Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Coming Out (Again) and Moving On

“He defined your gay experience.”

Once again, even though we’ve only known each other three years and even though we don’t see each other that often, my friend Rob had made an almost off-hand comment that had frankly blown me away in its piercing insightfulness. Mark and I had met him and his husband, David, three (only three?) years ago on a beach in Maui, and they became good friends first to us and, since Mark’s passing, to me.

This particular comment was made the last time I was visiting them in San Francisco. Rob was folding laundry, intently listening as I was talking about my coming out seven years ago, meeting Mark, how my life changed when that happened, and how my life has changed since Mark’s death.

When I met Mark ten months after I made the decision to come out, that coming out process abruptly changed. Coming out, at least at the point of life when I finally did, is about a whole lot more than simply (simply?) saying to yourself and to others for the first time in your life that you’re gay. I had suppressed vast swaths of my personality for so many decades of my life that I felt that, for the first time, I was discovering who I truly was—or could be. 

Coming out also involved, for the first time in my life, exploring my sexuality, exploring the possibility of romantic relationships with other men. Though there was some of that before I met Mark, there wasn’t a lot. I’d only dated a few men before we met.

When I did meet Mark and fall in love with him, it was like I drew the “Advance to Go” card after I’d only moved a few spaces around the gay Monopoly board after just beginning the game. I hit the jackpot, finding a sexy, gorgeous, loving, beautiful man whom I could spend the rest of my life with, passing over all those stops and properties on the board that would have said things like, “Go on yet another date with a guy,” “Go through gay adolescence,” “Make lots of new gay friends,” or “Pursue an interest that you suppressed all your life.” 

I fell headlong not only into love, but also into a relationship with a man who seemed too good to be true, into in a life that certainly seemed to be too good to be true—but that was wrapped up entirely in and with him, especially after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Thus, when it all too quickly came to an end, I was left asking questions: What do I do now? Is this it? Is the game over? Is there anything left to experience, to find, to live, to discover about love or about me?

Back to Rob’s insight: Mark, and my life with him, had defined my “gay experience,” and gradually, over the months that followed his death, in between mourning the loss of him and all that we shared, I had to think about moving on. In a very real sense, my process of coming out, which had in very real ways been frozen when I met Mark, started again. And it was, and remains, bewildering at times. 

I now have to continue to define who I am, not only as a person, but as a gay man of a certain age. I have made efforts to make new friends – gay and straight – and that hasn’t always been easy. I have gone on a few dates, but haven’t really felt ready yet to open myself up to that world that is so mysterious and fraught with all sorts of things. I have explored interests, new and old, grateful for an opportunity to do so. I have issued physical challenges for myself and have just recently taken up swimming for the first time in over 45 years. I continue, as I always have, in my role as father to my children. Some days are really good and full. Other days, I look into the future and see nothing but uncertainty and, on bad days, emptiness.

And I think of something else Rob said to me on my recent visit. He has no idea how an offhand statement he made in the context of discussing his own life impacted me. It was just a phrase, actually one word. He said something about leading a “happy and fulfilling” life. Fulfilling. Fulfilling. Piercing realizations followed. For most of my life, I hadn't even considered whether or not my life was "fulfilling." I had simply done what was expected of me. Actually, I had abdicated to an organization--the LDS Church--the task of telling me what to do in order that I might live a “fulfilling” life. Fulfillment came from following the path that was set before me. Only it didn’t. Perhaps if I'd had a better sense of self, things would have been different. But I didn't.

Now—I suddenly realized—after coming out, after meeting Mark and living the dream for 4-1/2 years, after losing him and starting over, I get to choose. My gay experience, my human experience, is left for me to mold, craft and seek out. And in so doing, I get to seek fulfillment … on my terms, as me.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Call Me By Your Name: Reprise - Of Desires and Scripts

“You’ve never allowed yourself to have desires, let alone act upon them.”

These words, and the scene in which they were uttered, popped into my head last night as I was watching “Call Me By Your Name” - for the second time, and this time alone.

The scene: it was the late winter of 1995. I was sitting in the private office of my family physician, Dr. Gabor Maté, on the east side of Vancouver. A couple of months before, I had finally, unexpectedly, and quite dramatically, started dealing with the physical abuse I had suffered as a child. Dr. Maté, whom I had known almost ten years, who had delivered each of our four children, had offered to provide a few sessions of counseling as I navigated my way through what I was experiencing.

