Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Shore of Safety

Just a few hours before the beginning of Passover, one day into Holy Week after Palm Sunday, this is my twofold prayer: that queer men find resources and sustenance in the religious traditions that shaped us in our early years—Jewish and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist—and also that we claim the power to demand erotic justice from those who speak for those traditions.

My prayer is that we hold those two realties of our spiritual histories together: that we call churches and bishops, synagogues and rabbis, mosques and imams, temples, monks and priests to account; and that we refuse to relinquish to our oppressors the treasures that rightfully belong to us.

The New York Times yesterday carried an extraordinary example of the courage and integrity we’re required to show in order to do both those things at once. Page 7 of the front section was entirely taken up by an open letter to Pope Francis from Carl Siciliano, the Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan, which serves homeless lgbtq youth. Siciliano writes as a Roman Catholic, a former monk, and a member of the Catholic Worker movement. His letter offers example after damning example, drawn from his experience as director of the Forney Center, of the suffering queer kids go through when religious bigotry trumps parental love and institutional benevolence. 

What gave the letter such power was Siciliano’s willingness to go on standing with one foot inside the tradition that shaped his own spiritual life, even as he bore witness to the damage that tradition has done. It was uncompromising in its indictment of the effects of religious bigotry. It was heartfelt in its appeal to values of compassion and love over dogma that Francis’s public statements have endorsed over the still-short period since his election as Pope.

And it was savvy. Its publication coincided with the commencement of the holiest week of the Christian liturgical year. Its appeal made sense in the context of what is and isn’t possible, at least for the moment, in the evolution of Roman Catholicism. It let go of Francis’s dubious record, as Archibshop of Buenos Aires, of vociferous opposition to same-sex marriage in Argentina. It made reference to the reform of doctrine around human sexuality, but it focused on the lived human effects of intolerance, much as Francis’s own pronouncements have done since his elevation. It was sponsored (and we’re talking the cost of a full-page ad in the Sunday Times) by the high-end funiture retailer Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, in a happy reminder that the use of private wealth actually can be genuinely benign.

We stand at a time of amazing possibility. Less than fifty years after most of us would have lost jobs, homes, and friends with the revelation of our sexual difference, at least some of us have the safe space to claim the integrity of our erotic and spiritual lives, and to advocate for those who still suffer the effects of homophobic injustice. We’re the ones who’ve made it to the far shore of the Red Sea. We’re called to look back, put out our hands, and  pull those behind us up the slope to safety.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for the Knock at the Door

When somebody talks about having a calling , how do you react?
Can you relate from your own experience of being drawn to a life choice by some force outside yourself? Do you feel a twinge of envy? Are you irritated at what sounds like pious, self-justifying twaddle? Is having a calling (or claiming to have a calling) the opposite of being unsure of where you're going in life? Is a calling something that assures you you've made the right choices, and now all you have to do is play them out?
Or could having a calling mean trusting you're where you're supposed to be right now and what the next step has to be, but not having a clue about what happens after that?
When I was taking Sacred Intimacy training, one of our teachers said that before every session--once we'd prepared the space of meeting and were simply waiting for the client's knock at the door--we ought to repeat to ourselves. "I know what I'm doing. I have no idea what I'm doing."
 I've come to believe that that moment of waiting for the knock is the essence of calling: not the reassurance that it will all unfold as it ought, much less that you're confident in what you're doing, but trust, in the face of uncertainty, that this is the right place to be, and that radical availability is the right way to meet the unknown Visitor. You expect the knock will come, but you don't know for sure. You don't know what to anticipate once the door opens, can't know the full depths of the person you'll greet in that moment (even if you've met many times before), can't predict the complex swirl of emotions, longings, and history that he'll share when he comes into the room. But you trust that you need to be where you are, and that meeting him is why you're there.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Polite Forms of Address

For better or worse, having only the briefest and most limited acquaintance with almost anything has never kept me from offering an opinion about it.

So why should I make an exception for the Thai language?

After just over a week in this country, I have a very unimpressive handful of functional phrases in Thai. I don't expect I'll manage to expand my repertory much further over the next days before heading back into the ongoing grip of the Canadian winter. "Hello," "Thank you," "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" go a long way in a place where kind smiles and palms pressed together in greeting, thanks, or farewell count for as much as they do here.

Partly, I'm daunted by the writing system, which though alphabetic seems to have more exceptions than straightforward rules: 44 consonantal letters to cover 21 sounds, silent letters to represent sounds that were pronounced in earlier versions of the language (think of the phonetic mess that is the "gh" combination in English), vowels that often, but not always, have to be represented by diacritical marks above or below the letter. Transliteration into the Roman alphabet doesn't help much. I've seen "Thank you" printed (and written out) as "kob khun krab," "karp kuhn krap," and "korp kun krab."

And then, oh, God, as in most East Asian languages--the tones. Low, middle, falling, high, and rising. Asking someone to demonstrate only makes me feel more moronic, when I fail to hear the distinctions they're so patiently trying to explain.

