Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A New Season of Love, or Papá Ayudame

My father pulled over our tan, 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the side of the road. We were driving north along Miami’s moderately busy Palmetto Expressway, the “826,” and I was a little concerned he was about to put himself in danger by getting out the car. He swung open the car’s huge driver’s side door – it was a two-door model – and ran back to see what was wrong with the white, elderly couple who were also pulled over to the side of the expressway, but were standing by their car. They looked like decent people, I suppose. At least that is how my seven year-old pyche processed the man’s slacks and short sleeve shirt, and the woman’s simple dress, done hair, sunglasses, and scarf around her hairdo to keep it together.

The elderly couple and my father conversed for what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time. After all, my father spoke English like Tarzan and the couple seemed thoroughly gringo. In a moment, they were all smiling, and then my father ran back to the car. “Tienen unas de las gomas de atras ponchada y se la voy a cambiar,” [One of their rear tires is flat and I'm going to change it for them.] he explained to my mother.

“Ay Pepito [my grandfather was still alive so my father, not me, was Pepito] ten mucho cuidado.” [Ay Pepito, be very careful] I couldn’t tell whether my mother was genuinely concerned or proud of my dad. Perhaps she was both.

My father took off his short sleeve shirt, leaving only his “wife beater” on, went to the trunk of our car, took out the tire changing implements, and started changing the elderly couple’s flat tire. I sat there quietly in the huge back seat of the Impala and played with my toys. My mother kept looking out the back window at my father and would glance at me occasionally. She interrupted the silence of my playtime only once during that moment that afternoon. “Jose tu padre es muy servicial y ayuda mucho a las personas. Pero acuerdate,” she leaned over and her tone became weighted. “Hay muy pocas personas como tu padre. Muy pocas.” [Your father genuinely helps lots of people, but remember that are very few people like your father. Very few.]

Only a few moments later, I watched through the same rear window as my father wiped his hands with his handkerchief, as a beaming couple thanked him. The old man took out his wallet to try to pay my father, but Pepito laughed kindly and simply shook the man’s hand. I confess that I wondered why my father didn’t take the money. I knew my parents did not have the money other kids’ parents did, so I was confused as to why my father refused that money if he needed it.

My father, who studied in La Escuela de Comercio de La Universidad de La Habana, did the income taxes, for free, for scores of Cubans who were relatively newly arrived. When a friend of the family, or friend of a friend, or friend of a friend of a friend, arrived to the US from Cuba, my father would go out of his way to find them a job. At my father’s funeral in late October of 1982, stories of my father’s personal generosity abounded. There was no mass before the burial; he was not religious in the least. “Yo creo en un dios bueno, no en un dios malo,” [I believe in a good god, not a bad god.] he always told me, taking issue with the god of Western religions. Perhaps he was the first, real humanist I ever knew.

A little more than a year after my father died, I was driving back to my house on a school night from my friend’s house. I was a junior in high school. I turned down a dark street when I saw an elderly couple parked by the side of the road standing next to their car. Immediately, I turned off the road, parked my car to see if I could be of service to this couple. Their tire was flat. I offered to help change it. Unfortunately, their Toyota did not have the correct tire-changing equipment and my Chevy Monza’s equipment did not work on their car. I tried. I offered to drive them somewhere, but they declined, telling me that someone was coming for them soon. The were all smiles and grateful for my efforts.

When I arrived home, my mother asked what had taken me so long. I told her the story about the elderly couple and their flat tire. My mother began to weep. “Eso me recuerda mucho de las cosas de tu padre.” [That reminds me so much of the things your father would do.] I did not inherit my father’s altruism and humanism, though.

My mother was right when she warned me that very few people are/were like my father. In recent months, several of my former students went without much deserved letters of recommendation from me because I was stuck inside myself dealing with my own garbage. People who have reached out for my help have received delayed, or no, responses from me because, among many other reasons, I’ve been stuck in my own head. And now that I am in a position to genuinely need help, I hear crickets. Or, I receive communications faulting and blaming me for my situation. All the princes, those who don themselves with glitter, the religious and the pious, are summarily absent from my struggle. The one, maybe two, near me? The most humble among my tribe.

