Sin and Sensibility

IMG_4502Every Sunday morning, a middle-aged man and his father would take their usual seat in one of the front pews of our small town New Hampshire church. They lived on the square in one of the oldest houses in our little village of about 3,000 people and belonged to one of the original families in town.

As with many others I knew when I was growing up, I didn’t think much about them at the time. They were fixtures, part of the framework of my existence with their constant, quiet presence. It wasn’t until years later when I first watched Ken Burns’ series “The Civil War” that I began to put pieces together.

These two men were descendants of the young soldier around whose writings much of the documentary was based and it was through the extensive and careful archiving of their family history that we were able to see the experience of our country’s great struggle through the eyes of a patriotic and courageous young man. These ancestors of a fellow whose letters had given shape and depth to an important piece of our history sat next to each other each Sunday listening raptly to the sermon, gleaning wisdom as carefully as they had with the lore of their own family.

Recently, my mother added a piece to the puzzle that allowed me to reframe their role. It seems the son, who worked as a librarian and archivist at a small local liberal arts college, was gay. I’m not sure what that explains exactly, other than that it allows me to connect dots I hadn’t considered before and examine what it would have been like to be a gay man in the ’70s in a small New England town.

In those days, there was really no talk about homosexuals though I’m sure there were many others in our town. But they were also hidden, simply living their lives and participating in our community. Back then, other than the occasional speculative whisper, there was no acknowledgement of gay people, let alone the idea of marriage. I wonder now what would have happened if this man had made an issue about who he was. I wonder how those trusted people of my youth would have reacted.

When I look through the lens of hindsight, remembering my own life there as a hidden gay person, the fear of being ostracized by my community drove my energies in other directions as I sought to perfect aspects of myself that would be above disparagement. The last thing on my mind was committing “sin” against my community by engaging in relationship with someone of the same sex. Perhaps, like this man, I wanted to prove my worth by being devoted to my neighbors through my presence and contributions among them.

Today, all these years and changes in perception later, rather than thinking of homosexuality as a sinI choose to reframe it as a sensibility. If we are all made in the image of God, then we are all creators, though some of us don’t necessarily fit the traditional definition as creators of other human beings. A great many of us are artists and performers whose creations take the form of reframing history and showing a new vision for the world.

In my updated vision for what would have happened had my dad lived a longer life, I see that church crowd standing high on the hillside where Dad had married many couples before under the wide open sky of what he once described as “God’s Greatest Cathedral”, using the powers vested in him to wed that devoted young man to the love of his life that, together, without shame, they might continue to create new visions of our past to help reshape the future.

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The Day I Hit A Dog

I ran over a squirrel yesterday.

My usual reflexes failed me and the squirrel’s timing was such that the result was inevitable. Not an hour later when I went back past the scene, two vultures were already answering nature’s call. I was unexpectedly comforted by the efficiency of this road kill removal. It almost seemed like nothing had happened.

Though it seemed inconsequential — I could easily justify the “accident” by rationalizing that squirrels are varmints and they make my dogs crazy — I had still inadvertently taken another life. Involuntary squirrel slaughter. I will admit that my better angels are not quite as vigilant when an inch long cockroach crawls across my kitchen in the middle of the night, but I still feel a twinge of regret when I peel the unfortunate interloper from the tread of my flip-flop.

ImageMaybe that twinge can be traced back to an incident that I have yet to fully recover from. One day, many years ago when I owned my first car, I was driving along a back road in New Hampshire and as another car was approaching from the other direction, a big dog, a German Shepherd, leapt into my path from the tall grass at the side of the road. Even if I’d had time to swerve, doing so would have put me head-on in the path of the approaching vehicle. Instinct left me with only one option.

I pulled over at the next driveway and looked back. I didn’t see the dog. The impact may have knocked it back into the tall grass or it could have gone somewhere else, injured. What haunts me to this day is that I couldn’t go back and look. I was trembling and could hardly breathe as I tried to figure out what to do.

