Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”

She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”

“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”

“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”

I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?

 

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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

Strange Thanksgiving

I woke up to the text message that my boyfriend’s grandmother had fallen and was in the hospital. My first thought was, “Oh, no, Grandma!” My second thought was, “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

I’m very fond of Mike’s grandmother. She turned 93 recently, and while a bit frail, she is sturdy and sound. She lives alone and, with the help of her children and her Mormon congregation, she is relatively self-sufficient. She’s tall and lovely, opinionated, and strong willed. She’s a Republican Mormon woman who hates Donald Trump. She is very physically able, strong if slow-moving. She speaks in long breathy whispers, struggling to get air and achieve volume.

My first time meeting her and, well, all of my boyfriend’s family, was 18 months ago. Mike and I had been dating for 4 months by then. On a Saturday afternoon, we packed my kids into the car, drove to their small Utah town, and met the family in a busy Mexican restaurant. We piled in around each other at a round table, the kind where you have to scoot from the sides around and into the center, and there is no way out for that back person unless everyone else gets up. It was Mike and I, my two sons, Mike’s mother and her boyfriend, Mike’s sister and her husband and son, and then grandma, and she was seated right next to me. She had clearly done her homework on me before arriving.

As the kids chowed down on chips and salsa and made loud dinosaur noises, and as Mike chatted with his mom and sister over the table, Grandma leaned close to me, her voice a thick whisper, taking on breaths every half sentence.

“So, Chad, do you mind (breath) me asking you a personal question?”

I smiled at her. “Of course not.”

“If you are gay, (breath) then how is it (breath) that you were married to a woman?”

Oh, Grandma jumps right in, I thought. I gave a canned, rehearsed answer, as this is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years, about how religious expectations trumped my common sense and reasoning, about how I’d been promised a cure, about how my ex-wife had known I was gay before I came out. I saw Mike’s mom and sister leaning in to hear my answers. The idea of their son dating a man who’d been married to a woman, one who had children, must have been jarring to them. They seemed to accept my answer, and Grandma and I had spent the rest of the meal talking, sharing, bonding. And over time, Mike’s family grew as fond of me as I was of them.

Over the past 18 months, we’d had many long visits with Mike’s family. I’d grown close to them. And so the news of Grandma’s fall, resulting in a cracked pelvis and a broken elbow, was horrible. I woke Mike up with the news, and we talked about the best way to handle the day. Our fridge was packed with an uncooked turkey, red kale, white mushrooms, brussels sprouts, sweet onions, and red peppers, and sacks of potatoes, bread crumbs and the rest sat on the counter. My sons were off with their mom for the day, so we made plans instead to do Thanksgiving dinner the next day and instead go to visit Grandma in the hospital. Mike’s Mom had been up all night with her.

And so, in late morning, we drove an hour north and arrived at the hospital. The place was scarcely staffed, with no one at the front desk and only a few nurses on staff to keep things running. We found Grandma’s room and entered, seeing Mike’s mom sitting to the side exhausted and Grandma in her bed looking more frail than I’d ever seen her.

My heart skipped a beat briefly. Back in 1997, I’d sat at my Grandpa’s bedside for weeks, every day, leading up to his death. And in 2009, I’d seen my own Grandma grow frailer toward the end, fully blind and with little energy though she kept her sound mind and her determined spirit right to the end. They were both beloved to me, and losing them had been devastating. Seeing Grandma in bed now, covered with blankets, with electronic monitors attached to her, broke my heart. We each gave her a light hug and she weakly gripped our hands, then she fell back into a deep sleep, her mouth open fully as she breathed heavily, under the influence of the nauseating pain medication.

Mike’s mom told us how Grandma had removed her emergency monitor briefly the night before and then had stepped into her garage to retrieve something. She’d fallen and then, unable to get back on her feet due to the injuries, had pulled herself across the room on the floor to the phone, where she’d called her daughter for help. Later, they couldn’t get her into the car and had had to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital.

