Return to Monett

Monett

“So this is where you grew up,” Maggie said as we walked up to the house.

“Yeah, this is where I grew up.” I was 28 years old, newly married, and going back to my childhood home for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Our home in Monett, Missouri was on a busy highway. It was white, a bit stark looking, with a nice covered porch in front. There was a bench on the porch, where, in my childhood, Mom and I would sit on it on long weekend afternoons, watching the massive thunderclouds slowly spread across the horizon in blues, greys, whites, and blacks, until the filled the horizon with resonant, concussive booms of thunder and flashing, dazzling, flickering, snake-tongued lightning. I turned my back to the house and looked at the sky that had brought me so much comfort as a child.

The house felt huge back then, but now, seeing it as a grown-up, it felt small and blocky. Still, my mother described it as her dream home. There was a small front yard, grassy with trees, and a larger backyard that we had framed in with a large brown wooden fence. The dogs had lived back there, Tippy, our friendly German Shephard, and Brittany. I remember my brother Kenny teasing the dogs, once getting them wet then lathering them up with the bizarre combination of dish soap and mustard, then laughing with his friends at the mess; my sister Marnae came home horrified at the dried clumpy messes and had to clean the dogs up herself. (One day, when I was in the 4th grade, Brittany would escape the yard and rush into the road, where she was hit by a large truck. I still remember her body looking like hamburger as we viewed it from the school bus window the following morning.)

A large group of my family members was visiting south-western Missouri on a family vacation, going to the places we had loved as children. As Maggie and I had walked through the city throughout the day, I had been startled by how everything felt the exact same. The playground equipment in the city park, the names of the businesses (Wal-Mart and Consumers), the sign on the local swimming pool (where my sister had once pushed me into the deep end and I thought I would drown), the Chinese restaurant across the street (Twin Dragon, where we would save up quarters as a kid to buy the Cashew Chicken lunch special to take home), and the homes along the neighborhood streets (where my sister had delivered newspapers every morning with her bike), it was all the same. The more I looked around, the more I was assaulted by memories of my past. It was disconcerting, overwhelming.

In the winter, our home could be buffeted by a crippling cold and ice. In perfect conditions, the ice would layer everything in a thin sheet, from the sidewalks and cars and roads to the individual boughs and branches of trees. The ice would layer the snow and freeze there. Upon waking up, we would watch the sun rise over the icy wonderland outside and reflect back at us, shining like crystal. The branches could break under the weight of the ice, snapping off, and the whole town would be shut down as driving was unsafe until the ice melted. Now, 17 years later, the trees were bare of branches, a recent ice storm having stripped them once again.

My family moved to Missouri from Idaho in the mid-1970s, and I had been born there in 1978. We’d stay until the school year ended in 1990, the summer when Mom packed up the U-Haul and drove us back to Idaho, leaving Dad behind to fend for himself, finally unable to stay in a marriage that had been broken for far too long. We had taken most of the furniture, leaving the family room and one bedroom set up, and Dad stayed a few years longer in that empty house, before selling everything and starting his life over, first in Salt Lake City, then in Las Vegas, where he would stay for years.

I felt cold as we walked up to the house. My family was huge, and far too talkative, and my insides felt jagged like broken glass and undigested food. As I clutched my wife’s hand, my mother and sisters knocked on the door of the home. When a woman answered, they told her that we had lived here years ago and we wondered if we might be able to walk through, and she’d surprisingly agreed. The women in my family rushed into the home, eager and excited, chattering about how different things looked, while I hung back a bit, hesitant.

Then I entered, boldly.

Maggie respected my silence as I walked through the house. Though my sisters and mother laughed and chattered, I felt like I was in a crypt. I surveyed the rooms slowly, quietly, memories from my childhood flashing in my brain. We passed through the living room (I saw six year old me setting an alarm clock for 5 am, waking up early to clean the room as a surprise for mom before she woke for the day), the dining room and kitchen (I saw nine people crammed around a full kitchen table, arguing and bickering, Kenny taking giant heaps of mashed potatoes on his plate while we all complained, Dad surveying the room with an angry look, Mom still preparing the food while we devoured it, she always being the last to eat), the family room (Saturday morning cartoons, me curled up on the couch starting at five am or sometimes four, eating sugary breakfast cereals with milk and pouring more and more cereal into the bowl until the milk was finally absorbed and my belly distended with too much food), and the garage (where I had kept the box turtle I’d found, naming him Sparky, until my sister let him go). We walked up the stairs (where we would line up on Christmas mornings in our new pajamas, not allowed to come down until 7 am and only after a family picture had been taken), my old bedroom (the one where the sexual abuse had taken place, where the door would be locked and I was told to be quiet so no one could hear), my sister’s room (where I would sit next to Marnae on her bed while she listened to Def Leppard and played the Legend of Zelda for untold hours, though I was never allowed to play), and my parent’s room (where I had believed ghosts lived in the closet for half a decade and I refused to go in).

