Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Thaw

If there’s anything more pleasurable than making it into New York City just under the wire before a massive blizzard, it’s being snowed safely into New York on arrival. If anything is more pleasurable than getting snowed into New York, it’s watching the city dig out in bright afternoon sun two days later, the runoff sheeting down the facades of buildings and over shop awnings like an endless cascade of diamonds, the resilience and toughened joy that’s the birthright of New Yorkers pulsing at every intersection on the Upper West Side.

If anything is more pleasurable than watching New York dig out, it’s making the trip up Amsterdam Avenue to look at Keith Haring’s 1990 altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I don’t share the love of many for the building. It’s a hulking barn, utterly out of human scale, the jumped-up emulation of medieval Europe that you’d expect of New York’s Episcopalian plutocracy in the Gilded Age of industrial rape and pillage. If you’re butch enough, you could pass a football down the length of the choir. From the back of the nave, you need binoculars to see the celebrant at the altar. But it’s home to a remarkable, welcoming community and the repository of vast treasures–-cultural, social, and human--Haring’s altarpiece being for me among its greatest.

Deeply incised in the triptych’s luminous matte surface, you can spot Haring’s unmistakable compositional vocabulary down the length of the dimly lit chapel where it stands. Spanning the lower third of all three panels, a tangle of figures gyrate over what can only be the dance floor of a crowded downtown club. Above them, angels hover in the side panels--one taking a dive to the viewer’s left. At center, an impossible multi-limbed composite figure pulsates, an enfant cradled in its two lowest arms below a heart radiating energy and a cross superimposed over this loopy Trinity’s head. Oversize droplets rain down from this figure on the dancers below. To one side, the sun bursts out over the crowd. (The artist made a second version of the altarpiece for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.)

Haring would die of AIDS just after he completed this last sculptural piece of his brief, joyous career, a fag saint whose faith in life never failed, for whom loving, celebratory promiscuity was a path to the community of the beloved; whose playfulness in everything he touched was itself his prayer; whose littering of New York’s streets and subways with random acts of whimsical delight and incitements to hope was his expression of love. Seeing his triptych, here in this glacial yet vastly inclusive cavern of a building, is the best New Year’s thaw of all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

On the Eve of Nativity: Shekinah

What fires our devotion to either masculine or feminine aspects of the Divine–in Its intrinsic nature, Its relation to the world, Its presence enthroned in our souls? Why does such imagery feel so essential at one stage of the journey, then less so at another? And how does all this relate to the sexual identities of queer men?

The very traditional crucifix I bought when I was twenty-one was gaunt and Germanic. It freaked out more than one of my best friends–and especially those with strong feminist commitments. Jesus wasn’t just undeniably dead, but undeniably male, and I was hardly the first conflicted gay youth who needed the dying Christ as the one lean, naked man he could adore without enduring a toxic amalgam of crushing shame and guilt. I certainly won't be the last. Eventually the crucifix came down off the wall when I fled Christianity entirely for fifteen years. When that long sabbatical was over, my pieties had shifted.

Still, I needed to find room within the life of God for my own embodiment–for what was unmistakably transcendent and sacred in my erotic experience; for what was undeniably erotic in my devotion. By dwelling on the gender and sexuality of Jesus, as resolutely as mainstream Christian religiosity works to strip him at least of the latter, if not always the former, I staked an essential claim to my wholeness as a sexual being with a spiritual life and a spiritual being with a sexual life. St. John of the Cross, riffing on the Song of Songs with a homoeroticism that hid in plain sight, gave voice to the roiling welter of my longings. Theodore Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), opened for me a vision of queer men’s marginalized experience enshrined at the heart of the Christian tradition–as did Terence McNally’s sometimes maligned but courageous and moving play, Corpus Christi.

And then–something shifted. Profoundly. Slowly. Starting with a day given over entirely to imagery of the Goddess at the Body Electric School’s Erotic Temple retreat. In digging deeper into Julian of Norwich’s vision of God as both Father and Mother. In building an outdoor altar that turned out to be disastrously and arrogantly incomplete in its failure to honor God’s feminine aspect in the world. In praying for Luke, a friend’s grandson born dangerously premature: I knew nothing better that I could ask on his behalf, but that God’s Shekinah–her Presence–would enfold him as the womb he still so desperately needed in order to survive--and realizing that, when all was said and done, Luke and I were in the same boat. Finally, in my spiritual director's encouragement to meditate on Jesus’s own experience of Advent–the whole of which he spent in amniotic fluid.

The shift has been, and continues to be, a wondrous discovery. After years of needing an image of God in which I could recognize myself in order find validation, I surprise myself by taking rich comfort in the enfolding Shekinah of God as Mother; in a validation prior to all our searching, all our striving. I have no idea how long I’ll float here, before the next stage in the journey. I only know that this is a place of safety and of deep, unspoken joy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Between Equinox and Solstice

Andrew and David and Nick and Robert: for twelve weeks, we’ve formed a community of four men, in long-distance covenant with one another to explore together Julia Cameron’s course-book in creative self-empowerment, The Artist’s Way. We agreed we’d keep the channel open by writing three unpremeditated, unedited and uncensored pages every morning, then setting them aside without critique. We’d take the child within out on a play-date every week–to a sculptor’s studio; to an open mic poetry reading; into the woods to build a delicate assembly of twigs and acorns; to a pet shop to find plants for a newly set up aquarium. We’d share our process and our creativity with one another via e-mail. Who knew, when at the Autumn Equinox we undertook to walk this path together, where it would lead us?

