Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

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Spirit 2: On Divine Potential

I was raised to believe I was one of the chosen ones. I was of a chosen generation, saved to be born in these latter days to help usher the kingdom of heaven to earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This was the ned of human mortal history, we were taught. The dispensation of the fullness of times. The creation of the earth and every ounce of human history that preceded would be culminated in this one, when Christ came again and men would be judged.

And where much was given (i.e. being one of the chosen ones, being born into the true gospel), much was required (i.e. a full life of dedicated service to the church, ten per cent of my money, and strict obedience to all of the rules).

And like all things in the religion, this could be very simple or very complicated. God had billions of spirit children in a spirit realm that we called the pre-existence. He created the planet and had humans born so they could be tested to see if they were worthy to return to him. In the thousands of years of human history, billions of humans were born in different eras. Some humans were born with advantages and others with disadvantages, the way I was taught. I could have been born into poverty or into slavery, during the dark ages when god didn’t allow his word to be taught correctly, or in the wrong religion. But I was born American (in the country god set up to establish his church), male (the gender god allowed to hold his priesthood), and white (seemingly god’s preferred skin color). On top of all of that, I was born Mormon, because my parents were Mormon. So I already had the true religion. See how fortunate I was?

The scriptures were full of stories about choosing the right paths, sacrificing everything for god, and following the rules with exactness even when life got difficult. I was born gay, but I could change that, they said. The rest was there, there were no questions and there was no room to question. I had a hero’s quest ahead of me and it was all laid out. I had every tool I needed to succeed. Baptism, Priesthood, two-year missionary service, temple marriage to a woman, and a life of service to the church. I was one of the chosen ones. I could stand up in my white shirt and tie next to all my brethren and be proud that I had it right while everyone else had it wrong. But they could have it right, also, if they learned to be just like me.

What I never realized at the time, what I couldn’t realize, is how inherently arrogant those messages made me. By teaching me that I was chosen, that meant I was superior. Inherently better. I had something that everyone else needed, and they had to be like me to get it. They had to follow the same rules and ordinances. I had no concept of human history, of slavery, of war, of poverty, of gender discrimination, of sexual assault, of addiction. The message I had to share was just ‘turn to god and be like me so you can have what I have’. Gay men were told to make themselves straight, people with disabilities were told they could be healed, women were told to be happy with their station in life, people of different races were (for a time at least) told they could be made white. We were all god’s children, and he wanted us to look the same, one happy family of white men with women behind them, stretching on for generations.

As a missionary, I taught people these things. I sat with the elderly, with the poor, with ex-cons and addicts, with the abused and the disenfranchised, with African-Americans and Pennsylvania-Ducth and Methodists and the Amish. I was 19, and I told them how to make their lives better by being more like me. And if anyone challenged this inherent arrogance within me, well, I could just shrug and fall back on what I was taught. I wasn’t being sexist or ageist or racist or homophobic or xenophobic. I was just preaching it the way I was taught. I was chosen. And this was how god wanted it to be.

I look back on that era of my life with shame and embarrassment now. I can’t believe what I used to believe. But the truth is, I just didn’t know any better at the time. Once I knew better, everything was different. I had to change myself and the way I look at life. Once I learned about the world, I couldn’t put blinders back on and ignore it. Superiority is no longer my religion. My spirituality is now more closely associated with fairness, equality, and human potential. It is about learning from history, understanding privilege, and fighting for the underdog. It’s about celebrating diversity, embracing all of god’s children, and sharing, or even surrendering, power to those who have been disenfranchised for too long. I listen now. I hear. I inquire. I learn. I don’t spout my dogma and silence the voices of others, I instead seek my place at the table of good and ethical people who want to make the world better. I suppose that makes my spirituality a bit more socialist than capitalist, a bit more Democrat than Republican, a bit more humanitarian than industrial revolutionist, but I like it that way. I like my current ethics, the way I want to preserve this planet and improve the people on it. I’m proud of my journey now and I have no doubts about it.

And, truth be told, that is something I couldn’t say before.

Spirit 1: On Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.

Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.

But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.

Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).

Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.

I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.

Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.

Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.

But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.

Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.

As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.

But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.

I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.

“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.

I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.

Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.

And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.

