Monday, March 23, 2015

"I don't pray."

Six of us sat around the dinner table in a farmhouse in the middle of rural Maryland. Across from me sat the married couple. They are service missionaries and occasionally wear black name tags that read "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." To my right sat the cowboy from Utah who has probably spent more time with sheep than with people and is rarely spotted without a cattleman's hat atop his head. The remaining three of us have been on this farm longer than the others, but not by much, and despite the fact that we were all from different decades, we came out of the closet in the same one.

From the amazing movie August: Osage County
We found ourselves in that moment of awkward silence before dinner when everyone looks at the food in front of them with hungry eyes, but everyone is waiting for someone else to begin eating. All six of us knew exactly why the thick, uncomfortable silence had come over the table. Each of us around that table share a common cultural heritage-- we are Mormon. So we were all acutely aware that our religious tradition included a prayer before dinner. Those of us who were gay, however, had since left our religion. Like the bastard offspring of the Chacma baboon*, we were the unwanted children of a despotic father. Religion had abandoned us and so we, in turn, abandoned religion.

Cooking is a hobby of mine
We take turns making dinner for our little group of farm residents. This was my night to cook and so I broke the silence.

"I don't pray," I said, "but if one of you would like to give a prayer, you are welcome to."

I supposed I could have said, "let's eat!", but I didn't. I wanted the missionary couple to feel comfortable. One of them gave a familiar prayer- exactly like the countless dinner prayers from my past.

"...thank you for the good company and for the many blessings we enjoy. Bless this food, that it might nourish our bodies and give us the strength we need..."

And even though the prayer was unextraordinary, I found myself uncomfortable. I found myself uncomfortable not because of the prayer, but with what I had said.

"I don't pray."

Saying those words felt oddly similar to the feeling you get when you tell a lie. I was perplexed by this feeling because it wasn't a lie- I don't pray. Not anymore, anyway. As a child I was taught, both in church and by my parents, how to pray. I said countless prayers throughout my life. I know it as well as I know anything:

Step 1: Address God - "Dear Heavenly Father..."
Step 2: Thank God- "Thank you for..."
Step 3: Ask God- "Please bless/help..."
Step 4: Close in Christ's name- " the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

The truth is, I never really connected with prayer. I did it out of obligation. It was the duty of a good follower of Christ to pray- it was expected. I was taught that not praying would create breeding grounds wherein all sorts of problems could fester-- and so I prayed. I prayed even though I felt as if my words never made it past the ceiling. I prayed even though I found no comfort or solace in it. I prayed even though my experience with prayer actually left me feeling more alone. God was the only one I could talk to about being gay- I had no one else. But God never talked back.


The silence left me feeling completely abandoned-- worthless. As if I were so revolting even my own creator wanted nothing to do with me. And so, upon becoming estranged from my religion, I stopped praying.

Why then, I wondered, did I feel dishonest when I stated that I don't pray?

I thought a lot about this question for several days because I knew I'd be facing the same dinner-table situation again and I wanted to be able to navigate it in a way that felt honest and authentic. A few nights ago, it was my turn to make dinner again. This time, there was no awkward silence. I had no lingering feeling of uneasiness. It was actually a very wonderful night full of very meaningful conversation-- and it all started with the sharing of my findings with everyone at the table. Here is what I said:

If there is some intelligent force in the cosmos,
some deity or God in the heavens, 
and we are each the product of that being’s creation--
Then every last one of us holds within our very existence,
a unique clue which might help us in our quest to catch a glimpse of the mystery of God.

Our intricate thoughts, our wildest dreams, our fervent prayers--
Our heartfelt songs, our quietest meditations, our desperate cries--
Every expression of what it means to be; To exist--
Each are a window in the veil between us and the great unknown.

If the purpose of prayer is to pay homage, invoke power, 
or to otherwise communicate through that veil to our presumed creator— 
Than these other authentic human expressions really aren’t so different from prayer.

At dinner, it feels a little odd for me to simply say, “I don’t pray” and leave it at that.
Because I do peer through other metaphorical windows into the metaphysical world--
And I still consider myself a spiritual being.

So— if it is okay by everyone else, on my night to cook, I would like to
share a short poem, a lyric, or some other piece of art in leu of a prayer.
And this was mine tonight.


They didn't mind one bit.

