imagine this

December 6, 2009

I wasn’t sure if he would notice, or, if he did, what he would think. We moved from room to room talking about windows. He’d measure. I’d discuss trim. The house was quiet, the homeowners away. Old friends but new clients, and this was only my second time in their home.

We’re like doctors, we carpenters, contractors, tradespeople. Visiting doctors, making house calls. We notice things, details. We don’t mean to. It’s all incidental, accidental. We’re not voyeurs. But we see things. How people live, in their homes, their stuff and how they arrange it, or don’t arrange it. Their books, the bottles in the recycling, their choice of dishes, the decor in the bathroom. You almost always have to use the bathroom on a job.

We see busyness. Stillness. Evidence of life, of passion, commitment, sometimes of struggle. Of quiet, contentment. It’s all there, on the walls, on the refrigerator, the floor, the kitchen counter, like DNA. Photographs of happy children. Pencil marks with dates and names on a door jamb, records of growth. A house full of cats, strays taken in by an animal lover/advocate. A house full of cookbooks with food all over the kitchen. A house on a lonely hill with a wall draped with South Asian musical instruments. A funky old hippie cabin with narrow walkways between piles of electronics gear.

People are fascinating, and fascinated, and preoccupied and busy, engaged in their lives, creating their own peculiar normalcies. If you ask questions they will teach you things: about strays and ferals, and the difference between them, about mandolins, and yoga and downward-facing-dog, about water chemistry in Bangladesh, a relative who died in the Holocaust, mysticism, parenthood, death, love, recipes. We’re amazing beings, truly, and the gifts and knowledge we have to offer each other are great and precious.

He finished measuring. The windows were all one size except for the one in the master bathroom. It was a straightforward order. Our business was done. He hadn’t picked up on anything, hadn’t commented. I had said nothing, except about the trim.

There is an interesting detail about this home, one that stands out a bit in this day and age. For better or worse. A detail that is commonplace for some people, terribly controversial for some other people. I was just there to replace windows, not to remark on controversies, or gossip, or sermonize, but I can’t stop my brain, and I’m always thinking, and wondering, and judging — what would he think if he had noticed the Hers and Hers towels in the master bathroom? maybe he did notice but didn’t say anything? or the wedding photo on the wall? the photos of them with their two beautiful children? What does he think of same-sex marriage? same-sex parenthood? Would that tax his imagination? It has certainly taxed mine. Any form of parenthood is pretty taxing. Is imagination the problem? Our lack of it? our ability/inability to imagine a life different from our own?

The root of imagine is the same as that of image, obviously, but also imitate. To create a picture in one’s mind, an image, of something in the world. The root basically means likeness, copy. To make a copy of something. Think of graven images, wooden statues of gods, think of the Jewish and Christian idea that human beings are made ‘in the image’ of God, that we’re little God-copies. But imagine has also come to mean something more, not just to copy, but to think a new thought, to see, in the mind or heart, something that does not yet exist in the world. Is same sex marriage such a new thing? Or is it merely a new recognition of a very old thing?

What is it like to grow up, to be a child of same-sex parents? (Ask someone who knows.) What is it like to be a gay child of heterosexual parents? (Ask someone who knows.) Is the same-sexness really the issue? Or is it the nurture? the love? the parenting? It’s a big step for some folks, to accept the integrity, health, the normalcy, of same sex couples. It is a bigger step to accept the goodness of same-sex parenthood. Or so I imagine. It touches so many nerves. Taboos. Fears. And two millennia of condemnation from Christian authorities who nonetheless worship God as a trinity of two hyper-close male figures (Father and Son) and a third (the Holy Spirit) of indeterminate gender.

All I’m doing is ordering windows but my mind is racing with these thoughts when he pauses and looks into the living room. He has seen something and changes the subject. “I guess it’s obvious who runs this household,” he observed. The living room was filled – neatly, but filled – with long fat flexible tubes that a child might crawl through, a gigantic soft giraffe that almost touched the ceiling, and forts and spaces draped with cloth where a child might nest. “What?” I answered. “This house,”he said, “the children, they have the run of the house.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve met them, they’re very happy children, with loving, doting parents.”

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It had been a six month train ride and it ended here, in the dark, with the stacked-up chairs, the rented canopy, the portable potties, and a pile of fat black plastic trash bags next to the building. Memorial Hall, North Calais. August 17, 1997.

The guests had all departed. Our extended families were snaking their way back down County Road, caravanning towards the Inn at Montpelier, my father’s car barely missing a moose that had stepped out of the darkness, and my mother so happy she could die. She actually said that, to my startled younger sister, “You know, Judy, I can die now. Danny is finally married.”

Six months earlier, to the day, I had asked Jo to marry me. She said yes and from that moment we were tied to the calendar, to dates, places, people, to decisions that had to be made, where, when, who, how.