Mike’s mom looked exhausted, but she remained friendly and witty, as she always is. She’s in amazing shape, thin and fit, and has a keen mind and an inquisitive nature. She’d recently graduated college, after going back for her degree in her fifties. I respect her immensely. We warmed a plate of food we’d brought for her out of the fridge and chatted about Thanksgiving, about my sons, about her new granddaughter, for a period of time. She invited me over a few days later to celebrate my birthday.

After a while, the nurse came in to check on Grandma, and ended up staying in the room for 45 minutes, chatting and laughing with us. I could see her trying to figure out the relationship between Mike and I… were we brothers, cousins, roommates, boyfriends? She casually mentioned her gay daughter and her wife, and I confirmed that were indeed partners. The nurse reacted with such joy and enthusiasm, leading to a long discussion about gay family members and how parents react to their children coming out. Mike’s mom talked about Mike’s coming out, 17 years before, and how the world had changed. I talked about my sister, about me, about my nephew and niece all coming out, and about my work as a therapist seeing others do the same. The nurse talked about her daughter. As grandma lay there sleeping, gasping in as much oxygen as she could, we talked about biological theories regarding homosexuality, and found reasons to laugh, and it was strange and somehow delightful.

We left the hospital and made our way home. I folded some laundry while Mike went ahead and cooked the turkey for himself, and while it was cooking, we started watching Sense8 on Netflix, simply because Mike hadn’t seen it before. 3 episodes later, Mike pulled the turkey from the oven and ripped off large chunks of meat for himself, laying them in strips on a plate. I finally got hungry and made myself a slice of toast with almond butter, then mixed together a concoction of plant protein, plain Greek yogurt, almond milk, chia seeds, and frozen cherries, stirring the mixture up and eating it by the spoon. We watched one more episode, binge-watching at this point, as I licked yogurt off a spoon and Mike ate one more slice of turkey, and then one more.

And Thanksgiving, well, it was strange. My typical family chaos moments, with dozens of people swarming through the house and the kids needing lots of attention and my mom cooking for hours upon hours in the kitchen and everyone collapsing into couches as their bodies digested massive amounts of food, none of that was here today. But Thanksgiving was about gratitude. I’d spent my day with the man I loved, showing support to his family I love, and talking about things I’m passionate about. So while it was weird, it was a pretty damn good day.

 

And I have a lot to be thankful for.

Legal Left Turns

After First Man ended, the boyfriend and I exited the theater, holding hands, a bit silent, contemplative. We muttered back and forth a bit about the progress of man, the quest to be the first country to touch the moon’s surface, and the billions of dollars it cost, all against the moving backdrop of Neil Armstrong’s very personal story. It was a beautiful film. We walked to the car holding hands then pulled out of the parking lot to drive the short mile home.

It was 8 pm on a Sunday evening. I stopped at the red light, left turn signal on, and thought more about the moon as I waited for green. The night was quiet, and no other cars were out. The movie had left me deeply reflective.

The light turned green, and I turned left onto the empty two-lane road headed east. Almost immediately, police lights flashed behind me, and I looked at them flashing in my rearview mirror with surprise.

“Is that for you?” the boyfriend asked.

“It has to be. Weird.”

I pulled into the nearest parking lot, to some business that was closed for the weekend, and watched the cop car pull in behind me at an angle. His lights flashed furiously, red and blue, in my mirror, and stayed that way for several minutes. obnoxious as the drew the attention of every passerby.

I rolled down my window and waited a moment for the officer to approach us. He had his flashlight out, shining brightly into the interior of the car, blasting me in the eyes briefly. I sighed in frustration, but immediately understood. It must be frightening approaching cars at night when on solo patrol. I know many police officers, have had them as both friends and clients, and I knew it was not an easy job in any capacity.

The officer was fit, dark-complected, and wore glasses. His head was shaved. He looked to be in his early 30s.

“Good evening, officer. How can I help you?”

The flashlight scanned the interior of the car briefly. “I pulled you over for two reasons. Did you know your car registration is expired?”

“My registration isn’t expi–”

“I said your registration is expired.” He was stern, blunt. “Now hand me your registration.”

