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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Seattle Part 3: Lake Washington

Everyone warned me about the rain in Seattle. They spoke of it with such drama in their voices, telling me how it would be so depressing, wet, and cold there constantly. One friend warned me that people get suicidal in the winter there.

Me, though, I loved the weather there. The temperature there seemed to hover between 60 and 70 in September when I arrived, and when it rained it was a light, wet, drizzle. It was sometimes grey with clouds, and sometimes bright, delicious with sunshine and a light breeze. Every day felt like how I felt on the inside, or how I was working to feel: temperate, consistent, pleasant, calm.

I rented a bedroom in my step-brother’s condo. I hadn’t seen him in years. When I was 13, Bob had been married with children, and when he came out of the closet, my family reacted very poorly. My mother was married to his father back then, though they didn’t stay that way for long. Now I was in my mid-30s, and we had only recently established contact again. He lived in a lovely condo in the Madison Beach area of Seattle, nestled in between expensive homes on the beautiful edges of Lake Washington.

The beaches along the lake were grass, not sand, and I never once got in the water, but I grew to love watching the sun rise and set over the lake. The clouds moved languidly, and broke open to let sunshine spill through. In the early mornings, I could clutch my coffee and drink in the bright pinks and yellows of the rising sun. It filled my soul with hope, joy, and love. It felt like the God I should have grown up believing in, one full of opportunity, change, and love, constant every day. It was different every time, nature’s perfect show, there just for me.

My first week in Seattle, I walked along the edges of the lake, through unfamiliar neighborhoods, nestled on unfamiliar streets. Everyone was a stranger here. I could start fresh. No one knew me. I wasn’t the Mormon kid who made the colossal mistake of marrying and having children before coming out, I was just some guy that smiled and waved as they walked past. I had an anonymity that proved to be the perfect backdrop for the beginnings of my healing.

Years before, I had come out of the closet with such a fierce determination. I was going to live life on my terms, finally. I was going to show everyone what I was capable of, that I could be happy, that being gay wasn’t a choice, and one that didn’t have to result in doom, excommunication, and unhappiness. I could be happy! I could show them all! I could work, and write, and raise my kids, and pay my bills, and date, and start a new life, with energy, happiness, and no problems at all! I could do this! It would be perfect and wonderful, they would all see! That’s how I’d felt at the start.

But in Seattle, I let myself grieve, finally. I let myself feel all the things I had been holding back. I cried, oh how I cried. I cried in the sunshine, I cried in the rain. The tears were soft and silent sometimes, with easy breath, and they brought a calm. But sometimes they were jagged and came from that deep place within me where I had been storing them for so long, a bottomless bucket of painful tears that threatened to rip me open as I gasped for breath. At times, I cried so hard that my head ached and my stomach seized up, and I would sit on the park bench, facing the lake, as I clutched my stomach and squished my face up into painful shapes to try and avoid wailing out loud.

I cried with ache for missing my sons. I cried for all of my lost years. I cried because I hadn’t gotten to fall in love as a teenager, because I had wasted two years as a Mormon missionary, because I had spent nearly 20 years feeling lonely and isolated. I cried because my father left, because my God had forgotten me, because I had given so much time and love and money and obedience to an organization that told me I didn’t belong. I cried over those who disowned me when I came out. I cried over my divorce and the broken heart of my ex-wife. I cried because I had thought coming out would be easier, that I would find love and settle down and life would finally be simple, and I cried because it was the opposite of that in many ways. I cried over financial debts, emotional burdens, and family traumas. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

Yet each time I cried, I noticed that the clouds over the lake continued to move. The water continued to ripple, and the wind continued to blow. The sun went down, and it came up, whether I was crying or not. The world continued, indifferent to my tears, and I realized I didn’t have to continue crying. I could; I could cry as much as I needed to. But I could also not cry, I could be happy, I could spend the days living instead of crying, and that would be okay too.

And each time I cried, I would stop crying, at least for a while. And I would stand up, and I would walk the lake edge. I would hold myself together and stand up, and live. Once the tears weren’t there, the pieces of me that held me together, they were still there. I was still me. And I was starting to heal.

