Panacea

Cosmology painting, Thimphu Dzong, BhutanHappy Lunar New Year! I know it was a couple days ago. As I’m fond of saying, any day is a good day to start again…assuming you want to start again. Which reminds me, Lent  began Wednesday. If you missed it and ate a big bag of M&Ms that day like I did, just start now.

And then there’s Valentine’s Day. That was a week ago. I keep missing blog-post opportunities in my head; but then, nothing is ever wasted. I got one of those year-in-review things in the mail today from a friend, and it included the 2013 year in review too. See? It’s never too late.

I went to a wonderful, funny, warm, wise talk on Valentine’s Day called Healing the Heart through Love. You didn’t have to have a broken heart to get something out of it, lucky for me, since my heart is in pretty good shape these days.

What stood out most was not the number of times the speaker, Gen Kelsang Chokyi, used the word “panacea”—although it was high; I think she said it something like 6 times—but the way she used it. Have you ever heard “panacea” used without the words “not a”? Have you ever heard someone say “such-and-such is a panacea”?

Angkor, CambodiaChokyi did. Six times. She said love is a panacea. It will heal whatever ails you. And you know what? She’s right.

Before you jump all over me and say love is to blame for the most painful heartbreak you’ve ever been through, hang on. Define “love.” Here’s how I define it: Love is wanting someone else to be happy. (Remember that from 2012?) The pain we commonly associate with love, that other thing that breaks your heart, hurts, stinks, is so confusing, is a battlefield? That’s attachment: wanting something from the other person.

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s see if love really is a panacea. Well, where do our problems and suffering come from? Our problems don’t come from outside. They come from our self-grasping and self-cherishing mind, wishing ourself to be happy, usually while neglecting others, except maybe a few choice others whom we like because they make us happy.

Here’s a quote I love from 8th-century Buddhist scholar Shantideva:

All the happiness there is in this world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy

We suffer because we are self-absorbed. Sorry to break it to you. But actually, that’s good news. It means we can do something about it. Shantideva also famously said, and I paraphrase, we can try to cover the whole world in leather or we can put on a pair of shoes. We don’t have to change the whole world in order to be happy; we just change ourself. Direct your attention to wanting others to be happy—to love—and see what happens.

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Reentry

Todd Rundgren: Something/AnythingHello, it’s me. I was told once that I looked like Todd Rundgren, and I was insulted because I thought he wasn’t very attractive. He had bad teeth and long hair. But, aside from that, we  really do look a lot alike. He writes better songs than I do.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a long break from the blog, doing other things—traveling, learning, teaching, living life. You know how it is. I’ve missed it some, missed the conversations it can spark mostly. A little voice in my head kept reminding me it was here waiting, but it hasn’t felt like a crisis at all. I hope you had a nice break, too.

Looking at when I was last posting, I guess it should not surprise me that my unplanned hiatus happened and lasted this long. I went away to see my family. Come November, I started two big writing projects: NaNoWriMo, where I put 50,000 more words to paper (or the digital equivalent of that); and an intensive online course called Writing from Your Queer Goldmine, five weeks of digging deep into a life-changing experience from my queer past. Material from both projects will help fill the gaps in what I hope becomes a novel one of these days.

Around the same time, I treated myself to some weekends away—a yoga retreat, a meditation retreat, a long drive to LA to get some incredible teachings—and a birthday party, a wig party where I really did look like Todd Rundgren, a holiday party…

Hong Kong hotel viewThen I left for Asia: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cambodia, and best of all, Bhutan. I’ll probably write about it; but then, I thought that about last year’s trip. In the meantime, my trusty travel companion, Alan, documented our trip in his hilariously zen way on his blog. I recommend it.

It was another of those trips it’s not so easy to adjust to being back from. Travel has this overwhelming effect on me sometimes. Reentry is hard. It’s not just the jet lag, though that did wipe me out. I come home changed, and everything is new, my life a clean slate. It takes me a few weeks to get into a routine, taking my time deciding what to allow back in.

Usually after a big trip, I don’t call anybody right away. I sit with myself, cocooning, and see what happens. Nobody calls. Maybe they know. Eventually, I reach out and get things going. I go back to work and put things on my calendar and see the people I love. It’s like emerging from a dream or a good meditation or savasana at the end of a yoga class–I don’t want to shake things up and lose the feeling.

boys on their phones, Trongsa festivalI move slowly, lightly. I question everything, and I feel sensitive. Mostly happy. Sometimes I do the things I used to do, and it just doesn’t feel right anymore. I feel closer to some people, more distant from others. I love them all.