I reached over to the glove box and pulled it out, immediately handing it over. I made eye contact with the boyfriend briefly and he looked nervous. (He hates conflict.)

“See, officer? It expires next year in 2019, look right–”

“Yes, I can see that. But there are no tags on your plate, son. Why are there no tags on your plate?”

I looked baffled. “I put the tags there, sir.”

“And yet they aren’t there, are they? Do you know why else I pulled you over?”

“I truly have no idea, sir.”

“Do you know how to make a left turn?” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I felt my patience begin to wane.

“I do, officer.”

“Then why don’t you tell me how? Because I just saw you make an illegal left turn.”

I was baffled. I had used my turn signal, I’d waited for the green light. The road was clear. I hadn’t been drinking.

“I–I believe I did make a correct left turn.”

He tsked. “I just said you make an illegal left turn. Why don’t you define a legal left turn for me?”

“Officer, I’m not trying to be difficult. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Define ‘legal left turn.'”

“I don’t know what words you want me to use, and I feel like you are being very sarcastic and stern with me when I haven’t done anything wrong, sir.”

“Define ‘legal left turn’. This is your last chance. You got your driver’s license, correct? You passed the exam? If you read the driver’s manual, then you should be able to define ‘legal left turn’ for me.”

There was a beat of silence as I breathed in steadily, slowly. “Officer, I can’t provide an exact definition, but I believe I did turn legally.”

“Okay, fine.” He sounded exasperated. “You had your chance. Give me your license please.”

He took it and returned to his car. I sat there, baffled, not knowing what had just happened. My brain spun in a dozen directions. Had I done something wrong? Did I have a burned out taillight? Was the cop bored and needed someone to pull over? Why was he being so direct and sarcastic; was he having a bad day, was he on a power trip, did he hate his job, had I done something disrespectful? Had he seen me holding hands with my boyfriend at the theater, and did he hate gay people, and was that why we’d been pulled over? Oh my God, had I really just told a cop he was being stern and sarcastic? I felt a weird mix of confused, angry, embarrassed, and scared as we waited, processing all of this out loud now. I got out my cell phone and set it to record when he returned to the car.

Suddenly, the officer was calm, friendly, and clear. Was it because he knew my phone was on? “Hi, sir, here is your license back. When you are making a left hand turn on to a two-lane road, you must always be sure to choose the lane on the left. Not the turn lane, but the farthest lane away from the curb. You may then use your right-turn signal to move to the right lane. In this case, I witnessed you turning into the right lane of traffic, thus the one closest to the curb, which makes this an illegal left turn. Regarding the matter of your registration, it appears the sticker on your plate indicating the current registration has folded downward, and you need to get that fixed.”

I asked for a bit of clarification, finally understanding why I had been pulled over, though still frustrated as it seemed such a minor offense. I nodded a few times as he explained how to handle the ticket, an offense listed at around $90. I signed the form where he instructed, then took the ticket from his hand.

“Officer, thank you for explaining. I wish you had been this clear. I am confused by the sarcastic and disrespectful approach you used in our–”

He interrupted again. “You think I was disrespectful? Whatever.” He tossed his hands up in surrender and walked away from the car with a sarcastic “Have a nice day.”

And I found myself raising my voice after him, desperate suddenly to get the last word in. “Yes, and you are being disrespectful right now! Why don’t you have a nice day!”

I rolled up the windows in anger and frustration, then realized, again, that I had just talked back to a cop. I said out loud to my partner, “God, what if I’d just acted that way and I was a person of color?”

We drove the mile home in near silence. The boyfriend rubbed my back, reassuring me that things were fine, and I processed through getting the ticket and feeling okay about it, but just hating the way I had been treated. If I had done something wrong, he could have simply been kind and direct, and then issued a ticket, but the whole ‘legal left turn’ definition rigmarole had left me flummoxed.

Two days later, I delivered an official letter of complaint to the officer’s precinct. I let the officer-on-duty know that I go out of my way to report positive experiences when they happen, but I felt obligated to notify the precinct about this encounter. This officer was friendly, and asked if I wanted any follow-up from the complaint I’d issued, and I said that wasn’t necessary, and that I didn’t expect it to change the outcome of the ticket.