 

On Writing (Halifax)

I love reading what writers write about writing. They state how crucial writing is to their soul, how writing helps them convey their feelings and make sense of the world, how they can’t speak or eat or sleep until they have written and rewritten something. Writers, both fiction and non-fiction, both poets and memoirists, both journalists and essayists, they speak as if writing is a digestive process, upsetting their stomach and spirit until words appear on the page. They use grand metaphors to convey the importance of writing, like ocean tides rolling in to give life, or firework explosions, or carefully crafted recipes passed down over hundreds of years with hours of preparation going into the perfectly baked dish. Writers say that writing gives their soul rest.

And I understand this, I do. Writing has become crucial to my well-being. I feel better when I write. Writing helps me sort out my feelings, my thoughts. It helps me set goals. I feel accomplished and at peace when I’m writing, and disgruntled and discontent when I’m not. And for me, writing begets writing—when I write, I want to write more.

I’ve been writing more this past week, and it feels wonderful. I have to carve out time for it. I have to remove distractions from my life and sit down with coffee and a keyboard. I’m in a coffee shop now even, in a little Vegan café near a university in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s a half mile from where I’m staying. I made a decision to spend the first half of my day writing. During my twenty minute walk here, my brain rapid-fired ideas at me, and I had to carefully balance my heart and spirit and brain and gut and make a decision on what to spend my time on. There’s that graphic novel that’s been in my heart for over a year now. There is the sequel to my memoir. There’s a play that’s been in a slow-cooker for a while. There’s a few short story ideas, and a poem, and a blog. I want to write. I want to clear these ideas off the shelves and write so that I can create more space there, but I’m hesitant to start even one of these projects. Because I know that if I do, that finishing the project will take dozens of hours over dozens of weeks, and I will feel better if I do, but then I will have to commit myself to complete the thing, and then I will have to collaborate with others to try and make it happen, and that part always brings me pain and costs money and takes years. And even when I clear the space out, other projects will fill the shelves in my brain up and it will get all cluttered there, and so sometimes it is easier to just leave the projects on the shelves and not focus on them at all. I can just pretend that part of my brain doesn’t exist. I can just distract myself with other things. But that doesn’t work either, because not writing is far more frustrating than writing itself.

And now, suddenly, here I am writing about writing. And, as per usual, it helps, because I’m sorting these particular thoughts out, and there is peace there where just moments ago there was anxiety. Writing works, so long as I keep writing.

But now what? The inner publisher in me comes out. Who is my target audience? What am I writing this for? Is this an essay, a journal entry, a blog post, a book, an article, a story to be read aloud? If I begin this, will I be prepared to sustain it through to completion? Do I have the stamina, the inspiration, the discipline to get it there? And will anyone want to read it? And what results to I expect once I get it there?

The nice part about writing in journal form, as in just for me, is I can get my thoughts out and then save and be done. That’s all it takes. But then I’m frustrated that I’m not sharing it with anyone, because I want other people to read what I write. I want them to think it’s good, and valid, and inspiring. I want them to want to read it. And so maybe I can just writie a blog. The nice part about blogs is I can just write and post and then leave it there. A few dozen people will read, and no one will comment, but it is there. I shared it and now I can move on. But I’ve blogged hundreds of times and the audience isn’t wide enough to make a living as a writer, and that is maddening. And then I ask myself if that was my goal in the first place, to make a living, and if so, I have to network and change my tactics and increase my audience size, and all of those things drive me mad, so maybe it’s just easier not to write in the first place. But I’ve tried that too, and it doesn’t work.

This is my fourth day in Halifax. I needed this week. It restored my spirit. I miss my children, my boyfriend, my friends, my home, my routine, but these few days have allowed me to slip back into myself and find peace and inspiration again, something that has been missing for months. I’ve been walking again and exploring. I’ve exercised every day. My eating has been healthy. I’ve blogged four days in a row, about Canada, and music, and the ocean. My spirit and heart and gut and brain are all in a line again. And here I am writing about writing.

Sigh. Such drama within me about all of this.

