Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wisdom Is Knowing I Am Nothing

"Wisdom is knowing I am nothing,
love is knowing I am everything,
and between the two my life moves."

~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

I think one of the most difficult Buddhist principles to wrap one's head around is the idea that one is nothing. Non-personhood. The ego fights against this principle. It fights against the sense that it is nothing. For it must be something. Distinct. Individualized. To let go of this ego-hood is to face ... an abyss. Or a bridge.

I had a profound spiritual experience when we were in Maui this past spring. We were on Little Beach and sunset was approaching. Mark went up to the clearing above the end of the beach to meditate, and I joined him, a few feet away.

As I sat, eyes closed, listening to the waves of the ocean, I felt a call to open my eyes and look at what lay before me. The thoughts came into my mind: What would your worldview be if you didn't focus it around the concept of a creator? What if things just ... were? Are? What if there wasn't an intelligent design as the Western intellect conceives of this notion? 

As I allowed my mind to go to places it had never before been, I suddenly felt a kinship with the ocean and the waves and, for the first time in my life, I felt one with the earth and the ocean - in both a physical as well as a metaphysical sense. I looked at the water and realized, profoundly, that it was this same ocean that touched the shores of British Columbia, of Japan, of Australia, of India, of Africa, of Europe, of South America, of the entire world. And here I was, a spec of humanity sitting on a beach on an island in the midst of one part of this vast ocean. 

I felt the insignificance of my place on this vast planet, which in turn is a spec in vast cosmic ocean. I knew I was nothing. Yet I also saw how I am part of the whole - both of the human family and as part of the organic whole. The paradox is that I felt more alive, more enlivened, more in touch with who I really am, by considering myself as nothing ... than I ever had by celebrating my separateness. For the whole fed me, whereas the parts diminished me.

I thought of the many references I had heard and read to an ocean wave. One in particular by Alan Watts came to mind:

“You are a function of what the whole universe is doing 
in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.”

That experience was truly one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. As I later explained to Mark, I felt I had learned more in those few minutes of staring into the ocean than I could have learned by reading a half-dozen Buddhist texts.

I couldn't wait to go back to Maui to learn what else the ocean has to teach me.

Letting Go of Anger

Mark had a nightmare a couple of nights ago. Part of it involved him being separated from me, him trying to get back to me and him being unable to communicate with me until a number of hours had passed. As I read his description of his nightmare that Mark had recorded in his journal, the line that touched me the most was the one that described my emotions upon him being able to finally get in touch with me. Mark noted that I was "not angry," just very sad.

Angry. Anger. I was saddened as I read this because it reminded me of the times that I have been angry with Mark. For stupid reasons. And it also reminded me of a lifetime of being angry. I don't recall being an angry child or teenager. I think I repressed any anger I felt as part of the role I played as a perfect child (who could not express anger towards his parents and what they were doing to him for fear of losing their love). I really don't recall anger entering my life until I was on my mission. And then in my marriage.

And my children suffered because of the anger I felt. I really didn't know or understand the cause of the anger at the time. Then I gradually realized that some of it was probably due to the repressed anger of my childhood and youth at being a victim of my mother's anger. There were other causes, primarily attributable to the tremendous pressure I felt as our family continued to grow and my marriage grew increasingly troubled. 

I have apologized to my children for the fallout they suffered as a result of my anger issues. Several times. I'd like to do so again. Publicly.

I think one of the other causes of my anger is that it made my ego feel good. It became part of who my ego saw as me. And as I read Mark's words, an insight dawned upon me that led to a decision. I realized that I have wasted far, far too much time and energy on anger in my life. I am choosing not to wallow in anger anymore. Anger may arise, but I will not let it take hold of me and use me like it has in the past. I will look at it, then let it go. I saw - in that brief moment of insight - how the ego uses anger. I will not let that happen again. It's not worth it.

I feel like this lesson in anger is a major breakthrough for me. I don't want to be remembered - by anyone - as an angry person, but as a calm, loving person. I have unfortunately planted memories to the contrary in my older children, and I know those cannot be erased. But it is my hope that they might be crowded out, eventually, by memories of me as my true self.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Mark and I are on our honeymoon. We had our commitment ceremony last Saturday night - an event which I will write about once we get the pictures from the photographer. Suffice it for now to say that it was an unforgettable event, magical, spiritual, warm, wet, fun, deeply fulfilling and beautiful.