Gradually, along the edges of that lake, my tears began to leave, and my grieving started to end. It remained part of me, as it always would, but I found that I was okay with that.

Each day brought new determination, a quieter one this time. Each day brought peace.

And over the lake, the sun would rise yet again. As would I.

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

Holding Vigil

The word Vigil is defined as “a period of keeping awake… to keep watch or pray.”

Monday morning, I rolled over at 5 am and picked up my phone to check the time. A small box on my phone lit up with a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas the night before, and I instantly became aware. This wasn’t a shooting in some far away place that I’d never been, this was Las Vegas, a place that had once been afar away home for me.

After my parent’s divorce, my dad had moved to Vegas, and I had a sister who still lived there now with her children. I’d spent many summers there as a teenager, seeing shows on the strip and swimming in pools. As an adult, I’ve visited Vegas dozens of times. My first relationship with a man had been long distance with a guy in Vegas. I could easily picture the crowded casinos, filled with exhausted tourists from every corner of the country all there to celebrate some birthday or new job or anniversary, all hoping for debauchery through alcohol, gambling, shows, food, and sex, all escaping life and hoping to leave it all behind when they left.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the slogan says.

And not, a mass shooting, something no one could ever escape from again. This wasn’t something that could be left there.

As I scanned through the details of the story, I began seeing social media posts about this being the “worst mass shooting in modern American history” and numbers were beginning to show that dozens were killed and hundreds injured. And then the opinions started showing up on Facebook and Twitter.

“If they had been keeping the Sabbath Day holy, those people wouldn’t have died.”

“This is what happens when we elect a misogynistic bigot like Trump and expect him to lead us!”

“Another left-wing conspiracy, another fake shooting, more Fake News for people to use in their agendas, just like Sandy Hook!”

“I blame Hillary Clinton for this! If she hadn’t divided this country like she did, things like this wouldn’t happen!”

“I can’t wait for the news to start blaming gun control laws and racism for this. Political correctness is what is wrong with our country!”

It took me a few hours to give voice to my feelings. As I went about my day, news stories kept flashing on my phone, nearly all of them about the killer. Who he was, where he came from, what was known about him, how many guns he had, what his relationships were like, who his father was, what his motives were, what his habits were. One article talked about his love of country music and gambling. And I knew the public was just eating it up, feeling titillated by the details of the life of this man who had just become one of the greatest mass murderers in American history.

But my mind went to the reality of the event itself. I’ve been to Mandalay Bay for shows and to the Aquarium, and I’ve walked the area outside of it. A bright flashy country music festival, in its third day of production. A large stage and a crowd of thirty thousand fans, all there to celebrate life and escape. They were drinking and dancing, sleeping, texting, taking photos and posting them on line, sending texts to their loved ones. And then, suddenly, gunfire. At first everyone held still and the music continued, people thinking it was electric sounds or perhaps fireworks. But as hundreds of rounds of ammunition rained down on the crowd, bullets hit targets. They flew through cowboy hats and lodged in heads and necks and chests and arms and backs and legs. And then the screaming and the running started.

For (approximately) 15 minutes, the gunfire continued. Loved ones made critical decisions to leave wounded spouses and friends behind, they scrambled to call for help and to search for missing loved ones, they launched themselves over barriers and fences to safety, they lay on the ground trying not to attract notice. They screamed, their adrenaline surged, and they texted frantic messages to people back home, not knowing if they would live or die.

As a therapist who does crisis work, I pictured talking to any one of these thousands of people later on. They would share their confusion, locked in time with the sights and sounds and images of what they witnessed, in shock and unable to get it out of their brains. Those images will stay with them for the rest of their lives, altering them forever. Tens of thousands of people, who will never again escape the feeling of what it is like to sit there helplessly as those around them are being slaughtered, a sensation generally on military veterans learn to live with.

And many were altered even more. Husbands lost wives. Wives lost husbands. A man shielded his wife from gunfire and she held his hand as she died. A cop protected someone else and yelled at his wife to run to safety, only to later learn she’d been killed. Back home, parents and kids and siblings, neighbors and co-workers and friends, began getting the news that someone they loved, who they had just seen, had been violently murdered, and for all of them, they would never be the same.

