Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Reflections

Family picture taken this past Saturday by Katrina B. Anderson

I wasn't going to write about "what I'm grateful for." This has always seemed a bit cliche to me. Like New Year Resolutions. But as I sat down to write in my journal this morning, I decided that it would be appropriate to reflect on what has happened during the past year. And I'm glad I did. I learned some things.

View of Granby, Colorado this morning from our hotel room. It was 9 degrees at the time this was taken.

My Personal Growth

This time a year ago, I wasn't, in a number of important ways, in a very good place. Frankly, I was in a dark place of depression. The recent Circling the Wagons conference (for LGBT members of the Mormon community and their families and friends) had been surrounded by controversy and negativity that had deeply effected me. 

I was floundering professionally, trying to determine whether I should simply give up on the practice of law or go into a different line of work. Eighteen months of unemployment had taken their toll. My personal finances had continued to deteriorate.

I was also floundering emotionally. Phantoms from my abusive childhood haunted me. I broke down completely over Thanksgiving weekend last year. Dark thoughts seemed to swirl around me.

For quite some time, I hadn't thought about that time in my life a year ago. It was a revelation to me this morning as I sat down to write in my journal how far I have come over the past year. A big turning point came last December as I met with my counselor and, together, we faced some hard things. 

I realized that I needed to leave behind my lingering associations with all things Mormon. It was simply too painful - on numerous levels - and it certainly wasn't healthy. It was also at this point that I surrendered to certain other realities in my life and gave up the suffering I was incurring because I had tried to pretend and act like those realities weren't there or could be changed. As Eckart Tolle has written, what one resists, persists. Others have put it this way: Let go or be dragged. I let go.

Today, I am in a very different place emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. And I'm very grateful for that. I'm grateful for all the growth I have experienced over the past year. I'm grateful that ghosts from my childhood no longer haunt me. I'm grateful that I feel more in touch with myself than I ever have. I'm grateful to be on a spiritual path that I feel originates from within, rather than being imposed from without; a path that I feel is nourishing and healing me.

For all of this, I am grateful.

My Children

Much wonderful and good has happened this past year with respect to my children. A beautiful baby girl has come into the lives of my daughter Hannah and her husband, Cary. As a result, Hannah has experienced much growth and wonder this past year. I'm grateful for this growth, grateful that Hannah and I are as close as we are, grateful for the things we have shared with and taught each other, grateful for the good health and material well-being that Hannah, Cary and Nutella enjoy.

I'm also exceedingly grateful that my daughter Rachel has come back into my life, and I into hers. Her absence, as well as that of two of my other children, had left a huge hole in my heart. There has been much healing and growth that has come from pain, and I'm so grateful that Rachel and I are now  probably closer than we've ever been, that she has been able to spread her wings and enjoy freedom and happiness in Philadelphia, and that Mark and I were able to visit her a few weeks ago. 

Rachel at Brandywine Museum a few weeks ago

I also grateful for the growth that others of my older children have experienced over the past year. Seeing and hearing of this growth has given me hope that they are, each in their own way and in their own time, dealing with the trauma that has shaken and hurt each one of them over the past several years - and that they are emerging as stronger, more healthy, more whole individuals. 

I am also grateful for the love I feel for each one of them and for the love that I feel from them, and the knowledge that I have that such love can never be taken for granted; and in this regard, I remain thankful for the hope that remains kindled that the day will come when a reconciliation will occur with my two children from whom I remain estranged. 

Of course, I am grateful for the Quads and for Nathan and for all that we have been able to experience over the past year. I'm particularly grateful for the Disneyland trip that Mark and I made with Aaron, Esther and Levi in June. And for the trip that we make with Nathan in July to Maui to attend the Koepke family reunion.

Nathan with "Grandma Koepke" on the beach in Maui


I am grateful for every day that I have with Mark. Almost eight months ago, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. The prognosis at that time looked very grim. I am grateful beyond words to express that his hormone therapy is working, that he remains healthy, vigorous and strong and that we have been able to create many lasting memories over the past months. 

Though I cannot say I am grateful that he has cancer, I can say that that I am grateful for some of the blessings that have come into our lives as a result of the cancer. I am grateful for the more profound love that has grown between us and for the way in which we have grown, together. I am grateful for the way Mark has drawn closer to his family and they to him and the way in which I have been drawn more intimately into that family.

I am thankful for our commitment ceremony in August. For the love that was so powerfully felt there. For the fact that eight of my children chose to be there. It was a night I will never forget. I am truly grateful to Mark, to my angel sister Martha and her husband Koen, to my children, to Mark's family members and to all of our friends who were there to add their energy, love and light to that marvelous evening.

And I am grateful that, as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in June, that Mark and I can look forward to getting legally married next year and that we can (at least at the federal level) enjoy all the same benefits and status and recognition that straight couples enjoy.

