Spirit 6: Inspiration

The Catholics call it the Holy Trinity, or the Three-In-One. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. They are easily understood with clearly delineated roles, yet they are impossible to understand. They are the same and yet different, and it is in the mix of understanding and non-understanding that the beauty of the belief exists. At least, that’s house I understand it. I was never Catholic.

For the Mormons, the three are separate and distinct entities. The Father is the god of heaven and all things, the literal father of every spirit on Earth. The Son is the son of god, Jesus Christ himself, who came to earth and died for the sins of man. And then there is the Holy Ghost, an ethereal presence that is everywhere on earth at once, in the heart of everyone  simultaneously.

The Holy Ghost was difficult to grasp when I was a child. It sounded like some haunted being in a church, but it was the most sacred of things. Words in the scriptures called him things like the comforter, who was there to teach and warn. It was explained to me that every human had access to the holy ghost, through the “light of Christ”, which was never really explained to me, but that believing faithful Mormons who had been baptized had a honed access, a special receptor if you will, an ability to commune more directly with the spirit itself. Mormons were baptized at the age of 8 and then, after they had been purified in the water, there was a laying on of hands by someone with the priesthood who confirmed them a member of the church and gave them the GIFT of the holy ghost. After that, it was up to each member to stay worthy of the gift by doing things that god commanded, being obedient, following all of the rules, and then the spirit would guide them in their daily lives.

The holy ghost was supposed to warn of danger and evil, to provide comfort, and to whisper direction, but it could only dwell the loudest in places of reverence, love, and kindness. I mean, it dwelled everywhere and always, but could only be felt most acutely in places of obedience, of holiness. I was taught early to watch for this spiritual guidance form this holy entity. We sang songs like “Listen to the Still-Small Voice” and “Sweet is the Peace the Gospel Brings”. We were trained to search for a “burning in our bosom”. We were taught repeatedly that following the rules would elicit the spirit in our lives and result in happy, positive choices that god was proud of. Tell a lie, fight with your sister, or disobey your mom, no spirit. Tell the truth, get along, do as you are told, the spirit is there.

It was all rather esoteric, and there was a whole level of bizarreness beyond that, subtle mentions of the dark spirits of the devil constantly trying to tempt you into doing wrong. Always follow the right path, hold to the rod, listen to that still-small voice, otherwise you are giving in to the devil and god will be disappointed.

Mormon conversions are almost solely based on this spiritual concept. Non-members are challenged to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. I handed out dozens of copies of the Book of Mormon as a missionary, and I always highlighted the same verse at the end of the book. The verse basically invited people to read the book, then think and pray about it with “a sincere heart and real intent”, and then the spirit would teach them if it was true or not. How did it do that? By bringing peace. If they felt peaceful and good about what they read, it was true. And if it was true, it was ALL true, every part of the church. The priesthood, the baptism, the tithing, the policies, the requirements, every ounce of it. If it feels good, it’s true, and if it’s true, we are right about everything. And if you didn’t feel peaceful or good about it, well, you didn’t try hard enough so try again.

What I didn’t realize until later is that feeling peace, experiencing conscience or internal thought, experiencing a gut reaction to something… that are HUMAN qualities. They aren’t divine messages from god through an ethereal spirit. They are just human nature, impacted by nutrition, sleep, endorphins, and weather. And what Mormons have done, what many religions have done, is the taking of these HUMAN principles, bottling them as a product to ensure religious conformance. If I stand on a pulpit and tell you that you are special, and if that warms your heart to hear that you are special, then that means I speak for god because you felt warm, and now you have to follow my rules.

Holy ghost? Holy shit, it’s just the normal human brain, and I believed in some godly alien entity who has no form and dwells in the hearts of billions, but mostly those following the rules. How did I believe that? How did I teach that to others?

