Friday, October 05, 2007

Harry's Dinner with Katharine

By special request, here is Harry's account of his dinner with our Presiding Bishop:

I had dinner with the Presiding Bishop Katharine and her husband Richard last night. Wayne and I had come to Mackinac Island (pronounce it Mack-in-awe and you will sound like you’ve been here before) to attend an every-two-years clergy conference that is sponsored by the generous owners of the Hotel—one of the old grand hotels that is actually called Grand Hotel. Note bene: it is Grand Hotel and not The Grand Hotel. The hotel owners give the clergy a chance to stay here for three days of conference for almost nothing. It is generous in the extreme.

I’ll be honest with you. It’s not my favorite kind of thing to do. I love spending time with church people but I don’t particularly like them just because they are church people. I love spending time with clergy, and with their spouses/partners/husbands/wives. But I only like it so much. I found the conference difficult to navigate. Too many people telling you how everything in their parishes is going absolutely great. Everyone asks you at every possible chance if you’ve attended the Mackinac Island conference before and when you say ‘no’they all respond ‘Isn’t it the best thing possible?’ And of course it is in many ways, except the luncheon buffet served on tables twenty feet long and with so many people traveling up and down either side of them that you feel you are doing a Virginia Reel with a very angry rugby team. And of course, everyone has to really really like the liturgies or really really hate them and it’s a lot of energy to decide which. Oh yes, and there was that horrible moment when I inadvertently called a rector friend’s wife Whore of Babylon. But that story is for another day. (It only took fifteen minutes of explaining a long and complex thought process that was meant to demonstrate how the parish could perceive her in a different situation as…oh, not now. Maybe someday. When we parted company later in the day I apologized again and she said, “Actually, it’s of fun. Nobody’s ever called me the Whore of Babylon before.” Note to Wayne: do think twice before taking me to these events.)

Many, many clergy do not have a notion of how to take care of themselves—to indulge themselves in any way—and that is, really, the purpose of the conference. But for me? Well, there’s the thing about spending two or three days a year pretending like you’re a little more upper class than you are—I guess my old 60s informing rears its little ugly head. Quick, throw it another crab and lobster fritter… And my West Virginia mountain sensibility doesn’t mind style and class, it just doesn’t like the idea that you can take a bunch of ministers and pass them off as the Astors on the Titanic. It’s the reason I could never, ever get married (or blessed or not-blessed) in an Edwardian-style morning coat. To me that would be pretending that getting married somehow made me, for a day, upper crust and English. To me, the One Unforgivable Sin Against the Spirit may well be Anglophilia.

But, really—this unease with opulence in this form is what one sister calls, as she rolls her eyes, a luxury problem. The kind of problem anyone can afford to have. The kind of problem, ultimately, that isn’t a problem. The kind of problem that we all should be so lucky to have.

At check in: a raffle for the Episcopal Relief Fund—five dollars for a chance to have dinner with Her Nibs and, as he described himself to me, the Presiding Bishop Consort. I would never have entered merely for the chance to have dinner with her. I doubt I would have dropped my name into the basket if there was not a transfer of money to ministry by so doing. But I do put money in the Ronald MacDonald House collection containers—for kids with life-threatening illness. On the RARE OH SO VERY RARE occasions I buy something in MacDonald’s. And so with the dinner raffle. I was quite surprised when some lovely friends of mine won the raffle on the first night, and more surprised when I won it on the second night.

Your mind does race a bit. Is there anything you want to ask? Is there anything you want to tell? Well, yes—many things.

One thing I really wanted to ask her is how to get over the nightmares engendered by having seen a film, a year ago, called “3D Under The Sea” in an Imax theater. I am not in the least kidding when I say that this phantasmagoria of undersea creatures eating other undersea creatures in lurid, gargantuan projection sent me into a tailspin. I do not-absolutely do not-read the line from the psalm about ‘praise the lord all you sea-monsters under the sea’ the same since. Trust me, eating each other variously and sundily does not seem to me to be the same thing as praising the Lord, but then—our views are in some wise always parochial, aren’t they?

