Inner Dialogue

I’ve been working on mindfulness lately. Slowing the world down. I’ve been practicing this for years, and I still have more work to do. Lately, my meditation has been all about inward body monitoring. Breathe, focus, calm, and a focus on what is happening under my eyelids, or against the lining of my stomach; picking out sore spots in my back, slowly and deliberately; feeling where cloth is touching my skin and how that is distinct from the air. It’s powerful work, and it brings a calm I couldn’t have anticipated.

Mindfulness is applied to other areas of my life as well. Mindfulness in the way I’m spending money. Mindfulness in the types of food I’m choosing to eat, and when. Mindfulness in how I spend time with my children, in the way I exercise, in how I read books, in how I spend my mornings. I know the difference between peace and discord, and I’m ever striving toward peace. Accountability. Integrity.

This morning, I put mindfulness in a new and unexpected direction. I lent it toward the inner, critical dialogue, the one that seems to play on autopilot during moments of vulnerability. In the last few years, I’ve worked to silence that voice. It runs so far in the background now. But I found it sparking up while I was exercising, and I paid attention to it, from a non-judgmental space. I just observed it there, from deep down inside me. And the moment I allowed it to speak, I realized it wouldn’t shut up. I realized it never has.

I was stretching on a yoga mat at the gym. I was in a black tank top and orange camouflage shorts, and I had on long Wonder Woman socks, a pair given to me as a gift recently. My phone and my library book, a collection of letters that I planned to read between sets, sat on the floor next to me. It was a quieter day at the gym, only 6:45 am, but the morning regulars were there, walking around, gabbing, listening to music, lifting weights. A blonde woman kept slamming a ball on the floor and I could feel the tremors beneath me. All the way across the gym, a man was dropping heavy weights on the floor as he grunted loudly, and I could hear the crash every time. Obnoxious 90s rap music played. The wind was blowing outside. I was hungry, and sore, and still sleepy.

A gym regular walked past, one I used to have a crush on years ago. I remembered asking him out a few times a few years back and he’d never responded one way or the other, reacting with ambivalence and a shrug. I remembered feeling, back then, like I wasn’t good enough to get his attention. He was younger, fitter, and must have his pick of men, I told myself. Or maybe I was intimidating. Or maybe too old, too out of shape, too talkative. Maybe my teeth weren’t straight enough. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Then again, he hadn’t answered at all, so maybe I wasn’t even interested in the first place. Maybe I’d been desperate. Maybe it had just been a passing crush. Maybe if I’d gotten to know him, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.

And, in fact, I wasn’t interested. Not now. I’ve been with a man I love very much for the last two years. And yet those feelings were still there, deep down, that old dialogue. The ones that spoke to insecurity, confusion, harsh self-criticism. The ones that told me I was never good enough. The ones that tried to make sense of the world as I understood it and why I never seemed to fit in. The ones I grew up with. Instead of silencing them, I spend some time with them. Safely. I observed them as I let that narrative continue. I closed my eyes as I did sit-ups and planks and twists. It was easy to give it voice. I’d spent so long there, so long, so many years.

Does he notice me now, I thought. Does he see me. If I asked him why he’d never been interested, what would he say. If I were to ask him why he never responded back then, what would he say, how would he respond. I found my internal self playing out some form of the conversation in my brain. You were too needy back then, he might say. Or maybe he might say that if I looked then like I do now, more fit and focused on myself, maybe he would have been interested. What would I have said back, I wondered. Would I have told him to fuck off, that he should have gotten to know me back then, that I was worth his time then and now I wasn’t sure he was worth mine. Would I walk away with head held high, would I gush, feel confused, brag about how happy I am now. How would I respond. Of course he wasn’t interested, of course. You were insecure, you never measured up, you had children, you were in debt, your teeth weren’t straight, you’d been married, you waited too long to come out of the closet, you didn’t love yourself enough.

Guh. I sat up on the mat and took a long inward breath. That inner dialogue. Playing out these shame scenarios that would never happen and that I wouldn’t want to happen in the first place. Listening to those inner voices, the ones I had grown up with for so long, the ones that had infected my head for all of those years. The constant measuring, the never being enough, the endless comparisons. I wasn’t that person any more. My way free had been hard fought and hard won. It had taken effort, therapy, soul-searching. I had a healthy spirituality now, and I liked myself. I didn’t give a shit what people thought anymore, not in most cases. But if I gave it voice, it was all still there, deep down, all still present. The old wounds, the old heavy spaces, still there. A part of the old me, deep down, needing to be channeled just once in a while.

