However, another rope has been lowered in front of me via therapy and residency, slowly and over several months. It's a rope made up of my strength and courage and resilience, of my worthiness of love and affection, of my ability to meet my own needs or to have them met by others around me. It's made up of my okay-ness when a relationship ends or transitions into something else.
I'm a perfectionist, which is one reason I'm learning to love zentangle. It gives me a chance to make what my gut instinct would call mistakes. It challenges me to breathe, to relax my grip on the pen, and to let my heart do the drawing. Normally, when I'm watching TV, I can't focus on anything else. Lately, however, on the nights where I pull out my kit and book, I find myself getting lost in the flow of the ink on the paper before me. In fact, I even bought a large Moleskine sketchbook just so I could have something with me all the time, some way to track my progress.
...Conference is about being real, authentic, and vulnerable
It's about meeting people with whom one has much in common, finding solace in community, and being in a safe space where one can truly be oneself. This year I was able to do that more than I think I ever have been able to in previous, mostly because of my amazing roommates Ben, Bryan, and Kevin, as well as several other friends both old and new.
In the opening to one of my favorite films, Angels in America, Meryl Streep pays the part of an aged Jewish Rabbi presiding over the funeral of a woman he did not know (as often happens with clergy of various sorts). He speaks of how her journey is one that cannot be repeated in the modern era of rapid travel. Simultaneously, he speaks of how her remaining family members carry within them a piece of her, of her journey, of her triumphs and her hardships.
Later in the film (or more accurately, miniseries), Louis, portrayed by Ben Shenkman, is beckoned by his ex-lover's best friend Belize (played by Jeffrey Wright), a nurse to speak the Kaddish over the recently deceased infamous closeted lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Louis, a secular Jew, struggles at first with the traditional prayer for the dead, but finds himself supernaturally assisted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also played by Streep). His only personal addition comes in his referring to Cohn as "you son of a bitch."
Death and legacy are common themes in the popular-play-turned-HBO-miniseries. Personally, I try to sit down and watch the entire six hours of the film in one sitting at least once a year. Every time, I find myself learning something new about myself during the process. My primary reason for mentioning this film pertains to tonight being All Hallows Eve, followed by tomorrow being All Saints.
I've lost a number of family members over the course of my life thus far, the most recent and important of which was my grandmother nearly a year and a half ago. Tonight, in the pagan tradition (the religion of my partner), is the holiday of Samhain (pronounced so-wen), a night that recognizes the presence of our ancestors in our lives.
There are too many people to list who have influenced me being the man I am. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny. My great, great-aunt Blanche. Several of Nanny's siblings and in-laws (Kathleen, Ira, Evelyn, Pansy). Tonight I seek to honor them and their journeys. Tonight I give thanks for the ways in which they loved and shaped me, gave me strength. Together, and separately, they taught me the importance of family, of perseverance, of selflessness. They taught me the value of a home cooked meal, of time around the table sharing story and self. They helped me understand what it meant to take pride in your work, and to do everything with a sense of significance, worth, and value.
As I sit here in my living room lit only by candles and the glow of my computer screen, listening to various movie scores and the sound of a relaxation fountain, I wish I could down with them all. I wish I could see their faces and their smiles, hear their voices, feel their arms embrace me. I would I could tell them thank you for loving me so deeply and unconditionally. I wish I could be certain they knew how much they meant to me, how deeply they changed me, even if they didn't necessarily understand or agree with my identity and relationship. I loved them, and I know they loved me.
I miss Christmases with Aunt Pansy, who always bought a box of Zachary's chocolates every year and shared it with anyone. She made sure I got the vanilla creams. I miss being in the kitchen with Aunt Blanche, a woman who could cook for an army without breaking a sweat. I miss the coziness of Aunt Evelyn's kitchen table, a place where we could sit and talk for hours. I miss Uncle Ira's laugh, even on days where he was grumpy or cynical. I miss the drive to Aunt Kathleen's house at the end of what was, for a very long time, a dirt and gravel road, and how I could always count on her having some kind of baked good ready for consumption upon my arrival. I miss sitting in Nanny's living room watching shows like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order (you get the jist), or being with her in the kitchen, cluttered around the stove making a simple but ever-filling meal.
