Archive for December, 2012

My philosophy is to aim high. You may not hit the bull’s-eye, but you’ll have a better chance of hitting the target. In terms of my religion, I try to be faithful, but as a gay man, it can be a challenge. Today, when it came time for the announcement of what the faithful should pray for, we were instructed to pray for the preservation of family values and the definition of marriage as between a man and woman. For this very reason, I consider myself a freelance Catholic, what some would term “a cafeteria Catholic.” These kinds of prayers and admonitions tend to leave me feeling left out, and I am considered by those in the Church to be saddled with a special burden to bear in reconciling my sexuality with my religion. No wonder Reform Judaism seems especially appealing!

I am a hypocrite in the sense that as I sat through Mass, and said the revised version of the Mass (which if you’re Catholic and haven’t been to Church for a while–Church with a capital “C”–you will notice things have changed, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically), I kept thinking, “Well at least I know the new liturgy,” unlike my neighbor sitting next to me. I took special pride in speaking out all the new parts, secretly gloating while trying to keep my face pious.

In many ways Catholicism is more than a religion. It is almost an ethnicity, something so indoctrinated in your soul as to become a very part of your Being, much like Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. It would be hard for me to leave my religion behind for this very reason. It’s a part of who I am, for better or worse.

Speaking of shooting for the stars, and aiming high, I strive to be the best person I can, yet one particular moral failing haunts me. I fear the future, in particular I fear poverty. My very own financial cliff. At one time I was on disability, Medicare, and Social Security, and lived in what could be politely termed a hovel with a man who has both cerebral palsy as well as a mental illness. I hid my impoverishment from friends, didn’t dare date, and grew ashamed of my life circumstances.

Later, my mother’s cousin moved to the area and helped me rebuild my life. I have even gone back to school, grad school at Northwestern for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing, but somehow, in some ways, have continued to resent my past. I still take Eric, the man I lived with, out to see movies, but sometimes his behavior embarrasses me, especially when he starts talking to himself, often quite vocally (it’s a part of his mental illness). I even, at times, grow embarrassed by my mother’s cousin’s condition. She’s practically incapacitated, and can no longer walk on her own. I take her to church, out to eat, and to movies in her wheelchair, and I love her greatly, yet at times I find myself praying selfishly, “Please let her live until I graduate,” since I could not afford school on my own. Fear of financial insecurity and impoverishment rules my very being.

I pray in the year to come for greater faith, to accept whatever comes my way. This is not an easy prayer, even for someone who went to a small, liberal arts Catholic school as an undergrad. To whom much is given, much is required (this is not something which I naturally consider). I also pray not to resent those around me or the services I perform for them. For the last six years, I have changed my cousin’s bandages, and I hope to be more like Jesus in washing others’ feet, without expecting accolades for my service. I also pray not to be embarrassed by my circumstances, by the fragility of the life I have constructed. Anne Lamott has written a new book: “Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” She comes from a place of gratitude, but doesn’t whitewash her struggles, most especially her struggle to be grateful.

Please, Lord, make me more grateful this coming year, and maybe just a little neater and organized, and maybe more creative as well, but if you can only make me grateful for my blessings, so be it.


Peddler of Tales

Everyone needs a storyteller in his life. If we’re lucky, we have more than one storyteller. If we’re really lucky, we are also each our own storyteller. I am reminded of the very famous “David Copperfield” quote which begins the novel by Charles Dickens: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

It is our nature to tell stories. We need stories more than we need opposable thumbs. Indeed, our brains crave stories because it is the way we remember things.

How in the bible did David slew Goliath? How is that story repeated in the contemporary novel “The Kite Runner” when one of the main characters threatens another boy with a slingshot, and then that boy with the slingshot begets a boy who uses a slingshot to put out the very same villain’s eye and escape to free himself and make his way out of Afghanistan into the free world of America?

What does “To Kill a Mockingbird” teach us about justice and kindness to the unloved among us? What is true colorblindness and what is it like to live without prejudice? What does it mean to say, “You reap what you sow”?

What does “Aesop’s Fables” teach us about the boy who cried wolf, and our need not to clamor for attention so that we will be ignored when we might really need assistance?

One of my creative fiction writing instructors pointed out that we tell stories not only to entertain, but so that our readers or listeners may learn something about themselves and the world around them. We tell stories so that those who read our work can imagine what it might be like to live someone else’s life. It is how we imagine a different future from our past. What if that were me? How would I face that dilemma? Why, in the grand scheme of things, does my life even matter?

