Monday, December 21, 2015

Have a Splendid Whatever

For the first eight years after my partner Jonathan and I met, Christmas was completely off the menu. No tree. No poinsettia. No evergreen boughs. The memories were too visceral for him of growing up Jewish in New York and feeling as though the whole city was ramming the holiday down the throats of his family and neighbours.

Christmas, on the other hand,  is wired into my German Lutheran DNA. During the fifteen years that I shook the dust of homophobic organized Christianity off my feet, my alienation from the faith I’d grown up in never extended to hating the season. It always felt to me like the culturally specific version of something more or less universal--the need to celebrate light in the depths of a season of darkness. During the years of that long disaffection, the Solstice Parade that snakes every year through Kensington Market in Toronto felt like a magical expression of all that that I loved in Yuletide:
as did the Christmas sequence from Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander:
Six years ago, hell-bent on bringing some observance of the season into the house, I was the one who searched out the hand-cast glass menorah that we’ve used every year since. Jonathan hadn’t lit one at home for the four and half decades of his adult life.Two years ago, the first winter after we changed houses, I acknowledged his ongoing reservations but finally insisted on a tree. As I unwrapped the ornaments that hadn’t been out of the box for seven years and started talking about the associations each had--the heavily oxidized remnants of my grandparents’ decorations, purchased in the 1930’s; the baroque extravaganzas my mother and I assembled from craft kits when I was in high school--he got it, and within two days announced that we needed a bigger tree next time.
Since then, we’ve taken to giving each other Christmas ornaments as Hanukkah presents. Christmas Eve, I attend midnight mass, as I’ve done since the late 1990s when I decided once again that the wisdom embedded in the spiritual traditions of my youth were my birthright, to be claimed on my own terms. Christmas morning we unwrap presents before heading off for Chinese food and a movie.
Last Saturday night, I went to a radical faerie Solstice party. Among the guests was a gifted counter-tenor who sang an aria from Handel’s Messiah, while a loop of digital photos on the TV screen featured partially naked people cavorting in a green landscape last Beltane.
I know that for many queer people who’ve cut ties with the Christianity of their upbringing as a matter of survival, the season’s associations bring up far too much of what they need to leave behind. Nonetheless, here’s my invitation: hang onto the mystery of light kindled in darkness, of the spirit of generosity towards friend and stranger, of warmth in the depths of winter. Yes, toss out what doesn’t serve you. But don’t surrender what fed you as a child, and what some corner of your heart may still long for. Make it new, make it yours.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

No Two Alike: Paper Cuts by Chris Ofner

With thanks to Chris for sharing.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

From Fantasy to Ritual Practice

There’s a lot of provisional, not-quite-consolidated experimentation in alternative queer ritual communities--along with a light-hearted playfulness. After all, we’re making it up as we go along.

Good ritual has a thick, condensed richness:  it’s ambiguous and open-ended and can mean different things to different people. Good ritual doesn't create a charmed circle of those "in the know" that excludes everybody else. But it does require a shared baseline of experience that lets people connect with each other on ground that’s somehow familiar.
Good ritual improves with repetition: past experiences of the same words and actions enrich your perception of the ritual this time around. Rituals are only  effective as long as they draw on the values and expectations of the community that practices them. Good rituals don’t belong to one inventor or leader. They belong to the whole community. They’re not full of esoteric, exotic elements that only the officiant claims to understand.
It's a lot easier to start with an inherited vocabulary and grammar of ritual--the gestures, the words, the symbolic objects--than to make it up from scratch. Without an already established community to plug into--if you're trying with just a few kindred spirits to create a new ritual from the ground up--the depth of the longing that motivates you in the first place is probably grounded in your personal world of private meanings. If you’re trying to create new ritual as part of a group of six or eight, each of you is almost certainly drawing on a deep reservoir of undeclared, maybe even unconscious, assumptions and desires.
That raises the stakes enormously. If, by some long shot, all that unvoiced desire, all those elaborate individual visualizations, get fulfilled without being explicitly shared and acknowledged, the experience can be electric for everyone involved. But it’s much more likely that one person’s fantasy of the perfect ritual will leave somebody else feeling shut out, turned off, sidelined.
So you have to talk about it.
Not talk it to death: nothing kills good ritual like attempts to nail down its meaning. You have to speak and listen from the heart, and so begin to weave a web of shared understanding and expectations, either before you enter together into ritual time and space, or else as an early stage of the ritual itself. In either case, what you share becomes the material for a kind of spiritual jazz improvisation that allows everyone a chance to riff.
A tantric way of putting this is that you need tapas--that is, a strong container--in order for spanda--that is, playful experimentation--to manifest itself authentically.
Good ritual practice in the major religious traditions has hundreds or thousands of years of tapas to build on. We, on the other hand, have to create this communal container ourselves, through mindful attention to each other and a healthy dose of awareness that what speaks to me may not speak to you, or may speak to you differently, or may begin to speak to you as we talk about it, and vice versa.
Sometimes we borrow elements from traditions we already know, practicing a kind of radical drag of the spirit. When we do, we’ll probably find that the borrowings spark dramatically different reactions. A bell may make me think of a Roman Catholic Mass, but remind somebody else of the bell you ring when entering a Hindu temple, or the bell at the beginning and end of a Zen sitting. The familiarity may be comforting to an ex-Catholic, or it may be a stumbling block. Burning sweet grass may be intended as a respectful homage to Native American practice, but it may  strike somebody else as cultural theft. The large phallus at the centre of the queer men’s Lingam Puja  that I often lead can heal the shame of some men in the circle gathered around it. But it may turn out to be a painful reminder to others of the obsession with cock size and performance in commercialized gay culture. Someone else may object to its appropriation of the central object of veneration in a Shiva temple.
It’s not that good ritual challenges no one. On the contrary, good ritual stretches us and becomes a tool for our growth. But the benefits of ritual happen when we’ve transformed private fantasies into shared meanings. Doing that takes perseverance and mindful attention.
When it comes to creating explicitly erotic ritual, the stakes are that much higher. Many attempts to create mindful, spritually grounded group erotic practice fall apart on the failure to get past a collection of individuals acting out their individual fantasies, all the while mistakenly assuming that everyone else involved will be on the same wavelength. Things can fall apart quickly and completely when it becomes clear that one man’s expression of the Divine is another man’s freakout.
Why would we be drawn to creating erotic ritual in the first place? In part, because it’s a way to express and explore communally the deeper meaning of our sexuality without reducing the magic and wonder that flows from our unconscious to bloodless, disembodied talk. It’s a path to healing, as we experience that we’re safe, we’re seen, we’re sacred--and as we provide that safety and grace for others as well. It’s a path to growth, as we practice the never-fully-mastered skill of simultaneously respecting boundaries and reaching out across them to the internal worlds of our fellow travelers. It’s a path to transcendence, as we connect with the fundamental humanity of other participants--their longings, their anxieties, their capacity for joy, their generosity, their vulnerabilities--regardless of whether we’d likely choose erotic encounter with them as individuals or not. It’s a path to non-attachment, as we learn simultaneously to honor our desires and to take them less seriously as the mysteriously fluid and transient phenomena that they are.
Those of us who feel called to connect with such ritual practice learn pretty quickly that the fantasies we bring with us only take us the first leg of the journey. More or less immediately, we have to start loosening our hold on long-treasured (i.e., hot) private scenarios, in order to make space for the equally treasured scenarios of others. That, in turn, gets us only to second base. As we speak from the heart, as we listen with the heart, we start to understand that the adventure of what we create with others in our circle is more enlivening than what we assumed we wanted in the first place. As we construct a ritual practice one experiment at a time, retaining what works, letting go of what isn’t so successful, we begin to mold a container strong and flexible enough to hold us all: a ritual time and space where we become more fully ourselves--and where, if we’re blessed, we lose ourselves in something bigger and richer and more complex than anything we individually could have asked or imagined.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Checkout Line

