Thursday, September 15, 2011

Changed, for good

I have had 7 addresses, in 5 cities, in 8 years...and two of those cities I lived in for 2 years apiece. So the last several years have been, to put it mildly, "transient." "Nearly rootless" might be a better word.

That very transience has made me value the people who have connected with me - some of them at a very, very deep level, very quickly. But I guess I had been in some denial about how deeply those connections have affected me, until I learned of the death of one of those connections recently - my friend Ernie M.

It was May 2009, and Chris and I had just moved to Champaign-Urbana a couple weeks earlier. We had moved for Chris's job...and he had connections he was making at work. I was working from home, and the only personal connections I was making were those at AA meetings. One of the meetings I had gotten a little comfortable and settled-into early-on was the Monday Night Men's (MNM) AA meeting.

I distinctly remember the first time I referred to my significant-other as my "partner" at Monday Night Mens, at the second MNM meeting I attended. In my mind, the temperature in the room dropped about five or ten degrees, and I was afraid I might have outed myself to a not-so-friendly crowd.

But no sooner was the meeting over than this big fellow reached out to me as I headed toward the door after the meeting. He introduced himself as Ernie M., grabbed me in his big ol' paws and half-shouted, "SO...why don't you come to DINNER with us?..." Ernie's attitude made it very clear that he had decided I was welcome, whether anyone else thought so or not.

I couldn't go to dinner that night, because I'd already committed to dinner at home with Chris. But I got the message (not a new message, either) that  my immediate gut-reaction had been nothing but unfounded, baseless fear - and forever afterward I was grateful for Ernie's very-typically unsubtle invitation and welcome.

As I started to attend dinners after the Monday meetings, Ernie also made sure that Chris knew he was  welcome to join us when he got off work. Chris quickly got roped into the Monday Night Men's dinner circle, even if it was just to stop by and have a soda as we were wrapping up our meal. Chris and I also had several dinner and open meetings with Ernie and his wife Jane.

Jane really seemed to connect with Chris, and while we could go months without the two of us seeing the two of them as "couples," we always seemed to just pick right up where we left off whenever we would connect. Ernie helped organize our farewell dinner potluck when we left Champaign-Urbana for Springfield, MO earlier this year, and we managed to stay in regular contact through email and Facebook after we left C-U.

Ernie had struggled with health issues several times in the two short years we knew him - and he had a stubborn habit of waiting at least 48 hours after "we should get to the hospital" would have been a good idea. So it wasn't overly surprising when we heard that he'd been admitted to the hospital in Urbana on Friday, September 2nd. He always pulled through before...

But by Saturday, we knew Ernie was in trouble - heart problems, kidney failure, infection, you name it. A line from Wayne Watson's song "Home Free" rang in my head as we waited for news, 400 miles from our ailing friend:

Out in the corridor, we pray for life
A mother for her baby, a husband for his wife
Sometimes the good die young, it's sad but true
But while we pray for one more heartbeat
Our real comfort is with You...
By Tuesday, the Red Cross had been notified to bring Ernie's son Duane back from Afghanistan, and hope had dwindled to simply, "Please, God, just let him hold on until his son makes it home."

Duane hit the ground in Champaign on Friday, September 9th, about 11 am. And shortly after 2 PM, the CPAP keeping Ernie's  lungs going was shut off, and our friend died peacefully in the presence of his family and friends. Ernie M. was 65 years old, 36 years married, and 19 years sober.

I heard that the Monday Night Men's meeting after Ernie's death went well beyond their typical 6:30 closing time. His 19-year coin sat on an empty chair, as the stories abounded about Ernie - especially his humor, his encounters with newly-sober folks, and his work with recovering veterans (he was a very proud Vietnam vet). If I could hope for a way to be remembered by my various home groups, that surely would be my first choice - to be "absent in body, present in spirit" and remembered for caring for others....

