Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Carpe Diem

We descend three flights of stairs like marching soldiers drenched in solid black and palpable anticipation. Voices silent and minds stilled, the cacophonous sound of our black dress shoes on the metal steps echoes throughout the stairwell and fills me with adrenaline. The past year of preparation scatters in my mind like Polaroids, and I feel overwhelmed in this culminating moment.

Almost a year ago, we began working on songs for GALA Chorus Festival -- a five day event in Denver where over 150 choruses from around the world come together to perform, listen, and appreciate choral music. Our artistic director, Sean Baugh, hand-picked songs dealing with life and death and seizing the day. Our set was aptly entitled, Carpe Diem: Songs of Life and Death and included “The Music of Living,” “Requiem,” “I Love You/What a Wonderful World,” “The Sound of Silence,” “No Time,” and “Angels Calling.”

I fell in love with the sounds and words of each of these songs. As GALA neared, I could have grown tired of them, but I came to love them even more. The theme of living life to the fullest resonated with me, and the lyrics and melodies of these songs were gently etched on my heart.

Each Tuesday night at rehearsal, I had the honor and privilege of singing with Turtle Creek Chorale brothers I cared about, adding meaning to our Carpe Diem set.

On June 12, 2016, (three-and-a-half weeks before our GALA performance) forty-nine innocent people were brutally murdered at PULSE, a gay dance club in Orlando, Florida.

And just like that, Carpe Diem: Songs About Life and Death became much more than a set of songs for GALA.
I read Stacy Horn’s Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others a few years ago, and singing with the chorale constantly reminds me of her words: “In times of sorrow (and celebration) there are two other things to believe in: music and each other” (18).

The PULSE shooting took place in the two o’clock hour on a Sunday morning. About sixty-five hours later, we (the Turtle Creek Chorale) were waiting to go onstage to sing a concert for healing for Orlando and our community. We were ready to sing all of the songs from our GALA set but had not planned on this dress rehearsal. While the shooting had diminished our spirits, this performance, and the audience’s gracious, loving response fueled our souls and our songs with emotion, passion, and healing energy.

That’s what music does, and it’s not just the performers. It is a multi-layered, magical union between the performers on stage with each other, their conductor, and the audience.

Fast forward back to GALA festival, where choruses from all over the world -- including Beijing, Germany, and yes, Orlando -- to name a few, performed. The Orlando chorus wept openly in response to the audience’s reaction during their poignant, life-changing set. Grief, healing, and gratitude overflowed in the hall.

Wednesday, July 6, at two o'clock in the afternoon, we descend the stairs, ready to sing.

We wait in the wings, sharing silent smiles of brotherhood and sneaking last minute hand-squeezes.

We walk onto the stage in unison and instinctively turn to face our conductor. From the first downbeat, we are in synch. Sean’s conducting is more gently precise than ever, and we are hanging on his every move. Crystalline sound permeates Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Darkness shrouds the audience, so we can barely see them, but we can feel them. After each song, the audience erupts in applause, and we receive several standing ovations throughout the set. I have never felt more connected to the singers around me, the conductor in front of me, and the packed audience from floor to ceiling. The moment is enveloped in the music of living.

As our set concludes and the final note echoes throughout the hall, we exit the stage and walk into the lobby. The audience greets us with applause and tears. A woman stands to my right, looks me in the eyes with tears flowing out of hers and whispers, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I whisper right back to her and look up, continuing to whisper, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” in my mind.
I make a conscious effort to embrace this feeling -- this music of experience, this indescribable meaning ricocheting around and within me -- and I am longing to write it all down.

“I’m one day poorer, another day singler, and we’re all going to die, but together with all these people I have raised my voice and once more I have come with joy.” -- Stacy Horn
Horn, Stacy. Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others. Algonquin: 2013. Print.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Love Again, More... (remembering PULSE Orlando)

"Nothing helped until the day she took a tablet and pencil into the basement and moved the event out of her and onto paper, where it was reshaped into a kind of simple equation: loss equaled the need to love again, more. With this, she was given peace." from home safe by Elizabeth Berg

Monday evening, June 13, I started a new book.  I gasped when I read this last paragraph in the prologue and knew I had to write about Orlando, even if it was a selfish act.