I have no idea whether anything in the Bible is factually true. Really. No idea. But no doubt that it is filled with real, enduring, gritty commentary on the human condition. In one of the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth explains, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’” (Matthew 13.13) I get that. A lot. It is amazing to me how much garbage we, yes we, have in our heads that prevent us from seeing each other, from really feeling each other, from getting at a deep level of the heart, that we are all connected for real. We are one human family. One. We withhold love from each other, not because of “the other person” but because of the tons of garbage, of caca, in our heads, and consequently our hearts.

“José, you don’t have a job now because you blah, blah, blah, and that, that, that.”
“Yes, my brother, I know my faults and am working very hard to overcome them.”
“Well, you need to blah, blah, blah, and that, that, that.”
"Yes, I know, my brother. But knowing those things will not pay my bills, help me on my feet, or help me on my way.”

Or another, “Thanks for sending me your resume, José, it’s just that I’ve been really busy, …”
“Yes, I know you have, my sister. I respect and admire you for your hard work and commitments. When you get a chance, I would really appreciate your help.” The weeks go by and … crickets.

Or, at a nice cocktail party among Miami’s power-homosexuals, or at an informal gathering of Christians (Catholics included) after church, “Omg, have you been reading José Vilanova’s Facebook posts? Wow, he’s really going through a difficult time. Have you heard from him? How is he doing? I really hope he’s okay.” Are those judgments or feigned concerns? And I get zero phone calls, emails, texts, or Facebook messages.

I get it. I’ve been there and done that, too. And I’ve learned my lesson to my core and in my bones. I am so painfully sorry at not writing those letters of recommendation for my students or being present for those who needed me. I’m so sorry that I’m sick to my stomach about it. I know better. At least I think I do.

Recently, a member, a beloved member, of our OneWheaton community drank himself to death. I am still inconsolable about it. I was not as close to him as other members of the community, but I am still heartbroken over his death. And I ask myself, “Who were we BEING in OneWheaton to Mark? Were we, individually and collectively, extending ourselves for his betterment? Or were we just content at watching the train wreck itself?”

Several years ago, the Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church Men’s Emmaus community lost an absolutely wonderful, kind, generous, and musically gifted member of its community. Rudy checked himself into a hotel, took a bottle of sleeping pills, chased it with alcohol, and fell asleep forever. I was close to him at the time. The entire St. Augustine’s Emmaus community washed its hands of the incident. “There was nothing we could do.” “That guy was crazy.” “He was gone.” In the weeks after Rudy’s suicide, some, only two or three, members of the community had a “come to Jesus” moment over the incident and started to grow some flesh in their hearts. They began to see their ‘sins of omission’ and publicly amend and alter their Selves.

It is Spring time in the global north. My deep desire for myself and those who walk with me is renewal and newness. I hope that this is a new Season of Love for our individual and collective humanity. I know that I have started on that road to transformation; I hope I spread the virus and it spreads to me.




Epilogue 

Omg, did you see what José Vilanova wrote in that blog post? I can’t believe he wrote all those things! What is he thinking? What is everyone going to think?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Remembering Stephen

[I’m posting this reflection tonight because I feel it is time that I do it. We are on the verge of the Feast of All Souls, and perhaps the spirits are in the air. This piece is raw and unedited. I am inviting you in to my creative process, as this piece will morph over the next few days and, if you want, you get to watch. Either way, thanks for reading.]

I remember where I was when I got the news. I know that sentence sounds a little trite like the sentences that start so many short stories, but this time, this is how I recollect how the story starts. Well, sort of.

Perhaps the story starts like this. I was hanging out in my dorm room on the 4th Floor of McManis Hall at Wheaton. I was über-fortunate to have a single room on “Mac 4” that year. It was late afternoon – around the time that I heard the news. Stephen was carrying a couple of suitcases (or perhaps there was three suitcases). I had never really decided whether I had crush on Stephen, but I was certainly intrigued by him. And so I was happy to see him on Mac 4. I thought that perhaps I would be able to chat with him for a while and get to know him a little better, something that I had wanted to do for two-and-a-half years at Wheaton, but never had the guts to.