I'd gently mention, at this point, that Ernie was no saint. As loving as he could be, he also had a strong streak of bull-in-the-china-shop too. He had character features that sometimes went far beyond "charming eccentricity" - as we all do. That's why I would veto any petition for sainthood for Ernie, me, or anyone else I know in our little club. Ernie was perhaps what writer Ray Bradbury called "a porcelain genius - that is to say, cracked but brilliant."

But his presence changed people. I know he changed me.

A couple days after Ernie died, I went into a funk - thinking not only about Ernie but to a whole host of people who have changed my life in powerful ways across the last 20 years. People who my new friends in Springfield would never get to know, except for whatever could be seen of those distant folks in me. People  like my first sponsor, Bob S., whose mind is still pretty sharp, even as he struggles with Alzheimer's. Bob's inimitable ex-wife, Brooke K., one of the first real definitions of "tough love" I met in our fellowship. Jon P., who invited me to Frisch's Big Boy after my first meeting and showed me the meaning of "giving it away." Brian D., the executive-turned-artist, who helped show me how to corral anger, rather than letting it run free.  A whole bunch of crazy Irishmen and Polacks from the Toledo Monday Night Men's group, who showed God's love in the most irreverent ways.

And then the Kansas folks - my first Kansas sponsor, Bruce F., who told me "you'll have to deal with these issues of sexuality, sometime," thirteen years before I was willing to look at them. Crusty old Frank K., who continued to ask "Are you running for mayor again, Goddammit?" every time I went around shaking hands at the Lenexa "Basement Boys" meeting. Nick T. and Barry H., who walked me through some very tough times in later sobriety. Barry G., Lee Z., and so many others who went on in death way too soon.

The Chicago folks - Tom S. and Michael D., who gently herded me out of the closet like a pair of border collies (never pushing, but gently nipping at the heels). Fred K., the first person in the Chicago fellowship to welcome me.  The crazy group at the Fireside Men's group - artists, musicians, comics, executives, and good ol' boys.

And Champaign-Urbana - the whole Monday Night Men's crowd, but especially my sponsor Terry S., Scott S., Ernie, John C., Bill B., Jim E., Robin H., Rockin' Rodney, Mike H. And Karen C., Doug B., Gil T., Andy C., Jason E., and so many others.

It's a fool's errand, trying to list them all - I could be here all day and night, thinking of the men and women who have blessed me by their friendship, both in and out of our fellowship and here in the blogosphere. As I have left them, they have left pieces of their heart with me. Right now, I am just feeling the absence rather strongly. I will never be able to sit down with each one of them and let them all know how much they have changed my life...but I know they have.

I was sitting here late one night, thinking about this "band of brothers and sisters," when I was reminded of a beautiful song that said what I could never say to each of them in person. The song needs a little background, though...

Wicked is a musical based on the novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." The musical is told from the perspective of the witches of the Land of Oz: Elphaba, the misunderstood girl with emerald-green skin, and Galinda, later Glinda, the beautiful, ambitious and popular blonde. Wicked tells the story in which these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North while struggling through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest and, ultimately, Elphaba's public fall from grace.

Near the end of the show, the two women confront each other, and forgive each other for all grievances, acknowledging they have both made mistakes. Elphaba makes Glinda promise to take charge in Oz, allowing Elphaba to disappear. The two friends embrace for the last time before saying goodbye forever.  This song, "For Good," describes how each one has been changed by the other. In the Broadway performance, it is a duet with Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

Here is the song, with the lyrics included in the video. Listen along, and know that I owe a debt I can never repay to a whole host of men and women, who have woven pieces of their lives into my own story. I will always be thankful for all those - past, and present - who have changed me, for good.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Branching out....

I am not done posting here.

But I am finding the need to post things that don't need to remain anonymous. I'd like to be able to talk on some topics that don't require anonymity...and I'd like to share some of the things I've written here with a wider audience.

So I've started a new blog over at A Bubble Off Square

The first post can be found over here.