Saturday night, June 11,  I sang with the Turtle Creek Chorale at the Dallas City Performance Hall in the Arts District. It was the third performance in our "Heartstrings" series, our final concert of the season. I joined several friends to celebrate the birthday of our friend Matthew at The Mitchell downtown after the show. It was an amazing weekend and a beautiful evening with friends and family.

Sunday morning, June 12, I woke up to news that there had been a shooting at a gay dance club called PULSE in Orlando -- at least 20 people were dead. Later that day I would learn that 40 people were dead and countless injured.

I felt physically sick and emotionally numb. It could have been me.

The first gay establishment I ever went to was The Village Station on Cedar Springs in Dallas, Texas, and I went frequently in my twenties. I was probably 19 the first time I went (over 20 years ago...I know) with a group of friends, on an 18-and-up night. That first time was one of the scariest, most liberating experiences of my life. I was still wary of "coming out" at this point, and I was surrounded by so many diverse people, but we were the same, and there was no judgment, no pressure to conform or force ourselves to be something we weren't. At that time, complete, unconditional acceptance was something I hadn't found, and to be honest, I was fearful of it. I had been so conditioned (by my church and society as a whole, never by my family) to think something was wrong with me, and I should continue to pray and seek to change to become a whole, "normal" person.

The church, society, and I were wrong, and going to The Village, in addition to meeting several friends who loved me unconditionally in college, was one of the first steps to understanding and loving myself.

During those Village Station hay days, I can remember that euphoric feeling of dancing to my favorite songs, like the latest Madonna, Britney, Whitney, Toni, and so on. I vividly remember one night when my friends and I were standing out on the patio, and the pounding heavily-bassed intro of Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right, but It's OK" ignited the air, and I must have broken a record making it to the dance floor. I felt so alive and free.

It could have been me.

I hope and pray that everyone one of those precious lives that were lost at PULSE that night were filled with a sense of liberation, belonging, and joy until the moment their lives were stolen. I hope they heard their favorite songs that night and spent it with some of their favorite people.

The weekend before this atrocity, my dear friend Dustin and I went to Station 4 (formerly The Village Station...yes, it's still there!) to a benefit concert with Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. It was an absolute blast. The place was packed, and everyone was excited and overjoyed.

It could have been us.

I avoided the news as much as possible that Sunday after the massacre in Orlando. We had our TCC awards banquet that night, and I helped my friend Doug with the Year-In-Review as Marge Williams. It was a blessing to make people laugh. That night when I got in bed, I read an article about the aftermath in the PULSE nightclub -- when responders were walking around identifying the bodies early Sunday morning -- cell phones were ringing, chiming, and buzzing with unanswered calls and texts. I was haunted by that never ending space between those lost and their loved ones that could never be filled -- at least not physically with "I love you's" or embraces.

Tuesday, June 14, I had the honor of singing with my Turtle Creek Chorale brothers at my church, the Cathedral of Hope, in a healing concert for Orlando and for those hurting in the community. We raised over $15,000 for the victims and their families. There were over 2,000 people in attendance, and almost 30,000 online attendees.

When we (the Turtle Creek Chorale chorus) walked into the main building of the Cathedral of Hope to perform, it was physically and emotionally overwhelming. There was standing room only and dozens of police officers were in attendance. It immediately brought tears to my eyes. I was so grateful for those officers that night.

The first song we sang was a mash-up of "I Love You/What a Wonderful World." When I looked out at the multitudes in the audience, their misty eyes and body language, said, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much." And I felt the same way. The grief, gratitude, and emotion permeated the air in the room. It was a heartbreaking, yet profoundly beautiful expression of humanity.

I held my emotions in check until Camerata, one of our small groups, sang "MLK" by U2. The lyrics had never been so moving: "Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized..."

That night as I went to bed, I was still angry, sad, and scared for our world and community, but I felt a little more peaceful, and I finally slept.

When massacres like this happen, I get angry, sad, and doubtful. I get angry at the shooter, and angry at God. I cannot and will not believe that "everything happens for a reason" and "God let this happen" and all that. I even had one of my pastors pray with me last Wednesday night at church because I was so filled with anger and doubt.

I refuse, however, to lose all hope and faith. And since I feel the need to do something, I will continue to love others and share light in the world. I will not combat hate with hate. I will temper hate and darkness with love and light. There is no other way I can see through it.

