Cracked Earth

CrackedI forget to look up sometimes

Clouds, horizons, sunsets, if only I’d raise my eyes

The cracks in the earth distract me

and I rage at the imperfections of the ground

for feeling unsafe beneath me

It should be whole, solid, unbreakable

and I wonder what kind of world this is

when even the ground cracks

At my center, my spine curves, and my foundation with it

skeletal structures compensating with distentions and altered planes

crooked all the way through

It leaves me wondering at my very existence

Sometimes, at least, I seem able to find only

the broken, within and without

And then I remember

that the ground breaks apart and the earth extends

for everyone, and not just me

And then my head raises forward

And I move, aware of the broken

and choosing to forge ahead

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Seattle Part 2: “Don’t Go, Daddy.”

September, 2014

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

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

I felt miniscule. And free.

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

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

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

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

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

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

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

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

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

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

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

Seattle Part 1: the News

September, 2014

“I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, this is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.” My hands clutched my coffee mug tightly, absorbing the warmth. My insides were churning.

Maggie, my ex-wife, the mother of my children, sat across the table from me. Her face was all-business, but I knew it guarded a mixture of anxiety, pain, anger, and compassion. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave your children behind, just like your dad left you? I don’t mean to be cruel, but that’s what it sounds like.”

I paled, and closed my eyes in shame. I had come out of the closet three years and six months before this. After the birth of our second son, Maggie and I had divorced, sold our home, and moved to Salt Lake City to start a new life. Despite the difficult negotiations of parenting in two different households, finding a new steady job, and making new friends, I had grown to love Salt Lake City in many ways. But this past year, life had gotten more difficult. There was something about this place that was infecting me, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

How could I explain it to her? Would she understand? Every time I left Utah, even for brief weekends, I came alive. I felt free and clear, full of hope and potential; yet every time I returned, I was full of dread and pain, like shackles were being placed around my ankles. I wasn’t sleeping in my bed anymore, I had a permanent place on the couch, because my bed felt so lonely. I felt lonely when the kids weren’t with me, and lonely when they were, and I felt constantly guilty for realizing that just being a dad wasn’t enough for me. The constant barrage of Mormon everything around me was traumatizing, bringing back all those memories of pain. The men I dated were Mormon or formerly so, the clients I saw were the same. And every few months, the Mormons had something painful to say about gay people, and it haunted me. Mormon culture felt like the air I was breathing, and I had no idea how to stop breathing it. After all the work I had done to come out and face my life with grace, it felt like I was just constantly surrounded by the very things that had hurt me. I wasn’t dating now, and work felt empty. My sons were my sole solace, and it wasn’t enough.

But it was more than that. I was 36 years old and I hadn’t lived yet! When I came out, I had two children, and financial obligations. I hadn’t come out as a teenager. I had spent two years on a mission, then six in college, then seven more married to a woman, all of those years dominated by Mormon expectations. It wasn’t until now that I was seeing myself as someone capable of being happy, some who could believe in himself and see potential in the future rather than only dread. I couldn’t reclaim my 20s, or my teenage years, but I could try to live now, try to find myself now. I needed to grieve, I needed to learn to live for me. And I believed I could do it with honor, with integrity. But it meant leaving, and that part made me feel selfish and ashamed.

“I’m–I won’t be like my dad,” I promised. “He left and he was gone. He was depressed. There wasn’t child support, or phone calls, or visits. I will be in constant contact with the kids. Letters, phone calls every day, monthly visits, holidays. And I’ll stay up on my child support. I know this puts a ton of pressure on you, but I’m hoping with your parents here to help you, and with me visiting every month, that it might be okay. I know this is a huge risk. I need this. I need it for me. I need this opportunity. In fact, weirdly, if I stay I worry I’m more like my dad. In some ways, it feels like leaving will help me figure out how not to be that way.”

Sighing, Maggie peppered me with a few dozen questions.

“Why Seattle?”

“I was offered a place to live for very affordable rent. Remember Rob, my gay step-brother? He’s a doctor there. He has an open room.”

“If you don’t have a place here when you visit, where will you stay?”

“Kurt, my best friend, told me I could stay there on my weekends in town.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“I have some interviews scheduled. I won’t go without a job in place.”

“Our sons are 5 and 3. J is just starting kindergarten. How will you tell him?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way. I’ll be open and honest. I think he’ll be okay, honestly. I will miss them more than I can possibly express. It makes me want to sob, nothing seeing them every day, not holding them. But I will write letters. I’ll FaceTime with them every night. I’ll be a daily presence in their life. I’ll be there for them, I promise. I promise. I just, I need a chance to make me a priority also. I’ve never done that, ever. I’ve never put me first. You know me, better than anyone. Trust me. Give me this chance, and I promise I’ll show up, I’ll do this with integrity.”