The day after that, I called the court number from the back of the ticket. It instructed me to call the number and request a ‘court-appointed mediator’ if I wanted one.

“Well, sir, we don’t have mediators here.”

“Um, the ticket specifically says to request a mediator.”

“Okay, well, we don’t have any. But you can either request a trial or a meeting with the judge?”

“What is the difference?” I asked.

“The difference between what?”

“The difference between a trial or a meeting with a judge?”

“Those are the same thing, sir.”

“You just said I could request a trial or a meeting with the judge!”

“No, sir, I said And, not Or. You can request a trial and a meeting with the judge.”

I sighed deeply, and made the request, feeling I had a valid case to contest the ticket. The woman took my citation number and looked it up.

“You can show up for court in four weeks, or you can pay $120 in advance to settle it.”

“Wait, $120? The ticket says $90.”

She grew impatient. “Look, sir, the police officers are now charging $120 for that offense. The tickets they are using still say $90 because they are using up the box of old tickets before they issue new ones.”

I hung up the phone exasperated, wondering if I ever wanted to drive again. But I had to give the officer credit for one thing. I was now indelibly recorded in my brain forevermore what a proper legal left turn was.

Dark Morning

darkmorning

I woke up this morning wondering what it was all for.

It’s dark outside, especially this early.

For a little while, I forgot how hard I fought to get to this place, the one where I’m working hard to live my dream. Well, at least the parts of the dream that aren’t contingent upon other people.

My back was aching. It aches every morning. On mornings like this, a few days after a hard workout, it hurts, and not in the “achy muscles that are building” kind of way, in the  “twisted spine scoliosis old man in a young body” kind of way. My muscles tug at each other over my ribs, and a deep ache sets in in the hollow under my right rib cage, and in my pelvis, and in the base of my neck. I desperately wanted two more hours of sleep, but I knew better. My body won’t let me. I need to get up, stretch, let my bones crack into their normal misalignment, the muscles stretch out twisted around them. I need to drink water, move my limbs, and let the natural healing of my body begin, so that my pain levels will drop to normal functioning rates. By then, I’ll be ready for coffee. Again, I wonder why this problem was one given to me, and if anyone who doesn’t have scoliosis could understand.

As I slowly stretched my back, feeling the pain pulse, I became aware of my boyfriend’s steady breathing next to me. He’s wonderful. Fit, and kind, and consistent. I know he has his own struggles, but he is so good at his nutrition, his routine. He’s so steady, so calm. I envy so much about him, and find myself wishing I could adopt his healthier habits. And I know he feels the same way about me, and I guess that is part of why we are so good together.

I lay there in the dark, not wanting to get up, and I grabbed my phone. I clicked the Email indicator, checked the first message, and realized a professional I’ve been waiting to hear from had finally written back. We had set up a meeting this coming week, one I’d been waiting for for weeks. She’d gone quiet for a full week, and now this Email was canceling the appointment. Ugh. I feel like my entire life has been dominated by variations of this interaction lately–professionals who take an active interest in my work and projects who eventually just ghost me or go silent or cancel things. I hate being pessimistic, but repeated interactions like this were beginning to rankle within me.

I’m spending so much time on work and projects that I’m consistently proud of. This blog. My book. Monthly readings and presentations. The documentary. My old comic book and YouTube channel. Quality work with very low audience attendance, and all things that yield zero profit. I do them because I love them, but this morning, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just scrapped them all, shut them down. It would free up so much time. Dozens of hours per month that I could use watching Netflix, playing video games, exercising, joining groups, playing games. I would miss them, but sometimes they feel they aren’t worth the aggravation.

Then I remember, again, how hard I fought to be able to do these things that I love. I feel like I’ve written a dozen blogs just on this topic, exploring the frustrations of not seeing things turn out as productively as I’d like. The costs of not being successful, the price of every artist living any version of their dream. I sigh, remembering these lessons, and stretch my back some more.

