Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

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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

Seattle Part 3: Lake Washington

Everyone warned me about the rain in Seattle. They spoke of it with such drama in their voices, telling me how it would be so depressing, wet, and cold there constantly. One friend warned me that people get suicidal in the winter there.

Me, though, I loved the weather there. The temperature there seemed to hover between 60 and 70 in September when I arrived, and when it rained it was a light, wet, drizzle. It was sometimes grey with clouds, and sometimes bright, delicious with sunshine and a light breeze. Every day felt like how I felt on the inside, or how I was working to feel: temperate, consistent, pleasant, calm.

I rented a bedroom in my step-brother’s condo. I hadn’t seen him in years. When I was 13, Bob had been married with children, and when he came out of the closet, my family reacted very poorly. My mother was married to his father back then, though they didn’t stay that way for long. Now I was in my mid-30s, and we had only recently established contact again. He lived in a lovely condo in the Madison Beach area of Seattle, nestled in between expensive homes on the beautiful edges of Lake Washington.

The beaches along the lake were grass, not sand, and I never once got in the water, but I grew to love watching the sun rise and set over the lake. The clouds moved languidly, and broke open to let sunshine spill through. In the early mornings, I could clutch my coffee and drink in the bright pinks and yellows of the rising sun. It filled my soul with hope, joy, and love. It felt like the God I should have grown up believing in, one full of opportunity, change, and love, constant every day. It was different every time, nature’s perfect show, there just for me.

My first week in Seattle, I walked along the edges of the lake, through unfamiliar neighborhoods, nestled on unfamiliar streets. Everyone was a stranger here. I could start fresh. No one knew me. I wasn’t the Mormon kid who made the colossal mistake of marrying and having children before coming out, I was just some guy that smiled and waved as they walked past. I had an anonymity that proved to be the perfect backdrop for the beginnings of my healing.

Years before, I had come out of the closet with such a fierce determination. I was going to live life on my terms, finally. I was going to show everyone what I was capable of, that I could be happy, that being gay wasn’t a choice, and one that didn’t have to result in doom, excommunication, and unhappiness. I could be happy! I could show them all! I could work, and write, and raise my kids, and pay my bills, and date, and start a new life, with energy, happiness, and no problems at all! I could do this! It would be perfect and wonderful, they would all see! That’s how I’d felt at the start.

But in Seattle, I let myself grieve, finally. I let myself feel all the things I had been holding back. I cried, oh how I cried. I cried in the sunshine, I cried in the rain. The tears were soft and silent sometimes, with easy breath, and they brought a calm. But sometimes they were jagged and came from that deep place within me where I had been storing them for so long, a bottomless bucket of painful tears that threatened to rip me open as I gasped for breath. At times, I cried so hard that my head ached and my stomach seized up, and I would sit on the park bench, facing the lake, as I clutched my stomach and squished my face up into painful shapes to try and avoid wailing out loud.

I cried with ache for missing my sons. I cried for all of my lost years. I cried because I hadn’t gotten to fall in love as a teenager, because I had wasted two years as a Mormon missionary, because I had spent nearly 20 years feeling lonely and isolated. I cried because my father left, because my God had forgotten me, because I had given so much time and love and money and obedience to an organization that told me I didn’t belong. I cried over those who disowned me when I came out. I cried over my divorce and the broken heart of my ex-wife. I cried because I had thought coming out would be easier, that I would find love and settle down and life would finally be simple, and I cried because it was the opposite of that in many ways. I cried over financial debts, emotional burdens, and family traumas. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

Yet each time I cried, I noticed that the clouds over the lake continued to move. The water continued to ripple, and the wind continued to blow. The sun went down, and it came up, whether I was crying or not. The world continued, indifferent to my tears, and I realized I didn’t have to continue crying. I could; I could cry as much as I needed to. But I could also not cry, I could be happy, I could spend the days living instead of crying, and that would be okay too.

And each time I cried, I would stop crying, at least for a while. And I would stand up, and I would walk the lake edge. I would hold myself together and stand up, and live. Once the tears weren’t there, the pieces of me that held me together, they were still there. I was still me. And I was starting to heal.