Katharine looked at me like I probably didn’t really ever get out of the house much.

“Well, I mostly only saw them in formaldehyde.”

Ah, I know better than to prepare conversation openers. They always go like this.

There were eight of us who got to share the table with Katharine and her husband, and dinner was set up so that you would basically talk to one for half the meal and then they would switch places and you would talk to the other.

I sat beside Katharine for the first half of the meal and across the long, narrow table from Richard, her husband. First, of course, the introductions.

This is something incredibly tricky when you come to dinner with the love of your life, and he’s not your husband nor you his. Earlier in the day Katharine had introduced Richard to the crowd as her ‘partner.’ She later told us that he had objected somewhat for fear that people might think they were unmarried. Of course, everything Katherine says is torn apart by people who like doing that sort of thing, so hisconcern was reasonable. But there was an impassioned and almost tearful complaint from the floor during questions about how this liberal stance was making it so difficult for people to live into the fullness of traditional marriage. (I’d definitely call that a luxury problem.)

But there I am trying to introduce Wayne. Husband? No. Spouse? No, because that generally implies marriage—it’s roots being, I believe, having to do with betrothal and marriage. Partner? Not after the problems it had created earlier in the day. So I introduced Wayne as the Love of My Life.

Now—our name tags did not identify us as clergy or paramours or anything of the sort. So the dynamic was fun throughout the conference. If I started introductions people would assume I was the Priest. I was, of course, merely the Love of the Priest’s Life. I have to say, everyone looked uncomfortable with my introducing Wayne as such. But herein is the problem of no rites and no names but full dignity. In the end all we have—is dignity, which just simmers in the rising afternoon heat without a “local habitation or a name.”

Mind you—it wasn’t the first time during the day that people had looked at me a bit askance. Earlier in the day we had meditated on the idea that we are the Lord’s beloved in whom he is well pleased. We shut our eyes for a full five minutes and thought about it. That, perhaps, was the best time at the conference. Just asking a huge room full of clergy and the Loves of Their Lives to shut up for five minutes is, to my mind, about the equivalent of moving the mountain to Mohammed. All I could think about were my toes.

Katharine asked us to talk to the people around us about what we had thought about. There were four others sitting near us, two other couples. No one spoke. And I thought, “Well, it won’t take me long.” And so I said, “I thought about my toes.” And four heads strained the necks underneath them into a head-moved-back-now position.

“Your toes?”

I try, when it’s quiet time, to notice what’s going on in my body. And because, I think, I had been wearing new shoes and my feet hurt, I was noticing how my feet felt and suddenly I thought of how strange toes are. Feet-fingers as the French call them.

“Well, yes. I think of my hands and I think, of course, how they can do work—and we ask often to let our hands do God’s work in the world. But toes? They seem completely extravagant! And that made me think I must be pleasing to God, or why would he have given ten of them to me? Ten! Extraordinary.”

And there it was again. The silence. Not really distressed or shocked or offended. Just more like “Huh?” silence. Oh well, I’m used to it. And I guess forgetting over and over that things I say can at any time produce this look of gentle wariness is just—well, a luxury problem.

Nonetheless, I had had a lovely day walking around with my toes, indisputable evidence that God is well pleased with me. They are the sort of gift only a sweetheart can give you—something so dear and utterly silly, like when one half of a couple has a thing about cute little pigs and the other loves them and wants to express it over and over until the house is full of statues of pigs flipping flapjacks, pictures of Poker Playing Pigs, pigs dressed like Elizabeth the First, little filigree pigs jumping over little filigree moons. Ten of them toes, I mean! One understands ten fingers of course, because how else could you open the peanut butter jar, spread the peanut butter (which involves picking up a knife), and eat the sandwich with any delicacy? But ten toes? They are as silly as Little Piggies Going to Market. And, while fingers can be elegant, it is a rare toe that achieves the heights of holy sensuousness. Mine, at any rate, are only as strangely appealing as the wonderful gift your beloved Cat Geoffrey brings you, the sweetest gift anyone could ever bring anyone: a freshly killed, mangled mole there at the bottom of the bed delivered with fierce pride and undying devotion.

