Leaving the woods of if only

It’s the end of February, 2023 …. nearly 3 years after COVID restrictions were first introduced, starting this blog in isolation. Four years after I left the hospital after a serious health threat; the year prior to that, getting married, after moving to San Francisco; more than 10 years after “coming out” in my 50’s. It’s been a lot to absorb, but finally … it feels like life is a little more settled. I know there are others out there who went through a lot of change, challenges, loss, and growth – and perhaps you, like me, wonder where you are – who you are – and what lies ahead.

My blog concept was birthed months before I actually posted a word; it took isolation to get me off the dime. My perfectionist nature had grand ideals. I wanted to write life changing posts that inspire; I wanted to somehow make a difference. I gave my blog a theme – of my path towards authenticity. I thought – foolishly, probably – that sharing from my heart, being honest, being open and vulnerable – might somehow reach others who needed to hear something in my words. Now, looking back, I realize my vision was prideful; another layer of pretense, of trying to be, rather than just acknowledging that whatever lessons I have to offer may not really have much relevance or meaning for anyone else.

So, yes, I admit it – this is a selfish blog, where I sort through whatever is flowing in my life at the moment. Without question, writing, thinking, reflecting, are all core elements of my being – of how I express my deepest heart. If I am going to be truly honest here, I must admit, candidly, that I don’t have the answers to the questions that I spend hours thinking about, and sometimes write about; the questions seem to grow and the answers seem to fade farther away. Certainty is a luxury, or perhaps a fantasy; and life is easier when we cling to fables and make believe – but they come at too great a cost. The cost of ourselves, our real selves, hobbled and misshapen by circumstance and choice, hiding under a cloak of confidence and character, forgotten under the masks we learned to wear long before there were mandates thrust upon our world. Perhaps this moment marks a good time to drop all our masks, outer and inner.

Can you relate to the analogy of hiding under a mask, a costume, a persona – to belong, to be accepted or to fit in? I have no idea if others struggle with a sense that they have never fully let others know them; I have spent most of my life feeling different. When I was a kid, at the doctor’s and dentist’s office waiting rooms there would be magazines with something like “One of these is not like the others”, where an illustration would challenge you to find out what wasn’t in conformity with the rest; I didn’t see myself in those puzzles. I didn’t see myself in my family, or my school classes; nor in my church. In childhood, long before realizing that I was gay, and my struggles against that, there were always differences, and I never felt as if I belonged. As I grew, somewhere along the way, I accepted as a tenet that trying to be what others wanted me to be was the way to happiness. Now, in my years that most would call being an old man, I realize that couldn’t have been more wrong; and yet, although truth does bring freedom, my ship of life setting course on new directions finds itself battling waves of regret, battered and tossed into seas unknown – with no map, nor compass or stars to guide it. So many choices or factors that I wish had been – different. But those ways of thinking are obstacles to real authenticity.

Movies have always been like another home for me, a reality very different from my day to day life – fables, parables, portals to escape; even in those fictions, truth awaits discovery, inviting me to look deeper, learn, and to find my own way forward. I found myself in the stories of others, and wove their dreams into my own. You probably remember the early scene in 1939s Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, joined by the Scarecrow, make their way through a dark forest.  The trees come alive, and throw apples at them – then, they find the tin man and make their way onward.   Another memorable film forest is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where Frodo and friends make their way through a very dark and dangerous, seemingly endless tangle of trees, barely escaping (details elude my memory, those movies went on forever!!!) The musical “Into the woods” cleverly reframes childhood stories, weaving them into lessons about broken dreams and learning to set aside the land of pretend.

Forests can be scary places like that; but they can also be like chapels of nature, fingers reaching up into the sky to embrace the wind and feel the sun.  Recently, I realized I needed to find my way out of a private woods – one of a different nature.  Dark, nevertheless; seemingly  non navigable; pressing in around my soul on a daily basis for so long, I had forgotten what it was like to not be surrounded by the thick trees and hidden sky.  A forest in my inner life grown for decades, each new growth spurred on by regret.  I realized I had been wandering for quite some time in the forest of if only.  Each tree had its own seed – a point of regret, of circumstances sometimes chosen, sometime thrust upon me.   A wish that something would have been different – my family, my social skills, my choice of career, my emotions – and of course, the biggie of them all, my sexuality, beaten down and buried under shame. Living in the woods of if only was like a hypnotic charm – inviting me to stay in a place of regret, of hopes never achieved and possibilities that were never available to me. It would be easy to spend a lifetime there; easier than finding a way out, or digging up the courage to leave them behind for something unknown. That is the appeal of fantasy – the power to numb us to what we do not want to see, the truths we would do anything to avoid. The hard truths demand we pay a price for freedom.

