248. quiddity

GoldRingIt’s the last rose of summer.

The autumnal equinox is three weeks away, the days are getting shorter, and grad school starts up again for me on Friday. I’ve read over the syllabi for my two cataloging courses this coming term and it’s perverse how excited I truly am to finally dig in to this subject.

And in keeping with all of the changes in my life over the past couple of months, I’ve now decided to stop wearing the gold ring my parents gave me as a birthday present around age fifteen or sixteen. I can’t quite remember which birthday it was, but fifteen sounds about right.

So eighteen years, I’ve been wearing it.

A simple gold band that has confused and intrigued countless numbers of people—many of whom assumed it meant I was married.

I’m not even going to think about how many guys assumed it meant that I was unavailable when in reality I’ve been quite available all this time.

The official story I’ve told people about its origin is that it commemorated the first time I made it through The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which isn’t entirely untrue.

I’d actually finished the series around age thirteen, so it was more a belated token, a symbol of my undying love for Tolkien’s world. By age fifteen, I’d read the entire trilogy about four times and had made the first of several aborted attempts at getting through The Silmarillion.

The nerdy birthday present story always makes for an easy out for having to explain a much more complicated picture. It engenders amused if not outright delighted reactions, from “That’s so cool!” to “That’s unbelievably nerdy!”

And, of course, I get asked about whether fiery Tengwar letters appear when the ring is heated, which it doesn’t, and if I’ve looked, which I haven’t. Frankly, I read the books long before the movies were made.

I’m not a connoisseur of cheap tricks!

Like the One Ring of Tolkien’s world, the truth about my gold ring is more layered than meets the eye, and requires some specialized knowledge of arcane cultures.

Specifically, purity culture.

Promise (or purity) rings came into fashion in evangelical Christian culture during the 1970s, around the time Christianity was finding its own version of Catholic kitsch. This was also in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when fundamentalist Christians started pushing back against what they saw as insidious decadence and rampant immorality of secular culture.

(And yes, it was entirely demonic in origin.)

The ring was to be worn as a reminder of the vow to remain sexually chaste until marriage, when it would be replaced with an actual wedding band—divine permission to finally get it on.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, “purity rings” and the public signing of purity pledges by adolescents were commonplace in churches. Undoubtedly horny teens, conditioned to fear their own sexual natures, took part in public church ceremonies where they signed pledges to “take the high road” to defy a culture that urged them to “just give in.” The pledge was a promise to abstain from all forms of sexual activity—including masturbation.

Once a year at my church, teens were invited at one point in the Sunday service to come to the front to sign a large poster and take that vow. It was partly inculcation and largely peer pressure, but it was mostly shaming.

So there are Christian men’s support groups for battling sexual temptation; software that actually notifies a designated and trusted friend if you look at “dirty” websites; and books like Every Man’s Battle, to shame young people for their otherwise normal sexual urges.

I’ve no idea if I signed one of those pledges or not. It would’ve made an excellent cover, seeing as I was realizing then that abstaining from sexual activity with women wouldn’t be a problem.

Thankfully, my ring had nothing to do with any of that, although it was obliquely related.

On the inside of the ring is engraved a reference to a Bible verse: 1 Timothy 4:12,

Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your youth; on the contrary, set the believers an example in your speech, behavior, love, trust and purity. (Complete Jewish Bible.)

Boys in Evangelical circles don’t get quite the heaping of shame about sex and their bodies that girls do. Rather, young people are taught that men are sexual beasts who’d run amok if not for the controlling influence of women—and the Holy Spirit, of course! God, in his infinite wisdom, gifted men with insatiable lust that’s supposed to be expressed only in the bedroom, between one man and one woman whom the Lord joins together for life, regardless of whether they’re even sexually compatible.

But why worry about whether you’ve made the wrong choice in a life mate, or wonder about what it might be like to have sex with other people? God took time out from creating the universe in six days to match-make for everyone thousands of years into the future, ensuring each of us a mate for life!