I had the pleasure of waiting at the express register behind a really handsome man a couple of days ago. Buying cereal is rarely so satisfying.

I felt a freedom and euphoria in appreciating his beauty. And at once noticed the contrast with an all-too-familiar sort of longing that has very little to do with genuine pleasure.
That other, less happy brand of desire, which was more or less all I knew in my teen years and twenties--and which has continued to get way too much air time in my head in the decades since--leaves me feeling like a dog straining at a leash, if not like a fish thrashing on the sand. It comprises equal parts of (1) impossible fantasy scenarios, (2) frustration that there’s no socially graceful (or even acceptable) way of getting his attention--at least the kind of attention I might like--(3) ancient insecurities about whether a man I’m attracted to could possibly find me attractive in return and (4) painful, ridiculous comparisons between how fabulous my life would be if only I had his attention and how unfabulous it presently is without it. I’ve always been more or less incompetent at flirting. If I were better at it, the dog on my leash might at least be a little less desperate to dash across the street through oncoming traffic.
This, instead, was more about just being glad the man between my bran flakes and the cash register was part of the world, and that I had the pleasure of a couple of minutes crossing paths with him before we walked out the door in opposite directions. What I was experiencing was desire without attachment.
I guess some people figure this out early on. I’m glad I’m getting it now.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

At the Sistine Body Shop

Yes, this is camp. And somehow, also tender, sexy, playful, and profound.

With thanks, as so often, to Hoppergrass for the link to this image by photographer Freddy Fabris.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Topsy Turvy

I've just e-published an erotic novella on LuluBooks. I wanted to tell a story that exemplified the ways that our sexual energy, when we live it out in good faith and mutual respect, can transform our lives for the better. Two middle-aged men trying to make it work in a small college town; a sexy flirt in a wheelchair; a snowdrift; some rope... Here's the opening, and a link to the download.


The music is insipid and too loud and the lighting stinks, but Underdog is the best bar in town for our Saturday night tandem cruise–the sort of place that can only exist in a fair-sized Midwestern college town, with enough gay guys around to create critical mass, but not enough to split apart into erotic niche markets. Corn-fed blond farmboys (more often than not, they desperately want to get their legs in the air, but you’ll never read the signals if you aren’t a corn-fed blond farmboy yourself); willowy, epicene aspirants to the remake of Brideshead Revisited (one kid, I swear to God, came in every weekend last fall wearing tweed and shlepping a teddy bear); daddies like my Jim; a gaggle of drag queens from the music department (who regularly arrive en masse as the cast of the opera the music school is currently performing); vanilla frot enthusiasts like me; and several extremely hot transmen (one of whom, with quite possibly the most perfectly defined chest in town, and almost certainly the hairiest, is chair of the economics department). It’s a scene that could go horribly awry with rampant bitchiness: everybody knows everybody, at least by face. But somehow, it all holds together with good humor and good will, and the gossip remains if not minimal, then at least mostly benevolent and playful.

It took Jim and me a lot of time and some very rocky steering to work out the arrangement that had brought us here together every weekend and reunited us at home by Sunday noon to compare notes, usually to end up back in the sack together for another hour, getting each other off on common ground while swapping stories of scenes we couldn’t imagine sharing.

Nearly three years ago in 1997, at the September reception for new faculty, we zeroed in on each other across a room awash in academic small talk. Within fifteen minutes we’d sequestered ourselves in the corner. So much for networking with the other new hires. Jim’s thick white hair, his close-cropped beard, his ice-blue eyes, the obvious heft of his shoulders under his shirt, all drew me like a bee to clover. His tanned, thickly muscled forearms reminded me of my grandfather’s as I sat as a little kid on the arm of his chair, watching him blow smoke rings while the Cincinnati Reds ran the bases on TV.

Before I’d screwed up the nerve to ask him back to my place, he asked me back to his.  We tried to be discrete about it, though the matching bulges in my freshly pressed chinos and his faded jeans would have given us away to anyone who glanced our way below waist-level.