Language geek that I am, I'm as fascinated as I am stumped. Every road sign with a Roman transcription feels like a Rosetta Stone whizzing past at 120 km an hour, if I only had time and patience.

I promise I won't go on about this much longer, but here's the kicker: in the polite register of respectful speech, you end many statements with a particle denoting esteem for the person you're talking to. But unlike English "sir" or ma'am," the gender of these markers doesn't refer to the person addressed but to the speaker: "krap" and "ka," used by men and women respectively, either one spoken on the high tone at the top of the voice register--so if you're a man exchanging hellos with a woman, the easiest gaffe to make is to imitate the "ka" at the end of her phrase instead of substituting "krap." I expect Thais who deal with clueless visitors like me must make jokes about this all the time.

Soooo----if gender really is a social role that's handed to us to perform, here's a performance that the individual is required by social nicety to repeat dozens of times a day. Is my mistaken "ka" the linguistic equivalent of walking into the hotel lobby in genderfuck drag? If it is, it's taken in stride by the endlessly kind, polite people who've served me here.

More to the point, more importantly: what kind of space do "krap" and "ka" make for folks who need, or who choose, to renegotiate their gender? I'm thinking of the endless struggle trans people face in Western countries to get it through other people's heads what third-person gender markers they prefer should be used of them. (Justin Vivian Bond's insistence on "ve," is as playfully ingenious as it is serious, but I suspect it's not going to gain wide currency.) I'm thinking at the same time of the relative ease with which trans folks seem to find space in Thai society, like the taxi driver I met yesterday, the museum attendant who waited on me earlier in the week, the guide who took us on a bike tour out into the countryside south of Chiang Mai. I'm thinking what it would be like to use "krap" and/or "ka" to say, "This is who I am. For now, at least. Get used to it." Or for that matter, "Don't get too used to it. I may change my mind. Next year. Or tomorrow."

Monday, February 10, 2014

At the Cross-Quarter

We’re way past February 2 now: a cross-quarter between Solstice and Equinox; Groundhog Day; Candlemas; Imbolc. A week ago, in Toronto, locked deep in the most tenacious winter I remember since the early 1980’s, it was hard to visualize any promise of spring. The small shrine in the corner of my back garden lay long since buried, the Shiva Lingam’s sanctity sleeping under six inches of snow and marked only by memory, the small, bronze Buddha visible from the shoulders up. (Since then, he too has vanished.)

Today is a another, happier, story—bright with the intensity of light slanting down on us from a dramatically steeper mid-day angle, flowing with rivulets melting off snowbanks , the snow itself intensifying the sun. It’s a hit of what I’ve longed for since the first week of January: the signal that it’s safe finally to stick my nose out and sniff the air, that it’s not completely insane to imagine my shrine reappearing; or even green exploding around it, six weeks further along, from the tips of waking branches. Nine days after a conscientious Wiccan would have celebrated, I can finally believe that today marks the birth of a new season.

Maybe it's not a bad idea to apply this lesson to the experience of life as a queer man in the world today. If you pull the focus back from the relative freedom of middle-class gay life in a much of the West, we’re still in the grip of a long, cold winter. India has recriminalized homosexuality. Gay men in Nigeria are subject to brutal legalized thuggery. The regime in Russia deflects attention from its homophobic witch hunts with the mass hypnotism and overblown elitist waste of the Sochi Olympics. Closer to home, violence against trans men and women hardly even makes the mainstream news.

So to sustain ourselves, to keep hope for the future, to give ourselves courage to fight for a better world, and not to rest until we see it, we need to look for those first signs of a new season's birth: Canadian cities flying the rainbow flag for the duration of the Olympics, in protest against what Putin wants brushed under the rug till the rest of the world goes home; two members of Pussy Riot speaking out against the Russian regime at a press conference in New York; activists of the South Asian diaspora protesting against India’s step backward; African activists, heroically defying personal risk, preparing to attend a conference on queer human rights, along with their fellows from all over the world, as part of World Pride in Toronto this June.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Taking a Chance on the Elements

Planning to assemble for a group ritual under a tree in January in a New York City park is either a spiritual discipline in itself, or else it's just nuts.

The predictable options are: (a) bitter cold (b) freezing rain (c) rain and mud underfoot (d) temperatures above freezing with a chill wind off the Hudson (e) blizzard conditions (f) some conbination of the above or (g) a minimally comfortable afternoon that allows for forty-five minutes of standing and slow movement, before everyone starts edging toward hypothermia.
So if you attend, you witness the men with you in the circle starting to shiver as you progress through the ritual together. Fingers get numb as you tie threads around each other's wrists. The camphor flame in a small brass burner keeps blowing out in the wind, until you all huddle in closer to protect it, while you remember those absent and name them into the circle.
It's not exactly surprising that men who've expressed an initial interest in joining the practice might decide to take a pass till more temperate months.
But the weather is also a teacher. You learn that we don't stand apart from Nature but abide within her. You learn that we're not in control. You learn that not being in control is a gift, because you can't experience wonder when all you're getting is the outcome you planned. You learn to practice humility, in its original sense, of staying low to the ground, close to the humus.
When the focus of the ritual is a meditation on sacred sexuality, we're reminded that what we've gathered to honor is part and parcel of a Cosmos that includes sun and moon, heat and cold, stars and sky, wind and rain, thunder and lightning, birds overhead, squirrels scrabbling among last year's leaves, now fallen and sere, seedpods dropping from the branches of a sycamore, soil underfoot, and the slow, dark life of sleeping roots.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Cernunnos Litany for the Turn of the Year

