Sunday, June 12, 2011

Just What I Needed, Just When I Needed It

I had an experience at church this morning that made up for last week's lousy one. After what happened last week, I wasn't feeling as much in the mood to go to church this morning. This voice nagged in my head, "Why do you even keep going when there are people and forces in the church that judge and shun you?" I mostly ignored the voice because the fact is, most people at church treat me very kindly and acceptingly. I'm certainly not going to let the opinions of two people whose opinions I don't respect anyway deter from going to my LDS ward when, most Sundays, I still very much enjoy attending. But I do admit that the negative voice tried to deter me today.

I'm usually just a minute or two late for Sunday School, but today I was early. As I came in the room, the brother who made the negative comment last week smiled at me and welcomed me and shook my hand. I grabbed his enthusiastically and said hi back. He can have all the prejudices against gay people he want, but I'm not going to let that sour my ability to be courteous and kind to him.

Two other people shook my hands, and then the teacher (we'll call him Brother Jacobs) came up to me before class started and said, "Hey [Cody], I told your mom a couple of months ago that I had wanted to talk to you about something, but I never seem to get the chance. About four or five years ago you were bearing your testimony in Sacrament Meeting, and I was sitting in the back of the chapel. I can't remember exactly what you said, but you said something akin to how we are all needed here and how the Lord loves each one of us for who we are in spite of our imperfections, and I remember that it really uplifted me. I was in a negative place that day and was wondering why I was even there at church and was about to walk out when you got up to share your testimony, and it really hit me how valuable I was to the Lord, and I ended up staying, and I continued coming back because I felt the Lord needed me here. Your testimony and the spirit I felt as you bore it helped me change my perspective, and I've always wanted to thank you for it."

As I nodded, he continued: "It's funny, you never know how the smallest thing you do will affect another person, but what may seem small and insignificant to you really helped me a lot, and I really appreciate it."

I thanked him for his words, thinking it ironic that the very "small and insignificant" words he was now saying to me were very profound and needed at just the time and place I needed to hear them. I'm actually going to write him a letter telling him how much his words meant to me today and how I felt like he was helping me in return for something I was not aware I had done for him until just today.

I remember the testimony he was referring to. I, too, do not recall exactly what I said, but I was struggling very much with my homosexuality still. At the time I thought it might even be the last testimony I would be able to publicly give because I did not know what choices I would be making concerning my sexuality. I know that I said something along the lines of how all of us in church seem happy and content on the outside, but that many of us have secrets and hidden heartaches that nobody knows about except the Lord and how we're silently fighting these battles no one else knows about thinking that we're all alone. I assured everyone in that congregation that no matter what we were going through in life and no matter how alone we felt or how misunderstood we felt, God knew our hearts intimately and loved us for exactly who we were and wanted each one of us there; that there was nothing any of us could do that would cause him to turn his love away from us. I truly believed that and still do. I also reaffirmed my knowledge that the church was true and said that no matter what happened in my life, I would always believe that, and that even if I did things that seemed to contradict that, I still knew it in my heart. I treated it like a "farewell speech" of sorts (although it turned out that I was able to bear my testimony in Sacrament Meeting at least one more time before I was actually excommunicated.

I am grateful it touched Brother Jacobs and am glad that the message that I was trying to get through actually got through. I'm glad he felt the Spirit, and I'm grateful it had a profound and lasting effect on him. I enjoy his lessons greatly, and it makes me sad to think he could have once chosen not to be at church.

I just felt good. I felt validated in away. I felt like I am still making a difference even if my participation is limited. It was just what I needed today. I thank Heavenly Father for prompting Brother Jacobs to give me that message after such a long time. I do not believe it was a coincidence.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The March of Time

Caution: this post is a bit long and may even be depressing (although that is not really my intent). You have been warned.

When I came home from rehearsal this evening, my mom was watching an old family video my sister had made several years ago. In it was a segment that showed all of my siblings and I growing up as well as the first three kids in my brother's family growing up. It would start with footage of us as babies and then as kids and then progress into recent footage (at the time) all while instrumental music was played. It was very lovely, but also made me a bit melancholy, which doesn't happen very often.