Monday, when I was frantically working out (finally), I had my phone on shuffle. "Afterlife" by Ingrid Michaelson came on, and I immediately thought of those angels who lost their lives at PULSE in Orlando:

     "When the world is breaking down around you
     Taking everything you know
     What you didn't know
     Is that we can go forever if we want to
     We can live inside of a moment
     The one that we own

     You and me we got this
     You and me we're beautiful, beautiful

     We all, we all, we're gonna be alright
     We got, we got, we always got the fight in us
     We all, we all, we're gonna live tonight
     Like there's no tomorrow 'cause we're the afterlife..."

You can watch the video here which is SO relevant and worth viewing and listening:

AFTERLIFE by Ingrid Michaelson

It's ok to be afraid, but I will not live in fear, and I will not dim my light. I hope you will do the same. Live, love, and share light, and don't let anyone or anything cover you in darkness.

I'll close with this. Sunday, there was a vigil in Orlando for those lives that were lost that horrific night. There was a rainbow in the sky that afternoon/evening. It's imperative that we understand (whether it's a metaphor or your reality) that God put a rainbow in this vast, complex sky for every single one of us. End of story. Or, perhaps, that's just the beginning.

                                     I took this photo at the Interfaith Peace Chapel June 14, 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016

Do Not Demo

This evening after work, I stopped at the Katy Trail by way of Reverchon Park.
I walked up the familiar concrete ramp and steps to the Thomson Overlook
And made my way to my favorite stretch between the overlook and American Airlines Center.
This time I decided to walk down to where the trail begins, marked “0.0 miles.”

And I noticed if you look at the other end of that marker, it is also marked “3.5 miles.”
I smiled to myself and thought how beginnings and endings get mixed up.

So I decided that I would, for the first time, journey from this end to the beginning.
I tread briskly along the darker path marked “pedestrians only.”
I stopped at every water fountain.
I had nowhere to be and no obligations on this Monday evening.
I walked, jogged, and side-stepped, but my mind was lifted and still.

I thought about the trees along the trail -- beside, behind, and before me --
How each one had her own story, her roots and her branches gnarled and sprawled in majestic, muddy, scarred storytelling, like every being on that trail.

I walked, jogged, and sidestepped until I reached “3.50 miles” at the other end/beginning at 
Airline Rd.

I stood there embracing the moment and the extraordinary, chilly breeze of May 2, 2016.

Then I remembered I had to walk back to where I started.

I jogged on the way back until
I noticed a wall with some words painted on it.

I paused and took a picture, as I often do, afraid of forgetting moments.

“Do Not Demo Do Not Demo Do Not Demo”

The words declared insistently three times, demanding to be noticed...like poetry.

I took a deep breath and thought about how we tear things down to build them up again and vice versa.
We even tear each other down to build ourselves up.

As I walked and jogged and sidestepped the rest of the way back, I stopped at every water fountain.

I returned to my car over two hours and 8.17 miles after I began. And as my journey ended, I had to look back at those trees one last time.

Friday, March 11, 2016

UnSUNG Heroes

When I found out the programming for our latest Turtle Creek Chorale concert, I have to admit, I was not exactly thrilled. Part of the show would consist of songs dedicated to local community “hero” organizations, which is lovely, songs including Katy Perry’s “Firework” and one of my personal favorites -- “Beautiful City” -- from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell.

The second half of the concert would consist of Tyler’s Suite, a movement of music Turtle Creek Chorale co-commissioned with several other GALA choruses. Tyler’s Suite is an original group of songs honoring the life of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who lost his life to suicide in September of 2010. His is not my story to tell, but he was a wonderfully creative, talented gay man who was just starting to come out of the closet and to grow into an amazing, uniquely beautiful human being. His roommate secretly videoed him being intimate with another man and posted it online for the world to see. There is so much more to Tyler than this, and you can read more about Tyler’s life, wonders, and accomplishments at http://www.tylerclementi.org/tylers-story.

I was hesitant to embrace a group of challenging, unknown songs, that might take me to dark places. I was afraid it would remind me of loved ones I’d known who had lost the will to live and chosen to end it all. I was even more afraid to look in the mirror and see the little boy who could not reconcile who he was with a world and a God that didn’t fit and had those thoughts himself.