It came down to the Old West Church, near Kent’s Corner, my old friend and former seminary classmate Tom as minister, and Memorial Hall for the reception, with the same old friend and former classmate as musician and dance master, leading the motley throng in contras, squares, and circles.

But now the great day was over, darkness had fallen, the lights and extension cords all coiled and boxed. Tom was the only other person there, collecting his things by the picnic table under the one flood light. Jo and I drank in the cool air coming off Number 10 Pond.

“There’s one more thing,” Tom shouted. The train had not quite stopped. The marriage certificate. We still had to sign it. We walked past the garbage bags over to the damp table, the knot returning to my stomach. Another “I do.” The famous “piece of paper from the City Hall” that seals the deal, that makes this real, permanent and binding as permanent can be. I had thought we were done. And then this final detail.

But here’s the thing: there were three lines for three signatures – husband, wife, and officiant. We all had to sign. I stared at the paper and hesitated – not because of the knot, but because of the irony, bitter and painful, that Tom, the man who had helped guide us through this process, led the ceremony, delivered the homily, a respected pastor and preacher and dance master, whose signature was necessary on the certificate, could not himself sign on the spouse line in his own wedding. He whose signature made the certificate legal and binding, and who had signed many such certificates at many happy weddings would not be allowed to sign his own.

Like so many other people drawn, called to ministry, Tom was, is, gay, an orientation which he had wrestled with most of the years I had known him. He had had to wrestle with it, of course, because it wasn’t “normal,” not accepted by society, because it makes straight people uncomfortable, forcing them to wrestle with things they would rather not think about. But Tom’s wrestling was over, he had found some peace in self-acceptance, had come out, even though it likely meant he would be booted from the Methodist pulpit. For the time being he could continue to minister, to preach, to marry and bury, as long as he was single. He could be gay, but not do gay, as if there was a difference.

He had told once about the double bind that gay people have found themselves in, that same-sex relationships have had no legal standing and thus were seen as immoral, and that they are seen as immoral and thus not given legal recognition. A vicious, tight circle that has stifled and crucified countless human beings, fellow citizens, co-travellers on life’s journey.

Above the pulpit, where Tom spoke at our wedding, arching across the wall above his head, were large plain black letters spelling out a warning from the Book of Proverbs: “REMOVE NOT THE ANCIENT LANDMARK WHICH THY FATHERS HAVE SET.” The beating rigid heart of conservatism, its essence, yet absurd and laughable. We humans seem to love the idea of eternal verities, of things that don’t change, that must not change. Yet change is everywhere. The divine right of kings has crumbled before the rise of democracy –the “natural order” that places women below men, regards them as weaker, not fully human, has been discredited — fundamental and ancient assumptions about “race” are now discarded– how many of these landmarks have been exposed as walls meant only to keep certain people out, allow certain others in? How many have now been happily pulverized, reduced to gravel and stone dust, put to better use fertilizing our fields?

My father used to tell me that while he sympathized with interracial couples who wanted to marry and raise a family he felt it was not a good idea — since the children would suffer, be ostracized, and not know who they were, White or Black. Forty years later, a blink in the eye of history, the United States has a biracial president. Are we not the better for it?

Some landmarks need to move, including some really old ones. Some definitions need to change. Any linguist will tell you that the meaning of a word rests ultimately not in dusty dictionaries or obscure Indo-European roots, but on the tongue and in the heart and mind of the living speaker and the living listener. Meanings change. Words change, grow, and shrink, because we change. The scary and wonderful truth of language is that it is continually discovered, rediscovered and recreated. It is our birthright and our duty. We are the authors and arbiters of meaning, as were our ancestors, and we are not bound — unless we choose to be.

We all signed the certificate. The evening ended. Our married life began. Tom eventually met someone and got booted from the pulpit. Such a loss to the Methodists. And so unnecessary. It has been a long and generally painful train ride through Western civilization for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, people who have added so much to our shared humanity. Changing a few lines on a marriage certificate, expanding the definition of a word, an important word, may not usher in a new world of peace and harmony, but it can be done and I believe we will all be the better for it.

dreads

a dreadful married couple, Stone Harbor, NJ 2005 Daniel Wetmore

the meaning of marriage

February 24, 2009

The Meaning of Marriage

At a certain point in the Seder someone rises and opens the door for Elijah. At that moment a thought, a dream, or a remembrance may pass through our minds and hearts but, at least in my limited experience, no shadow ever darkens the door. Not so with marriage. S_ and J_, when you go home from this place you will find a new companion going with you, someone or something far older than Elijah yet as fresh, young and unknown as your next breath.

The words you speak today will lift and pull you into a living tradition that from this day forward will embrace, attend, and, at times, exasperate you. You are not only committing yourselves to each other, you are committing yourselves to commitment. You are making a promise to a promise, pledging your words to a word.

