Thursday, May 19, 2022

On the Internal Relationality of Being Not One and Not Two

Photo by Howard Roffman from his book Three

(Trigger warning: abstract and speculative)

At the core of who we are is relationship. To what is outside us, to who is outside us. Our autonomy is an illusion. We are each of us a node in a network of interconnection. We are Not One and Not Two. What gives our life depth and richness is not the isolated self, but what flows to us, through us, and out from us.  It isn't what we possess, what we achive, or what we strive for through our own effort that blesses us, but what comes to us as a gift that we never bargained on. The awareness of that flow elicits gratitude. And we're hard-wired to be happiest when we're authentically grateful.

And yet: we're never in perfect attunement with one another, however much we long to be. At the heart of the most satisfying relationship, the most intimate relationship, the most loving relationship, is an irreduceable core of aloneness, and the realization that we are never having, we can never have, the same experience as someone else. We don't understand one another perfectly, and never can.

We long for connection, and yet ultimately connection will never be perfect. It's always subject to disillusionment, to disappointment. Our desire for it is never wholly realized. We're thrown back on the need to be sufficent within ourselves, even as we recognize ever more deeply that we're not. 

Ultimately, what grounds us in relationship is not what is purely external to us, but that we are also in relationship with ourselves. Within ourselves as well, we are Not One and Not Two. We are both perceiver and perceived. Both conscious awareness and the sea of the unconscious mind on which conscious awareness floats. Both Lover and Beloved. Both the one who knows and the one who is known, or the one of whom knowledge is sought. We are both the one and the other--and at the same time we are the dance between them, the endless circulation of one pouring into the other.

This dance of internal relationality sustains us through the longings and imperfect fulfillments and disappointments of our connections to the world outside us, to those outside us. Without this relationality within us, at some point the web of the connections outside us would fail. Without the web of connections outside us, this internal relationality would shrink to a vanishing point. 

There is trinity around us, and trinity within us.

Photo by Andrew Graham

Saturday, April 23, 2022

A Calling

It's my delight to be at least a little acquainted with Allen Silver, a Sacred Intimate based in the Bay Area with a long, deep practice of erotic service. (You may also know him as one of the hottest daddies ever in gay erotic film.) A few weeks ago, I heard Allen give a wonderfully smart, grounded, articulate interview about his new memoir and manifesto, Man of Use.

I wish there were more books like this out in the world, by men who understand erotic service as a calling, in the most authentic sense of that word. As Allen makes clear, that calling is the realization of something intrinsic and essential to his deepest nature, a fulfillment of the core of his being. "There was a calmness that came over me when I discovered that this is what I was put here on this earth to do," he writes. The story of his journey into this work--of how he discovered his gift for it, how he trained, and how his practice has evolved as social expectations have shifted over two decades--is a moving narrative of one man's journey into greater wholeness, the transformation of his wounds into gifts. It's a story of the soul's healing being inseparable from repair of the world.

I found his understanding of authentic service--as possible only when grounded in self-awareness and self-respect--to be one of the wisest aspects of his short, personally revealing account. It's an insight he expresses further in the interview. It's when we've brought enough wisdom and compassion to bear on our own life to see it clearly that we can dedicate our own presence, within a clearly and intentionally built container, to the good of another. It's not about setting ourselves entirely aside, but about making of ourselves an instrument of peace, of healing, of joy during an encounter in which we are as wholly present as we are capable of being. 

My own prayer of preparation for sessions has long been, "God be in my ears and in my listening. God be in my heart and in my loving. God be in my cock and in my desiring. God be in my mind and in my understanding. God be in my lips and in my speaking." It's not only each of those elements that's important for me, but the sequence of my attention to them.

For Allen, playfulness, vulnerability, and trust in the moment are the touchstones of practice. And his own mantra is, "I am Allen Silver. I am a man of use. I have something to learn from the world. I have something to teach others in the world because I might know things that they don't know. We are on a journey of discovery."

Like Moses' burning bush in the wilderness, the calling is to be aflame, and yet not consumed.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Jesus and the Beloved

In homage to Terence McNally and Theodore Jennings 

Asleep on his chest after the dinner they’ve shared with the others, the boy doesn’t really understand what’s about to happen, any more than the rest of them. They all imagine that somehow he’ll wave his hand and the fundamentalist thugs who are coming for him will drop to the ground. Or all but one of them: the one who’s betrayed him to the authorities knows well enough that they won’t. 