I miss my kids, my family, my life, but I’m not ready to go home. I want to be selfish and stay here for a month. I want to develop a routine that centers around writing, balanced by sex, nutrition, and fitness, friendship and discovery, the energy I feel here, the ocean, the sense of wonder. I want to create something incredible, and back at home, it’s so hard to cultivate the discipline and freedom that that requires. I want to stay until I get lonely and sad, and then I want to push through that loneliness and sadness, using the emotions as fuel to make what I’m writing even more amazing. I want to stay until Halifax feels routine, and then stay a month longer until what I’ve written is perfect (whatever it is), complete, and then I edit it into something even better. I want to write. When I return home, I’m going to go back to feeling contained, unless I change some things, and those change scare me.

Yesterday morning, I woke up early, at 6 am, just to see the sunrise. I slipped on jeans, shoes, and a jacket. I grabbed a book to read, planning to sit in a big Adirondack chair near the water and watch the sunrise over the bay. I was perfectly at peace, despite my sore back and hungry stomach. I walked outside and down the dock, book in hand, and I watched the water ripple, all dark blacks and blues. The chilly breeze blew against me, carrying the scent of salt and open water, and it was perfection.

A super-handsome 19-year old jogged by and nodded at me, then he turned around. Breathing heavily, he looked me right in the eyes as he spoke.

“Hi there, do you mind if I ask what you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer,” I said, smiling at his curiosity.

“It’s just that, I don’t know, if I see someone out here on the dock this early, carrying a book, that’s the kind of person I want to know,” he said. He extended a hand. “I’m Brett. I want to write, too. May I ask what you write?”

Canadians are so damn polite, I thought. “I’m Chad. Well, I write lots of things. Depends on what is cooking in my brain. I’ve done comic books. I have a memoir out. I just finished a true crime documentary. I blog. I write essays, journals, poetry. But I find myself not writing far more than I actually write.”

“You’re extremely interesting. Can I ask for your Instagram? I’d like to message you later and maybe ask you some more questions?”

I smiled at his bizarre blend of confidence and curiosity. There was no flirtation here, just human connection. I felt strangely seen. “I’d like that, sure. Let’s meet for coffee tomorrow, before I return to the States.”

He took down my information, shook my hand again, then grinned. “I gotta run to keep my leg pump on. I’m doing a 75-day challenge of self-improvement. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Chad. Enjoy the sunrise.” And then he jogged away.

I muttered to myself with a smile. “Well, that just happened,” and then I turned back to the water and saw a harbor seal breach the surface, it’s black nose with long whiskers making a loud exhale sound, sending small rivulets of water into the air. “Oh my god,” I whispered, watching the creature for the next several minutes with absolute wonder before he disappeared again. The sun sent pink streamers across the water and the breeze blew and I felt temporary, and perfect.

After a day of adventures, I met Brett for coffee the next day. He greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake. “So, Chad, tell me your story. How did you become a writer?”

I laughed at how he just jumped right in, and I wished I’d had that confidence at his age. When I was 19, I was knocking on doors, trying to convince others to join a religion I didn’t really believe in. I was depressed, shut down, confused, and bound up. This young man was looking for inspiration everywhere, so confidently.

“That’s a very long story,” I said. We sat down with hot mugs of coffee and I started sharing.

Reverence for Water (Halifax)

One woman stood in front of the others, central. 24 women lined up behind her. They were all dressed the same, simply, elegantly. Many, if not most, of them were First Nations or descendants.

Blue shimmering cloths were strewn about the floor, representing water. The women moved among the cloths as they sang and danced. They stepped in the imaginary water, spread it on their hands, splashed it on each other, looked upon it in wonder.

The woman in front told a long story, mixed with song. She spoke in a childlike voice of wonder, with kindness and curiosity, rage and pain in her voice. She spoke of revering water, of feeling like it was her mother and that she belonged in it. She cried as she spoke of the pain of the ocean, its limited resources, its pollutions, the endangered sea creatures. She screamed in rage as she addressed the apathy of men. The women’s choir moved in unison behind her, reacting to her emotions, feeling everything she was feeling.

The performance took place in the middle of the Maritime Museum. The backdrops were literal sailboats and blue paint, wooden masts and wave patterns. It was haunting. In the right company, it could have been silly. But here, with these people in this place, it arrested me. I was deeply moved.

The next morning, I got up early to see the sunrise. I walked down the hill to the shoreline and walked along the docks. There were a few dog walkers, a couple holding hands in Adirondack chairs, a few scattered joggers. I found a seat at the edge of the water and looked to the horizon. The breeze hit my skin and a shiver passed through me.

