Monday, December 21, 2015
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
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
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.