And then I found comfort. I found peace with the me that was, and the me that is. And I found comfort in the old parts of me being integrated into these new parts of me, with peace and space. Inner child, closeted Mormon, repressed father, all of those pieces from my past were still there, part of this new independent me. I could learn from them. I could listen and be okay.

I got up, walked past my old gym crush, thought of my happy little family now, and grabbed some free weights, ready to get to work.

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Depression, as a Responsibility

Okay, hear me out.

I’m going to go with heart first, and then head.

Heart:

Depression is real, and it is crippling. It is fueled by anxiety, and stress, and chronic pain, and trauma. It can come in waves, from mild to severe, and it can last a day or (seemingly) a few years. It shreds self-esteem, it takes away joy, it leaves you feeling numb and empty and without hope that things could ever or will ever change. When I conjure an image of depression, I picture the time when everything in my life appeared to be perfect: wife and home and kids and church and job, that time when I kept a giant smile plastered on my face, but on the inside I felt unworthy of love, isolated, torn to pieces. I felt like no one could or would see me, and I truly believed that happiness would forever elude me. I know what that dark, soul-crushing space feels like, and I know it can last for so long. Empty prayers, empty heart, empty rooms, empty me. I was merely existing. I once wrote suicide notes in that space. I know what depression feels like. It is real.

And now, Head:

Depression is a condition. A medical condition. It has a place in the medical books with a list of symptoms that follows it. It’s something that happens to people, most people if not all people, at some time in their lives. It’s a human condition, and thus part of being human. Some people struggle with it mightily and for their whole lives, while some only have depressed days or periods from time to time. Just like some people are born with a genetic predisposition to diabetes or asthma or heart disease or addiction, some might be born with a predisposition for depression. It’s a condition, and one that must be managed, with personal responsibility. And that requires an education, and understanding, and healthy life management around the condition.

Example: Diabetes has everything to do with blood sugars, and can be regulated with food intake and exercise. In some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. Managing diabetes requires being educated about diabetes. It means learning what to eat, and how. It means knowing when to rest, and when to exercise. It means carrying insulin or fresh fruit or juice or candy to help manage the condition when it is out of control. It means educating others about the condition. It means… being responsible for it. For those who don’t manage it, who indulge and give little thought to consequences, they become burdened with the symptoms of the disorder, with low energy, frequent cravings, chronic pain, etc. For those who manage the disorder, despite the struggles that accompany its management, the burdens become easier to bear along with the healthier habits.

And in that same context, depression has everything to do with how the brain produces endorphins. It can be regulated with healthy relationships, nutrition and exercise, hydration, sleep, pain management, stress management, and coping mechanisms. And in some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. It must be managed.

There is a line from a Jason Mraz song that provided me with a lot of comfort when I was coming out of my own depression. The song is called Details in the Fabric, and it eloquently states in the chorus:

“If it’s a broken part, replace it.
If it’s a broken arm, then brace it.
If it’s a broken heart, then face it.”

If we as humans are responsible for ourselves (and we have to be!), then part of that means managing our own conditions. Whatever it is that is causing the depression has to be faced up to. Poor nutrition? An unhealthy relationship? An unfulfilling career? A disability? Chronic pain? The loss of a loved one? Too much stress? A lack of friends? Cold weather? An addiction? A broken heart? A low self-image? A traumatic childhood? Whatever it is, we have to take care of our own struggles and push through. We have to learn to get better. We have to be responsible for our own conditions.

In therapy, I frequently coach clients on how to get through the little tough moments. Little activities they can participate in to increase endorphin production in the brain. They don’t fix trauma or mend a broken heart, but they do help get through tough moments, hours, and days. And over sustained periods of time, we can break bad habits and start climbing out of the depression. The days get a bit easier a bit at a time. This is a ‘lose one pound per week for fifty weeks’ approach, as opposed to the ‘lose fifty pounds in one week’ approach that many hope for. Fixes aren’t often quick. New lifestyles take time to sustain.

Here’s the list. The brain naturally responds with serotonin and dopamine when we engage.

  1. Healthy eating. (Try being happy when you’re hungry or eating the wrong things).
  2. Water. (Try being happy when you’re thirsty or drinking only soda or coffee or energy drinks).
  3. Exercise. (Try being happy while consistently sedentary).
  4. Healthy human contact. (Friends! Therapy! Opening up and sharing with others!) (Try being happy when isolated, in stressful relationships, or while only engaging with others on social media).
  5. Sunlight. (Try being happy while remaining in dark rooms with the shades drawn).
  6. Achievement/getting things done. (Try being happy while constantly overwhelmed by what isn’t done, or while bored and lacking purpose.)
  7. Sleep. (Try being happy when sleeping too much or too little).
  8. Anti-depressants. (Medication isn’t always required, but vitamins and positive supplements are important. This also means avoiding stimulants and depressants, like too much alcohol and coffee, or other chemical-altering substances that exacerbate depression. Alcohol is the worst decision here).

