Friday, July 31, 2009

These Few Words are Enough

Joe HoltJoe had been sick for a long time. His multiple myeloma had already required one bone marrow transplant and several rounds of chemotherapy. Eventually, doctors took the plans for a second transplant off the table because he just wasn't strong enough to undergo the procedure.

Although Emily and I wouldn't have described ourselves as part of Joe's inner circle, we were among those who kept up with how he was doing, visiting him during his many hospital stays, checking if he needed assistance getting to his appointments, bringing him the occasional 4-pack of bottled root beer -- one of the few things he'd ever taken us up on when we asked if he wanted anything. Emily in particular was great about calling and texting him -- she always had a sense of when he might need help. More than once, she'd call his cell phone and if he didn't answer, she'd hang up, call the UCSF hospital, and find him there.

We knew Joe from the bisexual community here in San Francisco. We first met at the weekly bi brunch that happened for years. Even when he was a more occasional visitor -- putting in a special guest star appearance, as I liked to say -- he was as friendly and personable as ever. He had a naturally cheerful demeanor, and even his sarcasm came with a playful smile. He could also be counted on as a dapper figure in the bi contingent in the Pride Parade, sporting a porkpie or fedora on his clean-shaven head. His grounded presence and genuine curiosity about the people around him always made me glad to spend time with him.

Joe was also extraordinarily generous with his time and resources. Until he got too ill, he hosted and moderated the listserv for the Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN). These chat and event email lists are a major way that bi folks in the Bay Area find community online -- and frequently offline as well. Countless people have shared stories of feeling like the bi community was the first place they'd felt at home and how grateful they were to have found the chat list. It was a thankless task, but it was a way Joe felt he could contribute and so he did. (Happily, many folks on the BABN list did recognize his role and thank him over the years.) Joe was also a generous donor, quietly sharing his support with different causes.

Thankfully, before he died Joe was well enough to make the trip back to Indiana to be with his family, as he'd wanted. He got to see his mom, who had also been ill, as well as meet his new two and a half month-old nephew named Luke Joseph in his honor. He was an incredibly sweet, warm, humble, giving, good-hearted man who made a difference in the world -- can any of us hope for more? I feel honored to have called him my friend.

~ ~ ~

Gentle slip to sleep
Skin tightly fit over skull –
Still the bamboo grows

As Joe's time wound down, I was shocked to realize that despite my sense of not being a close friend, I was still probably closer to him than many others in San Francisco. Certainly, he had good friends like Jon and Jack around, and most likely others I don't know about. At the same time, a theme emerged over and over in talking with people or in messages sent to the BABN list: "Even though I didn't know Joe very well, he always seemed like a great guy, and I always appreciated everything he did for the bi community." I know he was tight with his family, but his circle of friends seemed inexplicably small.

This was difficult to get my head around. Why did so few people feel connected enough to this universally liked man to visit him in the hospital? Nearly a decade ago, when my roommate Laura was dying, we had a list of volunteers alone with at least 40 names on it. Did Laura just share more about the seriousness of her cancer? Joe was no less kind or deserving of support. I do know he never wanted to be a bother, even when friends were eager to help. Emily and I made sure to call him regularly in the hope that an active offer of assistance might minimize his sense of imposing.

Even in the week before Joe died, the only reason we knew how sick he'd become was that Jon stopped by his hospital room. Joe had assured him over the phone that he was "fine," but Jon felt something was up. After one look at him in person, Jon sent out word that people needed to come say their goodbyes.

I was at work when Emily called me about Jon's message. At that point, I didn't know whether Joe's remaining time would be measured in hours or days, so the 30 minutes it took me to wrap up some critical loose ends was agonizingly slow.

As soon as I walked into Joe's room, I knew he wouldn't recover. He was asleep with eyes half open, his chest seeming to climb boulders just to rise and fall, his upper lip pulling back over his teeth, and the contours of his skull far too apparent beneath a thin layer of skin. I'd seen that look before: when my Aunt June was dying in hospice and when I found our cat Jonathan already wearing death's grimace. Given that Joe was still able to be alert and talk, I expected he'd live several more days, but I knew the arrow wouldn't shift direction this time.

So we sat and chatted with him, talked with his cousin about training guide dogs, and made our way to the solarium when Joe wanted some time alone. Later, we'd compare notes with Jack and Jon, entertain our niece while her parents visited inside the hospital room, and coordinate with another friend trekking in from the North Bay to say goodbye. The next day, Joe's dad would fly in from Indiana and start to figure out how to get him from a hospital bed in San Francisco to their living room in Terre Haute. Three days later they'd get on a plane. Five days after that, on July 9, 2009, Joe Dale Holt died peacefully, with his brother by his side. He was 47.

~ ~ ~

These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
~ from "Enough" by David Whyte

I've been processing Joe's death for a little while now, alternating between an image of his withered body lying in the hospital bed and another of him smiling and laughing at brunch.

The last time I saw Joe, the day before he left for Indiana, there was no opening to say goodbye in any meaningful way. I had to learn to respect his process, which did not include delving into the serious issues of life and death (at least, not with me or Emily). I was prepared to dive as deeply as he needed to go -- I pictured myself decked out in scuba gear, fully charged air tank strapped to my back -- but he remained closer to the surface. And since what I really wanted was to be present with him and for him, I stayed near the surface, too. I had to trust that my presence was enough. His last words to me? "Have a good rest of your day." Mine to him? "Safe travels."