The title comes from a term I often heard from older men when I was growing up..."that guy is just a bubble off square." It's a carpentry term, and refers to using a level to indicate whether an item was built "square."  If the angles were precisely level or vertical, a bubble would appear centered between two vertical lines. If the item were not level or not vertical, the bubble would show as crossing those two vertical guide lines. If the item were really off-kilter, the whole level bubble would be outside the guide lines...hence "a bubble off square" was the equivalent of saying "that's really not right" or "that guy is way off." 

(My mom would say it differently: "That boy is not wrapped right, or tight.")

One thing to confess, up front: I haven't really received the gift of brevity, yet. The second post proves that I am still capable of an epistle or two. (In fairness, the ideas behind post #2 have been churning for a while now. It all just kind of came out at once.)

I will still be posting here... and I will likely steal some of my stuff from here and cross-posting it over there. Forgive me - even though I think I know what I'm doing, sometimes.

Stay tuned....

Friday, April 01, 2011

"And so it begins..."

Actually, it's been underway for about a month - preparations to relocate to a new address have been going for a while, now.

Chris's job has been what one generous soul would call "a hot mess" for more than a year. It has been degenerating for at least a year, and he's been developing a case of "homesick" that's been getting more and more obvious over that same year. We had been looking at relocating someplace further south - Charlotte, NC was a prime candidate - but the "homesick" part started to grow, fueled in part by something not far from a miracle.

Chris and his parents have not had the best of relationships - a combination of old hurts and their resistance to his orientation. When he left his hometown to come to Toledo to be with me, the phone lines were silent from New Years' to Mothers Day, and even after that, there wasn't a lot of phone traffic between Mothers' Day and Christmas.

But things started to change last July when we went down to visit for his birthday, and the turnaround since then has been really miraculous. And when it was time to decide our new destination, Chris finally admitted that where he would like to go was back to his hometown of Springfield, MO.

So, after spending a bunch of time on Craigslist and surfing the property management sites in Springfield, we went down and found a great two-bedroom duplex with a two-car garage and a little deck on the south side of the city. A quiet neighborhood, but one pretty accessible to almost anything, about 25% bigger than the place we're in now, and about $50 a month cheaper. We got the approval on Monday, and the process has begun.

The word has been out before this...I let people in the recovery community know a month or so ago, and Chris had his notice given for him about the same time. He  made the mistake of telling one of his supposedly-trustworthy co-workers (on that person's last day at work) that he planned to be leaving also - which meant that in a flash, his whole department, including his manager, had the word also. Chris's co-workers are bumming, big-time - he's been a key-player there for more than a little while - but he's put the "going to be with my parents" spin on it, so they can hardly fault him. I would guess that if anyone else could come up with a half-way-decent job, they'd be out-de-door too...

It's harder for me...I've lived in Toledo for 17 years, and in Chicago for three, so the lack of scenery is hardly a new or difficult thing for me, as it is for Chris. Where I've been has largely been a function of the people, especially in the recovery community - so this is a kind of tearing-apart for me that Chris isn't experiencing, so much. I've just been here long enough to put down the kind of roots that hurt when they're pulled-up, so this is a different experience for me.

And yet, it's not so very different...I left a loving church and recovery community in KC when I went to seminary, and had some pretty solid roots in the Chicago recovery community when I left for Toledo. Looking from that standpoint, I was in KC for 12 years, Chicago for 3, Toledo for 2, and Champaign/Urbana for 2 (almost to the day). It feels like I've been saying "goodbye" and "hello" for quite a while. Not to mention that with Chris's move to Toledo, my move in with Chris, our joint move to C-U, and now the move to Springfield, we will have made four moves in 3-1/2 I'm ready to be shut of moving-boxes, bubble-wrap and Penske trucks for a while.

The plan is to be 95-98% packed by Easter Sunday, April 24th, and to wrap up on Thursday, 4/28, have folks from "Two Men and A Truck" load the truck on Friday, drive down there by Friday night, have the "Two Men" folks unload us Saturday afternoon, and be residents of Springfield on May 1st. We'll see how it all works out. But for now, back to packing...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Faith, belief, and finding community

Yes, I have been gone too long. Yes, I have some catching up to do. Sorry, it's going to have to wait....