Gradually, along the edges of that lake, my tears began to leave, and my grieving started to end. It remained part of me, as it always would, but I found that I was okay with that.

Each day brought new determination, a quieter one this time. Each day brought peace.

And over the lake, the sun would rise yet again. As would I.

The Silver Sea

Tonight
The sea turned silver
The boiling sun
Took refuge behind a mass of opaque clouds
As yellow light spilled from its edges
In life-giving tendrils

With only a slight shift in vantage
I stood in a scattered crowd of humans
And saw the earth curve
A long arc across the horizon

Unconquerable ocean rolled forth endlessly
Walls of it smashing
Into the ground beneath me
Slowly and incessantly wearing it down

Rushing water drowned all sound
The guitars, the children,
The motors and tinny radios,
The fragile thumping hearts

And the humans stood as one
Facing west
Looking toward the circular world
As pin-prick stars
And spreading shadows
And salt-soaked wind
And whispering water
Held their weight.

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Love is an Autumn Leaf

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Love is shining armored knights braving deadly dragons at swordpoint.

Love is a lightning strike, unexpected and straight to the heart.

Love is caramel corn, sticky-sweet-gooey-crunchy-salty, making your teeth ache.

Love is an old family recipe, carefully handed down, timeless in its simplicity and perfection.

Love is little spoon, and big spoon, too.

Love is a straight-jacket in a padded room.

Love is a helpless addiction, needmoreneedmore.

Love is paying bills, bank account dwindling until payday.

Love is the smell of freshly brewed coffee at seven am, deeply inhaled before eyes open.

Love is a firm handshake, a signed merger, an exchange of strength and trust.

Love is molten lava chocolate cake, stomach full yet always room for one more bite.

Love is an empty home after a scary movie, every sound and shadow carrying the unknown.

Love is the sharp edge of a blade, harm so easily inflicted without careful handling.

Love is the chemical release of lips against lips.

Love is a blanket and pillow on a rainy day.

Love is a safety deposit box, contents secure.

Love is grandchildren.

Love is a ghost, haunting long after life’s end.

Love is an empty easel, a paintbrush, and a limitless supply of color.

Love is a glacier, securely underfoot, mobile and massive, extending over the horizon.

Love is the rising of the sun, every day, no matter the season or weather.

Love is an autumn leaf, once green now richly red, carefully falling to the earth, giving life back to the tree, to grow and begin again.

my tribute to my sister Sheri, and her person, Heather

A Few of My Favorite Things

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I love tree branch picture frames, when the view from my back is a dusky sky surrounded by jagged leafy edges.

I love the empty space in my arms on nights with no kids, where I can almost feel them cuddling into me, invisible heads nestled into the spot between my chin and my shoulders, a pellucid invisible hand on my cheek.

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I love the one hundred different colors the leaves think to turn themselves as the heat of summer retires into shorter days and longer, colder nights.

I love words that arrest my brain with sound and rhyme, poetry and deeper meaning. Fervor. Cadence. Alacrity. Pulchritude. Profundity. Lackluster. Brouhaha. Cacophony. Conundrum. Detriment.

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I love the shining crystals that stand on freshly fallen snow, undisturbed by the ugliness of footprints and human destruction.

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I love the helpless peeping sounds ducklings make as they boldly forage across the pond.

I love the deeply textured and billowed skyscrapers, canyons, valleys, and cities of clouds I only see from airplane windows.

I love the all-encompassing warmth in my heart when I hear my children call out to me in the mornings, the feelings of genuineness, unworthiness, love, patience, dedication, strength, and fear they bring.

I love savory salty crunches.

I love that two people could have ten thousand children, and each one would be a new combination, a unique and unpredictable miracle of life.

I love sunlight on my skin through the window, and how it can warm my whole body.

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I love the bizarre combination of peanut butter spread on toast and dipped in orange juice, the sweet, soggy, earthy flavor that coats my tongue with each bite.

I love the deep muscle ache that sets in the day after a great workout.

I love taking the last product out of the box, the sense of finality and accomplishment in disposing of the container, and the fresh feeling of birth and newness of replacing it with a new package.