In trying to make sense of this loss, and the void where I expected more people to be, I realized that Joe was just more reserved and private than I usually associate with such genuine friendliness. Given that he lived in San Francisco for 20 years, he must have found a measure of satisfaction in the life he'd built here. And he had to have wanted to keep that inner circle small because as far as I can tell, everyone who met Joe truly liked him. It's just that few of us had the privilege of knowing him well.

In that hospital room, my questions about why there weren't more people around had nothing to do with Joe. They grew out of the sadness and confusion I'd feel, because I want to make a different choice for myself. I want the people around me to know me. I want to share my whole self -- the thoughts and emotions and creativity and goofiness and insights that combine to become me. I want to draw people near and be present enough to know them, too. I've been doing this, but now I understand how committed I am to building that life.

I'd wanted to send Joe a card with the things I didn't get to say in person -- my gratitude to have known him, what a warm and giving person he was. I thought he might be better able to take in the words without me standing there. Ultimately, I didn't want to leave anything unsaid for my own sake, so I let go of any attachment to the exact form this deeper goodbye took. But the text I put together seemed stunted. I didn't have his family's address. I thought perhaps I'd send an email. And then Joe died before I could do any of it.

So the form has adapted once again. I drafted this tribute to him in a coffee shop eight storeys below his condo. I'm sharing the facets of him I did have the chance to see and honoring his considerable generosity. Most of all, these few words are a way to thank him for helping me clarify the life and death I hope for myself by allowing me to witness his.

Whatever the closeness between us, his friendship has given me the profound gift of drawing me closer to me.

Please join me in making a gift in memory of Joe Holt to one of these organizations:

Bay Area Bisexual Network
Attn: Joe Holt Fund
1800 Market Street, PMB #101
San Francisco, CA 94102

Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation

American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

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Friday, July 24, 2009

I’m Going to...Church?

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the July 19, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

See if any of this sounds familiar:

“I heard this really interesting speaker last week”

“There are just some of the nicest, most engaged people at”

Here’s a good one: “I had this insight last week during the discussion at Small Group...Ministry? I’m one of the...lay leaders?”

Maybe some of you recognize yourselves in such hesitancy. I felt a particular dilemma a few months ago, as I prepared for my first time as a...Worship Associate? I was excited about what I’d written and wanted to invite friends to hear me...what? What word comes next? Preach? Not exactly. Talk? They could hear me talk any time with having to get up early on a Sunday morning. Bear witness? Probably a fair analogy, but yikes – no. I couldn’t find any way to capture the excitement I felt about sharing the intersection of my creativity and my spirituality that didn’t also reek with historical and cultural baggage.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of being a member here – quite the contrary. I’m excited to have found a spiritual tradition that doesn’t ask me to leave any part of myself at the side of the road. It’s the language of organized religion and recruitment – known second cousins of coersion – that makes me shiver.

I must admit, I put off attending UU services for a long time, though not for the reason you might guess. As far as I could tell, Unitarian Universalism seemed pretty cool. I’d come here for School of the Americas Watch meetings, so I already knew the Society’s dedication to social justice. In the wake of September 11, Emily and I had wanted to be part of some kind of communal gathering, and this sanctuary was an instinctive choice. Heck, there’s even a Pagan Interest Circle. How many churches have that?

I put off coming here because the UU Church was my backup plan. It was the mythical land I held in reserve. My safety schul, if you will. Because what if I went and didn’t like it? What if I arrived only to find that I didn’t feel comfortable bringing my soul here? What if my last, best hope for finding spiritual community didn’t pan out?

For years now, I’ve had a singing job in the choir at St. Francis Lutheran Church. It’s a place that gives Christianity a good name. They’re very LGBT-friendly. Their worship is based in a vision of a loving god and a deep calling to make the world a more just and humane place. Everyone at St. Francis has always been warm and welcoming to me, and I feel like part of that community. Except for one tiny thing: I’m not Christian.

I’ve spent many a jealous Sunday in that choir loft, longing for a religious institution where I wouldn’t have to spin my sense of the divine out of a book that resonates only intermittently for me. I’ve found ways to make do. For example, it helps to recall another singer’s trick, where she’d mentally replace “god” with “dog”: “O Dog, we thank you for your unconditional love. After all, what is asked of us but that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our Dog?” It also helps a lot to think of Jesus as a powerful shaman with killer PR. But such constant translation isn’t the same as finding a spiritual home – it’s visiting as a spiritual exchange student.

The first few Sundays I came here, I grew nervous as my fears about not feeling at home seemed well-founded. After St. Francis’s modest chapel and small congregation, I felt lost in the soaring architecture and large crowd. You can probably guess how that story ends, though, or I wouldn’t be up here.

So how do I reconcile my uneasiness with evangelism with my enthusiasm for the spiritual home I’ve finally found?

Even though I’m uncomfortable with the language of organized religion, I also know that when I invite people to think about joining Small Group Ministry, or to come hear me on days like today, I’ve got a Major Caveat Trump Card in my back pocket: “’s the UU Church.” I’m inviting them to a place where we have a shared conversation of discovery because the breadth and depth of the human experience isn’t neat and tidy. No one person, no one book, has the answers. Rather, we all do.

I get to tell people that this is a place about wholeness. One of the moments I love in the St. Francis service is the blessing they give at communion: “Live in forgiveness, claim your wholeness, and go in peace.” The phrase came out of the congregation’s commitment to affirming that everyone’s sexuality is sacred. For me, wholeness affirms that my spirituality doesn’t have to fit inside a box marked Lutheran, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Pagan, or even Unitarian Universalist. As I walk my path, I carry my spiritual home with me, in a Linda-shaped box, because none of it has been left behind.

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