For Mary Oliver (A Reflection from a Young-ish Lesbian)

Though many tributes have been written, I’ve yet to find one that says what I would wish to say. Therefore, I humbly offer this one.

When I love an artist, I like to take everything in. In fact, I still much prefer buying music on vinyl or cd, not just because of the better audio quality, but also for what I enjoy as much as the music – lyrics and liner notes. I read every word.

Similarly, I like to take the time to read the first few pages in a book: the copyright page, the table of contents, and most of all – the dedication page. I’ve always been struck by and keenly interested to know to whom my favorite singers and writers dedicate their projects.

Today, as I am continuing to reflect and mourn over the passing of beloved Mary Oliver, I’m realizing and processing the depth and meaning I experienced as one of her readers. From cherished poems long and stretching to her exercises in brevity, I’ve been a fan. And through teaching, leading, coaching, and work as a therapist, I’ve recruited  – I mean passed on – love and appreciation for her work.

Like so many, I connected with and related to Mary’s love for nature – her sensing and seeing the depths of beauty, her being entranced in the mysteries of the natural world, and her sharp insights and spiritual wisdom she gathered from her many walks in the woods and along the shore.

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I join in the chorus of those challenged and inspired by her lines in “The Summer Day,” “Peonies,” “The Journey,” “Wild Geese,” and more of the usual favorites.

The first poem (I think) I read of Mary’s was “The Journey.” I remember connecting with the feeling and heart of that poem, but it wouldn’t be until later that I made the connection between this poem and its creator.

The first time I felt struck by Mary, I was in graduate school. A woman I deeply cared for shared that she was reading a book of poetry called Blue Iris. She shared “Peonies” with me. Immediately, I was hooked. Over the next year, I read more of Mary’s work and purchased Blue Iris and New and Selected Poems (Volume 1). I read her poems in groups I led and used them for instilling hope in others – and most deeply – in myself.

As much as I’ve shared my love for Mary’s work and spirit, there’s something else I’ve strongly felt toward her but never put into words until now:

Deep abiding gratitude.

Of course, I am thankful for the beauty, simplicity, and meaning I received from Mary’s words.

But I’m also and more so grateful for affirmation, validation, and visibility.

My wife and I often talk about the time before we were out. Individually, we had similar experiences.

We watched every cliché show and film on LGBTQ cable networks, absorbing ourselves within the stories we could find that better reflected who we are and whom we would love. No matter how terrible some of them were.

Sometimes, however, the stories were beautiful and full of truth, love, and light. Sometimes, the stories showed a glimpse into what the future might someday look like.

In Blue Iris, I found such a story.

Tucked in between the poems about various flowers, great oaks, and swamps, is a no frills simple piece. One I found myself longing to read and touch after hearing of Mary’s passing.

I noticed, only just now, the depth of meaning and sharp importance this poem held for me – giving me a glimpse into the simple loving relationship I desired to have someday with another woman.

“Freshen the Flowers, She Said.”

Sitting in my room, alone – in so many ways – the words and feeling in this poem leapt off the page and into my heart.

Curious, I read other poems, looking for more clues and more affirmation. I read about Mary’s life and realized the connection of “family.”

Today, I realized more words of affirmation, validation, and visibility. They grace the sometimes unread pages – just four simple words:

“For Molly Malone Cook.”

Thank you, Mary.

For being brave enough to write those words. Visible enough for a lesbian from East Tennessee to see it and to know that she, too, would be ok.

Mary’s books and individual poems have been included in love notes, gifts, and private thoughts in my marriage to my wife and in our falling in love with each other to start with. They have led to tender moments and served as prayers, comforts, and reminders to be mindful.

Mary was intensely private, but if I had the chance, I would ask her about her love. With Molly. And I would ask her about visibility and how much things have changed in just the past decade.

Less than a decade ago, when I came out and when I started dating then eventually becoming engaged and marrying my wife – people made a point to tell me they “did not agree” (which is still a baffling phrase to me).

In the past few months, I have witnessed some of these same people celebrate the engagements and relationships of LGBTQ mutual friends. They’ve had a change of heart and mind.