I walked up to the house where I’d stopped and knocked on the door. A woman answered and I told her what happened and asked if that was her dog. She said no, it belonged to a neighbor and that it was always out chasing cars. She said she wasn’t surprised that someone had finally hit it. I left her my name and number and asked her to tell the owner to contact me if there was anything I could do. I never heard from anyone.

As I continued on my way, still shaking so hard I could barely grip the steering wheel, my emotions crashed around in my head. Damn that dog! Why had it run in front of MY car? And, oh my god, I just killed a dog. And, I can’t believe I’m just driving away…..

That day changed my life. Something in me knew that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life making up for what I had done. Not for hitting the dog — that couldn’t have been avoided without me, and possibly another person, not being here to write about this right now. Natural selection and 2,000 pounds of metal decided in my favor that day.

A few weeks ago, as if to offer me some sort of redemption, I was graced with the gift of ownership of a sweet, wonderful, humble dog who was the victim of a vehicular hit-and-run that left her with a permanently disfigured leg. This dog is allowing me to imagine that the one I hit didn’t die, that someone more emotionally capable at the time found that Shepherd and took it to be repaired. But most of all, she gives me the chance to say I’m sorry and to offer forgiveness to the driver that hit her, who, perhaps like me, had been unable to muster the courage to face her. When she plays with the German Shepherd puppy across the street, I feel my heart begin to heal in the place that was ripped open so many years ago.

Our hearts always know what is right, though our minds will try all sorts of tricks to convince it otherwise. To the young woman who hit and killed four children while driving through a dark neighborhood a few years ago, whose trauma caused her to shut down and try to hide it, I offer an inkling of understanding of what it is to have the reality of right and wrong shatter right before your eyes and to know you were incapable of acting on what you knew to be right.

That squirrel may have been “just a squirrel”, but to me it was a beautiful dog, or for someone else, a group of happy children, invisible on a dimly lit street until it was too late. In whatever way we take the life of another being, a part of us dies, but if we will allow it to come through, a part of our own life is animated that would never have emerged otherwise.

We can’t always avoid the circumstances that strip us of our illusions, nor, maybe, should we. But we can learn from them and build an even stronger place in our hearts that will help us to be able to stop and do the right thing should such an event ever happen again.

I am strangely grateful for another squirrel who greeted me when I arrived home after crushing his friend, that sat up on its tree branch and spewed an unholy earful at me. Maybe it was there to give me a chance to take responsibility in the present instead of years later. Indeed, out loud I said to that little squirrel, “I’m sorry”…. and that put to rest his pain…. and mine.

Of Purple Fur, Stryker Frames, and Changing Paradigms

sure11-e1263490212475A fluffy white dog I walked this morning had two patches of bright purple in the fur just above her ears. I’d never seen that before and immediately my brain started flipping through the files of why it might be there. Some sort of new flea medicine? Markers for holes drilled in her skull to drain fluid or to put her in traction on a Stryker frame?

Going through the possibilities made me think of the scene in “Mrs. Doubtfire” I caught last night where her identity is revealed and Sally Field’s face goes through a litany of expressions as her brain tries to process a thousand flashbacks at once, struggling to make sense of what she is seeing. Ultimately, the emotion that overwhelms her is anger.

This led me to think about the process people must have gone through when they were told that the world was not flat but spherical. Nothing they could see, nothing they’d ever been told, supported this new idea. Those who insisted there was nothing to be afraid of were branded heathens and heretics. Anger must have been the only way to protect themselves from the confusion of feeling like they had to defend something that had never really been important to think about but was now suddenly crucial to their very way of life.

This is what the idea of marriage equality looks like to me. Something that was a given, a societal expectation that people took part in because in most cases it was easier to be married than not, suddenly looks completely different to them because they are being asked to look at long held views in another way. Their very safety feels threatened, not physically, but emotionally. What they have been told to believe is being challenged, which is frightening and on some level humiliating, and the fear manifests itself in anger and rejection of the perceived threat.

How we see things will always change. There’s no stopping it, no matter how hard we try not to look. The earth has been proved to be round, marriage equality will come to pass, and it turns out that the purple patches on the dog’s head were just feather clips that happen to mimic the texture of the fur. No purple dye or holes in the skull after all.