His heart aches for this innocent, who’s too young to lose his first love–much less to the brutal death that's to come. His desire to spare him such anguish almost swamps the fear he feels for himself. But it’s all in motion now, and the shit’s about to hit the fan. Even if he wanted to flee, there's no chance left of escaping the net they’ve cast around him for days. He’s staked everything on blind faith that somewhere--beyond the cold, calculated brutality of those who hate him, beyond the limits of imagination--some good can come of surrender to suffering at the hands of Power for the sake of Love. 

He loves them all; has loved them to the end. This boy who slipped into his bed the first night he stayed in the house of the lad’s older sisters. The hairy, thick-chested fishermen he picked up on the shore of the lake. The one everybody still labels as a sellout to the Occupation. Even the politically correct zealot who's already revealed his whereabouts to the Temple mafia. 

In the flush of the wine, he’s behaved tonight like an outrageous, theatrical queen: passing bread and wine around the table and telling them all that he’d feed them his body and blood if he could; halfway through the meal, stripping off his robe and washing their feet like a half-naked slave in a bathhouse, his erection tenting the towel around his waist while he cradled his beloved's ankle in his hand. But he still means all of it. 

Nudging the boy awake, rousing the others from where they sit, some of them slumped and dozing, some of them gripped by silent, half-comprehending dread, he tells them, time to move on. Time to meet what’s coming next.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Authentic Ritual

William Hurt, as interviewed by Don Shewey, with thanks for permission to reblog. Photos by Susan Shachter.

I started out as a religion major. I wanted personally to be saved, and I wanted other people to be saved. I had lived in many countries with my father and seen tremendous agony inflicted on supposedly innocent beings. I couldn't comprehend how a God I loved could allow these things to happen. I began to ask the question when I was eight and worked on it 'til I was nineteen or twenty. In the center of my thoughts, I didn't really work on anything else. I became furious. I was also probably furious at myself for lots of reasons.

I was raised as a Presbyterian. I had myself confirmed as an Episcopalian. I learned about ritual and how important it is.If possible, I wanted to belong to a ritual that leaves people their independence but at the same time allows each participant to learn more about him or herself and the mysteries of this existence. A lot of religious rituals are too dogmatic. I guess I wanted to belong to a ritual in which one is encouraged to ask questions. In drama, the order of the day is curiosity about the human condition, not judging it. Your effort is to become more compassionate and to seek compassion.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Coming to Mindfulness

Photo by Andrew Graham

How did some proponents of mindful self-pleasure end up sidelining a natural, indeed essential, part of the rhythm of male sexual experience? How did New Age thinking ever line up so compatibly with repressive Roman Catholic moral teaching from the middle of the last century?

Just to be clear, I'm talking about masturbating--or having partnered sex--until you cum.

So runs an orthodoxy variously expounded by adherents of multiple schools and traditions: the energy you raise through sexual arousal gets expelled when you ejaculate. Squirt it and lose it. Hold it in, and you hang onto it. The Life Force it takes to produce semen is quantifiable, and finite. Spooging is a drain on the body, and on the spirit. Men crash when they cum. Athletes know not to have sex before they compete. When you retain semen, you recycle that energy within yourself and can use it to cultivate mind-blowing, multiple full-body non-ejaculatory orgasms. You can achieve a sense of timeless presence and a state of bliss in which you can remain suspended for as long as you choose. You can also channel the energy into other aspects of your life. (See Competing Athletes, above, as well as soldiers in combat, and presumably otherwise occupied alpha males as well.)

But, um, guys--at least some of this does not correspond to reality. 

First of all, the counterargument from, like, science. Studies are increasingly lined up on the benefits of frequent ejaculation for prostate health.

Second, not all men crash after ejaculation to the same extent. We don't necessarily crash as much each and every time. Some of us barely crash at all. Some of us feel euphoric. Some of us maintain a baseline of erotic charge that's higher with frequent ejaculation than without it.

Third, I'm not sure that getting ready for the Big Game, or even more for the Big Battle, is a great argument for why men are better off not cumming. Given the current state of the world, soldiers dropping their guns in favour of jerking off instead just might be the plus that saves us all. (If more spooge could result in less toxic masculinity, bring it on.)

Mindful sexuality, whether alone or with partner(s), is about balancing raw desire with conscious awareness. Some men love to edge--for hours, or whole days or weeks. Undeniably, chosen periods of non-ejaculation can induce altered states that open us to seeing ourselves and the world in a new and sometimes glorious light. Some solosexual men say they never want to cum and instead aspire to ride waves of pleasure and stay continually horny. I have no desire here to denigrate the validity of any man's experience, chosen for himself. 

