Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seattle Part 12: the Rainforest

March, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever you go, there you are.

Envying Happy

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Last weekend, my partner and I attended the Pride parade. We walked down the road, holding hands, my sons J and A gripping our hands tight. To all, we looked like a happy family. Many, seeing a gay couple out and proud, with kids at their sides, gave ‘oohs’, and ‘so cutes!’ as we walked by. (They were right, we are cute.)

One friend, though, messaged me later that day. “I saw you with your family at Pride and I couldn’t say hello. I was too sad.” He went on to explain that while he was genuinely happy for me, and that he knew I had worked hard to be where I am in life now, but that he envied the things I have, implying that happiness may elude him forever.

To this friend, one I care about a lot, I want to say ten things.

  1. I know how you feel! I spent so many years watching others be happy, and feeling like I could never be! I remember as a teenager, seeing straight guys get to actually date girls while I could never date guys. I remember seeing people who were fit during the time when I was obese and envying how ‘easy’ it came to them. When I was closeted, I remember seeing happy gay couples, just knowing that would never be me. When I was in debt, I saw those with financial freedom with absolute heartache. When I was single, I saw happy couples sometimes almost with derision, wondering constantly why I could never find that. I know how you feel!
  2. Things aren’t always as ideal as they seem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my life. But you saw us around, what, 10 am? The morning before that consisted of breakfast for four people, showers and getting ready, and packing bags, the kids both having separate fits because they couldn’t play longer, one kid sticking his hand inside a garbage can and subsequently putting it in his mouth, the barista being completely untrained and not understanding what a drip coffee was, and me forgetting the sunscreen. In fact, the reason we were walking like that, with the kids on either side, was to keep them from fighting. What I’m getting at is, yes, I’m happy, but it is a lot of work. (I mean, the child support payments alone). I’m just saying, the richest people still have problems, and the happiest couples sometimes fight the most.
  3. Ten years ago, I was depressed, obese, childless, in an unhappy marriage, and broken. I believed I could never be happy. My path ahead sixty hour work weeks, debt, empty church service, health problems, and more depression. My journey forward started by exercising, then coming out, then learning how to be an out gay man with children and debt. Even after that, I was single for 6 years. I turn 40 this year, and happiness was hard won.
  4. Even now, I’m happy, but I’m not. I have things I’m dissatisfied with. I set goals constantly. Bad things happen to me, I have bad days, and I get sad, angry, and scared quite often. I’ve learned to be kind to myself on tough days, and I’ve learned to accept that being dissatisfied is part of being human. I love parenting, but I don’t love everything about parenting. I love my job, but I don’t love everything about my job. I love being in a healthy relationship, but I don’t love everything about being in a relationship. I’m consistently striving for bigger and better. I am constantly working on my own happy.
  5. Happiness is fleeting. It comes in short bursts. It takes effort and consistency, just like fitness and financial freedom do. It means a lot of hard internal work. Healthy doesn’t happen without good nutrition, a whole lot of physical effort, and consistency. It doesn’t take personal trainers or the perfect genes, it just means super hard work. I did that work on my outsides (I still am!) and I did that work on my insides (I still am!)
  6. Everyone’s happy is different than everyone else’s. There is no perfect recipe for happiness. A boyfriend or husband, a better job, a million dollars, a home, a child… those all bring their own struggles and concerns. Happiness needs to be found in the present, and then it changes with us as we grow and alter and age. You don’t want my life, or my happy, you want your own. And that means figuring out what that is for you.
  7. Before I could be in a relationship, I had to learn how to be single. That meant learning how to be my own favorite person, my own best friend, my own motivator. I used to go to parties or events and feel pathetic for being solo; I got over it. I started to date myself: plays, movies, concerts, trips. I was honest with myself, I held myself accountable. I worked on goals (getting braces, paying off credit cards) and I was kind to myself when I made mistakes or had bad days. I still like my own company. I genuinely like myself and I’m my own favorite person. This was the best work I ever did.
  8. To be blunt and honest, the world is frequently a shitty place. We humans complain about most anything, from the weather to how long our coffee is taking to brew, but the world is full of real problems and struggles outside ourselves. Just scanning the periphery of my brain, the words human-trafficking, rape culture, school shootings, lava flows, and immigrants having their kids taken away pop up. You can’t scan the news without abject horror clouding your landscape. Happiness has to be a choice in spite of all of that, whether the pressure comes internally or externally. The only thing you have control over is you. And happiness can’t be found by ignoring the world, only by embracing the world with its flaws and being happy in spite of it, all while trying to make the world better around us.
  9. Depression is a real thing. And when someone is depressed, happy not only feels impossible, it feels like a real chore. It feels like ‘it’s impossible’ and ‘what’s the point’ all at once. Depression hurts, and it’s miserable, and it sinks into your soul. But it can be temporary. It takes work to climb out of it. I did, once, and I try to help others do so. And if you have depression, well, then, you can too. I’m here anytime you need to talk.
  10. Lastly, I wish you could see you the way others see you, the way I see you. No matter how sad you might feel, it doesn’t make you any less amazing. You make art, and you see the world with an artist’s eye. You have survived unbearable things, and you have gone on to inspire others. You have restarted your life, shed your past, and began again with a new name and a new beginning. When a friend was hurting, you gave of yourself to help this friend in a way that very well may have saved his life, and that meant a lengthy healing process for you afterward. What you did for him is super-human. You have an enormous heart, and endless potential. Take a moment to look outside in, and do so with love and understanding, because you are incredible.

