the intersection of dreams and reality

As a therapist, I regularly tell my clients that sometimes the best way to appreciate where we are in life is to look back at where we were. 

And I hold myself to this frequently. I regularly look backwards so that I can properly assess my current standing and then look forward to the paths I should be on. But lately this has been a struggle for me, in some unexpected ways.

First of all, sometimes I don’t know how far I should be looking back. Do I consider the lonely teenager who was writing ideas down in a notepad yet never really writing anything, that boy who was so strongly holding tightly to Mormonism that he couldn’t see a future ahead in which he was happy? Do I look back to the married Mormon father, who was running a business and writing comic books, yet feeling completely unfulfilled and wondering when he might be able to overcome life’s challenges and actually come out of the closet? Both of those past versions of me clearly give me perspective in the present. They ground me. I look at how far I’ve come and I see my world around me and love the person I am and the life I’ve created.

But my current struggles are far removed from those, in some ways. They are far beyond. They stem more from five years ago and the risks I took back then, and the ways that they have paid off, or not paid off, into this current present.

Five years ago, I took major stock of my life, and I decided to take some huge risks. I quit my job and I launched a personal business, doing therapy for clients on an hourly, private-pay basis. I began sub-letting an office, I upped my rates, and I believed I could do it. I came up with a formula to keep myself financially afloat, and I set big goals to eliminate all of my debt, and to put savings and emergency funding in place should I ever need them. And with hard work and consistency, I achieved these goals, and then set others, like establishing a retirement account and getting better health insurance.

From there, I started listening to what my internal dreams are. Many of them, those that didn’t directly revolve around my children, focused on travel, research, and writing. I started small, taking short weekend trips and reading about things that interested me more often. And then the goals grew bigger and loftier as I started thriving. Travel became more frequent and more adventurous, and I began making a list of places that I had always wanted to see but hadn’t. As I saw more places, the list grew longer. And along the way, I met my boyfriend, and had someone to share this with.

Then I set a lofty goal. I determined that within four years, I would be making a living as a writer and storyteller. I just had to figure out how to do it.

Channeling my love of research and writing, I started doing daily posts on LGBT history, a huge personal passion. Eventually that turned into themed research, and then I turned that into a YouTube station. I started seeing a vision of the future in which I could share my passionate research, in spoken word format, with audiences who would be hungry to learn what I was learning. So I began putting my personal money into web developers and graphic designers to build a platform and an audience to share with. For the following year, I continued to pour money into this venture, loving every moment of the research, and agonizing every moment when the videos were only getting a few dozen views. I was putting money out, and watching numbers in the double digits roll back, and I took it personally. It hurt that I believed in myself so strongly and it wasn’t paying off in the way I’d hoped. My love of research and writing was becoming dominated by the lack of success, and I began to doubt myself.

And so I closed the YouTube channel down. I stopped researching for a time, and I did a lot of self-assessment as I tried learning tough lessons. And then I refocused and tried again, this time on a new project.

I started researching gay hate crimes in Utah. I found a list of names and I started asking questions. I copied court records, make extensive notes, drove throughout the state, and started looking people up. I found graves, recorded memories. And I felt my passion for research returning. I came alive with joy as I began finding stories to tell. Eventually, my primary focus landed on one case, that of Gordon Church, a young man killed in 1988. His murder resulted in two trials for his killers, and one of them ended up on death row. Months went by as I lost myself in this research, and in time, I began thinking that a documentary about this content would be ideal. I found a film company who began working on the project with me, and we completed dozens of interviews, gathering dozens of hours of amazing content. Over a period of 18 months, I watched the project come to fruition, and a film that would end up altering lives would soon be complete. I was on fire.

Until it boiled down to money. Without funding, we couldn’t go forward to editing the film. We needed a minimum of one hundred thousand dollars to finish, though closer to five hundred thousand would be ideal. Believing I could do anything with a project this valuable, I started holding meetings and pitches, even fundraisers, to find the necessary cash. I asked benefactors, support agencies, film studios, and especially local people who had funds and might share my passion for this project. I had dozens of meetings, with politicians and millionaires and everyone in between. Many turned me down. Many said they’d think about it. And a few said they would love to fund the project, but then kind of faded into the distance. And with every failed meeting, my aggravation, pain, and self-doubt returned. I wasn’t finding the right audience, and again, the passion I wanted to share with the world was being replaced by the reality of the world in which I was in. (Note: the film is still in the editing phase, which will take many more months without funding. While I believe it will be finished, it is on a much longer timeline than I had anticipated).