Every Day

Lastly, I am grateful that I am grateful. I am thankful that I do not take life for granted. That I know that each day is precious. That each day brings opportunities and blessings. For much of my life, I couldn't truly say these things (a reflection of my own issues). Now, I can. And I am grateful. I am grateful for all the love and light in my life. I am truly blessed.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sanctity, a Baby and a Bus Driver

Esperanza behind my daughter and granddaughter at our Commitment Ceremony in August

We were sitting in my car, waiting for her bus on an extremely windy and cold evening. I didn’t know a whole lot about Esperanza. I knew she is from Peru, that she is not married and apparently (as far as I knew) had no children. I would guess her age to be in the late 40’s.

Esperanza came to our house every other week or so to take care of the plants and assist in light cleaning and organizing. She had also been a huge help when we had our commitment ceremony in late August and was now helping us with our move. She worked diligently and quietly and has always carried an air of humble dignity as well as a beautiful smile. 

I knew that Esperanza is from Peru, that she was not married and apparently (as far as I knew) had no children. But that’s about it. So, as we sat there in the car waiting for the bus, it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to get to know her better. 

I asked how long she has lived in the United States. Turns out she has been here for about 20 years, that she was married but is divorced.

I next asked if she had any children. I wasn’t prepared for her answer.

Esperanza proceeded to tell me a story. A little over 20 years ago, she was living in the northern Mexican city of San Luis Potosi. She and a friend were walking on the street one day when a woman, in obvious distress, approached them holding a baby. 

“Will you please take my baby?” the woman cried. 

Shocked, Esperanza asked why she would say such a thing. “He is sick and I cannot take care of him. Please take my baby!” 

Esperanza replied that they could not take her baby. The woman plead all the harder. Finally, Esperanza told the woman that she would take her and her baby to a hospital and that she – Esperanza – would pay for treatment for the baby.

After the baby had been examined, the doctors said that he was very, very sick and it was unlikely that he would live more than three months. After some discussions, Esperanza said she would pay for the baby to be hospitalized for a month. When a doctor asked her if she was a relative, she replied that, no, she had just met the mother and baby.

I sat spellbound as Esperanza continued her story.

A month later, the baby was not much better. Esperanza described holding the child as he wrapped his hand around one of her fingers. “You must live!” she said quietly to the child. “You must live!”

Esperanza smiled at me. Her face had a glow, even in the darkened car. “That baby boy just turned 21.” There was pride evident in her face. Not pride at what she had done, but pride in her adopted son who is now finishing his education at a trade school.

She went on to say that she has supported the boy, David, for the past 20 years. She has visited him and he has visited her. Wanting to do more for his family and their neighbors, Esperanza was distressed that the villagers had to walk quite a ways for water. The solution? She and some other people organized raffles and bake sales to raise money to have a well drilled so that they could have a local source of water.

I sat there amazed. Amazed. Feeling blessed to have heard such a story. But David wasn’t the end of the story. Esperanza also told me about her nephew in Peru, studying to be a doctor. His mother, Esperanza’s sister, has Lupus. His father, an engineer, has difficulty finding work. So Esperanza, who works as a nanny and light housekeeper and domestic assistant, sends money to her nephew to help support him through school. “Only five more years,” Esperanza smiled.

“That’s amazing!” I said. Over and over again. I had been so moved by her story about David and his village, then by her story of her nephew. This woman, who has comparatively little, had done – and is doing - so much. I felt tremendously blessed to have sat with her in that car that blustery evening.

Suddenly, Esperanza’s bus became visible in the rear view mirror. She hurriedly said goodbye and walked quickly back to the bus stop. Looking in my mirror, however, the bus appeared not to be slowing down. I hopped out and waved my arms at the bus, pointing to Esperanza. The bus came to a stop in the street and she got on. 

I got back in the car and waited for the bus to pass before pulling away from the curb. But the bus pulled up next to me and the driver motioned for me to roll down my window, which I did. Silly me, I thought maybe he was going to thank me. I was mistaken. “Hey,” he said, accusatorily, “your brake lights blinded me and that’s why I couldn’t see her.” I felt assaulted, especially after the beautiful story I had just heard. I simply shrugged deflatedly, rolled my window up and waited for the bus to pass.