I was scared this music would break my heart.

And it has.

But this beautiful music has an important story to tell. Sometimes our hearts need to break a little bit to become stronger and share in the collected humanity of living. Acknowledging the darkness can even help us create and experience light, and that’s what we are doing by singing this music.

I love to read words that change me, that make me better, and add meaning to who I am. There are several texts in this program that have done that for me. If you haven’t discovered it by now, Sean Baugh, our artistic director, is a programming genius.

There is a line in Katy Perry’s “Firework” that is the bottom line for me. “You don’t have to feel like a wasted space.  You’re original, cannot be replaced. If you only knew what the future holds: after a hurricane comes a rainbow.” It might seem simple, but there is beautiful truth in those words. I wish every child (or human being for that matter) who struggles alone in the dark could understand and believe that there is a sliver of rainbow light on the other side of the door waiting after the hurricane.

Another song not from Tyler’s Suite is Ragtime’s “Make them Hear You.” The song opens with, “Go out and tell our story, let it echo far and wide. Make them hear you, make them hear you. How justice was our battle and how justice was denied. Make them hear you, make them hear you.” That song resonates with me on many levels, but I feel like we are Tyler’s collective voice in this concert. He is no longer here, so we are singing for him, so he can be a hero, too. Tyler is our hero.

You need to come to the show to experience the magic of Tyler’s Suite, but there are a few lines that really strike me. The first time we sang “A Wish” it blew me away. It is a beautiful song about longing for the simplicity of childhood from Tyler’s perspective. When we finished singing through it the first time, I looked up and realized several of the guys in the chorus were weeping. “I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight, I wish I were a child again when everything was simple.” I had the opposite experience as Tyler. When I was a child, I suffered from depression and felt the weight of the world was too much. When I went off to college, I felt liberated and loved unconditionally by an amazing group of friends. I was able to grow into my true authentic self. Tyler never got that opportunity.

Suicide is, for me, the most unimaginable and devastating of human endings. I started having panic attacks my senior year of college when my cousin committed suicide. I was on my way to my aunt’s birthday just a couple of years ago when I heard of Robin William’s suicide. I had to turn around and go back home because I had a panic attack. 

I don’t know what the answer is to the epidemic of suicide. We cannot know what goes on in the minds and hearts of others, but I think that for those who choose to end it, there is a switch that is flipped, and they cannot get it to turn back on. Whether they have been bullied or just feel trapped in that darkness, none of  us know. I do know that it’s an issue that never seems to go away, and we all need to do our part to help.

I want to emphasize that this is NOT going to be a depressing concert. It is a hopeful show celebrating heroes, one of which is Tyler Clementi.

My favorite line in Tyler’s Suite says, “Go back for those who trail behind, give a hand to those who fall. Stop to help the one out on the edge, carry those who can’t go on.” So this is our way of helping and celebrating Tyler. We go into the darkness and hold his hand, and we carry him in our voices, and we will share it with the world. If Tyler can’t, we will, so he becomes our hero, and maybe we get the chance to be heroes ourselves, singing the songs that Tyler never got to sing. “There are songs you haven’t heard and music yet to play. I have melodies to sing, and words I long to say. How I want to play my song where arms are open wide in a place where I belong, a world that’s large and kind…”

One of my favorite songs of all time is Godspell’s “Beautiful City” which we are singing in this concert. For me the song is about making the world better. There is a line about building a beautiful city: “We may not reach the ending, but we can start -- slowly, but truly mending, brick by brick, heart by heart. Now, maybe now, we start learning how.”

Maybe we can all help build a more beautiful, heroic, “large and kind” world. I know that is certainly what we, the Turtle Creek Chorale, are trying to do with our Heroes show.

You can find out more about the Tyler Clementi Foundation and become an "Upstander" at www.tylerclementi.org

You can purchase tickets for our upcoming Turtle Creek Chorale concert March 31 and April 1 and 2 at Dallas City Performance Hall at www.turtlecreekchorale.com


Ahrens, Lynn. “Make Them Hear You,” Ragtime: The Musical. BMG Entertainment, 

Gasser, Nolan. “I Have Songs You Haven’t Heard,” from Tyler’s Suite
The Tyler Clementi Foundation, 2013.