I switch over to the news, catching the CNN headlines as I lay there in the dark. Today is the final vote for the Supreme Court nominee. All rationality, all reason, all ethics and morals and human decency point to the fact that this man should not, should not, should not be given a lifetime appointment. Yet I already know he’ll be appointed. I’ve known it for days. It fills me with this despair at our entire government and political system. I want to throw my hands up and give up on the whole thing. I’m out of outrage, and that scares me. This coming week, I’ll watch my clients come in, traumatized by all of this. And I’ll have to inspire them to find hope again, because what is the alternative? Honestly, though, I haven’t felt this hopeless since that man was elected as our president. I keep hoping things might change. I’m not sure they can. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy life.

I finally sit up, clear my head, stretch my back, stand. I step outside of the room. I know inside this isn’t some despair, some state of mind that will last all day. My self-care will kick in. Movement, water, exercise, food. My endorphins will begin firing. My heart will heal again. It does every day. I’ll sit down at my computer later and write about my feelings. My children will wake soon and they will giggle and be cute, then aggravating, then sweet and cuddly, then tired, then cute and giggly again. It will be a wonderful day with lovely fall weather. I’ll be fine.

I set the coffee to brew. I turn on soft music. I light the fire. The house is still dark, everyone is sleeping, and the world outside is still sound. I have a good life, I remind myself. My heart is full. I’m okay. I touch my toes, elongate my spine, twist my hips, turn my neck. My body cracks and my bones tug on themselves. I feel sad, mad, scared, impatient. I feel full of hope, light, pain. I feel.

It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.

Seattle Part 10: Goodbye, My Lover

February, 2015

I was hopping up and down with excitement at the airport. Like literally hopping, bouncing up and down in the air. It was a private joke between Matt and I. When I asked him what he loved most about me, he said it was how I hopped when I saw him.

The joke had started a few years before. I’d gone to Las Vegas with friends for a weekend. One night, after a few drinks at a club, I’d danced with a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed man in a leather jacket. We’d flirted, made out, laughed a lot, and then traded phone numbers. After weeks of chatting, he’d come to see me in Salt Lake City. Before his arrival, I’d texted that I was so excited to see him that I couldn’t hold still, and as he’d pulled up, I’d been hopping in the yard, making him giggle. After that, I’d hopped every time we’d seen each other.

Prior to this, the last time I had seen Matt was nearly a year before. I met him in St. George, Utah, in the middle of an insane blizzard. He got out of the car, and I just seized him in a hug, and we stood there, holding each other for several minutes as the world blustered around us. After that, we went inside and made love and just held each other. He could light me on fire with his touch. After that, we’d had yet another passive argument about why our relationship wasn’t working, and why it couldn’t (the distance, the kids, he needed to finish college, he wasn’t ready, he cared too much, it hurt me too much to be so far away and have so little time with him), and he drove away, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.

Matt got off the plane, and found me hopping, and we hugged and kissed and laughed. I always felt so perfectly complete when I was with him. I felt attractive, desired, loved, accepted, like everything would be okay.

Over the next three days in Seattle, we talked, drank coffee, hiked to waterfalls, window-shopped, danced, had drinks, and ate everything. We snuggled at night and kissed in the morning. And yet again, I realized how perfect life with him felt. He stopped to pet every puppy, he reached for my hand when we walked, he had this way of looking me right in the eyes and making me feel safe. But I knew he’d be gone again and that it would all fall apart. Again. We’d already done this perfect-weekend-only-to-say-goodbye thing so many times, so many times.

After our hike to the waterfall, we got a table overlooking the falls, and ordered coffee. He smiled at me. God, he was beautiful. He looked me in the eyes.

“You seem happy here. In Seattle.”

I looked down, sighing. “I wanted it to be perfect. I did. But I hate my job. I haven’t made friends like I had hoped. And I’m lonely, a lot. I miss the kids. I–” I looked back up. “I miss you.”

He nodded, understanding. “I hate Vegas. I hate living there. I hate who I am there.”

And I surprised myself. “We talked about you coming to Salt Lake to live, lots of times. And you never felt ready. You never were ready. But what about–”

“What about what?”