This was my childhood. This home, where I spent the first decade, plus a little more, of my life. My genesis was in this home. My experiences here shaped everything that came afterward.

Maggie clutched my hand tightly. “Are you okay?”

I could hear my sisters laughing, reminiscing about Prom dates, visits from Grandma, Sunday dinners with the local Mormon missionaries, and family walks to the Mormon church just down the block from our house.

“I–I think I’m okay,” I smiled, a bit weak. I felt empty and nervous. So many things had happened here. This was the very source of my happiness, and yet the place where it had all fallen apart. We walked out front and I breathed deep, watching the horizon, remembering the thunderstorms again.

“Hey, let’s walk down to the church!” someone yelled, and I followed behind, clutching Maggie’s hand tightly and letting the memories fall over me again.

We walked down the road, past the Chinese place, and arrived at the warehouse in minutes. It was a small building, a normal Mormon warehouse, like the ones that sat on practically every city block in Utah and Idaho towns out west. Brick building, a parking lot, no cross or crucifix on the top, a sign that read “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Visitors Welcome” sitting next to the door.

Being Mormon in Missouri had been strange. Later, when I went to junior high and high school in Idaho, I was part of a majority of students with over 60 per cent of the over all student population being affiliated with the church. But out here, we were part of a vast minority. Mormons from several different cities gathered for worship services in this particular church, some driving an hour on Sundays to get here, and so far as I knew I was the only Mormon kid in my school.

This little ward house, this church across the street, framed my entire family’s social lives growing up, though. We were the members who lived the closest. We had the missionaries over constantly, in their white shirts and ties. We attended meetings on Sundays in three hour blocks. I sang songs in Primary and learned lessons about Jesus, the prophets, and Mormon principles. I sat through an hour long worship service every week, taking the sacrament to remind me of my commitments to the Lord. My older siblings had gone to youth activities here on Tuesday nights, and we had ward celebrations at every major holiday. I’d spent untold hours in this very building. Yet it was just a building. Just a church, like any other, for like-minded worshippers to gather together.

It wasn’t until I left Missouri that I realized how many Mormon connections where there. The Mormons had settled in these areas, in Jackson County, Missouri, in the early days, before the governor had issued an Extermination Order and driven them out. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, had received a number of prophecies about the area, saying it was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and that when Jesus Christ came again, in the Second Coming, he would build the New Jerusalem right here in Missouri. Then the Mormons had gone south, to build the city of Nauvoo in a nearby state, before they had moved West. But first, Joseph Smith had been killed by a mob, right here in Missouri.

I walked around the church with Maggie, soon to ex-Mormon, soon to come out as gay, contemplating the roots of Mormonism here, the roots of myself. Missouri had been a frontier back then, a place far west of civilization. The town of Monett itself had ties to the development of the railroad. And it had been a frontier for me as well.

I tuned out the conversations my family members were having about their happy memories here, and instead invited Maggie for a short walk. We walked down a long street in my childhood neighborhood, a street where I used to go trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, where I had once injured my foot in a bike wheel while riding behind my sister, where I had scraped knees and elbows.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, concerned.

And I just shook my head, unable to form words for a moment.

“Chad? Are you okay? How do you feel?”

I struggled to find the right word, then I bit my lip nervously and looked at her.

“Haunted.”

 

 

 

 

Bag of Treats

wonder.jpg

“Welcome, Chad, I bought you a bag of treats. It’s on the floor back there. Make yourself at home!”

I climbed into the back seat of the car and noticed the bag on the floor, then smiled up to the front seat, where Evelyn could see me in the rearview mirror. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“Just look through it and see what you like. And don’t forget to buckle up!”

I slid my seatbelt across my frame and clicked it closed, then set my backpack and pillow on the seat next to me. The drive ahead was only four hours, but I didn’t want to get bored, so I’d packed a pillow in case I wanted to sleep, a notebook in case I got any story ideas, and three different books, though I knew it wasn’t likely that I would finish even one of them. Two of them were Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could read and make choices for the characters, your decisions leading you to different parts of the book where you might meet a tragic end or wind up making yet another choice. I loved those books, and had even written a few of my own, starring my favorite cartoon characters. I’d also packed a Nancy Drew book, taking it from my sister Susan’s collection. She didn’t want me to touch those books, but I loved them so I would often sneak them away and return them a few days later, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was trying to read them all in order.

