Inner Dialogue

I’ve been working on mindfulness lately. Slowing the world down. I’ve been practicing this for years, and I still have more work to do. Lately, my meditation has been all about inward body monitoring. Breathe, focus, calm, and a focus on what is happening under my eyelids, or against the lining of my stomach; picking out sore spots in my back, slowly and deliberately; feeling where cloth is touching my skin and how that is distinct from the air. It’s powerful work, and it brings a calm I couldn’t have anticipated.

Mindfulness is applied to other areas of my life as well. Mindfulness in the way I’m spending money. Mindfulness in the types of food I’m choosing to eat, and when. Mindfulness in how I spend time with my children, in the way I exercise, in how I read books, in how I spend my mornings. I know the difference between peace and discord, and I’m ever striving toward peace. Accountability. Integrity.

This morning, I put mindfulness in a new and unexpected direction. I lent it toward the inner, critical dialogue, the one that seems to play on autopilot during moments of vulnerability. In the last few years, I’ve worked to silence that voice. It runs so far in the background now. But I found it sparking up while I was exercising, and I paid attention to it, from a non-judgmental space. I just observed it there, from deep down inside me. And the moment I allowed it to speak, I realized it wouldn’t shut up. I realized it never has.

I was stretching on a yoga mat at the gym. I was in a black tank top and orange camouflage shorts, and I had on longĀ Wonder Woman socks, a pair given to me as a gift recently. My phone and my library book, a collection of letters that I planned to read between sets, sat on the floor next to me. It was a quieter day at the gym, only 6:45 am, but the morning regulars were there, walking around, gabbing, listening to music, lifting weights. A blonde woman kept slamming a ball on the floor and I could feel the tremors beneath me. All the way across the gym, a man was dropping heavy weights on the floor as he grunted loudly, and I could hear the crash every time. Obnoxious 90s rap music played. The wind was blowing outside. I was hungry, and sore, and still sleepy.

A gym regular walked past, one I used to have a crush on years ago. I remembered asking him out a few times a few years back and he’d never responded one way or the other, reacting with ambivalence and a shrug. I remembered feeling, back then, like I wasn’t good enough to get his attention. He was younger, fitter, and must have his pick of men, I told myself. Or maybe I was intimidating. Or maybe too old, too out of shape, too talkative. Maybe my teeth weren’t straight enough. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Then again, he hadn’t answered at all, so maybe I wasn’t even interested in the first place. Maybe I’d been desperate. Maybe it had just been a passing crush. Maybe if I’d gotten to know him, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.

And, in fact, I wasn’t interested. Not now. I’ve been with a man I love very much for the last two years. And yet those feelings were still there, deep down, that old dialogue. The ones that spoke to insecurity, confusion, harsh self-criticism. The ones that told me I was never good enough. The ones that tried to make sense of the world as I understood it and why I never seemed to fit in. The ones I grew up with. Instead of silencing them, I spend some time with them. Safely. I observed them as I let that narrative continue. I closed my eyes as I did sit-ups and planks and twists. It was easy to give it voice. I’d spent so long there, so long, so many years.

Does he notice me now, I thought. Does he see me. If I asked him why he’d never been interested, what would he say. If I were to ask him why he never responded back then, what would he say, how would he respond. I found my internal self playing out some form of the conversation in my brain. You were too needy back then, he might say. Or maybe he might say that if I looked then like I do now, more fit and focused on myself, maybe he would have been interested. What would I have said back, I wondered. Would I have told him to fuck off, that he should have gotten to know me back then, that I was worth his time then and now I wasn’t sure he was worth mine. Would I walk away with head held high, would I gush, feel confused, brag about how happy I am now. How would I respond. Of course he wasn’t interested, of course. You were insecure, you never measured up, you had children, you were in debt, your teeth weren’t straight, you’d been married, you waited too long to come out of the closet, you didn’t love yourself enough.

Guh. I sat up on the mat and took a long inward breath. That inner dialogue. Playing out these shame scenarios that would never happen and that I wouldn’t want to happen in the first place. Listening to those inner voices, the ones I had grown up with for so long, the ones that had infected my head for all of those years. The constant measuring, the never being enough, the endless comparisons. I wasn’t that person any more. My way free had been hard fought and hard won. It had taken effort, therapy, soul-searching. I had a healthy spirituality now, and I liked myself. I didn’t give a shit what people thought anymore, not in most cases. But if I gave it voice, it was all still there, deep down, all still present. The old wounds, the old heavy spaces, still there. A part of the old me, deep down, needing to be channeled just once in a while.