We can not always control life circumstances, or even whether or not we have depression, but we can choose to participate with ourselves in our recovery from it. My depression, when I struggled with it, came from a combination from many things. My father had depression. I was sexually abused as a kid. I grew up gay in a world that told me gay people weren’t welcome. I grew up in a religion that had very high expectations, and left me feeling empty when I couldn’t measure up. I was physically abused by a step-father. I had scoliosis, and struggled with chronic pain. All of that, plus family stressors, before I was 18. I wasn’t responsible for any of those things. They were things that happened to me.

But somewhere along the way, given the stack of cards that I was dealt, I had to choose how to handle those things as an adult. I did a lot of things right: college, friends, therapy. But I did a lot of indulgent and difficult things as well, like too much food, further participation in the religion that was hurting me, and struggles with reconciling my own sexuality. I chose to get married and have children. I chose to keep eating, even when I became obese. I felt like there was no hope to make changes, and I participated in that hopelessness. And thus passed my 20s. A decade spent, responsible for myself and not handling it correctly. Wasted years. Good things came out of those years, like my college degree and my children, but they came from inauthentic spaces.

The process to healthy living for me required owning my past, my hurt spaces, my sexuality, my religious upbringing, my family culture, my food habits, my approach to relationships. It required exercise and healthy habits, therapy, journaling, financial responsibility. It required being a grown-up who loves themselves. It took work. And it got a bit easier, a bit at a time, over days, and weeks, and months, and years.

It required me loving myself, putting me first, along with my children, and healing from my past. It required me managing money appropriately, spending time with friends, learning how to process difficult feelings (like lonely and scared and angry and sad), keeping my home clean and tidy, exercising. It required me being responsible for me.

No one will just come along to save you. No prince will ride up on horseback, no surprise job will give you purpose, no lottery winning will take all your pain away. Because with the depression, even the magical things that happen feel like too much. The prince, the job, the lottery winnings, they feel just as hopeless as the rest.

And so back to heart: I know what it is like to live without hope. And I know what it is like to live happy. Life isn’t always easy. I have tough days. But it’s different. It’s so different. Struggles are manageable, temporary. I have tough hours or days, not a lifelong struggle of feeling broken. I got here. I did it. And now I’m working every day to stay here.

And I believe you can too. Be responsible for you, even when your insides tell you that you can’t. It’s so worth the effort. After all, what’s the alternative?

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Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

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With Resolve

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The best way to measure where we are is to look back at where we were.

I remind my clients of this principle often, in my therapy office. When they come in with small frustrations (the flat tire, the grumpy kid, the demanding boss), I sometimes remind them of where they were last year with larger struggles (the cheating spouse, the bankruptcy notice, the suicidal thoughts). With a bit of perspective, our current problems sometimes don’t feel as overwhelming.

And that is the perspective I choose to view 2018 with. This year had plenty of frustrations for me, but overwhelmingly, this was a year in which I achieved many goals and accomplished some things that I never thought were possible.

In 2017, I became financially solvent. I got health insurance for the first time in years, eliminated debt, and developed a savings account, which gave me the ability to start traveling a bit for the first time, and I continued that in 2018. With the ability to work remotely (somewhat), I was able to take several short trips, where I could stay in inexpensive accommodations and explore new cities while staying on top of my business prospects. I took four solo trips this year, to Phoenix, Arizona; to Calgary, Alberta; to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and, the most epic, to Juneau, Alaska. I also took four trips with my partner, romantic getaways where I could still work while we were gone; to Philadelphia, Philadelphia; to Palm Springs, California; to Seattle, Washington; and to New Orleans, Louisiana. All of these were incredible trips that resulted in a lifetime of memories and many new friends, but Juneau held the most magic for me as I saw an entirely different part of the country. I look forward in 2019 to more travel and exploration.

In 2017, I talked constantly about wanting to do more writing and performance. And so I launched a monthly story-telling night. It grow, steadily and smoothly, and I kept it running in 2018 with 12 more performance. We switched the format, adding more readers, and after a time, we started selling tickets to the event. It has grown into something that I adore, and look forward to every month.

In addition to that, in 2018, I did the impossible. Multiple times. I finished filming a documentary that consumed my time, attention, and creative energy for over two years. (The film, Dog Valley, remains in the editing phase, and likely will for several more months, but filming is complete). And I published a book! I published a memoir, Gay Mormon Dad, in which I boldly tell my story of coming out, and leaving religion to find myself. It’s a work I’m incredibly proud of, and the feedback and reviews on it were overwhelmingly positive. Ultimately, it only sold a few hundred copies, but I remain overtly proud of the work. It was a life accomplishment, something I’d want mentioned in my obituary some day.

