Category Archives: Family/Parenting

Do you know that you’re holy?

PW and I have been attending graduation ceremonies in even-numbered years since 2000. Tonight, GForce graduates from high school. It’s the ninth graduation we’ve attended since 2000. That a lot of crossing overs!

Those of us who are able, thanks to good health or availability or both, are gathering to celebrate this crossing of a threshold. Stories spill out of us. We can’t even contain them.

I have never been one of those parents who wanted to freeze my child at a particular age, or to stop time, or to wish I could turn back the clock. However, I will admit to a fleeting moment of what I can only describe as anticipatory nostalgia.

When GForce was a baby, she had an infectious smile. I suspect most, if not all, parents feels this way. A baby’s smile is like a laser that cuts through the fog of parental sleep-deprivation and confusion. For me, the smile is an infant’s first crossing over from the blob of need phase to becoming a relatable human being.

gums and toes

I was besotted by GForce’s toothless grin. I’d stare at it, and when she wasn’t smiling I’d stare at this photo of her. And my recurring thought was, “Man, teeth are going to RUIN that smile.”

Yes, I actually thought that. One day, I said it out loud, to no one at all. But the act of hearing the words hanging in the air, as opposed to inside my head, was like a bucket of cold water. I could finally hear how ridiculous it was to want her to remain a tiny toothless infant.

I’ve never thought of GForce as “my baby.” I don’t know why. Maybe by the time I’d given birth in my late 30s, I’d had Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of the Gibran poem, “On Children” embedded in my brain.

I have always felt like GForce chose me to bring her into the world. This notion has gotten me through some long nights where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. It’s felt like a buoy and a first place blue ribbon and an honorary degree, all at the same time.

As this day approached, one of my favorite singer/songwriters released a new album. I couldn’t have hoped for better. Thank you, Kris Delmhorst, for giving me the perfect song to accompany this ninth graduation in the past 15 years.2013-08-05 06.11.01

Every time I have listened to Delmhorst’s song “Homeless” over the past month, I have gotten that catch in my throat, in my heart, when she sings the question, “Do you know that you’re holy?”

The first time I heard it, I was making dinner. I wasn’t following along with the lyrics; they were floating out over the stove. I never saw it coming, this question, “Do you know that you’re holy?” It nearly buckled my knees. Tears fell into the clam sauce I was stirring.

My goal as a parent is for each of my daughters to be able to hear that question and to be able to sing back some kind of “Yes.” Or even a “Maybe.” Or “I want to.” And when they can’t answer that question, I hope they have communities of people they can call on to remind them. And if not, they can always call home. Or look up.

Homeless 
by Kris Delmhorst

The silence & the sea
Who you’re supposed to be
When the faces on the page and the faces in the mirror look the same
The cradle & the crutch
It’s supposed to hurt this much
When the highways turn to roads into streets into alleys
Then at last into paths you can’t get through

Do you know that you’re homeless
Do you know that you’re lonely
Do you know that you’re only passing through?

Years roll along
Sorrow turns to song
And your tears flow like rain into streams into rivers
That at last find their path to the sea

Do you know that we’re homeless
Do you know that we’re lonely
Do you know that we’re only passing through?

Do you know that you’re holy
Do you know that I love you
Do you know that above you is blue?
Do you?

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On Them Light Has Shined

Lucy: proper name, from L. Lucianus (cf. Fr. Lucien), a derivative of Roman Lucius, from lux (gen. lucis) “light” (see light (n.)).

Lucy

Lucy — September 2, 2002 – January 5, 2013

If you’re lucky, somewhere in the course of your life an animal picks you who gives you much more love than you can possibly return. If you are luckier still, the animal who picks you lives a long and relatively healthy life. And if you are even luckier still, this abundance of luck suddenly pivots into a kind of curse.

It feels like both the best and the most terrible luck in life to have arrived at this point with our 10-year-old golden retriever, Lucy. We learned this past Wednesday that the fast-growing lump on her neck was an inoperable cancer. PW and I made the excruciating decision to spare Lucy any more suffering than she has already endured, to allow her life to end while she’s still recognizable to us as the goofy, light-bearing wonder she has always been.

And so, Lucy’s humans, on whom her light has shined—who have been adored, and sometimes tolerated, far more than we can begin to comprehend or repay—have to let go of our animal before we are ready. And really, is it ever possible to be ready to let go of a love that has exceeded our wildest dreams, both in its longevity and its sheer size?

This morning GForce and I took Lucy for one last frolic in the snow. Lulu gave her a few Christmas cookies (Lucy loved baked goods of all kinds). Then we gathered with a couple of dear friends, who are facing a similar decision with one of their three dogs, and had a little ceremony of farewell. And then an amazingly compassionate veterinarian came to our house so that Lucy and we could say goodbye in the comfort and familiarity of our own home.

When we adopted Lucy at nine months old, she came to us from the National Education for Assist Dog Services (NEADS) with a list of about 50 commands she had down pat. She could turn on lights, open doors, and, my favorite feature, she never jumped up on people. Her name was Robyn.

Robyn was raised in the NEADS “Prison PUP Partnership,” which places puppies in prisons all over New England to be raised and trained by incarcerated people for assist dog work. I had put in an application for one of the NEADS “furloughed favorites” several months prior to getting a call from them, in July, 2003.