But the questions that get close to the heart of the matter for me are these: why do dogmatic proponents of semen retention tout its benefits in metaphysical and experiential terms, while they talk about ejaculation as an occasional physiological necessity, at best? Why the universalizing pronouncements? Why are the positive emotional meanings many men attach to ejaculation so sidelined by this rhetoric? Why so little attention to ejaculation as a conscious choice that can offer spiritual lessons of its own? 

There are alternatives to this orthodoxy, for those who find it oppressive, or reductive of their own experience. For some men, ejaculation figures in the spirituality of solosexual pleasure. Some men experience cum as a sacrament: as evidence of the divinely given joy our bodies are capable of offering us, to be treasured, honoured, shared. 

What's more: the drop in energy after ejaculation can itself serve as a teaching we learn from our bodies: to mindfully choose a moment of swiftly transitory bliss can be a profound way to embrace change--a supreme acknowledgement that we are mortal creatures living our lives within time. We were born, we came to sexual maturity, and we will die, just as our forefathers have before us, and our sons will after us. It's not so farfetched that the French sometimes call orgasm "la petite mort"--"the little death." The conscious decision to cum can be a way of celebrating our lives in humility, a means to affirm that we're part of nature rather than Masters of the Universe who transcend nature. 

In the parlance of Jesuit spiritual direction, "ejaculation" refers to a short, spontaneously uttered prayer. A very different meaning, yes. Or perhaps, exactly the same.

When we ejaculate and honour our semen--however we may feel moved to honour it: when we anoint ourselves and our brothers with our seed, when we taste it and share it with others, when we use it in ritual or in art, when we offer it to the soil at our feet--we make an offering of our lives to the Mystery from which we emerge and to which we'll return. 

Blessed Be.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Breaking the Idols

 "We have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is...

"We truly have nothing to be afraid of. The Trinitarian flow of God's love is like the rise and fall of tides on a shore. In a Trinitarian Universe, reality can be pictured as an Infinite, Loving Outpouring that empowers and generates an Eternal, Loving Infolding. This eternal flow outward is echoed in history by every animal, fish, flower, bird, and planet you have ever seen. it is the universe: the first incarnation of God.

"All we have to lose are the false images of God that do not serve us and are too small."

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: Exploring the Mystery of Trinity (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2004).

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Love and Death (In Commemoration of Thich Nhat Hanh)

Tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christian churches will be full of people waiting in line to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

A downer, yes. 

But a gift as well. Just as the Buddha's admonition to his disciple is a gift to those who thirst for deliverance: "Everything that arises is subject to dissolution."

Not because it's helpful to wallow in anxiety and denial of life. But because the only way to embrace life fully is to recognize that it's fleeting.

"Is there no change of death in Paradise?/  Does ripe fruit never fall?" Wallace Stevens asks, at the beginning of Section 6 of one of my favourite poems ever, "Sunday Morning." His rhetorical questions point to the impossibility of life without change. And a few lines later, he reaches his unavoidable conclusion, "Death is the mother of beauty." For change is nothing other than our dying to one moment so that the next moment of our lives may come into being. As we walk, as we breathe, as we eat, as we make love.

We are finite creatures in time, and as much as we'd like to conquer death by denying that, we only succeed in refusing the life we have. (Christians call that denial sin. Buddhists call it illusion.) To deny it is to undermine the very conditions of our life. It's only by embracing our mortality that we can fully embrace what Mary Oliver gloriously named our "one wild and precious life."

In the next section of "Sunday Morning," Stevens gives us a spectacular, celebratory image for the joy of our embodied life: "Supple and turbulent, a ring of men/ Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn..." But here too, we're brought back to the fundamental conditions of our existence: "And whence they came and whither they shall go/ The dew upon their feet shall manifest."

No mud, no lotus.

Everything that arises is subject to dissolution.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

What the World Needs Now

In the midst of the heartless brutality of Putin's assault on Ukraine, here we are again at a root cause of aggression and violence. Toxic masculinity, chest-beating and obsessed with the ego, is responsible for the likes of Putin, the likes of Trump, the likes of vigilantes in Georgia and Wall Street warriors and industrial eco-rapists in every corner of the world. And the only solution for toxic masculinity is a softening of what it means to be male. A softening into love, a softening into permeability, a recovery of vulnerability, a dissolution of the rage that's born of shame, and the constriction of the heart that comes of rage.