And there I am. At dinner with the Presiding Bishop and her husband. And my ten toes. In no time at all we were crying.

I don’t know exactly why or how—but it is rare for me to sit down with anyone in the world and not find, within a few minutes, that this person is a distant cousin. Or someone I’ve just met will tell me something quite surprising that they haven’t told Wayne even though they were his friends first and have known him for years and years. (Earlier in the day the ‘partner’ of another priest had told me that years ago he had been the best man at his ‘partner’s wedding’—you do the math. Note bene: in the hope of being married properly some day, don’t forget that marriages can be as messy as anything, and sometimes far worse than not being married, even to someone you believe for a time to be the love of your life.) Or, out of the blue, we are talking about something deeply personal—sometimes painful—and this is what happened with Richard and me.

I had sworn to myself that I was not going to bring up the fact that myfather had died when I was seven, that he had crashed his one-engine Cessna out west, in Utah. But, like Paul, I do the thing I would not do. And Richard was telling me about a college friend of his (who turned out to be someone I knew quite well out in San Francisco) who could trace his own being gay to when he was six years old. And I related a story how my father had refused to do more ‘boy’ things with me when I was four even though my mother kept insisting, since she was afraid my “latent tendencies” might become problematic later. My father had ended the matter by saying playing ball and such would be phoney for us and it might do better to figure out how to get know the person I was getting ready to be. And then he asked about my father. Later. When I came out of the closet, how did my father take it. And I said, “Well, he died when I was seven.”

It turns out Katharine’s mother died after crashing her plane on Bainbridge Island. She didn’t die immediately like my father did. It took years. Katharine’s mother had many painful injuries, and intractable epilepsy. And as Richard related details of all this, he cried. And I realized that it was the first time in my entire life that I had told the story of my father dying in a plane crash and had someone respond in kind. Someone asked me later if it had been a healing moment. I’m not sure I know what that is. I would call it a sensible moment. We ought to stop, even in the middle of extravagant dinners, and cry a bit for the people we have loved and lost.

Katharine turned and asked her husband if he was okay. The way partners do. Half with a look and half with half a question. “Are you…”

And he said, “Harry’s father died in…crashed his plane…a single-engine Cessna. And I was telling him about your mother.”

And she just turned to me and looked at me wondering.

“I love thinking of him in his plane,” I said. “Just as I love thinking of my Presiding Bishop in hers. It doesn’t make me sad at all. I feel close to him when I think of him in the plane—I grew up in that plane. I have no way to think of him in heaven. I think of him in the plane. How happy he always was and how proud I was of him.”

Later, after she and Richard would switch places she would ask me to tell her more about my father. “You were only seven?”

“Yes, but here is the thing. I had this incredible conversation with him the night before he died. I’d had a fight with my sister, Alexis, and mom had sent us to our rooms and then in a bit he’d come around to see how we were doing—it was never a ‘wait till your father hears about this’ kind of thing. We would look forward to our father coming around, because he really liked kids and really knew how to talk to us.

I’d found out a couple of days before, by the way, during a visit from an uncle I hadn’t seen in 25 years that my father had liberated camps in Germany at the end of the war. I hadn’t known that—although I remember being six, and an old couple had come to our house for dinner and showed me the tattoos on their arms and said that once my father had helped them. I had no idea what they were talking about, but only a sense—a stillness really, as if everything in the world had stopped—a sense that I should listen. There was an assumption that I understood the tattoos, which I didn’t, not in their full sense. But I knew that they were showing them to me because I needed to know, even at each six, that something had been done to them that was unimaginable. And I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the exact gestures of their arms reaching out and turning to reveal the numbers. We humans have to count everything, number everything—even verses of scripture (does no one wonder what the cumulative effect of reading scripture stuffed with numbers is?). Even each other.

