible to at least some of them as coral reefs to river-dwellers. The ones I'm most comfortable with are the ones who like me have moved away.
Many of them are still local farming people, deeply rooted in a landscape they've known all their lives; many are evangelical Christians of a conservative stripe. When my aunt's grandson Tommy fell ill with AIDS in the early 90's, a few years too early for the Cocktail, many of them stiffened into uncomfortable silence, glad enough that he was cared for by an ex-lover at a safe distance in New Jersey; when his uncle, my aunt's only son, followed suit less than two years later, after twenty years of marriage, the family circled the wagons by pointing to brain cancer on the death certificate--a technically accurate cause of death that masked the unrespectable fullness of the truth.
I insisted on starting an AIDS Quilt panel for Tommy, a project I was astonished and grateful to find was taken up with unhesitating energy and dedication by others in the family. When it had made the rounds of all of us who contributed to its design and assembly, I finally delivered it into the hands of his ex-lover, who held onto it for some months before sending it to the Names Project. For his uncle, my aunt's son, it was clear a similar project wouldn't have been welcomed.
We're soon joined in our corner by another of my cousins once removed, Tommy's older sister, a soft-spoken woman about my own age, who wades into the shallows of happy childhood memories, then into deeper water, until she's confiding that among the hardest things she's ever gone through was the the loss of him; and the number of our relatives who turned their backs. And then my hand is on her arm, my voice cracking as I tell her how much I loved her brother, who'd come out to me years after our shared love of keyboard music had brought us together through adolescence and early adulthood.
From there we move on to the deep, sustained joy she's experienced in her partnership of over twenty years with a woman who's also present but whom I've yet to meet; to the feeling she tells me she always had of being off to the side, of not quite fitting in with the rest of the tribe. I share with her some of my life with Jonathan. And she refers to yet another of the extended family whose name I don't catch, whom I probably last saw as a toddler, or maybe only in photographs, and who she proposes is likely one of us outliers as well. I've already converged with him at the door of the church, a dark, trim young man accompanied by a male African- American friend. He works, my cousin tells me, in a high-end restaurant an hour and a half away in Louisville--that in itself serving as Exhibit A in our speculations. As I see him and his friend a few tables away, they seem to function as a couple, moving easily among the others, included together in the group shot of the great-grandchildren gathered around my aunt's wheelchair at the front of the hall, clearly accepted--but accepted, I have no doubt, by virtue of what's left unsaid.
I want badly to make contact with them, but I have no idea how to start a conversation without being invasive and abrupt. "Hi. I'm sure we share DNA. But I've lost all track of who you are" seems a singularly inept ice-breaker. The rest of the afternoon passes. By the time I'm preparing to leave, they're no longer in sight. I meet my cousin's long-time partner, and in the last twenty minutes before I put on my coat, we sit together, getting to know one another, feeling an immediate rapport, a big part of which is simple elation that we can bring all of ourselves to this corner table.
And I find myself asking, what would I need to feel fully seen and recognized among my people? Does the boy from Louisville even know that he's not alone in this sizeable pond of aggressively reproductive heterosexuality? Does he know about his queer great uncle, his queer cousins? What would it take for us to break out of the cones of silence that isolate us from each other? Is there some ritual, some acknowledgement that we spring from the same source, less final, God willing, than an AIDS quilt, around which we could gather without having to leave this room?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Relics Under the Altar


My albatross is a crucifix.