Once we got back from San Francisco in early August, we had only two weeks to finalize preparations for our ceremony, which is the main reason I didn't get much blogging done before the wedding. And I haven't had time to do anything all week, but the time has come to do some catching up. There are lots of lessons I've learned and insights I've had in the past few weeks, and I'm anxious to flesh them out by writing about them on this blog.

At 5:35 a.m. this past Wednesday morning, our plane left the gate at Salt Lake airport on our way to Los Angeles, where we would change plans for our flight to Maui. We arrived at 11:30, and by the time we collected our baggage and rental car, stopped at Costco and Safeway for food and other supplies and headed out to Little Beach, it was 3:00. It felt good to be at our "home away from home."

We started planning this trip right after Mark's cancer diagnosis in early April. For several years, Mark had envisioned taking a "monster trip" in 2014 to commemorate his 60th birthday. Maui. Japan. Nepal. India. It would be a spiritual odyssey of a lifetime. But after the diagnosis, everything changed. For one thing, we really didn't know at that time what the next six months would hold in terms of Mark's health. For another, we quickly ruled out going to India. Healthy tourists get sick there all the time; we didn't want to risk introducing Mark into that environment.

And so this trip to Maui and Japan evolved quite rapidly. We are here in Maui for a week, then we will travel to Japan for three weeks, then come back to Maui where we will spend one more week before heading home.

The Kihei Cafe serves the best breakfast in this part of Maui. We went for our once a week breakfast this morning.

Among those people who were told about our trip, many said, "Why Japan?"

Mark spent basically the first ten years of his life in Japan, where his father was a Lutheran pastor and missionary. The family came home to the States in 1964, and Mark has wanted to go back there ever since.

Mark's Kindergarten class. He is easy to spot.

And so, here we are in Maui on the first leg of our trip. This is our chance to unwind after the pressure of the past few weeks and, indeed, from the past few months. 

Mark seems to have a thing for parasols when he's on a beach in Hawaii.

We were the first ones on the beach this morning. The crab holes and sand piles had not yet been washed away.

Early mornings are extraordinarily beautiful on Little Beach.

Every day with Mark is a day I cherish and a day that I could never have foreseen three years ago. I have been reading Wayne Dyer's book on the Tao Te Ching and came across this passage the other day:
"Stop chasing your dreams. Allow them to come to you in perfect order with unquestioned timing ... You don't really need to rush or force anything. Be an observer and receiver rather than the pushy director of your life."
As I have looked back on my life, I receive witness of the truthfulness of this statement. As I look forward into an uncertain future and live my life and our lives day by day, I receive wisdom from this statement. And I rest in the wisdom, love and insight of this blessing offered by my oldest son on the day of our wedding:

"May you both find peace and joy, as two parts of a new whole."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Tribute to My Partner

My partner Mark is an amazing man.

He has opened his heart to my (many) children and loves them. On our very first date, I told him that I have ten children. He could have politely finished the meal and left. He didn't.

Though he never had children of his own, Mark has welcomed the children into his heart, and they in turn have responded with love and affection for him. Even to those of my children who have distanced themselves from me, he has offered love, concern and compassion.

During the difficult months leading up to and following my divorce, he was a constant source of support and strength for me.

But these are only some of the reasons why he is amazing.

Aside from being a wonderful partner and father, he is an athlete, a gardener, a painter, a writer, a dog-lover, a good friend, and a man who seeks to be compassionate toward all with whom he comes in contact.

But beyond all of this, Mark is an emergency room physician and a hospice care doctor. For 30 years, he has cared for trauma patients. I assumed that this is what ER physicians do, that and take care of critically ill people.

Since being with Mark, however, I have learned that many of the patients that ER physicians see are not really sick at all. They are there when they should be seeing their regular physician. They are there when they don't need to be. They are there seeking narcotics. I was stunned to learn of the number of people who go from one emergency room to the next, several times a month, seeking narcotics for "chronic pain." Mark is someone who cares deeply about healing and about suffering. His ER work is therefore sometimes very disappointing and disheartening.

