Merry Christmas, Love the Fibitz

Merry Christmas to all!

To my family, friends and loved ones – I wasn’t able to get cards out this year, but know that I love each of you and wish you a very happy holiday season!

Merry Christmas! ~ Atlanta Christmas Tree

Fibitz Photo Friday

Strolling along River Walk in San Antonio, TX, the holiday lights reflected off the river in a spectacular way.  The different length and direction of the lights in this photo comes from ripples in the river, not motion of of the camera.  Take a closer look.

Holiday Lights - River Walk, San Antonio TX

My Book of Mormon, Part 4: Sacrament

Sunday Morning.  Salt Lake City, UT.  I wake late and stumble around the hotel room searching for clothes.  Fuck, no time for Starbucks.  My plan is to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir followed by Sunday Sacrament at the ward Sister Steigelmeier suggested.  “They’ll know you’re not from here anyway,” repeats in my head as I pull on my Sunday best: dark jeans, a blue and white plaid shirt, and grey and orange New Balance sneakers.  I look like some sort of gay lumberjack.  “I hope I won’t stand out too much,” I think to myself as I speed walk towards Temple Square.

Inside the Tabernacle

Arriving at the Tabernacle, a blue starch-suit woman with black and white name tag stops me: “no backpacks,” she says.

“But it has my laptop and camera equipment,” I whine, “where am I supposed to leave it?”

“Bag check,” she points back the way I came.

“Look at her,” I argue pointing at a woman with suitcase-sized tote, “her handbag is bigger than mine.”

“No backpacks,” the starch-suit holds my gaze.

I squint at her, then walk the other way.  When I return she catches me again “I’m sorry about that, I realize your bag is smaller than many of the ladies’; it’s just we were told ‘no backpacks.’”

“It’s OK,” I joke, “just sexist.”  She smiles awkwardly.

Inside, I sit next to an older woman who recently lost her husband to a motorcycle accident; it’s still painful, I can tell.  She is about to embark on a mission, which, as a convert, she didn’t do in her youth.  She is excited I have come to check out the church.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for here,” she says.  After a brief pause, she asks “are you married?”

“No,” I reply wondering if ‘gay lumberjack’ is an accepted LDS look.

A smile crosses her face, “well, you should definitely stick around, we have many fine, young, eligible girls from all over the world here.”

I look at her twice – is she offering me women, I wonder – then just smile.

Awaiting our Exit - Tabernacle

The Tabernacle building is beautiful and the choir is amazing, if not slightly traditional for my taste.  After the program, I say goodbye to my neighbor and exit the building where I am greeted by a slew of young, beautiful women from all over the world; just as predicted!  They hold signs indicating their language of origin – Deutsche, Cantonese, Spanish, Armenian.    The hostesses offer to provide more information about Mormonism.  If I were a different kind of man in another lifetime, I might take them up on their offer.  But, I need coffee and breakfast.

Across from Temple Square I find a cheap all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, where I eat, uh, all I can.  The French toast causes bloating and gas, which makes my jeans tighter than when I left the hotel.  Now, I’m a gay lumberjack in skin tight jeans.  No time to change – it’s off to Sacrament.

Finding my way into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where the service is held, proves challenging.  I try three entrances, all of which were open yesterday, then decide to follow a young Mormon family.  Gaining access, a guard sitting in a lounge chair stops me: “May I help you?”  I watch as others in their Sunday best walk past unimpeded, “I’m here for the service at 11.”  “Proceed,” he says.

I don’t find Sister Steigelmeier, but sit next to a woman who, noting my camera, says “you can sit here if you don’t take my picture.”  I don’t want to anyway, I think to myself, then say “no problem, I’ll put it away.”  Ms. Camera Shy and I will become close friends over the next hour as she takes it upon herself to translate the service.  I scribble questions on the program and she writes answers.  We go back and forth like this for the entire Sacrament.

Books of Mormon

Mary – I learn her name later – points out every inside joke during the service, of which there are many.  “He’s a pilot,” she whispers after one speaker jokes about the safety procedure on a plane ride.  “He’s from North Carolina,” she notes in a hushed voice after another man jokes about the previous speaker’s mission.  I experience the same feeling as in the bar the previous night when I realize that everyone in the room know’s each other and likely knows I am from out of town.

At the end of Sacrament, Mary asks if I have any questions. I do and she sits with me for thirty minutes answering them. Before I leave, Mary finds the a Ward officer and tracks down a Book of Mormon.  Handing it to me, she says “I hope you enjoy this and find what you are looking for here.”  “Thank you,” I say as I leave her, Temple Square and the Mormons.