… except for the ones he “blessed” with singlehood.



For me, however, the ring had a more sober meaning.

The verse was a signal from my parents that I was transitioning into adulthood, into manhood, accountable directly to God for my life and the choices I’d make.

I was supposed to start taking on the mantle of a godly man and leader, the kind of man a godly wife needs to be the Christ-like head of our household.

Thankfully, things didn’t go according to plan.

Their message impacted me in a way they couldn’t have anticipated.

I wasn’t a kid anymore.

I could think for myself, take responsibility for my direction in life, and not merely abdicate that power to someone else.

It would take thirteen more years to figure that out though.

Now, my hand is a blank slate—rather like my future.


247. beatific

The-art-of-courtly-love-2A few years ago, my friend Sarah Howell moved to New York City to start a career in stage management. She’d been working in Minneapolis for a while and building a solid reputation for herself, and when the opportunity to move east presented itself, she sold everything and jumped at the chance. And unlike some of my friends who have tried their hand at Broadway, she is doing quite well! It helps that, unlike the denizens of aspiring actors in NYC, competent stage managers are hard to come by.

So I’m incredibly proud of her and her work, and wish her continued success!

When I googled her most recent show (called Love In the Middle Ages), another page appeared in the search results that caught my notice, a University of Oxford Arts blog article by Clemency Pleming titled Did love begin in the Middle Ages? I’ve come across papers and books in the past suggesting that our modern notion of romantic love is actually a relatively recent development in human history.

Well, recent compared to 20,000 years ago.

Pleming quotes professor Laura Ashe, who says that before the Norman conquest of England,

Anglo-Saxon literature had a very different focus… The world of the Anglo-Saxon warrior, at least in poetry, was based on the bond of loyalty between fighting men. Love in this world means love for your fellow warriors, and the idea of sacrificing yourself for the group.

In the Middle Ages, however:

There was a transformation in culture, a series of church reforms in the 12th century took Christianity from a rather austere view of God the Father to a new focus on Christ’s humanity.

The spiritual lives of ordinary people were recognised, and people were encouraged to have a more emotional and personal relationship with God as individuals. And romantic love – giving yourself to another person – provides a justification, in the medieval moral compass, for the pursuit of self-fulfilment as an individual.

Even tragic love stories are based on the idea that the living individual is to be celebrated and that it might be better to stay alive after all.

Ashe identifies this as something of a turning point in how we view the importance of marriage in society. Where once it was approached more like a contract or a business transaction for the sake of convenience or practicality, people now began to view it as something to aspire to.

I’ve been thinking about that recently in relation to myself—specifically, examining why I’ve been so obsessed the past few years with finding a boyfriend and potential future husband.

It’s impossible to ignore daily reminders that I’m single. Coworkers pepper their conversations with references to spouses and kids, vacations and trips “up north” to the cabin. Adverts not-so-subtly tell me that I’m incomplete, that there’s no one to share in meaningful experiences with, to share the picture frame in tagged social media posts.

I’m a “me.” Not a “we.”

As I’ve written about in other posts, there is also the element of needing to prove wrong the voices from my past that claimed gay people don’t have relationships. I was taught that gay people were promiscuous, hedonistic, riddled with diseases contracted from hundreds of sexual partners and their deviant sexual practices, and would eventually succumb to HIV/AIDS.

But there’s another latent evangelical Christian element at play in my subconscious—the primacy of marriage and commitment in that culture.

From my earliest recollection, marriage was the holiest sacrament after communion. While sacraments aren’t really a Protestant thing, we held it in the same high regard. After becoming a missionary, marriage was the ultimate calling for Christians. It was a living parable, the means by which God shaped Christian men and women into more godly people.

And there were so many analogies that, in hindsight, are just plain fuckin’ weird. Marriage is a mirror of Christ and the Church… of the Trinity… of God’s love for us… of how we’re supposed to give of ourselves for Jesus.