It’s people like Mary and Molly, Edie and Thea, Ellen, Amy Ray, Emily Sailiers, and so many others living their everyday lives who we have to thank for that progress and change. The ones who lived through the darker years and endured the heartache, yet still chose to be visible despite the costs.

When I came out, I lost friends, relationships, ideals, and even some dreams and desires I had long held. Still, I found love, honesty, true friendship, and belonging that transcended the rejections. I am lucky to live in this time to experience and witness such rapid change and progress. Even though so much progress remains (and needs) to be made.

The costs have been much steeper and more perilous in the past. Yet, many brave souls came out anyway, and loved.

I sit in my home tonight, with my copy of Blue Iris on one side, my children on the other, my wife in the next room, getting things ready for the kids’ bedtime.

I sit in a new security, and I have found the love I desired back when I read Blue Iris for the first time. I have even found some societal acceptance – more than I ever dreamed would be possible at this point in my life.

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Here I am – in my wonderful, simple, beautiful lesbian life.

Doing my best to be mindful of how wild and precious it is.

So, thank you, Mary.

 

You said you saved yourself.

Honestly – did you notice?

I did.

You saved so many of us, too.

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A Simple Request

“Take the phone. She won’t send me the receipt or talk to me. You have to ask for it.” Her voice was shaky as she handed me her iPhone. I could feel my heart rate quicken instantly, and I sensed the blood rushing to my cheeks in an all too familiar feeling, or more accurately: a specific bundle of feelings (anger, confusion, hurt, shame, incredulity, fear, defeat, resolve.)

“Hello, this is Charity, one of his moms,” I said as calmly as I could muster.

It was just a simple request for a receipt for medical bills that we had already paid (with my wife’s name on the check!). It was supposed to be easy.

I verified my identity through details my wife knows too, and then the hospital worker told me she would get the receipt out to me.

“Ok,” I said. “But what do I need to do to make sure my wife can get information – she’s legally his mother, too. I mean, what if something happened to me?”

“Let me see…” she said as I could hear the keys tapping and her voice quiver with nervousness. It was the same quiver I’ve hear a lot. The quiver that says a lot of things while not saying others, the quiver that separates us, the quiver that makes my heart rate go up even more.

“Did you sign a release for her?” she asks.

I’m getting angrier and feeling more flush as I calmly reply, “no, but we are both listed as parents.”

My inner dialogue starts forming, but somehow, I don’t speak it. It grows louder in my head:

Is this heterosexist nonsense? Do you treat heterosexual couples this way? No, maybe I should say straight – Do you ask straight couples for a specific parent? No I can’t ask that – can I? Why not? I have to be nice. Stay calm, just stay calm. Breathe. If you are mean/too forceful, she will think badly about LGBTQ people.

I could feel my breath getting shakier over the agonizingly awkward minutes as she opened file after file and then found it.

“Oh, yes here you are both listed as emergency contacts. So I could have released to her. Sorry I didn’t see it.”

Then I said, “It’s ok” and we hung up.

I shouldn’t have said that.

Immediately and the rest of the day, one thought kept coming up. It manifested into a headache and physical pain, so now I write to release it.

No. It is not ok. 

It’s not ok that we have to keep explaining ourselves, re-explaining ourselves, and educating people in our day to day lives. It’s not ok to carry the burden of being a “good example.” It’s not ok to have to tell the same pediatrician office workers that have checked your family out for years that you didn’t put your name in the “father” section by accident – because your children have two moms.

And really, that got the wheels turning further.

It’s not ok that I haven’t worn the shirt my wife got me for Christmas out of fear of being attacked. It’s not ok to have two state level ballot choices who both threaten the security and welfare of your family. It’s not ok to feel like we will be fighting someone always for something just so we aren’t treated like second class citizens, which honestly – sounds like a hundred steps up from how we are so often made to feel. 

“I feel like we will always have to fight.” I said, exasperated in the afternoon.

“No. We won’t stay here forever.” She answered calmly and reassuringly.

But for now, here we are.