Perry, Katy. “Firework,” Teenage Dream. Capitol Records, 2010.

Schwartz, Stephen. “Beautiful City,” Godspell. Ghostlight Records, 2011.

Stewart, Pamela. “A Wish,” from Tyler’s Suite. The Tyler Clementi Foundation, 2013.

Stewart, Pamela, and Jake Heggie. “The Narrow Bridge,” from Tyler’s Suite. The Tyler Clementi
Foundation. BMI, 2014.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Big Picture

The Big Picture
“We’ve opened our eyes, and it’s changing the view. How big, how blue, how beautiful.” -- Florence Welch
I have dreamed of whale watching for most of my adult life. I will never forget the gum commercial from years ago where the woman is enjoying her her chewing experience so much that she misses the whale as it jumps out of the water. While she is savoring her gum, she hears a spectator celebrate, “IT’S BREATHTAKING!” but the whale is gone when she looks out to sea.

It reminds me of the time I was in San Diego with friends, and we were at the beach. A chipmunk distracted me -- so much so that I didn’t hear a British couple proclaim, “Oh my God! It’s a pod of whales!” so I missed the whales gloriously jumping out of the ocean while I marveled at a cute little land rodent. I have traveled to Florida and California and seen the ocean in its splendor, but I have never been on an actual whale watch until I vacationed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this past June.

Two of my closest college friends, Jason and Sam, like me, are turning 40 this year, and we have been friends for going on twenty-one years. We decided to go somewhere none of us had been before. Provincetown would be a “rite of passage” trip since each of us had wanted to journey there for years.

On our second, life-changing day in Provincetown -- Friday, June 26, 2015, to be exact --  we walk up and down Commercial Street taking in the sights after an amazing breakfast at Cafe Heaven. We are overwhelmed with the beauty of the locale and the momentous news emanating the air and our brains.

We decide to stop at the “Provincetown Whale Watch” ticket booth as I skip in excitement. It is 11:30 AM, and the boat leaving for the whale watch is allegedly departing at noon. Jason opts not to go but walks with Sam and me down the pier to enjoy the view and send us off to sea. We finally find the appropriate spot to meet for our whale watch just before noon but end up waiting almost forty-five minutes because the boat is late.

We finally make it onto the boat and embark into the ocean. The water is choppy, so I take advantage of the free Dramamine. Although a misty rain has fallen throughout the morning, the clouds begin to scatter and dissipate as the day progresses. The farther out we move, the bluer the sky and the water become. The farther we ride away from land, the more relaxed I become. I suddenly realize the weight of reality. I feel liberated as the magnitude of the ocean lessens everything else.

2015 has proven to be a roller coaster so far: I eliminated debt; I earned a promotion at work; I dated a great deal (pigs are flying); I had tonsillectomy, sinus, and deviated septum surgery (even more traumatic than you can imagine); and none of those previously mentioned dates developed into what I’d hoped. I had so much to be grateful for and proud of, but I was exhausted from the trying parts. Even blessings can cause stress to the body and spirit.

As usual, the state of the world causes me the most stress of all. Since childhood, I have been a great worrier. As of late, my human brain finds it impossible to wrap itself around the fact that much of America is consumed with hate and/or fear over the possibility of marriage equality while there are still crazed bigots opening fire on groups of people because of the color of their skin or burning down churches for the same reason. For my entire life, I have found it impossible that so many Christians seem to forget or ignore God’s message, “the greatest of these is LOVE.”

June 26, 2015: As I venture out to sea with one of my oldest and best friends, all of the worry, anxiety, and negative energy in the world and myself seem to fall into the big, beautiful blue. I see a trio of knowing lighthouses to our right in the distance. Soon enough, there is no land in sight, and we are literally enveloped and enlightened by brilliant blue. Just when I begin to consider that we might not see any whales, the boat engine stops, and the aquatic genius on the intercom informs us we are approaching our first whale sighting.

As promised, a trio of whales surfaces shortly, all at once, as if they are rolling in unison with the current of the ocean. Shades of deep midnight blue flow in and out of the water. Our guide informs us these are Humpback Whales. The entire boat full of people of all ages from all over the world exudes giddiness. Sam and I run all over the outline of the boat and back and forth across it to catch sight of these majestic creatures. I quickly give up on trying to capture a perfect picture of these creatures and focus on embracing each snapshot in my mind. My face and hoody glisten from the spray of water glittering all around us. My mouth tastes the salt in the air; my eyes feel the overflow of happy tears as they witness this moment.