Maggie gave me a level look and nodded. “I get it. I never thought you’d be that guy. This isn’t fair, and I don’t like it, but I understand it. I can’t stop you. Our divorce paperwork says we will give each other notice, and you’ve done that. But you’ll be the one to tell the kids, not me.”

I thanked Maggie and watched as she left. I sat there for another twenty minutes, full of hope and dread. I was doing this. I was going to do this. I was going to move to Seattle, away, on my own. I was 36, and I was going to take a risk on myself, knowing I might crash and burn. My sons would have a father in another city. Was I only making excuses for myself, finding reasons that things would be okay? What if it was all a big disaster?

I owed it to myself to find out.

the Dowels: Grown-ups Throwing Fits

Wood Dowels

“#$%^! Holy #@**! I got a– Ouch! &!(@!”

I stood there, helpless, holding my side of the large bed frame as I watched my boyfriend fall down on the jagged stone steps. His knee hit one side and it scraped, then he landed on the other. I immediately knew there would be bruises. Mike set down his side of the bed and limped off the steps and into the yard. There was at least one open cut. I stood there helplessly, supportive and in crisis mode, as I waited for his adrenaline spike to wear off.

“Babe, I’m so sorry you fell. What can I do?”

In a few minutes, he was inside rinsing out his cuts and doctoring up the wound while I finished moving the bed frames down the curvy stairs and into the backyard. Mike calmed down and bandaged up his knee, then tried helping me get the bed frames into the living room and down the hallway. The top frame was a complex piece, about 16 pieces of wood carefully assembled into frames and slats, with screws, dowels, and brackets holding it all together. A curved piece at the top of one slat made it impossible to navigate a particular corner, and a patch of paint was scraped off the wall as we tried to maneuver. I kept calm, moving the frame back into the living room and retrieving a screwdriver, allen wrench, and hammer.

For the next forty minutes, I carefully removed a dozen screws, straining my wrists as I turned the allen wrench around and around. Why were some of these wedged in so tight? I finally got all the pieces out, just to remove the one curved side, leaving the rest intact, then struggled to pull the piece off, dowels tight in the wood and not wanting to let it go free. I gave a mighty yank, a frustrated and angry “Rrrragh!” escaping my mouth, and it finally came free, with two strips of wood along the edge completely breaking off, jagged and threatening as they fell to the floor.

Now it was my turn. I let loose with a string of expletives, like the father in the Christmas Story over the broken heater.

“%&!(! It’s a %(@*ing piece of wood! Why the @+@# is this so &#)@ing hard to move around the !++( corner!”

Hot tears stung my eyes. I looked at the broken pieces on the ground and had hit my limit. Part of me wanted to start kicking the bed frame, smashing it into little pieces. Part of me wanted to grab the edges and just yank it through the wall, tearing pieces off in order to get it down the hallway and into the bedroom. Instead, I chose the less aggressive approach.

I sat down on the floor, put my head between my knees, and cried my eyes out. For about ten seconds.

Soon, the boyfriend was sitting on the floor next to me, his arm around my shoulders, muttering that it was fine, that it was just a piece of furniture. I breathed, calming myself, and snuggled in, hating that I’d lost myself for a moment over something so trivial.

Furniture assembly has never been my thing. I think it stems back to childhood. I’ve always had a more compassionate, creative brain. I liked drawing, story-telling, singing, performing, and sharing. I liked helping people feel better. But furniture assembly represents the part of me that could never measure up. I couldn’t ride a bike, climb a tree, or set up a tent. I was picked last for the kickball team, couldn’t get the basketball through the hoop, and came in last in sprint relays.

No matter how much I heal from having grown up a gay kid in a straight world, there will always be pieces of me that feel like I don’t measure up, like I’m not good enough, and that makes me furious. My rage shows up in strange moments, like this, when a piece of assembled wooden furniture can’t fit around the corner, and I’m not good at taking it apart and putting it back together.

After I calmed down, Mike grabbed the other side of the bed and, with bandaged knee, helped me maneuver it down the hall and into the bedroom. Fifteen minutes later, I had the bed reassembled, and ten minutes past that, it was all set up in the kids room, looking perfect. I couldn’t even see the small jagged pieces that had broken off.

I had a major headache after that, leftover stress from my small fit on the floor. I popped some Tylenol, took a ten minute siesta, and then felt completely better. I sat up on the couch, my head clear, and began to laugh. It was suddenly hilarious that a grown man, a father of two, a man who just published a book and who spends hours in therapy each week teaching others how to have healthy communication patterns, was ready to smash a piece of furniture apart. Where had my self-care skills gone?

I looked over at Mike, realizing we had both lost our cool that day, and yet we had both been there for each other. And suddenly it felt so safe and nice to just be human. And being human sometimes means being weak, irrational, and ugly, and it sometimes means having a tantrum.