These victims, the ones who were wounded and the ones who were killed, they are real people. Teachers, veterans, police officers, students, hairdressers. They have loves and lives, homes, jobs, hopes and dreams. And in a blast of gunfire and blood, they were taken.

And somehow, unless you knew one of the victims directly, the public only wanted to know about the assassin, and to rage about their politics, and that part, that made me hurt and angry beyond belief.

So I decided to hold vigil. Instead of turning off the news because it was too painful, instead of getting lost in the psychology of a madman and mass murderer, instead of ranting about the poor morals of elected officials, instead of expressing outrage over what some celebrity did or didn’t say, I chose to remember the victims.

For two full days, I searched for names and identities. I found photos and locations. I began posting photos with brief descriptions of each person who was killed. These are the ones who deserve to be remembered, just like the victims from the Pulse shooting and from Sandy Hook and Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine. These are the lives that must remembered.

And once I set aside my outrage and replaced it with grieving, once I addressed my pain and fear and gave it voice, I realized I could start to heal, and I could start to decide what to do with this.

In today’s news cycles, we are assaulted with a barrage of things to be afraid of and outraged over, and even the biggest stories tend to cycle through every couple of days. We are no longer talking about the hurricane in Puerto Rico, yet the people there are still struggling to recovery. And by tomorrow, we will no longer be talking about Vegas, instead just shrugging it off as another shooting in a country that can’t seem to stop having mass shootings. And then we will be caught up in our outrage over the next story.

And while we constantly move forward to the next news story, there are events from the past that we still can’t escape from. This country hasn’t healed from the assassinations of JFK, or Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk, or Abraham Lincoln. We haven’t moved past 9/11, or Watergate, or McCarthyism, or Wounded Knee, or Pearl Harbor, or slavery. Will this be remembered as a time of change, or another forgotten news story?

Because for these families and victims, who will never recover, this isn’t something that can be forgotten. And what happens next time when it is my family, or yours, who is impacted?

How do we take these lessons, and how do we make change?

Those are questions that I need to answer for myself tomorrow. But today, today I grieve.

Vegas

 

 

 

 

the day Chad died

Word spread quickly the day Chad died.

To tell the truth, I’d barely known him, although we had been in both junior high and high school together. We were in different crowds. I had friends back then, but I was one of the quieter kids ins school, still learning to develop my confidence. My social group consisted more of the ‘outcasts’, we seemed to collect a bunch of kids who didn’t really belong anywhere else, and I was the unofficial activity planner, getting all of the friends together frequently.

The other Chad, he was blonde and skinny and obnoxious. He played constant pranks and made fart noises in the hallways and was always taunting girls in class. He wasn’t a bad guy, not one of the jerks. He was more on the edge of the cool crowd, sort of like the popular click’s class clown in a way. He was funny, cute, and nice. But although we were both named Chad, we hadn’t interacted much over the years.

My high school in southern Idaho seemed to be comprised of mostly Mormon kids. Across the street from the school was the Seminary building. Each Mormon student took a full class period during school each day to go to Seminary and be instructed in church doctrine. And on a particular evening after school, the Seminary program had a class activity where Mormon students could gather to picnic and play games.

I didn’t go that night, but word spread quickly. Chad and a friend had driven a truck too quickly into the park, likely trying to show off, and the truck tires caught the gravel wrong, and the truck flipped over. And Chad died, just like that.

I remember being shocked that night by the abrupt ending of a life, one so young. It was an absolute tragedy. I remember getting together with some of my friends and sharing stories of the last time we had seen Chad, telling stories of jokes he’d told or obnoxious things he’d done. It was a haunting feeling.

In a dinner table conversation with my mother and step-father that night, we’d discussed the Mormon belief structure, that God calls souls home when he is ready for them, that Chad’s spirit would be in the spirit paradise dwelling with other loved ones until the time for the resurrection and judgement and then Chad would likely go to Heaven. He’d see his family again and he’d get a body again. I took comfort in knowing what would come next, but I was also confused and sad.

