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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Life and Death of One Good Man

This past weekend I gathered with some of my dearest friends I have to attend the Tunbridge fair and the small town of Tunbridge VT. I started going five years ago, though many of my friends had been going for years.

Four years ago it was an especially important fair, though at the time, none of us knew it. It was the last time a very dear friend to us, Rob, would be with his friends. I was so blessed that after losing touch with him for sometime I really got to spend some quality time with him that weekend, it was amazingly special to me at the time, then hearing that he died just a few hours after I had been with made it all the more tragic…and magical.

For months after his death I listened to this song several times a day.

When I Get Where I'm Going by Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton

Rob was a military man, an outdoorsman, a man devoted to his parents and sisters and brothers, a good friend, and a man of deep passion and love. He had a deep hearty laugh and a strong firm hug. His death was sudden and completely unexpected. It really impacted this small group of gay men in VT who loved him dearly.

Rob lived a full and rich life with close family and good friends, but, like many gay men of the boomer generation, couldn’t bring his worlds together and lived closeted deeply divided life. His life ended somewhat accidentally, but the closet killed him as surely as if someone had killed him with gun. I know it has forever made me think of all the closet doors that are closed so tightly, of the scores of men and women around the world barricaded behind high walls that are built with the bricks of depression, alcohol and drugs. If you want to read the whole story, see the book Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care by Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook and Karen Montagno, I wrote chapter 19 on pastoral care with gay men and I used pieces of the story of Rob’s life and death to talk about the many issues gay men face and about the issues pastors and counselors should take into account if they really want to help us.

Personally, his death is perhaps one of the single hardest things I have ever been through. I would say it took my most of a year to feel like myself again, though after the first few weeks were over I hid the depth of feelings I was experiencing from most of the people around me. Few of my friends or family heard me talk about Rob even though I had known him for many years before he died. Perhaps the closet he lived into blended into our relationship too. I know that closet door kept us like two ends of a rubber band, stretching far apart and snapping back together over and over again over many years.

I can’t completely explain why his death hit me so hard and frankly I don’t want to. Sometimes, when we try to explain everything, we rob the experience of its authenticity and power. When we reduce something down to an “explanation” rather feel the experience of it, something is lost.  If you have ever taken a seashell or a rock home from a beach you know what I mean. It is never as wonderful and beautiful as it was on the beach.

I know that his loss, the loss of this kind, good man, very fundamentally changed me and how I think and feel. His death happened right as I entered my 40’s, at a time when many of us begin to realize that we are around the mid point of our lives, the place where there are as many years behind us as head of us. Seeing him again after a long separation, only to lose him in a matter of hours was a hard reminder of how fragile hope, love and life is for us all.

I learned many lessons through the experience of knowing, loving and losing Rob, but rather than try to sum it up, I hope some of what I have posted here tells more of the story.

The End of Summer (for Rob) by Chris Medeiros
The end of summer approaches.
The days grow shorter, the air cooler.
The bears know the long winter is coming, and they play in the September sun, relishing in the dwindling days of sunlight, celebrating the sheer joy of time with friends before the long winter’s sleep.
The leaves know too, they explode with their brightest and most beautiful faces before they brown and the fall away.
The September clouds grow and cover more and more of the once summer…now fall… indigo sky.
We celebrated the last gasp of summer together, never imagining….
I knew about the shorter days, the cooler air, bright falling leaves, and the growing clouds, but I didn’t know the how much the fall wind would take…
Winter is not yet here, yet there seems no warmth anywhere,
The nights are cold,
In mourning, even the thickest wool blankets feel threadbare against my skin.
Winter will come and be colder without you.
It is so hard to believe there can ever be spring…and yet….spring will come

As the calendar marches on and the winter clouds will thin and float away
When the spring sun melts the ice and warms the cold earth and I will remember how you could melt my blues and grays away with a look, a smile, a hug
When I feel the warm breeze will remember your open heart
I will feel spring again
I will remember you
I will smile
But in my heart,
Even on the clearest spring day,
The sky will never be as blue as your eyes.