Father and I had agreed that I needed to apologize, and that had led to metaphysical topics that often accompany discussions about reconciliation —and I had asked ‘What are heaven and hell like?’

“And he said—Katharine, as amazing as this is, it’s absolutely true—he said, ‘Well, you know. If you have a fight with your sister and then go out and get run over by a car and die, there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s hell. But if you apologize, and make up with her, and the two of you feel happy about each other, and then a car hits you and you die—you don’t ever have to worry about whether or not you did the right thing and if she knew you really loved her. That’s heaven.’

“These were the last words my father shared with me.” And then I felt a tear fall from my cheek into my Mushroom Paté en Croute.

And I decided I wanted to share Nigerian stories. They are nearly impossible to share here because the essence of them is how joyfully I get to reproduce the musical tones, almost always of shock and surprise and delight, of almost every exchange I’ve had with a Nigerian.

When I shared the story of the Nigerian woman at my church doing laundry who said to a parishioner helping her, a woman who’d had quite a difficult time when Wayne and I came to the parish—when the Nigerian woman said (and please, you must imagine that each word said in this statement is like a brightly colored ball tossed into the air with musical abandon), “I do not see HOW you Anglicans can let these HOMOSEXUALS into your church this way. It is a TERRIBLE business.” And how the parishioner said…well…yes, a year ago she had thought so too. And Katharine laughed. Whether at my willingness to speak in such an unclergy-like way at the dinner table or at my delight in the Nigerian woman, I don’t know.

I asked her, “When you were at the meeting of the Primates, were you scared?”

“Well, what do you mean by scared?”

“Could you sleep at night.”

She smiled and said, “No. A couple of nights were really hard.”

I said, “Thank you for being willing to not be able to sleep for us.”

I asked her about meeting with the House of Bishops. She laughed and said it was much, much easier and that it really did feel like everyone was working on solutions not on stances and positions. And I really do believe her.

Toward the end of my conversation with her I said, “Katharine, I’m a mature Christian. I’ve been about this for awhile, and I don’t need anything from the House of Bishops, the Primates, or my Rector—who does, by the way, turn out to be the Love of My Life. I’d like, at this point, for you to give me a charge, during this time of ‘fasting,’ to take away from this table. I want something to call my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to do with me that has absolutely nothing to do with the Windsor Report.”

She looked at me quizzically for moment and then said, “Build a school in Central Tanganyika.”

She really heard my question and she really answered it.

I need help from all of you. Maybe moral support. Maybe a lot of money. Maybe fund raising. Maybe doing paper work. I don't know anything about building a school. I want gay and lesbian people and their friends to work on this, but I don't want it to be a gay and lesbian project. I want us to have an experience of being mission Christians without needing anything back from it at all. Including not needing the project to advance our cause. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won't. I turn that over to my Lord and Savior. I have a school to build. It seems almost crazy to be thinking I can do this-- but it isn't any crazier, really, when you think about it, than having toes.

I rarely, rarely, rarely pray for specific things. But I’ve been praying for awhile that I might suddenly have an idea of what I really need to be doing. Regardless of whether or not that prayer and Katharine’s sudden, extravagant urging are related—I have decided to do it.

I remember a story from my sister Alexis’s work in film. She was doing a Kevin Costner movie—she does makeup and hair—and they were filming in Hawaii where they’d flown Amazonian Yanomami people from the Amazon in, many of whom had never seen a movie, to be extras. And my sister told me that she had heard a conversation between two of the men. They had just realized how much money their paltry paychecks came to. And one shouted in joy, “We can build a school!” The first thing they thought of upon understanding that they were getting money was a school.