In the region I’ve called home. That we’ve called home. Trying to live and thrive. As best we can.

Windsor & Obergefell reached all the way to us, but so so much work is left to be done.

For now, we do the work. We make safe places for others. We fight the mindset through relationship and education. We plant gardens and grow healthy food and retreat and love.

We pray for impact and change.

Then one day, we will shake the dust off of our feet as we leave.

The War on Christmas

The season of Advent is upon us. A time for Christian folks to reflect and celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ upon the earth. Born to a young couple in a desperate time.

We sing songs including “What Child Is This,” “Oh Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

We read passages from Luke, Matthew, and Isaiah.

We hold pageants, cantatas, and listen to children’s choirs and handbell ensembles. Ringing in the spirit of joy, peace, hope, and unity.

Last year, as I held my son, who was born in late summer, I started to feel uneasy as the season approached. I felt a sense that something was different, changing, and needed to be said, heard, and moved upon. This year, I feel it even more – deep within my soul, and I am finding ways to put it into words, songs, and images.

As we set out our nativity scenes this year, we must take note of what is occurring throughout the world, and has become increasingly pronounced in our own back yard.

There is, indeed, a war on Christmas.

I’m not talking about people saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” I’m not talking about coffee shop cups, commercialism, or Santa Claus.

I am talking about the anti immigrant spirit that would reject the Christ child and his family, even in the houses of those who seek to worship him.

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It’s time we confront it, together.

I am afraid that the Church at large is seeing the seeds of capitalism, colonialism, and patriotism, fruiting into idolatry of money and country which excludes the orphan, the widowed, the poor, the oppressed – and yes, the immigrant.

That the Spirit of the Lord upon us to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim liberty for captives has been traded for a flag, material wealth, and blind devotion to party and president.

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That the good tidings of great joy to all people has been claimed and made exclusive to a few.

My heart palpitates with trepidation that the very fabric of the Church in the US has been replaced, whitewashed, and adopted as truth.

Are we like the zealots of Biblical times? Willing to reject the Prince of Peace in favor of the sword, militarism, and barbed wire?

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Have we forgotten the Sermon on the Mount and listened to the seductive whispers of promises of power and financial gain, rejecting the notion that the meek, the poor in spirit, the pure in heart are blessed?

Surely, in the heart of the women bearing babies across treacherous terrain, seeking safety for their offspring resides the heart of Mary.

In the heart of fathers, determining to protect their families and seek refuge, is the heart of Joseph.

In the face of the migrant child: sunburned, bruised, hungry and afraid – is the face of Christ.

He is hungry.
He is tired.
He is naked.
He is in prison.
He is sick.

But, Lord, Lord, when did we see you?

Have we forgotten the command to love our neighbor? Or cheapened its meaning to fleeting emotions, a limited view of neighbor, or worse…

Have we ignored it?

Have we rejected the promise of abundant life to buy in to a scarcity mindset and mistrust, fear – and yes, hatred of our neighbor?

Our neighbor who is different from us.

Willful and ignorant complicity to the oppression of our black, Jewish, LGBTQ, and immigrant neighbors are a war upon the spirit of Christmas: charity, peace, joy, and unity.

OverheadThe rampant callousness toward others presents a direct opposition to the spirit of Christ and his sacrificial life.

Have we rejected kindness and giving with an inclination toward “tough love” and following the letter of the law?

Are we on the road to Damascus or Emmaus? Will we recognize the face of God? Will be blinded by truth or ignorance?

I am deeply troubled as I ponder these questions and more. I’m unsure of what is next or what we do moving forward from here.

But, what I do know is this.

Jesus is in the heart of the oppressed, the lonely, and the broken.

Jesus is the personification of God with us.

Jesus understands and represents the rejected and the hated,

And if we love him, we will feed his sheep.

Clothe them.

Welcome them.

Fight for them.

 

Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

O Come, Desire of Nations, bind in one the hearts of all…. bid our sad divisions cease.

No crib for a bed.

This, this is Christ the King… the babe, the son of Mary.

Let Earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.