Sunday, July 20, 2014

how I got off the road

I think everyone realizes at some point in his life that there are things he has to change in order to either make it better or just to survive. These can be great changes that involve a lot of planning and effort—a move to another state or going back to school to learn a new craft or the decision to stop drinking—or they can be little, almost invisible changes that are so subtle no one except the person making them even knows that they’ve happened—getting up fifteen minutes earlier or cutting sodas out of one’s diet or counting to ten before responding when angry.

Most cultures have a ritual period during which someone needs to look closely at her life to determine if the path she is on, as religious leader Krishnamurti put it, has a heart. Nearly all Native American tribes put their young people on a vision quest. Natives of the Amazon River basin regularly undergo ritualized experiences to ensure they are doing what their gods require of them. Aboriginal peoples of Australia visit the Dreamtime while going walkabout. And this past Friday was the start of Ramadan, the month-long annual fasting period when Muslims are expected to examine their lives closely and make necessary changes.

I remember driving along a back road in rural Arkansas listening to the radio and a Bruce Springsteen song came on. It was “Hungry Heart,” which was a few years old at that point. This is a small decision that led to a bigger one. The smallest decision was to leave that song on; I wasn’t partial to Bruce Springsteen and especially not to something as loud and as sentimental as “Hungry Heart.” But I said to myself, No, leave it on, and before long I was singing along with it.
It’s almost funny how, even though you never pay attention to it, a song on the radio heard often enough comes to get stuck in your head, its words floating around making a mental picture, and you end up remembering them as you let your thoughts wander. That’s how it was with “Hungry Heart.” I was roaring out these lines—“Everybody needs a place to rest, / Everybody wants to have a home. / Don’t make no difference what nobody says, / Ain’t nobody likes to be alone”—without having noticed what they said before. And I realized with a fierce pang that I was lonely. Three years into having been homeless, living in my car and on the streets, I wanted a place to rest, a home, and despite my saying so to friends, no matter how often I denied it, I really didn’t want to be alone any longer. 

I pulled my car over to the side of the dusty road and I wept like a beaten child. All the anger and the frustrations of years alone and solitary experiences came bubbling out of my gut and my mouth. The single, simple truth was that I was very, very lonely. I had denied it to myself for so long and so hard that when I could admit to it, it was like someone had taken a sliver of ice out of my neck and I could slump down with my head nearly on my own lap to cry.

After fifteen or twenty minutes I turned the radio and then the car engine off and sat there quietly, peacefully, staring off into the horizon which was a series of hills leading north to the Missouri border. I had no clue what it was I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. All I was certain of was that I didn’t want to be alone any longer. I didn’t want to drink myself into sleep at night because I was alone. I didn’t want to drive into another state or another part of the country, telling myself I was doing it for the experience, not admitting it was because there was no one whose presence kept me in one place. I didn’t want to go into towns and cities and walk the streets and talk to everyone I met hoping I would find someone who could join me or at least leave me feeling like I had been with someone for a little while. I wanted to go out each day and do things with someone else and then go home with her and curl up for a peaceful night’s rest together.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, or maybe I thought it would follow a different sequence of things I had to do, but I needed to give up drinking so much and doing drugs so often and not working for more than a few days at a time and being angry and belligerent. What it would also mean was giving up thinking only about me, making decisions that only revolved around my needs or wants, and doing things that I thought only affected me. I discovered all of those things I had to get under control, not before I found someone, but before she wanted to stay around me. If I had known it, I would probably have been too scared to make a move, certain as I was that the solitary life I lived was the one I was most adapted to.  But the first decision had been a little one: to leave the radio on at a song I wasn’t sure I liked. The second decision had been a little bit bigger: to pull over and cry. The third decision had been the biggest: to admit to myself that I wanted to change. The fourth and fifth and hundred seventeenth decisions were yet to come and I had no clue what they were. But for now the third decision was the one I needed to keep warm.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

another lesbian wedding homily

As it's summer here on the rim, and as it's also been a rainy one, I've been outside as often as I'm able, and so I am woefully behind on posting. But last Saturday my wife and I were the officiants for the wedding, or more accurately the renewal of vows, for friends of ours (not the couple above; that's a stock photo whose joy I really like). This is the homily I wrote for them.