But the Mormons take it one step farther. They teach that those who feel the holy ghost are also entitled to “personal revelation”. In other words, god will give direction and guidance through his spirit to help people make decisions. Women can get guidance for themselves and their children. Men can receive it for themselves and their families, and their revelations supersede the others because they hold the priesthood. Bishops get it for their wards, and so on and up to the prophet, who gets revelation for the church. A man can get a revelation that says his wife should have another baby, or his son shouldn’t go to college, but he can’t receive it for the neighbor family. Mormons use this spiritual guidance constantly to reaffirm their own decisions and lives, sometimes positively and sometimes otherwise. “I prayed and God told me I should have soup for lunch/ should quit my job and go back to school/ should ask Sally to marry me/ should take a different road to work today/ should try to convert my cousin.” And I’ll notice people who grow up Mormon using the same spiritual feelings to justify their decisions later, even when they are entirely contrary to Mormon rules. It’s a bizarre form of programming that takes people years to clear their heads from.

I listen to my gut, my conscience, my inner thoughts all the time now. It’s crucial for me to hone in on that inner guidance system. But I no longer think of these parts of me in accordance with ghosts, or rewards for obedience. I don’t use my guidance system to justify my bad behavior, or to judge others by. Instead, I use it to try to be the best version of me that I can. On my terms.

And I still balk at what it was I used to believe in.

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Spirit 4: Moral Authority

I was 12 when I received the Aaronic Priesthood. They explained that this was the lesser Priesthood, or the official authority to act in god’s name, to perform his ordinances. It wasn’t the first Mormon ritual I underwent: I was blessed as a baby, then baptized at the age of 8, then I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I received the Holy Ghost. All of those ordinances were done by Priesthood holders, men who were given the Priesthood by other Priesthood holders when they were younger. It was like a treasure map with necessary stops along the way, all necessary to reach the final destination: salvation.

At 12, as a deacon, I was allowed to pass the sacrament, the blessed bread and water, to members of the congregation during church meetings. At 14, as a teacher, I was given additional responsibilities, those of home-teaching. At 16, as a priest, I could bless the sacrament, sanctify it. At 18, as an elder, I was given the higher Priesthood, called the Melchizedek, which gave me many more abilities. I could perform baptisms, perform blessings of healing and comfort, consecrate oil, and dedicate homes, among other things.

It was all very official, very coming-of-age. Other cultures let young men go on their first hunt to become a man, I received the Priesthood for mine. First, I had to pass the worthiness interview: did I pay my tithing, obey the law of chastity, believe fully in the church and the prophet and the teachings, etc, and if I said yes to all the questions, I was deemed worthy. I said yes to all the questions, but at the same time, I didn’t believe I was worthy, not truly. I hoped God would find me as such, but I didn’t believe it. I was attracted to boys, even back then, and that made me less than the other boys. Less manly, less straight, less worthy.

Worthiness was the key component to holding the Priesthood. That and having a penis. Boys held the Priesthood and ran things and girls got to be wives and mothers. In the temple ceremony years later, I would stand with the men and promise to follow God; the women would, with veiled faces, stand together and promise to follow their husbands. Clear chain of command.

All the Priesthood holders I knew had it rough, living up to the strict expectations of the church, paying ten per cent of their money, giving much of their time for free to church activities and meetings, all while providing for their families and keeping their families happy. They had to do so willingly and worthily or they wouldn’t be fit to carry god’s authority any longer. There was the full-time job, the full-time calling, and the busy household to maintain. All while staying worthy.

And even if you had the Priesthood, you couldn’t use it if you weren’t worthy, that was evident. See, god gave the authority to certain prophets before Christ, then he gave it to Christ, who gave it to his apostles, but they all died and the authority was taken away from the earth, but then god gave it back to Joseph Smith when he founded Mormonism in the 1830s, then Smith passed it on to his apostles, and it got passed right on down to me. One long chain of authority. Baptisms would have to be done for everyone who ever lived on the earth, as well as temple work, because Mormonism was supposed to fill the whole planet stretching back to the earliest days of the earth and on into the eternities.

But the thing was, men lied about being worthy all the time. Even as a young kid, I saw Priesthood holders performing ordinances like blessings for the sick and blessings on the sacrament, when I knew they weren’t worthy. There were members of my own family who did this, and many members of my friends’ families. Men who molested children, who viewed pornography, and who hit their wives were regularly attending the temple and participating in ordinances. And these men were the same ones guiding the families and the wards. These were the men that the women and children were supposed to follow. I used to believe these stories were few, but they seem to be a large minority of the households out there, these corrupted leaders guiding others with the sanctioned authority of god.

