Thursday, October 30, 2014

Kona-Kohala: First Day on the Beach

Our beach experience here in Kona-Kohala is totally different from what we experience on Maui. That experience is like camping. This experience, well, is like a resort experience - an experience I'm sure we'd never have (and likely never will have) but for the generosity of our hosts. No one comes up to us on Little Beach in Maui every 30 minutes or so, for example, and asks us if we'd like more water or a drink. And Little Beach most certainly does not offer chaise lounges and covers.

The foot of a sleeping baby next door, peaking out from under the cover.

Our Salt Lake friends, Kurt and Julia

Mark playing in the sand with Charlie, Kurt and Julia's son

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kona-Kohala Sunsets

Yes, we're traveling again. This time to the Kona-Kohala coast on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii. This is the first to visit the Big Island for both Mark and me.

Some time ago, we were invited to accompany some friends of ours to spend a little over a week at a resort villa owned by some friends of theirs. Free. Well, we had to pay for the airfare, but our lodging is free. This first post features pictures of the sunsets the past two nights. These first four pictures were taken on Monday night. The lead photo and the others were taken last night.

Water condensation from our drinks. We don't experience condensation in Utah.

I went to get something from our room, which faces east, from the lanai, which faces west, and I saw the above scene out of our window to the northeast. The setting sun had set the top of Kohala* ablaze over the mists that shrouded the slopes. It was pretty amazing.

*According to our guide book, Kohala is the oldest surviving Big Island volcano which last erupted 60,000 years ago.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bearing Down: The Dark Side of Testimony

Certain recent events in my life have turned my thoughts toward the LDS practice of “bearing testimony.”*

My introduction to this principle occurred in my very first missionary discussion when I was investigating the Church.  After the missionaries had completed their presentation, they said, “I know these things are true.”  I remember thinking at the time, “How do they know these things are true?”  And, “What is truth?”

As I got further into the conversion process, I witnessed many more examples of this strange (to me at the time) phenomenon of people “bearing their testimony” about the “truthfulness of the Gospel.”  

This struck me as strange because it was foreign to me; I did not grow up in an evangelical tradition in which one “witnessed” about Christ.  In fact, the couple of times I had been exposed to this in high school, I was very uncomfortable with it.  One of the things about the practice that made me uncomfortable was the unspoken expectation that, once someone else had “testified,” I was supposed to do the same.  If I didn’t, there was the (again unspoken) assumption, laid on the table, that there was something wrong with me.  Or if they “felt the Spirit,” there was again the assumption that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t feel it, too. (Sound familiar?)

But as I moved deeper into the conversion process and witnessed people bearing their testimonies about the truth of the Book of Mormon, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, the restoration of the true church, etc., I felt a growing desire to “know” that, too.  And as people talked about “feeling the Spirit,” and as I listened to the missionaries and others tell me that I could have my own “witness,” I increasingly found myself wanting to feel what they apparently felt. 

Then came my first fast and testimony meeting. I think I had been forewarned that this meeting would be unlike any I had ever attended. They were right. But I took it in stride.

Gaining my testimony was sort of like going out and buying a nice, shiny new car. I was so proud of it, and I wanted to keep it spotless and sparkling, just like it was when I “drove it off the lot.”

Over the years, I learned that individual testimonies were each unique, sort of like automobiles: every car is different, even if they are the same make, model, year, color, etc. For even identical new cars differ slightly, and as they are driven by their new owners, they assume a unique character.

I also learned, frankly, to pretty much dread fast and testimony meetings. And I think I’m probably in pretty good company. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes (and I know you have, too) and/or I leaned forward in my bench, my head in my hands, wishing I were somewhere else – at least most of the time. I learned all about travel-monies, thank-a-monies, child-a-monies, the lectures, the dogmatic exhortations, etc., etc. At it did strike me odd at times how we each spent so much effort in telling each other that the Church is true and telling each other how we should “live the Gospel.”

But there were times when someone would get up and share something authentic about themselves and their life. And I would tune back in (after Sister So-and-So just finished telling us all about her trip to the Sacred Grove). They would talk about how they felt God’s presence in their lives.  And it was uplifting.

But, as I have realized recently, the thing that made these anecdotes touching was not that the speakers were bearing “testimony” of anything, but that they were sharing a very human experience. Whether they realized it or not, what such people were really doing was bearing testimony of their own character and resilience in the face of (usually) difficult and challenging experiences.  And that is what I found uplifting about their comments.