As Jonathon Fanzen so wisely pointed out, “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”

Now a story about a storyteller. There are several versions of this story, but again, it’s a story, so the exact truth of what actually happened is secondary to the meaning of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s near death experience. Based on what the Russian author had written and said, he was condemned to die by firing squad, as per order of the czar. Dostoevsky suddenly appreciated every breath, every moment of his time left on earth, and as he walked before the soldiers, he felt the sun beating down on him with a new intensity. At the very last moment, after he had already been blindfolded, an order for a stay of execution arrived by messenger and he was freed, freed to go on to write some of the greatest works of fiction ever created. In a strange way, I envy Dostoevsky’s near death experience for the urgency it gave to his life. What we do and how we spend our time here on earth matters.

Our lives can change in accordance with the stories we read and the tales we tell. In this way, we become our own reality, based on the sorts of things we take in and acknowledge as important to us. Why do you think various religions counsel us to keep vigilant about what we allow ourselves to be exposed to? The point, however, is that we get to choose what movies we see, what books we read, what family tales we pass on to each other, even how we order our days so that we may experience as much peace and as many blessings as possible.

I wish everyone as many transformative experiences in the new year as possible. Live life on life’s terms, certainly, but make your time here mean something.

Quote of the day

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself”–George Bernard Shaw

The Man Who Invented Christmas

My cousin and I just went to the Goodman Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” originally written as a novel by Charles Dickens. The highly imaginative production featured colorblind casting, meaning that an actor’s ethnicity would not figure into his or her consideration for a role, and in fact, Bob Cratchit’s wife and the Ghost of Christmas Present were played by black women. To me, this further universalized the story, and heightened its appeal, not only to people of all ages, but to people of all colors as well.

After getting home from the theater, I picked up a little book my aunt gave me last Christmas, called “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits,” by Les Standiford. Kind of a long title for a short, small tome, but it really heightened my appreciation for the holiday season.

The book starts with a quote from Walt Whitman: “Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.” That’s the very lesson “A Christmas Carol” teaches. Ebenezer Scrooge is a pitiless miser, not giving in generosity to anyone else or even himself, but, after being visited by his old, seven years dead business partner Marley, and three ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Scrooge has an epiphany and changes his whole manner of dealing with the world around him.

Charles Dickens, author of “A Christmas Carol,” grew up in poverty, and it informed his very being. As the book, “The Man Who Invented Christmas”, points out, “All art grows out of its makers loss, it has been said—and if that is so, Dickens’s loss of his childhood was to become the world’s great gain.”

Dickens became a literary superstar, yet remained afraid of becoming impoverished. He wrote feverishly, in monthly installments in literary magazines, publishing one chapter each month. Like my first creative writing instructor once told our class, “There’s nothing like a deadline to inspire creativity.” Despite Dickens’s fears, he remained resolute that Christmas should be inviolate, and held in our hearts all year long. Dickens once told the world, “The more a man learns, the better, gentler, kinder man he must become.”

And in “A Christmas Carol” Scrooge’s nephew Fred tells his uncle, “I have always thought of Christmas time as. . . the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. “[Christmas] has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.”

Many have said, many times over, that we don’t know Christ’s actual birthday, and many feel he was actually born sometime in April. According to these people, the Catholic Church wanted to draw in as many nonbelievers as possible, and Pagans celebrated the winter solstice when the day was shortest, December 21st or 22nd, depending on the year. These individuals believe that December 25th was coopted to represent Jesus Christ’s birthday since the shortest day of the year, representing the death of the old and the birth of the new, embodied in Christians that change that Christ brought to the world.

In addition, plants and trees which remain green yearlong held special meaning for many. Pagans believed that evergreens would keep away evil spirits, ghosts, and even illness, and so Germany introduced the Christmas tree to the holiday celebration, and Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Prince Albert, popularized the decorating of the Christmas tree in England.

Charles Dickens grew up in this era, and especially loved the Christmas season. He wrote his book to celebrate goodwill among men, and peace to all. Many of his books moralize more explicitly about the need to care about others, but “A Christmas Carol” continues to touch people deeply in the way few other books have. The strength of this little book is that it makes people feel more than think, and the way they feel has changed the way many conduct their lives. It’s quite a legacy.

I guess the lesson during this 2012 Christmas season is that our thoughts and actions matter, and that we must show generosity in spirit to our fellow men, especially the less fortunate. As Tiny Tim says at the end of A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, Every One.”

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!