Robyn was “furloughed” from professional assist dog work at 9 months because of hip displaysia, and she was a perfect fit for our family. When PW and I first met her at NEADS, she was fresh out of prison, and her NEADS handler warned us that the prison pups develop an intense bond with the people who raise them because they have so much 1×1 time. She added that in the couple of days since Robyn had left the prison on her furlough, every time she entered a room she would frantically look around for “her guy.” Then the handler went to get Robyn.

Sure enough, Robyn came bursting into the room a la Kramer from the old Seinfeld show. She frantically looked around, then locked in on PW and me and scrabbled excitedly across the tile floor, sliding to a sitting stop on top of my feet. She tilted her head back to look at me and grinned. And that’s pretty much what the last almost 10 years have been like with her.

After that first meeting, PW and I reluctantly left her behind so that we could go home and get our house ready. A couple of days later, the five of us piled into the station wagon and drove an hour west to the NEADS facility to bring Robyn home.

Of course, we brought toys with us. The whole way home, in the rear view mirror I’d see Robyn’s head randomly popping up as she threw the toys from the way back into the back seat where the girls were jammed in next to each other. No offense to anyone named Robyn, but we all felt this dog needed a different name. The five of us discussed new names, and we settled on Lucy, in no small part because her fur had a reddish hue and her personality reminded us of Lucille Ball. She seemed very much like the kind of dog who would have lots of “‘splainin’ to do,” as Ricky always said to Lucy in the “I Love Lucy” show.

Little did we know.

Sure enough, Lucy’s “counter surfing” skills were unparalleled and the only place we could safely leave food out was on top of the refrigerator. One Christmas at PW’s mom’s house, we put all the pies out to cool on a sideboard in the dining room and left for a walk, with Lucy secured in the kitchen by baby gates. When we got back, two pies were gone and a very uncomfortable and bloated Lucy had somehow jumped back over the gates into the kitchen, where her sugar high gave her smile a demented quality.

A couple of years later, that same demented sugar-high smile was tinged with green Christmas cookie frosting after she nosed her way into the room where four dozen Christmas cookies were cooling and ate every last cookie.

PW’s dreams of taking Lucy to work with her were crushed by Lucy’s love of baked goods. It proved impossible to keep Lucy out of the food pantry storage bins at the church. She would sneak off when PW was busy with something, return with a half-eaten loaf of focaccia in her mouth, and fix PW with big sad eyes, as if to say, “I have been bad, and here is the evidence that convicts me.”

In her range of mishaps and facial expressions, our Lucy was the canine embodiment of Lucy Ricardo from that classic old TV show. Because she had such a long and vibrant life, there are way too many Lucy stories to tell in one sitting.

She was both incredibly sweet and ridiculous. She could sit quietly for a long time while our cat Tiger licked her entire face, and she was also given to random air raid siren howling in her sleep. She snored loudly. She would carry on entire conversations if we took the time to grunt back at her. She slept in positions that seemed unbelievably uncomfortable. She was very licky. She had a great smile. She had terrible breath. She loved to grab Tiger around the middle between her  front feet and drag him around the house. Tiger also loved this.

One can learn a lot about love from a dog. I like to think that all of us learned how to love each other a little better from getting to live more than nine years with Lucy. And as it often goes with love, the greatest depths of our connections are plumbed at ending times.

Since our animals can’t talk or write to us about what might be the best time to move on, we have to figure that out, both for them and for us. It is an unbearably heavy load. Thankfully, PW and the girls and I agreed that we didn’t want to wait until the sweet and goofy Lucy we knew was eclipsed by a hollowed out, incontinent, and immobile shell of her former self. We will not choose to let her suffer to squeeze a few more days or weeks out of a well-lived and long life.

I know so many people who, after putting their diminished pets down, have said, “I probably waited too long.” That is not the song that our family wanted to sing, even though we all are probably still feeling wobbly about this decision. So we made our Alleluias with broken hearts and through a river of tears, surrounded by the love of friends, family, and probably quite a few strangers.

The prophet Isaiah wrote,

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

How lucky we have been to have been chosen by Lucy, to have basked in her light for these past nearly 10 years. There are not enough words for the gratitude we feel.

I made this video to share some of Lucy’s spirit with you. The song is “Heavenly Day,” by Patty Griffin. Griffin has described this gorgeous love song as having been inspired by her dog, so it seemed the perfect soundtrack. The last image in the video is a watercolor portrait of Lucy that Lulu gave me for Christmas last week. When I opened it, I burst into tears because even then I could feel the shadow of this day.

Press play / Don’t press pause

I have a lot of memories of sitting my parents down in the living room while I played a new record for them. I’d drop the needle, then come over and sit between them. I’d hold the album cover on my lap. If we were lucky, we’d look at the record sleeve with the lyrics printed on it. We’d sit and listen together, often commenting on a particular lyric. My mom usually ended up crying because, well, because that is how my mom rolls.

This scene played over and over throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. It was how I introduced my parents to Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, Judy Small, and who knows how many other singers.