A friend of mine recently decloaked as a fellow blogger, Ravenmoon at Becoming A Perfect Mom. Her post Not beliving, a lonely business brought me a flashback from my Church History experience with Dr. Kurt Hendel at LSTC. Here's my flashback word, with its Wikipedia reference:

Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek ἀδιάφορα "indifferent things") was a concept used in Stoic  philosophy to indicate things which were outside of moral law – that is, actions which are neither morally mandated nor morally forbidden. [emphasis added]

Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.

(And yes, I know - some of my seminary friends could do a whole sermon series on what's wrong with that definition. But it's close enough for the purpose at hand.)

I love this concept. One of the best ideas I got from seminary. It's "the stuff we agree not to argue about." It doesn't mean we agree on how we do it - only that this thing (whatever it is) will not separate us, in faith, friendship or fellowship. The opposite, I guess, of "adiaphora" is "anathema" - the stuff that is utterly rejected or "beyond the pale," as they used to say. It put names to things that I'd felt all my life.

Being a closeted gay man in the church meant that I was always the "other" in the group. I often found myself reading the Bible and looking for the Scripture passage that would somehow "vote me off the island" of salvation. (It's not a good way to read it, by the way.)

I knew, from the way I heard God's supposed words preached, that God liked "us" and didn't like "them," and while I knew that I loved God and I wanted to be like "us," I also knew that at rock-bottom, I was "them."  (Trust me, I have since learned much differently, and found great acceptance for the "thems" among us).

First, I was a former Catholic in a Lutheran church. This was definitely an us-vs-them thing! However, I received a pure inspiration one day, when someone said, "But you weren't BORN Lutheran! How can you preach effectively to life-long Lutherans?!?" The gift I believe God gave me was simply this: "Correct me if I'm wrong - but I thought Martin Luther was a former Catholic - and somehow he turned out OK..."

I was also a childless, profane and divorced man and a recovering alcoholic in a church full of happy and polite families (or so they would have had us believe). But as I threw myself into service, they came to love me despite my "rough edges" and "unfortunate earlier life."

The gay thing, though, was one from which I could never get free. Looking back over the wreckage, I'm not entirely sure that the only reasons for me to go to seminary was so (a) I could find a group of accepting and loving people in some of my professors and theologians, and (b) that the God of my misunderstanding could drop me 750 miles away from my guilt community, into a world in Hyde Park that was richly populated with faithful, celibate, deeply devout and thoroughly-gay priests, as well as faithful gay ministers and lay people.

[Note to reader: insert your own favorite "gay lay people" pun/joke here.]

They taught me the difference between "who I am" and "who or what I sleep with." They taught me alternate ways of understanding the holy words that I felt condemned me for years. And they showed me a way of being a faith-community in which homosexuality itself was adiaphora. "You love God? You enjoy the community and the ceremonies? Then come along - our God is big enough to sort all the rest of it out in the end."

We are ALL different. Some of you might well think I'm an idiot, madman, fool and free-thinker because I choose not to spend a lot of time around children! (My favorite prayer for children comes from the late storyteller Gamble Rogers: "Let them that want none have memories of not gettin' any.") That may be a difference between you and I - but it does not separate us. I value motherhood and fatherhood, even though I would not choose to participate in it.

The very fact that my friend Ravenmoon even deals with diapers - regardless if they are cloth, paper, or some future atomic-force-field variety - makes her a MUCH better person than me. (Please note: gay men have nothing on new-parents when it comes to the "ick factor"!) She also mentions a not-often-mentioned taboo - women who do not shave. For me, I could give a rat's patootie about what parts of her that do or do not get shaved - because all of these things are adiaphora to me - they do not show me her soul, and they certainly do not separate us in our beliefs.

Even the Buddhist thing just doesn't faze me. When it comes to being excluded from "the body," I have never felt from any other faith group the kind of apart-from-ness  that I have felt from wide swaths of Christianity - so their moral mandates about being "THE way and THE truth" ring more than a little hollow.