So, at the risk of saying something that could sound trivializing, but isn't: what the world needs now--at least part of what the world needs now--is more men with their cocks in their hands and fewer with guns. 

More men dropping into their bodies' capacity for pleasure that's not at the expense of anyone. More men creating zones of erotic and emotional safety for one another, and in doing so creating zones of safety for themselves. More men experiencing what it's like to be told, "You're safe. You're seen. You're sacred." It's the work men need to do for themselves and one another, instead of relying on the emotional attunement of women to do it for them, and then reacting with misogynistic anger when their needs and desires aren't perfectly met.

OK, it's a utopian dream. In the meantime, pray for Ukraine. Pray that Russian soldiers, and Russian police on the streets of Moscow and Petersburg, will just tell their commanders, enough, and walk away. The fall of the Berlin Wall was also a utopian dream, until the night it happened, and Rostropovich hoisted his cello up to the top of it to give a concert. The fall of Tsarist Russia was a utopian dream until the retreating soliders of World War I said, enough.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Monkey Mind

 Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2016. Wood, collage, beachcombings, foam core, waxed thread.

Thursday, January 27, 2022


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2019. Wood, collage, beachcombings, and acrylic.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Rise to the Occasion: An Aspirational Erotic Retreat for Cis-gendered Men

  July 13-17, 2022, experience the sweet joy of expansively embodied community: a gathering of men ready to explore the erotic and spiritual treasures at the core of our deepest, most authentic selves, amidst the natural beauty of western Maryland's rolling hills. 

Start the day together with conscious breath, yoga, stretching, meditation, and mindful self-pleasure. Share what’s moving within you in our daily heart circle.  Find joy, generosity, and healing in heart-centered, respectfully structured erotic exploration with your fellow travellers. 

Participate in honest, unrestrained conversations about your experience of living in a male human body. Express your gender in the ways that feel most natural to you, and in ways you’ve always wanted to explore--feather boas and biker’s caps (worn separately or together) are equally welcome. Immerse yourself in the green magic of the land.

In this five-day retreat, capped at twenty-four participants, with an option to stay on for two extra days through Tuesday, July 19, we’ll especially celebrate the power of self-pleasure to open the heart. We’ll use the joy that rises from our own bodies to help us create an environment of full acceptance for one another and ourselves,

Play with abandon. Touch with wonder and delight. Practice generosity. Heal your soul. Repair the world. Come home to the deep truths of your nature.

Icon by Barrie Petterson

Full details are available here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Life in the Ancient World


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2016. Wood, acrylic, beachcombings, and collage.

Bart Winer, Life in the Ancient World (1961), was one queer little boy's first glimpse into a world he wanted to live in. 

Unfortunately, the Richmond, Indiana YMCA didn't measure up.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In Memoriam


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2019. Wood, collage, acrylic, and fabric.

Sunday, December 26, 2021


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2019. Wood, collage, and acrylic.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Teetering on the Brink of Fandom

Last week, on a friend's recommendation, I binged every then-available episode of The Wheel of Time on Prime Video. (Another is released every Friday.) And am tempted to dive right in again from the beginning. I've never fallen completely down the rabbit hole of fandom--though I came close with Star Trek Voyager, after the divine Seven of Nine first stepped onto the set in silver spandex and heels and nearly turned me into a lesbian.

But now--I'm at serious risk. What's next? Cosplay?

The debt to the world of Tolkien's Middle Earth is obvious. The threat of a Dark Power arising once again in a distant stronghold. A band of reluctant travellers only gradually realizing the full extent of what's expected of them. Hideously savage minions wreaking havoc on innocent villagers, led by overwhelmingly powerful wraiths on horseback. Throw in Star Wars for the sort-of-Taoist interplay of the light and dark sides of the One Power, and the ever-present possibiltiy of crossing over. And a sort-of-Hindu belief system grounded on faith in reincarnation and a cycle of world creation and destruction.

But unlike the relentlessly homosocial world of Middle Earth--homosocial, but almost entirely asexual--the powerful female order of the sort-of-Celtic Aes Sedai, channelers of the One Power, call the shots in this world, and it's men who, when they try to tap into the One Power, inevitably go mad and fuck it all up.