I brought up these concerns with church leaders a few times, and I was generally told to just be patient and trust that god would work it out. I knew at least seven girls in high school who were being molested by their fathers, and some of these men had high positions in the church. But we were to just trust in god. Just trust that he will work it out. These men are the leaders, and god knows their hearts, and god will guide them to do what is right. Only god could judge. God is in charge and he says the men are in charge, even the ones who hurt others. Just trust.

Some examples of this stand out more than others in my mind. I once reported to a church authority that a man was molesting his daughters; that man was given a ‘talking to’, I was told, but he was never released from his calling, never excommunicated from the church; he stayed right there where he was and he kept molesting his kids. And when my own stepfather’s physical abuse was exposed, he was temporarily disfellowshipped, and then reinstated three months later, still serving in the temple, still sitting in church every week. Meanwhile, the men who were exposed as being gay were being excommunicated right and left.

The whole ‘authority of god’ thing felt pretty special in the beginning, but as with all things in religion, it grew more complicated the more I learned. Joseph Smith claimed angels had come down from heaven to give him the authority. He used it to get revelations for the whole church, for the whole earth even, and the revelations were often complicated and contradictory. He used it to marry four dozen women, and he gave other men that right, but later men couldn’t do that anymore. He said only white men could have the power, but that changed too in the late 1970s. Certain men could do certain things, but only if they were worthy, and it all depended on their jurisdiction–one man could run his family, other men ruled congregations or geographic areas. There were “keys to the Priesthood” conferred to various men in various positions for various tenures.

Me? In the beginning, the Priesthood made me pretty special. But it added a burden to what I was already carrying. This intense pressure to be right before god when I knew I was wrong, it caused a deep rift within me, one that resulted in deep depression, pain, and anxiety. And eventually, when it all came apart at the seams, the release of that pressure gave me a new lease on life. Ultimately, giving up this pressure to be good according to a list of rules was replaced by just being good for its own sake.

And something I’ve learned almost more than anything else since leaving it all behind: women should be the ones in charge, and the men agreeing to follow them.

Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

Spirit 2: On Divine Potential

I was raised to believe I was one of the chosen ones. I was of a chosen generation, saved to be born in these latter days to help usher the kingdom of heaven to earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This was the ned of human mortal history, we were taught. The dispensation of the fullness of times. The creation of the earth and every ounce of human history that preceded would be culminated in this one, when Christ came again and men would be judged.

And where much was given (i.e. being one of the chosen ones, being born into the true gospel), much was required (i.e. a full life of dedicated service to the church, ten per cent of my money, and strict obedience to all of the rules).

And like all things in the religion, this could be very simple or very complicated. God had billions of spirit children in a spirit realm that we called the pre-existence. He created the planet and had humans born so they could be tested to see if they were worthy to return to him. In the thousands of years of human history, billions of humans were born in different eras. Some humans were born with advantages and others with disadvantages, the way I was taught. I could have been born into poverty or into slavery, during the dark ages when god didn’t allow his word to be taught correctly, or in the wrong religion. But I was born American (in the country god set up to establish his church), male (the gender god allowed to hold his priesthood), and white (seemingly god’s preferred skin color). On top of all of that, I was born Mormon, because my parents were Mormon. So I already had the true religion. See how fortunate I was?

The scriptures were full of stories about choosing the right paths, sacrificing everything for god, and following the rules with exactness even when life got difficult. I was born gay, but I could change that, they said. The rest was there, there were no questions and there was no room to question. I had a hero’s quest ahead of me and it was all laid out. I had every tool I needed to succeed. Baptism, Priesthood, two-year missionary service, temple marriage to a woman, and a life of service to the church. I was one of the chosen ones. I could stand up in my white shirt and tie next to all my brethren and be proud that I had it right while everyone else had it wrong. But they could have it right, also, if they learned to be just like me.