* Dominant Chacma baboons will sometimes kill his mate's offspring if they are not his.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Be F*cking Brave

Earlier in the week, during a phone call with my mother about how things are going for me in this new life, she commented that she admired my bravery— that I took risks. This comment got me thinking a lot about bravery. It isn’t that I hadn’t been called "brave" before. After going through the coming out process and being vocal about it, I had many people suggest that I was brave. But I’ve never, never-ever, thought myself to be brave. Cautious feels more like a more correct description to me. So when my own mother made this remark, I was taken a little aback by it.

A few days later, I came across this on my Facebook feed:

When I read this meme, I began to understand why I might not identify with being “brave,” even when others suggest that I am. What is broken in the world that we equate living an authentic, fulfilling life with “being brave?” Bravery is, by definition,  "the quality that enables someone to do things that are dangerous or frightening.” Why should it be dangerous or frightening to live a life of integrity and value? Shouldn’t it be more dangerous and frightening to live a life that isn’t our own, pretending to be a person we really aren’t? (Anyone watch Orphan Black? haha)

But then I remember what it was like when I was in the closet. I was so desperate to be “normal.” I spent so much energy trying to fight against myself and reject who I was-- to be someone else. It was exhausting. It sucked the life out of me. Still, I was almost 25 years old before the agony of living that life grew greater than the fear of accepting myself for who I was. Once I did accept myself, however, it became almost immediately clear that the only way to live was authentically.

Perhaps those that think it brave to be your true authentic self haven’t had their own “coming out” yet. I don’t mean coming out as gay, I just mean coming out and living their true identity— whatever that looks like— in spite of fear of rejection. But as someone who has “come out” and who knows that there is no substitution for a life of authenticity, the greater fear now is the possibility of not being able to sort out and free myself from the parts of my identity that are due to cultural conditioning and shallow social constructs.

So while my actions may appear to be brave to some people, in reality they are only the result of my fear of not living a completely authentic life.

Something I've begun to do lately is read poetry. I plan on sharing some of my favorite discoveries on this blog at some point. And while I am no poet, I enjoy the challenging process and made an attempt at it. Do your best to withhold judgment:

Do not think me brave.
That I scoff at danger,
and chase the rush of thrills.

These eyes are alien to me.
They search endlessly
for some invisible unknown.

Perhaps it is in the ever-expanding heavens.
Or in the deep blue of the roaring oceans,
full of mystery, and of hidden titillating worlds.

But it ne’er be in the morning still of the lake.
Nor on the white frozen plains, hard like glass,
bound to echo the longing gaze of hungry eyes.

No. I cannot be still, not now.
Contentedness is to forever be a stranger—
A fate most terrifying.

Therefore, do not think me brave.
It is only all that I can bear.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Underneath This Skin There’s a Human

When I was 12 years old, my family moved to another city. Many would agree that Middle school is awkward enough all by itself, without throwing in a move to a different school half way through seventh grade. Up until then it proved to be the worst year of my short life. The new house was only 30 minutes away from the Orange County neighborhood where I grew up, but for a twelve year old, it might as well have been the other side of the planet.

Moving in the middle of the school year, as opposed to the beginning, prevented me from going to the school that most the other kids in my neighborhood attended. It was a “magnet school,” which is just a fancy way of describing a public school where the kid’s parents are present enough to actually arrange for their kid to be driven to and from school (there are no busses). They always have an air of selectivity and “elite-ness” about them and so these schools cap out at the beginning of the year.

As a transfer student to the district, there was no room to accommodate me which meant that I had to be bussed 30 minutes to an inner-city school called “Auburndale.” It was known to the kids in the suburbs as “Auburn-jail” because of the metal bars adorning the perimeter, the stereotypes about the student body, and the school’s sub-par acedemic reputation.

Camping with the family when I was in middle school.
I have to admit the curriculum at “Auburnjail" was a breeze. Many days felt like a repeat for me with very little new or challenging material. But it was difficult in other ways. As a kid, I never felt like I fit in— even before the move. Being the awkward transfer kid in the middle of the year in an unfamiliar school, however, was a whole new level of awful because everyone knew I was the new kid. At lunch, on my first day, I stood in line for my greasy pizza and fries— this was before the days of smartphones and iPods and lines were always longer when you were alone. Worse was the realization that I would need to navigate the unfamiliar lunch benches and find a place to sit where no one would notice me.

I walked down the line of tables with my eyes set on the ones at the end where few people sat. As I walked, however, a boy called to me as I walked by and so I stopped. He had just taken a bite of pizza and it was difficult to understand what exactly he had said to me, but I stopped anyway and stood there while he wiped his greasy mouth with a napkin, turned around, and stuffed it into my untouched pizza. I was humiliated. He and his friends laughed and I walked on to the end table throwing my lunch in the trash along the way. I wanted to run away and cry, but I knew I couldn’t. Real men don’t hurt. Or cry. It would only make things worse for me.