From Rob’s Memorial at the home of Ivan and Mongo, South Royalton, VT October 1, 2006
I first met Rob several years ago in Provincetown. We had an instant rapport. I just couldn’t resist that easy smile and that natural charm. From the first words over fours ago in Ptown to the last goodbye in the living room of this house hours before he passed away, Rob was in my heart.  For so many reasons, we fell in and out of touch over the the many years we knew one another. We often went for months, without seeing each then somehow magically, the universe would snap us back into each other’s lives again and again.

I feel blessed that on the last weekend of his life, we found other again and got to see all the wonderful changes in him as he came back home to Vermont. Rob was home, happy and the most comfortable in his own skin I have seen. Neither of us realized how short that reunion would be.

I am so grateful to have had Rob in my life, he taught me so many things. Rob had a way of being so real and so down earth, in a way doesn't come easily to everyone. Rob reminded me that basic simple things, like good friends, good food, strongly laughter and sitting in the sun can be the most joyful things in the world. Rob took me camping for the first time I have ever been and I learned the bliss of listening to birds, walking in the woods, feeling the breeze and just being with someone you care about, doing nothing in particular.
Rob had few expectations of people, yet gave to the people cared about with an open heart. Rob was not always a big talker, especially about his feelings, but he taught me that you can communicate more genuine love with smile, a hug and most importantly the way you live your life and any words can ever express.
To say I loved Rob is not enough. Rob was “home” to me, as warm, loving, familiar and natural a part of my life as anyone has ever been to me. If we are very lucky in this life, we encounter a few people, perhaps a handful, who we love and trust instantly, whose souls we recognize as bonded to our own, people who enter our hearts as fully and naturally as blood flows through our veins. Rob was always that for me. Rob and I were lucky to have a home in our dear friend here Ivan as well.

All of us are so lucky to have Rob in our lives in some many ways we did, our friend, our brother.  There were many homes for Rob.

The “home” Rob came from and maintained in relationship with his family. People as good and decent as Rob don’t just appear out of nowhere, they come from love. Anyone who knew Rob at all knew his deep love for his family. Perhaps his own personal demons kept him from sharing parts of his life with those he loved, but in no way did that ever altered the depth of his love and commitment to his family. From his family, Rob developed his hard working nature, integrity, strength of character and generosity. All of these things drew wonderful people around him all of his life.

The other major home for Rob was his family of friends, especially those that gathered around this place. Ivan and Mongo, created this place of love and that is and has been home in some way to many of us.  All of Rob’s friends helped him, through simple the act of friendship, to come to love and accept himself more and more. When will all lost that remarkable man, he had changed. He was miles from Rob I met in Provincetown, who was always figuratively and literally looking over his shoulder. During his last few days on earth, Rob was laughing and celebrating with dear friends in this place, with people who he loved and who loved him very much. I hope that we all have the gift of our last days being so happy and filled with love.

The other for Rob home the natural and beauty of the trees, the forest, the sky, the wind, the place Rob's soul always lived and always will and that is where I will always look for him.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sybil, RuPaul and the magic closet we can all have

Many of you have seen the TV movie Sybil with Sally Field about a woman who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder.) In the film, the main character has many well developed and distinctive personalities. Similarly, you may also have heard of a woman named Truddi Chase wrote a book called “When Rabbit Howls” in 1987 about her experiences with the same disorder. Both of these women suffered terrible repeated physical and sexual abuse as children. While many looking at DID from the outside may it as a height of mental illness, if can actually be viewed as a defense against madness. One theory of DID, it was it is a phenomenon that occurs among very creative people and that this people split off as a way of not going crazy. The abuse, and the memories of the abuse and the complex emotions around them are too much for one person to handle, so the creating of different personalities is away of shuttling memories and emotions into different parts of mind so that the trauma is not to overwhelming.