That is one reason that Mark has also taken on a "second career" as a hospice doctor. In this capacity, he visits terminally ill people all over the Salt Lake Valley. He sees to their medical needs, of course, but he also brings peace and compassion to these people. Sometimes, the cases he handles are heart-breaking, particularly when they involve children. But he makes a difference in the lives of these people as they prepare to leave their bodies behind and continue on.

For all of these reasons, I love Mark, as do others.

But Mark is more than all of this. He is a man who probes the meaning of life, who is a spiritual seeker, who is a pilgrim on the road to enlightenment. In this, he is an inspiration to me and to others.

And so I want to pay tribute to this wonderful man with whom I have the privilege of sharing my life and my heart. Thank you, Mark, for all you do, all you share, all you give, for who you are. I love you.

Since I originally wrote this post, Mark has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and has retired from emergency medicine. Despite all the tears and anxiety which that diagnosis brought into our lives, it has also served to deepen and sweeten the love that we share. It has taken me to places of the heart and soul that I never knew existed. I cherish every day that I spend with Mark and love him more than ever.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Of Pianos, Pot Roasts and Deep Freezes

We had a wonderful dinner at our home the other night with a couple of friends, Ben and Tina, and four of my children - Rachel, Nathan, Aaron and Levi. This was only the second time that Rachel has had dinner in our home, and the first time she has been here with Nathan. It was almost surreal to me to see and experience this; for it had been several years since I had experienced them together.

I wrote in my journal the next day how words failed as I contemplated how wonderful it was to see Rachel sitting at the keyboard in the living room, playing while Nathan knelt next to her, singing. I don't think I'd ever seen that before, even when they were younger. It meant so much to me to see them together and to see them in *our* living room, a part of my life, a part of our life.

Another first came a bit later when Rachel decided to make gravy to go with the pot roast Mark had prepared in the slow cooker and the mashed potatoes that Tina had brought. She had never been in our kitchen, and to see her there was ... so satisfying, so warming. 

Then to watch Tina and Rachel talk about the secrets of making good gravy. Such simple things, but heartwarming to a dad who has missed these kinds of interactions with his children for so long.


On an unrelated note, I have been reading, along with several other books, Wayne Dyer's book on the Way of the Tao. There was a time when this material was totally unapproachable by me. I started to read this book a year or so ago and just couldn't get into it. Now, however, it's different. And I see that as a good thing. It means I'm progressing along my spiritual path.

As I was reading about the Tao, a couple of thoughts floated into my head, or rather questions.

First, why do we insist on "anthropomorphizing" God? We simply cannot abide the notion that "God" may simply be a creative and energizing force, an essence. We insist that "he" be a "man" like us. After all, even most rank and file traditional Christians (as opposed to Mormonism which has taken the anthropomorphizing thing to a whole new level) view God as a kindly old man.

Second, why do we insist that we must be judged and found wanting and punished?

As I wrote these questions down in my journal, I thought back on the days of my youth, especially my freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan University, and on the intellectual curiosity I had and the feeding I felt. I explored questions such as the ones I've just described and many more besides. 

Then it occurred to me that I am exploring again all these concepts and ideas after all these years because it's as thought my mind - the intellectually curious part - has been in deep freeze for most of my adult life. For when I joined the Mormon Church, curiosity and openness was replaced with certainty and closed thinking - at least insofar as it related to spiritual matters and theology.

Now, it's like the ice has thawed and I am re-awakening. I am exploring thoughts and concepts now, in my 50's, that most people my age would have processed long ago. In one way, it's exhilarating and liberating. In another sense, it also feels a bit weird, like doing so is not "age appropriate." But I'm going to focus on exhilaration and liberation and pick up where I left off 30 years ago.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fixed Identities

"The root of fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic tendencies, is a fixed identity - a fixed view we have of ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this or that. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn't always conform to our view ... That's what it means to be in denial: you can't hear anything that doesn't fit into your fixed identity. Even something positive - you're kind or you did a great job or you have a wonderful sense of humor - is filtered through this fixed identity. You can't take it in unless it's already part of your self-definition."
~ Pema Chödrön

Following on yesterday's post in which I wrote about how fundamentalism nourished my desire for certainty, I also found the above quote to be tremendously insightful and meaningful for me. 

