Monday, October 8, 2012

Elder Oaks: Form Over Substance and Hidden Messages

I am a father. I am divorced. I am gay.  For almost three decades, I dedicated my life to being the best husband, father and priesthood holder I could be – in other words, to living the Mormon “Plan of Happiness.” For these and other reasons, Elder Dallin Oaks’ talk at this past weekend’s LDS General Conference hit several nerves and left me shaking my head.

I carried on a debate within myself whether I should bother writing this post. Ultimately, as a gay man (who has a responsibility to speak out) and as a father of children who are and will be practicing LDS and will be starting their own families, I felt I should express my thoughts and feelings about the messages contained in Elder Oaks’ talk – if for no other reason that to articulate these thoughts and feelings in my own mind and heart.  

Oaks gave a talk about protecting children, and the overriding theme of his talk was that selfish adult interests are the cause of children suffering throughout the world. Some of the examples he listed – of malnourished children and of children being coerced into fighting in war-torn countries in Africa – are obvious, and I have no comment concerning these examples, except to point out that he could have listed others, such as child-trafficking and the sex trade. He also could have directed his condemnatory remarks to governments, policies and systemic problems that create and permit these deplorable conditions. But he did not do this.

Instead, Oaks focused the bulk of his talk on various issues and conditions that are more commonly found in more developed societies, such as abortion, child abuse and divorce, all of which he decried as being the result of adult selfishness. There were two aspects of this part of his talk which engendered strong feelings within me: first, his emphasis on form over substance; and second, the hidden messages contained within his remarks.

The Facilitators

As I listened to Oaks remarks, I was reminded of a passage of the patriarchal blessing I received many years ago that spoke of a woman coming into my life with whom I could go to the temple and be married for time and eternity “in order that” the children that would bless our union “may be born under the covenant.” There was always something about that sentence that always made me feel like a facilitator, a cog in a vast celestial machine. There was nothing about developing as a father or husband (let alone as a human being), about experiencing the “joys of family life,” etc. I was there to fulfill someone else’s purpose(s).

This is how I felt when I listened to Elder Oaks’ talk. He decried abortion and a shrinking birth rate because both serve to reduce the number of children coming into this world. Adults were not fulfilling their roles as facilitators for creating babies. They are being selfish.  

Yet, what would Oaks, speaking globally, have these adults do? Bring unwanted children into the world to suffer some of the conditions that he decries elsewhere in his talk? And closer to home, what would Oaks have LDS adults do? Have children. Never mind whether these adults are emotionally healthy and economically able to produce and rear these children.  

There are many things that could be said about this oft-repeated message for LDS couples to have children, but the message that I want to focus on is this: You (adult LDS) are facilitators. Your responsibility is to get married and have children. If you don’t get married, you’re not fulfilling God’s plan. If you get married and consciously choose not to have children or to limit the size of your family, you’re not fulfilling God’s plan.  

Once you get married and have these children, it is your responsibility to make sure that your marriage stays intact and that you raise these children to be stalwart, emotionally well-adjusted citizens of the kingdom. If you have “issues” which make it difficult for you to fulfill these responsibilities, that’s your problem. Turn to the Lord (I believe this is a near quote from Oaks' talk).  Fix it.

The Vise of Expectations and Reality:  Form over Substance

Elder Oaks’ talk highlighted, for me, what is a systemic problem in the LDS Church, i.e., with all the emphasis on marriage, family and children, there are precious little resources and support provided for accomplishing these goals.  There is little emphasis, either on the ward level or above, that focuses on nourishing parents, of recognizing their personal challenges, or of celebrating these parents’ roles as human beings with their own needs, desires and value apart from their role as parent.   

Rather, parents are expected to perform, and there is an unlimited amount of competition among LDS parents that preclude most from being honest about their real challenges, feelings and aspirations. And don’t even think about divorce. For years, this was so deeply engrained in me that I honestly felt like my entire adult life would be a failure if I were to divorce (especially since my own parents and siblings had all experienced divorce). And make sure that you never, ever be anything less that an ideal parent under all circumstances.

Elder Oaks’ talk evoked all these feelings in me because of my own experience. I see and have seen so many couples in the Church that are caught in a vise between the Church’s expectations and their own shortcomings (and aspirations for some form of individual worth). Repeating what I have already stated, this vise squeezes the life out of many parents. There is no nurturance (as was the case with Oaks’ talk), and parents are taught (as was the case in Oaks’ talk) to ignore their own “selfish” concerns and concentrate on the needs of their children. Then, when the pressure becomes too great and some parents snap or marriages breakdown, these unfortunates are too often cast aside as broken, selfish and unworthy. Form over substance.