It’s not surprising to me to watch myself become a mashup of my parents, both as a mirror image and as the photographic negative of opposite-ness. That seems inevitable. What surprises me is watching my kids repeat a history that they don’t know.

Since music is consumed very differently by 21st century children than it was back in the 1970s, we don’t sit on the couch together looking at lyrics printed on an album cover or liner. In fact, often, there’s nothing to hold at all. The music pours out of a little electronic device smaller than my hand, usually while it’s sitting in a docking station that creates bigger sound.

Last night, as we sat at the dining room table after dinner, GForce said she had a song she wanted to “show me.”

Me: Is it a rap song?
G: Yeah, but I think you’re gonna like it!
Me: I don’t know. I could probably count on one hand the number of raps songs I like.
G: Come on mom, it’s not one of those (makes hip hop hand gestures) “Yeah, come on bitch, let’s get drunk and have some sex…” Just keep your mind open!

When I stopped giggling, I reluctantly agreed to keep my mind open.

She pressed play.

Quiet shimmery synthesizer. Simple, shallow piano line, as though from a toy piano. More layers of sound. More toy piano, plunking out a simple melody.

At about 43 seconds, a man speaks the line, “When I was in the 3rd grade/I thought that I was gay/’Cause I could draw…”

Goosebumps. This is no ordinary rap song.

At about a minute and 42 seconds, a woman’s voice cuts in with a plaintive, “And I can’t change/Even if I tried/Even if I wanted to…”

My eyes welled up. I’m doing a Mom.

I looked across the table at GForce, hunched over her homework and oblivious to the floodgates that had opened. I thought back to how safe I felt, sitting between my parents as we listened to music together on the couch. I always knew they loved me—ferociously—even when they didn’t understand me, or were afraid for my safety because I was queer.

How lucky I am to have had my parents’ relentless and resilient companionship, support, and love for so long. So there I sat letting history repeat itself in the best possible way, and praying for the creativity and strength to love my kids with a fraction of the generosity with which my parents have loved me, with their open minds and their hearts being broken over and over.

When your new baby is put in your arms for the first time, nobody warns you of the looming lifetime of heartbreak. Yes, it’s hard to watch your kids experience physical pain. But that’s nothing compared to watching them endure the pain of fear, of rejection, of being unhappy, of wondering how they are going to get through another day of bullying, of being bewildered, confused, and struggling to figure out what the next right thing is, and whether they’d even want to do it once they figure it out. It turns out that even the deepest most irrational animal instinct to “protect my young” can’t protect my kids from the trials of being humans, attempting to make their way in a world filled with other humans.

The song continued. The tears filled up my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. GForce was working feverishly on drawing a picture of a person, whose features she then had to label with Spanish words.

Near the end, as the woman’s voice faded while she chanted “Love is patient (I’m not crying on Sundays)/Love is kind (I’m not crying on Sundays),” GForce looked up from her paper.

G: “Aww! How long have you been crying, Mom?”
Me: Since before the woman singer finished her first line. [Sniff.]

GForce came over to my chair, bent over, wrapped her arms around me, and rested her head on my shoulder. “Now I’m going to cry, too.” she said.

Then she told me that one of her best friends, who is straight, found this song and played it for her. Last year, on the annual Day of Silence, this same friend wore a Day of Silence T-Shirt all day to support G-Force and other kids in the school who spend every day trying to stand up tall in the oppressively heterosexist environment that is high school. A friend like that is solid gold, no matter how old you are.

An hour or so later, I found this video and we watched it together. By the time it ended, we were both crying. So runs the water wheel of life.

Same Love

by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and featuring Mary Lambert 

[Piano Intro]

[Verse 1: Macklemore]
When I was in the 3rd grade
I thought that I was gay
Cause I could draw, my uncle was
And I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She’s like, “Ben you’ve loved girls since before pre-K”
Trippin’, yeah, I guess she had a point, didn’t she
A bunch of stereotypes all in my head
I remember doing the math like
“Yeah, I’m good at little league”
A pre-conceived idea of what it all meant
For those who like the same sex had the characteristics
The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition
Playing God
Ahh nah, here we go
America the brave
Still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all His children is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written
3,500 hundred years ago
I don’t know

[Hook: Mary Lambert]
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to [x2]
My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm [x4]

[Verse 2: Macklemore]
If I was gay
I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
“Man that’s gay”
Gets dropped on the daily
We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin’
Our culture founded from oppression
Yeah, we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color
Complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins
It’s human rights for everybody
There is no difference
Live on! And be yourself!
When I was in church
They taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service
Those words aren’t anointed
And that Holy Water
That you soak in
Is then poisoned
When everyone else
Is more comfortable
Remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans
That have had their rights stolen
I might not be the same
But that’s not important
No freedom ’til we’re equal
Damn right I support it
[Trombone]
I don’t know

[Hook: Mary Lambert]

[Verse 3: Macklemore]
We press play
Don’t press pause
Progress, march on!
With a veil over our eyes
We turn our back on the cause
‘Til the day
That my uncles can be united by law
Kids are walkin’ around the hallway
Plagued by pain in their heart
A world so hateful
Some would rather die
Than be who they are
And a certificate on paper
Isn’t gonna solve it all
But it’s a damn good place to start
No law’s gonna change us
We have to change us
Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up

[Hook: Mary Lambert]

[Outro: Mary Lambert]
Love is patient, love is kind
Love is patient (I’m not cryin’ on Sundays)
Love is kind (I’m not crying on Sundays) [x5]

Another day in the seed-shattering factory of life

Today has been one of those days where I feel like my body is neither big enough nor strong enough to contain my life.