The car was quiet for a moment as Evelyn guided it down the road and turned toward the freeway, passing the Snake River and miles of potato fields along the way. Evelyn was a nice woman in our ward, or local Mormon congregation, one I didn’t know very well. She was in her early 70s, and had agreed to give me a ride to Salt Lake City from southern Idaho when my Mom had asked.

“Are you excited to see your father?” Evelyn smiled at me again in the rearview.

“I guess so,” I smiled back. I said I was, but I really wasn’t. My parents had been divorced over three years now, and I’d barely seen Dad since the divorce, since we moved from Missouri to Idaho. He’d moved to Salt Lake, just a few hours away, but he hadn’t made much effort to spend any time with me. He was living down there with some college aged guys, I’d heard, and was working at some menial job now. I was 14 years old and I didn’t feel like he really even knew me. “It will be good to see him during summer break. Mom will come down and get me in a few days.”

Evelyn laughed, I couldn’t really say why, and accelerated the car, headed south now. “Well, do you see anything you like? In the treats?”

“Oh,” I said, “Let me see.”

I picked up the bag and set it on the seat, opening the plastic sides of it. It was a Wonder Bread grocery sack, from the store in Idaho Falls where they sold packaged sugary treats and breads. The bag had no less than eight separate packages of processed pastries, and one can of Shasta, black raspberry flavored, a carbonated sugary punch that could be purchased for a quarter from the vending machine in front of the local grocery store. I thumbed through the different treats. Twinkie. Hostess Cupcakes. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. A fudge brownie, an lemon frosting pie, powdered donuts, and chocolate donuts. My mouth salivated over all of the sugar available, having no thought for Calories or content, only wanting to sink my teeth into any and all of the treats.

“Everything looks really delicious. But I’m not hungry just yet. I’ll just lay back and read for a bit if that’s okay.”

“Of course that’s okay, dear. I’m just going to turn on some gospel music, if that wouldn’t bother you.”

“No, go right ahead.” Evelyn turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as I placed the bag of treats back on the floor and arranged my pillow behind my head. I thumbed through my pilfered mystery novel and found my place, beginning to read.

My stomach rumbled, but I resisted the urge to reach for a treat. It was always best to sacrifice needs and to be unselfish, I reminded myself. Evelyn was really nice to have purchased these things for me, but if I didn’t eat them, that meant that she could enjoy them, or she could share them with someone else, someone who might need them more than me. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sacrifice was a regular part of my daily religion, something that God expected. I thought of several scriptures that backed that up.

Where much is given, much is required.

The natural man is an enemy to God. 

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of Heaven.

If I didn’t eat the treats now, that would be another sign to God that I served him and deserved to have him in my heart. I tried regularly to keep him securely in my heart, though it wasn’t always easy. I was starting to notice boys more, and I was very scared of getting caught looking at someone handsome walking by. So I’d developed a mantra of always keeping a hymn and a prayer in my heart. I could sing one of the religious songs to myself, like “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done” or “Called to serve him, heavenly king of glory, chosen heir to witness for his name” or “Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shall my petition bear” or “Nearer my god to thee, nearer to thee.” I found it easier to stay focused on God when I had him on my mind, just like the prophets had taught me since I was a young boy. I tried hard to follow all of the rules, including morning and nightly prayers, daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, and payment of ten per cent of all my earned money from my paper route to the tithes of the church. That also meant fasting to improve spirituality at least once per month.

Mormonism was the central theme to my existence. My family’s rituals were molded around it as were my daily activities, my thoughts, and all of my plans for the future. Months before, I had been ordained a Teacher, an office of the Aaronic Priesthood for all worthy young men ages 14-16. It entitled me to bless and pass the sacrament and to go with older Priesthood holders into the homes of members as a home teacher, where we would check on the welfare of the families monthly and teach them gospel lessons. At 16, I would become a priest, and at 18 an elder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, then I would get to go through the temple for my endowment, serve a two year missionary service wherever I was called in the world, and finally marry a woman in the temple and begin my family. I loved my church, and everything in my life revolved around it.

I fell asleep for a time, and Evelyn drove smoothly, making great time. When I woke up, she asked how I was, and asked if I might like to enjoy a treat now. She reminded me of my grandmother in all the best ways.