To me, Oaks’ comments about cohabiting heterosexual couples and same-sex couples parenting children are a variation on this theme of form over substance. Never mind whether the love that these parents provide for their children is warm, nurturing and real – possibly far more so than in many heterosexual marriages – the fact that this love exists in a form that is judged invalid renders the love invalid. In other words, I frankly think, judging by his comments, that it is likely that it is impossible for Oaks to conceptualize the love of a parent for his or her child unless that love exists within the framework of a traditional marriage.  He pre-defines what “love” is and criticizes anyone or anything that does not fit within the parameters of that definition.

Hidden Messages

There is much more that could be written about “the vise,” but I want to conclude with a few words about another aspect of Oaks’ talk that I found very disturbing, albeit not surprising.

Oaks, who has carved out a niche for himself among the general authorities by making several speeches about so-called threats to religious freedom (as have members of the Catholic hierarchy and leaders of the so-called “family values” movement, begging the question of whether all of these comments are part of a coordinated strategy), made a point early in his talk that his comments were not “political.” But he then went on to make a number of statements about societal conditions that can only be seen as an attempt to influence public policy through the voting rights of the Church’s members.  (Note as well that Oaks prefaced his remarks by reminding his listeners that he is an apostle “to the world,” not just to the Church – the unspoken implication being that he is perfectly justified in attempting to influence the civic affairs of this and other countries (which he would defend as well as being an exercise of “freedom of religion”)).

In an address that reads more like a legal opinion than a spiritual address in which Oaks cited various “scholarly” studies and a columnist in the New York Times, he describes a long list of societal problems (to which he offers no solutions), and, again, the implicit message of his remarks is that something needs to be done in the civic arena do right these problems.

For example, Oaks decries what he terms as “no-fault divorce.” The unspoken assumption is that he wants to roll back the advances that have been made in family law over the past 40 years by once again making divorce laws more strict (look to the upcoming session of the Utah Legislature). As if this would somehow fix the “societal problem” of high divorce rates and the resulting bad effects on children (the stated theme of his address).

Oaks also decries the high number of children who are born to cohabiting couples. But he leaves unspoken how this “problem” should be addressed. He also turned his guns on the “social experiment” of children being raised by same-gender parents. He does not propose a “solution” to this social experiment, but the implication left in the minds of devout church members is that he favors laws that would make it more difficult, if not impossible for gay and lesbian couples to have children.  

Among other things that could be said about this statement and its implications, is that it is a perfect example of how the church encourages people, on the one hand, to be friendly to, (for example) gay couples in their neighborhood, but on the other hand encourages (implicitly and explicitly) their members to vote take away the rights of these same couples. And getting back to form over substance, Oaks warns about the potential effects on children of being raised by same-sex parents, yet he implicitly advocates policies that would make it more difficult for these parents to raise their children in a healthy wholesome environment.

In conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with Elder Oaks that society should protect and nurture children, and I believe it is perfectly appropriate for an apostle to encourage members of the LDS Church to do the same. But I personally believe that the best way to nurture and protect children is to nurture – whether as a church or a society – the adults who are tasked with caring for these children, rather than finding fault and criticizing these adults and politicizing the manner in which such care is provided.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Paris Encore

On our way to the Place de la Concorde, I noticed that the station for the Madeleine (pictured above) was on our route.  I asked Mark if he'd seen this church when he was in Paris several years ago and if not, if he'd like to see it.  We decided to get off and take a look.

The Madeleine was originally built by Napoleon as a tribute to the French armies, but it was later turned into a church.  As we walked toward the building, we noticed a poster that announced that Mozart's Requiem would be performed that evening in the church, and we once again thought that this opportunity was too good to pass up.  

The Madeleine's pipe organ
So, we found out particulars and decided we would think about it, working our way back to the church later that afternoon after our further perambulations.

While in the area, I noticed Fauchon, a high-end food store that caters to Americans and other ex-pats, and the memory came back of the day that I was propositioned not once, but twice, by a guy in the store.  This was the first and only time something like that had ever happened to me.  He spoke to me in English, and I pretended I didn't understand him the first time and moved away.  A few minutes later, however, he came up and bluntly asked if my friend (my companion) and I would like to go over to his place with a friend of his and "have a good time."  That was when my fear kicked in, and I grabbed my companion (who was a couple of aisles over) and we left.  I don't think I ever told him what had happened; I was too afraid "of being found out."