I started the day with an early meeting at the hospital, talking with a scientist who works in reproductive research and in vitro fertilization. She herself had fertility problems in her younger days, and ended up with triplets who are now in their mid-20s. My colleagues and I spent two hours listening to her tell about her research and the sorts of reproductive riddles that she has encountered in the course of working with some of the hospital’s most challenging patients who want desperately to have children.

When I got back to the office, I opened my email to find that we were having a big press conference to announce a recent successful bi-lateral hand transplant. The transplant recipient is a man who has lived the past nine years using prosthetic arms and legs to live a life that has included painting, drawing, and writing. He became a candidate for this medical miracle in part because he desperately wanted to be able to hug his wife, children, and grandchildren again.

Just before it was time to head to the conference room where our office was gathering to watch the press conference, I got a text message from GForce. She was in the guidance office at her school, sobbing about an awful humiliation that happened in class, as a result of an insensitive and idiotic remark by a substitute teacher.

I spent the next hour talking by phone about the situation with PW, then with GForce, and then with the school principal, and then with GForce again.

Some people say that having children is like ripping your heart out of your chest so it can walk around outside your body for the rest of your life. I’ve never really felt that way, maybe because as much as I love metaphor, that particular one doesn’t ring true for me.

Sprouting seed

For me, parenting is a daily exercise in living through the inevitable and relentless pain and delight of watching little seeds shatters their hulls and send their tendrils of hope, disbelief, wonder, fear, and/or confidence up toward the sun. That, and the repetitive experience of being one such seed that surrenders itself to new growth, over and over and over again.

I used to work for a guy who was fond of saying, “We’re either growing or we’re dying.” While I think there is some truth to that, I also think that there is no growth without death. Each episode of growth – whether it’s a sudden epiphany that causes (or is caused by) a tectonic shift, or the slow peeling back of a cloud of unknowing into some bright new valley of awareness – each of those episodes is like a seed shattering its hull. The seed has to die – to give up its essential seedliness – so that the plant can be born.

It’s easy for me to see my children as seeds as I watch them grow from one stage to another, oscillating through varying degrees of dependence, independence, and interdependence. It’s harder to watch them do all that while remembering that I’m a seed, too. We’re all of us shifting, growing, changing, watching old paradigms give way to new ones, or explicitly destroying frameworks that don’t fit anymore so that we can make way for new ones that can accommodate and support our evolving hopes, disbeliefs, wonders, fears, and/or confidences.

So instead of attending the webcast of the press conference with my peers, I sat alone in my office talking on my phone. I shook with anger while attempting, mostly successfully, to speak calmly, coherently, and intelligently with PW, the school principal, and GForce. In between calls, I muttered many bad words.

Meanwhile, the hand transplant press conference unfolded behind me on my computer monitor. Apparently, there was a part of the press conference where they showed photos from the operating room, where you see this waxy yellowish transplanted arm flushing pink as the blood begins flowing into it. This was probably happening while I wobbled my way through my phone calls. By the time I got off the phone and turned to look at the computer, I was looking at the transplant recipient, sitting there with his two new and normal-looking hands resting atop a pile of what looked like pillows or sandbags.

Five days a week I come to work at a place where medical miracles occur on a daily basis: new life is born, in a lab dish, or in a disease cured, or in the birthing rooms, or in a newly transplanted limb or face or heart or lung. Tragedies also happen here. People die too soon, or too painfully, or agonizingly slowly. Or their minds die before their hearts do, and their bodies become like seeds that won’t ever crack open.

My hospital is like every individual life. Each of us is a combination of both the things that happen to us and the choices we make about how we’re going to live – or die – with what has happened to us. When GForce asked me if she could leave school for the day, I told her she can’t control what people say to her but she can control how much of the space they take up in her head.

“That beautiful, amazing space inside your head – that is all yours,” I said. “Don’t let anyone else take it from you, especially idiots and ignorant jerks who don’t deserve to have it in the first place.” I felt pretty proud of myself for not using any bad words while I was talking to her.

I started my day hearing jaw-dropping stories about the extraordinary measures some people go to in order to become parents, and the miraculous things science can do to make that dream come true. I have just now looked at the photos of a man’s new arms come to life, arms donated out of the unfathomable generosity of a family who had just lost a loved one.

They don’t tell you that parenting is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. But, if we really thought about it, how could we not already know this? All of life is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. As a parent, it’s excruciating to watch this happen to people I feel an irrational need to protect from any and all harm. From what my own parents tell me, this is true whether your children are infants or in their 50s.

An hour after our initial conversation, GForce called me again, begging to go home. This day is too hard, she said. I thought to myself, “I know. I know. Believe me, I know.” I took a deep breath and reminded her of horse races we have watched together, and how some horses have blinders on to help them focus, and others don’t. I told her, “Put blinders on so all you see are the people who support you.”