DID is at the extreme end of the spectrum of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Very seldom do people have discreet personalities like Sybil and Truddi Chase, but a much larger group of people suffer from a variety of dissociative disorders where parts of themselves, their personalities, emotions, memories are “split” off from one another. These people may have gaps in memory, sudden mood swings or emotion disjoints, like crying but not feeling sad or feeling extreme emotion but lacking the ability to express it clearly or openly. There also people who act and even appear completely different in different situations or with different people, but they do not have fully separate personalities. These can arranged on a long spectrum from at the more functional end the closeted lesbian who is one person in the gay world and another with her family to, at the totally pathological end, the decorated fire chief who is a well respected member of the community but has a secret life torturing and killing prostitutes.

As some of you know that this week I am starting a year long extensive study in Existential-Psychoanalytic Therapy as I slowly work my way back to seeing psychotherapy clients again. I am a little nervous about the class (this isn’t light stuff and requires a lot of self analysis) but I am much more excited, than I am nervous. I am sure my experiences in that group with fuel some VERY interesting blog postings during the coming year.! What interests me it the approach of this professor and this group is the philosophy behind this class. We will be exploring what we call mental or psychological disorders as very human ways of seeing the world. Not all ways of seeing the world are equally healthy or functional, but nevertheless they are human. Some are personality styles, common differences among people, but others, like those on the disassociate disorder spectrum can paralyze peoples lives and stop, hinder or blunt lives. Some people learn to split themselves off so well, in a way that is so natural to them, that it is almost second nature. At an extreme, thesen people aren’t even sure what their real self is because they are so split off they stop being able to imagine themselves as whole. When these get extreme and limit the way people function in life or block their ability to be happy, therapy and sometimes medication are good and necessary aids to helping people get their lives back under some control.

Yet, from styles to disorder, there are things we can learn from trauma and disassociation. Don’t we all have memories or bit of memories we don’t understand? Haven’t we all had trauma and suffered some abuse in some way? Don’t we get depressed and have mood swings? Don’t we all split of parts of ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, at different time with different people?

So why am I concluding my closet series talking about this?

I think we all are different selves with different people and I don’t always think it is a bad thing. I might talk about them same topic at work, with my mother and with my friends in very different ways. I “perform” the roles of son, co-worker and friend in different ways. Different clothing or costumes both change the person wearing the clothes and may change how people who see them treat them. Clergy people learned long ago that their vestments can allow them to feel powerful and holy and radically change how people treat them.

Of late I have been slightly addicted to two shows created by one of the most famous living drag queens, RuPaul, on LOGO, Drag Race and Drag U. I am not a drag queen and have never felt a pull toward that, yet I love these shows! They show that, using clothes and makeup people can access and express parts of themselves that they don’t normally. While Drag is different for different people, for many effeminate gay men, drag is a way of taking the very thing that they were teased about and turning on its head and creating strong, clever, sarcastic and powerful characters for themselves. They come bigger than life. The show Drag U is a very interesting show because the whole objective is to invite biological women, who have felt ugly and powerless, come on the show enroll in “school” to have drag queens can teach theses women how to create a drag persona and become more powerful and confident, to find their inner Drag queen. Drag takes the idea that women are weaker and powerless and turns it on its head to create powerful, almost superhero-like human beings.

As I stated in the other postings on this blog, I think in general the closet is a terrible place. Not being able to be who you are is destructive to the closeted person and those around them. However, there are many ways that being different things to different people at different times is very functional and a very good way to explore different part of yourself that aren’t always easy to access. Drag is only one good example. So is dressing up or down in ways you aren’t used to. If you are always in T-shirt and jeans type, look for something dresser that you like, and try that once in awhile. If you are never in jeans or t-shirt, try that! Institutions create dress codes and uniforms because they understand that you can push people into both behaving differently and have people treat each other differently just using clothes.

Clothes, however, are not the only way to access different parts of the self, there is makeup, voice, ways of walking, posture…in other words, theater! If you have something scary you have to do in life, pretend you are a strong confident person, create a character, give him/her a name, a history, a walk and an attitude. Pretending/performing/acting are actually ways to explore even more real parts of ourselves, of our potential. If you walk into a situation pretending to be confident, acting like a character that is different from how you normally think of yourself, that act of that performance is actually a part of the real you!

The closet can be a locked prison where people are trapped in or lock themselves in or it can be a place of potential liberation filled with magical options that make life more interesting and powerful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are you in a spiritual closet?