Sally Field eventually comes around to embrace a part of her husband she had become blind to, and someone in a Stryker frame who has been staring at the ceiling can count on the fact that eventually they’ll be flipped over and have to spend time examining the floor. If we don’t voluntarily change our perspective when new evidence is revealed, it will be changed for us. That’s the nature of progress.

Time does indeed heal, but not before a thousand different emotions play out in our minds, and where the examination of the meaning of love is concerned, patience is not only a virtue but a necessity.

We’ll get there……..

The Fear of God

I was never taught to fear God.

For a minister’s family, we didn’t even discuss God much. My parents, unlike some, didn’t use the name of God as a weapon in their arsenal to make us behave which makes me wonder about the rhetoric of “taking God out of the schools”. I don’t recall God ever being in any school I went to, yet my schoolmates turned out pretty well for the most part.

But now, there are “clergy people” talking about the dire consequences of taking God out of the schools and are urging teachers to arm themselves with guns.

I have yet to figure out what God is for myself, but I know God is not some big scary punishing guy in the sky just waiting for me to screw up who wants me to represent his interests by being more heavily armed than the next guy.

No, the God I grew up looking for, even after my bout of atheism as a teenager, is the sense that we are all connected, that when I do something to harm someone else, I am harming myself as well.

Maybe this is where the crux of the problem lies. When did we get so numb to pain? When did it become chic to get crazy drunk and post pictures of it publicly? When did we decide to allow pharmaceutical companies to pour billions of dollars in profits into advertising to us about the latest prescription pain reliever? When did we determine that the hurts of the world could be controlled with a handgun hidden behind our backs?

I’ve been part of a good many discussions about religion and quite a few of my friends are vocal atheists. I don’t blame them for their stance when the “GOD” that is most often presented to us in the media is a punitive, divisive one.

Our country has a spiritual problem that is being obscured by fights about religion. We have become disconnected from the thread that binds us together as one body and have found too many ways to dull our collective pain. Our right hand doesn’t know when our left foot is hurting and we don’t notice it becoming gangrenous until all that’s left to do is cut it off.

We must heal this body and we can’t do that by denying pain or looking for quick fixes to prevent it. Pain is how we know when something is wrong and needs our attention. Pain tells us to stop running and allow ourselves the rest we need to stay healthy.

I don’t know the answers but I do know that fear is not one of them. And until the right hand stops fearing the pain of the left foot, we will never heal the whole.

 

 

An Apple for Gerald

GeraldThe other day I took a “gratitude walk” through the grocery store, trying to be mindful of everything around me and its connection to everything else. I walked around the story, randomly picking out items as they presented themselves to me and when I got to the cash register, it turned out the amount I owed was within a dollar of what I had. As I recounted the story to my partner, she said, “What in the world did you buy for that much money??”

I looked at the receipt and one of the items that jumped out at me was the price for three organic honey crisp apples. I won’t tell you how much they cost but I will say that I could have bought half a bushel of conventionally grown macs for about the same price.

Tempted though I was to feel guilty, I decided instead to see them as special. As I prepared to ride my bike through my happy place, I took one of those apples and tried a little Reiki on it, imbuing it with grace and abundance. Then I hopped on my bike and ate the apple as I rode, allowing each bite to share with me the blessing I’d just bestowed on it, and as I traveled I asked to be shown the perfect place to lay the core.

Just as I swallowed the final bite, I came upon a shabby wooden marker on the side of the road, leaning and forgotten, that must have been placed in remembrance of a loved one who had perished near that spot. I got off my bike and approached the marker and saw that the name “Gerald” had been crudely painted on it in gray.

I knelt down in the leaves with the apple core in my hand and spoke to the marker.

“Gerald, I don’t know who you were, whether you were a good person or a bad person, whether your life was long or short, painful or happy. All I know is that you were brought into my awareness today as I was looking for somewhere to share a blessing with the world, a seed of healing energy. Some other creature may come along and take the seed elsewhere, but that will be okay because the seed is needed everywhere. Wherever it finds fertile soil, it will grow.”