At the Louvre, about the time of the "Fauchon Incident"
Being in Paris actually brought back a lot of memories and feelings about when I was there as a missionary 28 years ago.  It was while I was in Paris that I seemed to be bombarded with situations which pushed my secret "gay button."  As a missionary, I tried to repress all this.  Years later, being back in Paris made me reflect upon this time in my life ...

After leaving the Madeleine, we walked down to and across the Place de la Concorde, into the Jardin des Tuileries.  On our way in, we noticed hoards of people around the entrance to the gardens, lots of people with very expensive cameras hanging from their necks and a couple of people who appeared to be models walking around in the kind of clothes one might see in a high-fashion magazine.  People were taking pictures of them, and I wondered if this was some sort of magazine photo shoot.  It wasn't until later that day that we learned that "Fashion Week" had just started in Paris.

We made our way through the Tuileries and then walked down to the quais that border the Seine (pictured above).  Then across the 400-year-old Pont Neuf to the Ile de la Cite, beyond Notre Dame (the twin towers of which can be seen in the distance in the above photo), onto the Ile Saint-Louis and back over to the Right Bank near the City Hall.

Our destination was the Marais, a district of Paris to which neither of us had ever been and which was reputed to be the closet thing Paris has to a "gayborhood."  What we entered was an area that was alive with people, primarily in their 20's and 30's, with narrow shop-lined streets that seemed to go off in a bewildering number of directions.  I loved it.

I couldn't resist taking a picture of this street sign:  "Street of the Bad Boys"
It was obvious that we were in a "gayer" part of Paris due to the "affiches" (posters) that we saw and also some of the shops, as well as the occasional gay couple who would walk by holding hands.  But there were also quite a lot - the clear majority - who appeared to be straight.  This wasn't, as Mark commented, the Castro, nor could it compare to the gay section of Montreal that he has visited.

But it was a fascinating quarter.  We walked around, passed through a section that was a neighborhood for Orthodox Jews (who, it being Saturday) were nowhere to be seen, their shops all locked up.

Ultimately, we found a cafe on a quiet side street where we sat down to rest our weary feet and have what turned out to be the best double espresso I've ever had.

From the Marais, we wound our way back toward the Madeleine, passing by the old Opera House and eventually finding a place where we could have some dinner before going to the concert, which by that time we had decided to do.  We had good seats - if you can call sitting on those straight-back cathedral chairs for 90 minutes in any way "good."  The concert was enjoyable and another one of those rare experiences that we were glad we took advantage of, even though we didn't get back to our hotel until 11:30, which for two men in their 50's was pretty late.

Our plans for our last day in Paris - Sunday - were equally fluid.  We again took the RER in, being serenaded as we did so by a man and a boy whose nationality I never quite determined.  Here's a clip of their program (I didn't want to film them, so I initially aimed the camera at the ceiling, then out the window of our train car):

We started our day with a two-hour visit to the Louvre.  I had been there several times in the 80's, and Mark had been as well when he was in Paris in 2009; plus, neither of us are "museum people," so we went to see a few specific paintings and sculptures, then moved on.  

It was another gloriously beautiful day.  After leaving the Louvre, we took the Metro to the City Hall, then walked back into the Marais to find a place to have lunch.  We ended up with a repeat of the previous day's lunch at what appeared to be a very popular boulangerie on the Rue Vieille du Temple, then retraced our steps of the day before, across the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis then into a small park behind Notre Dame, where we sat down to write in our journals.  

From there, it was back to Place Saint-Michel for espresso, then up the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the Luxembourg Gardens, which neither of us had been to.  After walking around, soaking up the scenery and the ambience of hundreds of Parisians out enjoying a beautiful fall afternoon, we got on the RER and headed back to our hotel.  

Luxembourg Gardens, with the Pantheon
in the background
The next morning, we boarded a non-stop flight for Salt Lake.  We were ready to get home.  It had been a phenomenal trip, but it was time to get back and carry on with life.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Au Revoir Corsica, Bonjour Paris

We said goodbye to Corsica on Friday afternoon, after having had crepes at a place down the street from where we were staying.  It was a beautiful evening, and we enjoyed watching the sun set over Ajaccio Bay (above).

Our flight for Paris left at 2:40 Friday afternoon, my birthday.  I had been a bit apprehensive because of our last-minute change in plans, i.e., as to whether everything would work out; but by the time we got to Paris at 4:30, we were very glad we had gone ahead and made the changes.  The thought of taking the ferry to Toulon, lugging all our stuff out to the ferry entrance, then taking a taxi to the train station, then transferring everything onto the train, then the train ride to Paris, then transporting everything to the airport ... OMG, it was exhausting.  If we were 30 years younger, or even 20, or even 10, it would have been different.  

