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Gratitude

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving. On one side, as many do, I have an issue with celebrating part of one of the dark parts of human history in the European decimation of Native America. But on the flipside, I have warm associations with Thanksgiving. It was usually the holiday my family celebrated the most. I remember visits to my grandma’s tiny two-bedroom house (my uncle lived with her), and twenty, twenty-five people cramming in–none of it planned, all spontaneous, just, everyone decided to drive over to Grandma’s and bring something to eat. I remember watching football with my brother, or later, my friends. I remember that there was always an element of reflection and thoughtfulness involved, as our culture encouraged you to take a brief moment to consider whatever good fortune you had.
The trick now, of course, is that I’m not thankful. The word “thanks” implies that I’m thankful to someone, to a power bigger than me who gave me everything I have, and I don’t believe in such a being. But I’m certainly grateful for so many things. Perhaps I’m mincing words, but the distinction has a redemptive power for me in my process of reconstructing my worldview post-God.
So I want to take a minute to do what millions of other bloggers are doing today and share what I’m thankful grateful for:
  • I am grateful for my friends. My sanity, my strength, my joy–I am where I am because of you.
  • I am grateful for my family. I am fortunate that the people I was born into love me and look out for me. A mother who has been the model of unconditional love and maternal sacrifice, a sister who has been my biggest cheerleader, a brother who somehow manages to look up to me despite my screw-ups (and who has been taller than me most of our lives), and a brother to whom (I am confident) I will one day be restored.
  • I am grateful for the state of Minnesota. I may pick on you for your (in my view) weird culture sometimes, but so many of the good things in my life have come as a direct result of living here. Whether the grad-school gods keep me here or take me elsewhere, this great place will always occupy a sizable part of my heart. Donchano.
  • I am grateful that I am always warm and well-fed. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was dangerously close to becoming homeless. A bit of determination and a lot of luck kept me from that fate. There are few things I want more than to save every man, woman, and child across the world from that same fate. I work for a world where we will do that. And I remember every day that I am fortunate to have what I have.
  • I am grateful for music. It is my heartbeat, almost literally, as there is always a song in my head. I am grateful that I know how to sing and can play a few musical instruments, so that, in my awkward little way, I can share this most wonderful of human creations.
  • I am grateful for art. I am grateful for the artists who train and work tirelessly, often with little real reward, to share the most intimate parts of their minds and hearts with the world.
  • I am grateful for literature. I am grateful for every book that is on my shelf and the million more that are not. I marvel at the infinite power of the written word, and am humbled by the fact that I’ve had a little bit of training to wield this tool.
  • I am grateful for every second I have to be alive.

Father

I thought the day couldn’t go uncelebrated. Granted, it had gone by completely unnoticed the year before, but in the tumult of moving and changing schools and adjusting to life in a single-parent household, it makes sense now that I had let it slip by. But I thought, this year, I would make up for that error. I would find some way to celebrate Father’s Day. The only thing missing was a father.

My father was a deeply troubled man before he met my mother. The drug abuse and promiscuity he brought into their marriage were completely foreign to her. She had sought her dream–to marry a clean, hard-working man to be a good husband and a good father–but the dream turned into something worse than a nightmare. Early on, she tried to escape the beatings and forced starvation. When I was five months old, she fled with me to her relatives in the next county. But this was small-town America in 1975. Married women had only just earned the right to own property. And my father’s surname carried a lot of weight in their part of the country. He sent the law after her, who told her that she would have to return with me or face kidnapping charges. Like I said, women’s rights in small-town America in 1975.

For years my mother plotted her escape, during which time my sister and two brothers were born. My father grew more violent, and his plans to murder my mother grew more obvious, even to me as a child. But as time moved on, he cut off every possible avenue. He monitored my mother’s gasoline usage to ensure that she only went to the grocery store when he would come back from working as a long-distance truck driver. We kids weren’t allowed to see any of our classmates outside of school. If my mother had to go to a doctor, she could only see his doctor, to whom he would feed all sorts of lies about her before she went. He asked the phone company to set up our service so that no outgoing calls could be made at all, only incoming. (They couldn’t do that.) At last, our neighbor (whom we were forbidden to speak to) sneaked to my mother a clipping from the newspaper about the shelter for abused women and children. That got the ball rolling. My mother filed for divorce. The following ten months were a swirl of outrageous and bizarre happenings that I won’t get into here, but at last the court awarded custody to my mother and the divorce was finalized.

My father had been given the most generous visitation rights imaginable, especially since my father had tried to kill my mother. It began that he could see us whenever he wanted as long as he called my mother and gave 24 hours’ notice. But he showed up whenever he wanted, without a call. When my mother took him to court over this, he complained to the judge that as a long-distance truck driver, his life was far too unpredictable to be able to give 24 hours’ notice, so the judge rolled it back to one hour’s notice. Even then he didn’t call. The only other stipulation on his visits was that he couldn’t take us kids out of the county, which he also routinely broke and the courts would do nothing about. I recently asked my mother how, with as much of a danger to us as he’d proven to be, he was awarded carte-blanche visitation rights. She replied that her lawyer advised that he be  given absolutely whatever he wanted, visitation rights included, so that what happened in Indianapolis didn’t happen. I of course asked what happened in Indianapolis. She said there was a man there who murdered his children, and when asked why, he said that it was because he’d lost visitation rights.

With all that flexibility, my father didn’t show up that Father’s Day when I was ten. He would show up less and less over the years as, in a way, he forgot about us. He would vanish for months on end, almost like how his child support vanished entirely three months after the divorce was final. The last time I saw him conscious, I was 18. At 23, I got word from his sister, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, that he lay in a coma in Louisville. He died three weeks after.