The real grief didn’t hit until the following Monday morning. I’d arrived at school early, like usual, and a group of girls sitting inside the building looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost.

One of the girls stood up, a look of horror on her face that was quickly replaced by joy. “Chad Anderson! I heard you were dead! You’re alive!”

She hugged me tightly as I felt my heart sink. I pulled away from her. “It–no, it wasn’t me. It was the other Chad. Chad Johnson.”

And the girl sank back to the floor, a new wave of tears on her cheeks.

That moment repeated itself a dozen times throughout the day, and it was painful every time. “Chad, you’re alive!” and “Chad, I’m so glad it wasn’t you!” and even one accusatory “You shouldn’t have let people think it was you, that’s cruel”.

In class that morning, a literature course that Chad had also been in, one girl burst out crying and run from the class. In Seminary class that day, the lesson had been focused on the loss of Chad and everyone was in tears. Later that day, a special testimony meeting was held in Chad’s honor, and people got up to share their thoughts and feelings, expressing gratitude for the love of God and the joy they felt even in their pain knowing that Chad had gone home with God again.

For me, Chad’s death was surreal. The only other person close to me that I’d lost before was my stepfather’s sister, Wilma, and she’d been an old woman after a long life. I didn’t know how to comprehend someone so young being gone so suddenly.

At lunch, I heard passing comments, as people tried to find some reason in the unreasonable.

“He shouldn’t have been driving so fast.”

“You know, everyone is acting like he was such a great guy, but I thought he was a jerk.”

“He was the best person I have ever known!”

“I guess it was just his time.”

“God needed him more than we did.”

I didn’t go to Chad’s funeral. I’ve never been to his grave. It’s been over 20 years since he died. He likely would have gone on to serve a Mormon mission, go to college, get married in the temple, and have children, just like we all did. I knew very little of the world beyond our small Idaho town, and there seemed to be only one future plan for all of us at that time. And truthfully, like most everyone else from high school, I probably would have never seen Chad again regardless, except perhaps through some social media photo from time to time.

But as I write this all these years later, now as a professional who frequently helps those impacted by tragedy, including losing a loved one suddenly, my mind moves back to Chad from time to time. I think of how easily his death could have been averted. I think of the community and school that grieved his loss. I think of how horrible I felt when people had thought it was me who was gone. And while I still can’t make sense of it all, I’m glad to be alive.

And I remember.

On your wedding day…

 

Hey Kurt,

You were supposed to get married this Saturday. I was texting Elias, and he reminded me that this Saturday was the big day. Or it was supposed to be.

When you first told me you were finally engaged, I remember sitting back and day-dreaming about what this day would look like. I know you had different plans for the actual event, but this is the way I remember imagining it:

Your yard would be immaculate, full of flowers and trees, benches you made with your own hands adorning the edges of the yard. It would have been the perfect sunny day, cool and warm all at once, with shade for your guests. The rows of chairs would be filled with your loved ones: your sons, your stepdaughters, your mom, your coworkers, your best friends. I would have been sitting there on the front row in a suit with a flower on my lapel, and brimming with pride and joy for you. I’m sure I would have been crying, much like I’m crying now.

I envisioned strings, playing beautiful music and welcoming you and Elias as you walked down the aisle hand in hand, both incredible fit and trim and sharp in your suits, all your hard work at the gym having paid off. I know how you would have looked at each other, in the eyes, hand in hand, as you recited your vows, and pledged love to each other for the rest of your lives. I remember how you looked at each other.

It’s hard having you gone, my friend. Your presence just loomed so largely in my life, and so consistently, that I don’t know if I would have been able to predict it would be like without you.

Elias and I text sometimes. We remember you. We think about what you would have wanted for us, in our own ways, after you were gone. We’ve met up a few times to talk and share, but most of the conversation comes back to how we miss you. He’s healing. He’s hurting a lot, but healing. Staying busy with work and friends, planning his future as best he can. And I think all of us who miss you are much the same, in lesser degrees.