And then I found comfort. I found peace with the me that was, and the me that is. And I found comfort in the old parts of me being integrated into these new parts of me, with peace and space. Inner child, closeted Mormon, repressed father, all of those pieces from my past were still there, part of this new independent me. I could learn from them. I could listen and be okay.

I got up, walked past my old gym crush, thought of my happy little family now, and grabbed some free weights, ready to get to work.

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the shark tooth necklace

I’ve always had a babyface.

When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I looked 12. When I was 20 and on a Mormon mission, I looked 15. When I was 25 and launching my career, doing marriage counseling for couples who had been together 40 years, I looked 20. And now, I’m 37 and look 30.

It isn’t such a bad thing now that I’m a bit older. I have a dusting of grey at my temples. I lost all of my weight years ago and I’m getting in great shape for the first time in my life, a slow and steady process over the past few years. I look old enough to have some basic respect in my field, though I have much more experience than many think at this point.

Growing up a gay Mormon kid (I know I mention it all the time, but it is my origin story), I was relatively accustomed to never speaking up for myself or taking care of myself. I was firmly in the service to others mold most of my life, trying very hard to cure something. I never thought of myself as handsome or attractive.

At 17, I took a trip to Hawaii with my high school band, a venture we had saved up for for 2 years prior to going. It was an epic week of playing band concerts and getting to see a place outside of southeast Idaho for the first time. Though there were chaperones, and though nearly every kid in the group was Mormon, I was away from all of the craziness going on in my house for the first time, and I remember feeling an epic sense of freedom, the first lesson I had that when things are crazy at home they can still be peace in the world outside.

I remember walking through a giant flea market, I think they called it a swap meet, where local vendors sold cheap T-shirts, art of sand and seashells, cheap hand-crafted clocks, fresh pineapple juice, and hundreds of other items. We were encouraged to barter with the vendors, talking them down from $8 to $7 and feeling powerful for having done so, not knowing the item only cost 50 cents to make. I bought items for my family back home, a coconut shell Tiki head, a little Hula girl doll, a swimsuit calendar full of men for my sister (who upon opening it later found a guy who looked bizarrely like me, except, you know, not 12 and in much better shape).

My friend Jen,a gorgeous girl with short hair that everyone in the school had a crush on, linked arms with me and told me it was time to get something nice for myself. (Many of my friends later told me they knew I was gay. I imagine Jen did also, though I’ve never asked her). She walked me over to a T-shirt vendor and picked out a tanktop for me. She made me try on a pair of sunglasses until she found one that I liked. Then, to top off the ensemble, she picked out a simple shark tooth on a necklace and placed it around my neck. All finished, she had me stand up and she looked me over.

“Chad! You look hot!”, she exclaimed.

I remember feeling a sense of elation, confidence, a burst of healthy ego. It wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I knew she wasn’t in to me like that (and I wasn’t into her), but to have someone take the time to notice me, to compliment me genuinely… it was an amazing feeling.

Later that night, we went to a luau on the beach. I took off my shirt and sunglasses, put on a grass skirt, and kept the shark tooth necklace on. We all posed for photos on the beach.

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Fast forward 15 years to when I finally came out of the closet, and started realizing that not only was it okay to like other men, but that men, good-looking men that I found attractive… some of them also found me attractive. It was a powerful feeling, one of wonder.

Sometimes I still feel like that scrawny kid on the beach of Hawaii in a shark tooth necklace, realizing it is okay to feel just a bit selfish, to be just a little bit handsome, to enjoy the attention of others. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of crucial to healthy development.

Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class for the first time. The room was something like 80 degrees and it was packed with people. Beautiful people. Shirtless, shoeless, beautiful people. There was a moment half-way through where were were all in mountain pose, arms to the sky, everyone glistening with sweat as beautiful music played behind us. I scanned the room for a moment, seeing muscular calves, strong backs, lean stomachs, beautiful tranquil views of serenity on faces, fingers pointed toward skies. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror, strong chest and shoulders, thick arms, rooted feet. And I had a beautiful realization.

I fit.

I have always fit. With those around me. I spent so many years not fitting and it felt wonderful to fit. I too was beautiful. And not because of the size of my calves or pecs, but because I care about myself now. I take care of myself now.

I pictured the shark tooth necklace around my neck and grinned widely, showing my teeth. Then I closed my eyes and, fingers pointed toward the sky, joined the serenity.