That very day, I had read some passages from David Richo’s book, Catholic Means Universal, that had a direct bearing on what had transpired that evening: 
“Ego and its capacity for limitation and mean-spiritedness reveal us to ourselves … Spiritual practice has as its goal not enlightenment but the state of being in which our first reaction to others is not from our ego mind but from the heart of Christ, the Buddha mind, our higher Self. Thus, the ego’s automatic reaction of conditional love can become unconditional love; ego biases can become expansive and generous wisdom; retaliation can vanish into reconciliation. Our first impulse is not to get back at but to get back with. Through practice that new set of responses becomes habitual. That habit is called sanctity.”
I take it as an indication of my own progress that I didn’t lash back in my mind at that bus driver for being so incredibly petty and ego-driven. I also thought about Esperanza and the day she was approached in San Luis Potosi by that distraught woman. Many, many would have turned away. But Esperanza’s first reaction was from the heart of Christ, the Buddha mind, the Higher Self – and that made all the difference. Therein lies sanctity.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Surprised by ... Memory

Me and our dog Herman on our front lawn in Salem, Illinois about 1963/4. St. Theresa's
Catholic School is visible across the street. My older siblings went there, and I attended there 2nd and 3rd grade.

This post starts out on somewhat of a bit of a down note, but it gets better.

One of the saddest legacies of child abuse can be the loss of memory of one's childhood. I never thought much about the fact that, as I aged and became an adult, I couldn't remember much of my childhood - until, that is, I started meeting people whose memory was much clearer. My former wife, for example, seemed to have volumes of crystal clear memories of her childhood. 

This fact became increasingly distressing to me until, in the mid-90's, I had a sort of a breakdown and, for the first time, started dealing with my childhood abuse. I made numerous phone calls to my older siblings, trying to pump them for memories, recollections and "evidence" for the case I was building against both my parents, but particularly my mother. 

Me and my best childhood friend, Chuckie, who lived two doors down

I recall meeting with my doctor/counselor at that time and telling him about my investigation, about how I would examine my body for scars after having been told something by a sibling of which I had no memory, e.g., looking for evidence of the time Mom hit me with a hairbrush. As I counseled with Dr. Mate, he told me I couldn’t approach this as a lawyer looking for evidence in order to validate what happened. It happened. My body knew it happened and my psyche knew it happened.

Over the years, through reading and counseling, I learned some important psychological principles that bore directly upon my lack of childhood memories. A couple of these were succinctly summarized in the book by psychotherapist David Richo to which I have been referring in the last few posts (Catholic Means Universal). First of all, the psyche knows best when it comes to memory:
“It is important to respect our own timing in the process of remembering abuses. We let in only what we can handle as we can handle it. Temporary denial of some of the facts is useful in grief work because our psyche knows how much we can deal with at one time and lets the information in, little by little, as we become able to stand it. When we are ready to know, we will know. We may never know it all. Only then can we allow a full venting of feelings like sadness, anger and fear."
Secondly, a survival mechanism employed in childhood distorted and drew a veil over memory:
“Part of the abuse cycle is learning to dissociate. Dissociation can be described in this way: while we are being abused, physically, sexually or emotionally, we become numb to the hurt and pain that is happening to us. Unconsciously and automatically, we ‘turn off’ the stimulus and take flight into fantasy or distracting behavior. This dissociation has a wisdom in it because it helps us bear the pain without being overwhelmed by it. Such dissociation accounts for the fact that later in life we forget the abuses that happened to us. Part of the work of mourning is re-associating with the occluded vision of our pain. What was necessary and wise in the past is no longer so in the present. We now allow ourselves to know our hurts and others’ abuses of us in order to clear our path to healing."

Because my psyche, through dissociation and because of its role as guardian, couldn't handle a lot of my childhood, it simply closed most of the doors. When I first started the recovery process almost 20 years ago, I relied chiefly on the memories of others ... but in many cases, they might as well have been describing someone else because I couldn't remember what they were describing - and this was the case for memories when I was as old as eleven.

I mention all of this because a week or so ago, I had an experience where images popped into my head while reading an author's reminiscences of his childhood. It was a simple story about his journeys to and from his elementary school when a boy. In autumn, he recalled riding his bike down a bumpy dirt path "through a meadow fully of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses and dried milkweed plants ..."


The simple image of a milkweed plant took me right back to my childhood. I couldn't recall where I had encountered these, but knew that I had.

The author continued, describing his winter journey over "an open landscape of white snow that rose wetly over the tops of my black galoshes."


Suddenly, I could remember the black galoshes I wore as a boy. The kind that fastened with several buckles, sort of like ski boots. I recalled the cold. My freezing fingers after I came in, trying to undo those stupid buckles that were caked in snow. I recalled the clinging sound the buckles made as they loosened and snapped back.

The author next described an incident that happened one spring. "My schoolbooks, heavy in the bike's metal basket swung violently to the side ..."


As soon as I read these words, I envisioned the old red tank of a bike I had (after I had outgrown the one in the above picture, which I don't remember). I recalled the huge tires and the big basket in front, how it could easily upset my balance, just as the author had described. I recalled using that basket to deliver newspapers when I was about 11 or 12.