But of course the real reason evangelical Christians are obsessed with getting married is so that they can finally have sex, which is likely a contributing factor to why the Christian divorce rate is comparable to that of non-Christians.

So while I don’t buy into any of that anymore, there’s still this core notion buried deep in my subconscious that marriage is somehow a benchmark of success in a person’s life. It won’t be perfect, by any means, but it’s an indicator that a person is stable, attractive, and self-actualized enough to find a partner and build a life together.

Now, I know intellectually that that’s a crock. Unstable people get married, as do aimless and irresponsible people, and those who are unattractive by conventional standards (which also doesn’t mean much).

And there’s no such thing as security. Partners sometimes cheat on or abandon you, and eventually everyone dies.

I guess what’s frustrating is that I’m not so desperate to be in a relationship that I’ll date anyone. That’s how I ended up with Jay (my ex of 2½ years) for nine months. And I’ve seen friends and acquaintances languish in unhappy marriages because they’re afraid to end it and be alone.

It’s why it goads me to see ex-boyfriends and lovers just fall so seemingly effortlessly into new relationships. The other night I foolishly looked up Seth on Facebook and found out that he has a hot boyfriend named Martin and two adorable dogs.

Big mistake.

It renewed the mental loop of thinking that what appears to be a smörgåsbord for him and others in the Midwest is a veritable dating wasteland for me. That it appears so easy for them.

Everyone says good guys are out there.

So where are they hiding?

I need to get over this belief that I’m somehow less-than for being single, and determine if finding a partner is at the root of the anxiety, or if this is more old programming wreaking havoc on my current happiness.

246. auroral

Red_and_green_aurorasThe recent engagement with my last few posts has been encouraging. Not in a “look how many comments” kind of way, which would be a silly measure of one’s self-worth and I’m too reflexive for that shit. Rather, it’s because of the reason I started writing in the first place, to hopefully help someone maybe similar to me feel less alone, or understood, and I’ve felt that being accomplished recently.

Looking back, it’s hard to say if that would’ve made a difference to pre-2008, pre-coming out David, if reading about someone else’s struggle to find authenticity might’ve given me the strength and courage to come out earlier.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I’d like to think that he was the same person I am now who (like Dorothy stuck in Oz) always had the power to break free.

… on the other, why didn’t he? We do have more gay people coming out now in 2015, whereas in 2008 it was still a relatively rare thing, something only those who lived in large urban centers with large (and insulated) queer populations, LGBTQ activists who were prepared for violence and bigotry, and the very privileged could do.

Now everyone and their mom is coming out, and it gives people like me who felt conflicted about their duty to God and family the courage to be themselves.

So maybe it simply wasn’t possible for the David of 2008 to come out any sooner.

This is why I don’t play the “what if” game.

On Monday afternoon I read to my therapist an excerpt of the email my dad sent me on July 13th:

… I/we (your family) don’t expect you to be static. We are not static either… It sounds like you think we don’t change, but in small ways we do, all the time. We just want to know who you are regardless of who that is. Sure, we wish things and you were different, but they’re not…

For me/us there does not have to be a shared future. We just want a future with you. From my vantage point, it looks like you’re the one who does not want to be part of our lives… We don’t understand why you feel so intense a need to erase the past or put it behind you. We are all made up, like trees, of who we were, who we are and who we’re becoming. Seems to me that gutting the tree leaves you less a tree and a weak one at that.

He still hasn’t responded to my reply, and at this point it seems unlikely that he will.

She immediately said: “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear the bit about the trees because that’s just so far out there, I don’t even know what to do with it.”

But she echoed my assessment of it being a tone deaf response to genuine concerns I’ve had about my relationship to the family—that he doesn’t see how radically different we are; that our being together is contingent on my self-censoring in ways that they would find persecutory were they asked to do the same; or that the religious upbringing they provided was deeply damaging.

Overall, she thought it was the latest in a series of positive steps forward.