We’d barely closed his door before we started clawing off each other’s shirts....
The full text of Topsy Turvy is available for download here:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On the Feast of All Saints

The Redeemer (Philip Hitchcock)
Lazarus, Brother of Mary and Martha (John Dugdale)
Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Philip Gayton)
Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Robert Lentz)
A saint known only to God (photo received from Hoppergrass)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hoosier Perceval

Photo received from Corvus O Diomasaigh

Once alone in the Welsh woods there lived a woman and her son. Her husband had lived with them at first; but he had a tendency to turn hairy and sprout horns at the full moon–not every month, perhaps, but as often as not–and to come back in the morning scratched and covered in dirt, with leaves in his hair. So she’d sent him away to a hut further along the track. From this hut she would summon him when so inclined. And often she was, provided he agreed to keep the stipulated distance and pretend that the full moon was irrelevant.

The boy grew up remarkably unacquainted with ordinary society; he had a heart at once innocent and yet given to murmurs of unpredictability. Through the drinking of a draft prepared by his mother from herbs planted by many other hands, he lost most memory of the father who died before the son was grown.

The loss of childhood did not come easily to him, and no more the putting on of manhood. Amidst his long mourning for the one and his confusion at the other, he sought the help and teachings of a smiling wizard who took him to the wizard’s tower, opened all the wrong books, taught him the wrong spells, and sent him off along the wrong path.

The boy remained nameless for longer than comfortable to anyone in the story. As he travelled on, he came to a gleaming palace, was invited to the requisite feast, saw the requisite bleeding lance carried in before the wounded king, and failed to ask the requisite question. In fact, he got into something of a habit of walking into such places, sitting down to such feasts (although they always seemed at the moment like new experiences, not old ones repeated), and never managing to ask quite the right question. His path came to be littered with wounded kings whom he could not cure, although from each of them (had he cured them) he longed to hear his name and learn the secret of his true identity.

One of the wounded kings was especially dear to him–the last in the series, as the legend relates according to the available sources. He chose to remain in this palace for some time after it became evident that the moment that might have cured the king was long past. In this palace he did indeed ask the right questions, more or less, but too late to work the necessary alchemy. Because he thought that tweaking the questions slightly and trying again might produce more auspicious results, he became a master of thwarted persistence, admired by some of the courtiers for his good will, ridiculed by a few (though as time went on by an increasing number) and arousing the impatience of several who wanted him just to get on with it.

Finally, the king himself announced that enough was enough. The boy’s frustration had been mounting for some time, both at his own failure and at the king’s singular passivity in refusing to offer such promptings as he might have provided; yet he was devastated to be exiled from the court at which, despite the king’s suppurating, ulcerated flank, there had been good company (such as he’d not experienced in childhood) and three square and very pleasant meals a day. There was also the king’s own company, which the boy, who had now grown to be a youth in a body old enough to be his father’s, found agreeable, endearing, and deeply familiar, providing the obvious was not mentioned. The youth began to blame himself for so often attempting to ask the right question at the right time. When he finally left the palace, he had in fact convinced himself that the responsibility lay with him and him alone for not achieving the desired outcome to this adventure.

In another part of the forest dwelt a tribe of magicians who travelled widely and with whom the youth began to cross paths. They had come to constitute a tribe not by birth but by common consent and a shared awareness of their powers, which were in fact less consistently reliable than they liked to admit to one another. Those powers, however, were real enough to be soon evident to the youth (in a body now old enough to be his father’s) and so he fell in with them, despite his misgivings that the wizard of the tower might in fact have been one of their number.

One day, consorting with one of these magi, he found that they had crossed together into the Otherworld, where his brother magus began to snuffle and snort like an animal; to his own surprise, he did as well. The visit to the Otherworld didn’t last long, but he shortly came to be absorbed in scanning the ground around him for hints of other such portals, not knowing exactly what lay on the other side of them, but increasingly convinced that going through these portals would lead to a very important discovery about himself.

Whereas these meetings with the forest magi were intermittent, his meetings with a kindly hermit, who stayed in one place, were a regular feature of his week. The hermit was on the whole remarkably accepting of the youth’s explorations among the magi and seemed inclined to respect the importance of these encounters. The hermit was committed to helping the youth reverse the effects of the draught that had expunged the memory of his father. His good will came to be more important to the boy than was the releasing of the spell, long deferred as it was–it being the practice of the hermit that the youth must master each clause of the spell for himself in order to break its power. It was a long and very complicated spell, some of it in archaic languages, the grammar of which had to be at least minimally deciphered before moving on to the next phrase. Some of the magi were inclined to scoff at the hermit; others were deeply respectful of his longer, slower, and less spectacular wisdom.

At times the youth grew weary of the whole enterprise. He found that wandering through the forest had become tiresome without the magic of the tribe, but the excitement of their magic trivial without the patience of the hermit. He had no desire to choose between them. The memory of his excursion into the Otherworld as an animal self with the magus who accompanied him there continued to burn in his mind, but more importantly, in his heart. And he came to bless the blood of his father that ran in his veins.

He continues to wander the forest: quests have a way of being endless, whether one wishes them so or not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unbinding Isaac