These are such simple memories. One might wonder why I even bother writing about them. Well, I write about them because of the joy that I felt at recollecting such simple things from my childhood. It was as if a fragrant summer breeze had wafted from distant corners of my psyche, bringing - unexpectedly - feelings of contentment and happiness. And the sheer unexpectedness ... I had chased memories like a butterfly earlier in my adult life; these simply came and "sat on my shoulder."

I am also writing about them because I saw these images through my eyes. When I was going through counseling immediately after my mid-1990's experience, my counselor asked me whether, when I remembered scenes from my childhood (particularly those of abuse), I saw the scene through my eyes or through the eyes of an observer (who would also see me). This, of course, is precisely what dissociation is. The child sees himself in the memory through the eyes of another - the child who chose to detach himself from himself in order to survive - not through his own eyes.

That is a large part of the reason why these seemingly silly little memories brought such happiness to me - because I realized that my psyche was allowing me to see my childhood, and that it was allowing me to see it through my own eyes, through my own memories. It was an indication of healing and a promise of more to come.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Summun Bonum: Person vs. Product

This is another post from my first blog (which is now closed). I was reminded of it recently during a conversation with a family member.


He was so cute. I was pulling out of my parking spot at the grocery store the other day, and I saw a young father carrying his little boy toward their car.

“Bye,” I heard in a young clear voice. I turned and saw the little boy waving at me, smiling from ear to ear. “Bye,” he exuberantly called to me.  “Bye!” I smiled and waved back. So cute. My own children have done the same thing – waved at total strangers, pure joy on their face, not realizing that their parents would never dream of doing such a thing.

As I turned and saw the man and his son in my rear view mirror, other thoughts came unbidden into my mind. I thought about this beautiful little boy and the hopes and aspirations of his father for him and I wondered – what if this little boy turns out to be gay? How would his father feel about that? Would the beautiful exuberance I had just witnessed be someday crushed? Would this boy be rejected by his parents?

These thoughts quickly brought others to mind. Assuming this young father to be LDS, I wondered how this little boy would be raised. I wondered if the boy would be raised to go to Primary, to learn the words to “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission,” and “Army of Helaman”; to be a Cub Scout; to be a worthy deacon; to aspire to someday serve a mission; to be taught to believe that being a faithful Church member who “keeps the commandments” and “follows the prophet” represents the summum bonum of life, i.e., the highest good, the singular and most ultimate end which human beings ought to pursue.

I thought how this boy’s parents might sincerely believe that their job in life is to mold and shape this boy, to groom and prepare him for his mission in life, to – as it were – produce a young man who would fulfill all of their dreams as faithful parents in Zion. I wondered if they might teach him – as I once did with my own children – to pray that Heavenly Father would bless him with an opportunity to serve a mission, to get married in the temple to a noble and true companion and to then raise up his own children in light and truth.

My thoughts then came back to my original question: What if this boy is gay? For that matter, what if he’s not? How would this boy’s imagined life be different if, rather than looking at him as a “product” to be “produced,” he was looked upon by his parents as a unique person who had been brought into their lives to be loved and nurtured? To be discovered rather than molded? Whose individuality, mind, heart and spirit would be allowed to blossom and grow? Who would be valued as a person, rather than a product? Who would be loved for who he is, rather than forwhat he is?

The summum bonum of a Mormon parent: Is it to love unconditionally – as God in Heaven does – or to teach a child from an early age that acceptance and love is conditional upon obedience and conformity? To put it another way, is it to view their child as a person, or as a product?

I wondered, as I turned another corner and the little boy and his father disappeared from sight.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Real Sin: Withholding Consent to Life

"Adult faith is fidelity to our own intuitive experience ..."
~ David Richo, Catholic Means Universal

One of the books I've been reading the past while is entitled Universal Means Catholic, by David Richo, who in the prologue describes himself as "a formerly active Catholic priest, now a Jungian psychotherapist and teacher on a Buddhist path." I have read a couple of his other books, and I am finding Universal to be even more thought-provoking, especially as I have recently embarked on a new path in my spiritual journey.

The basic thrust of Richo's book is that disaffected Catholics can look at Catholicism in new ways, ways which are reflective of an "adult faith." In his first chapter, Richo addresses those who may have felt abused, in various ways, by the Catholic Church in their youth. I have found that discussion to be extremely interesting, not because I was abused by the Church, but in connection with the abuse I encountered at home.