And so, while working on the film, I began seeking out other projects that would help keep my passion and love for research and writing alive. I maintained a blog (trying hard not to get frustrated with the low numbers of readers). I wrote a book, Gay Mormon Dad, and self-published (and tried hard not to take it personally when sales remained abysmally low despite reviews being incredibly high). I formed a monthly story-telling group called Voices Heard and began collaborating with dozens of incredible local story-tellers to share with assembled audiences (and struggled to remain positive when audience numbers remained small when I hoped we would have sell-out shows). These struggles have been manifesting

And now it is summer of 2019. And I’ve been in an emotional spiral these past few months as I’ve considered what to do moving forward. And so, with a bit of perspective and focused attention, I can boil it all down to a list of facts, as I seek to make sense of all of this.

  1. Writing brings me joy. Research, blogging, outlining, interviewing, story-telling, performing, and even editing make me happy. They fulfill a particular part of me. They enrich my spirit. I don’t feel good when I’m not doing them. And writing has been part of me for as long as I can remember, from my very earliest days in childhood.
  2. I can do hard things! And it is good to be confident about those things! I wrote a book, and it’s good! I built and sustained a YouTube Channel for a year, and then made the hard decision to retire it! I researched, and collaborated, and nearly completed a film that is going to be revolutionary! I created, and collaborated, to share stories at a monthly event that I love, and that is so so so good, and I’ve maintained it for over two years now! Believing in myself in crucial, and I’ve shown myself that I can create and sustain things that I ove.
  3. I love collaborating with others. I love forming new friendships with talented people and working together. The men who have made the film with me are among the most genuine and talented individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and we have built something special over a period of years together. The story-tellers who perform with me at Voices Heard are so authentic and talented, they leave me stunned with every word; they are enthusiastic and kind and so good at what they do. And every person who has spoken to me about my book, my research, or my writing and has been excited, enthusiastic, and kind in response, to anyone who has believed in me, it has given me a confidence I never knew I was capable of.
  4. Trust is in short supply lately. I hate asking for money, and I hate paying the people for services that they can’t deliver on consistently. I’ve had over a dozen major disappointments over the past few years from people who promised something and couldn’t or didn’t deliver, including offers from publishing companies, major media presences, and benefactors who have offered to cover the costs of the documentary. I’ve reached a place where big offers leave my guard up, and I’m finding it more difficult to take it back down as time goes by.
  5. There are a lot of things I am terrible at. Marketing, graphic design, promotion, and fundraising top the list. Every time one of these topics shows up in my life, I want to scream in response. They bring up pain and insecurity because my failures in these areas directly impact the way I measure success in other areas.
  6. “Success” has become a word that is difficult for me to define. These products that I’m extremely proud of (Gay Mormon Dad, the documentary, Voices Heard, the blog) tend to have relatively small yield in profit, number of readers, or number in the audience. The documentary remains unfinished, I didn’t sell enough copies of the book to cover the costs of printing it (no less the time spent writing it), the blog rarely gets more than 30-40 reads per entry, and Voices Heard consistently only has 20-40 people in the audience (meaning I tend to lose money every month on the costs of putting it all together). It is hard to dwell in the space of gratitude and love that I feel when I write and perform, when I feel the financial and self-esteem hits when not many people are reading or attending the things I’m so proud of.

Writing all of these things down in one place is hard. It’s only after literal months of personal reflection and riding these waves that I’m even able to articulate what is happening within me. The intersection of the joy I get from writing, and the reality that I’ll likely never make a living doing it… sitting in that intersection and feeling both sides is difficult, but its the only way forward. I have to do what I do because I love it. I have to have hope that I can do more, that I will someday achieve the success I someday hope for, while simultaneously accepting that that may never happen, and still be okay and believe in myself while accepting that reality. I can’t give up on my dreams, yet I also can’t keep beating myself up when they aren’t achieved in a particular way. I have to change how I define success. I have to challenge myself at being better while accepting where I currently am. That intersection is uncomfortable, even painful, yet I’m working very hard to find peace with its existence.

And so, today, I sat down to write about it. I wrote about my journey, and what I’ve learned. I expressed my pains and doubts, my beliefs and hopes. And just like every time before, I feel better now that I have. I feel inspired. Capable. And soon I’ll click publish and know that only 20 to 50 people will read it. I have to embrace both sides of that. I knew that going in to this blog.

And I wrote it anyway.