  • Throwing myself a half-birthday party (something I’ve been violently opposed to for the last decade) a few weeks ago and actually having friends enthusiastically show up.
  • Actively rebuilding my community with wonderful, authentic people and getting involved with groups and Sunday Assembly and YogaQuest.
  • Finally going to grad school for something I’m passionate about rather than continue on in dead-end jobs.

Now I’m taking a more active role in setting boundaries with my parents, which at this stage means perhaps permanently distancing myself.

She also reiterated how much I’ve got going on right now, between work, school, and my efforts to rebuild my life and recover from religious trauma. So it’s doubly important to note and to celebrate these accomplishments; that I’m actually making forward-moving progress.

She also noted how many positive things I was saying about myself, compared to the usual mode of beating myself up and only pointing out the negative.

That’s not to say that I’m not experiencing negative thoughts. Maybe it’s depression that amplifies those views, and maybe I’m coming out of a cycle into a more positive mindset. These things tend to go that way. It’s something that’s easy to forget, particularly when things are going well.

The thoughts are still there that my parents and their hateful religion damaged me beyond repair; that if people could really see how broken and fucked up I am that they’d abandon me in an instant; that the repressive and performative environment I grew up in made me incapable of ever truly accepting love and of being in a relationship; that I came out and am effectively starting over too late in life to find someone.

So those ideas are still lurking in the dark corners of my mind, like the Vashta Nerada. Just stay out of the shadows…

Rather, I’m choosing to approach each step forward like a scientific experiment. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the theory that people genuinely like me and would want to celebrate my birthday with me. I sent out Facebook invites, and lo, over two days twenty-four (of forty-two invited) of my friends came to the event.

It’s not conclusive by any means, but the results from that experiment were quite promising.

Fact is, I’ve done plenty of exploration of the negative emotions connected to my past. Now it’s time to start exploring the positive ones—the ones that will allow me to experience and internalize acceptance, love, belonging, and joy. Fear, doubt, and suspicion had their chance and made a mess of it.

Fuck that.

So I’m taking it one experiment at a time, knowing that integration may be as easy to spot as the line between colors on the spectrum.


245. polysemy

Rosalind-Russell-Mame-Dennis-Auntie-MameThe past two weeks I’ve been working on a graduate education scholarship application in the records and information management field, and consequently started saving my blog entries on this site to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine project.

I’ve been adding a few every day and am up to the entry where Seth comes into the picture.


Going back over those early entries when I was just coming out and to terms with the challenge that was proving to my then conservative Christian morality and upbringing is fascinating. Not to mention extremely uncomfortable at times to read how different a person I was.

Ah, and yet…

The other evening I was saying to my housemate how I just don’t want to have sex these days because I’m single, and all I can seem to get is these meaningless flings that only serve to remind me of what I don’t currently have but want. And unfortunately, it’s not for lack of attention. There are probably plenty of guys who would date me if I were mutually attracted. But it usually goes that they’re interested and I’m not, and vice versa.

C’est la guerre

Furthermore, I said, I’m done hooking up with other people’s partners (both with their knowledge and sometimes participation), adding that I’m tired of “being someone else’s dessert when I haven’t had a solid meal in ages.” And how it all plays into my fear that no matter how successful or accomplished I may be in life, I’ll always be fundamentally alone.

As Sartre wrote: “Je suis condamné à être libre. I am condemned to be free.

So it was curious later that night when I ended up hooking up with a friend of our’s who came over for drinks and to play Cards Against Humanity… who is in a relationship. We’d been talking outside in the hot tub about families and hangups, and I think something in my mind snapped of no longer wanting to be defined and constrained by my past, my family, or my damage. Of my fears and anxieties determining where I can and can’t go.

Most of all tired of feeling paralyzed into inaction by my fucked up, over-analytical brain.

I’m reminded of what Rosalind Russell’s titular character says in the 1958 film Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet, and most poor [sons-of-bitches] are starving to death!” And it bothers me that I’m aware of this, of everything that’s currently going for me right now, and yet I don’t really know if what I’m apparently missing is what I want.