My eyes moved to the water’s surface. It rippled and billowed. It was dark black and blue, with white cascades across the top. The sun peaked over the hill and reflected on its surface. I took a moment to consider the landscape I’d been walking across the last few days, with rolling hills, long flat stretches, higher peaks, and different types of soil and plants growing out of each area. All of that diversity, in soil and terrain and plants, extended out there, under the water. It was shallow and deep, hilly and flat, with different patches of sediment and plant life everywhere. The water could extend up over the land or recede farther. It was sheer power, sheer beauty.

The angry, compassionate, pained, joyful chorus of women from the night before passed through my head, and I breathed in deeply.

A head bobbed out of the water and I gasped aloud. “Oh my God,” I whispered in awe. I gestured to the couple in the Adirondacks. “Look!” A large dark brown head, a black nose, extending whiskers, dark black eyes. The creature was breathing. I could hear it breathing. If I laid down on the dock and reached out, I could touch it. The harbor seal was on its back, its face and flippers poking out of the water. My sons would have screamed with joy. They love seals. I watched the creature, lazily floating, diving back under, floating more, for about fifteen minutes, before it descended and didn’t rise again.

A few hours later, I climbed on board the Kawartha Spirit. It was windy and raining as the captain called out, “All right, guys, let’s do ‘er!”, and the boat pulled away from dock. An elderly man, a local, talked for nearly two hours about the history of the port as we moved out into the bay, toward the deeper ocean. He cracked Dad jokes every few minutes, and I groaned at everyone of them. “If anyone yells man overboard, we’ll save ya! Never had to yell woman overboard yet, women are much too sensible to jump in, less’n a man pushed ’em, then they prob’ly deserved it!” and “You might see snowshoe hares on the horizon but don’t get too close or they’ll run away! In Canada, we call that a receding hare-line!” and “You may see men drinking while fishing over on the shoals. Their wives want them to come home, but they prefer their whiskey on the rocks!”

The boat moved with the waves, sloshing side to side, as the man recounted the different kinds of marine life that could be seen here in the harbor. “The farther you go out, the bigger the animals get!” Mackerel, herring, bluefin tuna, Atlantic sunfish. Lobsters and crabs. Lots of seals, but mostly the harbor kind. Fin whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, white whales that are critically endangered (less than 400 left in the world), pilot whales, humpback whales. Cormorants, gulls, and thresher birds. On the shore, beavers, brown bears, raccoons, coyotes, caribou, lynx. At one point, the boat stopped to pull in a lobster cage. He showed us three large lobsters (and one frightened rock crab) talked about their reproductive cycles, their life spans, how they can regrow limbs, how they never stop growing until they die, then he let them go.

The boat pulled out farther as he discussed the impact of Hurricane Juan, the military bases on various islands in the 1700s, and during World Wars 1 and 2. He talked about U-Boat fights and sunken ships. He spoke with reverence about the Native Americans who’d lived in this region for thousands of years.

I gazed at the dark grey water with wonder before I spotted the white bird with the golden cap. Later, after asking, I learned it was a gannet, but some call it a dive-bomber. It has water-proof feathers, I was told, and special membranes that close over its eyes so it can be protected in the water. I watched the impressive bird fly high into the sky, then dramatically arc down to the water, plunging in at full speed with a loud splash. It was under for nearly thirty seconds before emerging with a fish in its talons. It sat atop the water a moment, spread its wings, and flew away. Then I saw a porpoise fin and three more harbor seal heads bob up. There was life. Everywhere.

The wind shifted and the boat twisted horribly from side to side, like a massive teeter totter. It rolled heavily in the waves and I felt myself go green for the next 20 minutes. I put my head down on the table and breathed evenly until we were back on land.

Later, I watched the sun set. The water turned black again. The gulls went quiet. And I turned my back to the ocean, thinking of plastics, and oil spills, and hurricanes, and how I, we, all of us are very, very fragile, and very, very temporary, while the ocean remains.

Sequoia (Halifax)

“Have you ever been to the Cathedral Forest on Vancouver Island? It’s really sumthin’, let me tell ya. The trees are some kinda mutants, they grow larger than anywhere, a thing’a real beauty.”