When I saw the footage of my nephews and niece, for example, I thought about where they are today. One nephew is on a mission in Canada. The niece is on a trip in Thailand teaching English and is probably due to get married to her own return missionary within the next year or so. The third nephew is in high school. And still another niece who didn't even exist when the video was made, is 12 now, I believe, and is turning into quite the young woman.

My sisters have also gained children since this video was made; the first has three stepboys and a girl of her own, and my other sister and her husband have a nearly one year-old daughter.

I have a picture of me holding my oldest niece when she was born, and it seems like yesterday. As I watched footage of my brother's youngest boy, I remembered holding him on my shoulders. Now that would be impossible (in fact, it's more likely that he could hold me on his).

And, of course, there's the footage of my siblings and me as kids. There's my sister in the early 60s with super blonde hair gallivanting around our then sparsely-treed neighborhood (which now has so many trees the view down the street is somewhat obscured). There's my long-deceased father bouncing my now 6'3" brother up and down as a child. There I am running to give my dad a jacket, passing a car from the 70s that now looks completely ancient to me. There's my now married sister riding her tricycle. And I ask myself, where does the time go?

This morning I received an email from a friend. I met her and her husband in Belgium in 1992 when I was on my mission. We'll call them Marlyse and Jacques. At the time I was with my most challenging mission companion (a person, I am sad to say, who it will be too soon if I ever see again). Ironically, it was Marlyse and Jacques who contacted us. We were on are way in for the night, and Marlyse and Jacques, who never frequented this part of town, had felt compelled to take a walk in our area (which they actually had to drive to to do so).

They approached us just as we were about to enter our apartment and asked if we were Mormon missionaries. We said we were. They were primarily interested in our genealogical program. Jacques' father was an American soldier in World War II who had romanced his Belgian mother, and Jacques was the result. After the war ended, Jacques' dad went back to America, and Jacques had been trying, without luck, ever since to find him and any other family he might have.

We asked Jacques and Marlyse if we could come to their house and teach them, and they accepted. They never joined the Church, but they became two of my dearest friends from my mission. I always think of them as my Belgian parents. They were (and still are) such cool people, and they treated us so kindly.

Happily, my difficult companion was transferred the week after they found us, and my next companion and I taught them. Marlyse was an atheist, and Jacques was more agnostic, but both were curious. Unfortunately, the members of the branch we served, for the most part, did not leave Marlyse and Jacques with a good impression. A lot of them were very prideful, and at the time I always found it ironic that the atheist and the agnostic were more Christian than the church-going "Christians" were.

The best Thanksgiving I have ever had in my life was spent at Jacques and Marlyse's house in a country that didn't even celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a potpourri of traditional American fare and Belgian cuisine. They invited my companion and I as well as our district leader and his companion. It was wonderful and very memorable and helped me feel less lonely for my first Thanksgiving away from home.

Jacques and Marlyse took my companion and I to an American military cemetery near Liege, and it was so peaceful there, and obviously very sacred to my new Belgian friends. One of my favorite photos of Jacques and Marlyse was taken there.

Eventually I was transferred to another city in Belgium, but one that was close enough that Jacques and Marlyse surprised me by coming to our ward there and taking my companion and I out to lunch afterwards. It was so wonderful to see them again. They also later took us on a touristy sort of adventure to a nearby village which was very memorable.

When my mission was over, my mom came to get me and we toured Europe and made sure to visit Jacques and Marlyse. I went back two more times with my cousin and then my sister, and both times we visited Jacques and Marlyse, and the time with my cousin we saw a memorial ceremony at that same cemetery.

Later, Jacques found some limited information about his American step-siblings. I was able to hire a private investigative service that helped me track down his step-sister, and I called her and explained that she had a Belgian step-brother looking for her. She was wary at first, although she had known of his existence before I called her. Because she didn't speak French and Jacques didn't speak English, I served as a translator as they wrote each other back and forth. Eventually Marlyse, who knew English well enough to translate, took over those duties. Soon enough, Jacques became connected with the family he had always been looking for and which he had lacked with his Belgian family, and Jacques and Marlyse have visited them several times here in America. I was always grateful that God had helped me help him find them.

I still write Jacques and Marlyse, although our contact has dwindled a bit as we've gotten older. About a year or so ago, Marlyse and Jacques informed me that Marlyse had a very serious and aggressive form of cancer, and they were not very optimistic that Marlyse would survive.