I love seeing a sight, be it a squirrel, a spoonful of soup, or a sad sequined stranger, and inherently injecting emotion, drama, motive, incentive, denouement, plot, and climax in a split second, my writer’s brain operating undisciplined and unrestrained in even the most mundane.

I love seeing a person recognize their potential, forgive themselves, and choose to step forward with strength.

I love in late September when the air coats my lungs with cold and feels like Halloween.

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I love using my strong thumbs to find the tense spot and feeling the pain intensify with pressure before it oozes out of the body like toothpaste from the tube, leaving only the impression of a bruise behind.

I love the rare occasions when the deep percussion of my heartbeat sets in my bones with rhythm, celebration, alcohol, and friendship taking over, and I dance without limits.

I love walking the streets of an unfamiliar place and, without agenda, awaiting the next experience.

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Notebook and pencil

I love the thrill of a blank sheet of paper.

I love how each vertebra pops and expands and releases in the shift from downward dog to upward, and the newness each small stretch brings with it.

I love finding just the right angle in the mirror where I can think, “Damn, you look awesome”, for just a moment before I turn.

I love the unseen smile I get in my throat where no one can see when someone surprises me with just the right counterpoint in a bantering session, and the challenge I have to quip back.

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I love dark chocolate on my tongue, slowly melting.

I love the sound of woods, all rustling leaves and birdsong and pine.

I love the majesty, and the inevitability, of waterfalls.

I love the altering shades of blue in the eyes on my children, never quite the same, each containing their own universes.

I love the threat of the bathwater as it slowly rises around me, promising to cook me from outside in.

I love hot water down the spine.

I love the splashing colorful grandeur of fireworks.

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I love the smell of fresh apples.

I love earth, dirt, and grass beneath bare feet, knowing that billions of life forms exist below as they do here, and above.

I love thunderstorms, majestic, black, powerful, fill-the-entire-sky thunder and lightning extravaganzas.

I love choosing water by the cup, the glass, the gallon, and washing away all the unwanted with each sip, gulp, and drowning.

I love that there is no truth except my own, and that my truth is not your truth, and that your truth is not mine, and that my truth can change with age, and understanding, and experience.

I love shaking the boat, violently and willfully, or gently and rocking, so the water laps over and threatens the security of those who hold the oars, those who have forgotten other passengers are on board.

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I love the color coffee turns with just a touch of cream, and the soft bitter taste against my tongue with that first sip.

I love finding random knowledge, from a callously selected biography, an unexpected conversation, a dense nonfiction on an unfamiliar topic, a news article.

I love what I know to be challenged.

I love to have my awe inspired.

I love the pressure and anticipation I feel when finishing the last chapters of a book.

I love the slow painful realization that I’m not doing as well as I thought I was.

I love how many ways there are to make music.

I love my animal urges, and knowing that the animal is every bit as big a part of me as all the rest.

I love the feeling of a pair of eyes following me across the room.

I love losing myself in a role, in a character, in a line of lyric, in a song; becoming someone, something, somehow different from and more than myself, like all of us in one but still just me.

I love sticking it out, despite my most rational reasoning telling me I should go, and finding myself having a wonderful time.

I love learning that taking care of my own needs makes me better equipped as a father.

I love seeing myself on a long timeline, knowing each moment of my life was faced with all the authenticity I was equipped with at that moment.

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I love that everyone I have ever known leaves an impact on me, like a crashing meteor, or just a pebble, but enough to alter my lunar landscape for the rest of my days.

I love the other world I enter just before I fall asleep.

I love laying out small portions of my vulnerable self and finding out who will match me, pound for pound. I lay one down, then he does, I, then he, until trust and safety are there, or they aren’t. I love knowing that when I am not met in the middle, my sacredness, my self, will come back to me wiser and stronger through the pain and understanding.

I love that initial eye contact, then the gentle touch, then the kiss.

I love that line on the male form that extends over the stomach and into the hips on each side, the solidity and the core from which all else builds, and I love the strength when I feel place my hand there.

I love that no matter how far we fall as humans, physically or spiritually, we can always rise again in love and potential.

I love setting out to teach, and in turn learning more than I ever thought possible, over and over again.

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I love the assurance of the sunrise tomorrow, and the certainty of the moonrise tonight.