A d'var Torah (sermon) given at Congregation Shir Libeynu for the second day of Rosh Hashanah on Genesis 22:1-19.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be holy and acceptable in your sight, Adonai our Strength and our Redeemer.
What an honor to be asked to give a talk for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I told Rabbi Aviva in the spring.  And then the realization. Oh great. The Binding of Isaac.
Let's start here: God does not desire, God has never desired, the death of children. I'd go so far as to suggest that any healthy and humane and yes, any truly devout and righteous reaction to this story involves an element of visceral revulsion. It's a great credit to the tradition of scholarship on the passage that Jewish exegesis has for many centuries made space for such responses. The early midrash Bereshit Rabbah imagines God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac," distinguishing between the verb for slaughter and the verb for sacrifice. The Spanish Rabbi Yona Ibn Yanach in the 11th century followed in this tradition when he wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. A later Spanish Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi in the 14th century wrote that Abraham allowed his imagination to lead him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to slay his son. Ibn Caspi asked, "How could God command such a revolting thing?"
Another possibility is that the test is actually not whether Abraham will be willing to sacrifice Isaac, but whether he will have the moral integrity to reply to God, "Are you out of your freaking mind?"--a test he fails.
I find great comfort in these voices of exegetical dissent to the disturbingly broad current of interpretation that in considering this story represses empathy and accepts without hesitation the legitimacy of God asking anything God wants, or at very least the legitimacy of God testing Abraham by asking for something so outrageous that he never intended for Abraham to go through with it. "Hey, just kidding," says the angel, which supposedly turns it into a story of God's mercy and favor to one so righteous that he's assented to an atrocity. Such interpretations remain blind not only to the monstrous pressure this puts on Abraham's motivations, but to the trauma suffered by Isaac--a trauma that some have identified as scarring Isaac for life and leading down the generations to some of the spectacular relational dysfunction that follows in the later chapters of Genesis. That kind of emotional dissociation in the interpretation of scripture has led to some heartless attitudes in all three of the Abrahamic religions, as English biologist Richard Dawkins has gleefully pointed out in his ongoing sophomoric rant against all religious faith.
But this morning I want to invite you down a path that begins by looping back for its starting point to Yosef ibn Caspi's suggestion that we might read this story as an account of Abraham being awakened, in the nick of time, from a delusion into which his own imperfect perception of the Divine had led him. I invite you to consider the story as exemplifying the possibilities of our developing understanding of God--through all human religious history, through the history of Judaism, and through the course of our own individual spiritual journeys.
In other words, we have to make  a radical distinction between what Abraham perceives God as saying to him, and what HaShem, the Ground of our Being, could possibly whisper in the hearts of the righteous. So I'm asking you to entertain the possibility that when the text says that God spoke to Abraham, we can read this as stating Abraham’s own point of view at the time, not an absolute point of view that establishes the demand to sacrifice Isaac as the genuine will of God. We might support this argument by observing that the description of the command to sacrifice, at the beginning of the parshat, is notably distinct from the last-minute command to stop. We hear at the very beginning of the reading that Elohim tests Abraham. Later, it's not Elohim but an angel who speaks, and more perhaps to the point, God is referred to this time not as Elohim, but by the Divine Name, as Adonai. Some modern scholars have suggested that this represents a splicing of originally separate narratives, or alternatively, that the prevention of the sacrifice represents an interpolation that reflects the unease of later redactors with the story. In any case, if we put pressure on this distinction of language, it's also striking that the voice of deliverance is not the voice of Elohim Godself, but of Adonai's messenger.
We don't have to look far into the record of religious self-assurance to see Abraham's deluded certainty at work. We can see it in the collusion of multiple Christian denominations in the tragedy of the residential school system, with its decades of attempted cultural genocide against the First Nations. We can see it in theocratic tyranny  over the lives of generations of women and children in Ireland. We can see it in the rise of Hindu fundamentalist violence in India. We can see it in Buddhist violence against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. We can see it in the horrors of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria. We see it in the refusal of ultra-Orthodox settlers to cease from further illegal appropriation of West Bank land to which they have no rightful claim. We can see it in stabbing attacks on marchers in the Tel Aviv Pride parade. We can see it in American Christian fundamentalists picketing the funerals of men who died of AIDS in the 1990s and the funeral of Matthew Sheppard when he died of a brutal queer-bashing outside Laramie, Wyoming. In all these cases, it's the certainty that there is no gap between God and our understanding of God and God's will that has laid Isaac on the altar and put the knife in Abraham's hand.
In and of itself, this isn't a hard lesson for most of us in this particular congregation to absorb. Shir Libeynu exists in great part because many of us have had the experience of being Isaac, laid on somebody else's altar. Many of us had the experience of leaving the faith communities of our origin because of the marginalization we felt as feminist women, as queer, as intermarried, as not Jewish enough, as not Jewish at all. Speaking for myself, I'm here not only in spiritual solidarity with my partner Jonathan, but because of the deep, solemn joy I derive from being called to account in light of the original goodness of my created nature, our created nature; the deep joy I derive from being called in these Yamim Noraim to take part in the sanctification of time itself--a joy I simply cannot find in the self-abnegating penitential practices of Lent in the Christian tradition in which I was reared, and in which I still participate, albeit with a wary, critical edge.
That said, it's incumbent on us this holy day to remember that we're called to account for the ways in which we've also been Abraham with the knife in our hand, in which we continue to be Abraham, ready to do something terrible if we're not listening for a voice that comes from beyond the limits of our imagination to call us back from the brink. The paradox of our lives is that we can be both Isaac and Abraham at once--even when our liberal, freethinking credentials are impeccable. In our own small way, we participate in Abraham's misguided zeal every time we justify our behaviour toward others by imagining that there's no gap between our conception of the Divine and the Divine itself. Every time we're not prepared to hear the angel say, "Dayenu, already. That's your child on the altar, and any god you imagine might desire his death is not Adon Olam, the Rock of your Salvation and the Sustainer of heaven and earth."
We let ourselves too easily off the hook when we imagine it's only others who can set up their own sense of divinely sanctioned certainty like an internal mental idol on whose altar we're prepared to immolate love. Today's parshat invites us to recognize that our conception of the Holy One is always imperfect, always provisional, always fall short. It warns us that we're likely to go the farthest off course when we forget that and forge ahead, using our own understanding of truth and righteous action to ride roughshod over the dignity, the livelihood, even the lives of others.
More optimistically, today's reading reminds us simultaneously that humanity is capable of spiritual growth, that religious traditions are capable of spiritual growth, that we as individuals are capable of spiritual growth, and that our errors, even our truly terrible errors, once we put them behind us, are themselves part of the path forward. Abraham hears the angel and lowers the hand that he held ready to strike. Ireland votes for same-sex marriage. The Confederate battle flag comes down from the South Carolina Statehouse. Parents who've ostracized queer kids come around to love and inclusion and celebration of their children's lives. Kids who've shut out newly self-declared queer parents, or divorced parents, or polyamorous parents, come around to empathy and acceptance. An eighteenth-century slaveship captain turns his boat around in mid-Atlantic and sails back to Africa, goes on to write Amazing Grace, and spends the rest of his life as an abolitionist. We let go of our self-assured knowledge and stop using God, or God's will, or our notion of Truth with the dreaded capital T, in order to justify making those around us into objects of our sacrifice. We open our eyes to the fact that beyond our imperfect understanding, it's the beloved who lies at risk right before our eyes, it's the beloved we're ready to slay who shows us the genuine presence of the Holy One, and the deeper Truth. The angel not only stops Abraham in the nick of time, but blesses him for the worthiness of his desire to serve God that has coexisted with his delusion.
We're all Abraham. At the same time, we're also all Isaac. And I invite you, as these Days of Awe continue to unfold, to engage in some midrash of your own, imagining what it was like as Abraham unbound his beloved child. What passed between them? Did the angel hang out for a while coaching them through a sort of personalized Truth and Reconciliation process? Or just disappear, as angels so often do? Did they break down weeping together at the side of the road, as Jacob and Esau will do two generations on? Did they succeed in the work of healing as they went back down the mountain, rejoined the servants, made their way back to Sarah?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

S is For Sexual. E is for Ethics.

