Friday, March 30, 2012

Riffing in Faith, Building from Scratch

Photographs at left courtesy of Andrew Graham.

None of us knew what might happen next.

The six of us knew we wanted another weekend in community, after our first gathering in the autumn. Our experiments those two days in November gave us a glimpse of what we might do together in a zone of freedom and safety to speak our longings and fears, our gratitudes and hopes. We took first steps at building ritual together to bring forth what was in us: to make the unseen visible, to give it shape, to call one another as witnesses to what was moving through our souls. We searched for the beginnings of a shared practice of gesture, symbol, and language to speak of our separate journeys, and of what we could share. We welcomed one another into a candlelit circle. We walked the labyrinth one of us had contrived out of twine. We named stones for what we needed to let go of, waded into freezing surf, and cast them into the sea.

Gathering again last weekend, just after the spring equinox, at the cabin one of us had offered for our reunion, we walked in a kind of blind faith—knowing we needed each other, but maybe a little bit at a loss to say exactly why; knowing something awaited us larger and fuller than what any of us had brought on his own, but having no clear vision of what that bigger whole would look like.

And then, undramatically, it began to unfold. Andrea’s house and the land it sat on were magical, a radical faerie sanctuary in miniature waiting to happen. The tent Drew had brought became a temple, decorated with the bag of Indian fabrics, prayer flags, and icons I’d shlepped on the train. A totemic painting Drew created two years ago became its central altarpiece. A watercolour seascape Martin had sent Nick as a postcard held him present in our circle despite the scheduling conflict that kept him away.The bread Andrea and Drew had baked before the rest of us arrived became the food we offered each other in welcome the next morning when we formallly entered ritual time and space.

Saturday afternoon, we all dove into the art materials that Robert, Drew, Nick, and I offered for shared use. We sat together for three hours, mostly in silence, absorbed in the deep play of the process, shutting out the voices of self-judgement that might have hushed the creative children we were inviting back into the light and open air. The found objects Andrea salvaged from a dumpster Friday night on a walk down to the pond made their various appearances: a garbage can lid became a mandala hung from the branches at the top of the garden steps; the coffee table Drew had succeeded in repairing took its place in front of the living room couch.

“What happens next?” Robert asked at one point as the afternoon wound down, and our energy with it. I felt both a restlessness in the question and my own anxiety in having no ready answer. We’d talked that morning in the tent about the rituals we aspired to create over the course of the day; much of what we’d shared still remained unaddressed. As we settled into the evening’s fading light, Drew showed us the recent photographs he’d brought to share; Robert read his poetry. We unpacked what Nick had described in the morning as his “gift of noise”—a cache of borrowed drums, rattles, and chimes. Andrea lit the fire that figured centrally to his vision of what the night should bring.

But none of us mustered the energy, or claimed the authority, to call us back into conscious, explicit focus on the intentions we’d set for ourselves. I found myself in the night’s deepening silence reviewing how much of my own aspirations I’d succeeded in claiming, wondering how we could all best find what we needed in what already felt like the approaching last hours of our time together.

I know many people who long for intentional community. My sense is that fewer of us succeed in finding it. Our culture makes us uneasy with the artificiality of ritual action. This is especially true of improvisational ritual that we invent together in short, intermittent bursts of community, between which we return to our separate, individualistically oriented lives. The more of our lives we spend apart, the more artificial these rituals feel when we first create them. The more artificial they feel, the more insecure we may in turn be about stepping into a role of leadership, or even about being the one who gently nudges a group back toward the formality of ritual time and space. All that played into how unsettled I felt amidst the silence late on Saturday night.

Back in the tent on Sunday morning, we began by sharing what the day before had given us; what we still hoped for; and how we imagined we could use our remaining hours to find it. As we went around the circle giving voice again to our intentions, I saw that the evening before had provided exactly what we’d needed, each in his own way, in order to recharge and to consolidate. I understood that the diffuse, loosely shared experience had given us breathing space now to become more closely attuned to one another, finding in each other’s intentions a fundamental vibration with our own; hearing in one another’s aspirations an invitation to name and express ours as well.

I asked the others to stand witness to a simple naming of my past and present lovers, an exercise poised for me somewhere between celebration and mourning. But it called forth from the whole group a shared meditation on the richness of our erotic histories—and for their sometimes painful complexities--manifesting more grief and more joy than we could have asked or imagined. The short, straightforward ritual that one man asked us to perform for his healing and growth blossomed into a drumming procession around the boundaries of the garden, a thanksgiving and blessing for the land and for the hospitality of our host; a joyful affirmation of community; an expression of hope for our future gatherings.