I just sit back sometimes and think about how abrupt it was that you left us. You had unfinished wood working projects, new accounts coming in at work, yard work and wedding plans and a bachelor party and a honeymoon all coming up. All the hikes you went on, all the ground you walked upon. And all those miles we traveled together, all of our road trips and long conversations. You know that section on Facebook, where it shows you all of your memories on the same calendar date over the past several years? You come up on my feed nearly every day. So many memories, Kurt! Moab and Denver and Mexico and Vegas and San Diego. Coffee catch-ups and house parties and nightclubs and lunches and hikes. It’s almost ridiculous to realize that you were not only my best friend, you were my primary support system. If someone asked me to list a next of kin or an emergency contact, I would have given your name, and you would have shown up when they called.

I miss you, my friend, but that’s easy to tell. I’m doing well enough, staying social and busy and engaged. I’ve traveled a bit lately, to Seattle and to Island Park; you and I would have texted constantly during both of those trips, and I found myself wanting to tell you things and you would have made me laugh.

Despite all that, I’ve been a little more withdrawn lately. I find myself expecting less of people, staying quiet for longer periods of time. I’ve spent more time solo, and more time quiet when I’m around others. And that’s okay, at least for now. I think it’s a pretty healthy way to process grief overall. But I know you, too. If you were here, you’d show up and you’d be worried about me.

I keep getting little snapshots of you throughout my days. The birthday party you threw me, where you made everyone there go around in a circle and tell their favorite stories about me. The going away party you had for me when I moved to Seattle and how you always gave me a place to stay when I came back to visit. How you always, always answered me and showed up anytime I needed you, like the time you helped me assemble bunk beds for my kids and the time you picked me up when my car broke down. These memories and a thousand thousand more.

God damn it, I miss you, my friend.

This Saturday, I’ll with my sons, but I know it’s going to be a tough one. It was supposed to be your day. Elias is going to ascend a mountain in your honor that day. I’m not sure how I’ll honor you yet, but I want you to know that you’ll be on my mind. I’m working on a book right now. (You were always telling me to write a book). When I finish it, if I finish it, you will very likely be the one I dedicate it to.

I’ve told you this a lot of times already, but  I just want you to know that you changed my life. I still hear your voice of reason, your laugh, your sage advice.

I help people grieve for a living, so I know it’s a process. I’m getting there. The people who mean the most take the longest to get over. And you’re gonna take a long time.

I love you, my friend. And I miss you.

Chad

Kurt10

 

 

Numb

numb

 

It’s been a painful and very strange week. One of those weeks where I spent a lot of time glued to social media, unbidden, because that is how we experience the news lately. The events in Orlando impacted me on a profound and painful level. I was outraged and the selfish and bigoted Tweets sent out by calloused politicians, I was horrified by the stories of the victims whose lives were cut short right in the middle of living, I was saddened and exhausted by the long painful rants and speeches by friends who were in pain.
My kids weren’t with me this week. I think that would have helped. They approach the world with sheer joy and wonder. But they were camping with their mom, out of reach even by phone, leaving me to my own devices.
And the stories of the survivors coming out now, their wounds beginning to heal but their hearts far from it. Working as a counselor and spending time absorbing the pain of others as they process through their own struggles and feelings, many of them related to Orlando as well.
And now it is Friday morning and I sat down to write, something that always helps me sort out how I’m feeling. I searched my brain for topics to write about, stories I want to tell. I have a long list in my brain. But after several minutes of staring at a blinking cursor on the keyboard, I realized this was the story, typing about the general realization that I’m numb. And tired. But mostly numb.
There has been a tremendous amount of joy this week. I attended a local vigil in tribute to Orlando and hugged dozens of friends who were grieving with me. I had meaningful conversations over coffee with a few friends. I made major progress on a book project that I’m working on. I exercised and felt confident. I saw outpourings of kindness from strangers over social media who were loving and supportive.
Numbness is a natural state for me after days of feeling too much. My body just reacts with numb after a while. It’s that feeling where you can’t quite sleep and you can’t quite sit still and you can’t quite find the motivation to do anything, where you roll with the punches of your day: gym, coffee, do the dishes, fold the laundry, one foot in front of the other. I’ve been eating nutritious foods and soaking in sunlight and drinking water and doing all of the right things but it is still taking its time, and taking its toll.
Tomorrow the sun comes up. I’ll be with my kids again and we wiill play in the park and sing songs and draw pictures. We will go on treasure hunts and tell stories and count bugs on the sidewalk. They are my greatest salve and balm and remedy.
I see the good and wonderful and bright in my life more clearly than ever. I embrace slow and steady positive change over time. I measure myself where I am against where I was and I just keep climbing. It is a beautiful world. It is. Despite terrible and painful things at times, it is a world of incredible beauty and love.
I’m better at taking care of myself these days, letting myself be numb for a bit and letting myself find joy, setting boundaries where I need to, prioritizing my insides before I can do that for others.
At this point, it is impossible to tell what the long-term impacts of Orlando will be, but I believe that they will be positive ones politically, that gun control laws will change, that politicians will stop conceding to the NRA, that LGBT people will be better understood and more widely embraced. For me, I’m not sure what I’ll learn yet, but I’ll come out of all of this changed, altered a bit, more aware of both the darkness and the love that exist in the world.
But first, I write.