But Richo's discussion also resonates with respect to my experience of being in the Mormon Church for almost 30 years. The following passage, in which Richo writes of Catholics who may have defied the church's strictures to forge a new path, also spoke to my own departure from Mormonism:
“We have stepped out of line, taken power into our own hands. To do this is scary because it entails risking the loss of approval or endangering the means of survival. Actually, we have explored or exposed a part of ourselves that reveals us to ourselves. We have come to the frontier of a new identity: one that allows us to say no to an external voice in favor of an inner intuitive voice. Identity for adults begins precisely at the point where blind obedience to external imperatives comes to an end and new steps beyond the safe horizons begin. A common theme in myths is that of the hero or heroine who enters the secret room, opens the locked box, or eats the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This knowledge is power, and reclaiming it may be what scares us most of all. The hero is the personification of our urgent desire to individuate no matter what it may take.”
Of course, when I read this, I immediately thought of my coming out. When I had that visceral reaction to LDS Apostle Boyd Packer’s talk a little over three years ago, a very big part of my identity was revealed to me. I came to the frontier of my new gay identity, allowing me to say no to external voices and embrace my inner intuitive voice. I left behind blind obedience to external imperatives and stepped beyond the horizon into a whole new world. 

The inner intuitive voice is the articulator of "inner liveliness." Writes Richo:
“Healthy community enterprises [such as churches] are aimed at serving individual wholeness. This means encouraging our lively energy to be released. Lively energy is our exuberance, our brightest enthusiasms, our imperishable passions, our irrepressibilities – what becomes our bliss. This energy is meant to open more and more in the course of life in the service of our deepest needs, values and wishes. It makes us capable of giving joy to others. This is the very same elemental energy in the universe itself. It is what raises a storm at sea or erupts as a volcano … 
“A personal relationship to God means honoring the organic unity of ourselves, nature and God. This happens when we are in touch with our liveliness. Nothing can annihilate it, but can only divert it. We can get it back at any time by our program of recovery: grieving the past, feeling our feelings about it, and letting go of it while preserving its riches. 
“Our lively energy makes us able to dare and to defy. Recovery from our religious past may mean defiance of its power over us in the present. Morality is not moral if it contradicts good psychological sense or the healthy inclinations of nature. Morality was never meant to interfere with the full activation of our human powers and possibilities. When we remain afraid to say no to violations of our liveliness, we are at the mercy of them and eventually even inflict them on ourselves. If we are afraid to laugh or weep or sing because of prohibitions, our lively energy is blunted and even dispelled. Once religion is recognized as a tool for liberation, withheld consent to life is the real sin.”
To quote Mormon founder Joseph Smith, "This is sound doctrine. It tastes good." It resonates. It feeds. It inspires.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Abuse and the Victim Identity: It Doesn't Belong to Me

Journal writing can be such a meditative and revelatory process. The other morning, I sat down to write about a thought I had noted in my iPhone notes either just before or during our recent trip back East: "Do I believe Mom wanted to be different than what she was?" When I got home and looked at that note, I asked myself what I had meant by that question when that thought came to me. I think what I originally had in mind were the external forces that contributed to Mom being the way she was - a subject for another post. But as I started writing in my journal, different thoughts came to mind, and as a result, I had what I would describe as a revelatory and game-changing experience. 

I certainly don't remember hating Mom when I was a child or even consciously disliking her, i.e., because of her abusive behaviors. Afraid, yes. I was afraid of her, particularly in my younger years, and I did what I could to steer clear of her temper outbursts which all too often led to physical attacks. She was mercurial ... 

As I write this, I am having another insight: I thought back on the time when I was six or seven years old that she grabbed me on either side of my head and repeatedly banged it against the plaster wall in the dining room of our house. It has just occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons this incident stands out so traumatically in my memory is that it was so unexpected; I didn't see it coming. Life was ok one minute, and the next minute I was being horribly violated. Life could go into a tailspin at any moment.

Anyway, like I said, I don't remember hating her or consciously disliking her. She was the way she was. It was my "normal." 

Shift in thought while writing in my journal: I asked myself whether - to paraphrase the words of John O'Donohue in Anam Cara - I had carried around in my heart the "corpse of a past relationship" and became "addicted to hurt as a confirmation of identity." 

As I continued to reflect and write, I came to clearly see how I did in fact become so addicted. I realized that this addiction is not something I need to exist, to be. My ego had told me that I needed this hurt in order to validate my existence and what happened to me, that I was justified in holding onto it; that I had suffered a grievance and that it was totally normal, acceptable and right to hold onto it. But as I sat there writing in my journal, I realized with laser-like clarity that I do not need to hold onto it. 

I can simply let it go because it is not part of "me," but is, rather, a part of my ego. 

"So," I wrote in my journal, "I choose to let it go, casting out into the river a raft I no longer need. It's not the same thing as 'forgiveness,' as that term is usually thought of, which implies grievance and moral superiority and notions of self-righteousness [i.e., I am the victim, what was done to me was wrong, and I have every right to hold onto the wrong and will 'forgive' when I decide to forgive, recognizing I am in the superior moral position] - all of which are notions that the ego clings to. Letting go, however, is morally neutral. It is a process whereby one simply observes something that belongs to the ego - not 'me' - affirming that 'ownership' and turning and walking away. It simply doesn't belong to me."