2018 also became a year with HUGE unpredictable events, most of which had very little yield as a result. I started keeping a list of opportunities that presented themselves, almost all of which had no follow-through, and about half way through the year, I had to work on strategies to free myself from the emotional stress of all of this. I participated in five interviews on major podcasts and broadcasts about my book, my therapy work, and my story-telling. I think these interviews helped others, but I’ve only received sporadic feedback from them overall; still, all were wonderful experiences. I had several offers for other interviews (including one from a media celebrity), but none of them panned out. I appeared in a different documentary about gay Mormon issues, but not many attended the premiere. I had about ten different potential offers to fund my documentary (Dog Valley) and held many different meetings regarding funding, but only one of the offers turned out to be serious, and it is still pending at the time of this writing. In addition, I had a few different book companies show interest in taking my book to a higher reading audience and promotion platform, but all of these yielded no fruit. Huge offers kept coming, and I responded enthusiastically to each one, but ultimately, nearly all of my answers received no replies. I type this now without bitterness, but the wrestle I had with this over the past 12 months has been a mighty one.

2018 had a few very tough emotional wrestles for me as well. I have more self-confidence, belief, and esteem than I ever had in my life span, which is wonderful, and I saw my kids thrive. I had a second wonderful year with my boyfriend, and we grew together more tightly, working through issues and falling more in love. And I watched my sons thrive in their new charter school, turning 7 and 10 this year; they are incredible and wonderful, now more than ever. Despite all of these positives, I was hurt very badly by two people that I trust very much this year. These events resulted in me learning more than ever about trust, vulnerabilities, forgiveness, and recovery. These isolated events led to lots of tears and tough life lessons. The good news, though, is that I learned from both and came out stronger and, I hope, with more compassion and grace. I went to some therapy myself to sort out some of these issues, and I’m a better person because of it.

2018 also led to me getting into much better physical shape. I grew more consistent at the gym and reached a place where I can look in them mirror and feel wonderful about the attractive guy I see looking back at me. I look forward to further progress this coming year.

In 2018, I read a lot of books, wrote a lot of stories, and watched a lot of television and movies. I moved into a new place, and took in a new roommate. I drank so much coffee. I made some new friends. I completed hundreds of therapy and crisis intervention sessions. I laughed so much, and I smiled even more. And strangely, I grew more internally quiet. I stopped expecting so much from the world, and instead grew at peace with my attempts to find it and do what I love. I stopped, for the most part, comparing my success to that of others. And I watched the people around me, those I love and trust the most, grow and change along with me.

I ended the year with some sobering personal revelations as well, all of which will help fuel me as I set goals this coming year. But the place realization is looking back to where I used to be, then seeing where I am now. And now, at year’s end, I can say I’m living my dream and enjoying the journey. It isn’t without setback or frustration, but I’m doing things that I love and that I’m passionate about, I have a solid court of lovely people who I support and love and trust to have my back, and I genuinely like who I am and what I am doing with my life.

And thus begins my 40th year. And I can’t think of a ground to build from.

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.

2030

I’m afraid.

Lately, my fears for the future have been regularly realized.

Every little news headline seems to reinforce how corrupt we are as a species, how doomed our planet it, and how without hope we are. Some days, I have to work hard to find the hope that will reinstate my faith in humanity. Some days, I have to dig very deep.

Nothing is quite as infuriating as politics and religion. These issues charge me up and fill me with outrage. Hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor from an adult makes me angry; hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest and then learning that case was willfully ignored by men who claim to speak for God, well, that fills me with rage. Hearing a boss or a neighbor or even a parent say they hate gay people, that hurts my heart; seeing a straight elderly white man stand up and say that God says gay people are sinners and apostates, and then hearing about suicides that take place afterward, well, that fills me with dread. Seeing a man post on Facebook about how times are tough for men right now and how alleged victims of sexual assault need to come forward with proof, that makes my heart ache; seeing an elected official who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times and who is a known sexual philanderer appoint another man accused of sexual assault to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court and then afterwards talk about how difficult men have it, well, that fills me with hopelessness.

And, as I write this, I realize I willfully take part in this outrage. I recognize that the world around me has learned how to capitalize on it. Logging into Facebook recently, I clicked a few buttons and realized that the computer algorithms have labeled me as an extreme liberal. I get fired up over transgender rights, and gay marriage, and fair wages, and victim advocacy, and #metoo. And entire political campaigns seek out my information and run ads that will get me fired up. The content that shows up on my page, in my Email, in my mailbox, it is often targeted just for my eyes. And it isn’t just me,  this is everyone.