The spiritual closet refers to the ways we can split off our spirituality from our lives, and our families and friends.

The image of what it means to be a good solid American encourages the spiritual closet, especially if you don’t fit that image (and nobody fits it totally.) To be an ideal American is to be a generic Protestant with a belief in God, and who attends church semi-regularly. The good American does not get too passionate about his or her faith. Even in our churches, talking about our personal beliefs or experiences with the divinity is not encouraged, especially if they seem to contradict what is taught in church. A good American also doesn’t follow their faith to the letter, but also never seriously questions their faith. Good Americans are mildly Christian (though Roman Catholics are suspect)….maybe Jewish…but anything else isn’t seen as quite American. As the US population adds more Roman Catholics and Muslims to its ranks this is changing, slowly, however the idealized, slightly secularized, American protestant is a persistent idealized image in the American psyche. Take for example, the office of president, religion MUST come up in every election. Did that ideal play any part in John McCain not choosing Jewish Joe Lieberman as his running mate? Do you think that a presidential candidate who was Hindu or an atheist would have a chance in an election today’s America? Remember, in the US we have had exactly one non-protestant president, JFK. Just think of how the false belief that President Obama is a Muslim has spread fear and hate of the president throughout the US.

Here are a few examples of the spiritual closet, but there are many, and I daresay, dear reader, you likely find others from your own life.

  • A college professor who follows the teachings of ‘Amma’, the hugging guru of India, but hides that fact for fear of being mocked by his colleagues and fear it will lessen his creditability as an academic. Following a spiritual practice that is new or far form the traditional religions might mean her coworker sees her as “flakey” and “ungrounded.” Those perceptions can have very real concrete consequences with regard to things like promotions, committee appointments, tenure debates, etc.
  • A gay man who attends church regularly never mentions to his faith to his other gay friends, effectively creating another closet. Among large segments of the LGBT Americans, seeing that opposition to equal rights for LGBT people is VERY often religiously motivated, has not only turned away from religion, but views it as oppressive and dangerous. These people might view a LGBT religious person as a kind of spiritual Uncle Tom. 
Church of the Poison Mind

  • A Roman Catholic couple decides to use the pill because they don’t want to have anymore children. They don’t feel guilty about it; in fact their marriage feels stronger, their family closer and more loving since they started. They see this reality, not as something to be explored or put in dialogue with Catholic teachings, but it is their own falling short, therefore something to be ignored and hidden away.

  • An orthodox Jewish woman gets married and has children with an orthodox Jewish man who she no feelings for, even though she is in love with a reform Jewish man. She has been taught that good orthodox girls can only marry good orthodox men no matter how they feel. She can’t accept that her feelings or believe that her genuine love can possibly be in dialogue with her faith. She is never herself with her family, and the family is never as close as it could be. Sshe is often depressed, hopeless, and feels disconnected from others.

As I see it, there are two sides to the spiritual closet, the "in-door" and the "out-door."

The “in-door” is the closet where we keep our spirituality hidden from others. It is the story of the first two examples above.

In the so called “intellectual” northeast being a person of faith can be viewed negatively. People will hide their spiritual beliefs from others so they will not be viewed as ignorant, superstitious or old fashioned. Those who are followers of traditional religions can be viewed as old fashioned and too traditional. They can be seen as dull and not creative. People who follow eastern or more new age spirituality can be viewed as ungrounded and superficial. If you take a yoga practice too seriously, you’re a hippie, if you don’t eat meat on Friday during lent, you are old fashioned. Someone might also choose to be closet if their religion/spiritual practice is very different from others around them. There might be some huge disadvantage being “out” such as in the case of being the only Muslim in southern bible belt town or the only Baptist in a small, almost completely Mormon, Utah town.

What I call the “out-door” closet describes hiding the experiences and insights you have gathered in your life from being in active dialogue with your spirituality. Many people believe that the tradition, ritual, rules, etc, of their spirituality are the “real” truths and their lived experience must always take a back seat to the tradition. In the scenario above, the last two examples are of the “out-door.” Even though their experience of using birth control is actually a very good one in the context of their marriage, they would not dream of putting that truth up against the Vatican teaching on birth control. This line of thinking says that church must be right and the lived experience must be wrong.