As you gradually piece together the rich, complex, and visually gorgeous world of The Wheel, you realize that Lan--the hot guy who travels with Moiraine, the blue-cloaked Aes Sedai who shows up in a remote town in the first episode--is her Warder, the man bonded to his Aes Sedai more closely than husband and wife, more closely than brother and sister, more closely than parent and child. And later, that all the Aes Sedai (except the Reds, but that's another story) have Warders, who hang out at night together around the fire, bantering affectionately with each other.  One of them sits leaning up against another's chest, until they both respond to the beckoning glance of the Aes Sedai to whom they're both bonded and saunter off after her to the knowing glances of the rest of the group. Later on, a Warder whose Aes Sedai has been killed by a powerful adversary is invited to join that cluster of three.  "I've never been with a man," he confides to Lan as he considers the possibility. "With two men," Lan replies, smiling. 

Among themselves, the Aes Sedai are just as sexually fluid and diverse. Moiraine, it turns out, has a passionate but clandestine relationship with the woman who holds sovereign power over the whole order. When she's not soaking in a tub with Lan.

I love that the world of The Wheel makes room for the beauty of men--of men at home in their skins, at home in their bond with each other, confident of their strength, aware of their limitations, capable of experiencing their own vulnerability and therefore capable of healing from their psychic wounds, capable also of accepting their attraction to one another--in the context of women's unquestioned strength, authority, and power. As pathetically nerdy as it may be, I want to hang out around that fire every night of my life.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Found Objects


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2017. Antique hardware drawer, collaged photography, beachcombings, and acrylic.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Bodhisattva of Fire and Light


Shadowbox, David Townsend, 2012
Wood, collaged paper, photographs, ribbon, cotton thread, and beachcombings

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Every Child

 "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

--Pablo Picasso.

Shadowbox "Postcard from My Father" by David Townsend, 2018.
Wood, acrylic, photography, collage.

Friday, November 19, 2021


"How do you make something sacred? You say 'This is sacred' and you treat it that way."

 --Stuart Wilde

Exposed Tip of the Heart

Ladder to Heaven

Column of Infinite Light

Key to the Inner Temple

Spiritual Antenna

Taproot into the Earth

Wish-Fulfilling Jewel

Shadowbox "Ephemeral Bloom" by David Townsend, 2019

Wood, collage, and acrylic

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Feast of All Saints

We're approaching the point when the veil is thinnest between the worlds--Samhain, a.k.a. All Hallow's Eve, a.k.a. Hallowe'en; then All Saints's Day, and All Soul's Day, the Day of the Dead, Dia de  Muertos, on November 2. When we can accept the invitation to look and listen for the ongoing presence in our lives of those who've passed over. When we can choose to reflect on the inevitability of our own eventual passing over, a reflection which, if we do it well, can open us to living our one wild and precious life more fully in the here and now. 

A friend and I talked about all this a long while ago, when with the sometimes surprising directness I value in our conversations, she asked, "So, who are your saints?"

My grandmother, I told her without much hesitation. A woman whose mythical reputation lives on among her descendants, nearly fifty years after her death. A woman who carried a willow sapling over her shoulder the day she and her family moved to a new house a century ago, because it was the most important thing she could imagine taking with her. A woman who nursed fallen fledglings to maturity, and was given to standing on the doorstep laughing up into a livid sky filled with lightning and the crash of thunder in the midst of Indiana's prodigious thunderstorms, before she went back to cooking for a family of nine, plus any human strays who happened to show up.

And then, without much more hesitation, Matthew Shepard.

The ashes of the twenty-one-year-old gay man who was abducted, brutally beaten, and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, were laid to rest in Washington's National Cathedral three years ago on September 26 in a ceremony that was lifestreamed on YouTube. Gene Robinson, the now-retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, who as an out gay man had to wear a bullet-proof vest to his consecration in 2003, gave the homily. (It starts at 1:13 of the very long recording of the full service.)

To watch the online recording of that ceremony is to be reminded that we don't so much live our lives, which then end, as that Life lives us--flowing around us, into us, through us, out of us to others, and back again. 

"If you close your eyes and open your hearts, Matt is right here," Robinson told the congregants.

"I'm here partly to celebrate [Matthew's parents] Judy and Dennis Shepard," he later went on. "They could have so easily gone home and grieved privately. But by the grace of God they decided they were going to turn this horrendous event into something good....They could have just grieved privately, but they shared Matthew with us. And today, they are sharing Matthew with us one last time."

The remembrance of the Day of the Dead, like the remembrance of Christian Holy Communion--anamnesis in Greek--is the living experience that Life lives us, not the other way around. "It's to recall a past event so dramatically that you bring it into the present moment, and it becomes your event, not just stuff in the past," Robinson continued. "That's the kind of remembering I pray for today--transforming remembering."