Marlyse has been through a lot of chemo, and it's been a hard road, but she is still alive. She had asked me to help Jacques maintain contact with his American family after she passes because Jacques still is not proficient enough in English to communicate with them on his own. I promised her I would.

I wrote Jacques and Marlyse a month ago and never heard back, which was odd. I feared that maybe Marlyse had passed away and that Jacques was still grieving. But Marlyse wrote me an email this morning that said,

Hello [Cody],

It's been a long time, and I have needed to write, but I am having health problems which make me very tired.

We hope that you [and Jonah] are doing well. [Cody], you see what I have written, and I am already tired.

Right now I am still having oral chemo, plus I've have had the maximum of radiation.

Love you, take care

Jacques and Marlyse

It is hard to know that my once vibrant and very strong-willed friend is so weak and could possibly die. It is hard to know how Jacques will carry on without Marlyse, who has always been the rock in their relationship. I have not seen either of them in person for ten years now, and in my mind they are still the ages they were when I last saw them even though I know they are not. I'm sure Marlyse especially looks very different than she did ten years ago.

I'm at an age now where I'm starting to lose more people in my life. I've written about two of them here and here. Tonight my mom and I were talking about her own mother, who died here in 2002 while on vacation visiting my mom. Mom was with her when she died. I remember thinking how hard it was to watch this woman who was constantly on-the-go spend the last month of her life bed-ridden and struggling for breath and wondering if one day I will do the same for my own mother.

I look at my own mother, who is physically very healthy, but whose memory and awareness sometimes is impaired. Or I remember my once vital father, who was crippled by a series of strokes and basically slowly suffocated because of the amount of fluid in his lungs due to pneumonia.

Death is part of life, and, actually, most of the time I'm pretty good about how I handle it. We're all going to die. You. Me. Everyone. It's just part of the plan and only a temporary part of it at that. I'm not afraid to die nor am I terribly shattered when people close to me die (although I, of course, miss them very much). If anything, it just serves as a reminder for how grateful I have been for the value they have contributed to my earthly life and makes me excited for when I will see them again. But I do find as I get older, the march of time becomes more poignant to me in a way. When you're young and a teenager you think you're immortal and impervious to harm (at least I did). Now that I'm middle-aged, my mortality seems more real to me, and I feel more eager to suck as much as I can from the precious relationships I have in mortality while I still have them. I especially think about how often I am away from Jonah because of my career and how eager I am to try and find a way to spend more time together while we're still both relatively young and healthy. I've also thought more about what I want my legacy to be and who I might want to pass it on to.

The older I get, too, the faster the march of time seems to be. As a kid and a teenager, time seemed endless. As an adult, I can't believe how quickly time seems to pass by. Kids grow up so quickly and many of the people one loves start dying off. I guess it's a good reminder to value what you have while you still have it.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Memories of Rent

I went and saw some friends in a production of Rent. It was a decent production. Some performances were really quite impressive. I wasn't as wowed by it as I had hoped. In some areas I felt they held back when they needed to let go more. But it was enjoyable nonetheless.

I was actually reminded of the last time I saw Rent (which was also my first time seeing it). It was early in my relationship with Jonah a little more than five years ago. It's hard to believe it's only been that long. It seems like a lifetime and a different person ago.

I remember that night was hard. I was still very much struggling with my feelings for Jonah, and he sensed that I was going to call our relationship off because I couldn't reconcile my testimony of the LDS Church with my feelings for him. He broke down in tears and was quite a mess, and I felt terrible.

I remember being in love with him so much, but just not sure I could pursue it. I put Jonah through a lot of grief and turmoil during our first year and a half together. It's a wonder sometimes that he stuck by me and put up with my wishy-washiness. It's a true testament to his character.

I wrote some of my thoughts about that night in a post long ago, some of which I've included here:

Jonah and I went to see [Rent] tonight. I was feeling crummy because I felt like I was going to have to tell Jonah that I didn't think I could be with him after all, and Jonah seemed down because he sensed it, too (I told you, Jonah is like that; it's like he is so in tune he already knows things. It's a little creepy sometimes (in a good way)).