“What about Seattle? What if you came and gave things a try here? What if we started here together, with a blank slate?” My heart pounded in the silence.

He shook his head, quickly. Too quickly. “I can’t.”

“You haven’t even thought about it. Matt, why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not ready. And I have thought about it. Ever since you’ve moved here, I’ve thought about it. I miss you constantly.”

“I miss you too! This could be something! Why can’t you? Why can’t you give it a try?”

He sighed. Deeply. Painfully. “I wouldn’t be easy to be with.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can handle the challenge.”

“No. I’m not ready. You’re eleven years older than me. You’ve done so much with yourself. Your writing, your career. I haven’t done anything with my life. I work part-time. I have years of school left. I can’t.”

“Matt, it isn’t a competition! Aren’t we worth a try?”

“Of course we are. But not yet. I’m not ready.”

It was the same conversation we had had a hundred times. We would reach a stalemate, and then it would get too painful to stay in contact, knowing it couldn’t go anywhere. I had kids and responsibilities. He just wasn’t ready. So we would stop texting. Months of silence would follow, and then one of us would finally reach out, and we’d make plans to see each other again.

“I–I think I thought that you wouldn’t come to Utah, for whatever reason. But I think, deep down, I think I hoped you might come here.”

He looked surprised. “Am I why you moved to Seattle? That doesn’t make sense.”

“I–no. I moved here for me. I just think, subconsciously, I think I hoped you might want a fresh start with me. I think deep down I thought that maybe we could finally be together.”

“I’m not ready,” he repeated, and then the coffee came.

That night and again the following morning, we made love again. He was leaving in just a few hours. In the car outside my apartment, I felt my heart break. I turned to him, my eyes brimming with tears.

“I’ve never said this to you, not out loud, but I love you.” I meant it, and he knew it.

“I love you, too.” He said it softly, his eyes turned toward the floor. He reached over and took my hand.

I looked away. “You say that. But you’re going to leave me today, and I have a feeling I’m not going to see you again.”

“I’m just not ready,” he said. “I have to find me first. It’s Vegas for now. I can’t leave yet.”

I drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. And as I drove away, tears leaking down my face, I knew that it was time. There was nothing for me in Seattle. It was time to start planning my return to Utah.

A year later, while I was in Las Vegas for business, I stopped by the place where Matt worked. A tattooed girl with long black braids worked behind the counter. I explained I was there to see Matt. She responded with enthusiasm.

“Matt! Oh, I miss him! He moved two months ago. He met a guy last summer, and they just got a place in San Francisco together.”

And as I left, I realized that although I hadn’t been holding on tightly, it was finally, finally time to let go.

Envying Happy

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Last weekend, my partner and I attended the Pride parade. We walked down the road, holding hands, my sons J and A gripping our hands tight. To all, we looked like a happy family. Many, seeing a gay couple out and proud, with kids at their sides, gave ‘oohs’, and ‘so cutes!’ as we walked by. (They were right, we are cute.)

One friend, though, messaged me later that day. “I saw you with your family at Pride and I couldn’t say hello. I was too sad.” He went on to explain that while he was genuinely happy for me, and that he knew I had worked hard to be where I am in life now, but that he envied the things I have, implying that happiness may elude him forever.

To this friend, one I care about a lot, I want to say ten things.

