Sunday, October 31, 2010

Duty and Delight

If you’re reading this right now, I hope your computer is near your front door and that you’re ready to answer when the next pod of children knock for Trick or Treat. If you’re a high Anglican church-going type, forget Evensong. It’s your civic duty to hand out candy tonight. It’s your spiritual obligation, whether or not you’re going out later as the Queen of the Night in a Sally Ann wedding dress dyed black for the occasion, or staying at home with a season of True Blood DVDs.

As my friend Elaine is fond of observing, it’s the only night of the year, in a time of rampant paranoia, that children get to be anything even close to loose on the street and walk up to the houses of neighbors and strangers in the expectation that something nice will happen. It’s one of your best shots for the next twelve months at reassuring them that the world can be a place full of fun, where the joy–and the scariness–of imagination and fantasy come to good. It’s your chance to instill delight, to give them permission to dream worlds into existence, to dream secret identities for themselves, a brief glimpse into a different way of walking in their skins.

And isn’t that, after all, why it’s the queerest holiday in the calendar? This is what we share in common with the children who stomp up to our doors as dragons and Spiderwomen and jellyfish and Ninja Turtles and vampires and (blech) Disney princesses: that with them, we long for a world where playfulness and the freedom to dream a different, more spontaneous life are safe and celebrated; where we can put off identities that oppress us, or that bore us, or that we love ninety per cent of the time, to try on, just for a while, something beautiful, or hideous, or silly, or unsettling; something rich and strange, as on an enchanted island full of sweet sounds and airs that give delight, and hurt not.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Packing Carefully

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve gone off to a retreat of one sort or another–Gay Spirit Visions’ fall conference in North Carolina, and then, this last weekend, to spend two days in silence with Jesuits an hour west of Toronto.

Leaving home for destinations that encourage mindfulness, I’ve found myself wanting to take along something tangible to help me lay claim to whatever space is mine for a few short days. Somehow, it feels all the more important to nurture a sense of my own spiritual history and identity as I go off to a place that offers the possibility of some transformation.

Never one to weigh myself down in travel by packing more than I need, I’m learning to think small about this as well. For years I’ve had a little zippered pouch of Guatemalan embroidery, about three by five inches, one of several I bought cheaply on impulse, the others long given away as the covering for some other small gift. This one sat on the bookshelf, gathering dust and fading in the sunlight, until it occurred to me that it could accommodate a few small objects, and that its size would discipline me to choose carefully. In it, I can fit a tiny Shiva lingam carved of black stone, given to me by a fellow participant in Body Electric’s Erotic Temple workshop a year and a half ago, who had it in turn from a young gay man who clung to him for two days in Varanasi; a mala I bought on the afternoon of Rathayatra in Toronto five or six summers ago; a Tibetan brass vajra; a tiny hinged icon that a friend found at the shrine of Julian of Norwich; a small roll of fresh prayer flags.

I have no settled practice involving any of these. Some days, I count 108 breaths with the beads of the mala as a meditation. Some mornings, I hold the vajra to my sixth chakra in aspiration for a balance of wisdom and compassion in my life. Very occasionally, I say a short prayer before the icon. Each calls up something about the last six or seven years of my inner life that I need to hold onto, in ways that aren’t always clear even to myself. The flags I usually leave behind, tied into the branches of trees, as a continuation of the prayers I’ve said in the place I’ve visited.

Unpacked, they all fit nicely onto the tiny altar cloth that the pouch becomes when it’s emptied. Arranging them, I have a chance to take stock of how the pieces of my life that they represent relate to one another in the moment. The next time I travel, or the next day, or two hours later, a different arrangement may reflect some changed understanding of who I am and how I relate to these stand-ins for my inner experience and story. Carrying them, I carry home–and a small, adaptable map of my soul–in the palm of my hand.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stand Up Homo

Collection of Hunter Reynolds
Copyright David Townsend 2007

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First Fold

Fifty-five years old, and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of folding an origami crane.

Every time it’s the same: the square folded over into a triangle, the triangle folded over again, and then the first magic reversal, one shape turned inside out into another. Finally, the moment when abstract geometry suddenly becomes, before the process is quite finished, the recognizably emerging image of a living thing.

Every time it’s different: the pattern and texture of this paper; the intransigence of this particular fold, born of some infinitesimal imprecision at an earlier step in the process. The head and neck not quite poised at the crisp angle I’d hoped for. Each crane individual after all, imbued with a personality just barely distinguishable from the last five I’ve made.