There’s nothing so unusual in all this. (I’ve never been much of a drama queen, thank goodness.) Everything changes all the time. I’m not the same person I was a couple months ago, or yesterday; neither are you. How great!

 

 

 

Love according to Bread

The Best of BreadTHERE ARE CERTAIN groups from the 1970s that were decidedly uncool to like, or at least uncool for guys to like. Bread was one of them. My sister had all of their albums, and I loved them. Listening to The Best of Bread this week, I find myself appreciating them even more as an adult who knows a little bit about the subject matter of their hit songs, which was almost exclusively one thing: love. I loved all love songs back then—the sappy ones, happy ones, sad ones, confusing ones. What did I know?

I knew nothing. And so I had no way of knowing Bread’s love songs were actually a cut above. I just liked them. And I felt something when I heard them…so maybe I did sort of know there was something special going on.

I’ve written before about how most love songs I grew up with put a lot of crazy ideas about love into my impressionable young mind. I’m still digging out from it, but think I’m safe in saying I have a much better understanding about what love is than I did as a tween. God, I hope so.

Bread’s love songs—all of the hits, anyway—are different because they are about real love, love that is about wishing the other person happiness and celebrating the happiness they bring to you. “Make It with You,” their first and only #1 hit, looks at trying to love without grasping after it, knowing it could last or not. It’s the politest “ask” in any love song I can think of.

Everything I Own” is about showing regret and appreciation of a love lost and sincerely wishing to try again. It’s about giving. “If” is just pure love through and through. These are not crazy love songs; they are about being in it together. Even “Baby I’m-a Want You,” which by its title might appear to be about wanting to possess and get something out of the other person, is different: it’s an admission of insecurity, the singer vulnerable and celebratory of the love he’s being given. Baby has-a done him wonders!

Diary by BreadDiary” takes vulnerability to the point of heartbreak, a sad song that ends on the sublime note of the singer wishing his beloved happiness with another man, the man she truly loves. Wow. Talk about turning away from jealousy! (Granted, he should not have been reading her diary.)

The most profound Bread hit, though, and perhaps the truest love song of the 1970s, is “It Don’t Matter to Me.” The song was also a favorite when I was a kid. This is a way better take on the “if you love somebody, set them free” theme Sting took on a decade and a half later. This isn’t telling someone else what to do (or whatever Sting’s song is about—I can’t really tell). This is personal:

It don’t matter to me
If you take up with someone who’s better than me
‘Cause your happiness is all I want
For you to find
Peace, your peace of mind

The singer loves somebody. He sets them free. He wishes them peace of mind. And he hopes they’ll come back to him in the end, but he has no guarantee of that. That’s love, friends.

First Take

Roberta Flack: First TakeBECAUSE IT’S MY FAVORITE chakra, I’ll post another piece I did focusing on the heart, this one based on an exercise called “Waking up clichés.” We were encouraged to take worn-out, heart-based turns of phrase—I immediately thought, 1970s love songs! Perfect!—and transform them into something fresh and new. Running with the Roberta Flack reference in the writing I’d just done, I chose to transform another of her songs in this reworking of an old story, parts of which I’ve told before.

First Take

Even from this distance, a half-block away, Rick could tell—Jesse in person was more gorgeous than in the photo he’d sent. In the photo, his face was half-hidden by a pulled-down baseball cap, posing, showing off the pecs and abs and narrow waist, nicely ripped but merely hinting at handsome. As they came within striking distance, Rick saw, he felt, as Jesse’s whole face erupted with a kind of childlike openness, what Patti Smith would call such naked joy, unusually wide-smiled beaming. Rick regarded the sexy scruff of a beard, the beauty mark on Jesse’s jaw. And those dark brown eyes unafraid—they held a glimpse of something, something deep; they told a story as ancient as the heavens, the formation of the planets, their moons, the sun and the stars, a story at once brilliant and dark, Jesse’s eyes profoundly happy and giving, and at the same time reflecting some of the gravity of sadness that is life. All this in an instant.