Anyway, Jonah and I had quite a talk tonight. Again, no pressure from Jonah. He did make it clear he wants to be with me, but said he would understand and respect my choice if I choose otherwise. I said that I just didn't think I could give up what I know to be true. We had a really nice talk. He is such a loving and supportive person, and, most of all, a wonderful friend. Anyway, Jonah had been inspired that the two of us should pray together, and that what we should pray for most of all is that we have peace. And when Jonah is inspired to do something, I feel it's best to follow through. He prayed first, and I prayed second. The Spirit was quite strong, I felt.

So now I'm home. I just said a private prayer. Basically I said, "Heavenly Father, just tell me what to do. Whatever you want, I'll do it. You want me to leave Jonah, I'll do it. You want me to be with him, I'll do it. Just please tell me so I can do it, because I am so confused right now, and Jonah and I are feeling too much turmoil in our hearts because of this situation."

Still waiting on a solid answer. Whatever it is, I just hope I feel at peace with it.

I am forever grateful that those days of confusion are in the past and even more grateful that I chose to be with Jonah. It is one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. The happiness I feel in my relationship is so much better than the misery, loneliness, and confusion I felt in life prior to choosing to be with him. I am forever grateful, and I'm glad that seeing Rent this evening reminds me of where I once was and how happy I am to be where I am now.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Waxing Cold

I sometimes find it ironic that I can't comment in Sunday School class because of my excommunication, and yet I have nothing inflammatory or divisive or controversial to say; yet any ignoramus who has been baptized and maintains full fellowship in the church can blather on with all sorts of ignorant or hurtful comments, and that is perfectly acceptable.

Most Sundays, it doesn't bother me. Most Sundays the stupid comments are not even worth getting upset about. But every once in a while I wish I could just stand up and say, "What you're saying is hurtful and not in the spirit of Christ. You should stop talking now." Today was one of those days.

The lesson was on the signs of the Savior's second coming with Joseph Smith-Matthew as the basis of study. In verse 10 it says, "And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold;" The teacher asked, "What are some examples of men's love waxing cold?"

A particular brother, of whom I have previously written about here and here raised his hand and actually started his comment with, "I'm going to say something I know I shouldn't say, but..." and proceeded to blame gay people for causing people's love to wax cold.

GAY PEOPLE?! We're the reason love in the world is waxing cold?! Really?! Are you kidding me? Actually meet some gay people, Brother Hypocrite! Get to know them. I think you'll find a lot of love and Christ-like attributes among many of them if you do. Although I admit, I'm not showing much of that at this moment. And, Brother, if you know you shouldn't be saying it, why are you?!

To his credit, the teacher responded with "I'm not going to touch that one," and quickly moved on. Another brother - a friend of mine who was present at my disciplinary council - raised his hand and said, "You know what I really think causes men's love to wax cold? When they put judgment before love. Jesus spent his life ministering to the sinners and the people that were supposedly thought to be the worst of society, while chastising the Pharisees, who thought themselves the best. Every person on this earth is a child of God, regardless of their actions or choices. We may or may not agree with what they do, but not one of us is living a sinless or perfect life, so we have no right to judge anyone; only our Father in Heaven does. I have never been in the shoes of another person, so who am I to label him or berate him. I just need to love him. That's what our Father has asked us to do - love each other. We should stop judging so much and just love."

That made me feel better, and I had a tear streaming down my cheek as I silently listened to his words. Then another woman who makes a lot of self-righteous comments said she was so tired of political-correctness and tip-toeing around things for fear of offending someone and that, yes, we should judge people if they are sinning and doing wrong. She said political-correctness was as much of an oxymoron as Arab unity. As I sat quietly stunned by her words, the message I felt coming across (whether she intended it or not) was "I have the right to my prejudices, and I'm going to continue to speak my mind about them." By the way, this is the same sister my mom visit taught and asked to be released from visiting teaching because she could no longer stand to listen to the homophobic and prideful comments she continued to make.

I go to church partially to feel uplifted. I didn't find Sunday School very uplifting. In fact, some of it left me feeling angry, sad, and cold. It always saddens me when religion (and I'm not just speaking Mormonism here because all religions do it) is used as an excuse for people to judge and pridefully assert that they are more righteous than others when, really, we all in the same boat.