These are my ancestors. Yes there are many others whose names, faces, and voices I did not or can not recall, and just as these are the ones who shaped me, so were they shaped by the ones before them. Their blood runs through me. There are some I did not know so well who passed before I got a chance to do so. However, given their influence on the ones that shaped me, I am thankful for them and I honor them. I sit here letting the words "We do not grieve as those without hope" run through my mind. I've moved beyond thinking I know what happens the moment a person exits this life. I do not know where these aforementioned family members are now, but regardless, part of them is still here... inside me... guiding my actions and choices. I pray that I can honor them by the way I live and, in doing so, I can honor the One who made us all for the purpose of love. I can hope and pray that, one day, I will leave a legacy similar to theirs. I hope to change lives as they have changed mine. One day I will be counted as an ancestor of someone else, and I hope that one night very much like tonight, they can sit among the candles, the water, and either silence or music, and be thankful for how I've changed or transformed them.
The primary male lead of Angels, Prior Walter (a man diagnosed with HIV in the late 80s), ends the film with this: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and we'll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins."
I pray this for everyone I meet... more life. We are all in this great big mess called life together, and we will all leave a legacy. I pray that mine is one of transformation, restoration, and healing... that the ones who come after me know that, even if I never meet or know them, I love them and offer a part of myself to them for the betterment of their lives. Tonight I honor my ancestors, my saints, and I say a prayer for those for whom I will be an ancestor, a saint...
More life... the great work begins...
When we look at the various Gospel narratives pertaining to Jesus' baptism, there's something in common between them, something I find vital to the life of any person of faith facing major life events or crises of faith. Right after his baptism, we learn that Jesus retreated into the wilderness. There, not only did he face temptation, but he also experienced renewal and a period of discernment.
A dear friend and mentor suggested that I treat my last service with Holy Covenant as a renewal of my baptism, and as such, this might be an ideal time for me to retreat for the purpose of discernment and renewal. I think he's right, but I'm honestly afraid. Afraid of what my temptations will be. Afraid of feeling alone or isolated. Afraid of becoming spiritually malnourished. Afraid of retreating from God rather than from the world.
There's a distance between the waters of baptism and the wilderness of discernment. It wasn't as if Jesus didn't have to walk for awhile before he reached the unknown. I have to wonder what that period of time was like for him... what it was like to know what he was about to do and why he was doing it? How did it feel? What did his conversations with God during that leg of the journey look like? Unfortunately, the scriptures don't tell us this part of the story. So we're left with more questions, but then again, aren't we always?
I've left my "baptism," and now find myself walking towards the wilderness. I don't know what it will look like. I'm walking there broken while praying for an increased sense of wholeness and restoration. I'm hoping for an Elijah moment in which I clearly hear God's voice in the silent whispering of the wind, or a Moses moment when I see God in the flames. I'm sure I won't get either of these... mine will probably something different, but I hope it will be there. I hope I leave the wilderness restored, feeling God's presence and direction more clearly. I hope I don't feel alone. I hope I enter the woods knowing I'm loved, and I leave them knowing that reality even more deeply. This is my prayer. I'm scared, and I don't honestly know why. I see the edge of the woods approaching, and suddenly I find my hands shaking, my heart racing, and tears welling up in my eyes. Something is about to change; my hope is that it will be a change for the better.
So apparently Monday has become my regular blogging day, probably because my blog has become a place to personally process my therapy sessions. While I'm not sure whether or not Blake would approve, being the kind of person who sees his own story best in the stories of others, I'll probably keep this habit up... at least until school resumes in September.