What I never realized at the time, what I couldn’t realize, is how inherently arrogant those messages made me. By teaching me that I was chosen, that meant I was superior. Inherently better. I had something that everyone else needed, and they had to be like me to get it. They had to follow the same rules and ordinances. I had no concept of human history, of slavery, of war, of poverty, of gender discrimination, of sexual assault, of addiction. The message I had to share was just ‘turn to god and be like me so you can have what I have’. Gay men were told to make themselves straight, people with disabilities were told they could be healed, women were told to be happy with their station in life, people of different races were (for a time at least) told they could be made white. We were all god’s children, and he wanted us to look the same, one happy family of white men with women behind them, stretching on for generations.

As a missionary, I taught people these things. I sat with the elderly, with the poor, with ex-cons and addicts, with the abused and the disenfranchised, with African-Americans and Pennsylvania-Ducth and Methodists and the Amish. I was 19, and I told them how to make their lives better by being more like me. And if anyone challenged this inherent arrogance within me, well, I could just shrug and fall back on what I was taught. I wasn’t being sexist or ageist or racist or homophobic or xenophobic. I was just preaching it the way I was taught. I was chosen. And this was how god wanted it to be.

I look back on that era of my life with shame and embarrassment now. I can’t believe what I used to believe. But the truth is, I just didn’t know any better at the time. Once I knew better, everything was different. I had to change myself and the way I look at life. Once I learned about the world, I couldn’t put blinders back on and ignore it. Superiority is no longer my religion. My spirituality is now more closely associated with fairness, equality, and human potential. It is about learning from history, understanding privilege, and fighting for the underdog. It’s about celebrating diversity, embracing all of god’s children, and sharing, or even surrendering, power to those who have been disenfranchised for too long. I listen now. I hear. I inquire. I learn. I don’t spout my dogma and silence the voices of others, I instead seek my place at the table of good and ethical people who want to make the world better. I suppose that makes my spirituality a bit more socialist than capitalist, a bit more Democrat than Republican, a bit more humanitarian than industrial revolutionist, but I like it that way. I like my current ethics, the way I want to preserve this planet and improve the people on it. I’m proud of my journey now and I have no doubts about it.

And, truth be told, that is something I couldn’t say before.

Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

I only had the one brother, and he was much older than me. I had lots of friends in the high school, but I kept my guard up around them almost constantly, so scared of being found out for being gay. I had one friend that shared a bed with me sometimes on sleepovers throughout high school and, well, that was tempting, but I still kept myself so carefully contained.

And then I went on a Mormon mission for two years. First there were three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I was 19, and at the height of my sexual exploration phase, just like all of the other thousands of missionaries. I was 19, and surrounded by other 19 year olds. I had no personal space, no free time. I shared a room with good-looking young men. We studied scriptures together, read together, walked together. The only time I had to myself, literally, was when I closed the stall door in the bathroom. And, strangest of all, we showered together. No shower curtains. Big group showers with multiple shower heads coming out of each pole in the room.

I’m positive there were other gay kids in the MTC, but I didn’t know that then. The elders were relentless. The wore the name of Jesus Christ on their shirt lapels, but they were very young and very horny. Some walked around naked. They talked about girlfriends, and fantasies, and wet dreams. They openly discussed the size of their penises and sometimes showed them off. They bragged about past sexual encounters, the sizes of girls’ breasts, what they did on dates to stop from getting erect. I’d never been around other guys like this, and I wasn’t coping well. I had to cope by being pious, by being the most dedicated missionary possible. But when I did that, I didn’t fit in, and when I didn’t do that, I didn’t feel worthy. God was never going to cure me being gay at this rate.

And thus set up the following two years. A constant war with me trying to fit in and follow the rules at the same time, and both of those were impossible, because I didn’t fit. And I had nowhere to hide, no rooms to retreat to. The bathroom was my only solace, my only break. That and sleep. Depression set in deep, and the anxiety continued whenever I felt attracted to someone.

I found myself adapting swiftly to whoever my companion was. When I was attracted to my companion, I had a clumsiness and a defensiveness about me. When I was with a jock or a bully, I became the misfit, the awkward nerd who didn’t conform. When I was with someone with strange social manners, I had an air of impatience and superiority about me.