“Okay, but I have English class next. I’m supposed to write an essay in class, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to focus on writing an essay with all this stuff that’s happened.”

“Then escape into the essay,” I said. “Let the essay rescue you.”

So I did.

“We Get to Feel it All” by Emily Saliers

My my how time flies
First time I met you had to shade my eyes
Staring into the sun can make a girl blind
Now here we sit in a shadier spot
Got what I wanted, and I want what I got
Through no will of my own
I just found my way home

But, here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
Sometimes I can’t tell
You’re open like a book or shut like a shell
But if I hold you to my ear
I can hear the whole world
Dark stories of a distant past
Our time created in a single blast
You like to laugh at me because I’m serious
Yes it’s true, but

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all

Time waits for no one
So I’m remembering that day in the sun
How I was thinking you needed time to cool down
Circumstances make us tired and colder
Well, that’s my coat thrown around your shoulder
And I know you’ll give it back to me if I need it
I believe it

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all

Come out, come out, whoever you are

Estimates for how much of my childhood was spent in the car on long road trips range from 30-80%, depending on which trip I’m remembering. Every summer of my childhood, my dad – or both my parents – got invited to minister at week-long church camps called “reunions.” Over the years, we travelled by car to reunions in at least half of the lower 48 states, and several Canadian provinces as well. When my parents became empty-nesters, they got invited to places like Tahiti, Australia, and Hawaii. But I’m not bitter.

One of our trips back when I was five or six years old took us through the Black Hills of South Dakota. My recollection is that Dad had taken some “No Doz” so he could stay awake (Red Bull hadn’t been invented, and he didn’t drink coffee), and he was driving – and vibrating with caffeine-induced jitters – through the night across the other-worldly landscape of the Black Hills.

At some point in the wee hours, I woke up to find that Dad and I were the only ones awake in the car. I looked outside and asked quietly, “Where are we?”
“We’re driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
“What kinds of animals do they have here in the Black Hills?”
“Oh, let’s see. Buffalo. Antelope. Maybe mountain lions. Bears. Deer.”
“Which is the biggest one?”
“Probably the buffalo. But bears get pretty big, too.”

These hand binoculars REALLY work!

I looked out the window again. It was the darkest dark I had ever seen, even with our little headlights, and the occasional lights of a passing truck or car. For whatever reason, I was suddenly obsessed with seeing a buffalo. I squinted hard and peered out the window. I made circles with my hands, and used them as pretend binoculars. I scanned the horizon.

“Psst. Hey Dad,” I whispered. “I see some buffalo out there.”
“Really?” he whispered back.
“Yeah. They’re huge!”
“Wow! What are they doing?”
“Um. Uh oh. I think they’re running toward our car. Go faster!”
“I can’t do that without getting a ticket.”

I looked up ahead, then behind us. No police car in sight. No cars or trucks of any kind. No other signs of life, except for all those buffaloes of unusual size I was sure were chasing our car. The humming in my head became a roar. Ohhhhhh noooooooo. Hurrrrry uuuuuuuuup, Daaaaaaad. Drive fasterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Come onnnnnnnn. Goooooooooooooooooooooooo.

I crawled over my sleeping brothers and found a spot behind my dad. I reached up over his seat and started rubbing his shoulders. He liked when I did this during long distance drives, and it was a way for me to feel connected to him without bothering him. It also made me feel a little safer.

After a long silence, punctuated by Dad’s murmurs of gratitude for the shoulder rub, I said, “I’d sure like to see these buffaloes better. When will the sun come up?” “Not for a few hours, Joybells. Why don’t you get some sleep?”

I thought to myself, “But what if the buffaloes aren’t out there when I wake up? What if this is my only chance to see them? Why are they chasing us? Why are these stupid Black Hills so dang BLACK??”

I drifted back to sleep for a bit. When I awoke again, we were driving through that pre-dawn darkness that feels so full of hope and possibility (or dread, if you’ve stayed up all night studying for an exam or writing a paper). The long and ridiculously dark night was almost over. My dad had stayed awake. And the buffaloes were STILL there!

I perked up and waited eagerly to see my first real live buffalo. I used my hand binoculars to get a closer look. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I slowly put the hand binoculars down in my lap and looked out the window, unaided. I swallowed hard, first in disbelief, and then in embarrassment.

Trees.

All those enormous, scary buffaloes I had seen before were trees. Gnarly, hump-backed, buffalo-shaped trees. They dotted the landscape as far as I could see. The lighter it got, the smaller and more ordinary the trees appeared. By the time the sun was all the way up, I couldn’t figure out how the trees had ever looked like rampaging herds of buffaloes to begin with. And yet my middle-of-the-night certainty and the fear it inspired were so clear and fresh and real.

This memory was playing like a movie in my head when I awoke in the wee hours yesterday morning. As I lay there trying to fall back to sleep, counting the buffaloes/trees, I remembered that October 11, is “National Coming Out Day” here in the U.S.and in several other countries (it’s on October 12 in the U.K.)

When National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988, I’d be willing to bet that very few people in the queer community, or our allies, friends, or families, envisioned where we’d be now: same-sex marriage is legal in 10 countries, as well as six states in the U.S. You might think that such a trend would render National Coming Out Day irrelevant.