I have excelled at creating fixed identities for myself during my life, and I have had a lot of help from others in so doing. Examples: dutiful son; "the responsible one"; Mormon father; Mormon husband; not athletic; secretly gay man who was deeply ashamed of my essential nature; angry one; rigid one; constantly lacking, never good enough.

Unfortunately, a lot of these identities were based on a basic negative perception of myself. As Chödrön notes, I have had great difficulty in believing it when people compliment me because I have trained myself or been trained to think of myself in negative ways. 

One example of this has to do with my athleticism. I had trained myself to believe, and had adopted the fixed-identity while yet in my youth to support this belief, that I am not an athletic person. Like many, many other gay men during, before and after my generation, I told myself that I could not be athletic, for athletes and guys who did sports were straight. And I was not. And so I adopted an identity to reflect that belief.

I had maintained this identity all my life. Even when I started running 13 years ago, I could never pat myself on the back for what I was doing. No one had ever called me a "natural athlete" until I met Mark. Of course, I still really didn't believe that, even after he told me so on several occasions. I could not accept - truly accept - compliments that I was given last fall on our cycling tour by experienced cyclists who couldn't believe that this was my first season. Most recently, reference was made (while on the Marin County Century by an experienced young cyclist) to my legs as "monster legs." 

All of this flies in the face of what I have told myself about myself for decades.

This is just one example of a fixed identity. There are many.

Of course, I also see this in others, some quite close to me. People who have invested so very much in their fixed identity that they have to " ... busy [them]selves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn't always conform to [their] view." They cannot see *reality* and as a result, cause great damage to themselves as well as to others.

Much of my adult life experience has been directly and dramatically influenced by the 27 years I spent within the Mormon Church - an institution that excels in creating and fostering fixed identities. Good. Bad. Worthy. Unworthy. Righteous. Unrighteous. Mormonism is a very rigid, dualistic belief system that is "other-directed" and that encourages rejection of whatever doesn't fit within the parameters of the system, creating both individual fixed-identities as well as a collective fixed-identity. Example: "righteous" persons who cannot allow themselves to tolerate others who don't hold their views because doing so - in such persons' minds - challenges their fixed identity of being righteous.

In spiritual terms, fixed identities cut us off from whom we really are. Chödrön notes that, as we begin to examine our fixed identities, we come to see - among other things - how attached we are to our opinions of ourselves. For fixed identities provide the illusion of certainty. "The purpose of the spiritual path," writes Chödrön, "is to unmask, to take off our [fixed-identity] armor." This can be a scary process, provoking what Chödrön calls a fixed identity crisis. But beyond that crisis lies the pathway to truth.

Some of the greatest joys I have experienced during the past 2-3 years, and especially lately, have come from realizing that I am NOT the person others told me I am or that I told myself I am. Paradoxically, after being a religious person most of my life (when I objectively should have been able to consider myself "good"), it has only been lately that I have been able to truly start seeing myself as "good" as opposed to "bad." As a good father as opposed to a bad father. As a kind person as opposed to an angry, selfish person. As a loving and lovable person, as opposed to an unloving and unlovable person.

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." 

~ Jesus

"Knowledge is learning something every day.
Wisdom is letting go of something every day."

~ Zen Proverb

Of Fundamentalism and Paradoxes

"What the fundamental ambiguity of being human points to is that as much as we want to, we can never say, 'This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.' ... As individuals, we have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab onto a position or belief as a way of neatly expressing reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities. We cling to that position as our personal platform and become very dogmatic about it."
~ Pema Chodron

When I read the above passage the other day, I became very excited about it because of the window of understanding it gave me about why I joined the Mormon Church 30 years ago at age 24. I had already been thinking about that period of life because of what one of my daughters is going through right now. She is trying to find a jumping off point into life and has said a number of times recently, in an anxious tone, that she "needs to get on with her life." Similarly, I had said this 31 years ago after my dad's oilfield equipment company (where I worked) went into bankruptcy and I suddenly found myself looking for a new job in a new location in a difficult economy.