Vows are important. They show seriousness of intent for doing or agreeing to something. Renewing vows, it can be argued, are even more important because they take place after the doing or the agreeing to the thing has already happened for a time, so the people taking them can’t be accused of not knowing what they’re getting into.
_________________, the vows you took together years ago were taken seriously by you, even if the state where you took them eventually decided it didn’t. But the people of the state of Minnesota, in their wisdom, have realized that the vows you take together are as beholden as anyone else’s vows. So we come together, your friends and family, the people most important to you, to reaffirm those vows.

You’ve told me you don’t remember what it was like not to be in one another’s lives. I suspect, although I don’t know, that it was like this: lonely. I’m sure you enjoyed yourselves alone and with the friends and family gathered here, and you may not have known it. But there was, somewhere deep down, a ______- and a ______-shaped hole at the core of who you were. And you may not have felt it immediately filled when the two of you met, but for years you have recognized that you complete one another.

Nonetheless, there remained another important hole in your lives. The two of you have been accepted as a couple but not as the married couple you knew yourselves to be. It is to fill that metaphorical hole that we come together today.

Those of us who are married know that, after the ceremony, if we have been a couple for a long time, outwardly nothing changes. We go on living together, making meals together, being seen together, raising dogs together. But we know that inwardly everything has changed. It may be hard to put into words but I think that what runs through our minds when we continue to do those things and we happen to glance at the other person, we think, to paraphrase what God said about Jesus, “This is my wife, with whom I am well-pleased.”

There is, we know, a point to life and it is to make connections with one another. ____________, look around you at the friends and family gathered here to celebrate your vows, and know that you have made connections, together, with each of them. Now look at one another and know you have made the deepest connection with her.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

seed in the wet dark

Warm, rainy summer mornings like today remind me of one of the perks of living in my car. Sleeping with the windows cracked for fresh air, my first concious breath of the day would be full of the heavy moisture-filled breath of Gaia, blowing gently into my nostrils. That scent of moist earth fills me with the sense of promise, as if I were a seed in the wet dark. Like Whitman, I long to be a part of it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I am a fire extinguisher

In yesterday's counseling session I came up with a metaphor for what I do during most of my work. I teach, yes, at least for a little while each day, or facilitate group sessions. But that's only for an hour at a time and I spend at least three hours each week at each unit. Otherwise, what I do mostly is sit or stand around, sometimes talking, sometimes observing.

I explained the concept of the nonanxious presence which I had learned from my teacher Bob Albers and that he learned from Rabbi Edwin Friedman: the idea that sometimes the best one can be is simply present to another, the eye of calm in the midst of physical or mental chaos, the person who has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, no one else to see. Someone who is there completely and attentively for the person in chaos. I see my role during most periods of my time on the units as maintaining a presence, someone who is calmly there. I'm not bored at these times, even if nothing is going on. I'm just there in a relaxed state, my presence unnecessary in the sense that I'm "not needed" at these times but at the ready if I am needed.

For instance, on Monday I was at one unit having dinner with the boys there as usual and after I put my plate away one of them came up and asked, "Do you have time to talk with me?" I said of course, and we sat down in a little-used room and talked for the next half hour easily and casually about a very troubling subject. True, I do have some experience already with this kid. We've talked a little before, usually after he's had an explosive episode and I'm there to remind him he's in control of his emotions and actions despite what his mind tells him. But there was no indication he was feeling anxious, or no more so than usual, but he was underneath his stoic exterior. He was experiencing an anniversary of an especially traumatic event and admitted blaming himself for it happening. I explained to him, no matter what he'd been told or what he felt, he was not responsible for what happened (he was a victim of this trauma, not an actor in it) and if he wanted some sense of closure from it. He said he did but didn't think he'd experience it. We talked more and he confessed he didn't feel comfortable talking with his therapist about what he wanted from him, especially relating to his emotions about the trauma. I asked if he wanted the opportunity to talk with me before his next appointment (which is today) and he said, yes, and could I come in with him to the appointment? I said I would, if it was all right with his therapist.

The only reason he was comfortable, I think, approaching me in the first place to unburden himself and ask for help (he isn't someone with a reputation for nuance until after he's become violent and then it's only to say he'd wanted help before), is because I'm a known quantity to him, a relaxed resource he's come to see at about the same time every week, doing about the same things for about the same length of time, and not being hurried or impatient in them. I see myself as resting against a wall (sometimes literally) until I'm needed. I am a fire extinguisher.