I have a habit of waking up in the morning and checking CNN, or Rachel Maddow, or the New York Times, and I look for evidence that my beliefs and affiliations are justified. I want facts and figures that back up my beliefs. I want to feel validated. I want my hope back. And sometimes I find it. “See! There is a new trial for Paul Manafort! I knew Trump was corrupt! I knew Obama was the best president! I knew Russia was behind it all!” And sometimes I don’t find it. “Oh. Oh! There isn’t enough support to impeach the president, and there weren’t enough senators to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. How could they! What is the world coming to! Why do I even try!” And then I realize that every one of these places runs on advertisements that are geared toward me. And I realize that the same thing is happening on the other side, too.

Recently, I had a long, several-hour drive through central Utah, and I could only get one radio station to play, and it was broadcasting the Sean Hannity show. And I thought, well, why not. The show opened with something like this. “On today’s show, we provide evidence that there isn’t one single decent Democrat among the whole bunch! They are all extreme liberals! And we will show you how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to influence the efforts of Donald Trump, the greatest president of the greatest country on Earth!” And then an ad came on featuring a man saying something like “I love what I love. I love my woman. I love my children. I love my trucks. And I love my guns.” And I didn’t stick around after that because I wanted to pull over and vomit.

With compassion, I realize that there is someone not that unlike me who wakes up across the country somewhere and brews his coffee and checks his Fox News and Breitbart headlines, where he finds stories that reinforce his own hopelessness and outrage. He talks to his friends about it, posts some things on social media, and wanders around wondering if the world will ever stop being so broken.

And so, to clear my head, I went on a long walk. I set aside the outrage, the pain, the hopelessness, and I focused on the beauty of the world. The changing leaves, the crisp fall air, the hilarious photos my children sent me the night before, the progress I helped one of my clients make in our latest session, the way my boyfriend snuggled me tight last night. The world is okay. The world is okay.

Except it isn’t! My reassurances weren’t working. I can’t just explain the feelings away, or even just breathe through them. The issues I am passionate about are real issues for me! Gay kids are committing suicide! Trans women of color are being brutally murdered! Sex trafficking numbers are higher than ever! Human populations keep growing and consuming, and entire ecosystems are critically endangered if not on the verge of extinction! People of color are still fighting for equality and recognition! Survivors of sexual assault are still not being believed! The air is being poisoned, and the icebergs are melting, and the hurricanes are growing bigger, and the climate is rising! It makes me want to scream! I’m afraid for the future! What kind of world are my sons going to grow up in! What world will be left for them to have a future in! (And those on the other side are outraged about their own issues, I realize. Abortion! Religious discrimination! The fall of basic morals and values! Sigh.)

And then it is another deep breath. I think of the protestors, those who fought against the Iraq War in my youth, those who fought against the Viet Nam and Korean Wars in the youths of my parents. I think of the hippies, and the feminists, and the Freedom Riders, and the Suffragettes, and the Underground Railroad, and I realize that things are changing. They are. And my heroes have always been those who rose up against impossible systems and made change. Gay marriage is legal now, and the Berlin Wall came down, and segregation was deemed illegal. Sally Ride went into space, and Barbara Jordan got elected, and we had a black president for eight years, and Elizabeth Smart survived to tell her story, and there is a street down the road now named after Harvey Milk. There will always be something to be outraged about. But only if we have a planet and a society in which we can be outraged at all.

I woke days ago to a headline that basically said, from a scientific standpoint, that we have until the year 2030 to get our shit together as a species or the planet is doomed. That’s basically what it said. We can cut back on plastic, and stop mass-slaughtering animals, and quit fracking the earth open, and shift to solar energy. We can take care of our air, and our water, and our animal habitats, and our trees, and our mountains, and our soil, or we can realize that they simply won’t be there any longer to take care of at all.

I sometimes feel like modern society is far too much like the one in the Game of Thrones. The people slaughter each other in political games, playing dirty and wiping out the well-meaning, all while the Apocalypse rises from the north, ready to consume them all. They have a limited time to get their act together if they want to survive at all. And even then, it may be too late.

