Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

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Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

Tarot

I never thought I’d be back here.

When I came to New Orleans a few years ago, on a random night, I’d ended up in a voodoo shop where a man read my coconut shells while channeling the spirits of the Congo. It had cost forty dollars, and despite my entering the room with a lot of skepticism, I had had a surprisingly spiritual experience.

And now I was here on a weekend away with my boyfriend, and when we walked by the same voodoo shop, I thought it might be great to get my fortune told again. The woman behind the desk told me that the psychic this evening was “Jacob, who does Tarot readings.” She told me it would be a five minute wait, swiped my credit card, and invited me to explore the store. So for the next thirty minutes, I looked at small statues representing patron saints, examined various beads and charms, smelled rows full of incense, and flipped through a book on “psychic defenses” and one on “animal totems”. It all felt very Harry Potter somehow.

And then, finally, it was my turn. Jacob invited me into the back room, the same place I had had my coconut shells read years earlier. I took a seat across the small table, covered in a white table cloth, and Jacob sat to face me as Mike sat to my side. Jacob was probably thirty. He was handsome, in a billowy white shirt and with long shoulder-length chestnut hair. He wore a white bandana around his head. He had kind eyes and uneven teeth. He shuffled the cards idly as he talked.

“Have you ever had your tarot cards read before?”

“I haven’t.”

Jacob explained that he tended to provide the best guidance for those who were seeking general counsel in a particular area of their life. He had a slight Southern drawl. “You could look for advice regarding what to do about a relationship or a career decision or something more personal. Then the cards will help determine a particular path for you to move forward with. What area would you like to focus in on?” He shuffled again.

I spoke without hesitation. I hadn’t given it thought earlier, but there was only one area in my life I needed guidance on. “I need to know where to place my creative energy. I’ve had an incredibly fulfilling creative year with multiple ventures, but I’m finding my efforts are either yielding small results or moving into spaces where I have to wait for months upon months for other people to keep commitments and obligations. I have a lot of creative energy and I don’t know where to place it.”

Mike grinned. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Jacob gave me a solemn nod then shuffled the cards a few more times, seemingly centering himself. He looked down and breathed evenly. I found myself wondering what his day-to-day life was like. He was almost certainly gay, and working as a tarot reader on Bourbon Street by night. He pulled cards from the deck and placed them on the table.

The Moon card went first, placed upside down in the center. Then the Tower (upside down) and the Ace of Swords (right side up) on either side of it. Above that, the Four and Six of Wands. Jacob took a long look at the cards and gave a frustrated sigh at the placement of the first two cards. He considered things for a long moment, and then began to explain.

The Moon card, he explained in great detail, pointing out the various images on the card and what they stood for, represented being lost in the darkness and struggling to find a path. He described the chaos of this path, and all of the influences that kept the person in the darkness, but he pointed out that since the card was flipped over, it meant that the way ahead would soon be clear, and the path out of the darkness soon revealed. He went on to talk about the Tower card and its placement, ultimately stating that it represented a sudden and chaotic shift, and he believed that for me, this meant a positive shift, with something bearing fruit in the near future.

Jacob reviewed the other cards, and they felt more vague in their interpretations to me, but as he spoke, he gave indirect advice. He encouraged me to be patient with current projects, and then challenged me to find a new venture, a new space to put my current creative energy toward, with the idea that it is more likely to be successful. He recommended a more personal venture, something breaking ground that I might have been afraid to face before.

As he concluded his reading, Jacob inquired what my past ventures had already been.

“I’ve had a number of big projects, some which have fallen to the wayside with little success,” I stated, remembering my in-depth research into the LGBT YouTube channel I had run and, well, this blog. “And others have had some rudimentary success, such as a published comic book and memoir, both with great reviews, and a documentary that I spent years making that is now finished. All of these have fallen into categories where I have to wait for others to pull through before I can continue, like literary agents, film editors, and fundraisers. I’ve interfaced with a lot of incredible people, but ultimately the speed at which things go is out of my control.”

Jacob nodded, listened, then spouted off more advice about not losing hope, trying new things, and going to new places, and I felt myself grow more frustrated with each word. Soon the tarot reading was over and he shook my hand, asking if I had any questions, and I said no.

Mike and I walked out of the voodoo shop and down the street, talking about what it must be like to be a tarot reader. “It’s probably a lot like doing therapy,” he said. “This guy has to learn his cards and how to read them, and then the real skill comes in how to interpret them for the individual in front of him.”

I realized there was some truth to this. He could have used those same cards, the Moon and the Tower and the others, to talk about relationships or careers, life choices and existential crises. And, I realized, that more than anything, the reading had brought to the surface my feelings of frustration and stagnancy. I was walking away wrestling with things that I hadn’t given voice to in some time. And, well, when I do therapy, that is how many of my clients leave the room, facing their own demons.

We kept walking. I looked up and couldn’t see the moon. The sky was dark and cloudy, and light rain dripped down on me. The Moon card flashed back into my brain and I pictured myself on that path, looking for the light. Maybe there was something to this Tarot business. Or maybe I was just searching for a path to be on.

TarotMoon