My hunch is that National Coming Out Day and the AIDS Memorial Quilt were among the many things that helped to pave the way for the momentum we see now for same-sex marriage. Back when we queer people were mostly just shadowy gigantic buffaloes of people’s frightened imaginations, same-sex marriage was unthinkable. Even civil unions weren’t on the map, for the most part. As more and more of us started coming out – along with our families, friends, and allies – it was as if the sun began to rise. Lo and Behold! All along, those gnarly buffaloes were just ordinary trees.

I have fewer people to come out to these days, but I have friends and family who are not so lucky. I still have plenty of friends and family who are faced daily – usually multiple times each day – with the exhausting battle of whether or not to come out, how to come out, and to whom. Each decision is freighted with worries that include, “And what if they hate me?  And what if they hurt me?”

Even as It Gets Better, it doesn’t necessarily get easier. Kids still get bullied for being suspected of being queer. People are still killing themselves, or being killed, for being queer. Thirteen years ago today, Matthew Shepard died of injuries sustained when two men beat and tortured him for being queer. That seems like only yesterday to me.

So this year I have a different take on National Coming Out Day. For the first time in my life, I am hearing it as an invitation to straight people who are our allies, friends, and families. Because even in a world where more of us can get married, we still have a long way to go until every queer person can live a life of openness and integrity without fear of losing our jobs, our families, our children, our homes, or even our lives.

This past summer, the hospital where I work started a Be An Ally program, which encourages ALL hospital staff to put rainbow stickers on our badges as a sign of support and welcome to all queer people and their friends, families, and allies who are on hospital grounds. It’s an amazing thing to see so many rainbow stickers everywhere. That’s one way to come out.

So come out, you allies, friends, and families of queer folk. Come out, come out, whoever you are. We need your help, because we can’t create a safe place on our own. As an example, right now the presidential candidates from the Republican Party are busy shooting daggers at each other over who is a Real Christian or a Real Conservative. PW and I were talking recently about what a relief it is to have their wrath focused elsewhere.

Eventually, though, many politicians of all affiliations and many of the religious folk who support them will start shooting at the queers. They do this in every election cycle. It’s exhausting to be so regularly and so predictably dehumanized. So we need you straight people to come out now more than ever, and we need you to do it daily, as many times a day as you can. To paraphrase the queer writer Audre Lorde, your silence does not protect us. We need your active and vocal support to help us shine the light through people’s fears and anxieties, so we can all see our rampaging herds of midnight buffaloes transformed into the benign, shade-giving trees of morning.

Lyrics to “Always” by Blind Pilot

Holy road we are on tonight
Catch as catch can till we get it right
Always… in this dark light
Always.
Tell me more than what you can guess
Feel like thunder then quick to forget
Always looking for what is not yet
Always.
Oooohh…
Lock the keys in my house tonight
Hit the steps for the morning light
Always looking for a new light
Always.

Lucky Seven

Last page of the poem "Us Two" from PW's mom's childhood copy of A.A. Milne's "Now We Are Six"

Note: I posted a lot of this last year under the title “Now we are six” for PW’s and my sixth anniversary, but I’ve made a few changes for Lucky Seven.

When I was first starting to come out to people in the early 1980s, two of the laments that I often heard were that I’d 1) never be able to have children and 2) never be able to get married.  Well, never say never to a Bull Girl. GForce is closing in on 15, and PW and I are celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary today.

Truth be told, it took me a long time to figure out how to get here, and like so much of life, some of the getting here happened while I was headed in the wrong direction.  I have needed massive amounts of patience, help, and luck along the way in order to hit this double jackpot at the end of my double rainbow. I still need massive amounts of patience, help, and luck to become both the mom and the wife I want to be.  Simply put, I always want to be better than I am so far at both of those roles.

I often marvel at the unrelenting surprise of getting to be married to PW. “Thanks for being married to me” is something we say to each other a lot. We’ve known each other for more than 22 years, we’ve been together for more than 12 years, and yet I continue to feel surprised after seven years of marriage.  Is it a constant state of grace, or an early sign of dementia?! Maybe there are cases where there’s no difference between the two and maybe this is one of them.

In the wee hours of the night, my Bull Brain is prone to some pretty goofy maneuvers — things I’d never let it try in the light of day.  What I wrote down some time last year — in the dark — was that marriage is like being pregnant with a child while you are raising it.  I would never have remembered this thought if I hadn’t been able to decode the scrawl in my bedside notebook, sandwiched between similarly scrawled lines of Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and a reminder to look something up on the Internet. [Last year after the “Now we are six” post, a childhood friend mailed me a pen that has a light at the end of it. No more writing in the dark! Thank you, Saundra, for helping to light my way.]

The idea of marriage as an exercise in being pregnant with the child you are simultaneously raising seems so much more appropriate to me than the metaphor of building a plane while we’re flying it, or of making it all up as we go along, both of which have their moments of truth as applied to the enterprise of marriage.  So much of the growth and development in marriage, or any covenant relationship, happens under the surface, deep in the bones or connective tissue of the covenant itself.  And sometimes it’s possible to see external evidence of this growth and development, but not always.  At least, not for me.