I know men who say they experienced no shame around being queer in their formative years. I try not to be unduly skeptical. But it’s a stretch. My personal pathologies aside, most of what I’ve observed tells me that for queer men, shame and sexual awakening are closely bound together--as indeed, they are for many more people, women and men, straight and not so straight, than the facile images and narratives of commercial culture might suggest. The widespread success of Alan Downs’ book, The Velvet Rage, suggests how many men who love men find themselves mirrored by its analysis of the role erotic humiliation and rejection have played in the lives of gay boys and youths. Nor am I convinced that even a Supreme Court decision affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage gets at the root of the shaming many of us experienced at the age of five, or twelve, or fifteen.

When we emerge into communities fully accepting of our erotic integrity, it’s like arrival in a Promised Land. I’m not talking here only about life in gay-positive neighbourhoods, work in queer-positive institutions, worship in queer-positive churches, shuls, temples. I’m talking about the moments of connection and, yes, I’ll use the word grace, that many of us have experienced in bathhouses, sex clubs, networks of lovers and friends-with-benefits, faerie gatherings, erotic workshops--moments so vividly captured by Mark Doty in the poem to which I included a link here a couple of weeks ago.
When we cross over into such spaces, our affirmation of one another is a natural extension of the affirmation we’re amazed and relieved finally to have experienced ourselves. Go to the Folsom Street Fair or to Dore Alley, or to the festivals they’ve inspired far from San Francisco, and, amidst what moralists are quick to condemn as hedonistic exhibitionism, you’ll see an affectionate cameraderie, even an innocence, that comes when when we can finally let go of fear.
It makes sense that we compensate for years of condemnation and rejection by doing our best to celebrate the difference of others’ erotic lives from our own--and to set aside our negative reactions to the sexual diversity of those around us. That’s part of our healing, and part of healing one another.
At the same time: on guard against ourselves becoming sexual oppressors, we’re capable of coming to view the very concept of “sexual ethics” warily, almost as a contradiction in terms. Instead of looking deeply for the roots of our erotic longings in the bedrock and groundwater of our souls, we throw up our hands, abandoning the work of self-reflection, as though the search for deeper awareness were itself tainted with repression.
Feminist analysis is way ahead of us on this. Women have ample occasion every day to see and experience all too directly the emotional and social havoc and violence wreaked by  unreflective sexual assumptions and practices. We kid ourselves if we imagine that being queer wipes our slate clean of the exploitative messages about sex-as-self-aggrandisement that pretty much all cisgendered boys and men in a society like ours begin absorbing from early childhood on.
We let ourselves off the hook, when what we need most authentically is the insight to distinguish what truly feeds us and enables our growth, and each other’s growth, from what leaves us stuck, dissatisfied, only half-awake to who we are--and oblivious to our failures to treat one another with reverence and respect.
We’re capable of failing to call ourselves and one another to account. We play mutual consent like a trump card to rationalize compulsive, abusive, or seriously dangerous behavior  when it creeps into our own lives--or say nothing when we see it creeping into the lives of those we know. By focusing on acting out our fantasies rather than on why they speak to us in the first place, we slough off the deeper work of coming to understand, and encouraging one another to understand, how and from where they arise , how best to accept their presence as seeds within us that we can choose to water, and when, and how--or not (to use a Buddhist metaphor).
One of the most satisfying aspects of John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful film Shortbus is that the sexual explorations of pretty much all its characters involve their growth and their awareness of one another’s deep humanity. It’s a beautiful example of what the living out of an unapologetic queer sexual ethics might look like: unstinting in its acceptance of the lives of others on their own terms, full of detours and trips up blind allies, and at the same time mindful that what we do with our own and one another’s bodies, we do as well with our souls and theirs.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Guest Post: The Lingam Puja, Dear Love Edition – July 2015

Continuing the focus of some of my recent posts on the practice of Lingam Puja as a meditative ritual honoring the sacred dimension of queer men's desire and sexuality, here is a reflection by Br. Bob on his experience of leading the Puja as a daily practice for a week this July just past. Br. Bob is a full-time minister who has explored the embodiment of spirituality for the last several years through various workshops that he's attended and at which he's assisted. What he shares below bears vivid witness that authentic ritual grows from the roots up out of the practice of a community that takes ownership of the form.