"Wow," I concluded, "it feels really good to let go."

I know, however, that I wouldn't have been able to come to these realizations had I not done the work to get to the point where I could let go. This was validated in passages I recently read in a book by Jungian psychotherapist David Richo (Catholic Means Universal) when he wrote, "True compassion and forgiveness follow the anger and remembrance [of abuse] ... Reminiscence means baring the abuse instead of bearing it. It is an admission to ourselves of what happened and what we felt about it ... The result of knowing and grieving will be to shift our focus from how we were victimized to a disidentification with the victim role. The healthy version of dissociation (denial) [a common phenomenon among abused children] is disidentification (freedom from the sense of oneself as victim) …

I also would not have come to these realizations in quite the way I did had I not embarked a few weeks ago on a new spiritual path/journey. I sense very strongly that my spiritual path and my own path of recovery toward emotional and psychological health and wholeness have merged and are one and the same. In this regard, I'll close with another quote by David Richo in Catholic Means Universal:
"Renewal of faith in an adult requires the psychological ingredient of mourning the pain of the past and letting go of it. This brings recovery and moving on. A space opens for us where before there was none [which is precisely what happened to me the other day]. We find the reserves of our own energy and the graces always accessible to us but never fully evoked."
I'm now looking forward to examining and letting go of other "roles," to spaces opening where before there were none, and to finding other reserves of my own energy and graces.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Mother and Her Gay Son: Reflections

The following post was originally published on my earlier blog in April 2011. I have had some thoughts about my mother lately that I want to write about, and I'm republishing this post as a sort of introduction to another post or two that will follow. 


I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about my mother.  She died a few years ago.  I never told her I am gay. I never told her a lot of things. My mother and I became estranged as I got older due to the abuse that I suffered as a child at her hand. It’s complicated, but about 15 years ago, I basically came to a point where I couldn’t go on pretending that what happened to me, didn’t happen. After confronting her about some things and experiencing a disappointing response, I finally came to realize that she had certain limitations that she would never get beyond, no matter how much I wished our relationship was different.  So I (reluctantly) accepted that and moved on.

Because of the hurt, the pain and the realization that I will always carry the emotional scars of childhood abuse, I had not been able to “forgive” my mother. (The platitudes about simply forgiving and “applying the atonement of Christ” simply do not apply here – as anyone who knows anything about the legacies of child abuse can understand.) Frankly, I was not able to feel much if any love for her.  For a long time, I felt guilty about this; but I finally felt that I simply had to let it go and “give it to God.” That gave me a certain degree of peace.

Since coming out, however, I have “revisited” many periods of my life – including my childhood and youth - sifting, sorting, re-thinking. In fact, coming out has enabled me to look back on my entire life through a different lens. Before finally acknowledging and embracing my true sexuality, try as I might to be “broad-minded” about my past, I was handicapped in that I looked at this past through a “Mormon” lens. Particularly as a convert (comparing my experience to that of the Mormon ideal), I frankly (to my discredit) looked upon my family of origin with intolerance and shame and I viewed my dysfunctional childhood and youth as something to be ashamed of.  

This intolerance and shame were in turn overlain by an extremely thick and virtually impermeable coat of shame that covered everything - my entire self - as a result of my hidden homosexuality. I have been stripping away that coat of shame and working at exorcising the intolerance that has lived within me for so long. Doing so has enabled me to love myself more and, perhaps as a result, to have more compassion toward my mother and to re-examine my feelings toward her.

With my mother and my brother Danny, sometime in 1964 or '65

For example, I have recently been thinking about what my mother probably knew or surmised about me as a child.  Examining the evidence, I find the following:

  • My two older brothers were very athletic. I was not. Yet, I do not recall ever being forced by my mother (or my father, for that matter) to participate in sports. 
  • I had apparently evinced an aptitude for interior decorating at a very young age:  my mother used to like to tell the story about how I started rearranging the furniture at one of her friend’s house when I was only four.
  • My mother also used to like to tell the story of how she and I would sit together and listen to classical music. I don’t have that recollection, but I supposed it was because I was probably very young. What has impressed me recently about this memory of hers, however, is that it stuck out in her memory as something that was special to her.
  • I suppose I was probably always a sensitive child. I don’t remember much of anything from when I was very young, but I do recall as I got older that I loved art, music and church. I also liked school, once I was old enough to go, and I excelled at it – something my older brothers didn’t.

As I look back on all of this, I have realized that I don’t recall ever being “put down” by my mother, or being called a “sissy” – neither by her or by anyone else in my family (except my older brother).  I think, frankly, that my mother saw a lot of things in me that appealed to her, that she liked; and I wonder if she knew, even then, that I was a gay little boy.