My Book of Mormon, Part 3: Excommunication

Saturday Night.  Salt Lake City, UT.  After a long day visiting the Mormons and Temple Square, I’m curious to experience this town after dark, to see the other side that I know is there . . . . and I am interested to get the ‘gay perspective’ on the church.  I Facebook a friend who used to live here: “any suggestions on places to eat?”  He recommends a vegetarian restaurant that happens to be within walking distance of the hotel.  I set out on foot.

Wide Avenues, SLC

This is a driving town, not a walking one, which is demonstrated by the fact that the streets are wide – wider than I have seen in other municipalities – and laid out in an almost perfect grid.  Along the way, other people smile and say “hi.”  It catches me off guard being from NYC; I guess that with fewer people on the streets it’s better to be friendly than not.  The restaurant friend suggests is no longer in business, but I notice an interesting spot on the opposite corner: Sapa.

Unfortunately it’s too cold to eat on the back patio – a reincarnation of a Thai palace, complete with small wooden huts, buddhist statues and bamboo.  The woman seating me seems surprised that I don’t want to sit at the sushi bar – I prefer to dine on the main floor where I can breath in the atmosphere and people-watch.  I order their homemade Gyoza and the veggie Chapchae dish.  They are both delicious, especially the Gyoza.

Mentally, I divide the patrons into two groups – those with cocktails I assume are not Mormon, those with only water are; it appears to be a 50/50 split.  I spy an obviously gay guy working in the back.  Walking up and glancing sideways, I ask “are you family?” in a hushed voice.  It’s the secret gay handshake that allows us to identify one another in strange towns.  “Yes, honey.  What’s up?” he responds quickly.  I wonder if he is snorting cocaine.  “Where’s a good place to go out tonight?” I ask.

Street Art, SLC

Taking me by the hand he leads me through the restaurant to the entrance where he locates Q Salt Lake, the gay newspaper.  Thumbing through he talks to himself and me at the same time: “I know it’s here somewhere.”  Flip, flip, flip go the pages, which all seem to scream “gay this!” or “gay that!”   A group of six pink-cheeked Utahans walk in, looking both me and him up and down.  “No, that’s the bathhouse – do you just want to get laid or actually go to a bar?” he asks.  “A bar,” I reply.  One of the guys waiting with his group smiles at me.  I look at the floor.  Mr. Fabulous gives me two recommendations; one is within walking distance.

TryAngles is one of the few bars in the city that remains a private club.  These clubs are how bars got around the Utah prohibition laws, which only two years ago were abolished.  It’s an unassuming saloon with parking lot and entrance in the, uh, rear.  I pay the $2.00 membership fee, find the bar, and order my standard mocktail: cranberry and soda with a lime.  The waiter shakes his hand when I offer to pay; the man behind me in line comments that I must be from out of town.  I smile.

I find a position from where I can observe the room.  Only it’s not long before I notice that I am the one on display.  The men in the room are staring at me, hard.  It’s like I have arrived on the set of the Twilight Zone; their stares make me somewhat uncomfortable.  Are they judging or cruising?  Probably both.

Downtown SLC

I reposition myself in another area.  Guys look me up and down and then whisper to one another.  I make up things in my head about what they are saying.  Then, standing near the pool table, which not in use tonight, I start to laugh.  It’s one of those uncomfortable, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening, laughs.  I walk away to recompose, performing a mine face-swoosh with my hand, then decide to break the ice by walking up to one of the main stare-ers.

He’s a little drunk – beer glasses in this bar are – comically – the size of footballs.  The men hold them and look almost like children with play steins in their hands.  We exchange niceties then he asks me “you in town for business?”

“No,” I say, “here to check out the Mormon church.”

A lopsided smile crossed his face as he asks “why would you do that?”

“I want to move out of my comfort zone,” I reply.

“I’m not LDS, but my roommate is,” he says pointing to a drunker dude next to him, who leans, err falls, into me.

The roommate’s story is touching and I am taken aback by what I hear.  He grew up in the Mormon church and, like many young LDS’s, served the organization and even went on a mission.  When they found out he is gay 12 years ago the church excommunicated him.  He says “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” but the expression on his face betrays other feelings.

“They threw you out just for being gay?” I ask.

“No, they threw me out because I don’t want to change who I am – they will allow you to stay if you’re willing to be reformed,” he says.

“Reformed?” I ask.

“Yeah, you know, reprogrammed.  You have to give up any gay friends and they will set you up with someone who will check on you to make sure you are staying on the straight and narrow,” he says putting air quotes around “straight and narrow.”

A moment passes while I digest this information.  The he says, “I am happy with who I am – with being gay – I don’t need the church in my life.”