During those sessions, he said a number of things that I’ve never forgotten, but none had quite the impact upon me as the words I’ve quoted above. They were unexpected. I hadn’t said anything to him about my deepest, darkest secret—that I was attracted to men—and they caught me off guard. As he sat there, staring intently at me with his large, luminous, sad eyes, I wondered: Did he “know” something? Suspect something? What exactly was he referring to?

I never asked him. I didn’t dare. I was afraid. I simply nodded, and the conversation somehow moved on.

I have previously written about reading “Call Me By Your Name,” and I wrote a week ago today about my impressions upon seeing the movie for the first time. I’m glad I went to see it a second time. I saw it with different eyes. It is a beautiful, luscious, wonderful movie, and I decided to write this post to express two main thoughts that came to me last night.

The first—that the first time I saw the movie, I was constantly comparing it to the book, and this resulted in judgment after judgment in my head of what I was seeing on the screen. This judgment prevented me from seeing the beauty being portrayed in front of me.

As I contemplated this last night, I couldn’t help but think about what I had done for most of my adult life. Certainly after I joined the LDS Church, but even before, I fixated upon conforming my life to the “script” of what I was "supposed" to be doing with my life—all the rules, all the “shoulds,” all the commandments—rather than seeing the life that was there. This desire to conform in my life inevitably produced judgment after judgment after judgment—and took me further and further away from who I really was/am. 

Which brings me to the second thought. Desires. Having desires. Acting upon desires. And I’m not mainly talking about sexual desires. I’m talking about the desires and dreams that are the normal part of a normal person who has a sense of self. Dr. Maté was right: I had never allowed myself to have desires, let alone act upon them, because I never had a strong sense of self—and this is frankly one of the main reasons, in hindsight, that I joined the Mormon Church: because it gave me a sense of self. It wasn’t authentic, but it served an existential purpose.

Final thought: I suppose it was inevitable that I processed “Call Me By Your Name” through my own experience. I would imagine many gay men have done the same thing. As a result, in previous posts about both the book and movie, I have focused upon love lost. But one of the things I came away with last night after seeing the movie for the second time, with new eyes, was the beauty of the final scene of the movie where Elio stares into the fire. This has to be one of the most beautifully acted scenes I’ve ever seen in any movie. As he stares into the fire, we see him process the pain he is feeling. Tears are shed. But then, one can almost see Elio remembering the words of his father and see him focusing on the joy of having loved rather than on the pain of having lost, and the discordant minor chord resolves into a major one, and we know that Elio will be okay.

Therein, perhaps, lies the greatest lesson of the movie … for me. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Call Me By Your Name: Reflections

I went to see “Call Me By Your Name” last night. After having read the book twice, I had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the movie. 

Here are my thoughts:

I was disappointed that the setting of the scene of the movie was not the same as in the book. In the book, Elio’s home is a seaside villa; in the movie, it is located in the hill country of Lombardia. The sea becomes a river. Other scenes were not the same, no doubt in an effort to lower production costs. Most pointedly, in the book, the final scenes take place in Rome; in the movie, these scenes are transferred to a mountain town in the far northern reaches of Italy.

I was curious to see how the screenplay would transmit an intensely psychological book to the screen. In this, I think the screenwriter was largely successful, and I particularly liked the depiction of the love scenes between Elio and Oliver. They were tasteful, believable and – so it seemed to me – perfectly natural. So much of gay love is depicted as primarily lustful, but it was powerfully clear in the way these scenes were handled in the movie that Elio and Oliver were very much in love.

Of course, as I watched the film, I was powerfully reminded of two things. 

First, my mission to France. “Call Me By Your Name” is set in the same time period as my Mormon mission, in the early-mid-80’s. As I listened to the conversations in French between Elio and his mother and his friends, I was reminded of my time in France; and as I watched Elio and Oliver’s “dance” over how to deal with their feelings, I was also reminded of the intense struggle I faced while there with “unwanted” feelings of attraction to men. Paradoxically, however, it was while I was in France that I finally “accepted” these feelings while at the same time deciding to deny myself ever experiencing their fulfillment …

… Until I came out and met Mark, that is. Of course, watching the film also reminded me of him, of a great love experienced, then lost. It was for this reason that my favorite scene of the entire film—which was taken virtually verbatim from the book—was that between Elio and his father near the end of the movie, in which the father lovingly, gently and so insightfully affirms the relationship that he suspects Oliver and Elio had and encourages his son to value it, to feel his emotions – both negative and positive – and to be grateful for what he experienced with Oliver:
“ … if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it … We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty … to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste! … Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.”
I know whereof Elio’s father spoke. I have felt much pain over the loss of Mark, but I rejoice in what we had. I have tried to allow myself feel that pain over the course of the past 22 months so that I can honor what we had and allow myself to move healthily into an unknown future.