I sit before this altar
in praise of the Horned One.
I light candle flame
in praise of the Horned One.
Before this altar I slip deeper into trance
in praise of the Horned One
hold the Lingam to my heart
in praise of the Horned One
as though gazing into a candle flame
in praise of the Horned One
begin to pass beyond the veil of speech
in praise of the Horned One
celebrating the power of pleasure to open the heart
in praise of the Horned One
affirming our animal mortality
in praise of the Horned One
teaching us humility before the power of Nature
in praise of the Horned One
recalling that beside the Great God abides the Great Goddess--
all praise to them both, together and apart--
Womb of Creation and token of Life Longing for Itself--
all praise to them both, together and apart--
flowing through the three worlds
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of this world, of ourselves and our brothers
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of our fathers now departed
in praise of the Horned One
the realm of our sons and of the heavens and of galaxies not yet born
in praise of the Horned One…

(Above, the "Strength" card from Stevee Postman's Cosmic Tribe Tarot: You'll find the full text of this meditation in the Ritual Resources bar to the right.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holy Insomnia

God decided to wake me up at 3:45 this morning.

The miserable cold I'm fighting had something to do with it. So did the pain in the wrist I somehow sprained yesterday afternoon doing, oh hell, what? Picking up a jug of laundry detergent from the wrong angle?
But (and this is more promising) I woke up thinking about a man I've been holding up to the Light the last few days.  We met a few months back and have had one face-to-face conversation since. It's not clear whether we're meant to spend more time together. I feel like I get some of what's going on in his life, can relate to it, perhaps have something useful to offer him through companionship, which I've suggested I'm open to. In the coming days or weeks, I'll hear back whether he feels the same. Clearly, I want to spend time with him and imagine I'll find a fulfillment in our exchanges as well--in the fit between our histories, the exploration of common ground, the discovery of new possibility.
Meanwhile, long before a cold December dawn, I have a choice to see the next couple of hours as the fitful end of a botched night's sleep, or else as an invitation to send him my focused good will for his well-being, healing, and growth--what a  Buddhist would maybe call the merit of my practice--while the cat settles in on my lap, then moves on, and I go downstairs to get a glass of water and open up the laptop.

Monday, November 25, 2013



Jaw slack, mouth open
in helpless awe, eyes gleaming
into unseen realms.
Across his shoulders,
chiaroscuro limns the edge
of the soul's bright dawn:
supple, turbulent,
a god blossoms into flesh,
life longing for life.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Prayer for Explorers


For the men who tonight in New York City have finished their first day of Celebrating the Body Erotic:
For the workshop instructor.
For the men who in sheer generosity are dedicating their weekend to assist him.
For men who have the courage to own their lives.
For men who have the courage to say yes to the wisdom of their bodies.
For men who have the courage to affirm desire.
For men who are willing to be seen.
For men who have the compassion to see others.
For men who open themselves to Surprise.
For their healing, their growth, their deep joy.
For the repair of the world.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hanging Out

I visited a friend earlier this week who's been in chronic care for about a year and a half, since a brain bleed left her dependent on others for just about everything. Much of last winter was pretty bleak. But on most visits, you could get at least a smile of recognition, the smile that made it easier to say, yes, that's her, the friend we love. But sometimes not much more than that; occasionally a few words, still available to her from a lifetime of habitually gracious kindness toward others.

Then there was the miracle of seeing her come out of the fog one day last spring, as we listened together to a CD she'd always loved. The further miracle of finding her, this fall, capable of full sentences, watching television with interest, drinking tea and eating a cookie without assistance. And on this last visit, engaging in a full conversation, with a few holes that the words she wanted just weren't there to fill.
It's an impossibly long shot that she'll improve enough to move into any sort of assisted living. There's not even any telling whether this dramatic improvement will last. Another cerebral hemorrhage--the last one was her third in ten years--could wipe it all out in an hour.
Hope isn't the point. What's ahead isn't the point. Last winter, a smile of recognition was the point. In the spring, the joy of listening to music together was the point.  This fall, sitting side by side watching excruciatingly bad reality TV was the point. This week, hearing her express her eagerness to leave for home, knowing she probably never will, and suggesting that next visit I should bring real food from outside, is the point. Next visit, letting go of all of it again may be the point.
That's the gift I receive from my friend. She helps me remember that what's fallen away isn't what creates love. What's fallen away doesn't jeopardize love. We're just hanging out together, in the shared experience of being in our bodies, being dependent on our bodies, experiencing an unpredictable fragility that's both the terror and the glory of being alive, and learning that somehow, love goes on snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.