As the months had worn on back in late 1982 and early 1983, I became more anxious. I had to do something! Similarly to Rachel, however, my direction in life had already been somewhat muddled by circumstances. I didn't have a good sense (at all) of who I was or what I wanted to do in life. But the uncertainty and the sense that I wasn't getting any younger pushed me to say, "I've got to figure out what I'm going to do with my life!!" Then I moved to New Orleans (from Ohio), then back to Ohio, where I suffered a serious blow when the deal to buy my dad's company (and provide me a job) fell through.

In the midst of this great uncertainty, I watched The Thorn Birds - a mini-series about the life of a priest in the Australian outback. Doing so inspired me, in a very juvenile way, to shift my question. Instead of asking or saying, "I've" got to figure out what I want to do with my life, I asked "I've got to figure out what God wants me to do with my life."

This shift in thinking caused me to think about my strengths and weaknesses, and I came up with the idea that I should be a priest. I should return to the faith of my childhood - not because I wanted to live in that faith as a part of my life, but because I wanted that to be my life. I sought for certainty, a life that was all laid out for me. I sought certainty in dogma and vocation because I simply couldn't stand the discomfort and uncertainty of less concrete options. I was so out of touch with myself that I couldn't conceive of creating a life. I was much more comfortable with the concept of having a life imposed (voluntarily) upon me - sort of life an off-the-rack suit.

Enter, stage left, the Mormon Church. Mormonism, among other things, offered me certainty - not only in terms of theology abut also in terms of my existential angst about what to do with my life. So, instead of embracing the "certainty" of life in a seminary and then as a priest, I embraced a future that looked in many ways like a better deal. I could see my life unfolding: mission, marriage, law school (other "certainty" in terms of a career, in that it was a ready-made profession), children, living the "Plan of Happiness," being led and guided by the Spirit and by leaders and inspired prophets and apostles. Couldn't get much more certain than that.

And so I jumped in head first. And, just as Pema Chodron comments, I became dogmatic about it. I finally understand why I was so fundamentalist and dogmatic in a number of ways, both in terms of Mormon dogma (the more conservative the better) and how I applied that dogma to my life and was guided by it: it was the Certainty that first attracted me to Mormonism, and I could not tolerate uncertainty.

(Parenthetically, it is this very Certainty that is the evil genius of Mormonism. A primary tenet of Buddhist thought is that the world is constantly, inevitably changing, and that resistance to that change and uncertainty causes suffering. Nevertheless, change and the resulting uncertainty makes people feel uncomfortable. Thus they seek for certainty. Mormonism gives them that.)

This insight somehow makes me feel better about my life. It helps explain the paradox that existed between this certainty and the intellectual curiosity I have always had as well as my innate rebellious streak. It explains why I could be dogmatic, while at the same time cherish Thomas Jefferson's saying that he had "sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

When one has experienced as many paradoxes in one's life as have I, it provides comfort to come to understand and resolve one of them - like finally dropping a missing piece of a puzzle into place. It also helps me forgive myself for what I did - both to myself and to others.

* Posts I have written about why I joined the Mormon Church can be found here and here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Mini-Greek Festival; A Man's Man

I love going to the Greek Festival in Salt Lake, held every year in early September at Holy Trinity Cathedral downtown. I love the main courses, I LOVE the desserts, I love the singing and dancing, and I love the atmosphere generally. Opa!!

We weren't able to make it to the festival last year, nor will we make it this year; but as luck would have it, we were invited to dinner Sunday night at the home of some neighbors down the street, and it turned out to be a sort of private Greek festival. Our host Bill is of Greek descent and his wife Sharon - a fabulous cook - is of Lebanese descent. Another neighbor had been invited as well as a couple, Nick (there had to be a Nick at a Greek dinner) and Cathy, about our age whose grandparents had all immigrated from Greece.

The food was ... amazing. Nick had made some battered fried zucchini with home-made tzatziki (made from strained yogurt - usually from sheep or goat milk - mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, and sometimes lemon juice, and dill or mint or parsley). In the past, I had always declined to have tzatziki because it has cucumber in it, and for most of my life - at least as long as I can remember - I have had a hate/hate relationship with cucumbers. Nick's stuff, however, was delicious; I frankly couldn't even taste the cucumber. I'm sure each dollop had at least 300 calories in it.