Stephen fumbled with the suitcases while knocking on the door of the two guys who lived across the hall from me on Mac 4. I was still in my room when Stephen was knocking on their door, so I went out to see what was going on in the hallway. There was Stephen, tall, lanky and fumbling with the suitcases. I seem to recall that they were green and plastic. He knocked and knocked on the guys’ door and it was clear that no one was home. He and I then looked at each other and there was no chit chat. He looked at me intensely, with his eyes wide open and asked, “Hey, José. Do you mind if I leave these with you for Kirk?” I was happy he knew my name.

“Sure. No problem. I’ll be sure he gets these.” I don’t know whether those were my exact words, but I’m sure it was something like that. I’m sure I was trying to be as polite as possible so to get his attention; to let him know that I was really a friendly guy and not always an angry tyrant. But Stephen didn’t have time to chat, much to my proverbial dismay. As soon as he left the luggage with me, he hurried down the stairs. And as he reached the first landing on the way down, he stopped and looked at me. And even though this look only took a fraction of a second, it was seared into my memory forever. He was worried, he was concerned, there was an element of fear, and urgency in his look. It was as if his eyes reached out to me somehow. I could feel the intensity, and the various texts that were forming behind his eyes, but he never spoke them. He only asked, “Are you sure you’ll remember to give those suitcases back to Kirk?”

“Yes, of course I will. Don’t worry. I’ll give them to him as soon as he gets home.” And as soon as I spoke those words, he continued to hurry down the stairs. I wanted to ask, “Is there anything wrong?” or “Are you sure you’re okay?” or “Do you want to come in for a second?” But I didn’t follow up. I stood at the top of the stairs waiting for a moment, hoping that he would return. I didn’t run after him because I didn’t want to seem desperate or that I was chasing him. All things homosexual were against the rules at Wheaton.

And so, when I heard the news, my spirit knew before I did. I was in the Student Activities office late in the afternoon. I was dressed as a re-poser prep. Not one thing about who I was and where I came from was preppy. And yet, when I got to Reagan-era Wheaton College, in the mid-1980s, I became a prep. That afternoon I was wearing an oxford shirt, an deep ocean blue wool sweater, brown khaki pants and loafers. I was at an IBM typewriter typing my notes from some class when a female student entered the space where I was sitting. I think there was a third student there with us. I don’t remember the female student’s name. She looked like she was subduing shock of some sort. It was not entirely acceptable at Wheaton to show strong emotion. She grabbed her heart with her left hand and explained, out of the blue, “There’s been an accident.” Again, my spirit, knew. But my head, and the rest of myself, started asking reasonable questions.

There were so many euphemisms at Wheaton. Evangelical Christians know how to mask what they really mean, how they really feel, better than anyone else. “There’s been an accident.” Bullshit, I thought. What on earth really happened, I started thinking. I started trying to decipher Wheaton code. An accident. Hmm. What could that mean? Something had just happened that made this young woman pant for breath and yet she was calling it an accident.

“There’s been an accident and a student got hurt.” Well, what happened? Was it a car accident? An accident in the lab? This young woman was a student leader in the College Union. CU at Wheaton was staffed with “those crazy and zany people” who were supposed to make college life “fun.” And yet, this poor young woman could not articulate what she was feeling. She could not tell us what she knew. Something happened, it was not pretty, she was freaking out – albeit in a control, dignified, Protestant manner – and could not release the words.

“A student has been hit by a train and is not doing very well.” My spirit knew who it was and what had occurred. But I kept asking questions. And this young woman had no answers to my questions.

Shortly thereafter, Wheaton’s information super-highway began dispensing all manner of details about the accident, but no one was releasing what happened. In the end, what happened was that a young man waited by the train tracks in silence. The entire time as he waited, he has his hands clasped and was praying – he had his hands clasped praying with a greater intensity, like Jesus before He was betrayed, I’ve always envisioned. He was hiding behind a bush praying; his prayers engulfed his entire soul. As soon a the train approached, he placed himself in front of it and waited for it to end his life, to take him to the eternal embrace of G-d. [The second movement of Górecki’s Symphony #3 is carrying my words right now. It is a moment of divinity. I feel as if this moment is sacramental.]