As it was, we deplaned, immediately entered the baggage claim, retrieved our stuff, checked my large bike bag at the airport, then took an underground shuttle to the RER (local rapid transit) station, exited the station and - voila! - we were at our hotel.  We checked in, changed clothes, then took the RER into the heart of Paris.  We were in Place Saint-Michel, a couple of blocks away from Notre Dame, by 6:30.

(As a side note, as I had tried, during the last days of the cycling tour, to locate lodgings in Paris, I noticed that rooms were filling up at a dramatic pace.  I couldn't imagine what in the world could be going on in Paris at the end of September that would result in hotel after hotel being sold out.  It wasn't until Saturday that we learned that we had arrived in Paris at the beginning of "Fashion Week," during which all the French fashion houses unveil their new lines, *and* at the beginning of a large car exposition, at which French automobile manufactures unveiled their new lines as well.)

From Place Saint-Michel, we walked up to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, then headed toward Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres, perhaps 15 blocks or so away.  We had seen lots of cafes, bars and eateries along this street when we were in Paris a few weeks before, and I thought it would be a good place to find somewhere to have a birthday dinner. 

We first stopped at the Neo Cafe (above), where we had a beer and watched life pass us by while seated at our sidewalk table.  Then we explored some of the side streets in search of a place to eat that had a nice menu but wasn't exorbitantly expensive.  I was surprised:  there actually seemed to be a number of them, and we eventually settled on a place down the street pictured below, where we were each able to have a three-course meal for under 25 Euros.

After dinner, we continued our walk down the Boulevard Saint-German, stopping at the same street vendor as we had the month before in order to get crepes.  As these things seem to work, the crepes didn't taste quite as good as they had before, but we still enjoyed them.

Along the way, we had seen announcements of a concert to be held that evening in the Eglise Saint-Germain des Pres, the old church about which I had written several weeks before.  A string ensemble would be playing works of Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, including the Four Seasons and Pachelbel's Canon in D (my favorite piece of music).  

A painting of the Church and the Place by Antoine Blanchard
The interior of the church (photo taken from the Internet)
Even though the program had already started by the time we got there, we purchased tickets and went in and were able to hear the complete Seasons as well as the Canon.  Needless to say, it was a cool experience to be sitting there, next to the man I love, in that ancient church where, among others, Rene Descartes is buried, where so much history has occurred, and listen to some of my most favorite pieces of music.

The next day would be a long but rewarding one.  We headed toward Paris around 9:30 or so, again taking the RER, which we boarded in the station adjacent to our hotel at the airport.  We had decided that our first stop would be Montmartre.  I had been there at least once while on my mission, but it was Mark's first time.  We ambulated through the streets, which were thronged with tourists, making our way up to Sacre Coeur, the white-domed church that has been a Paris landmark, though it is only about 125 years old.

We had exited the Metro at Place Pigalle - one of two metro stops that had been declared off limits to missionaries when I was serving my LDS mission in Paris  back in winter and early spring of 1985.  As Mark and I walked down toward the Moulin Rouge, I could see why.  Sex shops lined the street as we headed toward the next stop, near which the storied Moulin Rouge, home of the famous can-can dancers, still stands.  My companion and I, daring souls that we were, once got off at the above forbidden metro stop, and went up to street level just long enough to take each other's picture.

January 1985
I think it was that same day that we went up to Montmartre, to wander around the streets, see the famous Place du Tertre and Sacre Coeur.  Though I don't remember doing so, we apparently climbed up to the dome, for I have pictures taken from up there.

Place du Tertre, 1985
Last Saturday
Winding our way up, contemplating life
Mark was very taken with the architecture of Sacre Coeur.  We went inside, walked around a bit, then made our escape, for the place was absolutely crawling with people.  I was on a quest to find the following staircase of which I had taken a picture on that bitterly cold winter's day back in January of 1985:

My recollection was that it is very famous, and has often been depicted in film and art.  Alas, however, after walking around for awhile (and without the benefit of the picture, having not done my homework beforehand), I eventually conceded defeat.  

In the process of our ambulations, however, we ran across Le Grenier a Pain, a boulangerie that had been awarded 1st prize for its baguettes, as proudly proclaimed in their window:

Here, we bought some delicious sandwiches, made from their prize-winning baguettes, and some heavenly millefeuilles, which we washed down in the Place des Abesses with a Diet Coke. :)  Thus nourished, we boarded the Metro for our next planned destination:  Place de la Concorde, pictured below.  I will pick up the story from that point in my next post.

(Internet photo) Place de la Concorde, looking toward the Madeleine