The singer, Lennie Gallant, had a reverence in his voice as he spoke, something that made me listen a bit more carefully.

“They’ve grown there for hundreds of years. Human lives are a blip to them. They could tell us so much about what the world is really like, about what life on this planet is supposed to be. They’ve withstood fires, storms, winds, stone, and man. They’re built to survive, and they give life back to the world. Now they are facing their greatest challenge yet. Let’s see if they can withstand Donald Trump.”

The crowd of mostly Canadians tittered and groaned at the joke that wasn’t a joke, and it gave me a taste of how they must view America and the way it is hitting the news. I had to laugh right along with them.

And then Gallant started to sing. He sang of sequoias. There was a reverence in his voice, a mysticism, an abiding respect. In the chorus, he sang the word ‘Se-QUIO-a’ over and over and it sent chills down my spine. I closed my eyes and felt goosebumps on my skin.

The entire evening had been magical so far. The show, called the Argyle Street Kitchen Party, was sold out, but I’d walked in and asked for a ticket for 1 and they worked me in to a seat on the stage. Literally on the stage. I was seated with about 12 other audience members behind the band as they performed for the crowd, all of them facing me. The stage was set up to look like a comfortably home kitchen, with haphazard and poorly upholstered chairs, a kitchen table, a fridge, shelving, and linoleum floor. It was… adorable.

Four performers sang through most of the show, all of them from north-eastern Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick), all of them insanely talented musicians, performers, and songwriters. Ian Sherwood, Celia Koughan, Malia Rogers, and Karen Lizottle. They played fiddles, hand drums, tambourines, piano, guitars, and a saxophone. They clogged and danced. They harmonized. They cracked regional jokes that I didn’t understand but the audience laughed at. I clapped in rhythm, sang harmonies, stomped my foot, and clapped my hand against my leg. It was amazing.

The evening was spent listening to slow jazz, blues, bluegrass, and folk songs of the region, some classics and some original. And I’d never heard a single one, but the entire crowd chimed in on many of the choruses. I didn’t speak to anyone really, but I felt completely one with them.

It was the perfect end to an incredible day, one where I’d spent a lot of time searching my soul while walking through the new city. My walk covered shops and shopping, enormous public parks full of flowers, and beautiful shoreline.

In my head, I resisted the urge to compare communities like this in Canada to similar ones in the United States. I said in a Facebook post that Canada feels like America without all the arrogance. And I meant it. People are more polite here, in my experience. They is a much greater effort at inclusion and understanding. Canada has similar dark parts to their history, but there is a lot of work at owning that history. For example, just tonight, in the very theater I was in, there had been an opening announcement about how this land had originally been owned by the First Nations people in Canada; with a few words, they mentioned local tribes by name and told the audience where to learn more. As I walked the streets, there was a sense of safety as I looked over people from all different backgrounds and lives. There were Pride flags and rainbow crosswalks everywhere. It was charming, inclusive, accepting. I felt safe here. The sense of xenophobia, that undercurrent of gloom and doom that exists in America these days, seemed to be missing. The world here feels hopeful, not like it is slowly going to hell. (SeQUIOa).

I ended the night at a local gay club, bizarrely called Menz and Mollyz. A drag queen with a name like Sharon Shenanigans did an I Love Lucy routine. A DJ in his 60s blasted old hits from the 90s and early 2000s (I actually danced to Karma Chameleon) as a small crowd of men and women danced. It was after midnight (still only 9 pm back home) and I danced my ass off while sober, interacting with the crowd, getting hit on and loving the attention. I was exhausted and my heart was full.

And then it was back to the Airbnb with the open windows and the ocean breeze and the quiet. I needed this trip. I needed it.

Sleeping naked in Halifax

I slept naked last night. I can’t remember the last time I slept naked.

I’m not sure what compelled me. Even at home, I sleep in shorts usually, although sleeping naked would be no big deal. Sleeping naked makes me think of being 16. I was a repressed Mormon teen then who tried so hard to obey all the rules by the letter. And sleeping naked then felt like a little act of rebellion, like I was doing something wrong without actually breaking a rule, like I could get caught and in trouble, but the door was locked so I wouldn’t be.