In 2030, I’ll be turning 52 years old. My sons will be 22 and 19. (They are 9 and 7 now). This is not a far future. This is the amount of time from 2008 to now. It’s the simple difference between ages 20 and 32. It’s barely more than a decade. And no matter the state of the world, I’m sure humans will still be arguing, screaming, and protesting with each other about their personal outrages. But I don’t know if this is a future where the oceans are choked by plastics, garbage, and poisons, where massive storms ravage our coasts, where animal habitats have been almost entire consumed, and where humans have to wear masks outside to breathe. Or if this is a future much like the one that presently exists, damaged but salvageable, where convenience is somewhat sacrificed in the name of preservation. Will my sons get college, careers, families? Can they plan vacations? Can they breathe fresh air, see sunsets, climb trees, ride on a boat to see whales diving in the ocean? And can they raise their children to do the same?

Or is it too late?

I’m afraid.

sunrise

Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

Outside of a few goodbye dinners with friends, and one last night spent with Zhu, leaving Seattle was relatively anticlimactic. I carried my clothes, pictures, and few supplies down the stairs and loaded them into my car. I went to bed early the night before, woke and had one last cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking Lake Washington (my how I would miss the view over the lake), showered, dressed, and left. I was on the road by 5:30 am, ready for a long day’s worth of driving ahead. I almost immediately realized I wouldn’t miss it. I had taken what I needed, and now I was ready to leave.

I tried to leave the city with the same sense of adventure and hope that I’d arrived in it with. As I got on the busy interstate toward Utah, I contemplated the new reality that awaited me back home. I had taken the biggest risk of my life in moving here, and ultimately I had only lasted six months. I didn’t feel like a failure. I wasn’t coming home to Utah with my head between my legs. Instead, I was returning changed. And I had a long day of driving to figure out what those changes meant for me, and what they were.

The storm within me was quieter now. I was safer in myself. I had left Utah with so much anger and sadness, emotions that came from an unsafe place. But now the feelings were quiet within me. Their expression was more normal. I could get mad, or sad, or scared; I could feel anxious or guilty; I could grieve, or hope, or strive, and the world felt possible and safe. I knew how to feel now, and how to process the feelings. They were gifts now. They didn’t overwhelm or incapacitate me as they once had.

Leaving Utah had allowed me to find myself. It taught me that happiness wasn’t right around the corner, it was already within me. Utah no longer felt like me being shackled in place, instead it was a place where I had friends, where I felt it home. It now represented ground that I could build from, instead of the shattered ruins it had felt like when I left.

My children were six months older now. I’d seen them every month, and spoken with them over video chat daily, but they were older. And so was I. My friends had changed too; some had moved away, some had ended relationships, others had new jobs or homes or boyfriends. And yet Utah would feel exactly the same, just without the sense of threat that it had before.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, my ex-wife, my children’s mother, had evolved as well. She was no longer attending the LDS Church, for her own reasons, and I think that I had proven to her that I was a consistent and involved father, even from farther away. She was kinder now, in a way, and perhaps she blamed me less for the end of our marriage. And maybe that was the most healing thing of all. Maybe I finally could let go of my shame there, and stop living with regrets; maybe I could march forward with my life in peace and with hope now.

Ultimately, my time in Seattle had been… simple. The lessons I learned there were things most people learned in their teenage years and in their twenties. I learned that finding love wasn’t so easy, that family was the most important thing, that loving yourself was crucial before loving others. I learned how to prioritize health and self-compassion. I learned that I didn’t want to live with a bunch of guys in a fraternity setting, and that I didn’t want to make more money if it meant selling my soul and my own mental health. I learned that debt, and struggle, and pain follow you, even if you move to a new horizon. I learned that no one gets to the destination without putting the hard work in first.

Back in Utah, I had secured an apartment downtown. A brand new beginning in a new part of town. I was taking over the lease from some old college students. When I arrived, I found they left just a few things behind: a container of protein powder, a pull-up bar, a box of Stevia packets, two folding chairs, and seven unused condoms. Within days, I would have the place stocked with furniture and bunkbeds for my children. I would need to find work quickly in order to survive. There was a gym in the basement to work out in, and my social work license was still active, so I could launch right back into life. My friends were there. In fact, Kurt, my best friend, was planning a welcome back party for me, even though he had just thrown a going away party for me six months before.

I drove toward my sons, toward my future, having no idea what’s next for me. I had projects in mind, research and writing projects, things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel, and to get in the best shape of my life, and to achieve financial freedom for the first time. But I was beginning to believe those things were possible. I was free from the shackles of the things that had held me back before, and I was learning that only I could put restrictions on myself. I had just the right ground to build from.

I pulled into my new place and, over a few hours, unloaded my car into the new apartment. Tonight, I would sleep on the floor, with pillows and blankets. In the morning, I would go grocery shopping, and then pick up my sons, and they would come over and play with me while I unpacked. It was a new beginning. Another one.