Don’t envy my happy. Instead: Be happy! Be you! Find your happy! Start today! I’m here, and I’ll be watching. And next time you see me walking down the sidewalk, don’t be sad. Instead, come out and say hi. I’ll have a huge hug waiting for you.

Underestimated

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“People have a habit of underestimating you, don’t they?”

I took a sip of my white wine, my facial expression not changing. “How do you mean?”

Tanner laughed as he flipped over the chicken on the barbecue. “Well, when I first met you, you came across as pretty put together. Confident, smart, like you have a lot of friends.”

I nodded, smiling. “I like to think those are true statements.”

“But there is a lot more too you, isn’t there? People see this guy who loves his kids and reads a lot but they don’t often get much past that, do they?”

I shrugged. “It takes a bit to get to know me, just like anyone. But yes, I would say that that is a mistake people make often. I have a blog, I write poetry, I’m working on a book, I read voraciously. None of those things make me any more or less special than anyone else, though. Everyone is deeper than what they appear on the surface.”

Tanner looked at me, narrowing his gaze. “Do you do it on purpose?”

I laughed out loud this time. “Do I do what on purpose?”

“Let people underestimate you. Is it on purpose?”

I shrugged again. “I don’t know. I guess to a certain extent. It’s not like I’m willfully hiding. I’m just comfortable in my own skin and I’m careful who I share my vulnerability with. That’s like a healthy human survival tip, though.”

This time he spoke without even turning around, cooking the chicken more. “So why are you single, then? I’ve got a husband, why don’t you have a husband?”

I laughed, giving a coy answer, but really the only answer there is to give. “I’m single because I’m not in a relationship.”

“Oh, come on! That answer is a copout!”

“No, really. First off, I’m pretty okay not being in a relationship. If it happens, and it’s right, I’ll give it a shot. Second, I don’t date much. Some, but not much. And when I do give it a shot, it turns out lame. I’m very clear about my communication and I feel like I have my shit together. I’m raising my kids, I’ve got a good relationship with my ex-wife, I like my job, I do what I love, and I travel by myself often. I’m not opposed to finding someone to share that with, but it has to be healthy.”

Tanner stayed quiet and I kept talking.

“I’ve been out five years. I started that with an infant and a toddler. That’s a lot for anyone to sign on for. And the relationships I’ve tried out since then just haven’t lasted, for their own reasons.”

Tanner turned off the stove and moved the chicken into the dish. “Want to know why I think you’re single?”

I rolled my eyes and laughed. “Yes, tell me, please.”

“I think you intimidate people.”

I laughed again, sharply. “Oh my god, I’ve been told that before like five times!”

“See? You’re intimidating!”

“How am I intimidating!”

“Well, what were you told before?”

I set my glass down and ticked off on my fingers what I’d been told in the past. “I’ve been told that I’m intimidating because I’m a good father and my kids come first. One guy told me it’s because I have big arms, but come on, you are in way better shape than me. Oh, two friends told me it’s because I’m a therapist and I make people feel uncomfortable because they feel like I can see through them emotionally. Um, um, oh! Kurt, my best friend, told me that it’s because I am direct with what I say and I don’t play games. And I can’t remember the fifth one. Oh, yeah! One guy told me I’m intimidating because I make eye contact and I compliment people too much.”

Tanner sat down with his plate of food and thought a moment. “Well, all of those reasons are ridiculous. You compliment too much?”

“Yes! I told a guy I had dinner with, on a date a few years ago, that he was handsome. And he told me he didn’t like being complimented, that he found it intimidating.”

“Ugh, that’s terrible. Seriously, I think some of the best looking people have the worst self-esteems sometimes.”

I laughed. “I know! So, what am I supposed to do to be less intimidating? Not be a good dad? Be a shitty communicator?”

“Well clearly not.”

“Honestly, I think a big reason I’m single is because my priorities are different than a lot of single gay guys, at least the ones I seem to meet. I like sex, but it isn’t my primary motivation. I like having a drink, but I don’t stay out and get trashed. I mean, I’m getting close to 40 and I’ve got kids.”

And then we were both laughing.

We stayed silent for a bit, then made small talk, two friends chatting and laughing over dinner, talking about movies and funny stories and life in our 30s. We talked about our families and jobs.

After dinner was cleaned up, Tanner slapped my shoulder once. “Well, when the time and person are right, you’ll make a great husband.”

“Ha, thank you very much, my friend. And thanks for the company tonight. And dinner! That was fantastic.”

I gave Tanner a hug goodbye. As he left, he stood in the doorway, turned back toward me one last time, and gave a ‘tsk-tsk’ sound.

“Yup. Completely underestimated.” Then he closed the door behind him.