I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but at least two out of my fifteen companions were also gay and later came out. I haven’t ever asked if their internal struggles were like mine, but I found myself wondering after my mission, what if something had happened. What if there had been a mutual attraction, and someone had made a move, and the other had responded. What if we had found pleasure, found lust realized, found love back then, a fling during a time we should have been in college. The consequences at the time would have been devastating, humiliating. There would likely have been confessed sins, an early release home, a heartbreaking coming out to the family, some therapy. But maybe, maybe that would have propelled me out of the closet much sooner. Maybe it would have changed the entire course of my life.

Instead, the duration of my missionary experience was me staying tightly locked up inside of myself while I knocked on doors, faced the tedium of the day-to-day monotony of missionary work, read the scriptures, called in numbers to the mission president, hoped for success. I taught a few openly gay men on my mission, and I saw them as weak, morally inferior, as less than for submitting to being gay. I had grown to hate what I was, and hate it even more when I recognized it in others.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself free of sin during this time. I worked hard and studied hard. I prayed often, journaled, wrote home, asked for guidance and blessings, and tried hard to keep the spirit. But the depression got bad sometimes, and I frequently felt worthless, hopeless, and without any kind of drive. I lusted after some of my companions, and others that I met. I wanted so badly to be noticed by them, to have them desire me back. I had errant thoughts, sexual fantasies, and sometimes struggled with masturbation. And I knew that if I told anyone about this, they would respond that if I had even one sexual sin, how could God possibly cure me, how could I be considered worthy. God had given me so much, how could I make Jesus suffer like that with my sin? I was so locked up.

All in all, during that two years, I did nothing egregious. I baptized a few people. And in those two years, there was only one companion I fell for. He was straight, but he was handsome, and kind, and attentive. He asked how I was and he listened. He offered back massages. He made me laugh. He thought I was cool. And we spent every waking moment together for three months, how could I not fall for him? One night, I told him in a quiet voice that I was attracted to boys. He responded that he wasn’t that surprised, and it didn’t bother him at all, but he wanted to make sure I knew he was straight. I assured him I was as well, and we never spoke of it again.

And thus passed my time from ages 19-21. The height of my sexual development. I spent it hiding, scared, ashamed, depressed, and feeling broken. I would later contemplate what it would be like for straight young men to be sent to live with beautiful women, to shower with them, to sleep in a bed feet away from them, to never be alone. What if we told these men that lusting was wrong, that they couldn’t masturbate, or deviate, that they couldn’t have sexual thoughts, and that if they did they were wrong, broken, and should be ashamed. Realizing this helped me realize what a torturous and cruel time this was. It was spiritual abuse in a concentrated form.

In December of 1999, I went home, my head and heart full of shame, my spirit dark. And I started college two weeks later.

Totem

Whale

My brain has gone quiet lately. I haven’t written in weeks. Usually, my head is a landscape of questing, goal-setting, gratitude, frustrations, and rushing thoughts. I divide my time between clients, kids, boyfriend, friends, and self. But lately, it’s all been quieter. I’m just living for moments instead of all the rest.

Today, I stood on the top of a boat and watched the circle of life. I saw northern humpback whales spout water out of their blowholes, the water turning into a little geyser stream of vapor due to the speed of the rushing water. Displaying their humps and then their tails, the whales took great gulps of air as they deep-dived beneath the surface, giving off little echoing sounds that stunned the fish around them. As those fish bobbed to the surface, soaring gulls rushed down to grab them. The whales would disappear for five to ten minutes before coming up for another blow, another gulp, another flip of the tail, and down they went again.

The tour guide explained that the sun and glacier water at this time of year enrich the populations of phytoplankton, then plankton in the water, creating breeding grounds for several species of fish. Enormous schools of salmon, trout, and others return to Alaska to feed in the cold waters, leading the whales to return to feed on them. These particular whales spend a lot of their time in Hawaii, to bear their young. The males race, frolic, wrestle, and sing to get the attention of the females, who carry their calves for a year before giving birth to an infant that weighs a ton.