They embraced at once and exchanged a kiss, a polite kiss. They separated just enough, still hugging, to take another good stare at each other and smile. Jesse smelled faintly of tangerines and tobacco. They came back together, mouths open just enough for a proper kiss equal parts Jesse and Rick, lips and tongues licking teeth, tasting mint, slurping and sucking spit. Rick’s right hand moved automatically like it knew what it was doing up to the back of Jesse’s buzzed head, caressing the stubble, knocking his hat off kilter; and Jesse, too, pulling Rick closer, as if closer were even possible, boots up against sneakers, almost tripping, these two guys making out like teenagers on the sidewalk outside the Galleria Park Hotel at dusk on a Saturday night, the stores closed and the street pretty quiet, but still…

Jesse shuddered. Rick felt it. He held Jesse tighter, kept on kissing. It felt like the boy was on the verge of coming right there, standing, fully clothed, all this from a kiss, their first kiss, a damned good kiss. Jesse laughed into Rick’s mouth. He shook again, trembling tremors. Sensitive boy. Not three minutes past meeting and Rick felt protective of this sweet little guy, as if Jesse could collapse right there on the sidewalk if he weren’t there to prop him up. He reached a hand under Jesse’s sweater, first touch of the skin electric-warm as toast. He laid his hand lightly over Jesse’s heart, held it still, and all went quiet. He felt the heart beating, barely, felt his ribs, Rick’s fingers slotting into the spaces between, massaging, fingertips sliding outward, away from the heart, Jesse’s chest rising and falling. Rick found a hard nipple and gently squeezed. Jesse let out a little moan. Rick ate it up.

“You like that,” Rick said, not quite a question, his other hand moving down, slipping into the gap at the back of Jesse’s stiff, brand new-feeling blue jeans, resting there steady and flat on his sacrum. In that moment, Rick felt his own power, felt he could control this guy if he wanted to, send him soaring into the stratosphere and back, make him come right now, at his command, pressing buttons by kissing and moving his fingers just right.

* * *

“Fuck, papi, that was good,” Jesse said. He smiled. He and Rick lay naked on the big white hotel-room bed, spent. Yeah, it had been more than good. Rick had never fucked without a condom before. This was new. And he was fine with the decision, if you could even call it that, however unconscious and far from rational thought it had been. He had always strictly followed the safe sex mantra to use a condom every time, assuming every partner could be infected. He was tired of it all, tired of the loss and the fear and the barriers, the literal barriers between himself and his lovers. Rick had never felt so close, so trusting with a guy he’d just met. There was something about Jesse he couldn’t quite explain. It just felt right.

“We should use condoms, don’t you think?” Jesse had asked not a half-hour before.

“Yeah, of course,” Rick replied. “It’s not like we don’t both have sex with other guys.”

But when it came right down to it, it would have felt so wrong to stop, to tear open the packet, to do all of that… It would have broken the spell, Rick felt, interrupting the flow of the most intimate, knowing choreography of their sex. It would have introduced the buzz kill of death. It would have broken the fragile bond of trust already forming between him and Jesse, childlike in their ecstatic relief at having found each other, two lost souls wandering the barren wasteland of Craigslist looking for real connection and now celebrating their extreme good fortune, kissing the whole time fucking, eyes wide open and searching and smiling, breaking every gay-sex stereotype, their eyes wet and overflowing at the happiness that swelled within their bodies, over them, filling the room, the hotel, the whole of downtown, over the bridges, throughout the Bay Area, and into the dark, unknowable universe beyond.

Rick knew in that moment, Jesse’s body entwined with his own, heart pressed against heart, that he had found something, a satisfied peace previously unknown to him, a comfort in feeling accepted and sexy and lovable. He had been searching his whole life for this and wanted nothing more than to abide in the warm spaciousness of it forever.

He hoped, he sensed, that Jesse felt it, too, Jesse who was asleep beside him now. Rick was dead tired but couldn’t stop looking at Jesse, his smooth, taut body at once strong and vulnerable and small, sweaty, sticky salted-caramel skin and tan lines, sexy as fuck, eyes gently closed and the hint of a smile still on his face, his face, his beautiful face.

* * *

This was based on the beautiful, cliché-ridden song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” made famous by Roberta Flack, recorded in 1969 and released as a single after appearing in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971). It went on to become the #1 song of 1972 and is still the song most likely to make me cry

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the end of the sky

The first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hands
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last till the end of time, my love

The first time ever I saw your face
Your face, your face, your face

 

No words for my love

Aerosmith: Walk this wayI’M LATE AGAIN, I know it. Internet was down at the abode for the whole first part of the month, but it’s back now, not that it makes such a good excuse. I’ve also been busily doing my homework for the Writing from the Chakras class I’m taking for the second time. You may recall I took the class last year at this time. I got so much out of it, I decided to take it again.