We continue to follow the Humpback whales at a safe distance. Before the tour of the big, blue, beautiful comes to a close, we catch a slight glimpse of the elusive Fin Whale, the second largest mammal in the world. I barely snatch sight of it just below the water’s surface as it jets past.

As the boat comes back to life and makes the turnaround for land, I gaze again into the vast ocean. I can hear the Florence and the Machine song, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” echoing in my head. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this experience. I feel closer to God, the world, and humanity all at once. I know that this is what it’s all about. The details, especially the negative ones that try to diminish us, pale in comparison to these moments that define us.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Back to School Blues and Blessings

I admit it. I kind of get the blues towards the end of each summer. I don't get  much time off (by choice) because I teach workshops for extra money, and that is one of my favorite aspects of my job. I tend to think too much about what I didn't accomplish and how fast the time has flown.

This year seemed a little tougher. I had a couple of disappointments that I won't go into, but I was really excited about some prospects that didn't turn out like I'd hoped.

Every day there seemed to me more horrible news, both locally, throughout the nation, and around the world. My worrisome, over-thinking brain does not handle all the disturbing news so well.

I also go through a "freak out" phase as my birthday nears each year. This year 39 (yes -- THIRTY!NINE!) is staring me in the face like some ridiculous stranger. I still feel like I'm in my twenties, for crying out loud! I have accomplished a great deal in my (almost) 39 years professionally, and developed numerous profound, life-affirming friendships, but there are many areas in my life where I feel like I haven't "arrived" just yet. I haven't met THE ONE and don't know if that's even in the cards (I'm really OK with this). I don't own a condo or a house like I thought I would at this age. I have been ridiculously irresponsible and careless with managing money (I'm working on this and making great strides).

I think it is safe to say that at the end of this summer 2014, I had the blues. One might even say I was dealing with a bit of depression. I knew it would pass, but I just felt that weight that presses down like a darkening, unmoving cloud.

Then I heard the news that Robin Williams committed suicide. That news shattered me a bit. It basically gave me a panic attack. I broke into a complete sweat. My shirt was literally soaked and stuck to my body. I was on my way to meet a huge portion of my family for my aunt's birthday dinner party , and I ended up turning around and going home. I just couldn't bear the thought of being around people. I was embarrassed.

If you've ever known someone personally that has committed suicide (I have known someone), you know it is something you never truly overcome. The message I received about Robin Williams reminded me of that feeling of loss. It also reminded me of being depressed as a kid. I remember what it feels like to be painted into a corner by the darkness that is depression. I mentioned that in last month's blog. I'm sure many of you have felt that weight before, too.

It just breaks my heart that there are people who are painted into those dark corners permanently and cannot find a way out.

A friend posted a status on Facebook after Robin Williams' death, and there was a comment on his status that really resonated with me. It just said #stayhere.

Stay here please. The world needs you.

We may not always realize it, but we are all pieces in this puzzle of a world, and when you take a piece of that puzzle out prematurely, the world is just stunted. We are all a part of that crazy, beautiful puzzle. We are necessary. We are each loved dearly by something Divine. You are loved and necessary. Please stay here.

We make a difference in the world. Our words, our actions, and our kindnesses change the topography of Earth's heart. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Ram Dass: "We are all just walking each other home." That pretty much says it all.

I am back at work now and getting in the swing of things. Life is grand. I even had the privilege of teaching writing strategies to 75 awesome teachers today! The 35th season of Turtle Creek Chorale is upon us! I get to sing with my turtle brothers. I'm even getting excited about my birthday! Why the heck not?!?!

Most of my favorite novels share similar themes. They have a strong resilient main character who survives the blows of life to end up thriving and experiencing those little victories and joys that life has to offer. Those moments, possibilities, and PEOPLE make life more than worth surviving the dark corners.

A couple of days ago, a friend and colleague (thank you Jennifer Hammett!) sent me a song because she knows me and knew I would love it. She nailed it!