I brushed away some leaves and gave Gerald the special apple core, covering it up with some sticks placed in the shape of the Reiki symbol Hon, the representation of source or origin, and left him with the thought that whatever his life had been, it was now a place of beginning for something beautiful.

“Your life, and death, are part of everything now, Gerald….. be at peace.”

A Simple Pane of Glass

The windows are open today after months of keeping the hot air out and the cool air in. A swift breeze cleanses the musty house with chill November air, making the dogs more alert and the indoor plants tremble invisibly to the naked eye.

Just days ago, our country opened the windows of its collective consciousness to let in a current of hope that our world will be renewed. For some of us, this gust brings disgust as we slam down the storm shutters and bundle up against what we expect to come. Others of us open our curtains to the sunshine that warms our bones, even as we are aware that the temperatures outside aren’t warm enough for some people’s comfort.

But in our hearts, we know that we’ve been here before and have survived the bitter days that keep us humble. We put another log on the fire, a pot of tea on the stove, find a sunny spot to curl up in under a warm blanket, and wait out the cold, knowing there are warmer days ahead.

A simple pane of glass, this miraculously transparent substrate created from pure silica, the stuff of sand, can keep the air in or out. It can break and cut our flesh or it can allow us to see through to some other reality, only slightly separated from our own. It can be a weapon or a tool and it can trap us or free us.

What will you allow through your window today?

His Name was “Dr. X”….

It was the 1950s and ’60s, a time of great prosperity in our country. World War II had infused us with a feeling of power and invincibility and we were taking our newfound sense of self-determination to the world in hopes of showing it the wonders of democracy.

In its essence, the self-determination that our country was founded on was a wonderful thing. Giving men the freedom to decide their own destiny could only turn out well, right?

World War II had changed us at our core. Through succeeding in our mission to stop a mad dictator from taking over the world, we saw what could happen if people took that sense of power in the wrong direction.

As thousands of healthy young men left our country to engage in the fight, many thousands of young women at home found a new power themselves. For the first time, they were out in the workforce and were discovering their own sense of self-determination. No longer were they confined to the home, figuratively barefoot and pregnant. They, too, were seeing the world with new eyes.

But, with all freedom comes responsibility. The transition period of learning to manage this new freedom was chaotic and many young people were caught up in the excitement of creating change. And sometimes that creation was in the form of an unplanned pregnancy.

Because abortion was illegal, young women were resorting to drastic measures to avoid giving birth to babies they knew they couldn’t take care of. It was a time when an unwed mother was a pariah in her community and the idea of telling her parents was out of the question. Even talking to a member of clergy seemed unsafe.

Stories of botched abortions became more prevalent. Unscrupulous physicians were making profits performing back alley procedures on desperate young women. In some cases, when they couldn’t find someone to perform the operation, they attempted it themselves, jamming coat hangers into their uteruses in an effort to end the pregnancy. In many cases, this ended their own lives as infection tore through their bodies.

When it became clear that simply outlawing abortion was not a solution, some people began to step out of the shadows to offer help. A fifth of all maternal deaths were the result of unsafe abortion attempts, so an underground system to help find safe cessations for pregnancy developed and the mortality rate from unsuccessful abortions began to decline.

“Dr. X” was someone these young people could go to, a sympathetic minister who would counsel them about their options and help them decide whether abortion was really their only option. When it was determined that this was the only reasonable path, he helped arrange safe passage to Canada where abortion was safe and legal.

Dr. X did not offer this counsel without great trepidation for the state of his own soul. He had seen the horrors of mass murder in Europe during World War II and vowed to create peace and affirm everyone’s right to the life they chose whenever and wherever he could. The idea of ending a life, even in utero, did not come easy to him, but he understood that the option had to exist for people to make informed decisions about bringing a life into the world. He knew that simply banning the possibility of abortion was no longer tenable.

Finally, in 1973, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Roe vs. Wade that a woman had the constitutional right to obtain a safe legal abortion.

Dr. X went on to baptize thousands of beautiful babies, often those born to the same young women whose reproductive systems he had helped protect by helping them plan for a healthy, whole family, and he continued to counsel them as they worked through the grief of having had to make one of the most difficult decisions of their lives.

Dr. X was my father.