And therein lies my lesson.

the Courage to Change the Things I Can

courage

You can paint for hours until the picture meets your standards of perfection, then step back and look upon it with pride. You can hang it in a local art shop with a price tag on it, and tell everyone you know that it is there. You can scroll through the messages of people who say they are proud of you, that they love you, that they envy you for following your dreams. But when you ask most of them if they’ve stopped by to see the painting, you aren’t quite sure what to make of it when they say no, that they’ve been busy, or distracted, or that it’s not about your art and they really don’t look at anyone’s art, but still they’re so proud. And when you watch people walking through the art shop, you realize there are a thousand paintings hanging there, and they all have price tags, and you can’t really do anything to make anyone look at yours and be proud of it like you are. And you certainly can’t make them buy it. So do you sit back and give up? Do you just wait it out, feeling sorry for yourself around the corner in the shadows? Do you keep painting more, hoping another piece will catch on? Do you give up completely, telling yourself that at least you tried? Or do you take what you’ve painted and find a new place to show it? Maybe place a bowl of chocolates in front of it, hang some Christmas lights around it? How much do you believe in yourself? And is the reality of living your dreams worth the work? Is it greater than the cost of not living them at all?

My life lately has been exactly what I’ve always envisioned it would be. As a human, I’m perpetually dissatisfied. (I mean, give a human exactly what it is they want: the million dollars, the perfect relationship, the picket fence, and the month-long cruise, and they are complaining about too much sunshine, not enough leg room, cold food, the kids being too loud, or still having a used car). But I really do work hard on gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for, and I have worked so hard to get here.

And after a few decades of seeing myself as someone incapable of being happy, I’m beyond thrilled to be able to say that I’m living the life that I want, or at least working on it. I have an attentive, kind, and loving boyfriend. I have beautiful children who bring me daily joy. I have enough money to pay for healthy food, basic bills, and some travel. I have a healthy body. I like my apartment, my city, my family. And I’m doing things in my life, professionally and creatively, that inspire passion and hope. I love the projects I’m working on.

But I find myself in a place of stopping and starting, regularly. I will pour a tremendous amount of time and talent into a project (much like the figurative painting mentioned above), and then find myself unable to progress due to others not following through. People say they’ll buy the book when they can, or they have purchased the book and will take months to read it. Local bookstores say they might want to carry it in time. Local radio shows and podcasts say it could be interesting to showcase the book, and that they’ll get back to me in a few weeks. I get stalled, then frustrated, as I feel stunted, ghosted, by those who I wish would show more interest.

All of this is counter-balanced by the fact that many have read my book, and they feel good about it. They have left reviews and said kind words, and it feels like such an honor and joy to hear this feedback. But at the end of the day, I really put myself out there, vulnerably, and I so badly want that to be met with a great success. I want to travel, read out loud, have people read my words and relate to them. I want to help change lives through the sharing of self. And as I wait for others to notice that, I find myself so intensely frustrated.

And, I realize, that is what self-publishing a book takes.

And the documentary, I’ve never done something so worthwhile (professionally). It brings me so much passion. I mean, I am putting myself out there, as part time investigative journalist, part time historian, part time director, part time producer, part time filmmaker/story-boarder/project manager/interviewer/therapist/negotiator. It is an insanely fulfilling and encouraging project, and the end result is going to change lives. But my life in this realm has become, again, about stops and starts. I’m the guy that asks for money and help, that tries to inspire people with passion and necessity, and who gets told over and over, “This project is amazing, I would love to help!”, only to have people go quiet afterwards to the point of avoiding me. This numbers into the dozens now, likely well over one hundred. I go through creative bursts, and then wait for weeks for others to, hopefully, follow-through. I push things as far as I can with time, effort, and energy, and then get stunted.

And, I realize, this is what making a documentary takes.

So I sit back, the gravel in my insides churning to cement, finding myself frustrated with the little things like unreturned text messages, unresolved issues, and unattended events, and then again remember that I’m living my dreams, and that this is part of it.

Then I return to that told familiar mantra. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

I have courage in spades. I am a solution finder. A bridge builder. A magic bean buyer. I’ll keep pushing, pressing, asking, and foraging until the projects succeed. That, I can control. That, I can manage. This is the part of the journey where I have arrived at the plateau, and I have to find new paths to keep climbing.

And climb I shall.

Building an Art Gallery

Remai.jpg

“It’s like Andy Warhol doing Picasso,” I noted out loud as I looked at the lined Picasso impressions lined up on the walls in different neon colors, like that famous Marilyn Monroe piece that Warhol did.

“It’s nice. But I think this is my least favorite room in the gallery,” my best friend Tyler replied, and I agreed with him. The films we’d watched had been particularly inspiring for me, as I love the film-making medium, and he had adored the modern art room. One piece, a filmstrip on a constant reel just showing a blank filmstrip on rotation, had left me feeling inspired, like our days in life just rushing through over and over, one indistinguishable from the next at a certain point. Every person there was being made to feel, looking at particular pieces that evoke particular emotions, and that in itself was art.