  1. I know how you feel! I spent so many years watching others be happy, and feeling like I could never be! I remember as a teenager, seeing straight guys get to actually date girls while I could never date guys. I remember seeing people who were fit during the time when I was obese and envying how ‘easy’ it came to them. When I was closeted, I remember seeing happy gay couples, just knowing that would never be me. When I was in debt, I saw those with financial freedom with absolute heartache. When I was single, I saw happy couples sometimes almost with derision, wondering constantly why I could never find that. I know how you feel!
  2. Things aren’t always as ideal as they seem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my life. But you saw us around, what, 10 am? The morning before that consisted of breakfast for four people, showers and getting ready, and packing bags, the kids both having separate fits because they couldn’t play longer, one kid sticking his hand inside a garbage can and subsequently putting it in his mouth, the barista being completely untrained and not understanding what a drip coffee was, and me forgetting the sunscreen. In fact, the reason we were walking like that, with the kids on either side, was to keep them from fighting. What I’m getting at is, yes, I’m happy, but it is a lot of work. (I mean, the child support payments alone). I’m just saying, the richest people still have problems, and the happiest couples sometimes fight the most.
  3. Ten years ago, I was depressed, obese, childless, in an unhappy marriage, and broken. I believed I could never be happy. My path ahead sixty hour work weeks, debt, empty church service, health problems, and more depression. My journey forward started by exercising, then coming out, then learning how to be an out gay man with children and debt. Even after that, I was single for 6 years. I turn 40 this year, and happiness was hard won.
  4. Even now, I’m happy, but I’m not. I have things I’m dissatisfied with. I set goals constantly. Bad things happen to me, I have bad days, and I get sad, angry, and scared quite often. I’ve learned to be kind to myself on tough days, and I’ve learned to accept that being dissatisfied is part of being human. I love parenting, but I don’t love everything about parenting. I love my job, but I don’t love everything about my job. I love being in a healthy relationship, but I don’t love everything about being in a relationship. I’m consistently striving for bigger and better. I am constantly working on my own happy.
  5. Happiness is fleeting. It comes in short bursts. It takes effort and consistency, just like fitness and financial freedom do. It means a lot of hard internal work. Healthy doesn’t happen without good nutrition, a whole lot of physical effort, and consistency. It doesn’t take personal trainers or the perfect genes, it just means super hard work. I did that work on my outsides (I still am!) and I did that work on my insides (I still am!)
  6. Everyone’s happy is different than everyone else’s. There is no perfect recipe for happiness. A boyfriend or husband, a better job, a million dollars, a home, a child… those all bring their own struggles and concerns. Happiness needs to be found in the present, and then it changes with us as we grow and alter and age. You don’t want my life, or my happy, you want your own. And that means figuring out what that is for you.
  7. Before I could be in a relationship, I had to learn how to be single. That meant learning how to be my own favorite person, my own best friend, my own motivator. I used to go to parties or events and feel pathetic for being solo; I got over it. I started to date myself: plays, movies, concerts, trips. I was honest with myself, I held myself accountable. I worked on goals (getting braces, paying off credit cards) and I was kind to myself when I made mistakes or had bad days. I still like my own company. I genuinely like myself and I’m my own favorite person. This was the best work I ever did.
  8. To be blunt and honest, the world is frequently a shitty place. We humans complain about most anything, from the weather to how long our coffee is taking to brew, but the world is full of real problems and struggles outside ourselves. Just scanning the periphery of my brain, the words human-trafficking, rape culture, school shootings, lava flows, and immigrants having their kids taken away pop up. You can’t scan the news without abject horror clouding your landscape. Happiness has to be a choice in spite of all of that, whether the pressure comes internally or externally. The only thing you have control over is you. And happiness can’t be found by ignoring the world, only by embracing the world with its flaws and being happy in spite of it, all while trying to make the world better around us.
  9. Depression is a real thing. And when someone is depressed, happy not only feels impossible, it feels like a real chore. It feels like ‘it’s impossible’ and ‘what’s the point’ all at once. Depression hurts, and it’s miserable, and it sinks into your soul. But it can be temporary. It takes work to climb out of it. I did, once, and I try to help others do so. And if you have depression, well, then, you can too. I’m here anytime you need to talk.
  10. Lastly, I wish you could see you the way others see you, the way I see you. No matter how sad you might feel, it doesn’t make you any less amazing. You make art, and you see the world with an artist’s eye. You have survived unbearable things, and you have gone on to inspire others. You have restarted your life, shed your past, and began again with a new name and a new beginning. When a friend was hurting, you gave of yourself to help this friend in a way that very well may have saved his life, and that meant a lengthy healing process for you afterward. What you did for him is super-human. You have an enormous heart, and endless potential. Take a moment to look outside in, and do so with love and understanding, because you are incredible.