As we basked in the surprise of what we could create together, I reflected on everything we’d done to pave the way for its abundance. We’d shown patience and openness to the shifting rhythms of our energy. We’d asked , “What happens next?” but we’d held the question lightly and not forced the answer. We’d been careful to listen to one another, yet not hesitated to hear through the ears of our own experience, or to reply in the voice of our own longings.

To put it in more traditionally religious terms, we’d walked in faith. But other ways to name what we did probably shed just as much light on what happened between us. We’d created a kind of spiritual jazz, picking up on the lines others had offered, building on them in call and response. We’d assembled a collage, setting the pieces each of us had brought into new contexts that both honored and transformed them. We'd put the yeast into the flour, kneaded the dough, and then waited. We’d built out of the materials that lay to hand a house not quite like anything we’d seen before.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Green Blade Rising

What other year have the first days of spring felt so like, well, the first days of spring? None that I’ve spent in Toronto, certainly, through most of my adult life. Neither of my winters in San Diego, where the modulation of seasons was so subtle, to a native of the Midwest, that it took me most of my time there even to register that they shifted at all. Perhaps, occasionally during my Indiana youth, the last ten days of March felt palpably and dramatically like the beginning of something new.

But yesterday after lunch, the short break I meant to take from desk work inside, cutting back last season’s dead growth in a border along the side of the house, was a path out of my small, goal-oriented self and into the bigger, wider-open self that’s out there waiting for me to show up and step into it.

Every handful of sere brown ribbon pulled away from green blades of Siberian iris now just breaking the soil carried me further from the wintry work that still waited inside. Every glint of sun off the leaves of the laurels ringing the front garden pulled me into the next task of pruning them back from late summer’s growth spurt—just one or two bushes, I said to myself; just one or two more; until all thirteen were finished and I’d yet to return to what had seemed so pressing—and so bloodless— two hours before.

Even spraying the vegetation outside the fence with reconstituted coyote piss to discourage the deer brought me joy.

And I found myself—750 miles from where I began my life, and over a decade after my mother’s death—welling up with gratitude to her that she gave me this: the capacity to lose myself in the endless task of caring for things rooted in earth. Gardening was her one grand pleasure in a life that had far too much of duty in it, and far too little of pride.

It’s taken decades to feel that gratitude so richly and so without complication. She and I had a vexed, unhelpfully impacted relationship, full of emotions too tangled and too co-dependent to parse apart without years of pain and mutual frustration. The relief of being able to let go into such gratitude, at long last, is one of the blessings of mid-life, a compensation for the aching joints that remind me this morning of how I spent yesterday.

Another gift, so bound up with the first that it’s really another aspect of the same, is to know that my garden is not her garden. I’m not trying to recapture the lost Eden of a nostalgically misremembered origin. I’m glad to have come so far—into the freedom outside the closet that was the price of life in the bosom of my family; into my power as a man who’s found his own way into connection with the Source of his larger self.

Laying aside my rake as I passed the backyard altar that’s waited untended since my summer practice there ended at the fall equinox, I knelt before it for the first time in a new season. The tiny soapstone Buddha needed straightening, balanced precariously on a loosened bit of mortar between bricks. A few leaves needed brushing away from the stones a friend placed last fall in a ring around the Shiva lingam at its center. I said a short prayer for a friend struggling with advanced cancer; for another whose chronic pain continues to shrink the circuit of his life. And rejoiced that what my mother gave me set me on a path that I’ve claimed as my own.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Repair of the Self, Repair of the World: Two Quotations

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”—Hillel

“To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend the self, but not to be preoccupied with oneself. . .”—Martin Buber

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ex Voto


While our own house gets painted, we’ve moved into a friend’s around the corner for two weeks. The place we’ve borrowed is nostalgic and understated, a rebuilt fisherman’s cottage on the bluff above the dunes, and here and there a little quirky: it’s full of testimonies to our friend’s eye for the beauty of small and often unassuming objects. Antique patent medicine bottles in pale sea-green glass line the mantle of the fieldstone hearth; scallop shells from the beach cover a counter in the bathroom.