Reconciling God

God.jpgMy thoughts have turned to God lately.

Everyone has their own individual experience of God in their lives.

To some, he is an ever present listener, hearing consistent loving petitions about problems, struggles, and hopes, granting blessings when he sees fit, when he sees it best for the person praying.

To some, he is a great punisher, delving out vengeance to enemies and sinners, punishing with swift and mighty judgment.

To some, he is absent, sitting on high, having forgotten Earth, leaving man to his wars and violence, illnesses and vulnerability.

To some, he is a father, loving, forgiving, giving sound advice with a strong arm and a soft heart.

He can fill any role for any person. He’s God.

And in truth, he is all of those things, a collective being with billions of children who each see him differently. He is constant only in that he is unknowable. And while hey may or may not exist in physical form, he exists powerfully on Earth in the hearts and minds of the humans. His name is the most used name. He’s in nearly every text, tome, and poem. He influences every relationship and interaction. He wields the passing of laws and the execution of justice. He sets morals and guidelines. He gives and he takes.

In my experience, in my small and humble station, God loomed large, a product of my own consciousness and mortality. A being of contradictions who gave directions like “be perfect, even though you can never be perfect” and “repent constantly for forgiveness, even though you are a sinner just for being born.” My view of God was so often influenced by the words of white older men who I considered inspired, men who had a specific plan for me, and that plan did not involve being gay.

And that rift within my view of God became a rift within myself, one that lasted decades. The idea that God created me, innocent and without blemish, and yet he didn’t create gay people; he loved me, but he didn’t want me to sin, but I had to sin and I needed to ask forgiveness but even if I didn’t he loved me he was just disappointed and I should feel bad but not so bad that I would grow distant from him because that would be a sin too and I would need to repent because I was perfect just as I was and I also needed to change that for him. I saw myself as perfect, and broken; desperate for a cure for homosexuality, but selfish for wanting a cure and even more selfish for not wanting one. It was an impossible space to dwell within, as impossible to define or comprehend as God himself.

I learned to live outside myself, which is ironic because that is also where God dwelled, outside myself, a great collective, made up of my experience of him and the experiences of every other person who ever lived.

My best friend recently died. It was abrupt, sudden. He was there, and then he wasn’t. I can still feel him sometimes. He once sat in that chair, he once occupied that space, his laughter once filled my ears, he once hugged me tight, he once cared with his whole heart. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

And that, it dawns on me, is how I now see God. I no longer believe in a tangible, defined God whose traits are classified by older men I have never met. I see him where he touched me, where he forgot me, where he denied me, where he made false promises, where he gave me comfort and where he took it away. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

I don’t pray any longer. I don’t address God aloud or even silently. But I experience him still. He influences me and he influences the world around me. He is the very essence of my origins, the very concept of my early developing sense of self.

He’s there, and he isn’t.

And I’m here, until I’m not.

the Death Desk

On the day my best friend died, his family was hundreds of miles away. His fiancee, Elias, was upstairs in a hospital bed with a bruised liver, a broken nose, a concussion, and Kurt had no next-of-kin in the hospital.