Marriage.

And that word will stay with you, bless you, depend on you, and weigh on you. It will tie you down and free you up, it will free you into those things that only it offers. It will challenge and test you and require of you things that you don’t know you possess.

It is good. It is very good. It is good to have a companion and a mate. It is good to commit yourself to another’s well-being. It is sweet and priceless to receive such a vow. To become accountable to someone who loves you and has your best interest at heart, to face your frailties and flaws in the nakedness of your embrace, and to have a home and to make a home in the tenderness of that embrace. To be yourself with another, to grow and become yourselves together. To be dependable and have someone to depend on, to have a measure of certainty, to trust, to love. We are mortal. But while we are here we belong here, and we belong to each other. Our lives are with each other.

You are taking these words on today. And soon they will take you on. They are your words, your gestures, signs, and intentions, and yet they are not. What you are doing has been done thousands of millions of times before, and yet never in all of human existence, have you S_ and J_ been wed.

It is old and simple, new and difficult. It is worth it. It is a dance, and how you dance it will define marriage for those around you. You will become the meaning of marriage. You will soon be in its rhythms, you indeed already are. What else is this wedding? Dance, dance, high step it and spin. Have fun, grow with it, be humbled and stamp it with your smiles, your joys, your caring, your hopes, and effervescence. Be yourselves, be a couple, and show us how it’s done.

We bless you on this dancing day.

What’s the Yank with Gay Marriage?

Now that the gays and lesbians amongst us are so close to “getting in the game” of full marriage rights and the social recognition that it will entail, along comes Ralph Howe (Times Argus commentary Oct. 30, 2007) suddenly wanting to quit, take the ball, and go home. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bed sheets! Civil Unions for all. Marriage for Christians and other religious. And Mr. Howe is not alone. He has secular bedfellows, those who wish to civil-unionize all partnerships and abandon marriage to the religious ghettoes. One problem, of course, is that it isn’t actually Mr. Howe’s ball. It is everyone’s. His error is the assumption that marriage is essentially or properly a religious institution. A cursory understanding of the relations between the Church and marriage reveals the falsehood.

Though marriage was mistrusted and assailed by the earliest Christians, the Church eventually decided that it could be “Christianized” and incorporated into the Christian experience. It was anything but a sacrament. Paul saw it as a containment vessel for lust and wanted nothing to do with it. It is likely that Jesus himself didn’t wed and his rant in Luke — “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” shows little patience for family ties (or family “values” for that matter). But the regular people wanted it, needed companionship, heirs, and so on, so allowances were made. To this day, however, some Christian churches refuse to allow their priests to marry (straight or gay) and celibacy continues to be regarded as a special grace.

All the major religions have put their stamp on marriage, have drawn out this or that aspect, stressed this or that virtue, but it has always been a most human institution and, generally, an inglorious one.

And though often persecuted by both civil and religious authorities homosexuals from time immemorial have also been partnering and coupling and “marrying” and doing it for the same sorts of reasons that non-homosexuals have, stability, security, intimacy, companionship, love. Marriage is neither here nor there, good nor bad, holy nor unholy. It is certainly not Christian or Jewish or Muslim.

Marriage is marriage. It is the word we use to describe a couple who’ve committed to a shared life and to each other. Granting full marriage rights to all couples regardless of their sex or sexuality will give to same sex couples the respect and recognition they and their relationships so richly deserve.

Civil Unions in the public mind means “it is okay to be gay, as long as they stay in their parallel universe (though privately I still think they are all perverts).”

Marriage means, unabashedly, “it is good to be gay, it is good that you are here and the health of your relationships is good for all of us. Welcome. (And by the way, it really sucked the way you got treated for millennia, sorry about that).”

The public mind matters. The word matters. Marriage. If some Christians want to walk away from civil marriage that is their right and Mr. Howe can stop signing marriage certificates whenever he wants. His co-religionists can opt for civil union certificates.

I, however, am glad the gays are getting in the game. If some Christians quit and go home to their sectarian sandlots that is their right. But it would also be their loss, and ours.

And what’s the big yank with homosexuals anyway? Are they really so bad? or “unholy” as Mr. Howe suggests? It is time for Christians to get over their fascination with sex and orifices. It is most unbecoming and, in fact, revealing. And if folks don’t like being called homophobic they should stop fearing homosexuals, or judging them, or “loving them as sinners”, or keeping them out of the locker room or off the playing field. They are us. We are them. We are one big happy/unhappy family. It’s one big amazing and too frequently unfair game. Homosexuality is not a sin, or defect, or flaw, or tragedy, curse or illness. It is not abnormal or deviant. It is certainly not unholy. The only unholiness I can find in this discussion is in the prurient and judgmental imagination of those who would relegate their fellow humans to some secondary status.