This is the best side of the practice of bearing testimony. There is, however, a dark side – when testimony is used as a weapon, whether through ignorance, arrogance, a desire to control, or malice.

For example, because missionaries are taught from a young age that they can invite the Spirit to bear testimony of a principle or statement if they themselves do so, many elders and sisters unwittingly (for the most part) think that, if they just bear testimony fervently and often enough, they can “get through” to people.  And if people resist, they just need to do it harder.

Unfortunately, arrogance also motivates much testimony-bearing, when the idea behind it is to inform other people that they don’t know what is best for their lives, and if they’d just listen to them – the testimony-bearers – they’d “get” whatever it is that the messengers are trying to tell them.

Another BIG motivation for testimony-bearing in the Church is the desire to control the behavior and beliefs of others.  This is quite often seen, unfortunately, in families, as parents use testimony-bearing as a last-ditch attempt to change or control something about the way their children are acting or thinking.  It is used rampantly in youth programs through the Church, probably because youth are most susceptible to this.

The darkest side of testimony-bearing, however, is evidenced when the desire to control unites with malice. Unfortunately (I realize I’ve used that word a lot), many gay and lesbian Mormons have been the recipients of this type of testimony-bearing.  You know how it goes:  people close to you feel they have to “bear down” in “pure testimony” to try to get you to see the error of your ways, to try to convince you that you are a piece of s*it, but that God still loves you and you can “come back,” if only you change.  

This is all done, of course, under the pretense of love.  “We’re doing this because we love you. Can’t you see that?” But these same people are so busy bearing testimony of their own misunderstandings, prejudices and bigotry that they themselves become “past feeling”: they cannot feel the hurt of those against whom they are testifying; they willfully (whether consciously or not) shut themselves off from even trying to understand how their “loved ones” feel; and they debase us by telling us, and themselves, that we are under the influence of Satan (and therefore just listening to us opens themselves up to his influence as well).

And then, of course, when bearing down in pure testimony doesn’t work, there is nothing left but to shake the dust from their feet – in far too many cases (including my own) – and to leave us to “kick against the pricks.”

Such is the dark side of testimony.

* This post was originally published in August 2012 on my blog, Beyond the Closet Door (now closed). I will periodically repost some of the posts from that blog here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Birthday Weekend With the Quads

This past weekend, we celebrated all four of the Quads' birthdays. (We call our four younger children the Quads.) Their birthdays are all within ten days of each other, so Mark and I have a big birthday celebration for all four sometime in the latter half of October.

Now, one may ask, how did that happen? Four birthdays within ten days? Therein lies a tale.

Esther and Aaron, who are turning 12 this year, were adopted from Nakhodka, Russia (near Vladivostock). when they were 6-1/2 months old. They had both been born in the same hospital in October 2002 within 12 days of each other, and in each case, their birth mothers relinquished all parental rights to the state shortly after their births. They then went to the same orphanage in Nakhoda (pictured below).

We first met the babies in April 2003, then we had to go back to Russia in May to complete the adoptions.

Me holding Aaron (left) and Esther


Aaron and Esther, shortly before they left Russia

Me and Aaron

Aaron was actually born on October 19th, and Esther's birthday was on Halloween. When we adopted them, we had the option of changing their birth dates, so we decided to split the difference and designate October 25th are their legal birth dates. At the time, we thought this might help to raise them as twins in case of awkward questions for them about their adoptions.

We adopted the twins because we thought we couldn't have any more children. So imagine the surprise when my former wife found out, not quite a year after we had brought the twins home, that she was pregnant with a boy. Levi was born on November 1, 2004.

My dad holding Levi when he was about two months old

Then, through a series of events, we ended up going back to Russia in the summer and fall of 2007 in order to adopt Annie, who had been born on October 23rd in Vladivostok. We met her when she was about seven months old.

Annie's orphanage, outside Vladivostok


Me and Annie

And so, that is how it came to pass that the birthdays of my four younger children are all within ten days of each other.

We had a good time this past weekend, starting off with a Dr. Who-themed birthday dinner. Then, each child had their own birthday cake of their choosing. The two girls opted for traditional cakes. Aaron, however, wanted a Texas donut, and Levi wanted a cherry pie.

Aaron's Texas Donut*

Esther and her cake

Levi's cherry pie.