It took us a long time to sort out what happened, and I’m still not sure we have all the details. There was a minor accident on a windy road on a Sunday afternoon. Kurt had been driving, and he was a good driver. We still don’t know what happened. The car went off the road and stopped in a ditch, the airbags deployed, and cars stopped to get help. The ambulances came and rushed both men to the hospital. And when they arrived, Kurt was pronounced dead. As I understand it now, the impact of the seatbelt triggered some internal bleeding and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to make a difference. Kurt died peacefully they told me.

But that Sunday of the accident, no one knew what was going on. The hallways were full of Kurt and Elias’s loved ones, mostly friends, who were all waiting to hear what had happened. I tried asking a few of the nurses on the hospital floor, but they really didn’t have any idea. One nurse acted like she knew things, telling me that Kurt was actually still alive on another floor before realizing she had mixed her cases up. But Kurt didn’t have anyone with him and I wanted to see him if I could.

I was instructed to walk down to the morgue, several floors lower. It was a Sunday afternoon and although the hospital was busy, it was much quieter than it would be during business hours. Kurt was down there by himself, and his parents, siblings, and children were all several hundred miles away.

I was directed to an isolated door in a lonely hallway, where a sign told me to push a bell and wait. For some strange reason, I thought of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends approach the Emerald City and ring the doorbell, the man in green with the long red whiskers leaning through the door to deny them admittance. I laughed to myself, knowing Kurt would love that association right now.

OZ

A kind social worker came to the door. She’d probably been back there watching YouTube videos on her phone or perhaps playing Solitaire. I quietly explained that my best friend had been killed in a car accident just a few hours before and I wondered where he was, if there was a report on what had happened, and if I might see him.

The woman closed the door while she looked into the case, and was gone for just a few minutes. She came back and looked sad. “Kurt’s body was here just a few minutes ago, but the medical examiner took him to another building for examination. Although they probably won’t work on him until tomorrow, he will stay there tonight, and there isn’t any way for you to get in to see him. It’s against state law. Immediate family could have seen him here, but we were told they wouldn’t arrive for a few days. You might have been able to see him before, but probably not since you aren’t direct kin. I’m so sorry.”

I clutched my hands nervously, fighting back a wave of grief. “Is there someone I could instruct the family to call to ask questions?”

She nodded, placing a consoling hand on my arm. “Of course. Just have them call the Death Desk.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Pardon?”

She smiled, awkward. “I forget how weird that is, but that’s what we call it. The Death Desk. There is a really nice woman who works there during business hours. It’s her job to answer questions to family members. There is a weekend helper as well, but they might want to wait for the main woman to get back tomorrow. She’s really good.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “The Death Desk? You couldn’t call it the Information Desk, or the Family Resource Line, or the Bereavement Department… you call it the Death Desk? That’s terrible!”

She shrugged. “Yeah, that’s just what they call it. Look, I don’t mean to overstep my bounds, but do you need a hug?”

I walked away from the isolated morgue door and walked down the hall, bewildered and amused somehow. The Death Desk, honestly. I had a sticky note in my house with the words “Death Desk” followed by a phone number for the family to call.

I stopped in the hallway, reflecting on the massive loss in my life without Kurt in it. We texted constantly. I would have pulled out my phone right now and sent him this story and he would have laughed in that fantastic full body laugh of his, and said something witty in response. God, but this loss was staggering.

I sat down in the quiet hallway, flourescent lights buzzing over my head, and just breathed for a minute. I wondered where Kurt was now. Not his body, but Kurt, all the things that made him him. His brashness, his laughter, his directness, his passion for life. Growing up Mormon, I believed in an afterlife, a continuation of the spirit into a Heavenly existence surrounded by love. And despite the loss of my faith, I tend to still lean that direction in my thoughts. The soul is energy and energy transforms to new forms, it doesn’t just expire. Water freezes or evaporates, but it continues to exist in some form. Kurt, he must be out there, somewhere, in some capacity, all his amazingness present.

Perhaps he stood at the bedside of Elias, perhaps he was checking on his sons, perhaps he was on his favorite mountaintop looking at the expanses of Earth around him, perhaps he stood next to me in this very hallway laughing with me about the inanity of a Death Desk.