We all have emptiness inside, spaces that we avoid – sometimes we try to fill them, but they are unsatisfiable – they simply are hollowed out, dark places in our souls. To pretend they don’t exist is risky – but to fantasize that something can make them disappear brings a different kind of danger.  There are so many ways to run from our inner void; some are more socially acceptable, like work or prestige, physical or financial achievements and honors – for those who cannot walk those paths, we may be drawn to numb the pain with alcohol, drugs, religion, or more desperate powers of hatred and bitterness. We become tangled in layers of false thinking, pointing at others and claiming it is they who are lost, to drown out the sense within our own hearts that we have lost our way – not knowing how to find the way forward. We cling to our cherished dreams because admitting they don’t work is too frightening to consider. But I am finding a way out of the tangled woods, the cold void, to a richer life.

Somehow, through the experiences of my recent years, COVID related and non, I have started to realize it is my own thinking that has slowly formed the walls of denial and blame that seemed to protect me but really were a self imposed prison. Yes, coming out was hard for me; yes, the experiences of “reparative therapy” and other forces within my family and culture damaged me in ways that may never be healed. But being honest about that aspect, that portion of me, was not the end of my road to growth, nor the beginning – just a milestone. I needed to start being more honest with myself, and that meant accepting who I was – imperfect in so many ways that I had spent a lifetime trying to hide, foolishly and ineffectively. In my journal, a year or two ago, I wrote the following –

                               I Tried to be ....  
                                             For my mother
                                                 my father
                                                 and all those around me in life ....
                                      What they wanted me to be .....
                                                   And - what I thought they wanted me to be. 

                                   I fell short. 

                               It was not their acceptance, their grace that I needed ..........

                                                                 It was mine. 

Living in the woods of if only is like a dream, from which one never awakens. I’ve always been amazed by how vivid my dreams can be; the whirling together of people from different chapters of my life, locations, jobs, eras mingled together like jumbles baskets of donations to goodwill, discarded and forgotten, now again called to mind by my unconscious, so real that upon waking it seemed like I was transferred from some alternate dimension, abruptly thrust back into my bed. My emerging awareness that wandering through these woods of wishing life had been different was like living in a dream – not one where life had really meaning or impact, but one that kept me “asleep” and “safe” from facing reality – a siren song whose safety and comfort lulled me from awaking and choosing a real life fraught with different dangers, and especially, the unknown.

What can I turn to for a way out of these woods of if only – the forest of regret, the fairyland of wishful thinking and the caverns of blame? There is one answer that has come forth to me – a light that will break the spell, awaken the sleeper, part the brambles and lead me to something better, if unknown. That light, that lamp, is gratitude. Thankfulness for the “NOW”, and acknowledgement that every element of my life to date – free of labels of good and evil, of right and wrong, of normal and perverse – has been a blessing. A gift, in which every part has it’s place. Is it possible to look at that which is ugly and say “thank you”? I believe it is not only possible – but necessary. For me, that requires a way to seek – for myself, and those in my life – forgiveness; and again, for me, that necessitates embracing a perspective of life larger than my intellect or concepts of truth and understanding can encompass or define.

There are undoubtedly many books and authors, philosophers and scribes, who have recognized what I am only beginning to see – but writing about it is key for me. Letting my thoughts breathe life outside the space between my ears and rumbling deep in my spirit by setting down letters and characters into space, little seeds of truth floating on a wind of hope, as I stumble out of the woods and into the sun and seek the next steps forward, whatever lies ahead. The most powerful tool I have is not of my own making, but an awareness and acceptance of my limitations, and a sense – a faith – that powers humankind has struggled to encapsulate through the centuries exists, defying our ability to limit it, but asking – inviting – each of us to just let it be in our lives, and to trust. Being grateful for my life, today, is part of that faith. That the answers may never be known to my mind, but still dwell in my soul.