Levi and Buddha

The next day, I took them all to Thanksgiving Point. I had been a bit apprehensive about this. I'm not really a crowds guy. And, like, I'm not exactly a *young* father. But my daughter, Rachel, came along to help and it was actually a lot of fun. After we paid a visit to the petting farm (which took the kids a while to warm too), we went to the Museum of Ancient Life. The funnest thing about this place was a big room where kids (and their parents) could make structures out of styrofoam blocks.

Add caption

Perhaps the funnest part for the kids was when they knocked it all down

Annie and Levi in the "river" playing with sand


I am blessed with AMAZING children.

* All of the remaining photographs, as well as the lead photo, were taken by my daughter, Rachel.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mountain Marie and Leading With My Heart

I was lying on a portable massage table in my sister-in-law Marie’s living room in Tabernash, Colorado. If I could turn my head, I would see a beautiful valley before me stretching to snow-capped peaks in the distance. I was aware of the scene, but I was looking up toward the ceiling as Marie was crucifying my toes. Well, that’s what it felt like at times.

Marie is a foot reflexologist and is also very knowledgeable about the uses and application of essential oils. She had graciously offered to give both Mark and I a “treatment” while we were in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, and I went first.

The basic idea behind foot reflexology is that certain spots on toes and places on the foot tie into various organs and areas of the body. I couldn’t believe the pain as she squeezed and massaged the places on my toes that refer to the brain, to my center of though, memory and hormones. 

As I groaned, Marie made the comment that I keep everything inside.  “Your mind feels like it has to protect your heart,” she said. “You need to try to stop overthinking.” Mark has made that comment to me many times, but he wasn’t playing with my toes at the time.

Marie and me in Hawaii in July 2013

The over-thinking I knew about. What I hadn’t known about was the heart thing. I had often felt that something or someone was imprisoned inside of me. He very occasionally gets out for some air when I am less inhibited, but then he goes back into his cage. In this regard, I could relate to something I read about what André Gide felt about his friend, Oscar Wilde: “Gide felt that Wilde was often inhabiting a role, even if the role was himself.” That’s exactly how I have felt.

I pondered what Marie had said and what I had felt as she kneaded my toes, and I eventually came to a couple of realizations. First, my mind doesn’t realize that it no longer needs to protect my heart. From the time I was a small child, my mind learned to protect my heart. As an abused boy, I dissociated myself from what was happening to me (as a survival mechanism), and my mind increasingly directed my actions, particularly after I realized as a teenager that I am gay. A process that began when I was small continued throughout my life. It was only once I came out that I began to live more from my heart.

The second realization I came to is that, in the process of trying to protect my heart, my mind has stifled it, much as an overprotective parent can stifle and smother a child. Through its desire to protect a child, a parent can go way overboard and prevent the child from living life and maturing emotionally (and from learning that the world is a wonderful place instead of a fearful, dangerous place). Similarly, I realized that my mind - in its zeal to protect – has stifled my heart. Because my mind doesn’t realize that it no longer needs to protect me, it has continued this process. (It is the same phenomenon that has sealed off so many of my memories from my childhood, youth and early adult life – i.e., my life before Mormonism.)

A third realization I came to is that if I am going to lead with my heart, I’m going to have to work at it. As I pondered this, I was reminded of something I was told by a very wise, perceptive and intuitive man - my doctor in Vancouver who also served as a counselor. When I first started really dealing with childhood abuse, he once told me: “You have never allowed yourself to have passions, let alone act upon them.”

In the process of working on my Invictus Pilgrim book (based on my coming-out blog), I recently ran across an email that my sister sent to me in those early days. She was describing her memories of me before I joined the LDS Church. One of her recollections was that I used to laugh so hard my sides ached. I hadn’t remembered that. I hadn’t remembered the exuberance of youth when I was going to college and was enjoying life in my fraternity. I hadn’t remembered that, as a child up to the time of my parents’ separation, I was a jokester and laughed easily. 

I had forgotten these things because my mind had spent so long creating the Mormon, married, heterosexual me, it had successfully wiped out most of these memories of how I used to be. It’s time to reclaim the youth in me, to celebrate my passion, to help my mind realize that it no longer has to guard my heart. This is going to involve some effort, and it is going to require that I have the courage to allow myself to be exuberant, to let go, to feel, to live.


Just a note to my Australian friend, Loris. Thank you for reading my blog and for sharing. I am sending thoughts, concern and best wishes to your "angels" - Michelle and her partner. Cancer creates a special kind of fellowship. Namaste.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Chance Encounter With André Gide

Who is André Gide? I had known of him, yet not known him. I had heard of him, but not heard of him. Why? How? Because of quotes from his writings that had been scattered upon my way since coming out. Yet I knew him not; he was just someone whose name was at the end of a quote. 