It reminds me very much of the verses in Alma 31 about the apostate Zoramites who built Rameumptom in order to boast pridefully about how much better and chosen they were than their brothers, saying such things as "We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish." And in Alma 32 it talks about how the poor were cast out of the synagogues because they were "esteemed as filthiness." Alma asks those poor, "And now, how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression?"

If the Book of Mormon is written for its members, I think there are some valuable lessons we could all learn in there (myself included).

Anyway, I'm over it now. But it did upset me. I just wish people would think a little more before speaking and would keep in mind how Christ treated others.

But, hey, I'm not perfect, either. I've got plenty of faults of my own. Who am I to judge?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Transitions and Adjustments

So yesterday evening I went to a reunion. It was mostly a bunch of theatre friends from my college days. Most of them I hadn't seen in 18-20 years, so it was fun to get reacquainted and see some of them again. My only regret was that more of these dear friends were unable to attend.

Anyway, one friend who I haven't seen in person in probably 15 or 16 years had a sex change since I last saw her. She grew up as a man, and that's how I knew her in college and most of the years after. I knew she would be attending the reunion, and I wanted to make sure that I handled her transition as nonchalantly and normally as possible. I wanted her to feel that it was no big deal to me and to feel that I was treating her no differently than I did when she was still a man.

But I must admit, I was a bit nervous. When you've known somebody as "Bill" for most of your relationship, and they're now "Betty," it is hard to adjust. It's hard not to want to call them by their former name or refer to them as their former gender. That's obviously my problem, not hers, but I must admit it was challenging not to call her by the name I've known her as for most of our relationship. (I didn't, of course, and true to my intentions, I think I succeeded in making her feel that, as far as I was concerned, the sex-change was a complete non-issue for me.)

When we were in college together, "Bill" (not his/her real name) was a bit odd. We were friendly, but I certainly wouldn't say we were best friends or anything. Actually, at the time Bill scared me a little bit. He seemed preoccupied with death, violence, and liked to do outrageous things to provoke people. I remember him and another kid being absolutely convinced they were vampires and living their lives as closely to that ideal as possible. Bill enjoyed talking about morbid things and loved doing this trick where he would take a needle and flick it upside down and right side up over and over again with his tongue. He liked inflicting pain on himself to gross other people out and liked telling kind of gross stories. I was always convinced that if any serial murders ever occurred in the small college town where we lived, he would be at the top of my suspect list.

I later transferred to another college a year behind him, and he had mellowed somewhat since our first years together (I always suspect he was so outrageous because of self-esteem issues), and I liked him better then. He was an odd guy, though.

While I never once suspected that he yearned to be a woman, I also can't say I was surprised when he became one. I guess I was surprised he actually wanted to be a woman, but wasn't necessarily surprised that he did something so drastically life-changing as becoming a woman. It seemed like the kind of outrageous sort of thing he would do (and I don't mean that having a sex change is outrageous; I mean that Bill having one seemed like just the kind of attention-getting thing he would do when I knew him as Bill).

I certainly don't mean to imply that Bill got a sex change just to be outrageous. I'm sure Bill really wanted to be a woman. I just didn't know that until she actually became one.

Betty (also not her real name), by all accounts from mutual friends, seems much happier now, and from what I saw, I would agree. As one friend said (his words, not mine), "[Bill] could be kind of a douche-bag, but [Betty] is quite lovely." I actually have to say, my friend is kind of right. Bill could be a bit hard to deal with at times. Betty seems much more relaxed and happy with who she is.

Still, I won't lie. It does take some getting used to. When I gave Betty a hug, she, naturally, had breasts, and I thought to myself, "This is different. Last time I hugged her (as Bill) those were not there." Bill also had a very deep, somewhat gruff voice. Betty's is lighter and airier.

I will say, Betty still looks a bit mannish to me (but maybe that's because I've mostly known her as a man and it's harder for me to see the woman). Bill was quite a masculine-looking guy. In fact, as an actor he played the role of a very gruff cowboy-type villain in a fairly well-known movie. That was his type. Certainly she is more feminine now, but she still looks quite masculine in many ways to me.

In any case, I truly am glad that Betty is happy with who she is (and she does seem happier than when I last saw her). It was really nice to see her and my other friends. We had a really great time. I had so much fun and was really glad I went.