This summer I had the opportunity to assist at a week-long workshop at Easton Mountain in upstate New York: Dear Love of Comrades, which is the first-level intensive offered by the Body Electric School. Each morning, the men attending the workshop were required to choose among several meditative movement practices, which included a yoga class and a meditative hike. I had experienced the Lingam Puja meditation practice offered by David Townsend two summers ago at another Body Electric week-long intensive. I had found it then to be a good meditative practice to begin my day, so I wanted to offer it for this new group of men.
I contacted David and asked for the ritual format, which he graciously shared with me, and set about assembling the necessary supplies before I left for the workshop. It was interesting for me to learn where I could find camphor to use as incense for the ritual, as well as a few of the other items. I was excited I could bring into the ritual the singing bowl I’d acquired a few months ago and that is part of my daily personal morning practices.
Arriving the day before the workshop, I found the area around the large carved and charred wooden phallus overgrown with weeds and wild flowers. David had told me about his experience of walking on the weeds when he created the space two years ago, and how it had been a meditative process unto itself for him. So, that Sunday afternoon in the high heat and humidity, I started doing the same thing, walking clockwise in ever-growing circles to flatten out the vegetation so others would perceive it as a ritual space. In short order the meditation circle began to be as evident as my sweat-soaked clothing! Finally, I decided it was time for me to get relief and go cool off in the outdoor pool to relax.
The next day, I enlisted the help of another man who would be a participant in the workshop. We used collapsed cardboard boxes to flatten the circle better and make the space even more welcoming. Being someone whose vocation involves celebrating rituals and leading others in them, I still felt some apprehension about how participants would receive this new-to-them ritual, and how I would feel in leading it.
The next day, I awoke early before my alarm, showered,  and trekked out to the remote area where the Lingam Puja circle was located to set the remaining ritual pieces in place: a sarong to decorate the lingam; small citronella garden candles for the perimeter of the circle to provide a sense of the holy – but also to help ward off the insects. I lit the candle near the lingam; chimed my singing bowl; lit a few pieces of camphor to incense the area; and set up three small vases to receive the flower offerings of the brothers who would gather.

Then I went to greet the brothers who would participate, and in silence we walked out to the Lingam Puja circle as they gathered a wildflower or two to make their offering. I welcomed them formally one by one into the circle and made a bindi on their foreheads using ritual powder obtained from an Indian grocery store near my home, where I also found the camphor. Then after being welcomed, they placed their flowers in the vases on the stump altar next to the lingam and chimed the singing bowl.

Then after an opening prayer, we took turns stating our intention for the day and having that intention bound to us by tying a red thread on our wrist. Following that, we silently walked clockwise at our own pace around the lingam until it was time to close the ritual. As we walked in meditation, men would reverence or embrace the lingam, light more camphor incense, or perform some other action meaningful to them. Once I chimed the end of our meditation time by ringing the singing bowl, we gathered arm-in-arm around the lingam and chanted Om three times to formally close the meditation and then offered each other a morning embrace.
I found that the challenge of leading the ritual and keeping track of time initially distracted me. But as the week progressed, I became more at home with it. My apprehensions decreased, and I felt more in union with the rhythm of it. I also found-- surprisingly, for I am NOT a morning person--that I would awake every day without my alarm and look forward to my solitary personal time when I would re-set the ritual space for that morning’s practice. I loved the peacefulness and connection with nature that it afforded me before I had to “be on” in exercising my leadership of the group’s practice. And I was challenged the one day when rain threatened and a brisk breeze made keeping the altar candle lit almost impossible!
I was also moved each day by the group’s practice - how different men would experience emotional connections in themselves and with the earth and with spirit through this simple yet profound action. It reminded me so much how our capacity and commitment to be “present” – fully focused and intent on an action – allows us to be connected to and become conduits of spirit. This then allows us to connect with spirit in others and in creation itself. This basic truth is something that I learn and experience and witness over and over again. It reminds me that I am always a student and learning all the time. No matter how regularly I engage in spiritual rituals or practices, there is always something new for me to be open to experiencing. I simply need to surrender to the spirit’s invitation and trust it will reveal what I need to do, if anything.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

On a California Mountaintop

A Lingam Puja at Body's Electric's Erotic Temple retreat, Wildwood, Guerneville.
Photo by Arnie Katz

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mark Doty: Homo Will Not Inherit

Here is one of our finest and most gifted gay poets, as he describes flesh ablaze with Spirit...

Friday, July 24, 2015

"God Expects Just One Thing of You...

that you should come out of yourself insofar as you are a created being and let God be God in you."

--Meister Eckhart

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Goal

The goal of an erotic spiritual practice isn't satisfaction.

The goal is to embrace desire as Life's unbounded and endless longing for Itself.
To take it as a teacher.
To see that what you have, you cannot possess.
To see that what you lack, you already have.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


The cat leaps onto the altar.
Settles. Then up again, steps across, 
nuzzles the lily aside
to drink from the bowl where it floats.
Jumps down, curls against a thigh.
A wren in the tree goes berserk with anxious chatter,
the cat creeps off.
The meditator
(who would be me)
calls her back,
calls himself back to the mala, to his breath,
though none of it was departure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Very Partial Truth

If you're a gay or bi man who's never put your arms around a two-foot phallus under the open sky, I suggest you give it a try. You might be surprised what it brings up. So to speak.

I'm not being coy in saying that I have no idea what it could call forth in you. But I'll go so far as to suggest it may prove powerful.
If you're doing it somewhere you might be seen by others--like the public park where I lead a (relatively discreet) Lingam Puja ritual about once a month--it may elicit a very understandable unease. ("Oh, my God," a friend told me, recounting how he'd felt the first time he attended, with a succession of dog walkers passing on the footpath near the oak under which we gather. "I'm going to fly apart now.")
It may be a way of saying no to shame.
You may be repulsed, if it represents for you yet another expression of commercialized gay male culture's obsession with cock size and impersonal sex for its own sake.
Or it may feel like you're embracing an energy that informs your whole life, and that somehow is far, far vaster and more substantial than your own sexual experience, an energy that flows though you and unites you with all of nature, with your male ancestors, with your brothers, friends and lovers, with your sons and your sons' sons, with the sons of the men you love, that offers healing and regeneration and reassurance of your place in the world.
You may feel that, paradoxically, to embrace this energy fully prepares you better to honor and admire and relate honestly and equally to the miracle of women's sexuality, their bodies and their experience.
I can't tell you how you'll react, but I can share how I reacted last week. This is a very partial truth, not the truth for women, not the truth for trans folk, not the truth for all men. Perhaps the truth for you, and perhaps not.
Bending down to embrace the Lingam set up in my garden, a realization blossomed that had long remained curled as a tight bud in my soul. My penis was my lifeline as an adolescent, at the very time when I felt nothing but shame over my flowering sexuality, when I thought of it as an affliction and fought endlessly to pretend it didn't exist. Without my cock, without the longings of my body and its capacity for pleasure, declaring itself in every erection, in every wet dream, in every ejaculation after hours of edging as I tried to hold back, my soul would have imploded to a withered singularity. I would have become nothing more than my superego, a shell of repression surrounding emptiness.
My cock saved me. And its energy and reality was and is an energy and reality that's pulsed through the whole length of human history, and back beyond that to the beginnings of sexual reproduction hundreds of millions of years ago. It's the miracle of my father's orgasm that initiated my existence. It's tied from earth to heaven, from the male human to the Divine, by its representation in the phallic gods of every tradition. Egyptian Min masturbating the cosmos into existence. Hindu Shiva endlessly ejaculating the Ganges. Roman Priapus watching over the garden with his comically outsized erection. The Sacred Cock of Jesus, sanctifying men's embodiment and drawing it up into Divinity--as God's Holy Wisdom, the Womb of Creation, divinizes as well women's experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Cernunnos of the Celts, horned god of the forest. Pan with the flute he plays and the flute that juts out between his furry legs. Quetzlcoatl, the Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs.
This energy is within me. I am the bearer of this energy. I want to move through the world as the bearer of this energy. I want to embrace it, embody it.  I want to sit straight in meditation, stand straight in walking, my spine an erection, my torso a pump and conduit to draw the Kundalini energy of the Goddess from the earth and pour it out for the healing of the world,  the crown of my head a meatus shooting metaphysical semen into the universe. I want my seed to fall as an offering to the earth. In the cycle of longing and release, I want to embrace change and the impermanence of all things.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Prayer on Awakening