The train engineer blew the horn, imploring Stephen to leave the train tracks, but Stephen would not move. “That boy just wanted to die,” the train engineer later told a local newspaper. And so he did. That afternoon, Stephen took his life. According to the newspaper report, his remains were strewn about the tracks and surrounding area. Stephen wasn’t “hurt,” he was dead.

But for me, really, this story begins at the beginning of the academic year, in the fall of 1987. I have no idea why I returned to Wheaton that fall. My spirit, my soul, the totality of my person was elsewhere. I had no desire to be bound by Wheaton’s rules, to deal with Wheaton’s blanche brand of evangelical Christendom. I was over Wheaton’s gentile, blame-the-victim racism and homophobia, but something tugged at me, strongly, to return to campus for another six months of winter. Yes, six months. Fall? My ass. To a Cuban-American boy from Miami, 50-degree temperature is winter.

In the summer of 1987 I let my hair grow out, got my ear pierced, and had my first unfortunately too-innocent homosexual experience. I suppose I returned to Wheaton so that I would be safe, I would be chaste and fight against these sinful, homosexual desires. And so I found myself back on the 19th Century campus in August of 1987. True to my newly pseudo-liberated queer self, I channeled Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. Literally, my first words on campus that fall were, “What a dump!”

That school year, 1987 – 1988, was a strange one at Wheaton. The General Counsel of the college, a Latino, had an affair with a decidedly hot art professor. Both were married. Scandal. Yawn. Later that school year, two seniors who were in love ran away from the College to celebrate their “perfect love” for each other. And, that fall, the weekly campus newspaper decided to run a series of articles about homosexuality on Wheaton’s campus. For me, it was almost like reading porn.

But what struck me about these series of articles was the openness of an anonymous Wheaton student who was profiled in these articles, a young male. Week after week, readers of The Record were treated to uncharacteristically well written accounts of this young man’s reflections about his attraction to men, about his first, 17 year-old, sexual encounters with other males (I was insanely jealous), and how he struggled to live a chaste life at Wheaton. As much as I wanted to know the identity of this fellow student, I could not bring myself to try to pry it out of the reporter who was writing these stories. Of course, students were speculating right and left as to whom this young man might be. I confess I had no idea. There were several boys I hoped it was, but I didn’t know for sure.

One thing I knew for sure, I could not tell a soul at Wheaton about my “same sex” attractions. The sages in the Student Development department were notorious for being “understanding” with one hand and exacting punishment with another. I thank my Cuban “edge” for keeping me from having to deal with their individual and collective Victorian social ethics. So that academic year, I only told one person about my “homosexual tendencies,” and she turned out to be a lesbian.

But after Stephen died, I could not stop thinking about the identity of the boy in the articles. I also knew, perhaps intuitively, that one could not defame a dead person. One day I decided to ask the reporter who wrote all of the homosexuality articles. I told her that she didn’t have to tell me, that my respect and cariño for her would not be altered one bit. But I also told her that it didn’t matter too much, because if it was Stephen, he was dead now and it didn’t matter. She confirmed it, “Yes, it was Stephen.” I was twenty-one years old when she revealed to me that it was Stephen in those articles. I am now 43 and this is the first time that I reveal, publicly, that I knew that the young man who killed himself that Spring afternoon on the train tracks in Wheaton, Illinois, was Stephen and that he was gay.

After Stephen killed himself, there were several “memorial services” where students mourned and the College chaplain assured us that Stephen was in Heaven. Students took turns at the microphone proclaiming Stephen as their “best friend.” So many students felt they could have saved him in his last moments. “Had I just talked to him” the sentences typically began, and then ended with some sort of life-saver scenario. I attended those meetings and services silently. Stephen was only an acquaintance of mine. I admired him from afar and hoped to he his friend some day. And, oddly, I think perhaps that happened after he died.

During the time of campus-wide mourning over the fact that a student had decided to end his life, not one mention was made that Stephen was gay. Not one student, not one administrator. No one asked the question, “Did we kill him? Did we create a culture, a community on this campus where a student could not be who he was? Did we create a space for him here where he could be free to cry and release his pain without taking his life? Did we love him and embrace him and tell him that was wasn’t a dirt sinner needing therapy or the exacting discipline of the College’s administrators? Why couldn’t he talk to anyone at the counseling center without his parents finding out? Are we satisfied that we are the type of community that loved, embraced and celebrated a young man as vibrant, talented and loving as Stephen?” We never asked any of those questions. Ever. Even his “best friends” on campus never mentioned the fact that Stephen was gay after he died.