For example:

There’s lots one could say about this. That’s it was 2010. That it’s reflective of extroverted, urban, nonreflexive New York City gay culture. Hell, that it’s Jake Shears.

On the one hand, my repressed, proper, conservative, wannabe-19th Century inner upper-middle-class Brit looks down on such extroversion, disapproves of the embrace of unrestrained sensuality, because (if I’m being perfectly honest with myself and with you, dear reader) I don’t feel comfortable or empowered to be that way myself.

But is that authentically me? Sure, I don’t often push my comfort zone and pursue new experiences… but am I the kind of guy who just wants sex, with or without intimacy or connection?

A friend of mine posted on Facebook today:

You know you’re one of those East Coast gays when for weeks at a time during summer, it seems like half the people in your news feed are either going to, currently visiting, or just returning from P-Town… and the other half are on Fire Island.

That kind of lifestyle, frankly, sounds like hell for an introvert of introverts. Being surrounded by (presumably) all manner and ilk of carefully groomed, stylishly dressed, cosmopolitan, pretentious, hyper flirtatious gay men… no, thank you.

But on some level, I wish that I were the kind of person who could fit in with and at least enjoy myself in that crowd, that I were truly self-assured enough to mix with any company and not give a damn what anyone else thinks, or whether or not I get laid.

Mostly, I’m weary of feeling as if I don’t belong—that I still haven’t found my gay tribe. Because I’ve found my librarian tribe. Those folks are cool. With Sunday Assembly, I’ve found my secular tribe. But 99.9% of those I’ve met in these circles are heterosexual, and while they’re wonderful folks, I don’t 100% belong. But there are so few gay men who I actually like, and that makes me very nervous that there’s no one out there with whom I’m actually compatible.

Because I’m not looking for “good enough.” That’s how I ended up with Jay. Again, no thanks.

The reality is that I’m not queer, “gay,” fabulous, femme, masc, jock, twink, etc. I’m me, whatever that means. I’m a recovering fundamentalist Christian who is finally (albeit glacially) coming into his own without the bullshit and baggage of high school and having conformity beaten into his shoes. I don’t have a label, or a modality.

These days, I’m committed to being uncompromisingly myself. That seems to intimidate guys who are accustomed to other guys who fit neatly into pre-fabricated boxes.

 <<Brief rant ahead>>

And this is my main issue with gay culture, with the Scissor Sisters video, and all of it.

I’m tired of feeling there’s something wrong with me because I don’t want to party, to get drunk and stupid, to jump into bed (or the bushes) with some guy I just met. I felt that way in San Francisco, I’ve felt that way with gays here in Minneapolis, with friends of various boyfriends…

It’s my gripe with gay porn—with picture-perfect guys selling us the idea that you have to have some perfect, unattainable, sculpted gym body to be accepted, that gay men primarily interact with each other sexually, and that this is “normal.”

No, it’s not normal. It’s bullshit, and it’s not realistic.

Am I alone in this, or do other people feel this way too?

244. entelechy


Still haven’t heard from my dad in response to the reply I sent last week. It could be that he’s just processing, but it’s possible that he won’t respond at all. Again, my intent wasn’t necessarily to cut off all contact with him and the family, but that’s how he might read it.

It’s tough because this is a relationship that I feel I should want to hold on to, and yet the facts indicate that it’s a relationship that can’t go anywhere, and that it’s best to let go of.

Speaking of things I’m letting go of, a year ago this past weekend I participated in the MN Song workshop as part of the Source Song Festival in Minneapolis. It’s a festival with the mission to celebrate, promote, and develop American art song:

… by empowering and inspiring a new generation of musicians—composers, performers and audience members alike—through the creation of new works, the initiating of conversation, and the fostering of relationships within Minnesota’s vibrant community.

I’d entered one of my songs, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX, “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,”  in the festival and was selected as one of the composers whose works would be workshopped and performed over the weekend.