When I was pregnant with GForce, I remember being deeply curious about the baby girl who did her first bit of growing up inside me.   Would she be cute?  Would she have a distinctive personality?  Please, God, could she at least be funny? I know now that these are all check, check and check.  But as my pregnancy wore on, the whole mystery of this individual who was living inside me but whom I did not know was increasingly preoccupying.

Somewhere around the sixth or seventh month, I dreamed that I got out of bed, went into the bathroom and delivered the baby in a dream-enabled no-muss-no-fuss kind of way, right there on the 50s era pink and black tile floor.  As I sat there looking at her, I felt a deep sense of dream-calm wash over me.  In that same moment, the newborn in my dream looked up at me and said, “See, Mom, everything’s okay!”  Then she crawled back into my body and I went back to bed.  My waking anxiety about who this little sprout was dissipated, probably supplanted by the growing dread of, “Oh my god, this huge thing has to leave my body through THERE?!?!”  But I digress.

Sometimes my marriage is like that dream.  I’ll be chewing on some baffling mystery that’s taking up an increasing amount of space in my Bull Brain, and PW will call to check in, or I’ll come home to a bunch of flowers on the dining room table, or she’ll reach over wordlessly and rest her hand on my leg, and there will be some sort of silent, psychic shift that creates space where there wasn’t any before.  I don’t know how that happens; I just know that when the two of us stick together, as Pooh says above, amazing things happen.  Plus, we both love soup, and we could talk or not talk forever, and still find things to not talk about. To ask for any more than that seems downright greedy.

Today’s musical offering is an interesting twist on the traditional love song, as one might expect from the singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. I was first introduced to the song “Hard Bargain” on Emmylou Harris’ album of the same name, which was released earlier this year, so I’m using a video of one of her performances. “Hard Bargain” seems like the perfect love song to celebrate the seventh birthday of our marriage. The line “How’s a girl supposed to fail/with someone like you around?” really says it all.

Thanks for driving such a hard – and beautiful – bargain, baby.

Lyrics to “Hard Bargain” by Ron Sexsmith

I’m a bit run down, but I’m okay
I just feel like calling it a day
But you send me back to the start
You drive a hard bargain

Each time I’m heading for nowhere
Doomed and determined to go there
It seems I never get far
‘Cos you drive a hard bargain
You drive a hard bargain

How’s a girl supposed to fail
With someone like you around?
I’ve tried and tried to no avail
You just can’t seem to let me down
You drive a hard bargain

How’s a girl supposed to fail
With someone like you around?
I’ve tried and tried to no avail
You just can’t seem to let me down
You drive a hard bargain
You drive a hard bargain

So I’ll keep on playing that old song
‘Cos for all I know it’s where I belong
When the world is breaking my heart
You drive a hard bargain

You send me back to the start
You drive a hard bargain
You drive a hard bargain
I’m a bit run down, but I’m okay

Perspectives on Heaven

Malachi Ward's "Map of Heaven" (Click on it to buy it on his Etsy page)

For those of you following the Revised Common Lectionary’s recipe for how to make a Church Year, you know that this past Sunday was Ascension Sunday, when the readings and prayers celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven to join God and Holy “The Friendly” Ghost.

Last Sunday was also “Youth Sunday” at GForce’s church. The youth did all the readings, the prayers, and the sermon. As they were divvying up the various responsibilities, GForce apparently volunteered to preach. When my gaping mouth betrayed my excitement on hearing this, she explained, “If I have to get up in front of a bunch of people and read, I’d rather read my own words.” Look out, world. We might have a third-generation preacher in the making.

GForce also volunteered one of her friends (I’ll call her Stella) to preach with her. When I offered to spend a couple of hours with the two of them on Saturday morning to bat around some sermon ideas, they were surprisingly excited.

On the way over to Stella’s house, GForce and I were talking about this business of Ascension Sunday, and I reminded GForce of one of PW’s recurring preaching themes: when Jesus talked about heaven, he wasn’t talking about some faraway paradise that some of us get to go to after we die. Jesus’ life and ministry were about how heaven is very near, how heaven is at hand—right here and right now—when we focus on giving ourselves and others a chance at life BEFORE death: by feeding people who are hungry, giving water to people who are thirsty, sheltering people who are vulnerable, freeing people who are trapped, etc.

GForce thought about this for a bit and said, “Yeah, I like that. I don’t see the point of going to church just so you can get into a heaven that’s supposed to exist after you die.” Me neither, Grasshoppah.

GForce, Stella, and I had a delightful time together Saturday morning. It was inspiring to me to hear the different ways these two teenagers are chewing on what it means to call themselves Christians, what it means to participate in a church community, what it means to be privileged, what it means to be human.

When Sunday came, the girls did an amazing job of preaching together, and I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to the art form of the sermon (PW can attest to that). Many a wonderfully written sermon is thoroughly hosed by a preacher who doesn’t understand that a sermon is, above all, an oral art form.

GForce and Stella really got that, and it wasn’t something we talked about. They marked the text up to give themselves reminders to look up, to look at each other, to pause for emphasis. They spoke slowly, expressively, and confidently. They engaged the congregation. They got some laughs, and more than a few people had tears in their eyes at the end.