I returned to Wheaton for my final academic year the following fall. It was August 1988 and I was okay with being at Wheaton another year. Only two more semesters and then I was off to save the world.

Three other students and I chose to take an on-campus apartment for that school year. I even drove a 1985 Chevrolet Monza to Wheaton that fall. At least I’ll have some wheels, I thought.

I was the first one to arrive at our Terrace apartment. There were two bedrooms with two bunk beds in each room. I chose my room and then chose my bed. I started to accommodate my room and unpack my wares when I noticed that there were unfolded cardboard boxes between my mattress and the bed springs. There were also several unfolded boxes under the bed I chose. I looked at the unfolded boxes under my mattress first. The name and address on the boxes was Stephen’s. All of the boxes under my bed also had Stephen’s name. At the moment I made that discovery, the phone rang. That’s odd, I thought. No one really knows where I am yet. It was the campus operator. A student I knew.

“Hello?”

“José?”

“Yes. Who is this? Is this Laura?”

“Oh my god, José. Do you know that you have Stephen’s old apartment?”

“Yes. I just found out. And, apparently, I’m sleeping in his bed.” I explained my discovery to her. And at that moment I felt the connection with Stephen that I had wanted while he was alive. I will bet my house that I’m not the only one who has never forgotten him. Perhaps he will enjoy some sort of resurrection as we have these discussions about violence and gay youth. I don’t know whether Stephen killed himself because he was gay. I do know that we never asked ourselves questions-from-the-gut about who we were being when he died. It is never to late to ask those questions.

Stephen, I love you and never stopped praying for you.

Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine;

et lux perpétua lúceat ei.

Requiéscat in pace.



Amen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

WAIT! NOT YET!

Thanks for stoping by and gracing me with your presence.  Really.  I appreciate it.  Like a lot.

BUT, my blog is not yet ready for Prime Time.  I'm still trying to figure out this format and template.  My supermegatron amazing friend, Felix (I'll tell you more about him and let you know, in no uncertain terms, why you should hire him to design your website in another post.) just set me up on Blogger this evening.  So, it will take a few days for me to get going for real.

The post that's live, Dissenting from Father's Day is an old post from the previous incarnation of this blog.  Read it.  It's a decent reflection, I think.  Just know that it's not really current, so to speak.  And the pic is not Mepkin Abbey.  Tell me what it is and I might send you something nice.  Or not.  But thanks for stopping by.  For real.  A lot.

Dissenting from Father's Day

Every time there is a national holiday of some sort, especially when that national holiday is a Hallmark Holiday like today, I start feeling a tad uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Too many people are thinking the same, or similar, thoughts and are all participating in the same fiction. Perhaps, as my mother used to say, to tengo un espiritu de contradiccion [I have a “spirit of contradiction”], and maybe that spirit is a gift. Either way, Father’s Day, or ‘Anything’ Day, makes me uneasy.

In mid-Spring of 1992, my friend Tom and I decided spend part of “dead week” at Duke, the week between the end of finals and graduation, at Mepkin Abbey in rural South Carolina. I suppose that fact alone is evidence of my espiritu de contradiccion. While Duke students of all shades and stripes were finding places to party for dead week, Tom and I went to a Trappist monastery to spend time with G-d and perhaps pick up some uncommon wisdom.

At the time, one of the ways the monks of Mepkin Abbey supported themselves was by selling Mepkin Abbey eggs to local grocery stores. Very proud of their self-contained business, one of the monks gave Tom and me a tour of their impressive egg production facilities. Of course, I was touched and impressed by the gentleness and care with which the monks would care for the hens, keep the hen house spotless, select the only best eggs for sale and keep the rest for their communal consumption, and their customers with the highest dignity, respect and love. But the one memory of their egg-producing facility that stuck in my imagination was our first visit to one of the hen houses.