The illusion that we're separate, that we can save our own lives, leads to our losing them sooner or later, continuously by slow degrees and inevitably at the end. The realization that our life is so much bigger than what goes on inside this skin is what has the power to save us: the understanding, as Thich Nhat Hanh observed, that we have to die countless times every day in order to let the present moment come into existence; the understanding, as therapist Hedi Scheiffer puts it, that we have to cross the bridge to the world of the other in order to find new life in the encounter.

Do you have practices by which you open yourself to this truth? What are they? And who comes to you as a result--from across great distances, from out of the past, across even the barrier of death?

My grandmother's life flows into mine, blessing me and sustaining me, as surely as it did when I stood by her side at the age of four. Matthew's life flows into mine, though we never met, and though he died fifteen hundred miles away. Hate crime legislation signed into law in 2007 bears his name. The suffering with which his life as an individual ended has turned into an outpouring of love and affirmation touching tens of thousands.The living and the dead live on together.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Words Still True

 In 1992, in the gay spirituality journal White Crane 15, J. Michael Clark wrote:

"One important theme in Gay liberation is the realization that we cannot wait for others to sanction our efforts in theology or spirituality. We must instead find our own prophetic voice and assume our own authority to speak in theology and spirituality. Ultimately, neither Gay men and Lesbians, nor Native Americans, nor the poor, nor any other oppressed people can afford to wait for an external conferral of authority to speak. Moreover, the shared nature of oppression means that as we create our own liberation, so also are we obliged to seek the liberation of other people, and of the Earth itself, from objectification, disvaluation and exploitation."

It's good to remember that long before "intersectionality" became a popular term, long before our current and evolving terminology for queer identities proliferated, the concept was there, the consciousness was there, the commitment was there.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Joy in the Forest


Photo by Gerry Fortuna

Saturday, September 18, 2021

God Bless Charles Rennie Macintosh

With thanks to the lovely and talented Mountaine Jonas for snapping the photos and sending them along... 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Yom Kippur 5782

Walk, don't run....

The bush doesn't suddenly catch fire,

it's been burning the whole time.

Moses is simply moving

slowly enough to see it. And when

he does,

he takes off his sandals.

        --Bob Rell

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Being Seen

In the introductory statement to his book of male nude photographs, Being Seen, my generous and brilliantly gifted friend Andrew Graham writes, 

"What about our deeper selves--our naked selves--that which makes us weep with abandon, laugh out loud, or that which gives us reason to rise each morning? What are our passions? What is it that makes us vulnerable? Can we share these parts of us? 

"Obviously for most to be literally naked before the lens is to be very vulnerable. I believe there is a truth inherent and unavoidable when we shed our clothes. It is my goal to capture and share that truth."

Andrew's lens lovingly captures the beauty of the men he photographs, both those who would turn heads on Fire Island, and those who probably wouldn't. Not "seeing past" the physical, but seeing into the physical, seeing "the soul beneath the skin" (to borrow the title of David Nimmons' book about gay men forging more loving, connected communities).

Whenever I visit Andrew, it's a joy to look at his recent work. When I saw him this last week, I didn't expect him to ask me to model for him--a request he made with his characteristic concern for the comfort and agency of those he's with. 

My body shame operates oddly. I enjoy walking around a locker room nude--until I look in the mirror and go, "Oh, fuck." In the depths of Covid's first waves, I took to joking that I was down to one angle I was happy seeing myself naked, and that my goal was to make it back to two by the end of a summer of daily visits to the Y.

I asked Andrew to forgo sharing the work with me during the shoot, as he prefers to do with his models. I knew that self-consciousness would take over as soon as I saw the images. When we finished, nearly 300 exposures later, my predicted distress set in. I talk the talk of all of us having the right to take joy in our bodies, to love them as they are, to inhabit them as subjects rather than evaluate them as objects of scrutiny. And then that all goes out the window when I see that three months of fixed weights have done nothing, nothing at all, to reverse the sag in my 66-year-old chest or the extra pounds around my middle. 

I found myself cringing as much at the hypocrisy of my discomfort as at the soft contours of my belly. And yet could go on feeling good about the experience of the shoot, because of Andrew--because of the respect and affection of his gaze, because of the alchemy that comes from being witnessed rather than just looked at. My vulnerability held within the safe container of his regard. Encouraged by him to see myself through soft eyes. My being, seen.

Later that day, he showed me what had become of a few of the images he'd begun to edit. And I was astonished. Being seen, being truly seen, can be more than a safe experience. It can be a healing.