Monday, October 31, 2011

Redemption: The Power of Magic

Sometimes deep insights come in the most peculiar places.  The other day, I was sitting in a hot tub at a friend’s house, and we were talking about our childhoods.  The topic eventually got around to abuse I had suffered as a child and to how various Mormon doctrines of redemption had, over the years, affected how I had “processed” not only the abuse I myself experienced, but also the history of abuse in my family. 

As I was describing these doctrines to my non-Mormon friend, I experienced one of those moments in which I suddenly perceived, with stunning clarity, how doctrines in which I had passionately believed for almost 30 years were not only not true, but were mind-enslaving, soul destroying cancers that had eaten away at my sense of self for most of my life.

Such, alas, is the power of magic, the force of myth, carefully constructed.  It dispenses the elixir of sanity, bewitches the believer, holds out the promise of transformation and proffers hope ~ but, alas, all is vaporous.  


As I have written about from time to time on my blog, I experienced physical and emotional abuse when I was a child.  Without going into details, suffice it to say that my mother – who was twice hospitalized in psychiatric wards, who suffered from depression and debilitating migraines and who was addicted throughout the first 10-12 years of my life to both prescription diet pills (speed) and sleeping pills (barbiturates) – could be a short-tempered woman who was physically powerful and prone to violence.

My father, my mother and me
My father, for his part, was largely absent during those years.  It’s not as though I grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks,” however.  We were, by outward appearances, a respectable, middle-class religious (Catholic) family.  But appearances were deceiving.  My father was absent because his sales job often required him to be out of town and because he was a workaholic; and though he knew about some of the abuse, and probably suspected more, he was happy, I think, to just try to ignore it.  He had his own issues with my mother, and I think he willfully shut his eyes to much of what was going on at home.  He may have even been afraid of her.

As I got older, I tried to forget most of what had happened in my childhood.  What I didn’t manage to forget, I simply took in stride.  To me, it was my “normal.”  To the extent I held things against my mother, I justified her behavior in my own mind due to the fact that she had herself been abused as a child: her father was very abusive, as was his father before him. 

I well remember my grandmother, Nell, talking about my grandfather.  Nell divorced him in the depths of the Depression and was turned away by her own mother as a result.  Through sheer grit, she managed to make it through the Dirty Thirty’s with my mother and one of her brothers in tow, her older brothers being farmed out to other relatives.  Grandma described to me how my grandfather had pistol-whipped her, threatened her with a gun (until the neighbor lady came over, took the gun and threw it down the outdoor toilet), and otherwise abused her. 

Nell also described how mean her former father-in-law had been.  “Herman,” she once told me, “was mean,” – her high-pitched nasal voice accentuating the word “mean” as she stared off into the distance, holding a lit Lucky Strike cigarette in her hand – “then,” turning back to look at me and pointing her hand toward me, cigarette dangling, “he turned nice … Then, he died.”  Grandma flicked her cigarette into the ashtray as if to emphasize the finality of death, then turned away again, looking once more down the tunnel into the past.

I frankly never thought much about the abuse I had experienced as a boy (and the effect it had had upon me) until I joined the Church.  It was then, upon being confronted with a deeply shameful past and family legacy in the face of what appeared to me to be picture-perfect Mormon families, that I first felt the need and sought ways to whitewash or otherwise excuse my mother’s actions (and my father’s inaction) towards me when I was a boy, as well as my family’s shameful history of abuse.

I think I also believed for a time (again, as a way to cover the shame that I felt when I joined the Church) that my mother’s abuse – along with my father’s emotional abandonment - was why I had “turned out” gay.  I think I wanted – at least for a time - to believe this.  It was perhaps convenient for me to be able to blame her in this way for a “condition” that I didn’t want.

To be continued ...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Simply Sunday

“When we believe something to be the absolute truth,
we are closed.
We are no longer open to the understanding
and insight of other people,
and this is because the object of our faith
is just an idea, not a living thing.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home

“If the object of your faith is your direct experience
and your insight, then you can always be open …
If I believe that my notion about God,
about happiness … is perfect, I want very much
to impose that notion on you.  I will say
that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy.”

-          Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home


Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Endless Aching Need

This past week, I have been republishing selected posts from this past year in commemoration of the first anniversary of my blog.  I was not going to do another one, but recent events brought one additional post to mind, and I knew I had to publish it.  The original was written last January, and I changed names and circumstances at that time in order to protect my identity.  I no longer need to do that, and I want to now honor my brother, Danny, by using his real name and by describing what really happened to him.

Much has transpired in my life since I originally wrote this post.  The words I wrote last January have proven to be prophetic.  I am awakening in a springtime I never knew existed.


I’ve been thinking about my brother Dan lately. He was a little over two years older than me and died, too young, as a result of an endless aching need that was, tragically, never met.