Sharon had also made hummus, a feta cheese dish and shrimp cocktail (not Greek, but delicious nonetheless). Entrees included Dolmathes (stuffed grapevine leaves), Fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce), Spanakopita (spinach pie), cheese-stuffed puff-pastry triangles, Pilafi (rice) and - the piece de resistance - Pastitsio, a baked pasta dish with a filling of ground meat and a béchamel sauce top. 

There was no dancing or singing to go along with the meal, but there was plenty of good conversation. It was interesting to listen to the "Greeks" talk about their parents coming from Greece to work in the mines here in Utah and to farm. Cathy spoke of her great-grandfather who had been killed in a mining accident in Wyoming. His widow and two small children had then moved back to Greece and, years later, had come back to the States.

Cathy also spoke of visiting her grandparents' native village in Greece and of meeting relatives there who had told her that, back in the day, when the men working in Utah had sent money home to Greece to support their families, these funds typically were enough to not only support their families but also the entire village. Families shared resources and all benefitted. 

It was also interesting to talk to Bill, Sharon, Nick, Cathy and Peeches (the lone Catholic at dinner) what it had been like to grow up non-Mormon in Salt Lake City. Like many others before them, they spoke of being excluded, of other kids' parents not allowing them to play with their children, of being welcomed into local LDS teens' circles - but only as ringers for their sports teams, etc. It is different now, they said, but they remember.

Now, on another note, I wrote the other day of projected homophobia on the soccer field. In response to this post, I received the following email from, Phyllis, a friend of ours who lives in Denver and who has known Mark from his residency days there. It meant so much to me that I wanted to share it here:
"I'm so sorry about your dip into sadness at the soccer game; I remind you that probably none of the other parents at the game had been called Monster Legs in the previous week (or ridden 175 miles on their bikes either.)  Maybe I should cross stitch a sampler with Monster Legs on it to remind you. I know quite well myself how the old stuff can crop up just any old time and skew one's outlook, though.   Stand back and look at yourself and maybe think about how some of those "man's man" dads at the soccer game would be handling all the things that are on your plate ... And another thing occurred to me just this second:  my father was kind of a man's man....very athletic in a natural way, well dressed, wonderfully articulate, very smart, very funny, also very critical, very aloof, emotionally unavailable, not necessarily something to be envious of Mr. Broom."
I told her that I'd pay good money to have a cross-stitch that says "Monster Legs."

"Doesn't Life Matter to Them?"

"If David Sedaris and Annie Dillard had a literary love child 
and raised him in Iowa, he would write like this."

~ The Iowan, in a review of John Price's Book

"Doesn't life matter to them?"

This is the question that author John Price asks himself in his memoir, Daddy-Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father, concerning his two grandmothers. He had learned that his 90-something year-old grandmother had decided to quit taking her numerous medications and let nature run its course, which brought up thoughts of his other grandmother who, in her 90's, decide to do nothing when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

"What's wrong with these old women?" he wrote. "Doesn't life matter to them?"

Then, in a flash of insight, he responded to his own question when he wrote, "That was a question I probably should've been asking myself on a more regular basis." For Price had been facing a bit of a crisis. He was a struggling English professor in his late 30's, trying to hammer out a novel, worrying how he would provide for his wife and children. 

A few weeks before receiving the news of his grandmother, he had had a major health incident that felt a lot like a heart attack. Not only had he been consumed with worry over financial matters; he had also been consumed by guilt that he didn't have or make the time to participate in the normal life of his family. He had had his eye on what he perceived to be a higher good.

This is why his question about his grandmothers was so ironic. He had been measuring what matters in life by an objective standard, if you will, rather than a subjective one. To him, quantity in and of life was more important than quality. But as soon as he had asked his question, he realized that life did in fact matter very much to his grandmothers. They had both lived long, sometimes difficult lives and had given much. They had lived life, but now it was time to bow out gracefully. Price, however, was going to be left to answer his question: did Life matter to him?

I related very much to what John was going through because of my own experience as a father trying to provide for his family and missing out on so much in the process. I could also relate because of my experience in the Mormon Church, which places so much emphasis on the "next life" at the expense of this life, that one is prompted to ask, "Doesn't life matter to them?"

I am only about a fifth of the way through Price's book, but I suspect that the rest of it is spent answering his question, but as directed to him. I'm intrigued to read how Price writes about death, but also about life.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I am Joseph

The other evening, as I was sitting on our back porch watching Mark work in the garden, enjoying the glow that the descending sun casts on our back yard, contemplating my life, words and phrases came into my mind ...