Finally, the ending of the film is different from the ending in the book, as I suspected might be the case. I preferred the latter, if for no other reason than the opportunity to read the following lines:
“In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours … We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.”

Sunday, January 14, 2018

23 and Me and The Meaning of Life

I have spent the better part of my life trying to figure out who I am. When I was still in high school, during the thick of and in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, I became passionately interested in my family tree. Looking back on it, I am sure I was motivated by a desire to re-find a sense of family that had been ripped out from under me as I entered adolescence, as my family of origin morphed into something that no longer provided me a sense of place and home.

I am sure it was this same desire, these same feelings, which contributed to my decision to join the Mormon Church when I was introduced to it when I was 24 years old. The myth that the Church offered me filled a deep-seated need to know who I am, to know my place in the world. It offered explanations as to why I had experienced abuse as a child, why I had been born into the family I was, why I had “struggled” with “same-sex attraction,” and why my life had unfolded to that point as it had. It also offered a clear roadmap into my future—a path to follow that would give my life purpose, context and clarity.

This myth sustained me through many years of difficulties, challenges, unhappiness and moments of joy. But then it came crashing down as my marriage deteriorated and died, as I came out and as I left the Church and Way that had provided meaning and purpose (but at great cost) to my life. I had resisted divorce to the bitter end because I genuinely believed that my whole adult life would have been a waste, a cruel joke, if everything I worked for during those years came to an end.

But then, through the wreckage, I saw a new path forward. It didn’t offer certainty or clarity or even meaning, but if offered authenticity and a level of self-knowledge and awareness that I had never before experienced in my life. Before too long, Mark entered my life, and with him came a level of happiness that I had never known. Purpose. Love. A path forward that stretched through a beautiful, lush valley that stretched far off into the distance.

Then came the cruel joke—or so it seemed: after everything I had been through in my life, after finally discovering peace and happiness and meaning, Mark would be taken away. He was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, and an expiration date was put on the life we had discovered in each other. For the next three years, we sucked the marrow out of what little time we had left. And then, he passed peacefully (and with great courage and dignity) to another place, continuing his journey and leaving me to continue mine without him.

Once again, I was faced with an existential question: who am I? What is the meaning of life? Why has this happened to me? What is the path forward? Why has my life seemed so disjointed? Is there a thread of continuity somehow, somewhere?

Interestingly, two occurrences over the past few days came together to teach me some lessons about myself. The first happened when I happened to compare a photograph of myself that was taken a few days ago with a childhood picture that popped up in my Facebook memories.  As I looked at the two photographs, I was struck by the physical similarities that endured over the span of 50 years. But I was also struck by something much more profound: I am that same person. That child was me, is me. I thought of all that has happened in the past half-century in my life that has shaped who I now am; but I am, in essence, the same person pictured in that childhood photograph. That may sound ridiculously self-evident to some; but to someone whose life has seemed more a collection of disjointed experiences than a continuous narrative containing an arc of meaning, it was revelatory.

Then, yesterday, I received the results of my 23andMe DNA tests. I pretty much knew my ancestry. After all, I had spent decades of my life researching my ancestry. But there were those legends of Native American ancestry on both sides of my family that I was curious about. Somewhat disappointingly, the tests revealed that I have less than 0.3% Native American/East Asian ancestry. I am basically one-half British (English, Irish, Scottish) and one-half northwestern European (German, French, Dutch, Scandinavian).

As I took in these results – as well as other health-related results – the realization came powerfully to me: I am who I am. There was no hidden mystery, no “other meaning,” no other clues to who I am. I am … who I am. Again, that may sound ridiculously self-evident to some, but it was revelatory to me.

The larger meaning: life is what I make it. I—together with all the people and experiences in it—make it what it is. As I looked at those two photographs of myself, bookending the life I have lead so far, a sense of gratitude settled upon me for my children, for Mark, for what I have learned, for all that I have in my life. As I contemplated the results of my DNA test, I realized that—contrary to those commercials—knowing my ancestral composition does not provide meaning in and of itself. It is merely part of where I come from. In my early life, I sought meaning there, amongst my ancestors, to fill a hole created by my parents’ divorce. Now, after all I have been through, I find meaning in relationships, in experiences and the simple but profound knowledge that I AM who I am.