Needless to say, this past week has been hell. For a gay recovering-Baptist-turned-United-Methodist like me, the onslaught of the Great Poultry War (as I like to call it) mixed with some other personal happenings that I'll leave out made for an incredibly emotionally broken week. As someone caught in the tension between the Christian community and the gay community, this week ended with my feeling as if I'd been beaten to a bloody pulp.
Blake remarked that this summer has been an incredibly hard one for me. One would think that last summer would have been worse due to losing Nanny. However, last summer, rather than let myself feel the pain of my loss at its onset, I dove into outlining Wesley's sermons and consequently suppressed much of the pain that one often feels in the early stages of grieving. This year, my only weekly responsibility has been working on Tuesday and Friday mornings. With this much unstructured time (which several friends have criticized me for), it's not surprising that my emotions have been running rampant. As painful and exhausting as this has been, I've needed it.
Back to the chicken battles... my biggest challenge has not been whether or not to support my local CFA whose owner is a supporter of LGBT rights. It's not been about being angry with or hating Dan Cathy and the larger CFA company for their financial support of anti-marriage-equality groups, ex-gay organizations, reparative therapy techniques, deportation of queer people, and criminalization of homosexuality. It's not even been about the "Christians" lined up in droves to "support Chick-Fil-A's right to free speech." It's been about the underlying message that these realities represent.
People are right. Dan Cathy and those who share his beliefs have a civil right to speak their minds and use their money as they wish. People are also right in saying that those of us who disagree with him can speak our minds and refuse to give CFA and other like-minded companies/organizations our money. Again, this isn't what bothers me most.
When I see herds of people from across the country lined up to buy a chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and sweet tea, I don't visually hear the Gospel. Instead I hear this subtle voice filled with fear and anger saying, "God does not love you. God did not make you this way. You are not God's child, God's beloved. You are not loved. You are not valued. You have no worth. You, at your core, are something gone horribly and terribly wrong. You are weak. You are a stain on the surface of this world, and it would be better off if you did not exist. You call yourself a Christian... that's ridiculous. You don't know Christ. In fact, you disgust him along with the rest of us. Go. Leave. Disappear. Die."
That is what I hear, and while I'm usually able to hold my own and stand firm in my beliefs and wrestled-with conclusions about my worth, value, and orientation, the events of this past week ripped me to shreds. This is the curse of dealing with chronic depression and being an empathic gay follower of Christ. I not only felt the pain of my own past, but I felt fear and concern for all those who may have heard the same message without having the strength or awareness to recognize the lies and deception present. How many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people heard what I heard, felt what I felt, yet do not have the love and support in their lives to keep going? How many of them want to give up? How many of them truly believe that God hates them and will never accept them? It scares me to my core.
One image in particular really bothered me. I did a Google image search for Chick-Fil-A appreciation day and one of the first pictures to appear was of a school bus filled with what appeared to be middle and high school students smiling widely while holding their CFA bags and cups...
I couldn't help but fear that one or more of them was like I was when I was that age: scared, hurt, filled with self-loathing, unable to be true to themselves. I imagined one of them getting on that bus with their friends from their church youth group, having never told a soul their secret, but instead partaking in an event that devalued and diminished their self-worth like nothing before.
As much as I want to proclaim the mantra of "It gets better," it's times like these where I barely have the energy to hold onto the message for myself, much less put it out there for others. In the midst of all my struggles, revisited shame and guilt, seeing people I know reaffirm their disapproval not just of who I love but of who I am, I've also felt an outpouring of love from my partner, several of my friends, classmates, church members, and family. They've offered encouragement, affirmation, strength, and most important, their very presence. I am oh so tired right now, but despite the voices in my head telling me otherwise, I know, I know that I am loved for the fullness of who I am. I am doing everything I can to hold onto this truth.