Modeh ani l'fanecha ru'ach chai v'kayam.

Thankful I am before you, the Abiding Spirit.

When I say modah (thankful), I connect with my sense of gratitude. Then ani (I) with my sense of self. I'm the one that's saying this prayer. Then l'fanecha (before You), and suddenly it's not about me. It's about You, God, the One is whose Presence I am. And so on. I'll go through each prayer like that and that's how my heart is able to connect. It's coming from inside me. It's not intellectual. I embody the prayer. I allow myself to say, then really experience, gratitude.

Rabbi Zari M. Weiss.
Photograph by the late Oscar Wolfman.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Like Rome

I don't remember where it is that Freud says that the mind is like Rome. Or maybe that's not exactly the way he puts it. Maybe my memory is playing a trick: building something new on top of what's buried further down. (OK, Google settled this almost instantly: it's from Civilization and Its Discontents--but as far as I'm concerned, that's not only cheating, it short-circuits the fertile pleasures of not knowing for sure.)

Beneath the streets we travel, beneath the gardens we plant, beneath the houses we build: a past that may disappear beneath the surface but doesn't go away. The underground stream that rises up into a basement. The sinkhole that opens when the roof of a buried chamber collapses. The thud of stone against the shovel in the garden. The three columns that remain of an ancient temple, beside a six-lane thoroughfare. The amphitheater capped by apartments and TV antennae. The expressway that follows the route of a 2000-year-old road. That's what the complexity of our minds is like, Freud says.
Except that the state of our mind isn't just like Rome in the present moment: every period of its history is alive and vibrating in the here and now. As though the Rome of six-lane avenues and electric lines were also, simultaneously, the Rome of Caesar and Cicero, of the Empire in decline, of the Renaissance Popes, of the Risorgimento, of Mussolini, of Fellini. You can buy holographic postcards in Rome of the principal ancient monuments and watch them oscillate back and forth, as you tilt them up and down, between a photograph of the ruins and a reconstruction of the buildings' original state.
That's a little more like our minds, in the complex indeterminacy of the relation between our conscious awareness and the unconscious or forgotten layers that complicate and enrich our experience. Except that our minds contain strata upon strata, not just two. Think of the times you've gone back to your family of origin and found that suddenly, once again, you're fifteen years old. Or six. Or ten. Or (perhaps happily, perhaps hellishly) all of the above.
St. Augustine likened our memory to an inexhaustible storehouse. Julian of Norwich called our souls a noble city in the midst of which God's throne is set. Buddhist masters like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön talk about befriending our feelings and learning to care for them, rather than brushing them aside and neglecting them, or else projecting them outwards as though those around us bore responsibility for them. Among contemporary queer authors who get this, graphic novelist Allison Bechdel stands out at the moment for her two memoirs of her relationships with her father and mother, respectively: Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
Coming to know our own minds better, to wander around and descend through the complexity of those layers, is one of life's great adventures. The best practices of psychotherapy are driven by lively excitement to know ourselves, rather than by the misery that may have brought us to our shrink in the first place--by the desire to make friends with our unconscious, rather than trying to hunt it down and kill it. The best practices of mindful erotic self-awareness are also about lively curiosity and acceptance of who we are, and how we came to be who we are, as something wondrous and worthy of curiosity and respect, as well as celebration. Impatience, shame, and judgment are the adversaries of genuine insight and growth.

In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." It's the water that flows underground that sustains our gardens.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Beltane on the Boulevard

The plane trees
pruned so brutally six weeks ago
wake up late, these first days of May,
laugh, and shout,
"I win!"