I felt the need to just feel the sheets against my skin. I’m staying in Halifax in a little Airbnb apartment on the waterfront. There is no air-conditioning, so I opened all of the windows and let the ocean breeze blow in. It blustered against my sheets and restored me, somehow.

I slept strangely. I went to bed at 2 am (which is 11 back home) and woke up at 9 am (which is 6 back home), so it was my normal sleeping schedule but it felt different. My body was sore from the long plane ride and the four mile walk I went on last night. My back ached, my hips hurt. All of that was normal as well, but it was mixed with the ocean breeze.

I woke to the sound of gulls. I woke smiling.

After coffee and eggs and cheese, I took a long walk along the water front. Last night, I felt guilt ridden and self-sham-ey. Today, I feel at peace. My mind is revisiting the goals I set years ago, all of which I achieved (well, almost all) and I took a moment to commune with the Chad that existed in 2014, the one who would have looked forward to my life now wand been so hopeful and happy. So I let him speak through me, and I leaned into hopeful and happy, and it felt wonderful.

I watched a tugboat with a cartoon face on the front chug by. I looked at art that has been set on the docks by the ocean. I petted big fluffy dogs, with their owner’s consent. There were several street musicians out, like the kind you see at Farmer’s Markets, except all of them very, very Canadian. One man intensely played the electric guitar, with his teeth clenched and his eyes in a permanent wince, wearing a t-shirt and jeans that were several sizes too large. A woman in a wheelchair played a normal radio at her feet while adding percussion to the songs with finger cymbals. A handsome college student strummed a harp.

I looked at the small sea of people moving around me, of every shade. Chubby folks in camouflage, a Japanese family, a couple with dark skin wearing turbans and embracing, an interracial elderly couple cuddled up on a bench, two dads with kids… and I realized that everyone was smiling. And still the breeze blew.

A little farther down the docks, there was an actual Farmer’s Market. Fresh blueberries, golden beets, juicy pears, hand-knit stuffed animals, homemade soaps, bottled wine, glazed donuts. I sat and just watched, and it felt like perfection.

I’ve been hard on myself lately. Instead of doing things I love because I love them, I’ve been doing things I love and expecting a particular kind of result, and then feeling so frustrated when those results haven’t panned out at my expectation levels.

I’m telling stories every month that I’m so proud of, and interfacing with an incredible community of writers and storytellers. I’m out of debt and, while not wealthy, doing well enough to travel regularly. I wrote a book! I made a movie that is nearly completed (the editing phase is intense!) I have a handsome and loving partner at my side. I’ve cultivated friendships that will last a lifetime. My children are happy and well.

I have so much to be thankful for. And yet I’ve been so frustrated with myself for not doing more, having more, being more.

And perhaps that is the lesson I need to take from Halifax this week. I can keep working on goals, but I have to spend more time finding gratitude. Challenge can be met with comfort, ambition with a quiet heart, endeavors with patience.

I think I’ll sleep naked again tonight.

Skeleton of myself (story form)

**I shared this story at the Voices Heard: First Time event on August 21, 2019**

My wife was soft in all the right places. She was beautiful, with long hair cascading down her back.

As she undressed, in the Romeo and Juliet suite, I gave her a reassuring smile, as it to convey how interested I was in her. My stomach churned, full of vinegar, and I felt the need to rush to the bathroom and relieve it, but I stood there. This was our wedding night, what we had both been waiting our entire lives for. We loved each other. We had chosen each other. This is how it was supposed to be.

We married on June 17. Six months earlier, I had found Maggie in tears, wondering if we were ever going to get married. We’d been dating off and on for six years, she said. We loved each other, she said. What was holding us back, she said. That night, I swallowed a stone and finally told her the truth. I’m gay, I said. I’m attracted to men. That was the night of my first kiss. I was 27 years old.

Maggie and I had done things the right way. We had saved ourselves for marriage, and married in the temple for time and all eternity. We knelt at the altar, wearing those bizarre white clothes and hats and green aprons, and saw our reflections in alternating mirrors, making it look as if we extended forever.

But once we were in that hotel room, there was no more hiding. I could no longer use the excuses I’d been using for years, to avoid physical contact with women. I couldn’t say I was focused on school, or that I was trying to be a good Priesthood holder, or that I didn’t want to rush things. This night, above all others, I had to man up, show myself that I could be the type of man she needed me to be, that God required me to be.