Buddhist practices and beliefs may not jive with all of mine - but I find much of the Buddhist tradition that shares ground with what I have come to know, as well. A Catholic, Father Roy D. of New York, talks about how much of the experiences he had sitting-lotus in ashrams and temples in Southeast Asia reminded him of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuit tradition in Catholicism).

Mama Cass Eliot, more than 40 years ago,  sang the words that started to set my soul free:

You're gonna be knowin'
The loneliest kind of lonely
It may be rough goin'
'Cuz to do your thing's
The hardest thing to do...

So if you cannot take my hand
And if you must be goin'
I will understand...

You gotta
Make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along!

(Can I get an "amen..."?)

I've found this thing about so-called "people of faith" (especially in the Christian variety - and yes, I tend to lump your Mormon friend into that category, Ravenmoon). As a large group, I've found they tend to subjugate the way they feel and are to the way they are supposed to feel and be. Or, to put it better, they want the way that they try to feel and be to correspond with their ideal of how a "true believer" ought to feel and be. (Again, thankfully, I have found hundreds, if not thousands, of exceptions to this broad and sweeping generalization. But I think I'm not far off the mark here.)

My experience is that the rare people-of-faith who are honest about their faith find it just as cracked and flawed as my faith seems to me. I "identify" with them, because they are broken toys too - yet they consider themselves "believers," too. So I guess that if they qualify, so can I....and that's good enough for me.

None of us are the appearance or beliefs. All of us have hangups and "baggage," to be sure (I sure do, anyway). But, as the song from "Rent" says, "I'm lookin' for baggage that goes with mine." To be real, to be honest about who and what I am, always runs the risk of rejection. It also runs the risk of finding community and building relationships - which is almost always worth the risk.

Back in 1997, in one of my several copies of Richard Nelson Bolles' classic What Color Is Your Parachute?, there is an appendix of advice for "special populations" - ex-offenders, gays and lesbians, stay-at-home-moms, ex-clergy, you name it. He gives specific advice to each group - but then tells them that (other that the specific advice), their drill is the same as for the rest of us. Then he concludes each section in exactly the same way - forgive me, my copy is packed away, so I'm doing this from memory:

In your job search, you will encounter two groups of people: those who will not be bothered by [insert your issue here] and those who will be bothered by it. Your job is to say "Thank you very much, have a nice day" to the second group of  people - and then go on and find the people in the first group.

That has become my mantra, in these later years.

Back in the 60's, they actually allowed advertising for cigarettes, and one memorable campaign was for Tareyton cigarettes. It featured people with artificially-blackened eyes and the slogan "I'd rather fight than switch."

I am finding that I have become somewhat of an Anti-Tareyton-Man - I would much rather switch than fight. If you can find common ground with me, let's walk the road together. If not, then be on your way without me - don't let me hold you back from your appointed rounds; you surely shall not hold me back, either.

You also need to know that there have been remarkable instances of grace in this journey, as well. There is a man named John who I know from the recovery community here. He's a family man, a man of faith, a hail-and-well-met fellow, and a pleasure to be around. He tends to be more politically-conservative than I, and I suspect (but never have confirmed) that his church might be more than a little uncomfortable (both theologically and socially) if I showed up arm-in-arm with Chris to services on a Sunday morning.

But here's the deal: John has come to know me.  And my partner Chris. And John has come to see us as people, and I have come to see him as a friend. No, we will probably not be in the same line at the voting booth; I probably wouldn't join his church (though I'd be happy to visit, and I'd sing right along with him in the hymns of faith). But we can share large parts of our life and our recovery - because we find, and focus on, the parts of our lives that are common. And that, as they say, is close enough.

/end epistle/  :-)

I'm grateful to get to share the road with you, Ravenmoon. I would gently suggest that your beliefs are as powerful, and as deeply rooted, as any of those who have a building, creed or hymnbook - and I trust you will continue finding those fellow travelers whose baggage goes quite well with yours. Here's a music cue for both of us, filled with smiles, from my favorite bear and frog combo...