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Slow Learner

It's only taken me
the better part of twenty years
to learn I have to let watercolour dry
before I add an overglaze.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Plum Village is a Buddhist meditation community in the Dordogne, an hour's train ride and then a short drive east of Bordeaux. It was founded thirty years ago by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher, poet, and peace activist who led the Buddhist delegation during the Paris Peace Talks during what Americans, when they don't just try to forget about it, call the Viet Nam War, and the Vietnamese call the American War. (As far as I can see, it's the Vietnamese who have the right to name it: it was their country, after all, that the United States wantonly ravaged and then left unreconstructed, as though we bear no ongoing responsibility for the enduring damage we did to bodies, minds, souls, and communities.) The Americans, the North Vietnamese delegation, and the Viet Cong all held him in suspicion. He was a close friend of Thomas Merton and of Daniel Berrigan.
The monks and nuns live in a cluster of discrete hamlets mostly within easy walking distance of one another, along roads that thread between rolling hills and vinyards. They welcome the steady stream of guests who come on retreat, mostly for a week or two, occasionally for longer. Thay ("Teacher") lives in a hermitage, cared for by rotating teams of monks as he recovers from a stroke last November. His spirit is everywhere in the community, with its gentle, open approach to Buddhist practice and meditation reinterpreted for the modern world, for the West, and for dialogue with other faith traditions. One of Thay's most beautiful books is Living Buddha, Living Christ, a collection of dharma talks he gave during the Christmas season--a major annual celebration at Plum Village.
I was fortunate and blessed to spend  last week there. Early this last Friday afternoon, seven of us stepped off a local train into the bustle of the Bordeaux train station , then crossed the square to a cafe where another contingent of our new Dharma friends had already found a table for lunch. We all smiled like idiots at total strangers--which in my limited experience is even further outside the norm in France than in New York. Our newly acquired habit of bowing to each other with palms pressed together put us right off the chart.
There's good money on many of us never seeing each other again. That doesn't stop me already fantasizing about a visit to London or Dublin, Paris or Amsterdam to see one or several of the people I fell so completely in love with over seven days of sitting together in the meditation hall before dawn, getting to know each other on walks together, in sharing circles, or chatting during periods of the day when, truth to tell, we should have been more conscientiously practicing Noble Silence. The longing to hold onto the connections is maybe itself a slippage from the equanimity that meditation practice is supposed to instill--the Right Thinking that knows everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever--and that we are all part of one another now, even if we don't meet again.
We were all already in the heady first stage of reentry--the hours and days when we find ourselves back in a world where you don't get constant encouragement to breathe and smile, to walk slowly, to eat silently; where instead you decide what you want for dinner and go after it, rather than accepting whatever you find in front of you--providing most of the food isn't already gone when you get to the head of the line; where a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or meat on your pizza is again thinkable--each in flagrant violation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings; where you look at your watch and hustle to get to the market for tonight's fish before it shuts down. Walking home along busy Friday night streets in Aix en Provence at the end of my long train trip back across France, I could have been strolling through The Matrix. Today I feel a slight undertow of anxiety that the joy I experienced so much of last week may slip away and leave me wondering, "What was that?
Part of that anxiety involves my own ambivalence. On the one hand, I remember the joy of waking up to the flavor of every noodle in my half-full bowl , after I got to the front of the lunch line to find the serving dishes all but cleaned out.  I remember the bliss of being greeted by a cat on a path early in the morning, and deciding the most important thing in the world was to sit down on the spot and invite her to settle into my lap for a nap: it was the cat who calmed my Monkey Mind enough that I could simply sit, as she was sitting. Not least, I remember  the deep, unproblematic affection I shared with the straight men with whom I developed friendships.
But on the other, I'm aware of my resistance. The bustle of busy streets  Friday night felt like a beautiful expression of human energy to be treasured, not like a departure from the path. I've come to accept over the years that my tendency to flow from one object of attention to another isn't necessarily something for me to constrain; sometimes it's a way of embracing the freedom to play and recreate in the presence of the Sacred, an impulse close to my core nature, not a departure from my true self. (Hence my experience that having a cat in my lap for fifteen minutes is more likely to lead me toward Beginner's Mind than simply sitting facing the wall. I remain a devotee of Distraction by Shiny Objects Meditation.)
And then there's sex. In the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmitted at Plum Village, and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings that are a more advanced expansion of the precepts, I find it striking that the Training titled "True Love" expresses a deep suspicion of  erotic engagement, a sense that sex is a mostly negative force that drives us farther from enlightenment. The best that can be said about it is that in a committed long-term relationship between laypersons, it's allowed, but hardly a source of positive value or spiritual growth. Rather, its destructive potential is simply mitigated when it's kept carefully channelled. I find it especially striking that the last of the Fourteen Trainings devotes so much space to sex, carefully and extensively hedging around its pitfalls. I'm reminded of Christian approaches that so often begin with a canard about sexuality as sacred gift, and then move straight into reshearsals of ethical danger.
(I'm reminded by contrast of Mark Epstein's wonderful book Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught, where Epstein thoughfully and accessibly explores what Buddhism has called "the left-handed path" of erotic engagement as an awareness practice, a means of learning to immerse oneself fully in life without clinging.)
Then again: maybe my misgivings are themselves the product of Too Much Thinking, as I imagine Thay would be quick to say. The Dharma isn't a doctrine, it's a practice. After a week of sitting to face the wall every morning before dawn; of eating mindfully, focusing on the food, on all that went into its production, and on the companions at my side; of walking slowly and feeling the earth come up to support my next footstep, I've changed, just a little. My partner Jonathan and I yesterday morning had the best sex we've had in months: playful, uncomplicated, passionate, immersed in the moment, unhindered by fantasies of What I'd Really Like to Do.
Yesterday afternoon, we walked to the top of Mt Ste-Victoire, outside of Aix. I'm irrationally fearful of heights. The peripheral awareness of space dropping away around me freaks me right out, even when the path is wide enough that I could fall flat without going over the edge. As we got to the last stage and the switchbacks began, my anxiety rose.
And then I started talking to Monkey Mind, addressing him as an old friend, telling him to stop jumping around and settle down for a little while. I thought, maybe I can be the Buddha just for a minute or so. And something clicked.  I began simply to breathe, and smile, and put one foot in front of the other, and the last five minutes of the trek to the top opened out into pleasure and adventure.
At the top of the mountain, there's a little priory built in the seventeenth century for a handful of monks, now used both as a pilgrimage chapel and a cultural center. The courtyard was full of people. A hiking club started singing together after their lunch. Somebody had hauled a viola da gamba up the mountain and gave a short recital in the chapel. A group of Japanese tourists posed for pictures with an 84-year-old woman in traditional Provençal dress and hiking boots. They were all having the time of their lives. A lovely woman in her sixties started chatting with me, with exquisite patience for my terrible French. From the parapet, I could look down about a thousand feet toward the massif to which we'd walked the week before from the other side of the mountain. It felt like the whole world was singing Vivaldi's Gloria.
On the way back down, my old friend anxiety sat quietly while I breathed into my next footstep and said to myself, as the monks encouraged us to do all last week, "I've arrived. I'm home. In the Here and Now."