Don’t envy my happy. Instead: Be happy! Be you! Find your happy! Start today! I’m here, and I’ll be watching. And next time you see me walking down the sidewalk, don’t be sad. Instead, come out and say hi. I’ll have a huge hug waiting for you.

A Matter of Endorphins

I was uncharacteristically sad yesterday. There wasn’t any reason for it, I was just plain sad. I wasn’t down-in-the-dumps sad. I wasn’t depressed, or grieving, or heartbroken, or lonely. (My word, but there are a lot of beautiful shades of that emotion). I was just… blue. Down. Maybe a little melancholy.

The sadness continued this morning, meaning it lasted around 36 hours. I woke up and went through the motions of using the restroom, washing my hands, brewing my coffee, then reading a bit in a biography while it brewed. But the whole time, I felt like looking out the window and just giving a sigh, like those two kids on the opening page of the Cat in the Hat who can’t play outside because it was raining too hard. A breakfast of Greek yogurt with blueberries, a hot shower, a clean shirt, a hug from my boyfriend, still sad. I blended my lunch of protein powder and fresh vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli) then headed into the office, listening to NPR on my way, still sad. I saw my first client and talked about overcoming depression with him, still sad. And then I thought, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”

I took a long walk through the park during a quiet hour from work, my office being just a block from a major city park. The birds were singing, there were hot shirtless runners, there was a light breeze, and the sun was shining perfectly. There was a lot to be grateful for. As I felt my body slowly come awake, I felt a familiar stiffness in my bones, and the blood flow through my muscle groups felt amazing. My bones popped, my spine expanded, and my head cleared as I breathed it all in, quickening my pace a bit.

I took a moment to take stock of my melancholy. On Sunday, upon leaving Philadelphia, I’d woken up sad. The night before, I’d had dinner (an incredible mushroom shepherd’s pie), drinks (two Old-Fashioneds), and dessert (chocolate creme brule) with my boyfriend as we listened to incredible live jazz music. I’d felt so alive. But then Sunday morning I’d woken up sad. I packed my suitcase, showered for the day, and then spent four hours at the local art museum before heading to the airport. A two hour wait and a four hour flight basically meant six hours of reading (a new biography on Tennessee Williams), and then finally home. Yet sad the whole time.

And then Monday, healthy food, several hours of work, and then a long evening of play time with my sons, who I hadn’t seen in five days. I gave them new animal toys to add to their toy zoo, a harpy eagle and a sun bear, and we played together in the backyard, laughing and having fun. I made them dinner, we played Twister, they were hyper and silly and it was a wonderful night. But the entire time, still, blue, and knowing it the entire way.

As I walked through the park, I did a little therapy on myself, as I often do when I have something to puzzle out. Were I to come to myself for therapy, with this set of problems, how would I counsel me as a client? What would I have to say? I would ask me to describe the sadness, what kind of sadness it was, and what I had to be sad about. Then I would remind myself that sadness is a natural state, that all humans are sad, even when life is really good.

It’s a matter of endorphins, I would say.

I would remind myself that the brain produces endorphins (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) naturally, but it produces best in optimal conditions, with healthy nutrition and hydration, ample sunlight, low stress, and good sleep. And I would remind myself that if the brain has been producing endorphins at high amounts for a few days in a row, then it is natural for it to produce lower amounts for a period of time afterward, as a balancing measure. It is also normal to have a low when one hasn’t been sleeping well, or has been drinking a lot of alcohol, or has been eating a lot of sugary or salty foods, or has not been exercising. No one gets to be happy all the time, and blue has its place. Blue is safe. Blue is okay.

I just got back from vacation. I ate a lot of food, drank and danced, traveled, and hadn’t slept a full night in several days. Blue was normal, and it didn’t make my life any less wonderful. Even when sad, all of my joys were there: my children, my partner, my work, all of the things that give me balance and happiness. It was a blue hour, or perhaps a blue day, not a blue life.

I finished my walk around the park, ready to resume. I felt a little bit lighter (meaning my brain was producing just a few more endorphins), and I knew that after a nice meal, I would feel even better still. The world around me remained beautiful.

Blue sky, blue water, blue blood, and me.

Blue

A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.