As the evening progresses, I learn that many of the gay men I meet have either been excommunicated or simply drifted away because of the church’s anti-gay stance.  It seems to be a common point of pain that they are distanced from both their family and community.  Mormons are incredibly close-knit and to be on the outside of that is hurtful.  The pain of trying to live a lie of who they are, however, is greater.  These are, it seems, men in limbo.

I get the sense that if the church were to change it’s stance that these guys would return and become active and valued members.  In the meantime, they have found their own zion in a close-knit, imperfect community around a pool table in this private club within walking distance of the Mormon Temple.  I leave the bar, alone, well after 12am and well after my bedtime.

To be continued . . .

My Book of Mormon, Part 2: Baptism

Salt Lake City, Utah.  Saturday Afternoon.  Inside the Family History Library, I’m greeted by Sister Steigelmeier – Mormons call each other sister and brother, “because we are all children of God.”  She is a polite, yet direct, grey-haired woman dressed in a starched navy blue suit that looks uncomfortable.  Her husband is not far away – the pair volunteers here to help visitors find information on relatives in the heaps of historical records collected and managed by the church.

Temple Reflected

She sets me up on a computer with free access to ancestry.com and other databases, and provides a few family lineage worksheets to keep track of any new names or information I discover.  “Genealogy is the number one hobby in the world – practiced more than sports, scrapbooking or any other,” she says while showing me how to log into the church database.  She then leaves to greet a young Israeli couple who have come in search of family history.

I am amazed at the amount of information available with just a name, approximate birth date and location.  Old census records – 1910, 1920 – return household information for some of my ancestors in Minnesota and elsewhere.  I discover a few new names to discuss with my family.

Steigelmeier returns after some time to apologize for not paying me closer attention.  “I didn’t even notice,” I say noting that she – and most everyone else in Temple Square – has been extremely helpful.  She positions a chair to sit down facing me and asks about my journey.  I offer an abbreviated version.  After listening politely, she says, “there is a reason you and I are sitting together right now.  I think you might just find what you’re looking for in the Mormon church.”  I feel my body tense at what I think is coming next: an attempt to convert me.

Dancing in front of the Temple, SLC

Instead of trying to convert me, Sister S. shares her story of finding the Mormon church; she is a convert from the midwest, married and has two grown children who are LDS.  “We are THE church of Jesus Christ,” she says running through a brief church history, mirroring what I learned in the museum.  My body relaxes and I experience a feeling of compassion and connection in bearing witness to her story.  She is simply trying to help me in my journey . . . and she is.  I see that there are more similarities between us than differences.  We are both seekers.

Next she tells me why the church is so involved in the ‘hobby’ of genealogy – it’s a question that has been on my mind.  “We believe that, as human beings, we come into this reality from the spirit world to get our body and prepare for eternal life.”

“I agree with that,” I blurt out.

“Good,” she says.  Then continues: “In the history of the planet, not everyone had the chance to experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”

“What happens to those people,” I ask “do they go to hell?”

“We don’t believe in hell in the way that others do – it’s more like purgatory, where souls get trapped in between this world and heaven.”

“So they stay trapped forever?”

“No, the good news is that we have what’s called the ‘Baptism of the Dead,’ where we take names into our temple and baptize them posthumously.  So you can see why knowing your ancestors’ names is so important.”

“What if my dead relatives are not Christian and don’t want to be baptized?”

“God gave us free will, so the dead can either accept or reject the baptism.”

“If baptism is the only way into heaven, you would think that every soul would accept it,” I state.

“Yeah, you would think so,” Steigelmeier responds.

Church Office Building, SLC

The Sister is called away by someone seeking assistance on a computer in the opposite row; it gives me a few moments to digest what I have just heard.  I see that church’s involvement in genealogy comes down to a fundamental desire to help families heal their lineage.  This healing of ancestors is something we do in shamanic work as well – each one of us has the opportunity to help heal not only ourselves, but our entire family history.  It’s just a matter of whether we want to undertake such work.

Sister S., as I am now calling her, returns: “I hope I have given you something to think about,” she says sitting down next to me as if we have to finish an important conversation.

“Now, are you planning to attend a Sacrament Service?,” she asks.

“Yes, but I want to attend the best one in town.”  She chuckles and invites me to her ward.  I accept.

“What do you have to wear,” she inquires.

“I’m on a road trip, so the best I have are jeans and a button down shirt.”

“That’s just fine, everyone will know you are not from here anyway.  And if anyone looks you up and down, don’t pay them any attention – you’re welcome here.”

We shake hands and I thank her for her time and assistance.

Walking back to the hotel, the wall around Temple Square doesn’t seem quite as imposing.  I am starting to see that good spiritual work is happening all over the country in different ways.  I don’t agree with the assertion that any one path is the only or true way to God or healing.  Instead, I know there are many, equally true, paths.

Next, I want to see how this town functions after dark.

To be continued . . .