“I’m okay, maybe in a little while.”

Besides stopping for gas briefly, we drove the rest of the way in silence. It was early afternoon when we pulled into Salt Lake City, in a spot downtown near Temple Square, where the very origins of my beloved church were on display in museums and visitor centers all placed directly around the Salt Lake City Temple itself. My dad would meet us there soon.

I climbed out of the car and pulled my backpack and pillow with me, leaving the treats on the floor in the bag. My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished again for a treat, but I didn’t want to take something that Evelyn could use for herself later.

Soon, my dad arrived and Evelyn drove away with a friendly wave.

“What would you like to do?” Dad asked, his voice its familiar quiet.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. “I’m starving!”

Bully

Bullybully

When I was 9, I consoled a girl from my class on the school bus
About her recent break-up.
“How could he do that to you?” I patted her back.
“You deserve so much better.”

Deep down, I wanted to be that boy,
The one who broke her heart, who tossed her aside.
The popular and callous straight boy who didn’t have to hide.

He confronted me on the same bus the next day.
Told me to stay away from his girl.
He, smaller in every way,
Told me to watch out at recess,
That I was a nerd
And that he had more hair on his balls than I ever would.

How strange that it took so many years to offer myself the same words.
“How could he do that to you?”
“You deserve so much better.”

Picked Last

bullies.jpg

Like many, if not most, gay young men, I grew up very uncomfortable with competitive sports. I constantly felt on guard around other boys, worried that they would notice that I wasn’t quite like them. I felt this way from my very earliest days, long before I knew how to verbalize I was gay, I only knew I was different.

I grew up in a community and society that expects young men to be competitive, to show few feelings, to be great at sports, and to sexualize women. And so, even young groups of boys, four and five, learn to tease other boys for not being man enough or strong enough or masculine enough. I remember being in kindergarten when boys in my class started bragging about kissing girls in the class, when they began teasing kids for being different with words like ‘fag’ or ‘sissy’, and then school systems started expecting kids to compete in sports.

Early on, it was simple contact sports. Kickball competitions at recess. Boys who weren’t great at it were told they ‘played like a girl’ or were called names. In organized sports, all the kids would gather in a crowd and two popular kids would be elected leaders. They would take turns hand-picking people to be on their team. They would start with the most athletic and popular boys, then the less athletic boys, then the athletic or cutest girls, then the less athletic boys, the overweight kids, and the nerds would get picked last. While no one ever spoke of it, getting picked last was a public shaming incident, the one thing that no one wanted to happen. And many times in elementary school, I was the kid who was picked last. I grew up thinking that the most masculine boys, the ones picked first, were not only the best, but that they had more value than me and that I had less than them.

It didn’t take me long as a kid to realize that I didn’t enjoy contact sports, so I found ways to shy away from them. I would offer to be scorekeeper, find a reason to stay inside, or pick another activity to work on. There were a very few occasions in my adolescence when I would find a sport I was slightly good at, and when I was able to compete and do well, I would sometimes join in on the teasing of other less athletic kids, not because I didn’t like them but because I desperately wanted to fit in with the more masculine guys.

Honestly, I think most American gay kids have some of the same stories.

I was terrible at competitive sports as a kid. I didn’t like measuring myself up against others. I remember my best friend in fourth grade, the year before he became one of the popular kids and didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, I remember him standing me on the basketball court at the free throw line and telling me that I was going to stand there and shoot basketballs until I finally made a basket. And I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 12.

As an adult, I still tend to do things on my own terms. I enjoy competition and sports, but I don’t like competing in sports. I swim on a swim team, but I choose a lower, slower lane and never compete in the competitions. I will throw a Frisbee, work out in the gym, and play light and friendly sports so long as there is safety in the competition and camaraderie among the players.

This past weekend, I went camping by myself among a group of mostly partnered gay men. There was a lot of laughter, drinks, hikes, games, and meals, and it was a fantastic to sit back and feel like one of the guys.

As part of the weekend, we had a sports competition. We divided into teams and played a game whose name I can’t remember, throwing blocks of wood at other blocks of wood to knock them over. There were penalties and victory dances. There was teasing and cajoling on either side. There was laughter, patience, relaxed spirits, even mooning the other team to tease. I took my turns, laughed a lot, had fun, and didn’t make most of the shots. During the competition, I sat back and realized that I wasn’t feeling any fear or discomfort. I was just one of the guys. And it felt amazing.