Here is some of what we have become in one another’s presence.

Nick Bovalino: Hope for Release

Andrew Graham: Earthyman

David Townsend: Wisdom

Robert Gross: Daedalus

Andrew: Drew Blur

Andrew: The Offering

Robert: Scribble

Nick: Crystalline

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Way of the Tea Garden

I had a solid professional excuse to spend five days in San Francisco last week. The weather stayed obligingly grey and wet most of the time I sat indoors glued to a computer screen side by side with my collaborator. The morning of my free day at the end of the trip, the sun rose without a wisp of fog in sight, and I made straight for the Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

For twenty-five years, no spot on earth has brought readier healing to my soul. The place is full of small, gentle gods: the spirit of this clump of rushes, growing at the edge of a broad, shallow pond where koi undulate like stoned holdovers from the Summer of Love; the god of this expanse of moss, stretching out below a grove of cedars behind the pagoda that rises above the steep hill in the northwest corner of the garden; the god of this stone basin, water brimming from its lip amidst a stand of bamboo at a turn in the path from the teahouse just before it descends again toward the entrance gate.

The bottom of the stream was strewn with drowned russet maple leaves on Monday morning; a fading yellow carpet of ginko lay sloping down over the bank.

The timelessness of the place is an illusion. Sand sifted over dunes here in the late nineteenth century. The garden was created as a permanent park after the 1894 World’s Fair by Makoto Hagiwara, who first invited the kami–these quiet, unassuming gods of small things–into the heart of his adopted city. From the 1950's, various restorations and rebuildings have transformed its design. The stone basin welling endlessly below a bamboo waterspout arrived only in 1996. The pagoda at the crest of the slope above the koi pond has begun to disintegrate, its paint peeling, the shredding edges of its staged rooflines sporting gardens of lichen among the pine boughs high above the paving stones.

The Hagiwaras tended these five acres for over forty-five years–until they were interned along with most other Japanese Americans by the U.S. government in 1942. The place was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden and left to languish. Many of the family’s original buildings were demolished, including the Shinto shrine that stood at the top of the great hill behind a torii–a temple gate–as out of place before the Buddhist pagoda that replaced the earlier building as a crucifix in a mosque. The garden is named for the Hagiwaras once again; the torii has vanished since my last visit.

Walking these paths as a queer man, I can’t but draw the line between the plight of the Hagiwaras, victims of one of American history’s more shameful injustices, and the marginalization of my own kind. The same morning as my visit, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments for and against the constitutionality of California’s Proposition Eight prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. It’s a mere two months since the rash of suicides by bullied gay teens that spurred the It Gets Better campaign. I weep freely for the Hagiwaras this morning in part because I know what it’s like to be denied my rights and treated like a threat rather than seen for who I am. But I also sit beneath the roof of the tea house in gratitude for the family that created this place and invited these gods into it–as for those who have tended it ever since their departure. I sit here in gratitude for their example: that kindness, civility, and quiet reverence before the simple miracle of beauty can prove stronger and more enduring than bigotry and injustice.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Enjoying the Light

Once again, thanks to my beloved Jonathan, who shares with me his whole second set of holidays in addition to my own, I’m sitting here watching the candles burn down on the first night of Hanukkah. What a funny holiday it is in the Jewish calendar.

Not commanded anywhere in the Torah, or in the Hebrew Bible at all, it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration in the second century before the Common Era, as narrated in the Books of Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees survive in the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint and count as Scripture for Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but neither for Protestants nor for Jews. Rabbinic tradition, rather than even this quasi-biblical source, attests the miracle by which a supply of oil sufficient for only one day kept the lamp of the Temple burning for eight, until a fresh supply could be found.

What’s more than a little unsettling, these sources (especially 1 Maccabees) embody a tendentious politics of cultural purity: modern scholarship mostly argues (more in line with the author of 2 Maccabees) that at stake was not so much a foreign oppression of Jewish faith as a civil war between traditionalists in the countryside and more liberal, multiculturally oriented Jews in Jerusalem. It’s as though Southern Baptists from Northern Alabama were to pick a fight with liberal Episcopalians, win a bloody war against them, and then write what became the definitive history of the conflict.

But set aside all that’s suspect about how Hanukkah came to be, and consider what it is, or can be. Like the Solstice three weeks from now, it’s about light in the darkness. It’s about hope when hope seems to be extinguished. Like Advent, it’s about waiting for deliverance beyond our power to deliver ourselves. For that matter, like Diwali in the Hindu calendar, now nearly four weeks past, it’s about the victory of good over evil.

And yet, it’s not a serious holiday. It’s for kids, and it only gets hyped in North America because it offers a culturally specific alternative to Christmas. It’s about playing with spinning tops, and chocolate coins, and eating potato pancakes and singing sometimes silly, not always particularly edifying songs. Unlike the core holidays of the Jewish year, there’s no prohibition against work on the first days of the eight-day celebration.

But at the heart of Hanukkah–and this is what I love–is the injunction to enjoy its light. The candles of the Hanukkah menorah are supposed to be gratuitous. You’re to appreciate them, not use them for practical purposes. They’re there as a kind of holy play, an occasion to invite their beauty into one’s soul, for as long as it takes them to burn down completely; an invitation to lose oneself in a sense of security that comes from beyond ourselves, in the presence of which it’s safe to dwell.