The next morning, I knocked on the door of my old apartment, the one my ex-wife had moved into when I’d moved to Seattle. My sons were inside waiting for me. The door opened, and my five year old yelled out, “Daddy, you’re home!”

And as I gathered him in my arms, his brother toddling over right behind him, I said “I am home, my boys. I am home.”

Seattle Part 12: the Rainforest

March, 2015

The town of Forks, Washington was overwhelmingly disappointing. Not that I was the biggest Twilight fan, but I expected something slightly more elaborate. I parked my car on the street next to a run-down pick-up truck that probably hadn’t been moved in a year. When I got out, a pregnant dog looked at me, laying in the shade of the truck, too tired to get up. Next to her front paw was a smashed Big Gulp cup.

Twilight had been out for ten years or so by this point, and the craze must have died down at least a little bit. If memory served me right, the author, Stephanie Meyer needed a place without a lot of daylight for her vampire novels and she did an Internet search and came up with this town to base her books in. And suddenly, this sleepy town that bordered the rainforests and beaches of the western Washington peninsula was world-famous, with tourists going out of their way to get there.

The streets weren’t well-kept. There were a dozen shops, all with low quality materials, selling various things, and all of them marketing kitschy Twilight materials. Books, posters, themed snacks. A local bus said it did Twilight tours. I didn’t stay long, and instead headed west, through Port Angeles and on toward the coast.

My companion, Xhu, and I made idle chat as I headed westward, toward the Olympic National Forest. We had been talking the entire day, through our stop for lunch in the adorable town of Sequim and during the drive. Xhu was charming and incredibly handsome. A first generation American born to Chinese immigrants, he had settled in Seattle years before into a lucrative job that he loved, and he’d purchased his home just a few years later. He’d carved out a comfortable existence here, with a great group of friends and a happy stable life.

Xhu and I had met on Tinder just one month before. After chatting for a few days, we met up for coffee, and he was even more handsome in person. He had a thick jaw and kind eyes, a muscular torso and strong legs. He was a runner, and he wore glasses that he would take off and play with while he was talking, and then put them back on. I was attracted to him right away, and he to me, yet he knew I had already turned in my resignation at the job I hated and that I was planning on returning to Utah in April. He knew, but wanted to spend time with me anyway. Our chemistry was palpable, and after just a few weeks I started spending the night at his place a few days per week. We cuddled on the couch and watched movies, walked to the pub for drinks, and had a wonderful sexual connection. In just one month, we’d fallen into a comfortable routine of dating. It felt like the first thing that could last for me, something that could represent some permanency for me in Seattle. But our meeting had come after I’d already made the decision to return home. Maybe that was why it was working, because we both knew it was temporary. Regardless, for now, it felt amazing to have him at my side. I reached over and took his hand as I drove.

We headed through the gorgeous trees and tiny towns, into La Push, yet another location in the Twilight novels. But in this case, the books did the place justice. The blue waves hit the rocky beaches as giant outcroppings of black rock dotted the landscape. The elevation, the smell of sea air, the strong breeze, the rolling landscape, the dense greens and the rich browns. It arrested my entire being. Zhu leaned into me and we stood there endlessly, indifferent to time as I pushed my eyes out and over the horizon.

Another 90 minutes later, we took a long hike together through a path in the Hoh Rainforest. Large trees were draped in moss with jagged branches stretching toward the sky and in every direction. The trunks twisted bizarrely, some of them in zig-zags. In some places, I couldn’t see the sky through the canopies of trees. Zhu excused himself for time, and I took in the extreme beauty of the world around me, knowing it was all so fragile, so temporary, or at least my place in it was. I felt tears roll down my cheeks as I thought of the ocean nearby and of my sons in a desert without me a few hundred miles to the south and east.

And then the magical day was over, and it was time to drive the few hours back to Seattle. I realized I would very likely never make it back to this peninsula, though I would surely be in Seattle again. Zhu fell asleep and I contemplated my time here, these short four and a half months since I had been away from home. I thought of my time remaining and what faced me when I returned to Utah. I wondered how differently things might have turned out if Zhu and I had met sooner, and what my life might have been like had I stayed. I wondered at the circumstances that had led me here in the first place. I thought of my friends in Utah, the depression I had had before I left, and the mediocre misadventures I’d had in this beautiful place.

There had been a shift in me in the past months. The storms within me had quieted. I found peace easier now. The depression was gone. I found myself less angry about past pains, and less in a hurry to arrive at destinations. I missed my children so much at it ached deeply within me. I’d seen Seattle as some strange and easy path to happiness, and instead I was leaving the city with resolve. I had goals in mind now, big things that I wanted to accomplish, and I was beginning to believe that I was capable.

