Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Not a Clue

It's beyond me to comprehend fully what was happening while I lay on a futon for two blissed-out hours Sunday afternoon. If you're lucky enough--actually, make that blessed enough--to know a really gifted masseur, you'll have some idea of what I'm going to try to express.

I could try to tell you about the unholy mass of tension in my neck and back that I brought with me to the session, or to describe how it gradually melted away during the generous hour I spent face down, before George invited me to roll over.  I could try to assemble some kind of connected narrative description out of the raw material of my experience. But  the words would just disappear into the gulf between language and the body's deep wisdom.
Have you ever received touch that itself awakens you to how deeply you needed it? Has gratitude ever welled up directly out of the knot in your shoulder, bypassing your head more or less entirely? Have you ever lost track of how the arm that's being gently extended is connected to the hip that is also somehow, in the same moment, being  encouraged into repose by firm contact with another body?

Have you ever found yourself wondering, how can he possibly be doing this, and that, at the same time? Is he kneeling at my head right now? Or at my left side? Or standing over me with his legs astride my hips? Is that his hand on my sacrum, or his foot? His thumb applying pressure, or his elbow? And have you finally said, to hell with trying to figure it out: it just is?
Breathing deeply, eyes closed, the body isn't so much a unified whole as it is a field of possibilities. The body of your masseur isn't so much an object of attention as a mystery that inspires wonder and thankfulness. Especially if you both turn off the flow of words more or less completely.
How much is that briefly non-verbal state like a return to what we knew as infants--or for most all of us, more accurately, to an idealized version of what we wish it had been like for us as infants?  Those hours on the table or the mat are still informed by all that we didn't get in those first months of life, as by all that we've become in the long years since we first looked in a mirror as young children and misrecognized our unified, all-in-one-piece reflections as ourselves. What we experience isn't so much a return, then, as a reparation.
At the end of two hours, I found a hand laid to my chest , an arm slid gently, easily, surely around my shoulders--no state-accredited, licensed and certified experience, this--and a voice repeating softly in my ear, "I've got you. I've got you."
What if we took such experiences as a parable in the quest to understand our encounters with God--not as the object of our thought, but as the One whose touch mysteriously loosens what's blocked within us and in the world, unpredictably delights what hungers for loving attention, and unwaveringly cradles what thirsts for reassurance?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Angels Ascending and Descending

I didn't make it to Midnight Mass this Christmas Eve, nor to a service on Christmas morning. The weather, my energy level, the crush of social obligations all factored in.

But the day after Christmas, I accompanied a friend to the chapel at the long-term care facility where she lives. She's a remarkable woman--a member of a well-known and very wealthy English family who as a young woman immigrated to Canada to work as a nurse,  founded a non-profit organization in support of children living with HIV/AIDS and their families, and came out as a lesbian in her late fifties after the collapse of her marriage. Two and a half years ago, a brain bleed left her incapable of walking or stringing together more than a sentence or two, on a good day.
At the service, I was the only congregant out of fifteen who didn't arrive in a wheelchair. It wasn't the Christmas Mass I might have bargained on. But it was a remarkable lesson in what it really means to believe that we find God in our flesh. The celebrant kept an eye on people who were drifting off, gently encouraging them to focus on the service, helping them to find their place in the hymn book.
In Genesis 28, when Jacob has his vision of God's angels on a ladder, they ascend and descend, not the other way around. They go from earth up to heaven before they descend from heaven to earth.
It's the ground-level, utterly physical conditions of our lives that enable and nurture our spiritual awareness. Angels don't start by coming down the ladder from heaven to meet us. They begin by ascending the ladder from earth to heaven.  We meet the Divine in and through our bodies. Our bodies aren't a distraction from the search for God, or God's search for us. They're the ladder without which angels go nowhere.
We experience the Sacred in the only bodies we have. We often need a reminder, like the one I received last Friday, that this is true amidst weakness, infirmity, sickness. But I'm not so sure we don't need to hear that message amidst strength, vigor, and health, as well. Legs that run, arms that lift, eyes with clear vision, rib cages that expand and contract with our breath, hearts that pump reliably: it's easy not to notice them, easy not to practice mindfulness. It's gratitude that reveals them as ongoing miracles.
If that's true of limbs and lungs and hearts, it's true as well of the possibilities of pleasure: as men, experiencing our life in and through male bodies--the only bodies we have--our erotic desire is a powerful bridge between flesh and spirit, a uniquely intense locus of our embodiment, the place where we experience that, as Tony Kushner put it in Angels in America, "the body is the garden of the soul."
It's gratitude that turns eros into prayer, a gateway through which we pass to become the angels of Jacob's vision, ascending the ladder from earth to heaven,  if only we allow pleasure to open our hearts rather than close them off. This is true when you're alone, falling into the miracle of the pleasure you're capable of giving yourself. It's true when you're with a partner or partners, becoming for another the angel who in your ascent extends a hand to draw him up from below, becoming the one who takes a hand offered from above , for the healing of yours souls. And then descending more deeply into the world of all flesh, which longs for and stands in desperate need of repair.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homage at Midnight