In retrospect, this was a last-ditch effort to hold on to my identity as a musician and art song composer.

However, it quickly became clear that I was simply out of place among the other composers and musicians there—even the youngest one there. This is the curse of having enough talent to recognize when you don’t have the same gift and seeming facile ability of the others around you. It was an uncomfortable weekend overall, and was basically the final nail in the coffin of my career as a composer.

Towards the end of high school, my dad finally convinced me to major in music composition. It was obvious that I didn’t have the talent for piano performance, and for a while I was planning to major in English (which would’ve been about as useful as a music performance degree), but I assumed that my dad knew what he was talking about as a professional-level musician.

And that’s what I did.

In hindsight, that was one of many pieces of what other people were telling my about myself that I attempted to make fit, never questioning whether those things were true or accurate. For a while it seemed that I was a talented composer. My music was complex and challenging, and that set me apart in the music department at Northwestern College. However, as I came to realize after graduating, that was a very small tidal pool in a very large pond.

And on this side of atheism, that musical identity belongs to someone else, to a person who existed only as a mirror for others’ expectations—people I looked to as authority figures to tell me who I was.

There’s a quote of Julia Sweeney’s from her show Letting Go of God that I’m particularly fond of: “If I look over my life, every single step of maturing for me has had the exact same common denominator: and that’s accepting what was true over what I wished were true.”

As I’ve been delving more into learning about philosophy and the different schools of thought, I’ve come across the views of English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

This video triggered a number of things from my upbringing that probably won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog. While my childhood wasn’t the living nightmare of physical or sexual abuse that occasionally makes press, as I’ve come to realize over the last few years it was still incredibly toxic on account of my parents’ theology and the theology of our churches.

Like most children raised in fundamentalist religions, I grew up experiencing conditional love and acceptance. My parents preached the importance of showing unconditional love, yet their behavior taught something of the opposite. Compliance and adherence to Biblical rules (as they interpreted them) was heavily stressed. In order for our parents to be happy with us (or at least to avoid punishment), we had to exhibit good Christian behavior.

If we didn’t, it was a sign that we didn’t belong to God and were in danger of the fires of hell.

Of course, my parents had no idea what they were doing. They admitted to making mistakes along the way, but they ultimately believed that this was the right thing, that it was the godly was to bring up spiritually healthy children.

They didn’t know how psychologically fragile and impressionable children are; that teaching a child that they’re inherently sinful could translate to the belief that they’re inherently bad; that these lessons were shaping how their child would relate to other human beings later in life, and to their sense of self-worth or security.

Neither could they have expected that this way of bringing me up would lead to the developing of a sense of false self, to the reflexive repressing of my self, to shutting down, to going out of my way to please everyone out of a fear of disapproval and rejection.

So while I may have had two parents, a roof over my head, and my physical needs met, I lacked real security and the freedom to grow up at a normal pace.

It’s ultimately why I ended up majoring in music composition, why I tried so hard for so long to be a composer, why I applied to grad school for music composition, why I spent countless hours practicing piano as a teenager, why I entered that piece in the Source Song Festival.


This is why I’m focusing on being with people who I do feel accepted by/secure with, why I’m pursuing things that make me truly happy and that feel authentic, and why I’m stopping myself doing things for the approval of others.

It’s daunting, but my inner child deserves better than what he got.

243. risibility

Dungeons_and_Dragons_gameAt 32.5 years old, I’m getting around to correcting a deficiency in my nerd cred.

Up until very recently, I had never played Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop role playing games.

Part of this was that until my mid-twenties, I believed games like this were a real gateway to the occult and to demonic powers.

A Hellmouth, if you will.

Oh, yes—that went for shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire SlayerCharmedBewitched, Ghostbusters, The Craft… even Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Simply watching a positive portrayal of witchcraft or the occult was an insidious threat to our Christian faith. We were like heavenly soldiers adrift behind enemy lines, like Frodo and Sam in Mordor. Unless we spent time every day reading the Bible and praying, and watched and read only Bible-based media, the constant inundation of worldly temptations would lead us astray into the grip of the Devil!