I wasn't going to share this piece of writing because I didn't want it to seem too dark and negative (I promise you there is a FUNNY blog post in the works!). But that song gave it the positive spin it needed. And you know what? Darkness is a part of life. I just hope we can ALL pull together and hold on in spite of the darkness. Please stay here. Let's be a light for one another and a light in the world. It takes a village to keep this messy puzzle together.

"To be humble, to be kind. It is the giving of the peace in your mind. To a stranger, to a friend, to give in such a way that has no end...Heroes don't look like they used to; they look like you do. … We are loved. We are one. We are how we treat each other when the day is done." -- The Alternate Routes

Listen here. It's a life-changer :-)  The Alternate Routes -- Nothing More

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Pride, Prejudice, and Bravery

     It was a church service to celebrate the 4th of July. I was reluctant to go, but my mom thought I would enjoy the music. Every now and again it seems fitting to attend church with your mother, so I relented and even looked forward to hearing the pianist. 
     The service went well at first. The patriotic music ceremony included a moving tribute to veterans. As promised, the pianist played beautifully.
     Then it came time for the pastor to preach his sermon. He walked up to the pulpit and began. I can’t remember exactly what he said, to be honest, but I certainly remember how it made me feel. He was complaining about President Obama’s calling a lesbian couple to congratulate them on their marriage.  It wasn’t even what he said that disturbed me so; it was the tone of utter disgust in his voice.  There was also a disdaining, self-righteous rumble from some of the congregation. 
     I sat stunned and mortified.
     I used to live in fear that this would happen. As a timid, shy, gay child growing up in a southern baptist church, I shouldered intolerance time and again. And I shouldered it alone. I kept myself locked in the closet, but it was anything but secure. Honestly, I can only remember a few times homosexuality was directly mentioned in sermons or sunday school or youth assemblies, but they occurred. There were plenty of jokes and slurs (not directed at me, but they hit, anyway) throughout my growing up in church, as there were everywhere back then. I can remember, specifically, one summer I was home from college, and I went to a college group sunday school class, and the speaker talked specifically about how everyone, including the church, was becoming TOO tolerant of "the gays."
     Regardless, I associated church with shame, guilt, and unworthiness. Sometimes worship services made me literally nauseous. I enjoyed the hymns, but there was something sad and weighted about the praise and worship songs. I remember thinking to myself, "This doesn't apply to me. I'm gay. I'm bad." I was a very sad little boy, and church was a huge source of that sadness. No child should ever have to feel that way. Especially not in church.
     I went through several phases of "praying the gay away" and bargaining with God growing up. I always knew I was gay even before I knew what it was. I can't explain it, but I knew. I thought when I became a Christian at eight-years-old, it would go away. It did not. I thought if I "surrendered my life to Christian ministry and service" (at a ridiculously and amusingly young age), it would go away. It did not. I can even remember having suicidal thoughts and how scary that was, even though I never would have acted on those thoughts. I resorted to rededicating my life several times. I remember once at a Disciple Now, I was so filled with shame I convinced myself that I hadn't REALLY become a Christian the first time since I was so obviously still gay as a tinseled Christmas tree. It all seems so preposterous now, but I was so scared and convinced at the time that I was bound for hell; it all seemed only natural.
     I would even go out to Lake Brownwood during my first year of college (of course I went to Howard Payne University -- baptist) to pray -- no -- beg God to make me "normal" and straight.
     I'm so glad He didn't. It never went away. God, instead, convinced me that She loved me as is. I am a whole human being. I am a compassionate, funny, quirky, musical, literary, gay person, and that is absolutely fantastic. I wonder how my childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood would be different if I had realized that decades ago.
     I should emphasize that there are many people in that church who were angels through all the years I went there. My family could not have survived and thrived after my father's death if it wasn't for our church family. I especially remember Joe Browder taking me aside at church camp when I was little. He saw that I was in turmoil. I will never forget his looking me straight in the eye and telling me that Jesus loved me, Rusty Weeks, no matter what. NO. MATTER. WHAT. I believe that now more than ever. I believe that God loves every last one of us equally and wonderfully. Why would there be a God otherwise?
