Sunday, May 17, 2015

Like Rome

"RomaForoAugusto" by MM from it. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

I don't remember where it is that Freud says that the mind is like Rome. Or maybe that's not exactly the way he puts it. Maybe my memory is playing a trick: building something new on top of what's buried further down. (OK, Google settled this almost instantly: it's from Civilization and Its Discontents--but as far as I'm concerned, that's not only cheating, it short-circuits the fertile pleasures of not knowing for sure.)

Beneath the streets we travel, beneath the gardens we plant, beneath the houses we build: a past that may disappear beneath the surface but doesn't go away. The underground stream that rises up into a basement. The sinkhole that opens when the roof of a buried chamber collapses. The thud of stone against the shovel in the garden. The three columns that remain of an ancient temple, beside a six-lane thoroughfare. The amphitheater capped by apartments and TV antennae. The expressway that follows the route of a 2000-year-old road. That's what the complexity of our minds is like, Freud says.
Except that the state of our mind isn't just like Rome in the present moment: every period of its history is alive and vibrating in the here and now. As though the Rome of six-lane avenues and electric lines were also, simultaneously, the Rome of Caesar and Cicero, of the the Empire in decline, of the Renaissance Popes, of the Risorgimento, of Mussolini, of Fellini. You can buy holographic postcards in Rome of the principal ancient monuments and watch them oscillate back and forth, as you tilt them up and down, between a photograph of the ruins and a reconstruction of the buildings' original state.
That's a little more like our minds, in the complex indeterminacy of the relation between our conscious awareness and the unconscious or forgotten layers that complicate and enrich our experience. Except that our minds contain strata upon strata, not just two. Think of the times you've gone back to your family of origin and found that suddenly, once again, you're fifteen years old. Or six. Or ten. Or (perhaps happily, perhaps hellishly) all of the above.
St. Augustine likened our memory to an inexhausible storehouse. Julian of Norwich called our souls a noble city in the midst of which God's throne is set. Buddhist masters like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön talk about befriending our feelings and learning to care for them, rather than brushing them aside and neglecting them, or else projecting them outwards as though those around us bore responsibility for them. Among contemporary queer authors who get this, graphic novelist Allison Bechdel stands out at the moment for her two memoirs of her relationships with her father and mother, respectively: Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
Coming to know our own minds better, to wander around and descend through the complexity of those layers, is one of life's great adventures. The best practices of psychotherapy are driven by lively excitement to know ourselves, rather than by the misery that may have brought us to our shrink in the first place--by the desire to make friends with our unconscious, rather than trying to hunt it down and kill it. The best practices of mindful erotic self-awareness are also about lively curiosity and acceptance of who we are, and how we came to be who we are, as something wondrous and worthy of curiosity and respect, as well as celebration. Impatience, shame, and judgment are the adversaries of genuine insight and growth.
In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." It's the water that flows underground that sustains our gardens.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Beltane on the Boulevard

The plane trees
pruned so brutally six weeks ago
wake up late, these first days of May,
laugh, and shout,
"I win!"