I will never forget something someone once said in a class I was taking “most people would rather believe in a good religion where they fall short than believe they might be right and their religion might be wrong.” We somehow feel more in control blaming ourselves rather than an unjust teaching or bad doctrine.

It is the spiritual equivalent of what happens to battered children, namely surviving trauma. From birth through childhood children are dependant on those who parent them for everything from love to food. The child’s nature means that s/he will do everything s/he can to survive and thrive. Children need their parents to love and care for them, no matter how abusive those parents may be. Children who are abused have to love their abusers to survive. The problem comes when they grow up and they can’t out grow loving the abuser. Often times they then find themselves in abusive relationships because those kinds of relationships they feel loving to them. It is the same reason I think parents who stay in an unhappy marriage “for the sake of the children” aren’t doing the kids any favors…but that is for another blog entry…

I think many of our religious traditions have abused us. As adults we know better, yet we do nothing, because the religion can’t be wrong, only our experience can be wrong. Even when our experience tells us that a piece of doctrine is wrong, we doggedly bury that knowledge, so that we may continue to be “loved” by that faith.

During the course of my seminary education I was quite amused by the hubris implicit in the conclusions of theological debates in the early Christian church. During those times, different Christian groups debated things like the trinity and the exact nature of humanity and divinity of Jesus. What amused me was that somehow, these questions were “settled” by the councils of the church, never to be questioned again. Somehow, at sometime, somewhere, somebody looked at all the different views of trinity and Jesus’ nature and decided which were right and which were wrong; end of story.

Now perhaps you can do that in science to a degree, you can have a hypothesis, test it and come up with a scientific law or theory, but in theology? To me, the task of every spiritual person is revisit all the questions of their faith as if they were exploring them for the first time. I don’t believe that we should ignore history and tradition, but nor should be assume the conclusions of the past must be our conclusions and must be the higher truth.

Take for example slavery. It is quite clear that the bible, at the very best, says nothing negative about slavery as an institution. At worse, the bible appears to support the institution. While slavery in America was a different institution than the one that existed in biblical times, many preachers who supported slavery before and during the civil war in the US used the bible to support their case. Quite honestly, it is very easy to build a strong case for the institution of slavery using the bible. In order to hold on to the bible as a spiritual tool and do what is right and just, you have bring our own sense of right and wrong to the reading of the bible…That is coming OUT of the spiritual closet, that is saying this holy book and the sacredness of human wisdom and experience MUST talk to one another.

One often heard saying is that one should never talk about politics or religion. One of the reasons is to avoid uncomfortable conversions and conflict, but I believe we also avoid these discussions because we are uncomfortable discussing the spiritual. I think that many people are much more uncomfortable talking about their personal experience of the divine than they are about sex. Part of this is because we have not learned to respect and learn from the spiritual differences among people. We don’t know how to be both passionate and committed to our beliefs without somehow degrading someone else who believes completely differently. Some people think that it is impossible, that if you are really committed to your faith you can’t believe someone else could also be right.

I have to say, I couldn’t disagree more.

I think that one can be committed to a spiritual path, all the while acknowledging that in the realm of spiritual exploration there is ALWAYS more to learn and that learning is a spiritual task. The only way to deeply explore your faith is to know it could be wrong and be willing to let it go. Working a seminary, I have seen this process happen again and again. As seminary students begin to study the work of different theologians and learn different ways to study the bible, they find the way they think of their faith is radically shaken. While I have seen this cause people to change faiths or give up on religious faith altogether, more often than not I see people retain their faith, but with new eyes. They mature and “come out.”

We can live a life of a faith without being rigid; we can learn a healthy spiritual humility that is both more open and flexible. We have the option, the ability, to bring all of who we are to our spiritual explorations. We also have the option of seeing our faith, our spirituality less as membership in club and more as tool we have at our disposal to explore and uncover the truths that live in our experiences on this earth.

My favorite way to revision faith is music... thank you Bobby McFerrin

23rd Psalm- written for his mother