 
Provenance unknown; shared by Hoppergrass.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Wisdom of Darkness

You might not expect to find deep wisdom for these sacred nights on the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times. But here it is:

In his column there this morning, Clark Strand wrote:

"In times past people took to their beds at nightfall, but not merely to sleep. They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life....
"We need a rest from ourselves that only a night like the winter solstice can give us. And the earth, too, needs that rest. The only thing I can hope for is that, if we won’t come to our senses and search for the darkness, on nights like these, the darkness will come looking for us."
 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

As Solstice Approaches

...look for the light. Look for the magic.




 
 
 
(Photo by Drew)
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rooted

What happens when you embrace a tree?

If "tree hugger" is too much a phrase of mockery for you ever to have done it, you should give it a try. Ideally, find one that's been alive longer than you have; one that wasn't planted by human hands.
You have to meet the tree. You have to get out of your head. You have to understand that the tree has its own life beyond your experience of it.
You have to visualize what lies beneath your feet. You have to remind yourself that the trunk your chest and cheek are pressed against are not its base, but its midsection. That the roots visible at your feet only hint at its hidden life, which reaches down and spreads out as far into the earth as the branches over your head. That half its being is an unseen tangle you can only vaguely begin to imagine, another world you cannot visit.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Balancing Act

I work in a building on one of the busiest commercial corners in mid-town Toronto. Starting in my block and heading east, luxury retailers have stacked up the last few years thick as cockroaches: Louis Vuitton next to Tiffany next to Coach, and so on down the block; Cartier is across the street. To the west there's a different mix: a sequence of public institutions and university buildings south of the street, on the north side toney new condos and a posh hotel, punctuated by relatively downmarket eateries left over from thirty years ago. Between the museum and the Royal Conservatory of Music lies a surviving ribbon of a greener Victorian Toronto: Philosopher's Walk, following the dale of a creek that now flows invisibly through a subterranean culvert. An Edwardian stone and wrought iron gate bows away from the sidewalk, creating a little eddy out of the main pedestrian flow, an invitation into the tranquillity of the the footpath leading south, away from the traffic and bling.

One afternoon about two weeks ago, a man knelt beside the gate, a random selection of stones at his side. Before him, more stones rose as he'd left them balanced, in columns of three or four. A field of focused energy radiated around him. At its centre lay only his union with the work of creating  equipoise and stillness.
There was no question of our pulling him out of his task. Instead, he drew us in. I misread him at first, emptying the spare change from my pocket into the satchel he'd set to one side, before it sank in that his practice had nothing to do with solliciting money, on a street where half a dozen people a day ask me for a handout. Or perhaps: that if it did, the heart of his enterprise lay securely beyond any expectation of the donations he might take in. It existed for itself. It was pure gift. As I dropped my few coins into his bag, he said while making eye contact only a moment, "I love you," and went back to the work of finding the still point hidden in the heart of the jagged, angular rock he was holding almost motionless over the one beneath it.
Later that day, he'd gone; the stones remained.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Total Immersion

 
(Provenance unknown; shared by Hoppergrass)
 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Right of Return

Saturday afternoon: as the sun prepares to set on this Day of Atonement in the Jewish year 5775, those of us who attend the final service of Ne'ilah will meditate one last time on the New Year call to t'shuvah--"repentence," but more literally, "return": return to our original natures in their divinely ordained goodness. The repentance of the High Holidays doesn't grovel in self-loathing. Instead, it points toward the ways human nature is meant to do better and is capable of doing better. Which is why I go back, year after year, gentile in a Jewish congregation that I am. I find there an invitation (one I never answer fully) to be the best of myself. For me, that call often gets lost in my own Christian tradition, especially in the pieties of Lent, tinged with self-loathing as they still all too frequently remain.