Along a narrow span of wall between the stairs and an office nook hangs a vertical row of five “primitive” paintings on tin panels, each depicting a narrowly averted disaster in a naïve style that might elicit more amusement than empathy if you’re not used to seeing such pictures. Two young women sit on rocks by a stream with their feet in the water, mouths round in astonishment as three cartoonish crocodiles swim toward them. In another scene, two more women bathe in a river oblivious to the men lurking in the bushes behind them. A youth dives to the bottom of a lake where another young man lies unconscious. A man leaps from a canoe to rescue an infant. A sleeper awakes to find his bed in flames, a cigarette visible on the quilt just to the side of a blaze obligingly contained between the dreamer’s feet and knees. In an upper corner of each painting appears an image of the Virgin Mary that that looks as though it might have been incompetently sculpted out of marzipan.

And then you read the testimonial added in crude script in a blank strip at the bottom of the last of these panels: “Sefferino Valderrama fell asleep smoking and in his dreams there appeared to him the Virgin of Zapopan who said to him awake son because you are in danger and he woke up and saw the coverlet which was burning up and just in time to run to the kitchen for water and to quench the fire and in view of the portentous miracle he makes it known with this retablo on 25 January in the year 1943.”

These five panels are retablos, a deep tradition of Mexican folk art, paintings in thanksgiving for deliverance from danger. I don’t know how I feel about seeing them displayed as charming objects on par with the seashells and the glass bottles. Seventy years ago Sefferino saw his survival not as blind fortune but as miracle, and presumably hung this expression of gratitude in a local church in Mexico, alongside countless other testimonials like it. Whoever he was, he chose in the very act of offering this panel to unite himself to something larger than himself: to the Power that he saw as sustaining his life; to a community disposed to affirm the presence of the Holy in deliverance from danger, rather than chalk it up to dumb luck. He performed this act of devotion to inspire reverence in the viewer, not momentary arm’s-length pleasure.

And I find myself asking, what would it be like to claim the making of retablos for myself, as a way to reflect on what’s sustained and empowered my life? What are the events, who are the people, who’ve thrown me a lifeline when I’ve needed one most? Could I make these occasions of deliverance into visible material for further reflection? Could I, like Sefferino, choose thus to bear witness to the hand of God in my life? What would a gay man’s retablo look like? Where might it be displayed, and who might see it?

Friday, March 2, 2012

At the Harvest: A Queer Midrash

You’re bone tired but can’t sleep. Still caked in sweat and dust, you fell onto your bedroll as soon as you’d eaten what the servants had prepared, without even rinsing off. Just as well: by dusk tomorrow, thirst will claim every ounce of the water the women carried to the field. The sound of exhausted men sighing around you in their sleep merges into the breathing of a single spent beast; the women lie farther off, beyond the baskets of already-threshed barley.

Out of the darkness rise images of the wiry young Moabite woman, lean but tireless, and strong as an ox, to see her load a basket onto her shoulder that half your men would strain to lift. Her hair cut short, just growing in after she’d shaved it in mourning, she must have looked more like your kinswoman’s son than her daughter-in-law as they made their way back here from far beyond the Jordan. It would have served them well as protection on the road.

You see her gathering leftovers at the edge of the field, moving twice as fast as most of your own people, and carrying bound sheaves to the threshing floor once she’d filled her own basket to the brim. You picture her the morning of the day before, standing before you asking for charity in her thickly accented Hebrew, then retreating to the far side of the field to embrace with relieved laughter the older woman you still didn’t recognize as your emigrant cousin’s widow. You begin to doze off imagining her.

And wake to realize she’s there in the flesh, leaning above you in the light of the setting moon, putting a finger to the half-smile on her lips, then pulling down the loincloth that’s all you could bear to leave on in the strangely humid heat. Exhausted as your are, your erection’s been tenting it all the time you’ve thought of her.

It’s no sooner sprung free of the linen than she’s straddling you, slipping herself around you, gripping you as she sets up her own rhythm. She’s in charge of what’s happening between you and riding you for her own purposes, not yours; and yet, in the gleam of her eye in the dim light, you see her seeing you, see her taking satisfaction that you’re losing all control and turning into a bucking animal whose only reason for being is this. It goes on like this for what seems like the whole night. You‘re vaguely aware that you could wake those around you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop yourself. Nor would you if you could.

Purple light explodes behind your eyes. As your seed courses into her, your soul is somewhere outside your body altogether, and you see the future in a flash: the child she’s conceiving at this moment and will bear in nine months; the life you and she and her mother-in-law will lead together; the children of your son playing at the edge of the field as your people bring in the harvest some year long hence. You’re seized by an intuition that what’s just happened will change not only your life and the lives of your household, but somehow, countless years from now, the whole world. And you’re weeping as you see it all.

Your heart still racing as she rhythmically strokes your hair, she presses her forehead to yours and comforts you like a child. You whisper her name. She is Ruth.