No, I do not want to tear down the woods of if only; I just want to not dwell there any more. I am realizing there is no way to fill the void of regrets, and that many of the actions or ways that I sought to assuage the hunger of my spirit will never work, because it is simply a part of me. I am learning to let the woods, and the void, and the elements of my past which I cannot change – be part of a greater whole, a mosaic that is still being formed in my heart. I am also realizing that whatever about me is unlike others in my life – isn’t “wrong”. It just is. And it is in precisely those differences that I must live, because to deny them is to negate whatever possible meaning I might have in life. It is not in conforming to the expectations of others – to doing that which is necessary to belong – that any of us have something to contribute; it is in our differentness that we can, in our own unique, weird little lives, offer some light to others on our paths – and genuine love for them as they are, just as we are, today. Love that accepts, that encourages, that gives life – what we all seek.

I am perhaps not so much changing as dropping not being myself at the same time. Yes, at this old age, I am finding my way still, growing and becoming. Authentically weird, wrong, questioning and giving thanks in the silent space where answers cannot be known but peace still is awaiting to embrace me. So this blog is changing too. It will never, and cannot, be perfect; I cannot stop letting myself share here because I don’t have the best photos, or take months to edit my words into a TED talk, or wait until I know “the truth” – I need to write, and this is my place to do it. I am letting go of trying to be someone I am not and never was; I am setting aside the expectations of niches within my life as to who I should be, to just be who I am.

My choice is clear – grasp this opportunity to step beyond my comfort zone, and to explore that which calls me, to fumble and even “get it wrong”; or, to stay the course. I am choosing the road less travelled. I haven’t quite figured out what that means for “The New NormL”, but I can guarantee that I will be sharing more frequently, and perhaps a little more openly and plainly, as I continue to explore what it means to live life authentically. I can promise only that I plan to write more about subjects dear to my heart that may have little meaning for anyone else! Whether it is how I am doing on my fitness journey – reframing what that actually means, for me; my spiritual explorations and beliefs (without claiming to be “right”); and, adventures in exploring my city and sometimes areas beyond. I sense, though, that because I am looking at life a bit differently, working on my own thinking, making new choices about how to focus my own energy and spend my time, that my posts here will reflect to a greater degree an area of increased focus – my research into my heritage. Some call this genealogy, but it is more than that – much more. I am excited about sharing that here, not only for my family, but as a way of celebrating the wonder of life we all sometimes overlook, the miracles of everyday and the awe of grace.

Whatever you read here, if whoever looks at this occasionally continues to check in now and then – my only promise to you is that I am not going to try to be an impressive writer, or an inspiring observer of life, or some arbiter of deep truths. I am just going to be “me”, and to share that with you, and perhaps, in all that, encourage you to do the same. I still hope, in my little way, to awaken something withing You are welcome to stop by, set a while, and come back whenever you find your way around the corner to my little porch. Thanks for doing that, today.

Three entered eternity

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

When do you know that you are saying goodbye for the last time?  

Winter is a cold time here in San Francisco, even though we do not have the snow.  It was a little colder, and quieter, this year.  I’ve never been asked to write an obituary before; it wasn’t a surprise.  Neither was the late news about a distant friend; but the third was a shock.  People pass from this earth every day; perhaps we keep little pieces of them with us, in a way, but it’s just as likely that something leaves us when they are no longer present.  Loss has lessons for us if we can sit and listen.  Perhaps by writing I can glean something of meaning, something to share; someone to commemorate, to love them again beyond the boundary of their heartbeat. 

These were just 3 people from my life, some closer than others.  They didn’t know each other; 2 crossed paths once, briefly, at our wedding.  I guess in a way everyone just shifts in and out of our lives, most of them for moments, but some for years, even our lifetime. 

David, on the left, with his father and brother.

David.  If it were not for the blood we shared from our common heritage, he never would have been in my life; he was my Mom’s cousin.  She had babysat him in his infancy.  He had a full life; he knew joy, and loss.  Born while America was still struggling through the “Great Depression”, he saw his country go through tremendous challenge and change.  I didn’t really know him until well into my adult life, when he and his brother invited a broad swath of cousins and kin to a reunion in San Luis Obispo.  Most there were strangers to me, but I wanted to learn more about my heritage, those who came before me that I would never meet.  I got to know him better when I ultimately moved nearby after my mother’s death; his family would always welcome me to Thanksgiving gatherings, with happy voices and hungry appetites all jumbled into their home, laughing, hugging, eating – the kind of family events that were not a part of my own past.  When I finally found my way to slowly letting my family and friends know who I was – and I started discovering that at last breaking through shame and isolation – David and his family were my closest family support.  The years passed, and his beloved wife and son were gone within weeks of one another; after a lifetime in California, he and his daughter left for new dreams in Tennessee, and I visited them once last time as they prepared for their next chapter. He gave me a Stetson cowboy hat, but more than that, he gave me unlimited acceptance.  He gave the same to my husband, and I suspect he gave it to pretty much everyone who ever entered his life.  We knew his eventual trickle of health concerns would inevitably grow, surge, and carry him away; he endured through one final Christmas.  And now he is gone, and it seems hard to imagine a world where he isn’t still laughing and doing crosswords and ranting about news or sharing ribald stories.  His voice echoes in my soul; I don’t want to stop hearing it.