And so we undressed and kissed and touched and explored. We used our hands and mouths. Our bodies pressed into each other. We took a break to grab the bottle of lube that a friend had slipped into my pocket earlier (along with a note that said ‘trust me, you’ll need this’). I’d never been touched like this, never been naked in front of anyone like this before. And I discovered quickly that I could keep that sour pickles look off my face if I pictured attractive men in my mind.

And then, just like that, the mystery was over. A few thrusts, a wet explosion, and then a change of sheets. Sex is much messier than they ever tell you in the movies. There was blood and lube and ejaculate and fluid, and the entire process felt… sinful.

That night, Maggie fell asleep in my arms and I lay there, awake, for hours. I’d kept a lamp on, not able to bear being in the dark that night. I lay there, and I wept. I considered praying, asking God why, after all my efforts to be righteous, I still wasn’t straight. But I knew he wouldn’t answer. And so I lay there, with the woman I loved, knowing that I could never do enough to be the man she deserved. I twisted the new ring on my finger in anguish, pulled up the covers, turned out the lights, and went to sleep, my pillowcase soaked in tears.

Six years went by. I bought a home and got a dream job. After a few years, we had a baby. I taught Sunday school, paid tithing, performed baptisms. I gained and then lost 80 pounds. I had the picture-perfect life on the outside, and felt dead within, like happiness was something that was meant for other people. For me, it could only come in some mystical afterlife, where I’d be honored with happiness because of all of the years of sacrifice. Sex held no joy for me and no pleasure. I found every reason to avoid it, and got it over with as swiftly as possible when I couldn’t hide. It churned my stomach that I could see such a perfect life from the outside in, and yet it hadn’t been enough to change me.

And then everything changed. I went on a business trip and there was a man there. Doug. He smiled at me. He flirted, and I found myself flirting back. Our legs touched during a seminar and electricity shot through us. My heart quickened. He offered me a Hershey’s Kiss, and instead I asked for a real one. My real first kiss was at the age of 32. We found a quiet hallway and made out like teenagers in the back of a car. My hands found his waist, his chest, his hips. He bent my neck back and pressed me up against a wall. We pushed our bodies against each other and fumbled our way back to my hotel room. Clothes were tugged at and removed. His mouth moved across my skin, my hands clutched at his back. I lay back on the bed and he sat on top of me and I watched his eyes roll back in pleasure as he began rocking back and forth. Afterward, we lay in each other’s arms and he dozed briefly. I was at peace, my skin still electric. And then the tears came again, but for entirely different reasons this time. I realized that I felt whole. Despite the fact that I had just cheated on my wife, everything felt right. I realized that for the first time in my life, I had just orgasmed and not felt ashamed afterward. My stomach wasn’t churning. This, this felt like the Hollywood movies, with passion and hunger behind each movement. This felt right. There was no going back after this, no way I could return to my previous life, no way I could ever feel broken again.

 

Skeleton of Myself, a poem written to God

 

I reduced myself before you.

I sucked in my stomach and puffed out my chest,

Seeking to be both small and strong.

 

I lay at your feet and cried

At my own unworthiness.

 

I raised my arm to the square

And demanded you notice me.

 

I ignored your harsh words,

Convinced they were only for my good.

 

I took on a new name

And thrust my hands in the air

While I begged you to hear the words of my mouth.

 

I listened, ever so carefully,

So sure that in the silence

I would find you.

 

I walled off entire sections of me,

separating them from the rest,

forgetting that they were there.

 

I held my breath

Until I forgot how to breathe.

then turned blue from the cold.

 

I tried anger, pain, depression, apathy.

I tried being a martyr.

I gave two years. Ten. Twenty.

I placed a ring on my finger

And made promises I couldn’t possibly keep.

I contemplated death by my own hand.

 

And as the years passed,

I slowly, ever so slowly,

Withered away,

Becoming the skeleton of myself

That you expected all along.

 

And then one day,

The sun hit my skin just right,

And I realized,

With finality,

That you were there all along

For you were never there to begin with.

First day in Halifax

There is always something so romantic about visiting a new city. Something enticing. The thought of being on new streets, a stranger in the crowd, it appeals to me. It awakens part of my soul. Always, every time.