Dan and I were constant companions when we were very young.  He was the very personification of the term “mischievous”: he got me into all sorts of trouble and, like most brothers close in age, we quarreled – and even fought – quite a bit.  As we got older, we sort of came to a fork in the boyhood road, and he turned one way with his group of friends, and I turned the other with my group of friends.  That’s the way it is supposed to be, I guess.

Dan, though talented athletically, never did very well in school.  Unfortunately, he received no end of grief from my mother about this as well as his “antics.”  As he got older, he started to get into more serious trouble, which involved alcohol and then drugs.  He eventually married, but that didn’t last too long.  He was an attractive man, and with his big blue eyes – what my fraternity brothers would have jokingly called “bedroom eyes” – and his long eyelashes that he could bat at just the right moments as required, he charmed many women.

Unfortunately, Dan always seemed to pick the wrong kind of girl.  To use a common phrase, he looked for love in all the wrong places, inevitably getting hurt after he had been used time and time again.  I could see what was happening:  he was trying to fill a gigantic hole in his heart that had been created when he was just a boy.  He turned to alcohol to fill the void; he turned to drugs; he turned to women who took advantage of his giving nature then left him.  His hole was never filled, and he died as the direct result of the way he had lived his life, still looking for the love that had eluded him all his life.

At his funeral, a song was sung by my sister that poignantly reflected the tragedy of Dan’s life.  I have been thinking about that song lately, and that made me think about Dan.  The words to the song have for years both haunted and inspired me.  Inevitably, they made me think of Dan.  The song:  “The Rose,” by Bette Midler.  Here are the lyrics:

Some say love, it is a river
that drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
that leaves your soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
an endless aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
and you its only seed.

It's the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance.
It's the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken,
who cannot seem to give,
and the soul afraid of dyin'
that never learns to live.

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been to long,
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong,
just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snows
lies the seed that with the sun's love
in the spring becomes the rose.

For Dan, love had definitely been a razor which left his soul to bleed – a hunger, an endless aching need that was never filled in mortality.  I spoke at Dan’s funeral and, while feeling his presence near, I felt sure that, though he had passed through many bitter snows in this life, in the springtime of eternity, the seed of love within him would blossom as the rose.

I cannot think of that experience or listen to this song without becoming emotional.  Yet, in recent weeks, this plaintive ballad has taken on deep, rich additional meaning to me – all the more so because this meaning came to me as though a message from “out there.”

One morning, a couple of weeks ago, I was out for my morning run.  It was dark and cold and I was listening to my iPod as I trudged along.  “The Rose” came on.  It had been my habit, on many occasions when that song came up, to skip over it because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the emotions that invariably accompanied listening to it.  On that morning, however, I resisted that temptation and let the music continue. 

As I listened, a realization gradually dawned on me as the morning sun casts its light over a waiting landscape.  The insight was stunning and caused me to stop in my tracks.  I listened to the words of the second verse: 

It's the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance. 
It's the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken, who cannot seem to give,
and the soul afraid of dyin' that never learns to live.

I began to sob right there on the street as I realized that these words described the coming out process that I had been going through the past several months.  My dreams had so long been afraid of waking, I had been afraid of being taken, afraid of dying, afraid of learning to live.  But all that had changed when I decided, after another message from “out there,” that I could no longer live the way I wasn’t.

I started to run again, but then the words of the third verse filled my soul with new and unlooked-for meaning: 

“When the night has been too lonely,
and the road has been to long,
and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong,
just remember in the winter,
far beneath the bitter snows,
lies the seed that with the sun's love in the spring becomes the rose.”

For me, the bitter snows had for so long symbolized the abuse I had suffered as a child and the affects of that abuse that had blanketed my inner core as with ice for so much of my life.  But on that dark winter morning, the new meaning that came to me, that changed me forever, was that these words described perfectly the inner yearnings I had experienced for most of my life to be loved and to love as I was made to love – as a gay man. 

As this realization came to me and I again stopped, sobs arising unbidden, I was totally overcome as I contemplated the concluding words and realized that my coming out represents the sun’s love, and that – at long last – the seed that has been buried within me can blossom in the springtime. 

But this was not all.  Accompanying these realizations was a tangible feeling of love, both from “out there” as well as arising from within, and a feeling of total and complete acceptance – and peace.  For perhaps the only time in my life, I felt “at one” as these feelings from without reached out and joined with the feelings that arose from within me, uniting, harmonizing, healing. And just at that moment, for a whisper of a second, I sensed Dan near, smiling, and I realized that he was the source of at least part of the love I was feeling at that moment.

Here, then, is Bette Midler performing this song that has affected me so deeply for so long - and which now, nine months after I originally wrote this post, has even more profound meaning for me.  I am grateful for the springtime ... for awakened dreams ... for being taken ... and for the sun's love.