David at a 2015 family reunion

I believe there is a kind of shared spirit in our blood family, but that doesn’t make our bonds with “found family” any less meaningful.  One such, for me, was Jim.  I have written about Jim and his husband Nile before; when I finally reached out for help to escape the cave I had slowly burrowed into within my soul, they were among the first who I told I was gay.  Their lives had also been very different from my own; both had married and had children, and later left that life to be together, at high costs.  They lived in Palm Springs, the closest “community” to my rural inland California home; they were older.  They had supported my Dad’s cousin Bill in the final years of his life, living in the same small trailer park on limited income.  When Bill passed n 2006, I still was unable to accept myself, as a gay man, as me, as just a human being himself; that time came a few years after, and they welcomed me.   They had a replica of Michelangelo’s’ “David” outside their trailer festooned with beads. They were gay men of a different time, not long before mine but long enough and their paths different enough that only chance brought us together – but they loved me.  They loved me, just as Mr. Rogers used to say, into being me.  They didn’t try to tell me what was right for me; we didn’t see each other often, and Niles passed before I could introduce him to Bob, but every time I made it back to the desert, once or twice a year, I would stop in to see Jim; he was in his 80’s now, and parts weren’t working in him as  they used to.  On my last visit, I gave my number to a neighbor, knowing it might be the last time we talked; I sent a Christmas card.   A few weeks after Christmas, a note came in the mail, from his daughter, to let me know he too had left this earth; I had not met her, but Jim spoke of her often.  I searched for words to put into a card soon after, telling her how much the care and encouragement that Jim had offered meant to me; I am sure I was not the only one.  He cared for so many in his life.  I will remember him, and Nile, always. 

Jim and Nile with me in Palm Springs, 2010

Dave and Jim knew their time was coming to an end; we had talked about it.  But the last time I spoke with a local friend, who I had met through Bob here in SF, neither of us could have imagined it would be our final conversation.  He was younger than me, seemingly in great health and spirit, in a loving marriage and with an extensive family – and suddenly, he was gone.  His life could not have been more different from my own; Bob had known him for years, but we had never spent a lot of time talking one on one.  He was always surrounded by friends, and it was apparent at his memorial service that his family had loved him deeply and supported him after coming out in his teen years.  His life was not without difficulty or challenge by any means, but he used his intellect, and his heart, to care and to contribute to individuals in his circle and to his broader community; he did so much with his life to make a difference.  I never saw him be anything more than energetic, enthusiastic and positive. At the family memorial, listening to their stories, and seeing pictures, I wonder how and by whom it is that we are granted different gifts, and I question whether my own choices were somehow irreversible signs that I could have done more, I might have chosen a different path.   The silence in all their lives now that he is absent will not be soon replaced, if ever.  

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

The same is true with every loss; every farewell.  Ultimately, whether expected or abrupt, we all eventually stand at the door and walk through to what lies beyond.   Sometimes we find hope picturing our loved ones reuniting, or whatever faith lies within our hearts provides some kind of assurance that they are in a better place.  I don’t want to admit my uncertainty, I wish I could avoid acknowledging that I don’t have absolute assurance about those or a million other questions – simplistic answers are like children’s candy, sweet but only offering temporary solace.  Instead, I look at their lives, I listen to their voices in my memory, their faces fading in and out of focus, moments of laughter and love, and I am grateful.  Grateful for their gift of presence in my life, their caring; and humbled to be reminded I have that responsibility, that power to touch others.  Perhaps that is why ghosts haunt us, to remind us we are still here to love one another, and that ultimately it is who and how we love that endures when we are gone, perhaps forgotten, lost to time.  

These 3 caring souls now join the chorus of witnesses whose pictures still look back at me, still alive in those moments, and perhaps eternity. 3 of countless thousands that day, just the 3 that I knew in different ways and different times.  Each of them touched me, and I have thought of them often in the days since I learned that their voices were now silenced; but I still hear them in my heart.   

The New NormL back when he rode …. see you around the bend, friends!