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:2-3 (ESV)

I’m not even kidding. That’s what we believed.

I had a good friend in high school, Jennie Purino, who was really into RPGs. (And vampires.) At age 15, having been brought up to believe that all that stuff was literally evil, this was a real brain teaser. From how she described and talked about it, it didn’t seem particularly dangerous or threatening. And as far as I knew, she didn’t worship Satan. (I think her family was nominally Catholic.) It actually sounded like fun… which, to my then Christianity-saturated brain, sounded exactly how Satan would lure people in.

So over the past few years I’ve been getting caught up on things that were previously verboten for me. Everything from music to games, to television shows, graphic novels, movies, card games… and now role playing games. My housemates are long-time D&D players, so they’ve been trying for a while to get me into it. And while I no longer think it’s evil, I was a little resistant. My understanding of games like D&D was that they attracted nerdy math freaks who could keep track of all the rules involved in game play. I pictured tons of calculations, and memorizing arcane amounts of information about races, monsters, spells, weapons, combat, and so on.

To be honest, I have a huge chip on my shoulder about anything math or science-related. I struggled to learn even basic math, like algebra and geometry, and science was equally daunting. Chemistry was fun though. But that meant that I chose to focus on the humanities, especially on literature and music, and wrote science and math off as being for people who were logical, and “smart,” and who probably fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. (Irony.)

Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God:

I had this prejudice that doing well at science was somehow an admission that you didn’t have the complexity of mind or subtlety of character to take on the humanities. Science was for people who couldn’t handle ambiguity and needed black and white answers, people who couldn’t get in touch with their feelings and had nothing left to think about.

Then a few weeks ago, I was invited to play Pathfinder, a game system similar to Dungeons and Dragons (and, as I recently learned, is backwards-compatible with D&D 3.5), but set in a different universe and setting. My friend Ben is running this game, which is the first chapter in a much longer campaign called Rise of the Runelords. Earlier this year I played a card-based version of this game, so the setting and the world itself was fairly familiar to me, but this was the first time I’d be building a character and rolling for stats.

Look at me, using phrases like “rolling for stats.”

The past few weeks have been spent researching and building this character—in this case, a half-elf bard named Casevar. I wrote out a fairly lengthy detailed biography for him, and this was the basis for a lot of the skills, abilities, and classes I chose to assign. It was actually a lot like the experiences I’ve had building a character in theater—you can do almost anything, within the confines of the play and the world the playwright has set, but you have to be able to justify those choices.

For example, one of the skills was Linguistics, which allowed me to choose an additional language that Casevar knows. For this instance, I chose Gnomish. When Ben asked me how on earth Casevar would know that language, I could point back to his biography where one of his close childhood friends was a Gnome named Mikkkaer. (Told you. Detailed.) It works in the context of his history.

What I’m learning is that the rules and the nuances of RPGs are almost secondary to what seems to be its more primary aim—collaborative storytelling. Mechanics are necessary, but are more the tools for storytelling than an end. It allows for people to experience a different reality through a collective imaginative effort, and maybe for a few hours to be someone else. It draws on narrative and mythic elements that have shaped human cultures and civilizations for thousands of years, and that still continue to speak to us today.

There are also an increasing number of studies suggesting that RPGs help in the development of critical thinking, creativity, and compassion, and can be useful in the treatment of conditions like bi-polar, depression, and even autism-spectrum disorder.

So I’m looking at this as an opportunity to not only broaden my horizons but to also step outside my comfort zone and try on different personalities and personas as I build and shape my own post-Christian identity. Perhaps in this way I can overcome some of the demons that have been keeping me locked up in my own head, and from moving ahead with my life.

Not to mention that it’s also fun.