Thinking about these things has helped me to have compassion on my mother, despite everything that she did to me.

I have also gained compassion for her as I look back on my own experience in my marriage and as a parent.  Coming out has helped me to see how getting married and denying my true self created a conflict in the very heart of me that generated not only unhappiness, but also a lot of anger and intolerance. This unhappiness, anger and intolerance seethed and bubbled deep inside of me, and as hard as I might try to control or even ignore these emotions, they nevertheless found their way to the surface at regular intervals, poisoning my marriage and adversely affecting my relationship with my children.

As I have thought about these things, I have reflected back on my mother. She came from an abusive and dysfunctional background, too. When I was a younger man, in my early married years, I excused my mother’s behavior toward me as a child on the basis that she herself had been abused as a child. Later, I came to realize that this wasn’t a healthy behavior, and I placed responsibility where it belonged, i.e., with her.

I still view her as responsible for her behavior, but looking at my own life through the increased clarity and different perspective proffered by the process of coming out, I am able to have more compassion for her. I am able to look at the elements of her marriage and her life that perhaps made her feel trapped.

Compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Looking back on my own life, reflecting on the deep unhappiness that I experienced in my marriage caused in part by the rejection of my true gay identity, and acknowledging the toll that my unhappiness took not only on me but upon my wife and my children – in doing these things, I am able to “suffer with” my mother in what she went through; to have compassion towards her; to accept her for who she was, faults and all.  In so doing, I find myself able to do something I had not previously been able to do: extend forgiveness to her and, ultimately, to find a love for her that I thought was extinguished forever.

Mom holding my oldest daughter, 1987

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Anam Cara: Soul Friend

A week or so ago, I mentioned that I have started reading a wonderful book entitled Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. The book, written by John O'Donohue, was apparently an international best seller when it was published in 1997, and I was introduced to it through quotations from it in another book I recently read.

According to Wikipedia,
"O'Donohue became a novice at Maynooth, in north County Kildare, at age of 18. Here he earned degrees in English, Philosophy, and Theology at St Patrick's College in County Kildare. He was ordained as Catholic priest in 6 June 1979. O'Donohue moved to Tübingen, Germany in 1986, and completed his dissertation in 1990 on German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for his PhD in philosophical theology from Eberhard Karls University. In 1990, he returned to Ireland to continue his priestly duties, and began his post-doctoral work on the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.
"O'Donohue's first published work, Anam cara (1997), which means "soul friend" in Gaelic, was an international best-seller and catapulted him into a more public life as an author and much sought-after speaker and teacher, particularly in the United States. O'Donohue left the priesthood in 2000 ... Just two days after his 52nd birthday and two months after the publication of his final complete work, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, O'Donohue died suddenly in his sleep on 4 January 2008 while on holiday near Avignon, France." 
I have fallen in love with the prose in O'Donohue's book, and I will quote from it in posts from time to time and perhaps add a couple of my own thoughts. Here are some passages that I've recently read.

Love Is The Nature of the Soul

"The soul needs love as urgently as the body needs air. In the warmth of love, the soul can be itself. All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow."

"Sometimes a friendship turns, and the partners fix on each other at their points of mutual negativity. When you meet only at the point of poverty between you, it is as if you give birth to a ghost who would devour every shred of your affection ... Others want to love, to give themselves, but they have no energy. They carry around in their hearts the corpses of past relationships and are addicted to hurt as a confirmation of identity."

The Anam Cara

"In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cars, you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart ... The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other."

"In everyone's life, there is great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension ... Where you are understood, you are at home ..."

"Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other."

"A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you."


"Ireland is a land of many ruins. Ruins are not empty. They are sacred places full of presence ... The life and passion of a person leave an imprint on the ether of a place. Love does not remain within the heart, it flows out to build secret tabernacles in a landscape."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Washington Wrap-Up

The weather turned quite a bit colder on Tuesday. Though it was only in the 40's, the humidity and the wind combined to make it bone-chilling. We were glad that we had been able to enjoy Mt. Vernon and the monuments and memorials in good weather the day before.

We started out the day with a visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a Roman Catholic cathedral that I mistakenly thought was the site of President Kennedy's funeral. The interior of this church frankly struck me as cold and sterile.

We next retraced our route on the Metro to Union Station and walked from there to the Supreme Court Building, then across the street to the Capitol. The court was in session, so we were unable to see the actual courtroom, but it was still cool to see the place where so many historic decisions have been made and where so many demonstrations have been held over the years.

I hadn't thought we would be able to get on a tour of the Capitol, but we were able to walk in to a tour that was just starting as we arrived. I had hoped that we would be able to arrange a private tour by a congressional staffer - which is what we did in 2005 when I was there with Sarah, Adam and Hannah - but such was not the case this time. Nevertheless, we saw a nice film, followed by a tour of the Rotunda, the old Senate chamber and Statuary Hall.