Not entirely sure how to do it, but not wanting to disappoint myself by having less dramatic breakthroughs this time around, I have resolved to go deep. Week #1 was about the Root Chakra, and I used the occasion to explore the origin of my fears. In particular, I wanted to know better what drives my lifelong search for love and sex and deep, intimate connection, and more than that, my search for peace of mind and contentment around it all.

This took me on an inward journey back through time to try and uncover those early memories of trying to feel loved and happy, traveling back through a parade of relationships including my “trying-to-be-normal-and-accepted” girlfriend excursions, which I took quite seriously at the time.

I didn’t stop there. I kept rewinding, deeper, reeling in the years to a time before sex and dating and junior prom, to a time of pure innocence, a time when I felt no shame and no compulsion to be anyone other than my true self because I knew no better.

My roots have soaked up and hold the memories I have long forgotten, body memories and feelings I cannot explain but feel strongly still. I had no words for what I felt, my attraction as natural as the weather, love and desire without even knowing it. What did I know?

Somerset Middle SchoolAnd I was able to pinpoint the moment when that changed, when all of a sudden I got the message that something was wrong, I was wrong. I got the words that day in the 6th-grade locker room for something I had no idea was a problem, had no idea was anything at all. My natural way of being stopped that day in the fall of 1970.

It took an action, a bringing together of witnesses, a sharing of these sensations with other fellow beings, classmates naked in a school gym locker room, all of us still mere children and dumb, but I somehow dumber, sheltered maybe from knowing what most boys my age already knew; or maybe it was just that they were different from me, strengthened by their being united in feeling what I didn’t, or in not feeling what I did.

And this is when my root was severed, cut from all nourishment, feelings left to wither and die, a sprout buried under heaps of too much pungent, dark, rich soil. Dirt. Dirty, yes, dirty and shameful. Soiled. I hadn’t a clue, really, until that point. I hadn’t a word for it, hadn’t even thought of needing a word for this completely natural sensation of excitement, attraction, and lust. It seems strange to speak of an 11-year-old’s lust, but that’s what it was.

Suddenly I had a whole new vocabulary of epithets to describe myself—faggot, fairy, homo, queer. I wanted to die. Welcome to middle school, where our cohort of innocents split into tribes, warring factions, splinterings. Middle school, all new, with its budding adolescent bodies, mouths, and minds, nakedness in the group showers, jockstraps and gym uniforms, cliques and dances and fumbling dates, night moves and cigarettes, and, hovering above it all, popular music, all these ways to judge and rank and pressure, to cast out the weak ones, evolution theory in action.

Hormones raging and no way to release any of that pent-up spunk and energy, no outlet and no privacy and no one to talk to about all this, much less kiss or touch or take a stab at sex with, at least I had a good record collection.

Shelter from the Storm

Barbra Streisand: PeopleWHERE DO WE GO for refuge? There is a Buddhist answer to that question, and it’s a good one—the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and though that ought to be enough for me, I find that I still rely on another source of refuge in my life.

People.

What do I mean by refuge? For me, it’s about finding a place where I can feel supported, especially when I am not strong enough on my own. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, be exposed and vulnerable, and know I will be loved. Shelter from the storm: we all need that. I hope I can provide it for others, too.

This idea became clear to me recently when the three people in my life who I consider most important to my feeling grounded and loved happened to be, all at the same time, away or otherwise unavailable for a spell. Lucky for me, I have a lot of wonderful friends who contribute to making me happy, so I was not alone. I am also a whole lot better than I used to be at being on my own and knowing that I am always connected, so there was that, too. It was not a crisis, in other words.

But it was interesting. It was really striking to have that small support network of mine temporarily unavailable. It made me realize how much I rely on them, and how lucky I am. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

People want to be supported unconditionally. I guess that is one of the big attractions of marriage. I am skeptical of the notion that we can find one person to provide all that we need, forever. I’m not even sold on Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracksthe idea that we need anything from anyone—ideally, we wouldn’t, and I’d like to get to the point of experiencing the truth of that. But until I reach such an enlightened state, I am glad for my support system. It’s nice.

So many people in our culture make a fuss about finding that special one, what we used to call a “soulmate.” (Does anyone still use that word, or have they all been laughed off the dating websites?) One is the loneliest number. Who decided that one is enough? And does anyone honestly believe that there is only one person in the universe we are destined to find and stick with for life? Dating is challenging enough without the pressure to find the supposed one in 7,236,660,000 you could be happy with.