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Slow Learner

It's only taken me
the better part of twenty years
to learn I have to let watercolour dry
before I add an overglaze.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Plum Village is a Buddhist meditation community in the Dordogne, an hour's train ride and then a short drive east of Bordeaux. It was founded thirty years ago by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher, poet, and peace activist who led the Buddhist delegation during the Paris Peace Talks during what Americans, when they don't just try to forget about it, call the Viet Nam War, and the Vietnamese call the American War. (As far as I can see, it's the Vietnamese who have the right to name it: it was their country, after all, that the United States wantonly ravaged and then left unreconstructed, as though we bear no ongoing responsibility for the enduring damage we did to bodies, minds, souls, and communities.) The Americans, the North Vietnamese delegation, and the Viet Cong all held him in suspicion. He was a close friend of Thomas Merton and of Daniel Berrigan.
The monks and nuns live in a cluster of discrete hamlets mostly within easy walking distance of one another, along roads that thread between rolling hills and vinyards. They welcome the steady stream of guests who come on retreat, mostly for a week or two, occasionally for longer. Thay ("Teacher") lives in a hermitage, cared for by rotating teams of monks as he recovers from a stroke last November. His spirit is everywhere in the community, with its gentle, open approach to Buddhist practice and meditation reinterpreted for the modern world, for the West, and for dialogue with other faith traditions. One of Thay's most beautiful books is Living Buddha, Living Christ, a collection of dharma talks he gave during the Christmas season--a major annual celebration at Plum Village.
I was fortunate and blessed to spend  last week there. Early this last Friday afternoon, seven of us stepped off a local train into the bustle of the Bordeaux train station , then crossed the square to a cafe where another contingent of our new Dharma friends had already found a table for lunch. We all smiled like idiots at total strangers--which in my limited experience is even further outside the norm in France than in New York. Our newly acquired habit of bowing to each other with palms pressed together put us right off the chart.
There's good money on many of us never seeing each other again. That doesn't stop me already fantasizing about a visit to London or Dublin, Paris or Amsterdam to see one or several of the people I fell so completely in love with over seven days of sitting together in the meditation hall before dawn, getting to know each other on walks together, in sharing circles, or chatting during periods of the day when, truth to tell, we should have been more conscientiously practicing Noble Silence. The longing to hold onto the connections is maybe itself a slippage from the equanimity that meditation practice is supposed to instill--the Right Thinking that knows everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever--and that we are all part of one another now, even if we don't meet again.
We were all already in the heady first stage of reentry--the hours and days when we find ourselves back in a world where you don't get constant encouragement to breathe and smile, to walk slowly, to eat silently; where instead you decide what you want for dinner and go after it, rather than accepting whatever you find in front of you--providing most of the food isn't already gone when you get to the head of the line; where a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or meat on your pizza is again thinkable--each in flagrant violation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings; where you look at your watch and hustle to get to the market for tonight's fish before it shuts down. Walking home along busy Friday night streets in Aix en Provence at the end of my long train trip back across France, I could have been strolling through The Matrix. Today I feel a slight undertow of anxiety that the joy I experienced so much of last week may slip away and leave me wondering, "What was that?
Part of that anxiety involves my own ambivalence. On the one hand, I remember the joy of waking up to the flavor of every noodle in my half-full bowl , after I got to the front of the lunch line to find the serving dishes all but cleaned out.  I remember the bliss of being greeted by a cat on a path early in the morning, and deciding the most important thing in the world was to sit down on the spot and invite her to settle into my lap for a nap: it was the cat who calmed my Monkey Mind enough that I could simply sit, as she was sitting. Not least, I remember  the deep, unproblematic affection I shared with the straight men with whom I developed friendships.
But on the other, I'm aware of my resistance. The bustle of busy streets  Friday night felt like a beautiful expression of human energy to be treasured, not like a departure from the path. I've come to accept over the years that my tendency to flow from one object of attention to another isn't necessarily something for me to constrain; sometimes it's a way of embracing the freedom to play and recreate in the presence of the Sacred, an impulse close to my core nature, not a departure from my true self. (Hence my experience that having a cat in my lap for fifteen minutes is more likely to lead me toward Beginner's Mind than simply sitting facing the wall. I remain a devotee of Distraction by Shiny Objects Meditation.)
And then there's sex. In the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmitted at Plum Village, and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings that are a more advanced expansion of the precepts, I find it striking that the Training titled "True Love" expresses a deep suspicion of  erotic engagement, a sense that sex is a mostly negative force that drives us farther from enlightenment. The best that can be said about it is that in a committed long-term relationship between laypersons, it's allowed, but hardly a source of positive value or spiritual growth. Rather, its destructive potential is simply mitigated when it's kept carefully channelled. I find it especially striking that the last of the Fourteen Trainings devotes so much space to sex, carefully and extensively hedging around its pitfalls. I'm reminded of Christian approaches that so often begin with a canard about sexuality as sacred gift, and then move straight into reshearsals of ethical danger.
(I'm reminded by contrast of Mark Epstein's wonderful book Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught, where Epstein thoughfully and accessibly explores what Buddhism has called "the left-handed path" of erotic engagement as an awareness practice, a means of learning to immerse oneself fully in life without clinging.)
Then again: maybe my misgivings are themselves the product of Too Much Thinking, as I imagine Thay would be quick to say. The Dharma isn't a doctrine, it's a practice. After a week of sitting to face the wall every morning before dawn; of eating mindfully, focusing on the food, on all that went into its production, and on the companions at my side; of walking slowly and feeling the earth come up to support my next footstep, I've changed, just a little. My partner Jonathan and I yesterday morning had the best sex we've had in months: playful, uncomplicated, passionate, immersed in the moment, unhindered by fantasies of What I'd Really Like to Do.
Yesterday afternoon, we walked to the top of Mt Ste-Victoire, outside of Aix. I'm irrationally fearful of heights. The peripheral awareness of space dropping away around me freaks me right out, even when the path is wide enough that I could fall flat without going over the edge. As we got to the last stage and the switchbacks began, my anxiety rose.
And then I started talking to Monkey Mind, addressing him as an old friend, telling him to stop jumping around and settle down for a little while. I thought, maybe I can be the Buddha just for a minute or so. And something clicked.  I began simply to breathe, and smile, and put one foot in front of the other, and the last five minutes of the trek to the top opened out into pleasure and adventure.
At the top of the mountain, there's a little priory built in the seventeenth century for a handful of monks, now used both as a pilgrimage chapel and a cultural center. The courtyard was full of people. A hiking club started singing together after their lunch. Somebody had hauled a viola da gamba up the mountain and gave a short recital in the chapel. A group of Japanese tourists posed for pictures with an 84-year-old woman in traditional Provençal dress and hiking boots. They were all having the time of their lives. A lovely woman in her sixties started chatting with me, with exquisite patience for my terrible French. From the parapet, I could look down about a thousand feet toward the massif to which we'd walked the week before from the other side of the mountain. It felt like the whole world was singing Vivaldi's Gloria.
On the way back down, my old friend anxiety sat quietly while I breathed into my next footstep and said to myself, as the monks encouraged us to do all last week, "I've arrived. I'm home. In the Here and Now."

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


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."