Eulogy for Kurt

This is a copy of my eulogy for Kurt at his memorial service last night:

“This is an informal event, but I write better than I speak, so I have written my words down tonight.

My name is Chad. After years of trying to cure my homosexuality by being an active Mormon, I came out of the closet just over 5 years ago, and I moved to Salt Lake City as a newly single father of two sons, an ex-Mormon who was beginning to date and experience life for the first time at age 32.

As my family and friends went bonkers over these life transitions, I initially found support and understanding in a group of gay fathers, all who had stories similar to mine. Among them was Kurt Peterson, another ex-Mormon father of 2 sons who came out later in life. I always enjoyed Kurt but it wasn’t for a few years that we started growing close. He read my story on my blog and we began talking, more and more, and within months we had become best friends, together often and constantly in contact. We must have sent a hundred thousand text messages to each other back and forth over the years.

We began traveling together–on hikes, to hot springs, to Denver and Moab and Seattle and San Diego and Las Vegas, and best of all, an epic cruise to Mexico. We could talk forever and never run out of things to say. People often assumed we were a couple, but it was never like that. Kurt and I were brothers.

I share of lot of myself in my writing, but people make the mistake of assuming they know me well. I’m a relatively private person. But Kurt knew everything about me. About my childhood, my family, my hopes and dreams and aspirations, my children, my exercise routine my habits, my daily life. And I knew the same things about him. We quite honestly never had a single fight. And God how we laughed together.

Kurt was a solution finder. He looked at any situation and found hope and happiness. He thought like a builder. He could see the parts and the tools and the process of creation and work on something until it was complete. That may be the greatest skill that he taught me.

Kurt was a very complicated person, but there are some simple truths about him. Kurt was blunt. He was bossy and straightforward. Kurt went out of his way to know the truth about a person. He might walk up to a stranger and, within sixty seconds, be asking them something uncomfortable like ‘why is it you are single?’ Kurt was generous. He was kind. He was funny. It took a lot to make Kurt angry, but when you did he let you know swiftly, then forgave you just  as quickly. Kurt was passionate. He had an ability to make each person he was speaking to feel like they were the only person in the room that mattered.

And Kurt had an incredible heart. He loved fully, in every part of his life. He loved nature, especially the plants of springs. He loved to dance. He loved history and knowledge. He loved his job. He loved people as individuals.

Kurt loved his sons, Zach and Ben, in a way that is difficult to comprehend, and with a capacity that can only be understood if you have children and love them in the way that he loved his. Kurt loved his origins in Iowa, his home and heritage, his mother and father, his siblings, his marriage to Victoria and his raising of their daughters Anna and Emily.

Over the years, I saw Kurt get his heart broken a few times, and he saw the same happen to me. We were there for each other. But in the last few years, something wonderful happened. He met Elias Rios, a Peruvian man two decades younger, a passionate dancer who loved Taylor Swift and gymnastics. It never should have worked, but over time, something happened. They fell in love, the kind of love you only see in fairy tales, hard and deep and fast. Kurt found the love and the life he had been looking for his entire life. Kurt and Elias–I joked and told them their celebrity couple name was Kurtias–They had something I can only hope to find some day.

The future was unfolding for Kurt, with everything he wanted and loved: his home, his yard, his career, his sons, and his soon-to-be husband. He was so blissfully happy.

And then, last Sunday, five days ago, my best friend, my brother, my favorite person…

he died.

And it hurts. He was so happy and had so much life left to live.

I could say a million things more, but I’ll conclude by speaking to Kurt. I have a feeling he’s right here with us tonight.

Kurt Peterson, look at what you’ve done. Look at this room full of people who love you. You’ve changed me, Kurt. You’ve changed all of us. You made me a better person. You saw something in me, and then you helped me see it for myself. And I think that maybe you did that for everyone you have ever come across. Look at this room full of people who love you.

I have a lot of beautiful friends, but you, sir, you were the best of the best. I will miss you fiercely and often for the rest of my days.

Thank you, Kurt Peterson, for changing my life.

Thank you, my truest friend. And goodbye.

KurtandElias