My mother can attest, however, (and I feel awful about putting her through it), that those tears flowed freely every night before bed. I’d cry myself to sleep every night for weeks until I grew a skin thick enough to endure the pain in the way men are supposed to endure it. Skin is meant to protect us from harm. It is our armor. It is the wall of protection which guards our bodies from being invaded by some evil outside force. And so one day, after I had built walls thick enough, I stopped crying. And I wouldn’t shed another tear for twelve years.


Being gay isn’t everything that I am. It isn’t the one defining characteristic. But it is a very large part of why I am the person that I am. I learned from a young age to guard myself. I couldn’t let other’s see too deeply into me for fear they would discover the thing inside that I was desperately trying to eradicate. I was sure that being found out would destroy me. I knew my only choice was to take that secret to the grave.

Set up on a blind date at BYU by friends
When I was at BYU, I remember consciously observing the mannerisms and speech patterns of other guys. I made a concerted effort to mimic the things I observed and keep my own natural behaviors that might seem less “manly" in check. I would force myself to make efforts to date girls despite the fact that it felt unnatural to try and show physical interest. And while I longed for that closeness with another boy, it was forbidden, and I would not allow it. I built layer upon layer of protection around me and it began affecting me more and more negatively. You see, while the layers protected me from outside harm… the sheer size of these walls left me isolated and unable to connect deeply with people. Friends who knew me then can attest to the fact that I used to flinch at physical touch.

Camping in Moab my Junior year at BYU-2009
The eventual collapse of those walls nearly crushed me. And when they did finally come tumbling down, the tears came rushing back. It was like I was 12 years old again, crying in my bed. I was 24. I remember once, driving back to Utah after visiting my family in California, I was sobbing so hard I had to pull the car over. It hurt like hell, don’t get me wrong, but it also felt human. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt like a living breathing human being instead of the walking shell of a person I had come to be. At least I was feeling something.


I wish I could say that after accepting my sexual orientation, it has become easier to let people in and see me for who I am. But I think I wrestle with the same insecurities I’ve always had. I fear how others might respond to what they see in me. Whether it is a seventh-grade bully that labeled me a loser,  or a college friend who might discover I was gay, or even a lover who will ultimately see all of my flaws; I have difficulty letting people in. It has taken me some time to figure out why this pattern repeats itself throughout my life in every stage, but writing this post has given me a lead.

From a young age, I felt fundamentally flawed… I was different. I perceived that difference as weakness— one which threatened to invalidate me in the eyes of everyone I knew and loved. Being “different” is something we all relate to. Some differences, like skin color, are impossible to hide. But I could hide my “flaw,” and hiding it was a better alternative than being perceived as different. I could “act straight.” I could control my actions, dismiss my feelings and rationalize my thoughts. I could pass as another member of the heterosexual majority.  And so, I became a master people-pleaser— believing that, perhaps, if I tried hard enough to be what other’s wanted me to be, this feeling of utter deficiency would leave me.

What I didn’t realize was, not only did I forfeit to others the power to define whether I was a failure or success, but I positioned myself in such a way that I could never actually believe I was a success even if others expressed it. It was an unquenchable thirst for validation. I immediately dismissed any praise by accepting the lie that if they knew my secret, they would never say such validating things. And although I have learned to accept myself as a gay man, I have yet to learn to accept my flaws. I still feel invalidated by them. I build walls around me to keep people from seeing them.


I need to learn to accept myself along with my flaws and my weaknesses. I must stop sharpening my flaws into barbs which I wear as punishment. When I can learn to be more kind to myself and see myself as a success, even with my shortcomings, I think I could start to deconstruct those walls for good and open the doors at last. Perhaps then, I could finally let people in instead of running every time they get too close. I want to connect deeply and genuinely with the people I meet and love. Writing helps me to be vulnerable. It helps me reveal the human under this skin. And while it may open me up to criticism, and although people might be offended occasionally by what I write, and even though my words are often insufficient or awkward, I am tired of wearing such a thick skin.

I don’t want to live a life behind walls I've self-constructed based on the fear that everyone outside is potentially that seventh grade bully. I don’t want to give power to others to define my worth or value. I’m tired of feeling ashamed of the human underneath this skin. It is too heavy a burden.

“A man's shortcomings are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belong to himself.” 
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

“Accept yourself: flaws, quirks, talents, secret thoughts, all of it, and experience true liberation.”
-Amy Leigh Mercree