The other day, however, I chanced upon a website which had as it's banner the following quote by Gide:

"It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves - in finding themselves."

I was intrigued. Who was André Gide? Turns out he was a French novelist and essayist, that he was gay, that he was friends with, among others, Oscar Wilde, and that he was the first openly gay man to win the Noble Prize for Literature.

As I poked around the Internet and learned a bit more about him, I came across this quote which in a way summarizes the process of coming out of the closet:

"It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not."

These are very, very powerful words with which I was familiar from my early blogging as Invictus Pilgrim. 

I had also run across this quote:

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."

Now that I knew a little bit about the man who wrote these words, I wanted to learn more. His writing, as I became more exposed to it, reminded me of works of French existentialists that I had read in college. Upon Googling, I see that he was indeed considered a forerunner of existentialist thought.

Then the conundrum: where to start learning more about him. I decided to begin with his work Autumn Leaves. I can tell I'm in for a feast. The following are some of the selected quotes set forth in the introduction to the book:

"Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself - and thus make yourself indispensable."

"Sin is whatever obscures the soul."

"Dare to be yourself."

"Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it."

"Nothing prevents happiness like the memory of happiness."

"The color of truth is grey."

"The scholar seeks, the artist finds."

"Do not do what someone else could do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you."

I can hardly wait to begin reading, then writing about what I read.

Monday, October 20, 2014

High School Sucks

I well remember the discussions around the evening dinner table as my high school-age children shared a little bit of their frustrations at school. Six of my 10 children have attended and/or graduated from the same school which is in a predominantly Mormon suburb of Salt Lake. More often than not, their complaint concerned someone "who's supposed to be a member of the (LDS) Church," but had treated them badly or had taken advantage of their family/church connections, getting away with murder - or at least skipping class, etc. Other times, it was simply that so and so was being so mean

The same sorts of thing went on in junior high, and I was appalled when I finally realized what was going on there. Junior high is a jungle - sometimes a very dangerous one. But high school is more like Hunger Games.

This was brought home to me yesterday when my daughter came home after having attended a LDS singles ward (randomly) with a friend she's known for at least 10 years. While there, they saw a person they knew in high school. My daughter proceeded to tell me that this girl had been very "popular," and they were both in the same Creative Writing class in their senior year. One assignment they were given was to start and write in a blog during the semester.

My daughter showed me the blog that this girl they recognized at church had written. I was appalled. I looked at my daughter and thought of my other children who have attended that school. I had no idea it was this awful. Let me quote from a couple of the posts. The first excerpt is from a post about what she doesn't like about boys:
  • "When they take pictures of themselves and then put in up on Facebook. STOP. It makes you 100% homosexual and 120% undateable, forever. 
  • "When they ask "Do you hate me?" Yes, yes I do ...
  • "When they wear jewlery. Unless that ring symbolizes your chastity or your deceased brother gave you that necklace, it's never okay. (Also, sports related jewelry [sic] is fine.)
  • "ANYTHING that hints toward their feelings in a Facebook status or Tweet. Example. 'Not all scars show. Not all wounds heal. Sometimes you can't see, the pain someone feels.' Okay, I'm never talking to you again."
She reserved most of her venom for members of her own sex:
"Why are you railing every pretty girl? Why why why why. You can't change the fact that you are ugly so try making the inside decent. Also, stop putting on ugly clothes and wearing no make-up like you don't care what people think. I have to tolerate looking at it and it's not working, we can all still tell that you [don't] care. Here, let me help you. Go get yourself some skinny jeans, a curling iron and a low-fat yogurt. I then want you to sit and really reflect in on yourself. Ask yourself why? Why am I tearing down others? Then stop what you are doing and develop a personality so you can maybe compete. You're welcome."
You can't make this stuff up. At least I couldn't.

By the way, the girl who wrote this was and is a practicing, active Mormon. My purpose is not to pick on the Church. But the truth is that high schools around here are full of people like her - both girls and boys. Teenagers who have been taught from practically their cradle to love others, to be kind, etc., but who are actually downright mean and nasty. The really sad truth is that a lot of these kids simply morph into adults carrying their mindsets with them. (That being said, there are also a lot of kind kids, too.)

To my children: I'm so sorry you had to endure stuff like this. I'm sure I only heard a small portion of what you were facing when you were in school. It's a miracle you survived (or not) as well as you did. I'm proud of the persons you have become.