242. accouterments

IMAG0774To your reply, I/we (your family) don’t expect you to be static. We are not static either. The reason to spend time is to keep up with those changes. It sounds like you think we don’t change, but in small ways we do, all the time. We just want to know who you are regardless of who that is. Sure, we wish things and you were different, but they’re not. But you’re missing out on your nephews and niece and the rest of us in who we’re becoming.

To me and us it’s not a matter of commonalities. It’s just relationship. For me/us there does not have to be a shared future. We just want a future with you. From my vantage point, it looks like you’re the one who does not want to be part of our lives. If that’s the way you want it, we’ll accept that. But I/we want you to know we want you—always have, always will. We don’t understand why you feel so intense a need to erase the past or put it behind you. We are all made up, like trees, of who we were, who we are and who we’re becoming. Seems to me that gutting the tree leaves you less a tree and a weak one at that.

Our door is always open to you. We love you.



You wrote: “From my vantage point, it looks like you’re the one who does not want to be part of our lives.” Again, it’s not that I don’t want to. Rather, I’m struggling to see how it’s feasible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’m curious how you think we can all be together, meaningfully, when there are so many issues we have to avoid and dance around—religion, ethics, politics. Your faith is a significant part of your lives, and it makes sense you’d want to talk about that together as a family. However, you know my views on religion and Christianity, and that I can’t participate in those discussions in a way that is authentic and affirming for everyone.

The fact is that I do recognize you’re not static, and that you are changing. But that’s the central issue here: where you seem to be becoming more conservative, I’m becoming more liberal in the same areas. For example, from our last conversation, it sounds like you’re disturbed and saddened by growing secularism, by what you see as increasing godlessness in society, and by the sense of alienation and displacement you’re experiencing from that as a person of faith. You expressed a sense of there not being a place for you and other evangelical Christians in this brave new world of equality and secularism—at least not in a way that wouldn’t force you to compromise your beliefs. I suspect that the others share your concerns.

I, on the other hand, see all of this as a positive development. And that’s just one example.

But the need to, as you wrote, distance myself from the past is less a desire for erasure as it is a struggle to find context for it. For me, it truly feels as if the person who I was four-and-a-half years ago died the night I became an atheist. It was a life-changing and traumatizing event, on top of growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian community. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but from our conversations you and mom don’t seem to think it’s quite as serious. Your experience with Christianity has been a beneficial one, so why would you? There may be elements of your faith you struggle with, but your lifestyle integrates overall with (and is affirmed by) your beliefs.

Why would I want to erase the past and put it behind me? Because it was horrific. My memories and experiences are colored by the intense pain and sadness of believing I was broken, sinful, perverted, and would be a disappointment to everyone if they’d ever learned I was gay. Yes, it manifested in often unhealthy ways, but the risk of sharing the reason I was so angry back then was too high. Living that way for fifteen years created the sense of alienation and isolation that made fear a fundamental part of how I relate to other people. I need to move beyond that because the ghosts of those beliefs are making it near impossible to function as an emotionally healthy human being.

So it’s difficult for me to be with the family when no one has acknowledged that any substantive harm was done, and when I’m in the process of trying to heal from that damage. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but you likely see the underlying problem as a spiritual and not a psychological one: specifically, rebellion against God and his plan is what caused the distress of my adolescent and young adult years. You even said on numerous occasions that many of my troubles would be eased if only I’d give myself to God, so it’s plain you don’t see the brand of fundamentalist theology I was raised with as being a cause for my suffering.

But frankly, I do feel that a significant, pervasive wrong was done, one that you and the family cannot acknowledge or address because of your religious beliefs. That is, you can’t do that and leave your Christian faith and worldview intact. This is what makes it difficult for me to want to be around the family, or to believe that there’s a safe and welcome place for me at your table.

To be clear, I don’t think anyone intended harm, but this is the roadblock that I can’t see any way around. It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to revise your beliefs unless you were genuinely motivated to do so. But I can’t keep holding out hope that you will someday, nor is it healthy for me to keep going as if nothing happened.