We saw the brown heads of sea lions poking their heads out of the water, fighting for a place on a small buoy in the distance, hoping to get warm. The males in this species can reach a ton, she says. I hear one of them growl. I check my phone and discover a group of sea lions is called a raft, a group of seals is called a harem. Whales are in pods, crows in murders, ravens in unkindnesses, porcupines in prickles, weasels in confusions, swallows in flights, and eagles in convocations. These seemingly random, sometimes bizarrely clever, names for the groupings of animals swim around my mind, fighting for attention, bringing a half smile to my lips.

As she spoke, I could see sloping mountains, the blue edges of Mendenhall Glacier, skimming Surf Scooters and soaring Bald and Golden Eagles and obnoxious Crows and impatient Sea Gulls all watching for the fish. She described how one island, 1600 square miles, had a vast population of bears on it, nearly one per square mile, while the other across the bay had no bears, because the salmon streams were only close to one, thus humans lived on the other. Helicopters and seaplanes soared overhead, and on the distant highway cars buzzed by, while thousands disembarked from their cruise ships to explore the isolated city.

I’ve only been in Juneau a little over a day, and I’m already realizing how this city is always here, going on with these throngs of people and animals. It’s only different now because I’m in it, here to feel the air and hear the sounds. The sun rose at 4 this morning, and it didn’t set until 11 pm the night before, and the lesser amount of light is messing with my head. I feel ethereal, and I think of how impossible it would feel to be here in the winter, when the light lasted mere hours while the darkness stretched on endlessly. Would I only want to sleep too much, as now I wanted to be awake too much?

I pull my scarf from my bag and wrap it around my neck, then wrap my arms around myself. The ocean air blows against me, around me, as the boat lurches up and down on the wake of other boats. “It’s an Alaskan roller coaster!” our guide shouts, and I laugh, wondering again if she is a lesbian. If she is, I’m somehow more fond of her, and I realize that fact is strange. She seems to love her job, and I realize how rare that is.

The boat is called the Awesome Orca, and on the wall is a long row of certifications and safety protocols. One for safety trainings, life jackets, rafts, signal flares, and fire extinguishers, another for the proper protocol in approaching humpack whales in the wild. This is her job, I realize, looking for whales every day. And it is someone else’s job to make sure she does it right. I ask a question, and she says she can recognize some of the whales by the patterns on their tails, and that astounds me almost more than anything else. She has names for them, she says.

We see six separate whale tails in a row, the entire pod presenting for us as they throw themselves down for more food, yet the thought in my head is “Chad, why haven’t you been writing lately?” My brain is tired, I think. I need sleep. I recount recent domestic distresses at home, how my kids were with me for two weeks straight, the crises I’m managing for my clients consistently, and my failure to meet my nutrition goals and how I keep making excuses. I think of the things that bother me, that stay on my mind week after week, and I wonder how to sort them out again. I wonder about writing, and where this is all leading. I wonder about better ways to be successful. I think of the totem poles looming over my bed in the room I’m staying in, and how I could only see the edge of a glacier that extends for hundreds of miles, and how the entire world used to be covered in ice. I think of how Alaska is bigger than California, Texas, and Montana combined, but they make it look so much smaller on the map. I think of how the ocean, despite its vastness, smells like gasoline from all of the boats and flying crafts.

And I think of how I’m standing here, and how no one else is sure I’m here at all.

Heaven

heaven.jpg

“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

Reconciling God

God.jpgMy thoughts have turned to God lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s there, and he isn’t.

And I’m here, until I’m not.

Big man in Little Armenia

little-armenia-sign

I know nothing of Armenia.

While I consider myself a relatively well-educated person, constantly seeking to learn more, I have very little knowledge of the overall world outside my small spheres of influence.

So, when I took an impromptu four day vacation to Los Angeles, I booked a small Airbnb in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crashing on a stranger’s couch so I could have some adventures in a new city. And I wound up in a small section of LA proper, just off of Hollywood Boulevard, near a confluence of other sections of the city. Little Armenia.

Cities have a strange way of breaking up into little sections. Safe and unsafe spaces. Spots to congregate. Businesses pile up here, artists there, tourist traps in another spot. There are hidden gems in any area of any little city. And Little Armenia didn’t disappoint.