I turned and looked at the fork in the South Saskatchewan River outside. The gallery and been placed her purposefully, I’d read, to show the juxtaposition of the old and the new, with the farmlands of Saskatchewan (called the Wheat Province) in the distance, and the more modern downtown life of Saskatoon behind us. It was raining outside and drab, but still beautiful.

“Hey, the guys from Utah! You made it!”

I turned to see Tracey, the woman from the Tourism office, behind us smiling. She was in her mid-30s and sort of looked like a Canadian Tina Fey, shoulder length brown hair with thick glasses and a charming smile. The day before, on our walk through the city, we had stopped by her office and she’d told us about the opening of the art gallery here, then had opened her purse to offer us two free tickets of her own, as two of her family members  weren’t going to be able to make it. We had chatted with her for thirty minutes at the time and had made fast, casual friends with her.

“Tracey, hi!” We shook her hand and commented a bit on the rainy weather, then she turned toward the gallery walls.

“So what do you guys think?”

“It’s really nice!” Tyler, himself an artist with artist friends and a history of promoting events, commented on the building’s layout and architecture as we stepped back into the hallway, gabbing.

My mind drifted toward the live performance art piece, and I had thoughts of the book I’d read by Marina Abramovic, all about live performance art. Here, two lithe and lean artists were dressed in floral prints and snug jeans and black shoes and they were laying contorted on the ground in positions that looked almost like they had fallen from a building. They slowly moved, painstakingly flexing an ankle, rolling a shoulder, craning a neck, raising a hip, twisting into new positions over minutes at a time, and I’d read on the board that they would continue doing this for a full four hours. I couldn’t imagine the strain that would put on their bodies.

On the drive to the gallery, I’d heard a radio commentator describing the gallery like she was talking to friends in her living room. “You guys, you have to come and check out the Remai Modern, I mean, it’s amazing, truly. It’s like a little piece of New York City right here in downtown Saskatoon! If you don’t make it down, you’ll be soar-y!”

Tyler and Tracey continued talking, this time about the development of the gallery itself, and how difficult it is to get a venture like this going. Tyler has the rare ability to engage with practically anyone on practically any topic.

“A place like this needed to happen,” Tracey was agreeing. “Much of the community stood against it. It required construction into a resource that a lot of people weren’t sure they wanted, and many still aren’t sure. But I think that just shows it needed to happen, to push more boundaries. Saskatoon has lots of different cultures in it. One of my favorite places is the Bassment, and on Friday nights there are free jazz shows, and older citizens will come in and get drinks and complain about the young crowd in the back who talk during the music. It’s not easy to bring everyone on the same page always. But it’s a really accepting place too.”

Tyler asked questions about the funding of the building, the construction of it, the selection of the board of directors, and the fight that they had over a period of several years to get the gallery built. There were empty spaces on some of the walls, and he estimated that the challenge now would be to keep tourism up so that staff and security could be afforded, and the place could become a community staple, a featured space for locals to gather and support. The truth of the space would be told over the following years.

“Back in Salt Lake,” Tyler was saying, “many complain about the local art community, saying it isn’t very vibrant. But there are galleries, art walks, and a museum, and none of those who complain about it seem to be the ones supporting art itself.”

The models on the floor were in new positions. The male had his legs bent back behind him, his hands on the floor, his back arched and his head dropped back, his chest raising toward the ceiling. The woman lay on her side in much the same position, her arms and legs both bent back behind her and touching at a point. It was painful and beautiful. It was art, much like the building itself. Yet each moment with these artists in the live piece was a new painting, something that could only be experienced in that particular moment, and one that would move on, one that would change for each viewer as they walked by, some moments perhaps captured by no one at all.

We bid Tracey farewell and walked along the river for a bit, and I thought of the complexities of having a dream, and then navigating the political realities of making it happen. Actresses who dealt with sexual harassment to get a role, playwrights who pushed through rich snobby boards to get their works put on a community theater docket, and, in my case, documentary film makers who search and search for funding to try to make a life-changing film, navigating through an insular movie-making community in a small town.

Then I turned back and saw the building on the river, filled with people looking at art. I thought of the artists contorting their bodies on the floor of the museum as patrons watched them, and knew they did what they did because they loved it and wanted it to be seen, just like the people who dreamed up this gallery in the first place. And now that it was built, after the dream, and after the struggle, now the struggle for survival started, and the space would likely transform in the following years, as all spaces do, into something that the dreamer hadn’t dreamed in the first place. But still, it had been built, and how many dreams weren’t ever built?

If they can do it, so can I, I thought, and turned back to watch the river flow.