I've found it the ideal meditation in my more obsessively driven moments, when I’ve most needed, and been least able, to slow down. Years ago, I kept a stack of paper next to the phone, ready for the likelihood of being put on hold. Folding required nothing of me at all but immersion in the moment. Monkey-minded distraction, lulled in spite of itself by the multiple steps, came full circle to meet singularity of purpose. Periodically, a whole bowl heaped with paper birds called for some suitable disposal.

To offer a crane to a friend; to a stranger; to leave it for discovery by a passerby never even seen; to string scores of them from the branches of a tree in a public park; to scatter them across a beach in the light of early morning; to let the simple act of transforming a sheet of paper stand in for a more explicit and eloquent intention, when words are exhausted, or exhausting, or both; to let mute paper pray for you when you cannot; to invest it with a desire that the world should be full of simple but elegantly beautiful surprises: all these begin in the first fold.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Age Cafe

A friend and I had a few hours in the car together this last Sunday, driving back from a group retreat, to talk about our respective discontents–distinct, but overlapping–with eclectic raids into the spiritual traditions of others. Our experiences over the previous days gave us plenty of complicity to chew on: an ample smattering of Native American practices shared by a gathering of a hundred men, few of us of identified indigenous heritage; a soup of radical faerie and Wiccan rites, these not so directly subject to the charges of hijacking precisely because of their own elements of self-conscious modern synthesis; my own leading of a kiddush for Erev Shabbat despite my very tenuous second-hand Jewish credentials; African-inspired drumming around a fire lit by a bunch of mostly white guys; the symbols of various traditions displayed on the windows of the great room where we assembled: Islamic crescent moon, ankh, Star of David, pentagram, Buddhist lotus, the monogram of the Sanskrit mantra Aum.

In most of this, a studiously minimized direct appeal to the Christian tradition, overwhelming in its cultural familiarity, in which most of us were reared, in which some of us still abide, by which so many of us have been scarred, from whose toxic effect many others have fled in order to claim and defend their wholeness.

Neither of us embraces the melange without twinges of misgiving. My friend, a long-lapsed Episcopalian, has little patience with hollow formula from any source, having experienced a lot more outward sign than invisible grace in the liturgies of his childhood. Ritual queen though I am, my cerebral side sometimes balks at practices lifted out of the cultural contexts that first engendered them and gave them meaning, then set side by side like a bowl of badly made Thai red curry jostling bad sushi and bad enchiladas at a cheap buffet.

And yet for both of us, such gatherings as this weekend’s–filled as they are with the courage, thoughtfulness, and integrity of the men who’ve stepped out of the mainstream to attend them–remain a path forward to an authentic queer spiritual community as we find our way through the desert, knowing from long experience that no tradition any of us has inherited has served us well.

And so we borrow other traditions’ language, symbols, and gestures precisely because they’re imperfectly familiar. Their newness allows us to connect with what more domesticated words and actions can’t: because the rituals of our own heritage have become irretrievably shot through with the taint of oppression; because a tradition on whose threshold we stand as newly arrived guests becomes a site of our hope that we might find somewhere a place of greater freedom and fuller integrity ready to welcome us; because the strangeness of the Holy calls for an unfamiliar tongue.

Five years ago for the first time, I heard Krishna Das chanting kirtan. All I knew of Hinduism was what I remembered from a short unit in an undergraduate course thirty years earlier; nor had its theology held any intuitive appeal. And yet, at the call and response in praise of Lord Ram, my heart strangely alight, my arms raised, I could only say, “Oh–it’s You again.”

We don’t always get it right. We can place faith in misunderstood rites as though our comprehension didn’t really matter. We can develop a wishful, naive trust that over the rainbow lies some tradition free of all flaws, but especially the flaws of our own–such a naivete thrives best in the shallow soil of brief acquaintance and incomplete comprehension. We can kid ourselves that our self-congratulating enlightenment makes our own eclectic, inclusive path more authentic, less full of blindness, than someone else’s more traditional approach to God.

Or else we can come to recognize that every human approach to the Mystery is flawed, and we can fashion from the scraps we’ve borrowed a fabulous ritual drag for the ersatz banquet where the Divine and the ludicrously mismatched share a temporary address–knowing that a temporary address is all we ever have.