Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Metropolis

Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a downtown shopping errand, I turned at the greeting of a friend and her daughter. A few minutes later, as our unexpected encounter ended, my day felt transformed.

Blanche is my long-time colleague at work. She also lives just a few blocks down the street.  An immigrant from France whose family made their way in the course of two generations from North Africa to Provence to Paris to Montreal, she's gloriously, charmingly, elegantly Gallic. Her adopted daughter Julie was born in Viet Nam. She's an eight-year-old vortex of compact energy, Khmer by her looks, as French by nurture as her mother, trilingual in French, English, and the Dutch of her adoptive father Gerrit, and now learning some Vietnamese into the bargain from the woman who looks after her late afternoons. Sometimes I look out my second-floor window to see them heading home on a bicycle fitted out with a tandem extension for Julie.

Our conversation was hardly remarkable--a brief exchange of the day's events, my suggestion of a DVD together that evening (not possible for them), her countersuggestion to join them for their Sunday morning ritual of breakfast at a locavore hangout at the end of the street (possible for all of us). My intense pleasure in the meeting lay in the surprise of it: it came as pure gift and nothing any of us had bargained on, sparking our shared desire to make spur-of-moment plans. I walked away with a renewed sense that I belong in the world, and in this city. Not because of what I choose for myself in isolation, but because of who I'm invited to become in the presence of others.
It happens not only in chance encounters with friends. A week ago, I cycled up the steep hill north of my house to one of the most vibrant farmers' markets in the city, held in a set of repurposed barns that originally housed streetcars during repairs. The two guys in their late fifties who run the stall with the best-priced late winter vegetables were as usual putting as much time into shmoozing as waiting efficiently on customers in line.  The Adrian Brody  look-alike in the beret who plays French-style accordion at the end of the main aisle didn't show. Sometimes I run into people I know; sometimes not.
This is the gift of life in a city, or at least of life in cities worthy of the name: for all the alienation of modern capitalism, human beings, given the chance, find each other and are capable of taking pleasure in the simple facts of shared existence. But letting it happen requires that we prize randomness as a value, instead of organizing our lives to get just what we want and only what we want. We need to be surprised in order to be delighted, and need to be delighted in order to dedicate ourselves to strengthening the web of connections in which we're held. Vibrant cities are set up in ways that throw us together rather than keeping us in our own isolated grooves. Jane Jacobs taught us this fifty years ago, infuriating the city-planning moguls who cared only for efficiency, and for bigger and better expressways driven like stakes through the heart of neighbourhoods.
It's a cliche of urban regeneration over the last forty years or so that it was gay men who moved into decayed neighbourhoods, restored the houses, opened the local shops. There's a danger in romanticizing and idealizing that process. Others with more cash followed, turning less sweat into more equity as real estate values took off. The process of gentrification that often began with those gay urban pioneeers in the 1970's has had its dark side, rendering areas unaffordable to low-income populations that had called them home.
But the transformative potential of what they did lay in this: that they often espoused a model of urban life that valued public affinity and interconnectedness over private values of ownership and blood relations. Gay men don't and never have had a monopoly on the communal values of urban life. Arguably, gay life in the age of the internet has retreated from these values: Grindr has become as effective at keeping us from being surprised as a suburban shopping mall; the ubiquitous focus on marriage rights has nudged us out of the streets and back onto the couch in front of the TV. But in living memory, our circumstances have often put us in the position of living lives enriched most deeply by connections that haven't come automatically through the ties of biological family or a single-minded drive to couple up. That's a heritage of queer urban experience that's worth embracing consciously as a path through life, affirming that the cities which nurture us are indeed the metropolis--the mother of us all.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Heart Circle

Two days ago, I made my way home from the Breitenbush Winter Faerie Gathering. I'm grateful that the long trek from the West Coast back to still-frozen Toronto gave me a whole day to decompress. I needed eleven hours and a bus, a tram, two flights, and a cab to transition back into a world where queer men don't sit together for two and a half hours every morning to speak their truth to one another without fear of judgment. 

I'm mostly content with sweet, rich memories of what I experienced in the company of 150 loving, miraculously openhearted fae spirits three hours southeast of Portland: the languorous hot-spring soaks under stars I haven't seen blaze so brightly in years; the river's endless rush below the camp; a steady stream of affectionate touch in passing from men most of whom I'd only just met, in the dining hall, on paths, in crowded hallways; delicious surges of infatuation, half a dozen times a day; the mindbending fabulosity of the Saturday night talent show; dozens of brothers gathered around a bonfire breaking spontaneously into a chant invoking the Goddess. 

But as for the Heart Circle, memory doesn't feel like enough this morning. I find myself longing to sit daily among companions who weave a safe, sacred container for one another, to go on living among those unafraid to access the soft, tender vulnerability that is the working of an enlightened heart, as Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön reminds us. I want this as an ongoing practice in my life. 

When you sit to listen deeply--without cross-talk, without comment--to the grief, the longings, the pain, and the aspirations your companions share, your own heart opens in response. You find yourself awakened from your superficial projections when the man you've spent two days fantasizing about across a crowded room voices the loss he's suffered; you rejoice to witness the passion for justice that animates the next man who speaks. You speak in turn in safety. Your soul begins to mend. In some small but infinitely precious way, the world begins to mend. And you become part of its mending. 

Just a few hours after I landed back in a world where such things don't happen every morning, I went yesterday noon to an Ash Wednesday Eucharist. There was much talk of turning again toward the Source of our being, of reconnecting with the goodness of who we were created to be. But Lent, for me, remains the most toxic and problematic season of the Christian liturgical year. I still hear too much self-loathing in the ancient formulas of penitence, too much individualistic obsession with getting it right and with how we've gotten it wrong. Some years I say, only half as a joke, that I plan to give up church for Lent. What I want instead as a Lenten practice this year is forty days of heart circles.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Seen and Unseen

On the same granola hipster corner in Portland as last night,
the thin bearded boy seated on the sidewalk next to his dog,
diffident, not quite meeting your gaze.

His sign speaks for him:
"Namaste. Remember that you are loved and beautiful."

His surprise at being addressed;
his startled pressing of palm to palm as he bows from the waist.

His longing to reach out.

His fear of reaching out.

The story of his life that you don't know,
because instead of asking if you could sit with him,
you gave him a dollar and walked on.

His vulnerability.

His holiness.


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)