I have to tell you that while I completely understand the pain and confusion that all of us feel over the Windsor Report, etc., and the concomitant fracas—I cannot dwell long in that conflict. I was distressed at the conference when priests would stand at the microphone and cry—with real pain, of course—in response to the recent report from the House of Bishops. I heard one priest tell the Bishop of Eastern Michigan that after reading the report she had seriously thought of renouncing her priestly orders.

We, as mature Christians, are as innocent as doves and cunning as serpents. That means we cry for others, not for ourselves. We, ourselves, do not lose heart. Because we know the secret inner workings of things, that inspire and inform our relationships and love, and sweeten the sounds of children shouting and laughing in the city schoolyard, and make trees tall and give the great Buzzing to beetles. And what about glass being transparent! How stunning is that? And of course: toes.

Blessing our unions? Yes, of course. It has to happen sooner or later because sooner or later people are going to want their parish friends (and Rectors!) not to be living in sexual relationships with people they aren’t married to.

But for me, today—the important question isn’t whether the church will bless what God has already blessed. But how do I wake up and into the brilliant light of my love for the love of my life and carry that into the world which I am in—but not of. We ought to work this sort of thing out as gay and lesbian Christians. If we cry, we need to cry for those who are young in faith. We have known the deal all along. I’m not saying I’m not ready to get out and demonstrate. I’m not saying I’m willing to accept the Bishops’ or Primates’ reports or mandates. But I am saying, and really believe, that being a Christian, and Anglican, and Episcopalian, and a Holy Fool is about realizing that grace has bound you to your traditions, to authority in the Episcopal church, to numbing ambiguity, and above all to the idea that the greatest of these (being faith, hope and charity and everything that is, seen and unseen) is charity.

Run the good race, we must. Stand up for ourselves when people say horrible and bigoted things. Make safe places for everyone in the church. Celebrate the ways in which we, as gay people, are not like heterosexual people and the ways in which heterosexual people are not like us. These kinds of differences are indeed causes for joy, just as toes are. So many extravagant gifts from our maker.

I do not deny grief. I just try to notice when it takes me from being in the world to being of the world. And, oh my God, the last thing I mean to do here is treat anyone with any lack of consideration for pain in the process of bringing the church, the communion and the world to conscious fairness and charity with respect to me as a gay person and all of you as the sometimes eccentric sometimes heretical people you may or may not be, gay or straight.

Believe me, anyone messes with you, or my hero Leonardo, or my hero Grace, or my hero Counterlight (have you seen his painting of Jesus among the dead? I tried to buy it, but I was too late!), or my hero IT, or my hero, David (have you heard his music? probably, since some of it's in your hymnal), or my hero Padre Wayne (and his toes, even more amazing than mine!)... All of you. You have all become my parish. Has to be that way because as a clergy's Quirky Other, I can't always let myself go on the way I can here. Yes, Obadiah, you too. You drive me crazy on a regular basis, perhaps, a holy occupation. Oh, Obadiah, did I tell you—I need your help too. Well, see, they need a school in Central Tanganyika. I'm not even sure how to spell it--but they need a school, so that's that. Katharine gave me contacts to start. I've got a knot in my stomach thinking about taking this on. That's an appropriate response, right? But I’m going to make the calls and start putting together a way to do this. I’ll keep you posted.

Katharine was easy to be with. She’s just my sister. She’s just another person at the table. She’s just this person who I happened to run into at a clergy conference—the way we run into people on busses or at coffee hours or in the draperies section of Bed Bath and Beyond strangers and wayfarers who suddenly say something that changes how we think and perhaps change the direction of our lives.

She just happened to say, “Build a school in Central Tanganyika.”

Thanks, Harry.

So, it sounds like we're building a school in Central Tanganyika? Ok, then. Let's get to it.


No comments:

Post a Comment