I was reading something recently about arranged marriages in India. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, not by a long shot, and I know these things are fraught with problems—gender and economic inequities and so forth. Despite that, it got me thinking. We modern Americans tend to look down on the idea as limiting individual freedom (Gasp! The horror!), but looked at a certain way (theoretically, at least), there could also be a very nice element to arranged marriage: an attempt by society to match people up, to be sure no one ends up onKurt Vonnegut: Slapstick their own (unless they want to be). Yes, I know that’s not how it always works in practice. That said, I’ve read studies showing people in arranged marriages generally tend to be happier and are more likely to stay together. I’ll bet the lack of unreal expectations is a factor. Love the one you’re with.

So, maybe not marriage, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could count on having someone they could count on? It seems like human nature to seek refuge in each other. I remember long ago reading something along those lines by Kurt Vonnegut, some kind of scheme to match people up. Lonesome no more! And so it goes.

 

Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin IVI’M STILL PLAYING MY records in reverse chronological order, in case anyone is wondering, though I’ve not talked about that much lately. I’m in 1971, which you might say is the first year I was fully conscious of and beginning to obsess about pop music.

A whole lot of good records came out that year, and it seems like the biggest standouts on my list of favorites are clustered toward the end of 1971: “Theme from ‘Shaft’” by Isaac Hayes; the double-sided hit single “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” by Rod Stewart; “Do You Know What I Mean” by Lee Michaels; and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” all come to mind.

And then there’s Led Zeppelin’s 4th album. It came out on my 12th birthday, though I didn’t notice at the time. It wasn’t until the early months of 1972 that I began obsessing on the two songs from the album that were getting the most radio airplay. One was “Black Dog,” which climbed the charts as a single, incongruously played alongside the likes of Charley Pride and Redbone on American Top 40. The other was “Stairway to Heaven.”

I was still religious at the time, and I know that because I remember praying to thank God for having the record come out during my lifetime. (Yes, really.) I had this thing for long songs back then, something about getting your money’s worth out of a jukebox, maybe. I used to call WSAR to repeatedly request they play things like “Closer to Home (I’m Your Captain)” by Grand Funk Railroad and the long version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and was told they can’t play those songs too often because they’re so long, the logic of which escaped me. You would think DJs would prefer long songs so they can take cigarette breaks.

Led Zeppelin IV inside coverAmerican Pie” came along just in time to make the 8-minute song safe for radio; just in time for “Stairway,” that is. I became completely obsessed with the song. I would look at the album in the store, afraid to buy it. There were no words on the cover, front or back, just the scary old man carrying the sticks on his back and the peeling wallpaper. I think we had that same wallpaper in our kitchen.

Even the album title was a mystery, those crazy runes no one could figure out. I tried. I did a report about the album for class—English class, I think. It wasn’t unusual to do school reports on rock bands in those days—and did as much research as one can do at that age and with no Internet. I wrote a letter to Atlantic Records with a list of questions like “How many copies of the record have been sold?” and “What do those runes mean?” They never wrote back.

I remember one store listed it as Zoso because that was as close as you could get to it using our boring, modern alphabet. Another called it Runes. Most called it Led Zeppelin IV or just Led Zeppelin. We all knew it as the album with “Stairway to Heaven” on it. Who would have guessed Dolly Parton would cover the song decades later? If you’ve ever wondered what that song would sound like with a banjo in it, wonder no more.

I tried to find the 45 of “Stairway to Heaven,” but of course there was none. I hadn’t yet figured out that some songs got played a lot on the radio without being released as singles, but I wasn’t entirely to blame—it was a new concept, at least on AM radio. I did eventually get the album, but not until 1973, when I was a full-fledged teen.

Zeppelin yearbook quoteMeanwhile, the song’s mystical lyrics had an allure of their own—to a teenager, anyway. Back then, we all thought these words meant something important. I’m not sure if this one has Tolkien references like some other Zeppelin songs. Maybe. It seems very Middle-Earth. In Spanish class we had to translate a song of our choice into Spanish, and most people chose simple ones. I chose “Stairway to Heaven.” I think I fudged misgiven and hedgerow, but Señorita Souza didn’t seem to notice.

By the time I graduated, the wisdom of Led Zeppelin had been overshadowed by that of Pink Floyd. Only two classmates used lines from “Stairway to Heaven” as their yearbook quotes. I lifted my quote from an Argus poster. And it makes me wonder.