"The Apotheosis of George Washington" in the dome of the Capitol

After a light lunch in the cafeteria of the Capitol Visitor Center, we undertook a bone-chilling walk to the Air and Space Museum. The highlight of our visit there was the IMAX 3-D presentation of "Hubble," which featured eye-popping and mind-blowing images of distant reaches of the known universe.

By the time we left the museum, we were a bit tired and frankly didn't feel like being out in the cold wind anymore. We took the Metro back to our hotel adjacent to George Washington University, had some down time in our room, then went out to eat after having eaten salads in our room the previous two nights.

The next morning, we were up bright and early and left for the White House at about 7:30. There was some mix-up on Mark's birthdate, so he had to stand off to one side for about 15 minutes while he was "re-cleared" as I waited. By the time we got to the next check point, where our names and birth dates were again checked prior to going through screening, we were both shivering in the cold.

The public tours of the White House consist of viewing a few rooms in the basement and all of the rooms on the first floor. Secret Service agents are in each room, watchfully surveying everyone and - technically - available to answer questions about the various rooms. When I and the kids toured the place in 2005, our Congressman had personally escorted us and arranged, as I recall, for a much more intimate tour. This time, it was much different; but Mark was able to visit the White House, and that's the important thing. As we walked out the front door, Mark quipped, "All that for a 15-minute tour."

After some breakfast, we headed back to the hotel, checked out, then drove to the National Cathedral, which was on our way to the airport.

It had been a good trip. Fun, thought-provoking, enriching. The time we had spent with Rachel in Philadelphia had been wonderful, and the time in Washington had been very meaningful in a way that I had not anticipated. I'm glad we went.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The 60's Memorials

Moving from the FDR Memorial to the MLK Memorial was an interesting, thought-provoking experience. It was as though we were making a pilgrimage to monuments to the on-going struggle throughout the 20th century for the creation of a more just, equal and enlightened society. 

I knew nothing about design and content of the MLK Memorial prior to our visit. But I could remember the 60's. I can remember seeing protest marches on the evening news, along with news of that day's killing in Vietnam, news that nightly visited every family in the nation. I remember the awful spring of 1968, when MLK's assassination by a white man set off violent demonstrations in many cities of the country. I can also more vividly recall the assassination and funeral a few months later of Robert Kennedy.

Upon doing some background reading for this post, I came across a speech that Robert Kennedy (who was running that spring for the Democratic nomination for president) made at a campaign rally in a predominantly black area of Indianapolis the night of King's assassination. (King's death wasn't confirmed until Kennedy had landed in Indianapolis, and he conveyed the news to those assembled at the rally. The speech, therefore, was extemporaneous.) As I read the speech, it brought back the sense of idealism I recall being associated with RFK and demonstrates how different the tone of political discourse was then as compared to now. Here is an excerpt:
"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
"We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
"But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
"My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

One enters the King Memorial through the "mountain of despair," a reference to a quote from MLK's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Neatly cut out of this mountain of despair is a "stone of hope" - King.

From the MLK Memorial, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It seemed fitting that this was the next stop on our "pilgrimage," as this edifice has served not only as the closest thing we Americans have to a national shrine, but as the site of many historic events marking the struggle toward a more equal and just society and nation, such as Marian Anderson's performance in 1939 and MLK's "March on Washington" in 1963.

I thought about these events as Mark and I ascended the many steps to the "temple of freedom." (I think Memorial's resemblance to ancient Greek temples is no accident; and in fact the inscription above Lincoln's statue explicitly refers to the memorial as a temple.)

I also thought about how the Tea Party and their ilk don't have much time for Lincoln. Lincoln was a unifier, a preserver, a man who sought to "bind up the nation's wounds" after the terrible slaughter incurred in the Civil War - as memorialized in the words of his second inaugural address:

These people clothe themselves in the garb and in the supposed ideology of those who were there when Moses parted the Red Sea and God himself fought the American Revolution and delivered the Constitution on Mt. Sinai. These people are too often filled with hatred, division and bigotry. No, they have no use for Lincoln. They can't use him, for he was the great unifier, not the great divider.

It gave me pause, as we stood in front of Lincoln's statue, to wonder how differently American history might have progressed if Lincoln had lived and had been able to carry out his dream of a unified, compassionate and equal America.

Isn't he gorgeous?

The Vietnam War Memorial is visible from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - another monument to that critical decade of the 60's, to both the dreams and the contradictions of that tumultuous time. We were fortunate to be there on Veterans' Day. I won't add any commentary about our visit to that long black wall. The pictures tell the story.

This struck me as a cool picture, but I sense a deep meaning to this photograph that is eluding my grasp.
Perhaps we are a reflection of what these men would have been had they been standing there?