The sober self-assessment this day invites us to exercise is grounded in the fundamental goodness of who we are at our core, of who we were made to be. That core includes the discovery, the rediscovery, and the living out of our authentic sexuality and gender identification. Our core embraces the force for good, in ourselves and in the world, that acting on the truth of our sexual being can be.
T'shuvah calls you to repair the self, not to deny the self or to turn it into some other self. T'shuvah calls you to show kindness and respect; to embrace your own capacity for desire and pleasure as miracles to which the proper response is gratitude and celebration, within yourself and in erotic communion with others. It calls you not to shame others; not to belittle them; not to evaluate and use them as objects.
It calls us to affirm the best of who we are and to resist everything, both inside and outside ourselves, that denies our right to return to the truth of our queer souls.
That scrutiny of who we are at our core surely also includes a close look at the complex, often painful heritage of our early religious upbringings. The impulse to walk away from traditions that served us badly is strong. Sometimes walking away from a spiritually abusive heritage is the healthiest thing queer men can possibly do.
But I know from my own experience that the alienated rage I felt for so long towards the Lutheran tradition of my childhood and youth screened a deep pain--the pain I felt at losing the riches it held along with the abuse it doled out. For me, t'shuvah--return--has meant finding a way back to embrace again what  fed my soul as a child and as a young man. My own queer t'shuvah eventually meant claiming my right to return to religious language and symbols that from my early childhood on were woven into the truth of my soul.

My path of return is all the more queer because it wanders on its course through rich traditions not my own--and guided, this day and this evening, by the sound of the shofar in the wilderness.
 
(Photo by the late Oscar Wolfman.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

This Time for Durga


When Mahishasura, the demon water buffalo, threatened to destroy the world, the gods combined their individuals powers in order to effect the creation of a Goddess who could defeat him, as they could not.
Thus was Durga born. She rides a lion. In her ten hands she holds the weapons contributed to her power, her Shakti, by the gods who brought her into being. She is the restorer of cosmic order. Supremely beautiful, she is also powerful in battle beyond all withstanding, destroying the forces that threaten to overwhelm Creation.
Now, if ever, the Earth needs her.
The ice caps melt. Lake Erie chokes on toxic algae nourished by the runoff of chemical fertilizers from factory farms. Countless millions of animals live lives of uninterrupted misery to maximize the profits of corporations and to satsify our desire for cheap meat, eggs, and dairy. The rain forests of the Amazon are clearcut. The boreal forests of northern Alberta are destroyed and the groundwater contaminated to produce the dirtiest oil in the world. Cancer rates rise as our bodies absorb more and more poisons. We choke on the fumes of the cars we insist on driving, the planes we keep on boarding.
These are the forces of chaos over which no one of us can triumph. In dwelling on our sense of individual powerlessness lies despair.
On Sunday, September 21, thousands will gather in New York City, at the beginning of  a climate summit at the UN, to stand for the Earth against the forces of shortsightedness, greed, and indifference, and to demand action in the face of the mounting effects of global warming. Demonstrators will gather along Central Park West and the march will begin at 11.30 from Columbus Circle.
Patriarchy, in its delusional attempt to subdue and control Nature, has fucked over the Earth. The desire to dominate the planet, the desire to dominate women, the desire to eradicate queer desire among men--these are the poisonous fruits of a lust for domination, of the denial that men, in our mortal bodies, are the sons of Nature, not Her masters.
It is time for Durga to appear. It is time for us to contribute our powers to her manifestation. It is time for us to become the lion on which she rides into battle. It is time for us to become the weapons of cosmic righteousness that she holds in her hands.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Holy and Perishable

For over six years, my altar's been falling apart.

It was a ruin when I first adopted it--a 60's-style backyard brick hearth, long disused, cracks already opening in the mortar. I swept it clean and filled it with votive candles and incense the night of Summer Solstice. My neighbours have year after year remained quietly tolerant that every morning I ring a bell and kneel in front of an eyesore fifteen feet from their kitchen window.
Every summer, I've removed objects and added others, as I do to the indoor altar that becomes the focus of my practice September through May. This year, I've included no Christian symbolism, though every day I begin by crossing myself and reciting the formulas traditional to the monastic morning prayer of Lauds. Red, white, yellow, and black stones for the four directions surround a small Shiva Lingam. Behind that sits a small, corroded bronze Indonesian Buddha, missing an arm and part of its chest--a reminder of the transience of all things, including our understanding of the Friend who makes our lives possible and gives them meaning.
Tibetan Buddhist monks proclaim this lesson of transience by spending weeks constructing mandalas of coloured sand--which they then sweep back into chaos and pour into moving water.
The collapse of my repurposed shrine continues. Yesterday morning as I knelt,  a cluster of bricks had skewed loose from the wall, wobbling under my touch. They're going nowhere for the moment, but the frosts and thaws of the coming winter will take their toll. The floor of the main chamber is already one course shorter than when I first consecrated it. The lower chamber, once the firepit, holds a compost of undisturbed garden detritus dedicated to the Goddess's endless cycle of generation, decay, and rebirth. Eventually, everything above that I've prayed over and venerated will collapse into it.
When it does, I will take it as an invitation to give thanks for the lesson and to look for the Sacred in another corner of the garden.