GForce and Stella have given me their permission to share the text of their sermon with you. I’ve marked some of the paragraphs for who was speaking, but I can’t remember exactly how they divvied everything up, and I kind of like how it blurs together like that.

GForce: For Youth Sunday, I volunteered to do this sermon, and I volunteered Stella, who was absent, to do it with me (pause). Because that’s just how it is in church. You volunteer, or you get volunteered.  (pause)

Stella: Luckily I didn’t mind at all, I was excited to write the sermon with GForce.

As you know, it’s also Ascension Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven. But Jesus’ life actually seemed to be about making heaven on earth – a place where hungry people are fed, like here at our Food Pantry, or where thirsty people have water to drink, like in the villages where St. Paul’s has worked in Honduras, a place where we can be cared about by others, and care for others, where we can put good out to get good in, and appreciate the beauty in the world.

Tracy Chapman has a song, some of you may be familiar with, it’s called “Heaven’s here on Earth”.

If we have faith in human kind
And respect for what is earthly
And an unfaltering belief
In peace and love and understanding
This could be heaven here on earth

I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise
Of ordinary people leading ordinary lives
Filled with love, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice
Heaven’s in our hearts

We looked up “ascend” in the dictionary. Apart from meaning to climb, or to go upwards, ascend also means “to come to occupy.” We believe that St. Paul’s is place where we volunteer to let Jesus into our own hearts, and we let Jesus be a part of our own lives. When we let him occupy our hearts and minds and thoughts, we can follow his ways to create the heaven he wants to exist on earth. Even though Jesus is not with us in the physical way that he was with his disciples thousands of years ago, Jesus is with us spiritually, and his teachings give us an example to live by, to try and make that heaven more alive on Earth.

I believe that confirmation is a part of that. We chose to step up, and claim our places in the Episcopal church so that we could come to occupy a part of it. When we were commissioned to be confirmed by Jeff, we were asked to carry hope in places of despair, to sow love in places of hatred, where there is doubt, faith, where there is sadness joy. This is the Heaven on Earth we both hope to make more prominent.

GForce: I was confirmed to be closer to the St. Paul’s community. I wanted to find out what Heaven means to me. I actually found out by writing this sermon. When Stella and I were discussing what we wanted to say, we spoke about how Jesus wants us to step up and have a life before we die, not just to hope for something better once we pass. Living in the moment, and trying our best to create a heaven under the soles of our feet, not only in the stars.

Stella: I joined the confirmation process part of the way through. I was living abroad when it all started but also, I was never baptized as a baby. My parents wanted me to decide what I wanted for myself in religion. So when I was offered the opportunity to be confirmed, just I dismissed it without much thought. But, when I returned from where I was living abroad, I returned to Sunday School and services. Although I didn’t have plans to be confirmed, I was asked to go on the New York trip. I had so much fun with my friends, and the Nightwatch program at St. John the Divine was eye-opening for me. Our mentor told me I could be baptized before confirmation, and then get confirmed with the rest of the group. I thought shortly before deciding I really wanted to go on the confirmation journey, and do it with my friends. I wanted to be a more solid part of St. Paul’s, and I wanted to explore God, to learn to listen to [God] more carefully, and find what [God] wants me to do. Right now, I think I understand that [God] wants me to do all these things that make Heaven more visible on Earth, to come to occupy my space in the church by showing up, participating in events like the Walk for Hunger, and letting Jesus occupy my heart more often and more deeply, both in and out of church.

St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.” Jesus ascended to come and occupy our hearts. We would like to take a moment for you to remember those you have lost in a physical way, and allow them to occupy this space with you, or to take a moment and let Jesus occupy your own heart.

(35 seconds of silence)

Amen.

That silence at the end was a brilliant touch. After they said “Amen,” their priest stood and led the congregation in a long round of applause, for them and for all the other teenagers who had led worship.

If you don’t know Tracy Chapman’s “Heaven’s Here on Earth,” I suggest you find it and listen to it. It’s on her “New Beginning” album.

With all the talk about heaven ringing in my head, my latest earworm has been Matraca Berg’s “South of Heaven,” from her new album, “The Dreaming Fields.” I have this weird habit of walking home from the bus at the end of the day while listening to songs that often make me cry. I don’t plan it that way, but it happens at least a couple of times a week. So far, no one has stopped their car to ask me if I’m okay. If they did, I’d invite them to listen in. The first time I heard this song the floodgates opened when, on the recorded version, it sounds like her voice cracks both times on the line in the third verse, “You are not the only one.”

South of Heaven, by Matraca Berg

Praise and worship, bow your heads.
Say a prayer for the too soon dead.
Call it God´s will, call it fate.
Call for mercy, it’s too late.

Chorus:
‘Cause this ain’t where the angels dwell:
south of heaven, north of hell.
21 guns and cathedral bells
south of heaven, north of hell,
south of heaven, north of hell.

Mothers hold your babies close.
Father, son, and holy ghost
cannot keep them safe on earth.
So throw your rose down in the dirt.

Chorus

Holy water, tears of pain
cannot wipe away the stain.
God, you gave your only son.
But you are not the only one.
No, you are not the only one.

Chorus

Hear the weeping, hear the knell
south of heaven, north of hell.