I had a few sights left to see, a few more weeks at work, and then I’d be packing up. I’d be returning home to my children, to my friends, to my heart space. And I was taking me with me. I realized as I drove that that was perhaps the greatest lesson I had learned in my great move here.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Seattle Part 2: “Don’t Go, Daddy.”

September, 2014

Before I left Salt Lake City, I sold most everything. I put out furniture adds on Craigslist, and people paid small amounts of cash as they picked up the items one by one. The kitchen table and chairs, the couches, the beds. I’d built this little home in this small apartment for my children and I over the past few years, and now I was ready to leave it all behind in order to take a great chance on myself.

What I couldn’t sell, I either gave away, or gave to friends for safe-keeping. I was tired of moving, and little things didn’t matter all that much anymore. The boxes of comic books I’d been keeping since I was in high school, I gave to a former student to sell or give away. My kitchen dishes went to the local thrift store. I boiled it all down to non-essentials, giving the remainder of my children’s toys and clothes to their mother to hold on to. And when I was all done, I packed my few remaining items in my car: clothes, blankets, pictures, toiletries, a few electronics (including my television). It was enough to fill the car up, but overall, it wasn’t much at all. A human life in those few boxes. It all fit in a small four door car.

I felt miniscule. And free.

And then came the goodbyes. My best friend Kurt hosted a goodbye party, and I invited many of the friends I’d made in Salt Lake City. Friends from the gay swim team, friends from the support group of local gay fathers, and a few of the guys I dated who had remained friends. We ate barbecued food in Kurt’s beautiful backyard, sat in the shade and shared drinks and memories. It was the perfect conclusion to a dramatic and wonderful chapter in my life. Utah had brought so much joy and freedom, and so many harsh life lessons after coming out.

Saying goodbye to my sons was harder than I ever thought it would be. Of course it was. They were five and two, such amazing, inquisitive, happy little creatures. The thought of not seeing them every day broke me into pieces on the inside. How could I be doing this? But I reminded myself that the quality of my connection to them, even from far away, could remain with a lot of effort and consistency. I owed it to myself to try this, to take a big risk for me. Best case scenario, I told myself, I became deliriously happy and spent a lot of time coming back and forth to see them, with them coming up on holidays and in the summertime. Worst case scenario, I spent a few months in Seattle, realized I was unhappy, and came back, and my kids grew up remembering that I was only gone for a while once when they were very small. My decision felt selfish, but it also felt doable, liberating. I was allowed to do something for me.

When I sat down to tell the boys, I made the news happy, despite my broken heart. I showed them pictures of beautiful Seattle, and talked about going to have some adventures there. We talked about the animals that lived there, and the ocean, and I shared some of my plans to send them letters and to call every night. I’d be back to see them every month, I explained, and we would keep having dad and son adventures. My voice had forced enthusiasm, joy, and wonder in it. We spent that last evening before I left playing together, building a blanket fort and having a dance party while singing silly songs. We looked at family pictures, colored, and ate their favorite foods. Then, I put them in their pajamas, snuggled up to them, and sang lullabies. It was our typical magical evening together.

And then J, my magical little five-year old, gave me a huge hug. He spoke only three words. There was no drama in his voice, no need, no pain, no hurt. Just three, simple, matter-of-fact words during a brief squeeze. Words that would haunt me to no end in the coming weeks.

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

Driving to Seattle would take an entire day. I had a few hundred dollars in my bank account, a couple of credit cards, and a job waiting for me once I got there. A couple of tanks of gas, some music, and a few pit stops, and I would be there, exhausted and ready to start life again.

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

A few hours outside of Utah, I had to pull the car over. My tears started small and silent, then they grew in size and intensity. I had to get out of the car at the rest stop, and sit in the grass to cry more. It was early morning and I didn’t see anyone else there. My cries turned to gasps, and then to choking sobs. “Don’t go, Daddy.”

I cried until I was done crying, then I climbed back in the car, turning toward Seattle. I spoke aloud to my sons, from far away.

“I’m not leaving you. I would never leave you. I’m here. I’m here, and I’m going to find me. I’m not leaving like my dad left. I’m going to be here. I need to find me! I need to find my happy so I can be a better dad for you! I’m going to be here, right here, for you both, for your whole lives! You’ll see. You’ll see, buddies. You’ll both see. I’m gonna be the best dad ever. And I’ll be back here, right with you, in just four weeks, I’ve already got the plane tickets. I’ll be right back here. I’m coming back!”

And as tears rolled down my face anew, the sense of hope returned. I rolled the windows down and drove forward. My sons behind me, yet right there in my heart. Now I needed to find space for me there, too.

Your Villain

villain

“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”