An older, soft-spoken monk, draped in his floor-length white habit with a black scapular of equal length, led us quietly to the hen house in the late afternoon sun. The lush, verdant grounds slopping down to the calm Cooper River seemed like a picture capture for a post card. The four, long, rectangular, aluminum hen houses seemed oddly out of place in this serene setting. We were headed toward the door at the short end of the rectangle, like head seat at a long dinner table.

Our monk guide opened the non-descript metal door slowly and the hens’ soft, but intense, collective clucking started to leak outside. Before the monk opened the door fully, he asked us to step in quietly and slowly so as to not startle the hens. We could see that the hens’ cages were stacked two or three cages high in several rows and ran, contiguously, the entire length of the rectangular hen house.

Our peaceful monk opened the door fully and asked us to enter ahead of him. I stepped in quietly and immediately noticed the first column of hen cages. Shortly after I noticed them, the first two columns of hens turned abruptly to look at me. And, with a look of startled surprise, those hens started clucking loudly, as if affronted by our presence. Then column by column, down the length of the interminable row, in a nearly perfect peel like fans doing The Wave at a sporting event, the hens turned their little heads in our direction and started clucking in the same tone as the first ones until the entire hen house clamored with the hens’ collective, seemingly offended, clucking.

I was embarrassed that we had caused such a ruckus, turned to the monk guide and apologized. “Don’t worry,” he started. “These hens have small brains and a very short memory. They’ll forget you’re here in a few minutes.” And so it was. Just two or three minutes later the hens quieted down.

And as I stood there, imbibing this unique event, I saw the analogy that was brought to relief before me. Humankind is exactly like those hens in that hen house. The overwhelming majority of us live the bulk of our individual and collective existences within a fifteen-mile radius of where we live. That which surrounds us, people, places and things, our day-to-day familiarities, comprises that with which we’re comfortable in both form and substance. When something foreign enters our contained lives – the black people who moved in next door, the lesbian who befriends your daughter, the homeless person who confronts my avarice – we cluck and protest vociferously until that foreign cause becomes part of landscape; until it becomes familiar and we’re bored with it.

Our commercial media feeds our communal, emaciated intellect. Constant sound bites, that are devoid of any and all context, are constantly thrown our way. Advertising interrupts our already attenuated narratives, thoughts, and news about the occurring world. We process information, and form judgments, about our present and past worlds – and the people who inhabit them – on tiny morsels of information. It is easy for the multinational corporate machine to direct, and predict, our behaviors and tastes by what they feed us. Revlon has metric tons of cheap, ugly silver nail polish they need to move? No problem. Pay Paris Hilton to wear the stuff, pay paparazzi to photograph her wearing it, and then run the article in Vogue. Bam! Instant feeding frenzy on ugly, cheap, worthless, left over silver nail polish. And it’s all good. M.A.C. doesn’t have to worry, because it knows that everyone who bought that nail polish will forget about it in three weeks and turn to their new purple nail polish.

And so it is with these Hallmark Holidays, and many other aspects of American life. Today, we assuage our individual guilt about our fathers, buy them cards, gifts, and perhaps take them out to eat. We know the entire ritual is a farce, completely artificially constructed by corporate America. But, we play along anyway and judge others who don’t play the game. We may not have a real relationship with our paternal units, but we capitulate anyway. And, like the hens in the hen house, once the distraction is over, we will return to our clucking as usual.

My father died when I was fifteen years old, in 1982. I have now lived the majority of my life without my father. I have a black and white picture of him, from the 60s, before I was born, next to my desk. In some timeless sense, every day is father’s day for me. As I get older, I find myself becoming reacquainted with my father through photos and others’ memories of him. Like a character in a novel, or Beethoven through his music, I’ve gotten to know my father much better through the years. I’m consequently very sensitive to the overwhelming amount of wasted life that people have with their parents, and other important people in their lives. Many people have the luxury of having both parents alive and well. And yet, there is no fleshy authenticity to their relationships. How tragic.



I know it is a form of dissent to say so, but I hope our collective consciousness will move beyond the attention span of the hen house. I hope that our addiction to Hallmark Holidays will cease and that corporate America will find more humanity-friendly ways to make money and increase profit. We are here on this earth for only a little while. Let’s create genuine, beautiful memories day by day.