We played two rounds of the game, which lasted about four hours in total. After reaching a certain point in the game, a winning shot had to be scored by knocking down a pin in the middle of the field. In the first game, I scored the winning shot. And in the second game, I scored the winning shot again. It was a powerful victory for young adolescent Chad within me.

I sat in my tent at the evening a strange mix of content and bored and restless and exhausted and wound up. I laid back on my sleeping bag in my blue tent, listening to hooting owls and ululating roosters outside, and I pondered on manhood and adolescence and being gay and finding ourselves. I missed my sons for a moment, like I always do when they aren’t with me, and I vowed once again to raise them as best I can to feel loved and confident and powerful. And as I closed my eyes, I found myself grateful that although it took me a few decades longer, I feel, with myself, loved and confident and powerful as well.

Validated

 

 

validation

I sat next to a friend the other day who was chatting with gay men over a social media app. My friend, who is in his late 30s and is a handsome and successful professional, sent a message to a younger guy, handsome and 19.

“You have a nice smile,” my friend said.

The younger man responded within seconds. “You are one of the ugliest humans I have ever laid eyes on. You think you are good enough to chat with me?”

This was such a brief exchange, and yet it represented to me everything that is wrong with the gay community these days (and indeed, much of the straight community). I’ve given this a lot of thought and come to some conclusions.

When my older son was 2 years old, he used to say things like “Dad, there’s the tree.” I would repeat him, “Yeah, buddy, there’s a tree.” And he would throw a holy fit. “Dad, no! I said THE tree, not A tree!” Toddlers learn the fine art of defining the need for validation, demanding it and hurting badly when it isn’t offered in the right way.

As children age in healthy environments grow, they should be learning the skills to be able to do three things: to accept validation when it is offered, to validate themselves, and to ask for validation when they need it. These lessons are reinforced in the childhood and adolescent years, and practiced often as adults. In short, we always need validation.

When we grow up in homes or environments where these skill sets aren’t emphasized, we lose the ability to do these things. We think compliments are disingenuous, we lack the ability to offer validation to ourselves, and we have no ability to ask for validation and instead simply expect it. We develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to get alternatives to validation in other regards.

LGBT people generally grow up feeling unaccepted, knowing they are different than those around them. Simply put, they learn to hide in plain sight. I learned how to pretend to be interested in girls, how to pretend I was not interested in boys, how to blend in with straight guys. With parts of myself hidden deep down inside, I had no capacity to validate myself. I threw myself into church responsibilities and only considered the most worthy members of the Mormon church as worth the greatest amounts of trust and attention. I sought higher Priesthood callings and opportunities to sacrifice in order to show myself I was a worthy person.

Many other gay men, rather than church callings, throw themselves into building the perfect physique, and only see other men who are their ideal physical type as worth their attention. Others do it in careers, or their definitions of success.

And when others don’t meet standards of self-identified perfection, many gay men (or humans in general) see them as worth less than others. We like being noticed on our terms, and we see these as healthy validations.

Yet there is a simple truth, we can’t be truly validated by others unless we can validate ourselves, and we can’t validate ourselves unless we have integrity, and we can’t have integrity when we feel broken inside, or when we treat others like they are worth less.

As a teenager, I would shame myself so badly over not being like other guys, particularly when it came to competitive sports. I would use humor and excuses to avoid these interactions, feeling miserable inside, and then I would internally blame these other men for not accepting or including me. Because I lacked the ability to validate myself, I expected these strangers to do it for me.

I’ve reached a stage in my life now that I’m confident in myself and the things I’m good at. I can compliment myself and mean it. I can take compliments from others. When I feel a lack of integrity, or when I experience shame or guilt, I’m honest with myself and I ask myself or others for what I need. I don’t expect crowds of strangers, or even my close loved ones, to know what I need when I never asked for it. I don’t let myself be shamed by those who don’t love themselves, or who don’t see me as someone of value because I don’t meet their self-standards of perfection.

In the age of social media, it is so much easier to be cruel to strangers, calling them ugly or worthless in bizarre instant messages or public comments. One I saw recently from one stranger to another: “You think you are hot, but you aren’t. Try a diet and the gym.” It is also easier for people to demand validation from strangers, as we post lengthy comments on social media sites about how we have been slighted by others. A post I saw on Facebook recently: “I went to the club and no one talked to me. Gay people are the worst.”

Validation, integrity, and authenticity are hard and painful battles to be fought. Yet the alternatives are much more painful in the long run: invalidation, feeling broken, and feeling lonely.