Until I get there.

When I actually arrive somewhere new, I generally get a sense of disconnection, both outwardly and with myself. All my little demons, the ones I’ve been staving off by being too busy and too involved and too focused on other people, they rise up to the surface, and I have to learn how to embrace them all over again.

Think of it like a road trip. We romanticize the idea of road trips all the time. We think of the music and the laughter, the snacks and the long open road… but then we go on the trip and three hours in we are so done with the car. We grow frustrated, discontent, stir crazy. Those are the little demons I’m talking about.

One of the reasons I travel alone a few times per year is it makes me practice being at peace with myself. It requires grace toward me. It requires resisting shame, embracing loneliness, moving at a slower pace. And in the end, I’m glad I did it every time. I need it. My spirit thrives on it. Too long without some solo time in a new place and I fall back on bad habits. I grow too self-critical. The expectations I have for myself grow too high and I get consistently frustrated because I can never measure up. I find myself forever making excuses. But travel, it awakens my desire to be better, to refocus, to begin thinking I’m capable again.

So today I landed in Halifax. I watched clouds over the ocean and forever rolling green from the plane. I contemplated man’s habit of dividing everything into squares and straight lines and sharp corners–there is no better place to see this from than the sky. I talked to two young men from England on the plane. I felt good. I gathered my things, grabbed a cab, and breathed in ocean air on the long drive into the city. I dropped my bags off in a small Airbnb, and immediately went back out to start exploring.

I must have walked four miles. I saw homeless men ask for change. I saw happy couples sipping red wine and drinking pasta. I poked my head in to listen to a band that called itself “a mix between emo and Motown”. I saw overly dressed men and women look each other over outside of bars. I saw too many humans passing paper to each other for goods wrapped in plastic. No one noticed me, or if they did, they paid little attention. I was entirely anonymous and on new streets, exactly what I’d needed.

And sure enough, the demons showed up, the little negative voices, the old pre-programmed thoughts that have to force themselves out and remind me they are there.

Who travels alone? Pathetic. You’re going to get bored here, you’re going to stay too long, you’re going to regret it. You could have done this at home. You flew all the way out here just to walk the streets? No one even notices you here. You could go days without a conversation. What are you even doing here?

The voices stayed small, which made it easier. I’ve had a bit of practice at all this. Finding safe ways to accept these shaming impulses as part of myself was a huge part of my journey to emotional health. I need to feel just a bit lonely, pathetic, and trapped once in a while. I need to reassess myself.

I breathed, slowed my pace, and took a moment to counter the voices.

You are welcome here. It’s okay to be frustrated. Lonely is okay. Pathetic is okay. Frustrated is okay. Every part of you shadow spaces is fine here. You are a part of me and you belong. But you won’t influence me. You won’t cloud out the rest, the parts that hope and strive, search and create. They belong here too. 

I stopped along the water, watching it splash against the dock. A group of people were crammed on a boat nearby, drinking too much. I thought of the exploring I would do tomorrow, the slow pace I would take, the things I would learn about this city, its history, and the people here. I would find little pieces of me here. I would write, think, plan. I would center.

The demons weren’t gone, but for now, they were at rest. I breathed in ocean air and exhaled negative self-talk. I needed this. I needed this.

Skeleton of myself

I reduced myself before you.

I sucked in my stomach and puffed out my chest,

Seeking to be both small and strong.

I lay at your feet and cried

At my own unworthiness.

I raised my arm to the square

And demanded you notice me.

I ignored your harsh words,

Convinced they were only for my good.

I took on a new name

And thrust my hands in the air

While I begged you to hear the words of my mouth.

I listened, ever so carefully,

So sure that in the silence

I would find you.

I walled off entire sections of me,

separating them from the rest,

forgetting that they were there.

I held my breath

Until I forgot how to breathe.

then turned blue from the cold.

I tried anger, pain, depression, apathy.

I tried being a martyr.

I gave two years. Ten. Twenty.

I placed a ring on my finger

And made promises I couldn’t possibly keep.

And as the years passed,

I slowly, ever so slowly,

Withered away,

Becoming the skeleton of myself

That you expected all along.

And then one day,

The sun hit my skin just right,

And I realized,

With finality,

That you were there all along

For you were never there to begin with.