Blake said once again this morning something that he's said on several occasions when I've been a place like I am right now; he reminded me that I've made it this far and that I have within me more love, strength, courage, and faith than he's ever seen before—enough to keep me going today, tomorrow, and the day after that... one day at a time. I'm glad I have him and others in my life who allow me to see myself through their eyes. I'm glad I have my memory of Nanny and her love for me. Mostly, I'm glad for the other voice in my head telling me, "You are my child, my beloved. I love you more than you could ever imagine, and you will be okay. Just hold on a little while longer. I'm not letting go... ever."
Recently , Frankie and I went to New York for our official honeymoon. A dear friend let us stay in his apartment just south of Central Park since he was on vacation from work and was going to be doing some traveling. We had a general sketch of everything that we were going to do during the time we were there. We probably stretched ourselves a little thin, but some things just had to be done. One of those was visiting Bethesda Fountain near the middle of Central Park.
My first memorable encounter with Bethesda was watching the movie, Angels in America, an HBO miniseries with a stacked cast based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Tony Kushner. Bethesda shows up in several key scenes in the movie, not to mention the opening credits. The end of the series brings together: Justin Kirk, an HIV-positive man, Prior Walter,who is living in the early 90's and the show's most prominent character; Belize, played by Jeffrey Wright, Prior's best friend and former drag queen compatriot; Louis, Prior's ex-boyfriend who ran off at the early onset of prior's HIV-related symptoms, played by Ben Shenkman; and Hannah Abbott, the conservative Mormon mother of a closeted gay lawyer , played by Meryl Streep. It's wintertime and the four are gathered around Bethesda for a picnic, talking about politics and change, bickering like old friends do, and Prior slips away to talk directly into the camera about Bethesda being his favorite spot in the whole of New York.
According to the quartet, the story about Bethesda goes kinda like this: during the time of the Second Temple, the angel Bethesda touched down in Jerusalem. From that spot, a fountain welled up, a fountain with healing properties. Anyone who bathed in this fountain was healed, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. When the Temple was destroyed, so was the fountain. However, when the Millennium comes—the thousand year reign of Christ on Earth—Bethesda will spring up again. Hannah, now close friends with this ragtag trio of gay men, promises that they will all bathe and be healed.
Seeing the movie, I was touched deeply by this pre-ending. Hell, the miniseries has grown to mean so much to me that I watch the entire six hours in one sitting at least once a year. This past January, I went to visit New York for the first time. Naturally, my first full day was spent in Central Park. It was cold, overcast, and I knew that Bethesda would not be running. I still had to see her. As I wound my way around roads and paths, I finally came upon the plaza that holds her. I couldn't help but cry. It had been just over six months since I'd lost Nanny, who I always talked about taking with me to see New York. Though she was not there in person, her spirit was palpable.
During my trip back with Frankie this time, I was determined to see her in her full splendor, surrounded by life. We took our time walking through the park, exploring parts I'd not seen and visiting parts that I had. I wanted to share Bethesda with Frankie. I wanted him to see her in person at the peak of her season. Neither of us was disappointed. We came upon the plaza, now filled with two different high school tourist groups that I refused to let ruin my encounter. When you're walking along Terrace Drive and hit the north end of the Mall, you can see her over the top of the veranda above the lower corridor. Wings spread and head tilted, she is glorious regardless of the season. In January, I'd seen her "sleeping." This time, she was vibrant and awake.
Although the true history behind Bethesda is that she was commissioned as an original installation in the park to represent those lost in the American Civil War, I still like Kushner's representation best. Bethesda symbolizes healing and wholeness. In a world riddled with brokenness like ours is, she is an ideal that sometimes seems distant, untouchable. Yet I imagine a time when the cycle of brokenness has been halted and is replaced by an age of grace, mercy, love, and redemption. A time when the powers that be, whatever you would call him, her, them, or it, see fit to catalyze creation's return, humanity's return, to its original state. It's a dream that I hold on to tightly. It's a hope that one day, my personal struggle with depression will no longer be paramount to my identity. Even more so, she stands as a call to those who want to be agents of change, healing, and transformation in the world. She's an image of love and protection, of remembrance, and of restoration.