One city block was vibrant with new businesses, in a strip mall format. Asian noodles on the corner, a barbershop and nail salon next door, a “Thai massage” spot one over from there, and a cute Asian bistro next to that. I stumbled on this block my first day in the city, exploring the area, and I thought, well, why not.

I entered the haircut salon first. A middle-aged woman named Nona greeted me with a wink and a smile. With few words, she sat me in a barber’s chair and got out her scissors, prepared to give me one of the most inefficient haircuts I’ve ever received. Nona had her hair bobbed up, short and sort of curled outward, like something from America’s past. She made a few cuts, surveyed me in the mirror, and nodded. “You are a very handsome American white boy,” she said in a thick Middle Eastern accent.

As Nona cut my hair, she told scattered stories, not related to each other. I barely spoke, happy to just listen and enjoy the experience. She kvetched about her adult daughter, always wanting to use the car, and beamed about her daughter in high school, successful and going places with her future. She talked to another woman in the parlor, wondering if some of their favorite clients would be coming in today. She wondered if she had made enough dinner.

I looked up at the wall, seeing a map of Armenia, a small country whose shape reminded me of a bird, wedged tightly between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. I intuited that there were likely wars there, women’s rights issues, as exist in so many countries in that region. I looked up at Nona and wondered what she had experienced to get here. I wondered if she missed home. I wondered about her family and her life in America. She looked happy. I could have asked a hundred questions, but instead I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a five dollar tip (she called me handsome, after all).

I walked next door with my new bad haircut and found a seat at a hardwood table. A single fresh flower stood in a small glass filled with water, its petals a light purple, and I started at it, contemplating its origins, as the waiter put in my order of crispy pork over glass noodles. The meal was simple and spicy and delicious, and during it, I remained within myself. I didn’t listen to other conversations or even look around the place. I just wanted to be there, me and my food, in Little Armenia.

I planned to keep walking after that, and to think and contemplate my space in life, but as I walked by the massage parlor, a gorgeous Armenian woman stepped outside. She was small, petite, with long shiny black hair down her back. “You want a massage? I offer discount.” She was grinning. I looked inside the place and assessed it wasn’t some seedy back parlor joint with threats of police raids and extra services offered for tips. It was actually quite beautiful. “I’m Mari. You want massage? $40 for one hour.”

I nodded, smiling, and entered the parlor. That’s a great price, and who am I to turn down fate on vacation? Soon I was in a back room with a massage table. I slipped on a pair of shorts made from a material that felt like gauze, and tied a cord around my waist to fasten it since three of me would fit in the shorts. I laid down on the table and soon Mari entered.

The massage was fantastic. Relaxing and soothing at times, deep and abiding at others, with sharp shocking slaps on large muscles to release tension. When Mari climbed on my back (no really, she climbed on my back) and used her knees and elbows to work different spots, it was heaven. Toward the end, I flipped over on my back and she worked on my feet. I felt my head drop back and I fell into an immediate sleep, awakened only by my own sharp, dehydrated snores a few minutes later.

Just minutes later, I stood on a street corner, under a large palm tree. The sun was perfect, warm but through a light breeze of ocean air mixed with city air, 70 degrees out. I closed my eyes. I could smell the massage oil on my skin, the sweet spice of the nearby noodle shop, and they mixed poorly with the concrete and urine smells of the city streets. There were almost too many sounds to individually distinguish them. Buzzing of electricity, motors and horns from the nearby freeway, busses and voices, loud loud loud.

And then I looked inward. Shoulders relaxed, stomach nurtured, feet sore with blisters, breeze on my skin and in my ears, lungs full, heart steady, head clear. I felt a patch of sun on my back, and I turned toward it.

This moment right here, this moment and any moment after, this was what I needed here.

when silence surrounds you

enjoy_the_silence

close our eyes in any space, and all that remains is sound

outward: soft electric whirs, the distant sound of traffic, gentle wind on tree

and inward: resonant heart thumping, breath in nostrils, digestion

 

these same sounds carry us from highway to mountaintop

they are immune to the heartbreak and soul ache,

persistent through sleep and stress and sanity

 

in this sought-out silence, amidst the chaos

we realize childhood truths,

we sort out spiritual deficiency,

we heal from the deepest wounds,

and we realize that those from far away may love us still.