I am Joseph .... Not her.
She did not exist.
I did not see her when I was a boy.

Did I ever exist in a place
where she didn't define me?

How did that boy in Salem
become that man living in Centerville
and Bountiful?

How could they possibly be the same person?

I hear the wind blow through the trees.
It is a force - like so many others -
that is beyond my control.

Violet looks out. Ajax surveys.

My man is with his flowers.


Salem, Illinois is the small town in southern Illinois where I spent the first nine years of my life. Ajax and Violet are our dogs.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Projected Homophobia, Esther and a Soccer Field

I had an experience the other day that made me realize that I am still dealing with internalized homophobia. I suppose that is to be expected; I have to accept that it's going to take a while to eradicate thought patterns that have existed within me for 40 years.

My daughter Esther is a very promising young soccer player. On Thursday morning, I went to the first of her team's games in a tournament being held out in West Jordan. She played well, and it was gratifying to hear her coach's comments and her playing ability as well as comments made by other parents. Of course, no one really knew who I was at first. But I suppose it became more apparent as the game progressed.

Esther (far right) and her coaches

As I sat there in the midst of all these parents from Bountiful and environs, I gradually (actually, fairly quickly) became aware that I was experiencing discomfort because of internalized homophobia. My mind revved up. I surmised that my ex-wife had probably talked to the coaches about me and that she had talked to other parents as well. I imagined that all of these people were thinking, "So, this is Esther's dad?" 

I knew all these people were from Bountiful or environs, and even though I know I "shouldn't" have felt awkward around these straight men and women, I did. I felt self-conscious. I felt like all the men were thinking, "This guy isn't a man's man; he's a sissy." Imagine! A 54-year-old man thinking that! But I did. Even after 30-40 years, that appellation of "sissy" still haunts me in a situation like this that involves team sports. And I knew that this was my problem, not that of the people around me.

First of all, I knew I was making up stories. Secondly, even if these people were thinking these thoughts or were otherwise judging me, what other people think of me is none of my business. I also thought very much of the book The Way Out, by Christopher Nutter. I wrote several blog posts back in January about this book and its powerful messages. (See The Gift of Being GayHomophobia, Consciousness and Coming Out of the AtticFears and Beliefs About Being Gay, and Feeling Like a Faggot.) One of the points he made that was the most enlightening for me is that gay men tend to project their internalized homophobia onto others:
“You have no idea what people feel or think about you now or what they will feel and think later – it is only your own thoughts and feelings that you think and feel. It may seem as if someone else thinks you’re a faggot, but it can only be you who feels like a faggot. If you do not feel like a faggot, the term ‘faggot’ does not exist for you. End of story.   
“Realize this and you will realize the end of the reign of power your own internal, personal abuse system has over you that is trying to keep you down. Looking at the unconscious self in this way, it is just like an external abuse situation – as the abused you take it because you believe it’s true and you deserve it. Realize it isn’t true and that you don’t deserve it and the power the abuser has over you goes away.”

This experience on the soccer field was a reminder that I still have a ways to go ...

Esther and her soccer coach

But it's not all about me, right? I was there to support Esther. And as I looked at her out on that field, admiring her skill, grace and beauty as well as her determination and grit ... I was once again amazed by this amazing child. 

Esther is not my biological child. She was adopted from Russia when she was seven months old. Her biological mother had signed away all her parental rights to her daughter at birth, and Yulia (as she was then known) was put in an orphanage when she was a only a few days old. This is where she spent the first seven months of her life.

The orphanage

Esther and me, the night we brought her out of the orphanage.
The picture was taken at 1:00 a.m. after a day that had
begun with a court hearing at 9:00 in the morning.

Esther's birth mother, Tatyana, now deceased

Esther's birth father, as a boy

Esther's birth father, Vitaly, as a young man

Living in an orphanage from birth leaves a lasting imprint in a child's mind and heart. This I have learned from experiences with the three children that we adopted from Russia. Rarely being held. Bottle-fed with a bottle that is propped up by a pillow, not in a caregiver's arms. Little flesh to flesh contact. 