And so that Father’s Day when I was ten was fraught with mixed emotions. In a sense, the day had no real meaning for me, because I hadn’t had the kind of father one would want to celebrate. But I longed for some inkling of normality in my life. I wanted to be like other kids.

So, on that Father’s Day, I found myself at John and Laura’s house. John was 20, Laura was 15, yet they attracted a lot of the neighbor kids as they would tromp off into the woods and play soldier. Though I had trailed my brothers and sister to their house that day, I did not like playing soldier. So I found myself sitting in their kitchen, with their father in the house. Their father was a taciturn and unsettling man, the sort I have seen common amongst many of my generation’s fathers who had gone off to Vietnam. But I had determined that, for that day, he would be my father. I didn’t tell him this. I didn’t tell him much of anything. He wasn’t exactly a man a ten-year-old could converse with. But I wanted to salvage something of the day.

He had opened the freezer. I noticed a box of Pudding Pops. And, desperate for two words out of the man, I asked for one. He gave it to me, silently. And I ate it. And he apparently told John and Laura, who in turn told every kid in the neighborhood. That’s how I earned the reputation of being greedy and ill-mannered. Even as adults, my siblings have at  times derided me with that story.

Years passed, and Father’s Day was still this huge deal seemingly wherever I went. I started going to church, and this church made a big deal of the day, handing out trophies to fathers with the loudest tie or whose children had traveled the greatest distance that day. Once again I felt cut out from this celebration.

As an adult, I found myself in ex-gay “therapy” for ten years. Some have asked me how I persisted in it for so long. One of the greatest motivating factors was the possibility of finding a wife so I could be a father. I wanted to be a father so desperately, even after I left the “therapy” and embraced myself as a gay man. But then I found myself in a train crash of identities–gay, low-income, disabled, and extremely single–proving that, no matter how deeply I longed to be a father, it would not happen. You can’t have everything you want in life. This is as true as the day is long.

So how now can I honor this day? I can only encourage the fathers and mothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles and nannies and everyone else out there raising children to raise them well. Do all you can to instill kindness and compassion in them. Our survival depends on it.

UPDATE: Not quite a retraction.

Piano

Warning of abuse trigger.

*****************

I used to be obsessed with learning how to play piano.  I would go to the music room at school during class time, and try to figure it out, and my music teacher would coach me a long as much as she could without exactly giving me a lesson, as she had her own duties to attend to, as well.  In high school, I had lunch right after orchestra class, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to pluck out chords and melodies well into lunch period.  My church held an auction, and was getting rid of an old, very out-of-tune piano.  I was going to use a $50-dollar savings bond that I had won in a competition to pay for my bid for the piano–never mind the fact that there was no room in my family’s apartment for a piano, that the piano was in desperate need of repair, and that I still wouldn’t be able to take lessons.  I ended up placing the second-highest of three bids.  Undaunted, I went to the church in my spare time, just to try to teach myself how to play the piano and write music.

Last night, I realised why I was so obsessed with playing the piano.

My mother’s only chance to escape my father’s abuse, and to treat her own failing health due to starvation and beatings, was to go to a hospital whilst my father was on the job as a long-distance truck driver.  He had forbidden us to go to the doctor, or to really carry out any business, in our own county, as a means of hiding the abuse.  It also helped him, in that he had often established local social contacts such that he had prejudiced their opinions against my mother before she had a chance to speak with doctors, psychologists, and such in our own town.  So, if my mom was going to get help, it was going to be one county over, a half-hour drive south of where we lived.  She checked herself into the emergency room, and they kept her.  She weighed barely 100 pounds, and had suffered extensive internal organ damage from beatings.

But, there were four children, ages five through eight, with an incapacitated, barely-alive mother, and a father working hundreds of miles away.  We were not in our own county, and there was no-one we could stay with.  (Another way my father kept us socially isolated was by making it known he kept a loaded gun, and threatening to use it on us or our neighbours if we made any social contact.  He acted so unstable that neighbours who wanted to help us out of our situation worried that if they did, we or they might end up murdered.)  So we were placed in emergency foster care.

That night, as they pulled my screaming five-year-old brother off my mother, we headed off to our new residence.  We had no idea who these people were, or how long we’d be living with them, nor did they.  It was a father and mother, with three children of their own, daughters age 9, 7, and 1.

I had never been happier in my life.  It was the first evidence that I had that a man, not only did not have to yell, scream, and threaten to murder his wife and her family, but that he could treat her with love, respect, and decency.  The children were bright and well-adjusted, and we had fun having other kids to play with.  (We were not allowed to associate with other children outside of school.)  And the nine-year-old took piano lessons.

The piano was in the kids’ playroom.  It had stickers on the keys, brightly coloured little monsters labelled “C”, “C#”, etc.  The daughter would play bits of her lessons for me.  And I fell in love.  From that moment on, I wanted to play piano more than anything in the world.

My mother, still in the hospital, regained enough strength to file divorce papers.  My father returned from the road, and he was to receive temporary custody, because he had a job–even though that job kept him away from us kids for weeks on end.  We left the foster family.  I did not want to leave them.

Curiously, when I started college, as a music major, I was required to take piano lessons, but I had none of the passion I had when I was younger.  Granted, there were many intervening psychological, social, and medical reasons to not want to practise the five hours a week required to earn an A, but there was still no more fire to learn the piano.  Perhaps it was because it went from being an internal desire to an external requirement.  Perhaps it was just a childhood fantasy I shuffled off upon becoming an adult.  Or, perhaps, the piano symbolised a place of peace, of love, of hope, and that symbolism was more important than actually learning to play.