When I was twenty-one, chancel queen with one foot out of the closet that I was, I pored over the catalogue of an ecclesiastical supply house and told my mother that what I really wanted as a coming-of-age gift was a 24-inch walnut cross, on which hung a gaunt, mournful, and (it goes without saying, but I enjoy saying it) nearly naked Jesus carved of German linden wood. It made feminist friends shudder from the outset. But I was more or less oblivious to their discomfort over its relentlessly male representation of the Holy; almost as oblivious as I was to just how blatant my erotic investment must have been to them, and to nearly everybody else, in that pale, willowy body.  Devotion and empathy could channel any amount of desire and yet remain just barely veiled, at the edge of social acceptability in a still pervasively homophobic  culture.
(There's no more powerful expression of that than Michel Marc Bouchard's amazing play, Lilies, and the superb film made of it by queer Toronto director John Greyson.)
When I bailed out of Christianity altogether for nearly fifteen years--and it was one of the healthiest decisions I've ever made--Jesus went into the closet while I came aggressively out of it. When I finally took another plunge into that rich and deeply flawed tradition, the relation between the erotic and the spiritual in my life had shifted. The objects of my desire were alive and breathing around me; I didn't need another in one-quarter scale nailed to a cross on the wall.
I tried giving the crucifix away, but this Jesus was way too dead, too white, and/or too male for the taste of anybody to whom I offered it. So back into the closet went this relic of my past yet again, until I came to see it in a new light--not as an image that spoke to me in the present, but as an object that deserved ongoing reverence for its place in my spiritual history. Finally, my spiritual director came up with the solution: to place it inside the antique Korean rice chest I use as my altar. It became (like the relics in a stricter sense contained in the altar of a Roman Catholic church) the unseen presence supporting the objects that rest upon it in full view.
When a few weeks back I prepared to move house, removing the crucifix and wrapping it for transport helped me experience the full import of pulling up stakes and letting go of fifteen years in the house I was leaving. It helped me stay connected to the personal history I carry with me and inside me, even as my life changes in ways that sometimes, these days, leave me barely recognizing myself.
And I can't begin to describe the comfort and exhilaration I felt yesterday afternoon, setting the altar in its new space, opening the doors of the chest, and consecrating it anew by laying this ungainly fragment of my past in the sanctifying darkness of its interior. One by one, the objects laid above it became again a map of my hopes, of my longings and aspirations; a pattern for my prayers for those I love, for my memories of those I've lost.



 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Snow Day

The first big snowstorm of winter, and here we are. My friendly, hunky, very straight neighbour greets me as he plows down the narrow passage between our houses. For the six months since he and his wife moved in, I've been meaning to ask them over for drinks, but life has just kept filling up. We meet this morning in a vortex of swirling diamonds where I'm shovelling our shared walkway.

 From two doors down, the woman I've known since she and her husband arrived twelve years ago calls out a good morning and offers to look after my sidewalk as well as her own. It occurs to me that she thinks of me as slightly disabled since I had my hip replaced, and that rankles a bit, getting in the way of my accepting her kindness more graciously. I've watched her daughter, once a shy, perhaps even slightly fragile child, turn into a self-assured young woman I barely recognized after a year away when she said hello last fall.
I introduce them, one of my last legacies to the microculture of this stretch of Yarmouth Road, before my partner and I move on Tuesday.
I clear a single shovel's width in front of the house beyond Ted's, feeling an odd low-level welter of benevolence and resentment. I've never met the people here, don't even know if either of the two units is occupied by the newish owner. I just know that they never clear their snow, and that if I don't do this, I'm sure they won't.  The first time I chipped through their icy snowpack, after three days of struggling over and around it, I dumped what I removed onto the walkway leading to their front door in a fit of passive-aggressive pique, then regretted passing on the bad karma. Now, I do it mostly not for them, but for the rest of us, hoping that eventually, they'll notice that someone's looking after it, and they'll be inspired to do something community-minded themselves. Maybe they'll even come out of their house to say hello, if not to me, then to someone.
When the snow started yesterday afternoon, it was the usual nuisance. Now it's an extrarodinary event. Strangers on the street smile at each other in mutual recognition that a five-minute walk has become a fifteen-minute adventure that we share. In a low-level and homely way, we acknowledge together our powerlessness to resist a force of nature. Together, for a few minutes, we're smiling and mortal.