     As soon as I realized the topic of this pastor's rant, I shut down and stopped listening. This was the same man who had shaken my hand and welcomed me to this church numerous times. This was the man who stood at the altar and proclaimed to the congregation once before that "all are welcomed and loved here!" I looked over at my mother, who looked like she'd been slapped as she mouthed, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. You should go.” How could she have known? I know she wanted to get up and leave with me. 
     I shrugged my shoulders and looked over at my 8 and 11-year-old nieces who were also there with us. “I have to leave; I’ll see you at lunch.” They just looked up at me blankly -- confused. Looking back on it, I wish I had asked them if they wanted to leave with me, but it all happened so fast. 
     I have felt blatantly marginalized for being gay, since I came out, a total of three times. The first time I was tutoring a group of students that weren't actually in my class. I went over to redirect a seventh grade girl who wasn't working. As I walked away from her desk, I heard her whisper, "gay motherfucker," under her breath. The second time I was at the House of Blues to hear Joshua Radin perform. There were some drunk girls behind my group, and we couldn't hear Josh over their inebriated rambling. I turned around and asked them to be quiet. A guy next to them said, "You fucking faggot." My friend Latoya heard him say it, too. As harmful as these instances were, they paled in comparison to the indignity I suffered that day last summer in church. 
     I was PISSED.
     The angry part of me wasn't angry for myself. I was angry for all of the little kids sitting in that church who were gay. I was angry for the ones who were questioning, too. I was angry that any child in that service was hearing it. And I was angry at the people in the congregation who were encouraging the hurt that spewed from the pulpit with their rumbling grunts. How could this be happening in 2013?! In a holiday service? I do not need anyone to feel sorry for me, but I am asking you to feel for those kids. 
     The church had stadium-like seating, and we were seated to the right side of the auditorium and just a few rows back. In order to make my most graceful exit of the auditorium (“sanctuary” doesn’t seem appropriate for me, here), I walked down the steps towards the pulpit and made my way around the corner. So when I rounded the corner, I was facing the entire congregation seated on the ground floor. This was a long, lonely, awkward, but empowering walk. I have no idea how a human being can feel completely annihilated and liberated at the same time, but I did. I walked proudly with my head held high out of that giant red room. I tried to look people in the eye as I was marching out, but no one seemed to return my gaze. I did not look back.
     I do not plan on going back unless I go to pay respects to someone who passes, like Joe Browder. That church is filled with Christ-like, wonderful people. I'm convinced of that. But how could I go back into that building with a shred of dignity and self-respect? I probably should have gone back one last time and given that pastor a piece of my mind or just sat down calmly and talked to him about my concerns regarding his sermon. I have no idea if he has a clue that his words hurt anyone.
     It's time to let this one go. Gay people aren't going anywhere. And some of us are getting married. Let go of the "Love the sinner, hate the gay sin" BS, too. I'm not even going to justify that with words and the justification of my disgust over it. I'm also fed up with people's assertions that their right to vote against a gay person's right to marry is religious freedom. That's my freedom you're trying to take away.
     So much going through my head as I kept walking out of that church and through the enormous, hot parking lot to my car. When I sat in my car, I put in a mix cd and played "All I Ever Have to Be" by Amy Grant (Written by Gary Chapman -- See YouTube link below), and the words meant more to me than ever. I wish I could have hugged every kid in that service and played them that song. It pretty much got me through childhood and adolescence.
     I also posted something on Facebook that still resonates with me and hopefully many of you, as well. "I'm glad my faith is stronger than the words and walls of man." Then I drove to the Chili's parking lot in Casa Linda and waited on my family and friends for lunch. When we were finally seated, my oldest niece sat down next to me and reached over and squeezed my hand.
     I have made it my life's mission to do my best to pour light on others and the world instead of casting shadows. My being gay has only given me even more lenses to see the world through and enabled me to shed and share more light. Peace to all.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel." -- Maya Angelou


When the weight of all my dreams
Is resting heavy on my head
And the thoughtful words of help and hope
Have all been nicely said
But I'm still hurting wondering if I'll ever be the one
I think I am -- I think I am

Then You gently re-remind me
That You've made me from the first
And the more I try to be the best
The more I get the worst
And I realized the good in me is only there because of who You are
Who You are…

And all I ever have to be is what You've made me
Any more or less would be a step out of your plan
As you daily re-create me help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find
And all I ever have to be
All I have to be
All I ever have to be is what You've made me.

Amy Grant Gary Chapman Copyright New Spring Publishing