But Esther is a remarkable child. She has managed to overcome a lot of what was encoded in her infant brain and heart to grow into an extremely intelligent, gifted, beautiful and loving child. And when I saw her out on the soccer field - beautiful, confident, talented - I was grateful that she is my daughter and I am her dad.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Primordial Substance: Looking Beyond the Forces that Shaped Me

Our recent trip to San Francisco was very thought provoking. As I was driving home Monday, my mind reflected back on all that I had experienced and learned the previous week ... and the thought came into my mind: who am I beyond the factors and forces that have shaped my life?

I was molded and shaped by the family into which I was born, by the abuse I suffered as a child, by my parents' divorce, by my realization that I am gay, by my conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, by the years I spent working with my dad in the family business, by my conversion to Mormonism and, perhaps most importantly, by my marriage. But when I strip away all of the effects that these events had on me, whom am I left with?

The image of the potter's wheel came into my mind. A potter takes clay and water, works it, shapes it, over and over again, fires it, then glazes it. The clay has been fashioned into something completely different than its original form and substance. Other objects of different sizes, shapes and colors are created from the same material. But the organic substance of all of these objects is the same.

In the same manner, my "primordial substance" was molded, shaped, fired, dyed, glazed. Later in life, I began looking at all of these outside/external forces and the effects that they had had upon me. In some cases, I spent a lot of time and effort proving to myself that these things *had* been done to me, and my focus was on *how* I had been shaped, and on placing blame on others for what they had done to me, how they had mis-shapened me.

The ultimate flaw in all of this self-analysis was that it kept me focused upon myself as an object. I bemoaned the fact that I hadn't been able to be shaped into a different type, color, shape or size of an object. But what I realized is that I need to focus on my organic material - my "clay" - that existed prior to all the shaping, molding, etc. For even though I am an "object," I am still, in essence, clay. But, of course, I'm not an object at all.

This analogy obviously has its limits, but it has helped me articulate the thought that I had in the truck as I drove across Nevada on I-80, i.e., who am I? What is left? After I get beyond all the factors and forces that have shaped my life? Who is that primordial substance, and how can I learn about it, and through that process, realize that I am truly of one substance with all living things?

This is my breakthrough ... leading to my challenge ... to discover that primordial substance ... 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

San Francisco Diary: Rachel and "Seeing" Life

Our last day in San Francisco was spent with my daughter, Rachel. She had spent a month with my oldest daughter in the Silicon Valley, and Mark and I were going to take her back to Utah with us. We took her to breakfast at Brenda's French Soul Food, where Mark and I had eaten a few days' previous, and where I was able to indulge once again in their fabulous sweet potato pancakes with butter pecan sauce.

The line outside Brenda's as we left

After going back to the hotel and checking out of our room, we headed down Van Ness Street in a bus, and we would switch to a street car on Market to take us down to the Ferry Terminal at the foot of Market. Since she grew up in Bountiful, I wasn't too surprised when Rachel told me this was the first time she had taken public transit.

I recalled listening to a "testimony" a number of years ago in our Bountiful ward of a young man who had graduated from high school describing taking the bus into Salt Lake City. The way he described it, it was a huge adventure for him and his "testimony" consisted, essentially, of how proud he was that he hadn't judged anyone on the bus - because, well, you know what kind of people ride the bus.

Rachel's attitude couldn't have been more different. She was intrigued and interested in everything she saw, whether it was people or things, buildings or simply materials used on the streetcar we were on. 

She commented, for example, on the horizontal bars in the windows of the street car - something I wouldn't have particularly noticed, but through her eyes, she saw patterns. Mind, she's always had a good eye and has taken beautiful pictures for years with her little inexpensive camera.

The closer we got to the end of Market Street, the more intrigued Rachel was. Even though it was Sunday morning, there were people - all kinds of them - everywhere. She seemed to be breathing it all in and loving it. 

After getting off the streetcar, we browsed through some street vendor tents and decided, for the princely sum of $8, to get Rachel's portrait sketched by an elderly Chinese man.

From, we walked along the Embarcadero to the craziness of Fisherman's Wharf, where we had some lunch. Then a quick visit to Japan Town, then time to load up the truck and head over the Golden Gate and toward home. It had been a great day. Rachel loved it, and so did I.